UK General Election 2017: Brexit

No10It’s being said on every channel and media network that we’ll now get a “softer” Brexit. Theresa May took a gamble, to increase her majority and failed. That means the people have told her they don’t want her type of “extreme Tory Brexit” as described by Nicola Sturgeon and the like.

The problem is, the numbers don’t appear to support that.

As I write this, there’s a delay on the vote count for Kensington and Chelsea. But either way it’s going to be either a Labour or Conservative seat. That means it’s another MP elected by a party that explicitly campaigned on a promise to deliver Brexit. You could argue that the Tories wanted a “harder” (cleaner?) Brexit, and the Labour Party, sort of, well, I guess they didn’t really spell it out did they? Which was clever, with hindsight, making them all things to all people. Either way, it’s another MP in the Brexit column.

If you add up the number of MPs elected from parties who are essentially still pro-remain (and by that I use the generous version of remain to mean those who accept Brexit will happen, but want it to be so light as to be insignificant), and assuming that the one independent/other elected who I’ll just assume is a remainer because I don’t know, you end up with 60. That number might be filled with some who personally really support Brexit, but I’m just going on the basis of party line rather than what happens to be in each individual’s heart.

Now add up the parties who were overtly pro-leave. That’s Labour, Conservative and the DUP. 590 MPs. Again, some of those individual MPs were opposed to leave, and vocally so. But they are a minority in every case, and their parties were clear.

So ten times as many MPs were elected on a party platform to support Brexit than not.

We may very well get a less clean Brexit as a result of this election. In fact, that’s likely. And I’m not suggesting that this is either right or wrong. It’s just interesting to see what the numbers – so far – appear to be telling us.

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Out And Into The World

UK FlagWe actually did it. I was convinced for more than a year that the vote to leave the European Union would end up in a 60/40 result in favour of remaining. Once again, UK politics has confounded my expectations, and produced a result few predicted.

So what happens next? We have a new prime minister (in the form of Theresa May) and she’s stated that “Brexit means Brexit”, and has appointed serious “Brexiteers” to the task of negotiating our way out of the supranational entity.

But what exactly IS Brexit? It’s a negotiation that could have many different forms, so which is best?

I think the result probably helps inform this decision. People voted 52% for leaving the EU, and 48% against. A massive turnout with 17.5 million people voting to leave, in absolute terms that’s more people in the UK voting to leave than have voted on anything ever before.

But is it such an overwhelming majority that gives the government a huge mandate to pursue an aggressive and ambitious (and fast) Brexit? The numbers are large, but 52/48 is still pretty close. There’s a lot of people who bought into “project fear” and are deeply concerned about us leaving the EU. I think it’s important to bring those people on-side.
So Brexit absolutely means Brexit, but the closeness of the result should influence how we transition from being an EU member state to being an independent sovereign nation. It’ll take a little longer than a quick clean break, but it’ll be worth it in the long run.

In the medium-term, there will be a limited series of economic wobbles, but nothing on the scale that “project fear” was threatening. Already their big scary warnings are starting to look a little silly, (I thought they did anyway to be honest). The threatened “emergency budget” never happened, but the drop in the value of sterling and the short-lived dip in markets did shake some people up. They saw it as the beginning of the Brexit warnings coming true. The question is, how can the 52% bring the 48% on-board?

A decent suggestion would be to create a situation where they see what leaving looks like, dipping our toe into the wider world if you will. After that, moving further out would be easier.

An idea I had would be to start talking right away to the EFTA countries (Switzerland, Lichtenstein, Norway and Iceland), and secure our membership. It should be pretty straightforward. After all, it was the UK who created EFTA originally, as an alternative to the EEC.

Once a member of EFTA, we could leave the EU, retaining our membership of the EEA (European Economic Area). You don’t need to be an EU country to be party of the EEA, after all, Lichtenstein, Norway and Iceland are all EEA members (Switzerland has a series of bilateral deals with the EU that don’t require EEA membership).

