Boris and the Great Escape

There is an old joke about the Foreign Office. A tourist visiting London approaches a policeman in Whitehall.

“Excuse me,” says the tourist. “Where is the Ministry of Defence?”

The policeman points along Whitehall. “It’s over there, on the right.”

“Thank you,” says the tourist. “And where is the Treasury?”

“Over there on the left”, says the policeman.

“Ah,” continues the tourist peering along Whitehall. “And which side is the Foreign Office on?”

“It’s on the side of the foreigners,” replies the policeman.

Like many jokes, it has a kernel of truth. It is the job of the Foreign Office to understand foreign governments and foreign peoples, to be able to explain their views and predict how they might react to British actions. Sadly, of course, it can be a short step from empathy to sympathy and individual diplomats and FO officials have made that step perhaps too often.

But Boris’s comment about punishment beatings tells us a lot about himself, and about the Europhiles who have denounced him.

First let’s look at what Boris actually said, rather than what his critics pretend he said. In reply to a question about a comment by the French President suggesting that the UK would be punished by the EU for leaving, Boris said “Look, if Mr Hollande wants to administer punishment beatings to anybody who chooses to escape rather in the manner of some World War Two movie, then I don’t think that is the way forward – and actually it is not in the interests of our friends and our partners.”

The point Boris made is unexceptional. If the EU imposes harsh trade conditions on Britain post-Brexit then that would hurt them at least as much as it hurts us. But rather than look at this truth, the Europhiles have objected to Boris’s metaphor. They complain that he likened Mr Hollande to a Nazi camp guard.

Well, in a roundabout way, perhaps he did. I have no doubt that Boris will have seen The Great Escape, probably more than once. Perhaps he has also seen The Colditz Story, The Wooden Horse, Danger Within or The Password is Courage. In seeking a metaphor, Boris reached to British culture, British histories and British memories of an heroic period in our recent past. He reacted like a Briton, not like a Foreign Office mandarin on the side of the foreigners.

The interesting thing about these movies, in reference to Boris’s comment, is their portrayal of the camp guards. Yes, some are shown as villains, but others are portrayed as relatively decent chaps doing the unpleasant job that the war means that they are ordered to do. The Great Escape, in particular, is sympathetic to the camp commandant. These portrayals are far more lifelike and close to reality than the way that Boris’s critics portray camp guards. To them the camp guards are evil personified. They are “Nazis”, not Germans or Italians. They are sadistic, murderous beings unworthy of the description “human”.

This tells us much about the EU. Rather than confront the reality that it was Germans – along with their collaborators in France, Italy and elsewhere – who did unspeakable things to their fellow humans within living memory, the Europhiles prefer to pretend that such things were done by “Nazis”, some bizarre alien species which had nothing to do with the nice Germans of today.

Only by confronting the reality of the past can the demons be exorcised. Boris has faced the past, knows the reality and can treat it as history. The Europhiles, and the EU corporate mentality, has refused to face the past, still less to learn its lessons.

Boris’s only crime was to speak truth and to be on our side.

Photo by National Museum of Denmark

The Foreign Secretary has a point

Germans often complain about the continued use of World War II imagery by some people in the UK. Yesterday, however, it was a Belgian, Guy Verhofstadt, who took exception to Boris Johnson’s warning to France’s president, François Hollande, not to respond to Brexit by trying to “administer punishment beatings” in the manner of “some world war two movie”.

Mr Verhofstadt called the Foreign Secretary’s words “abhorrent and deeply unhelpful” while later the same day, Malta’s Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency, insisted that any future deal “necessarily needs to be inferior to membership”.

There is a flaw in this approach, however, and Mr Johnson, whether one approves of his rather colourful language or not, has hit the nail on the head.  Any organisation which seeks to punish  – or even to make life tough for – those who say “this isn’t working for me” has a big problem.

