Category Archives: Brexit

Resolving the COVID-19 crisis in the UK

The UK has the ninth worst death rate (per head of population) from COVID-19 in the world at 120 per 100,000, and this is the third worst of the 20 most affected countries (Johns Hopkins, 9 January 2021; just behind Italy and Czechia); the total number of deaths (within 28 days of a positive test) now being more than 80,000 BBC, 9 January 2021). More worryingly the number of new cases remains around 60,000 despite the recent partial lockdown, and deaths per day are currently over 1000 (UK Government, 9 January 2021). Furthermore, the number of deaths is likely to rise rapidly perhaps to around 2000 a day in a fortnight as the effects of the recent surge in infections work their way through over-stretched hospitals.

None of this need have happened if:

  • the UK government had acted with leadership, foresight and wisdom over the last year; instead it has always acted too little and too late, often with calamitous mis-judgement (see critique of the government’s failures written in April 2020); and
  • more people had responded to the crisis responsibly and wisely, caring for others as much as they did for themselves, and not trying to push the boundaries of what limited restrictions the government had put in place.

What little we know, but what we should have acted on

It is remarkable how much we still don’t know about COVID-19, despite all of the valuable research that has been done such as the creation of new vaccines and the discovery of treatments that can reduce death rates of the most seriously ill. However, we do clearly know enough for the UK government to have acted very differently over the last year. Among the most important things we do know are that:

  • Countries that rapidly put in place comprehensive lockdown measures and keep them in place until the number of remaining cases is very low, have not only had lower overall mortality rates, but their economies are also recovering more quickly. The UK government has consistently gone into lockdown (or restrictions) too late, eased lockdown too early, and has never therefore got on top of the coronavirus. Particularly stupidly, the lockdown in November-December 2020 was nowhere near strict enough, and was foolishly eased in the anticipation that people could see their families over Christmas.
  • Many countries with a history of using masks (such as China, including Hong Kng and Macau) or that have made them mandatory (such as Malaysia and Vietnam; but also many African countries) have been able effectively to limit or reduce infection rates. Much of the debate around mask use has been because of unwarranted confusion about whether masks reduce the chance of the wearer catching COVID-19, or of this actually protecting others (see my post in March on Face Masks and COVID-19). Selfish, individualist societies, where people care much more about themselves than about others and therefore don’t wear masks have generally suffered badly from COVID-19.
  • The fetishisation of the R-number has caused unfortunate misunderstandings and led to many more deaths than would have otherwise been the case. The UK government has seemed to place inordinate emphasis on the reproduction number (R = the average number of secondary infections produced by a single infected person), rather than on the actual numbers of people dying. R is obviously important, but there is a huge difference in impact between a higher R number when total infections are low, and a lower R number when infections are high. Many more people in the short term are going to catch the infection (and die) when thousands are already infected even with a R-number well below 1, than will catch it if only a few people are infected and the R number is 2 or 3. This is crucial, because the government should have done much more to reduce new infections in the summer to virtually zero, and should have acted much more quickly in October when numbers started to rise again (lessons should have been learnt from the experiences of Australia and New Zealand).
  • Too much reliance was placed on digital technologies. It is remarkable how the much-lauded NHS app (in its various incarnations) is now never mentioned by the government. Moreover, it was very expensive: in September 2020, it was estimated to have cost more than £35 million. The entire UK test and trace service has been a catalogue of disasters, but the expenditure on an app that was meant to be a silver bullet was truly misplaced, and the only people to have benefitted were the companies involved in developing it! As many people warned, digital technologies are invariably a solution in search of a problem, and the failure of previous digital initiatives should have been a clear warning to the government.
  • Islands have a clear potential advantage in protecting their inhabitants from COVID-19. The UK has very clear borders that are relatively easy to “protect”, unlike so many other countries in Europe, and yet it has been very tardy in introducing restrictions for those croissing its borders (either way). Island states, especially New Zealand (only 25 deaths) and Iceland (only 29 deaths) with wise governmetns have been able to ensure that infections and deaths have been kept to a minimum by imposing very strict controls. Thus New Zealand specifies unequiovocally that “All people entering New Zealand must go immediately into managed isolation or quarantine facilities. They will remain there for at least 14 days and must test negative for COVID-19 before they can go into the community”.
  • People respond to clear and simple messages, when they are delivered by trusted leaders. Unfortunately, the UK’s blustering leadership has prevaricated and vastly over-complicated the messages to those living in the UK during the pandemic. Things were made far worse, and trust evaporated, when Dominic Cummings did not resign following his breach of COVID restrictions in May 2020, which made many people in the country think that there was one rule for those in power, and another for everyone else. With confused (and weak) messages, alongside a growing belief that it was alright to tweek the rules a bit, it was scarcely surprising that so many people failed to act responsibly in the latter part of 2020 when COVID-19 ran out of control.
  • It is not the new variants that have caused the recent dramatic rise in infections; it is people’s behaviour. Put simply, if everyone focused on protecting others from catching COVID-19, then regardless of the variant the number of infections would be minimised. Yet the government and news media persist in “blaming” the new variant for the recent dramatic increase in infections, which gives completely the wrong message to people. It is high time that we were open and honest about the fact that these recent very high infection rates have been caused primarily by people’s behaviour in December; if people were not giving the infection to others, then there would be no way that these others would catch COVID-19 – regardless of how infectious the variant is. We need to realise that perhaps one-third of infections are asymptomatic, and therefore that many people who feel perfectly well are probably giving COVID-19 to others.