As a non-EU EEA country, we retain tariff-free access to the single market on goods, services and capital. We could unilaterally invoke Article 112 of the EEA agreement to apply a handbrake on free movement (as it was an area of such concern for many who voted to leave). In return for an agreement of free-movement of people in the financial services sector, it might be easier to secure the so-called passporting rights to ply our lucrative financial services to the EU member states. And that means in return that Germany can make money selling us their cars, and France their cheese and wine. All tariff-free.

A couple of years of that arrangement, and I think two things would become clear to lots of the 48%: firstly, the free-trade deals forged with the rest of the world (that we can’t do while shackled to the EU) will become striking and valuable, with a strong possibility that we’ll get our self-confidence back. We may also end up thinking that these free trade deals are so good, that we couldn’t possibly entertain the idea of rejoining the EU and giving them up. There’s a whole world out there, and the possibilities surrounding rejoining it once out of the EU are too exciting to ignore.

Secondly, they will see, simply, that the sky did NOT fall in. Free trade continues with the EU states, and life goes on quite happily.

It’s from a position like that, that we can start to unpick the EEA agreements, and replace them with a series of bilateral agreements, Swiss-style. Plus, our current laws and regulations will remain on the books, each only being rejected and altered as and when we want to. That’s not so scary.

The future outside the EU is bright and full of promise. My sincere hope is that in time, even great swathes of the 48% get to see it too, once we’re out and into the world.

UK 2015 Election: Proof I Don’t Know What I’m Talking About

In the blog-post I wrote right before this one, a few days before the UK general election, I decided to predict the outcome, and guess which of the major parties would form a government, and how long it would last.

I’m currently resting up (or at least, I’m supposed to be) after a 24-hour marathon stint on the Heart and Capital radio stations, breaking all the overnight stories of the election. As the ballot-booths are flat-packed away for now, and the black-and-white “Polling Station” signs are taken down off the walls of community centres and school halls across the country, I think it’s only fair that I look at what I wrote a few days ago, and see how it tallies with the reality.

And it’s pretty clear. I couldn’t have been more wrong about the outcome if I tried. I didn’t even entertain the idea that there might be a majority government, given the consistent message from the polls that suggested otherwise.

So I’m W. H. Wrongy McWrongstein, of Wrongsville, Carolina. Population: Wrong.

Proof, if any proof were really needed, that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

But how did all the polls get it all so wrong? We had months of the polls, from a host of different pollsters, day in and day out, all showing that no party would have enough MPs to form a majority. But when the big day came, we had one clear winner.

David Cameron and the Conservative Party wiped the floor with virtually everyone (except in Scotland, of course. There, the pollsters were spot on about the Scottish Nationalist Party and their dominance). UKIP were decimated. The Greens; right back where they started. The Liberal Democrats exiled to obscurity. And Plaid who?

And as I write, David Cameron is live-tweeting announcements about his new cabinet, fully Liberal Democrat-free following his 331 seats in parliament.

An outright Conservative majority. How did we get here?

The only explanation I can think of (and given how wrong I was in my election prediction – did I mention that? Way, way wrong – my explanation may not carry much weight), is that we’ve seen a repeat of the 1992 election.

Then, a beleaguered Tory government – Lead by John Major – was sleepwalking into a comprehensive defeat.

Their opponents – Labour – were all but guaranteed to form the next government. Labour’s leader Neil Kinnock even went as far as to host a victory rally before polling day.

Then the election day came. And the Tories won. Comprehensively.

I believe that yesterday – as in 1992 – the public maybe didn’t quite form an opinion of how to vote until they got into the polling booth. Major’s government were as far removed from ‘cool’ as you could get. Voting for them was almost an embarrassment to some. Why would you tell a pollster that’s what you were going to do? Even if it was what you were going to do?

But even if it was only in the back of their mind, there was a genuine concern about where the country was headed under a Kinnock government. Back to the old days of economic illiteracy and ‘managed decline’. The people blinked, and Major stayed in Number 10. A few years on, and our deficits turned to very impressive surpluses.

The unique way in which the global market crash in 2008 hurt Britain was – for a big part – down to our unaffordable public spending. We had the deficit of a basket-case economy. But we just kept on spending, kept on trying to live off that ‘hair of the dog’ each morning.