To illustrate the point, last Tuesday, BBC Radio 4’s Call You and Yours debated the  quality of public services in rural locations. One caller rang in to say that she had lived in the countryside for several years, but was moving back to a town because  rural life just wasn’t working out for her. Other callers, by contrast, said how much they enjoyed such a lifestyle, but no one picked on the woman planning to return to a town because life in the country didn’t suit her. No one would have dreamed of denying her the freedom to exercise a lifestyle choice.

By contrast, let us consider the organisations that do – or have – punished deserters and dissenters. To the Second World War POW camps mentioned by Mr Johnson. we could add the Spanish Inquisition, the former Soviet Union, North Korea and, of course, many Islamic countries including Saudi Arabia, Iran, Somalia, Sudan and Afghaniatan where apostates face the death penalty.

Are these the bedfellows which the EU wishes to keep? If the European project was really such a good thing, shouldn’t its member states be bending over backwards to help poor little UK make its way in the big wide world after voting to leave its kindly embrace?

The harsh truth is that any talk of inferior status for an independent UK reveals a great deal of self-doubt about the whole EU plan. But then, given that in 2014, the EU spent a staggering €664 million on propaganda telling its citizens – and indeed the world – what a wonderful organisation it is, Mr Muscat’s comments do not really tell us anything new.

This year marks 60 years since the signing of the Treaty of Rome, which formally launched what has become the EU. Everyone has had enough time to determine what they think of the project and surely after this time, it ought to be self-evident by now whether or not the EU is a good thing.  The size of its publicity budget, not to mention the EU’s own polling suggests that a significant and steadily growing minority of its citizens have already made their minds up in a way that is not to the liking of the Brussels élite.  Mrs May tactfully stated that she did not wish to see the EU unravel in her speech on Tuesday, but the question from a staff member of President-Elect Trump’s team about which nation will be next to leave  will probably prove to be nearer the mark.

Photo by BackBoris2012

What we now know and what we don’t know

Mrs May has finally delivered he much-awaited speech setting out her Brexit plans.

So what do we know?

We know that she has set herself a very ambitious timetable if she is to secure a deal within the two-year timescale stipulated by Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, especially as she has promised a Parliamentary vote on the final deal.

Some of the points she mentioned come as no big surprise. We will no longer be subject to the European Court of Justice. “We will not have truly left the European Union if we are not in control of our own laws”, she said. We could also have taken it as read that she does not want to see any hard border reinstated between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.

It was no surprise that she expressed a determination to restrict immigration, openly acknowledging that it was a big concern for many during the referendum campaign. “The message from the public before and during the referendum campaign was clear: Brexit must mean control of the number of people who come to Britain from Europe. And that is what we will deliver.

So how does she propose to deliver this greater control? The balance between immigration control and access to the Single Market was  the most keenly-awaited aspect of the speech. The answer is that she wants maximum access to the EU for our companies without being a member of the Single Market. The Norway and Liechtenstein options appear to have gone out of the window. “I want to be clear. What I am proposing cannot mean membership of the  Single Market….Being out of the EU but a member of the Single Market would mean complying with the EU’s rules and regulations that implement those freedoms, without having a vote on what those rules and regulations are. It would mean accepting a role for the European Court of Justice that would see it still having direct legal authority in our country. It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all.”

So what will replace our single market membership which will enable us to maintain our trade with the EU? These were her words:- “Instead we seek the greatest possible access to {the single market} through a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement. That Agreement may take in elements of current Single Market arrangements in certain areas – on the export of cars and lorries for example, or the freedom to provide financial services across national borders – as it makes no sense to start again from scratch when Britain and the remaining Member States have adhered to the same rules for so many years…..I …want tariff-free trade with Europe and cross-border trade there to be as frictionless as possible.”