What we should have done; but it’s never too late to take action

Based on the above, it seems fairly clear what the government should have done, but didn’t. This is not that dissimilar to what wise voices were saying back at the start of the pandemic (see my list in April of questions tbe government still needs to answer over its failures). Neil Ferguson and his team’s modelling back in March, although decried by some not only at the time but also subsequently, does indeed seem to have been quite an accurate prediction of what was going to happen, particularly as far as a second wave was concerned and especially given the lack of knowledge at the time about the precise dyamics of COVID-19. Anyone who read that March paper should have been left in no doubt that we were going to see at least 80,000 deaths from COVID-19. Those who argued vociferously and publicly otherwise should acknowledge their mistake and share some of the responsibility for the subsequent national vaccilation about the direction in which the pandemic was heading. We are already past this level, and many, many more are sadly going to die. Each one is a tragedy for their families and those cloe to them. There are absolutely no excuses for ayone saying that they were not aware of how serious the scale of the pandemic was going to be in November 2020-March 2021.

The creation of vaccines to counter the effects of COVID-19, as well as better treatment protocols identified over the past year, provide some hope for the future. However, drawing on the above evidence, the government still needs to take further steps immediately if the UK population and economy are going to be able to reduce the scale of suffering and damage that it has already caused. The following would seem to be wise actions (in approximate order of priority):

  1. Lead rather than react; be ahead of the pandemic. The Government must take control of the situation, and show real and decisive leadership in tackling it. All too often the Prime Minister and his cabinet have dithered, and as a result failed to protect the British people. If tighter restrictions had been in place in December, there wouldm have been many fewer than the 417,570 people tested positive in the last seven days. They should have known and planned for the scale of what has happened. They are culpable for their failure.
  2. Much tighter restrictions should be placed on personal mobility immediately, and they should be kept in place until the number of new infections is in hundreds rather than tens of thousands. This is likely to be a minimum of six weeks and possibly much longer, regardless of the hopefully positive effects of the vaccinations. The long term economic impact of COVID-19 would be far less severe with a shorter sharper lockdown than it will be if the government continues to try to pursue its on-off policy while maintaining relatively high levels of infection.
  3. Face masks should be made compulsory for all people both outdoors and indoors at all times (other than in a person’s own home). This should apply to those jogging, running or cycling, as well as to those just walking. Sanitation points should be made freely available in all workplaces, shops, bars/restaurants and entertainment areas.
  4. All people arriving in the UK should be required to show evidence of an appropriate negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of arrival. As an island, the UK has the advantage of being able to manage its borders, and it needs to do so effectively so that additional infections are not brought into the country, especially of the inevitable new variants of COVID-19 that will emerge. It would also be a great gesture of our national care for others if we insisted on everyone leaving the UK also being tested.
  5. The vaccination programme must be delivered effectively and efficiently. In general, the priority system seems broadly appropriate, but insufficient priority has been paid to those aged over 90, staff working for companies that provide care at home for the elderly, as well as GPs and other medical staff (all of these should be in the highest priority category) and indeed teacher. With 46,000 healthcare staff off work, an already over-stretched NHS has become even less able to manage the impending crisis. This is unacceptable carelessness on behalf of the government. Moreover, the vaccination policy and practice needs to be very much more transparent than it currently is.
  6. A really efficient and effective test, trace and control system must be put in place once the number of new infections has reached less than 1000 a day. It is impossible for testing and tracing to work effectively with the level of infections that we now have. However, for longer term viability and success, once numbers have reduced to a manageable level (as they were for much of the summer of 2020) it is critically important that we have in place an appropriate and high quality epidemic montoring system that can prevent COVID-19 and its successor pademics from catching hold.
  7. We should put in place now mechanisms to ensure that effective control against COVID-19 is in place for the latter part of 2021. This must ensure that sufficient vaccines are in place (preferably of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine) for GP surgeries to deliver them effectively as they have done for may years with the annual influenza vaccine over the next year, and indeed in future years as well.

Each of these seven action points could have easily been put in place by the government during the summer and early autumn of 2020. It failed to do so and is therefore culpable for the excessive numbers of deaths that we are now seeing. It seems that Johnson, his advisers and senior ministers all seemed to prioritise a focus on getting an easy deal done over post-Brexit trade and relations with countries in the European Union, and therefore took its collective eye off the COVD-19 ball.