Though it wasn’t totally popular to some, modest steps were taken by the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition from 2010 to introduce austerity. It’s a dirty word these days, but all it really means is “living within your means”. Income has to be equal to, or lower than expenditure. That’s not evil free market dogma, or cruel Tory “ideological” cuts. It’s called maths. If you get £5 a week pocket money, and spend £6 a week on stuff, you’ll have to borrow £1. If you do that every week for ten weeks, you’ll owe £10. One day, that has to be paid back. See: maths?

Now I’m not a big fan of the coalition for a variety of reasons. The debt that’s been piled on over the past five years is inexcusable, and they’re no way near classically liberal enough for my tastes. But, the Tories wanted to eliminate the deficit in five years. They were in coalition, so couldn’t be as radical as they’d like to be. Let’s say, they could only be half as radical. So by 2015, they’ve cut the deficit in half.

It’s a fairly clear demonstration that, generally speaking, they were right. The (now unemployed after losing his seat) Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls went on every TV and radio show in the country describing the austerity (living in your means, i.e. maths) measures as being “to far and too fast” for the first two years of coalition. Turns out, if do want to criticise the coalition’s austerity measures, it’d be better to say they didn’t go far enough and weren’t implemented quickly enough.

The coalition decided to lean in the direction of maths/austerity. Labour leader Ed Milliband – who resigned this afternoon – said for every public sector job cut, a private sector job would also go, creating greater levels of unemployment.

The coalition cut half a million public sector jobs. Two million private sector jobs (more than in the 13 years of Labour) emerged. Most of them better paying, contracted jobs.

So one group called it right, one group called it wrong. It was actually so simple we missed it. And in the back of many people’s minds, they understood. Even if it took them until they had the HB pencil in their hands in the ballot booth to really see it.

But don’t listen to me. I’m W. H. Wrongy McWrongstein, of Wrongsville, Carolina, remember?

UK 2015 General Election: Predicting the Unpredictable

Ballot boxAs I write these words, we’re just days away from the UK General election, which has been billed as the most unpredictable for a generation or more.

That might be true, but is it totally unpredictable?

While the exact outcome is going to be pretty difficult, we can certainly get a sense of what is more or less likely to occur.

I’ll be broadcasting on-air overnight that night for Global: Europe’s largest commercial radio group. I have teams across the south region region waiting for the ballot papers to be counted, and the results to come in. It’ll be a long night for all of us in the broadcast media, but an exciting one, not least because the exact outcome is so uncertain.

But the opinion polls – which have remained pretty consistent throughout – do give us at least some sense of what we might see come the early hours of Friday 8th May.

Firstly, a quick disclaimer about the figures. Polls, let’s not forget, predicted a trouncing for John Major’s government back in 1992, almost right up to election day, only for him to re-enter Downing Street with an increased majority.

But the polls are the best we’ve got, and with the figures in them being so fixed for so long, there’s a good chance that they are painting at least a reasonable picture of the outcome.

If you extrapolate the percentage-based polls into actual seats won for each party (a risky business), we can see a lead of ten or so seats for the Conservatives over Labour, around half of the Liberal Democrats losing their seats, a less than impressive result for UKIP, and domination in Scotland by the SNP.

What kind of a parliament does that create, and how do we create a government out of it? I feeling that our system is quite outdated. In my book from a couple of years ago, “TREASON: And Other Good Ideas“, I suggested a system where the people directly elect the head of the executive branch. That way, if you ever get a fragmented parliament (the legislative branch), you at least know that the Prime Minister is in his or her position with a reasonable degree of legitimacy.

However, we live in a different world to the one I suggested then, so for now, we have to deal with the system as it stands. And as it stands, things might get ugly.

Simply put, neither the Conservatives or Labour will win enough seats for an outright majority. That’s something we can be at least fairly certain of.

For the Tories, it looks very unlikely there will be enough Lib Dems to form a coalition with, and even factoring UKIP and the DUP from Northern Island, there may not be enough for a “grand coalition.”

It’s looking equally as grim – if not more so – for the Labour Party. They could form a coalition with the SNP, as they’d have enough seats between them to form a government.