However, things start getting a bit confused at this point. “I do not want us to be bound by the Common External Tariff.  These are the elements of the Customs Union that prevent us from striking our own comprehensive trade agreements with other countries.  But I do want us to have a customs agreement with the EU. Whether that means we must reach a completely new customs agreement, become an associate member of the Customs Union in some way, or remain a signatory to some elements of it, I hold no preconceived position. I have an open mind on how we do it. It is not the means that matter, but the ends.” Her options as far as the customs union is concerned may be very limited. Interviewed on BBC Radio Four’s World At One programme, the German MEP Elmar Brok was adamant that there could be no “associate membership” of the Customs Union.  

Mrs May did not go into too much detail about future cooperation with the EU on criminal justice issues. “A Global Britain will continue to cooperate with its European partners in important areas such as crime, terrorism and foreign affairs…..With the threats to our common security becoming more serious, our response cannot be to cooperate with one another less, but to work together more. I therefore want our future relationship with the European Union to include practical arrangements on matters of law enforcement and the sharing of intelligence material with our EU allies.” Hopefully the end of our  membership of Europol, no more welcome for any Eurogendarmerie on UK soil and the end of our involvement with the flawed European Arrest Warrant.

Her insistence on a phased approach – an orderly Brexit (the final point in her speech) – suggests that she is keeping some cards up her sleeve. She insists that “it is in no one’s interests for there to be a cliff-edge for business or a threat to stability” and although ruling out “unlimited transitional status” she did not specifically exclude  a limited transitional arrangement.

Furthermore, although rejecting EEA membership, she said nothing about a shadow EEA arrangement – in other words, behaving as if we are in the EEA, which is an agreement and not an organisation. This would mean applying EU standards to all our exported goods. As she plans to repatriate the acquis, this is by no means impossible as the EU standards would still apply. Under the rules of the World Trade Organisation, if exports conform to the standards of the country that it is being exported to, their entry cannot be refused. Since 1992 the EU has been legally bound to accept global standards, so if it refused to do so, we could take it to court.

Another option which has not been openly discussed but should not be ruled out would be to use Australia’s relationship with the EU as a model. In 1997, Australia’s government signed a joint declaration on EU-Australian relations, followed two years later by a Mutual Recognition Agreement. The UK could do likewise, or make a unilateral declaration, up to and including a commitment to full regulatory harmonisation.

In short, there is more to come. She has clearly not revealed her hand totally and some commentators reckon that the what has been dubbed a “hard” Brexit may turn out, as further details ares revealed, to be not as “hard” as some have concluded. Anyway,  we will await further developments with interest.

My old teacher is spinning in his grave

I read an article in Nature journal yesterday.

Now, I don’t want you to run away with the idea that I spend my time browsing the academic scientific literature. I don’t. I prefer history. No, this article was pointed out to me by a scientist friend who was apoplectic about it.

And with reason.

Remember that Nature is regarded by many as the premier scientific journal in the world. It was founded in 1869 and prides itself on being the most cited journal on record. Scientists compete ferociously to get published in it, knowing that their work will be taken seriously as a result.

But the article I will draw your attention to is entitled “Scientists should not resign themselves to Brexit“. It is written by a chap called Colin MacIlwain, a freelance journalist with a degree in “Economics and Social Change in Britain”. You can read the whole thing HERE if you like, but to save you the trouble I will summarise. He says that Brexit will be bad for science, that scientists are jolly clever people, that science is very important and that therefore Brexit must be stopped to make life easier for scientists.

I will leave it up to you to decide if a decision voted for by more than 17 million people should be overturned for the convenience of a few thousand working in one particular industry; I’m more interested in the column itself.

Nowhere does the author offer any evidence that Brexit will be bad for science. Will UK universities suddenly stop doing science? Will vast numbers of scientists be made redundant? Will British industry stop doing research to develop new products? Facts? Data? Nope, none of that.

Instead he falls back on emotional feelings. “The mood in science departments is universally grim”, we are told. And other people are upset too: “It isn’t just EU-born students, postdocs and staff who are unsettled: countless spouses and offspring feel dejected and unwanted in the United Kingdom, too.”