It is, though, not just the goverment’s fault. Everyone who has given COVID-19 to someone else is also partly responsible. We should not have needed the government to order us what to do. Surely, knowing what we do about COVID-19, we should all have acted reponsibly and wisely by limiting our personal contacts as much as possible. It is self-evident that we have failed to do this. We can, though, all make a difference now. Wherever we can over the next two months as many as possible of us should choose to stay at home. It only needs one contact to start a new chain of infection. Sadly, trying to circumvent the regulations that have been put in place seems to have become a national pastime; perhaps this is Dominic Cummings’ lasting legacy. Any excuse for not adhering to them seems to be acceptable to the person making it. In part this is again the government’s fault. Why on earth, for example, was “local area” not defined when the government permitted outdoor exercise within it? For one person it is somewhere within a 30 minute drive; for another it might just be within walking distance of home. However painful it is, we all need to act even more responsibly than we did in March-April. I hope Chris Whitty (the UK’s Chief Medical Officer) is right when he said on BBC Radio 4 this morning that we are at the peak of the outbreak, but I fear he is not. Given the very large number of new infections that we are still having, death rates are bound to increase further for at least two more weeks. At least Matt Hancock said yesterday that “every time you try to flex the rules that could be fatal“; such a shame that this message has not been clearer from the government before. We, the people, need to act where the government has failed. We can make a difference, but we need to care for each other more than we do for ourselves – as the brilliant staff in our NHS strive to do every moment of every day.

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Questions the UK government must answer over Covid-19

Downing Street

Downing Street, London

With the UK now accounting for about 10% of global deaths from Covid-10, many of my friends from overseas keep asking me why the UK seems to have suffered so badly from the new coronavirus.  As of 23rd April, we had the fourth highest number of deaths as a ratio of total population of any country in the world (at 28 per 100,000), behind Spain (at 47 per 100,000), Italy (at 42 per 100,000), and France (at 33 per 100,000).  My previous posts on Data and the scandal of the UK’s Covid-19 survival rate (11th April) and Face masks and Covid-19: communal not individual relevance (29th March) go part of the way to explain why this is, but they do not fully take into account the increasing amount of evidence that the government has not sufficiently explained, and I thought it might be helpful (at least for me) to try to pull this together into a straightforward list of the key issues (in broadly chronological order):