But this would be almost impossible after Labour’s leader Ed Miliband ruled out a coalition. If he went back on his word now, he’d possibly push Labour out of No. 10 for a decade or more. Plus, most people in the UK would see this as an illegitimate government (even if it wasn’t technically), as only people in Scotland could vote for the SNP, who could hold Labour to ransom for anything they wanted.

There’s a slim chance that Labour could form a coalition with other left-leaning parties other than the SNP (like Plaid Cymru in Wales and the Green Party if they do better), but again, there’s a good chance Labour will have fewer MPs than the Tories, and so any government not formed mostly of Conservatives could be seen as not “right” by many people: “How can a party have the most MPs but not be in government?” The answer, is “well, it’s our quirky system”, but that won’t be satisfactory to many.

So I’ll put my neck on the line and do something fairly daft: I’ll predict the outcome for the least predictable UK general election in a long time:

I think that we’ll end up with a minority Conservative government. It’ll be a short-lived entity, which will build bridges and alliances in some areas, but fail to pass many of its bills as they wind their way through the parliamentary system, but possibly just about getting Labour to sign off on its Queens Speech, for the sake of stability if nothing else. Then, as soon as this October, or maybe into next year, we may go to the polls again. It might end up being a poisoned chalice for the Tories who end up stuck between a rock and a hard place, while becoming so unpopular that they lose the subsiquent election convincingly.

I’ll report on events as they happen on the Heart and Capital networks, and LBC. It’ll be interesting to see just how wrong I am.

We’ll find out soon.

Economic Festive Cheer

It’s Christmas Eve, and as we stagger toward the end of another year, I thought I’d point out this upbeat assessment about where we’re heading in the UK job-wise.

The Institue of Economic Affairs has published this interesting piece putting to rest many of myths about the free market system. Maybe not one to take to bed after too much mulled wine, but it does point out that, as I often say on this blog, things ARE getting better.

A couple of points from the piece’s author, Christopher Snowdon:

    • Wages – Over a century’s worth of growth has led to a steady rise in wages across the board. Despite perennial claims that the poor get poorer under capitalism, government figures show that in the UK average real wages have doubled for full-time workers and come close to doubling for part-time workers since 1975. The percentage of full-time workers earning above the national minimum wage has also increased, 98% earning at least £6.19 per hour in 2013 compared to only 55% earning more than this amount in 1975 in real terms.
    • Income – Between 1977 and 2011/12, the incomes of the poorest 20% of individuals rose by 93% in real terms. The recent recession saw the incomes of the richest fifth of households hit hardest, their disposable income falling by over 5% in real terms between 2007/08 and 2012/13. According to ONS figures, during the same period average incomes of the poorest fifth rose by over 3% in real terms – the provision of state benefits cushioning declining pay.
    • Inequality – Rising income inequality and relative poverty are often mentioned by critics of capitalism. Neither offer a meaningful measurement of whether or not the poor are better off. Having peaked in 1990, income inequality in Britain has been declining ever since. Despite real disposable incomes of the poorest fifth of households rising by 50% between 1975 and 2005, the number living below the relative poverty threshold increased from 13% to 15%. Reductions in inequality and relative poverty typically coincide with periods of general impoverishment which harm the poor.
    • Social mobility – Social mobility in Britain has not ground to a halt, mobility remaining broadly constant in relative and absolute terms for at least 100 years. The majority of those that are born poor move swiftly up the income ladder, almost all becoming wealthier than their parents. Intelligence and ability play an important role in determining individual progression.
    • Working hours – Average working hours for British employees continue to fall. According to OECD figures, over half of UK workers are working less than 40 hours a week and fewer than 12% work more than 50 hours a week. Only those on high incomes have experienced an increase in their working week.
    • Economic growth – Sceptics of further economic growth should bear in mind the benefits to be had from ongoing prosperity. Between 1965 and 2000, average incomes worldwide have doubled – contributing to improved living standards and a substantial reduction in poverty. Aside from job creation and the boost to wages, further economic growth is vital in order to afford increasingly burdensome welfare spending.
In 2000, the average person in full-time employment was clocking in 37.7 hours a week. By 2011, that was 36.4 hours, with fewer than 12 percent of us working more than 50 a week. Back in 1992, it was 38.1 hours. It’s progress. Slow, but getting there.