Again, no evidence or data. We just have to take the author’s word for it that a few thousand people are feeling a bit upset.

Helpfully, the author makes his own feelings very clear. He tells us that there was a “loose coalition of dissenters, doubters and right-wing jackals who voted to leave Europe”. Has the author gone out and surveyed a representative sample of Leave voters to reach this conclusion? Apparently not. He is just telling us his views.

But does Mr MacIlwain want to know about our views or our feelings? Obviously not. “Commenting on this article is currently unavailable” we are firmly told.

Sadly this attitude is all too prevalent among the more extremist remainers. They consider themselves better than we Brexiteers, or at least better able to understand the complex issues involved in Brexit. They sneer at us – I particularly like that bit about “right-wing jackals”. They believe that their views should take precedence over ours. They despise the democracy that puts great issues into the hands of the people.

Well, they are entitled to their views. What I find puzzling is that a prestige scientific journal such as Nature should publish an article that is so short on fact and so long on feelings and opinions.

When I was a lad my science teacher was a strict old boy. He caned more of our class than all the other teachers put together. And he had a saying that he drummed into us endlessly. “Facts! Facts! Facts! Science is about facts. Leave your emotions at the door, boy. Here we deal with Facts!”

How he must be spinning in his grave.

Brexit blockers – or not??

Mrs May’s few hints about her proposed Brexit strategy have been enough to cause a slight fall in sterling and to generate a great deal of media speculation. In reality, she has given so little away that in CIB’s opinion, the wisest course of action is to wait for her to provide some more detail rather than trying to second-guess her plan and probably getting it wrong.

It is inconceivable, as we pointed out a couple of weeks ago, that a lady with a reputation for studying the facts carefully before coming to a decision, is unaware of the possibility of retaining single market access while limiting freedom of movement – the so-called Liechtenstein compromise. We will hopefully not have too long to wait before she will give us some idea whether or not this is to be the holding position she will adopt to get us through the Brexit door.

Still, one definite and positive piece of news is the announcement by Lord Fowler, the speaker of the House of Lords, that peers will not obstruct Brexit. “The Lords recognise the primacy of the Commons based on the fact that they are the elected chamber and we are not,” he told the Daily Telegraph last week. “In return most MPs value the check that scrutiny by the Lords provides. We are not here to sabotage legislation – we are here to improve it.”

It would be refreshing if the mood of realism which has taken hold of both major parties in the House of Commons rally has now spread to the Upper Chamber too. One major fear among Leave voters was that the Lords may try to block Brexit, especially given the number of peers who held senior positions in the EU institutions and the general europhilia of the Upper Chamber. Our Patron, Lord Stoddart, has often found himself having to battle hard for the cause of Brexit among largely unsympathetic colleagues.

Before the referendum, a major reform of the House of Lords was in the pipeline. Since the Brexit vote, this appears to slipped down the list of government priorities. Given the consensus that some changes are required to the size and workings of the Upper Chamber, peers may well have realised that obstructing the will of the electorate over Brexit would gain them no favours at a time when some have even suggested the total abolition of the Lords.

If their Lordships may prove more collaborative than some of us expected, the same cannot be said for some sections of the academic community, particularly scientists. Our attention has been drawn to a recent article in Nature magazine written by Colin MacIlwain of Edinburgh. Calling Brexit voters “a loose coalition of dissenters, doubters and right wing jackals”, he says that “researchers together with other groups threatened by Brexit should fight to keep a foothold in the European Union.” So what about democracy, Mr MacIlwain? Over 17 million people voted to leave the EU and we did it because we didn’t want to be governed by remote control from Brussels. Mr MacIlwain wants to find “a route that will keep Britain in Europe where it belongs and forestall its drift to becoming some sort of mid-Atlantic Singapore.” This is the usual remoaner claptrap confusing a political entity with a continent. We may be leaving the EU soon, but for all the lack of detail of her Brexit plan, we can be pretty confident that Mrs May isn’t planning to relocate the country. Dover will still be 21 miles or so from Calais after Brexit!