  • Why did the government not take action following Exercise Cygnus in 2016, and why has it not made the information about this publicly available?  As I have commented before, this exercise  “was undertaken to simulate the impact of a major flu pandemic in the UK. The full conclusions have never been published, but sufficient evidence is in the public domain to suggest that it showed that the NHS was woefully unprepreard, with there being significant predicted shortages of intensive care beds, necessary equipment, and mortuary space”.  The government has also refused to respond to a freedom of information request about this as recently reported in The Guardian (26th April)
  • Why did the government fail to act on warnings in 2019 that we were unprepared for a pandemic? The Guardian (24th April) has also reported that in a leaked document “Ministers were warned last year the UK must have a robust plan to deal with a pandemic virus and its potentially catastrophic social and economic consequences in a confidential Cabinet Office briefing leaked to the Guardian.  The detailed document warned that even a mild pandemic could cost tens of thousands of lives, and set out the must-have ‘capability requirements’ to mitigate the risks to the country, as well as the potential damage of not doing so”.  A recent investigation by the BBC’s Panorama also shows clearly that the government had not stockpiled sufficient protective equipment despite being warned that it needed to do so.  Apparently “There were no gowns, visors, swabs or body bags in the government’s pandemic stockpile when Covid-19 reached the UK”.
  • Why did the government not heed early warnings in January and February of the need for urgent action?  I am neither an epidemiologist nor a medical doctor, but I was already writing in late January about the outbreak of a new coronavirus in China and its potential to have a severe global impact.  If even I was aware, the government has absolutely no excuse for inaction.
  • To what extent did the government’s focus on Brexit mean that they were distracted from the potential havoc of Covid-19?  The Prime Minister’s overarching attention on Brexit and his determination that Britain’s departure from the EU on 31st January was appropriately celebrated, must have taken up a considerable amount of time, and it seems likely that the government simply did not have the systems in place to be able to consider the potential of a new coronavirus that had emerged in a distant land (see also links to racism below).
  • Why did the UK take so long to implement lockdown measures?   The BBC on 7th April provided graphic illustrations of the dates when different countries across the world began to introduce local and national recommendations and lockdowns, and it is very striking that the UK’s lockdown only announced on 23rd March was among the last in Europe.
  • Why has the government’s rhetoric persistently focused more on protecting the NHS than it has on saving lives? My comments here may be controversial, but I have been very struck by the fact that one of the government’s dominant slogans over the last few weeks has been “Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives“, often shortened to “protect the NHS and save lives”.  The order is always the same, with protecting the NHS coming before saving lives.  This was overwhelmingly emphasised once again in the Prime Minister’s briefing on 30th April where he reiterated that protecting the NHS had been at the centre of the government’s policies, and he paid scant attention to deaths.  It seems to me that this priority largely reflects the government’s desperate wish to protect itself from criticisms of its previous failures to ensure that the NHS was in a fit place to deal with a pandemic.  The slogan could easily have been “Save lives: stay at home and protect the NHS”.  I just get this persistent feeling that many in government really don’t care much about preventing the most vulnerable from dying (see also next item below).
  • Why does so much reliance appear to be being placed on a few (flawed) Prime Ministerial advisors? Again, this question is controversial, but it does seem that there was a dominant view at senior government levels in the UK at the end of February that protecting the economy was more important than saving the lives of some elderly people who were likely to die soon anyway.  This has been traced back by the Sunday Times (22nd March) to a private engagement at the end of February, when Dominic Cummings (Senior Advisor to the Prime Minister) is claimed to have said words to the effect that “herd immunity, protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad”.  No. 10 immediately issued a very strong rebuttal, claiming that the Sunday Times article was “highly defamatory”.  Nevertheless, detailed examination of the  government’s actions at that time, and before the  change in policy on 16th March would indeed appear to suggest that in general the government was willing to sacrifice the lives of many elderly people, despite claiming that they were caring for the most vulnerable.  The role of Cummings in attending meetings of SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) has also been controversial, with The Guardian (26th April) for example reporting that attendees at these meetings were worried about his participation.  Furthermore, Cummings’ personal connections with one of the data-mining companies (Faculty) working with the UK government on Covid-19 (and mining patient data) has also caused concern and controversy (see for example Byline Times 22nd April, The Guardian 24th April and The Times 1st May).  There is enough murkiness about Cummings’ role, for there to be a transparent enquiry into his influence in shaping the government’s flawed Covid-19 response.
  • Why has the government persisted in saying that most UK citizens should not wear masks?  The government has so far persisted in saying that people in the UK should not wear masks (of any kind), despite the very considerable evidence that these can indeed help prevent the spread of Covid-19.  I have written at length about this before, but it seems fairly clear that the reason why the govenrment has done this is because it is afraid that the NHS will not have enough supplies if people try to buy medical face masks for themselves.  Again, this comes back to the issue that Ministers do not want to be shown up for their failure to prepare for the pandemic sufficiently rigorously.  While it seems likely that the government may well soon recommend the use of scarves or homemade cloth coverings as part of its package of actions following the lockdown (The Financial Times, 23rd April), this only further exacerbates their failure to have done so before!
  • Why has the government been so slow to support vulnerable people being supported at home and in care homes? The lack of provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and other support for staff in care homes, and helping to support elderly people in their own homes has been shocking.    This seems primarily to have been driven by two agendas: the focus on preserving the NHS at all costs for the government’s own political protection; and a willingness to let the vunerable elderly die.   The net outcome has been that very many people have died, both directly and indirectly from Covid-29 in care homes.  In the week ending 10th April there were more deaths (from all causes) in care homes (4,927) and at home (4,117) combined than there were in hospitals (8,578); 1,156 of these deaths in care homes and at home were Covid-19 related (The Health Foundation, 22 April).  More recent figures on 27th April indicated that the number of Covid-19-related deaths  in care homes in the previous week had doubled to more than 2000, meaning that around 3000 Covid-19-related deaths in total have occurred so far in care homes (BBC, 28th April).  The government in its regular briefings, though, only reports deaths from Covid-19 in hospitals, which in the short-term significantly reduces the perceived overall level of deaths from this new coronavirus (for a wider discussion of Covid-19 data, see my Data and the scandal of the UK’s Covid-19 survival rate).  Furthermore, recent evidence from the Chief Scientific Officer indicates clearly that “The risk of the coronavirus spreading in care homes was ‘flagged up very early on’ to the government” (The Times, 28th April).
  • Why have vulnerable people not been directed to hospital sooner: NHS 111 and the need for oxygen? There is much anecdotal evidence that many hospital trusts, at least in the early days of Covid-19 were turning elderly vulnerable people away from hospital, and that NHS 111 (the online and phone service) only told people to go to hospital after being ill with symptoms for more than a week and if they were having severe difficulties breathing.  At the same time, there is good evidence emerging that by the time most people have been taken into hospital in the UK it is probably too late for perhaps half of them to survive. The Independent (9th April) thus reported that over 67% of coronavirus patients put on ventilators go on to die.  It now seems that other forms of treatment may be more effective.  There is a growing  body of evidence that patients are often seriously ill before they begin to have breathing difficulties, and that early oxygenation is key to their survival (New York Times, 20th April 2020).  Hence, if NHS 111 and the government more widely had been willing for Covid-19 patients to go into hospital earlier to increase their oxygen levels before they started having breathing difficulties, many more of them would have been likely to have survived (it is interesting to note also that official NHS guidance on 9th April instructed medical staff to lower oxygen prescribing targets, seemingly to help manage the supplies of oxygen that they had available).  It is shameful that so many beds in the rapidly constructed Nightingale hospitals still remain empty, when they could be used to give patients much needed oxygen.  Indeed, the government announced on 4th May that the London Nightingale hospital would be placed on standby because it was no longer needed (BBC News; see also The Financial Times, reporting on 4th May that the NHS employed 60 KPMG consultants to build these temporary hospitals).
  • Has the government really been acting on the scientific evidence?  Another of the oft-quoted phrases to come out from the government’s media spinners is that they have always been acting on the scientific evidence.  Prime Minister Johnson frequently uses the term, as in “that is why we’re following the scientific evidence in the way that we are” (Bloomberg, 9th March); “Matt Hancock likewise uses the term, as in “The scientific evidence is absolutely critical in underpinning our response” (Financial Times, 15th March).  This is complete and utter nonsense.   There has never been complete uniformity among scientists on anything – and there shouldn’t be; debate and discussion is the lifeblood of healthy science!  Moreover, many academics (see for example Helen Ward in The Guardian, 15th April) have also made it clear that the government has not even acted on the advice given, perhaps in part because of the Cummings’ spin noted above.  Neil Ferguson, leading the team of epidemiologists at Imperial College modelling Covid-19 has recently made two pertinent observations (quoted in The Sunday Times, 26th April): “What I worry about more is people who have a particular political agenda or point of view, distorting the science to support that point of view”; and We have given insight into how different causes of action would lead to certain consequences but we have not made politicians decisions for them. Politicians have made the decisions”.  This is absolutely right.  It is up to governments to make the difficult political decisions, and they cannot hide behind claims that there is something called science which provides all of the definitive answers!
  • Why has the government adopted such an arrogant and racist stance?  In the early stages of the pandemic, far too many people in government, and indeed the British public more generally, conveyed the impression that the new coronavirus was a “Chinese” problem, and that the difficulties faced by the Italians were basically because they were less competent than people in the northern European countries who would easily be able to deal with it.  To be sure this was less blatant than US President Trump’s very clear and explicit racism (The Washington Post, 20th March), but it seems to come from the same stable.  In part this is linked to the ongoing global geopolitical “tensions” between China and “The West” (for my more detailed comments on this see Digital-political-economy in a post-Covid-19 world: implications for the most marginalised),  but it also reflects unwarranted arrogance that the UK’s scientists and systems are better than those in China, other east Asian countries and our southern European neighbours (see, for example, The Sunday Times, 26th April, and The Sunday Times, 26th April).  Perhaps too, this is linked to our government’s mistaken determination to leave the EU with its Mediterranean members, and be “Great” again alone (see The Great Britain Campaign).
  • How and why were the companies selected to work on the data analytics and people tracing technologies associated with Covid-19?  This issue was touched on above with respect to the involvement of Dominic Cummings in the development of digital technology solutions for tracing people with Covid-19 in the UK during and after the lockdown.  I have already discussed the wider and long-term implications of this for the future of privacy and surveillance (see Digital-political-economy in a post-Covid-19 world: implications for the most marginalised), but there are also many questions to be asked about the process which led to companies with at best dubious track records in the field of big data analytics such as Palantir and Faculty (see The Guardian, 12th April, and Byline Times, 27th April) being involved in this development.  The lack of transparency and openness around this by people at the heart of our government is deeply concerning.