Yes, things are getting better in the workforce. It doesn’t always feel like it, but I think we’re heading in the right direction.

Happy holidays.

The Federal United Kingdom?

TREASON (and other good ideas)In the aftermath of the Scottish referendum, which saw the Scots vote to stay part of the Union, 55%-45%, I interviewed John Redwood MP, who has been the driving force behind the proposals of English MPs (only) for English votes.

He took me through his plan, which no doubt he pushed for in a mini-conference with Prime Minister David Cameron in Chequers days after the Scottish vote.

Basically, it’s a simple plan. There will be no new English parliament, they’ll use the current one in Westminster. There will be no “Members of English Parliament”, they’ll just use the current MPs who represent English constituencies. Mr. Redwood told me that this would make it a fairly “cost-free” solution, that doesn’t burden the people who yet another layer of politics.

His case is compelling, and it will probably be the primary type of English devolution that the Tories will push for. It will also be the most popular in terms of backing among the electorate.

That said, I wish that we were looking for a more radical solution. The “Redwood Plan”, (as I’ve just decided to start calling it) will help “federalise” the UK more, but I’d take it much further.

Some are concerned that a totally federalised solution in the UK wouldn’t work, as 85% of the population would live in one of the constituent parts (England) and the remaining 15% in the other three areas (Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland). Gordon Brown made that same point recently.

That could be a valid practical point, but I think it wouldn’t matter so much if we had this solution:

  • The Parliament in Westminster is called the “UK Parliament” with a Prime Minister and Vice Prime-Minister (who we vote for on a national level, counting all our votes up, just like they did with the Scottish referendum). We then also have MPs on a constituency basis, but the whole parliament just concentrates on UK-based decisions, that are dramatically cut, like national defence, international trade and relations, embassies, infrastructure projects of “UK importance”, etc. The MPs are paid a salary that matches the national average full-time wage (about £22,500 at present, plus expenses). The job is effectively not a full-time job, as their responsibilities are dramatically cut.
  • This dramatic cut in power and cost in the UK parliament is used to create (hopefully almost revenue-neutral) four parliaments in the UK: One in Scotland (which already exists), one in Northern Ireland (again, we’re almost there with that), Wales (upgrading the Welsh Assembly) and a new English Parliament (maybe set up in the middle of the country in Manchester? Or London if that’s more practical and economically viable).
  • The MPs in each of the four parliaments get to legislate on everything else: income taxes and all other taxes, health, education, infrastructure, policing, etc. They are the source of most government income, and a percentage (say, 10%) from each of the 4 “states” kicks up to the UK government to fund it. This is crucial: all 4 “states” MUST be self-funding. Again, a First Minister and Second Minister (with a constitutionally-recognised order of succession) is voted for separately in state-wide Executive elections, that maybe coincide with the state MP elections, and possibly the UK executive/legislative elections.
  • Power then for many more things goes down to each region, constituency, town/city/parish.

Probably not viable, but much more democratic and accountable. This isn’t my utopian idea, but a practical step towards a “Federal Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” that makes us more prosperous and free.

And of course, some of this is covered in my book TREASON (and other good ideas) which – unsurprisingly during this time of potential UK constitutional upheaval – is making something of a comeback in sales.

Sorry to end the post on a cheap plug, but hey, I’ve got to eat, right? 😉

Why We Should Celebrate Magna Carta Day

It's 'Magna Carta Day' on June 15th, and for my money, it's much better celebration of what it means to be English, than the tired old esoteric St George's day, which has just become an excuse to endulge in vague piffle to do with “what does it mean to be English”, without giving any real answer. Except for something about a dragon. That didn't exist.

If we really want to celebrate England's contribution to the world, it should be about the best gift our nation gave the rest of the world – namely, the rule of law.

Throughout the Commonwealth – and, indeed, the Anglosphere more generally – The “Great Charter of Freedom” is venerated and highly respected. Sadly, here in the country of its origin, we seem to have forgotten about it entirely.

So, on June 15th, take a moment to remember England's great contribution to the world, that radical, revolutionary truth: we, as human beings, are born free. And any tyrant who claims otherwise, is sorely mistaken.