And why do remoaners love to denigrate Singapore? International Monetary Fund estimates for 2015 put its nominal GDP per capita at US$ 52,888 compared with US$ 43,902 for the UK. The tiny island state has been one of the great success stories of the last 50 years  – and what is more, its springboard to success was its separation from a political union – in this case, Malaysia.

Mr MacIlwain is not the only scientist wanting to overturn Brexit. Anne Glover, a former chief scientific advisor to the President of the European Commission, said that scientists should continue to fight to overturn the vote “by every means necessary.”

One can appreciate the concern of those individuals who feel their jobs may be threatened by Brexit but, as the MacIlwain article points out, the government has promised to provide an extra £2 billion to cover the shortfall in funding of scientific research. To call the Brexit vote a “flight from Reason” as one of his fellow-columnists did in an earlier issue of Nature, is sour grapes, while “we will lose access to EU funds” is merely the pathetic bleating of bad losers. In a fallen world, life is never perfect and no Brexit campaigner ever claimed that leaving the EU would be trouble-free for all and sundry. However, should a nation with a great history like ours be complaining that it can no longer go to a foreign country with a begging bowl to ask for alms?

When you don’t understand the question

In the run up to Christmas I went to quite a few parties and social events. I do not mention this to boast about my social life, but because I ran into quite a few Remainers – some were old acquaintances I had not seen for a while, others were new to me. It was an illuminating experience.

Most of them were friendly – one was not, but then I never liked her very much anyway – and the majority accepted that they had lost. Quite a few had voted Remain only because they had been influenced by the speeches by the great and the good, others because they liked going on holiday to Europe, some because they backed the status quo. They had moved on and accepted that Brexit would happen. A few had voted Remain simply because most of the people they knew were voting Remain.

But the ones I found most interesting to talk to were those who had been vociferous Remainers and still believed that Britain should remain in the EU. And especially entertaining were those who did not know that I had spent the campaign working as Campaigns Manager for Better Off Out.

The conversations often revolved around the fact that Leave voters “believed lies”, or rather less politely “were ignorant” or “stupid”. We’ve all heard these unpleasant slanders, but I took the opportunity to probe further. What seemed to be behind these comments were that the Remainers I was talking to felt that the Leave voters had not understood the question posed in the Referendum.

These folks were keen to talk to me about the “real issues” at stake. Each person had their own take on these, but they tended to be variations on the economic issue. They were concerned with trade with the EU. A few of them actually worked for companies that did business in the EU, but most did not. They seem to have bought the line that you need to be in the EU to trade with the EU. They were worried about the economy or jobs. Despite the lack of any economic downturn since 23 June, they were convinced that disaster would strike soon. They felt that leaving the EU was economic suicide. People who voted to leave had, apparently, not understood the economic issues at stake.

They were keen to tell me that the Brexiteers had not understood the question.

But actually, it was my party-going friends who had not understood. The ballot paper asked us if we wanted Britain to be a member of the European Union. It did not ask us if we want to buy cars from Germany, nor if we wanted to sell pizza to Italy (I jest not, I know one company that does).

Of course, trade with the EU will be affected by the terms of whatever trade deal emerges from talks with the EU. But for me at least such issues were unimportant.

Essentially the question on the ballot paper was a constitutional one. Should the UK be an independent sovereign country or a member state of the European Union?

When a Remainer says that Leavers were “ignorant” or “stupid” or “did not understand”, what they really mean is that the leavers did not agree that economics were of prime concern. They are concerned about the money, the cash, the lucre. Not that they would ever admit to anything so vulgar, of course. They talk about the economy, the jobs, the exports, but their concerns always boil down to money.

And money was not on the ballot paper. Freedom and independence was.

Next time a Remainer tells you that Leavers were “stupid”, you know who is really showing their ignorance.