These questions raise huge doubts about the judgement and performance of all of the leading figures in our goverment (many of whom have spoken at the daily briefings), as well (sadly) as those senior government advisors who have all too readily towed the goverment’s line in public on these issues, such as Sir Patrick Vallance (Chief Scientific Adviser), Prof. Chris Whitty (Chief Medical Officer) and their deputies.  Whilst it would seem that these advisers have sometimes struggled with following the No. 10 mantra, I do wish that they had been more willing to stand up and be counted for the sake of truth and of UK citizens’ lives.  We must indeed be united as we seek to overcome the challenges posed by Covid-19, but when there is a reckoning afterwards I very much hope that praise is given out where it is due, and failure is also dealt with appropriately.

[This post will be regularly updated as further evidence comes to light]

[Update 29th April: The Guardian today published quite a useful account entitled “Revealed: the inside story of the UK’s Covid-19 crisis” which covers some of the above issues in  more detail]

[Updated 4th May: see The Financial Times report on how the large consultancy firms such as KPMG and Deloitte were contracted by the government without the usual competitive tendering processes to work on projects such as the Nightingale Hospitals]

[Latest update 16.26 4th May 2020]

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Marching for a “People’s Vote”, 19th October 2019

Panorama

Today is the first day that Parliament has sat on a Saturday since 1982, and only the fourth time it has done so since the end of World War II.   The gathering had been called to discuss Prime Minister Johnson’s new Brexit deal with the EU.  It was also the day chosen for the latest People’s Vote march.  It is estimated that around a million people joined the march which wound its way from Hyde Park Corner to Parliament Square,

Central London was brought to a complete standstill, but despite the much larger police presence than previously, it was generally good humoured and festive.  Marchers came from all corners of the UK and beyond; they were young and old; men and women; people from all different background, religions and colours; in wheelchairs and on their feet…  They carried a wide array of amusing, clever, and sometimes challenging posters and banners.  The atmosphere was full of trepidation; Parliament was set to accept the deal.  The day started brightly.  England had thrashed Australia at the Rugby Union World Cup in Japan, and the sun was shining brightly over London.  As the afternoon progressed, though, the clouds began rolling in. After hours of discussions, Members of Parliament (MPs) were voting on the so-called Letwin Amendment, which would withhold approval of the deal, until it had been fully discussed by Parliament and the legislation passed to enact it.  This would have the effect of triggering the “Benn Act” which would force the Prime Minister to request a further postponement of Brexit until 31 January.  The rain started in Parliament Square, and the big screen revealed the tellers coming back into Parliament.  Everyone held their breath, hoping that the ayes would have it.  And so it was, by 220 votes to 206, a majority of 16.  The square erupted in cheers.  Prime Minister Johnson’s rotten deal, widely seen as being worse for the UK than that brokered by his predecessor May, had been delayed, if only for a while.

I hope that the pictures below capture something of the diversity and passion of those marching for a people’s vote, most of whom wish to remain in the EU.  It was a wonderful example of democracy still being alive and well in the UK.

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I have often been a critic of many of our MPs, and their failure to serve our citizens, but the quality of speeches by MPs and others from the platform today was of very high quality: passionate, committed, eloquent, accurate, and above all advocating the democratic principles that lie at the heart of our country.  It was a very special, indeed an inspirational, day.

See also my reflections on the People’s March on 20th October 2018.

[In most instance where I photographed an individual close up so that they are easily recognisable, I specifically asked if I could share the picture on social media and permission was readily granted.  It was impossible, though, to ask everyone in crowd scenes.  Where possible, I tried to take photos primarily of people’s backs, but again this was not always feasible.  Should anyone wish me to remove an image please let me know and I will do so.  I do hope that none of these images cause anyone concern]

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Brexit does not mean Brexit…

The endgame of “Brexit” is upon us, and if the UK’s Prime Minister is to be believed, the chances are high that the country will leave the EU without a deal at the end of October.

Screenshot 2019-08-31 at 16.16.19

This is not what the majority of the country’s citizens want.  It is not what most European leaders want.  Yet, in response to attempts at discussing the issues, very many “Brexiteers” simply resort to the statement that “Brexit means Brexit!“, and most are usually unwilling to engage in any kind of further rational debate on the issue.  The opprobrium poured on those who dare to try to debate the issue, the threats of violence, and the abusive posts on social media all testify to how divided our country is.  I have argued elsewhere that this was because those voting to leave in the 2016 referendum did so largely on emotional grounds, whereas most of those voting to remain did so on rational grounds.  However, whenever I hear it, I am always struck how very, very problematic this slogan is.  So, let me once again, please try in the simplest possible ways to convince those who believe that the slogan is true, that the referendum vote really does not mean that the UK should leave the EU:

  1. People did not know what they were voting for in the 2016 referendum.  There was absolutely no clarity at the time about what the options would be for leaving the EU, nor were the real implications fully understood.  It is therefore actually meaningless to say “Brexit means Brexit”.
  2. The referendum was only advisory.  The referendum was not legally binding, although some politicians did say that they would abide by it.  In the UK, though, there is a fundamental distinction between what is legal and what is not.  In some countries, referendums are indeed legally binding, but this one was not.
  3. The referendum campaign was repleat with lies.  It has been argued that neither side told the truth about Brexit during the 2016 campaign, but it is fairly widely accepted that those campaigning to leave lied to a far greater extent than did those campaigning to remain.  I have posted a selection of these lies and half-truths in my 2018 post The half-truths and misprepresentations that won Brexit.
  4. Brexit campaigners have been shown to have broken the law regarding the funding of their campaign.  Leave.EU was fined £70,000 over breaches of electoral law.  Moreover, in October 2018 Open Democracy reported that the “Police (are) still not invesitgating Leave campaigns, citing ‘political sensitivies’”.
  5. The Brexit campaign illegally used social media to influence voters.  The illegal funding was largely used to support targetted social media, and experts suggest that it could well have influenced over 800,000 voters.  The Leave campaign only won by 634,751 votes.  Moreover, there is strong evidence that disgraced firm Cambridge Analytica had indeed used sophisticated social profiling techniques to target voters.
  6. Only 27% of the total UK population actually voted to leave.  While 52% of those voting did indeed vote to leave, this represented only a small percentage of the total population.  Moreover, the 700,000 British citizens who had lived overseas for more than 15 years were also excluded from the vote.  Likewise, European citizens living and working in the UK were not permitted to vote.
  7. A majority of people in the UK now wish to remain in the EU.  By January 2019 demographic factors alone meant that there were more people likely to vote to remain than to leave, because of the number of elderly people (likely to vote leave) who had died since 2016, and the number of young people who are now 18 but could not vote in 2016 (likely to vote remain) who are now eligible to vote.
  8. If politicians can change their minds, why are the people not allowed to?  One of the most remarkable things about the last three years has been the willingness of parliamentarians to change their minds about Brexit, and yet they have not given the chance to the people of this country also to change their minds.  This seems to me to be hugely hypocritical.  Indeed, former Prime Minister May is the classice example of this.  She voted to remain, and yet continually emphasised once she was Prime Minister that Brexit means Brexit. For those who are interested in how other politicians continue to change their mind, do look at my post on Flip-flop views over Brexit.

Those are the main grounds why the observation that 52% of those voting in the 2016 referendum supported leave does not mean that we should leave the EU now in 2019, and especially not without any kind of agreement.

However, for those who wish to read a little further, let me highlight the absurdity of the figures and the way the referendum was constructed.  How would those supporting Brexit have reacted to a 52% vote in favour of remaining?  Might they not have tried to make similar arguments to those above (assuming of course that they were willing to debate these issues)?  What if only 25 million people had voted, and 52% had voted to remain.  That would only represent some 13 million people, or just under 20% of the total population.  Surely that could not be a legitimate basis for remaining they might say!

Whether to leave or remain has clearly divided the country, and indeed parliament.  However, in such circumstances, the wise thing to have done would have been to say that this is an insufficient mandate for change.  Indeed, as in many other key referendums, specific criteria could have been built into the original referendum.  For example, the referendum could have stated that it would require at least two-thirds of those eligible to vote to leave, or more than 50% of the total population voting this way, for the government to initiate procedures to leave.  The shaping of the referendum which was purely advisory has itself led to many of these problems.  The UK is a divided country, and in such circumstances where there is no clear mandate for change, our government(s) should have explored other options.  The actions of the Tory party over the last three years have only exacerbated the divides within our society.  After all, though, Brexit was never realy about the interests of the British people, but was instead fundamentally concerned with the survival of our existing political parties, and about the careers of individual politicians who saw it as an opportunity for their own engradisement.

European Citizen 30 Aug 2019Whatever happens in the future, it will be essential for huge efforts to be put into reuniting our country.  The social divides that Brexit has opened will take years to heal, and may be even more damaging to the country than the economic crisis that will befall the UK if we do indeed leave, especially without a deal.  Today’s protests against PM Johnson’s plans to suspend Parliament are just a beginning.  There is very considerable potential for widespreead violence, and as in the run-up to most civil wars, families, communities and workplaces are all now becoming increasingly divided.  We need wise, brave, strong, visionary and inspirational leaders.  Tragically, there is no evidence that we have such politicians.

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Flip-flop views over Brexit

As we move through ever more critical days towards the end of October, I just thought it would be worth sharing this great poster from Best for Britain (@BestForBritain) in case people have not yet seen it.  It shows what key proponents of Brexit said back in 2016 or 2017, and what they have said more recently in 2018 or 2019.  If our politicians can change their minds, then surely they should respect that many citizens of the UK (although sadly not all) have also changed their minds.  They should put the people’s views to the test and have another referendum on the various options.  This is the only sensible democratic option!  I fear that our current leadership, who only have personal gain and party politics in mind, are too scared to do this because they fear they would lose.

BIGONE

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Why we should remain in the EU: changing the mentality of Brexit

B13A comprehensive history of the Brexit campaign remains to be written, but there is little doubt that the Leave campaign was hugely successful in its design and implementation in 2016.  It left the Remain campaign wrong-footed and appearing to be boring and inept.  In large part this was because the Leave campaign focused on an appeal to emotions, whereas the Remain campaign sought to attract voters through logical argument.

Tim 2Over the last two years, both sides have largely continued to adopt these two very different styles of persuasion. This was very much in evidence during the march through London in support of a People’s Vote on 20th October 2018.  Most of the marchers I spoke with said that they simply could not understand why anyone should still want to leave the EU, given the substantial amount of evidence that has been adduced to show the damage that this will do to the country. The many banners on display likewise tended to focus on logical argument rather than emotion.

Yet, quite remarkably, as the graph below from the BBC shows, there was little substantial change of overall opinion between June 2016 and September 2018 as to whether the UK should leave or not.

Stay leave

Although a slight majority in the autumn of 2018 wanted to remain in the EU, about the same number of voters appeared to have wanted a second referendum as those who didn’t want one (c.40% each), with around 20% being unsure.  The dreadful performance of the Prime Minister and the Government over the ensuing three months changed things dramatically, but she is persisting (as at 23rd December 2018) to refuse to hold another referendum.  A YouGov survey reported in The Guardian on 20th December 2018 thus revealed that:

  • “in a referendum between staying in the EU and leaving on the terms that the government has negotiated, staying (now) enjoys an 18-point lead: 59-41%”
  • In September, “43% of leave voters thought Brexit would make the economy stronger. Just 12% feared it would make the economy weaker. Today (December 2018), only 24% of leave voters say “stronger”, while slightly more, 26%, say “weaker”. That’s a huge, 33-point drop for “stronger” in the net difference between the two views since the beginning of September.”

Despite this evidence, and the fact that most Labour Party members now (December 2018) appear to want to stay in the EU, Jeremy Corbyn is still refusing to argue in support of a new referendum, preferring an election and attempted renegotiation with Brussels.  He is therefore as culpable as the Prime Minister for the mess in which the UK has fallen into.

There is now very little time left before the runaway Brexit train crashes through the future of the UK.  The chaos surrounding the draft agreement with the EU recently announced by UK Prime Minister Theresa May on 13th November, and the subsequent disagreements between those preferring a no-deal Brexit to what they see as a bad-deal Brexit continue to be front page news, and it seems likely that MPs will vote to reject the deal on 11th December.  Hilary Benn‘s recent tabled amendment on 29th November 2018 to the government’s motion on the EU withdrawal agreement, for example, “opposes the deal, rejects a no deal Brexit and would enable the House to express its view about what should happen next if the PM’s deal is defeated”.

Those of us who wish to remain must conjure up a very clear set of arguments, and learn how to persuade enough of those who still wish to leave to change their minds.  To do this, we must use emotional appeals, which do not come easily to those of us who generally prefer to use logic.  Although many suggest that argumenum ad passiones is a logical fallacy, using emotions to win in the absence of clear objective “facts” or “truths”, it is a mode of argument that has to be used to counter the emotional arguments of the Brexiteers.  This was forcibly brought home to me when returning home with my placard from the march, and a group of inebriated men on the train aggressively and threateningly chanted “Brexit is Brexit”, “Brexit means Brexit” in my face.

Emotional appeals to remain

There are many types of appeal to emotion, both negative and positive.  Among the negative appeals are those to fear, guilt, anger, disgust and sadness; among the positive are pride, relief and hope.  All of these were used in various ways by the Leave campaign, and need to be turned around to advantage by those wishing to Remain.

Negative emotions

Let’s begin with some negative emotions:

Fear – of leaving

Some of the most powerful arguments used in the Brexit campaign were around fear, as exemplified especially by the fear of people in the UK being further overwhelmed by immigrants, or immigrants being responsible for an increase in certain types of crime, or the EU leading to great tax rises, or it’s safer to be in the UK because the EU is in crisis.

To counter this, we need to appeal to the fear of what leaving the EU will mean:

  • The UK will be isolated and alone – if we have a crisis, European countries may not come to our aid (remember how Germany and France united with the UK, for example, over the poisoning of the Skripals in 2018; will they do so when we are no longer part of the EU?).
  • Don’t get ill if you travel to Europe!  It looks as though UK citizens may no longer benefit from the EHIC card system, by which EU citizens have reciprocal health care throughout the EU.
  • Basic food prices will increase – you will no longer be able to afford those little luxuries.  The UK’s inability to gain beneficial trade deals outside the EU, combined with a substantial fall in the value of the Pound will lead to significant price increases for food and many other commodities.

Guilt – at having voted to leave

Guilt is one of the emotions that Brexiteers have been most eager to leverage following the referendum.  The refrains of “Brexit means Brexit”, and Theresa May’s stuck record of “There will be no second referendum” and “it would be a gross betrayal of our democracy” are just a few examples of the ways through which this emotion is being used.  It is quite extraordinary how persistent they are given the overwhelming evidence that these suggestions are fundamentally flawed.  True democracy would involve holding a second referendum when we know the terms of any departure!

Emotional suggestions to counter this include:

  • Brexit may mean “Brexit”, but what does “Brexit” actually mean?  What is Brexit?  Try to get Brexiteers to say what Brexit is.  Even Jeremy Corbyn has failed dismally to articulate a future for our relationships with the EU.
  • Don’t you feel ashamed voting for Brexit when you had no idea what it was going to look like?
  • Do you want your children to think of you as someone who betrayed their future because you voted for Brexit without knowing what it meant?
  • Only just over a quarter of the total British population actually voted to leave the EU. How can you call this democracy, especially when the majority of the British people now wish for a second vote?  Only 27% of the total British population actually voted in favour of Brexit.  For most of 2018 polls suggest that a slight majority now wish to remain (see chart above).

Anger – at having left

B27Anger featured widely in the Brexit campaign, as with anger about the amount of bureaucratic waste in the EU.

We need to appeal to the anger within those who want Brexit:

  • Imagine the long border queues going on holiday with your kids to Europe – don’t get angry with them! It is uncertain whether visa free travel and crossing borders in the EU citizens queues will remain in place.
  • Won’t you be angry when you and your family cannot get medical treatment? Immigrants working in the NHS are already leaving, creating a substantial staff shortage, which will lead to long queues for treatment (5.6% of all NHS staff are from other EU countries)
  • Don’t be angry with your local council when services decline! Many council jobs, such as street cleaning (wages £14,000-£17,000) or refuse collection (£15,000-£25,000 a year) are low-paid, with immigrants often being the only ones willing to take them.

Disgust – with those advocating Brexit

There is plenty for Brexiteers to be disgusted about:

  • If Brexit is such a good idea, why are so many leading Brexiteers investing in the EU and advising others to do likewise? (Jacob Rees-Mogg, John Redwood, Arron Banks, Peter Cruddas, Lord Ashcroft)
  • B34We were lied to and those advocating Brexit knew it! Remember the many half-truths that were told: “We are giving £2 billion to Macedonia, Serbia, Albania, Montenegro and Turkey … to join the EU”, “EU tax bombshell will cost each household over £2,600”, we can build a new NHS hospital every week with the £350 million we send to Brussels each week, and Brexit will be easy.  Even in July 2017, Liam Fix (then International Trade Secretary) said that “The free trade agreement that we will have to do with the European Union should be one of the easiest in human history”.  How very wrong he was!
  • Corrupt practices were used by those advocating Brexit! The Leave campaign has been fined £61,000 after having been found guilty of breaking electoral law during the Brexit campaign, and police are currently probing Arran Banks referendum spending.  His Eldon Insurance firm currently faces £135,000 in fines for e-mails that breached data laws.
  • Even Arron Banks who bankrolled the Brexit campaign now says he would prefer to remain in the EU? (BBC Andrew Marr show, 4th November 2018; reported widely).
  • Almost unbelievably, Nigel Farage, the former UKIP leader, suggested in January 2018 that there should be a second Brexit vote
  • Hilary Benn, the Chair of the Brexit Select Committee, has recently said on the BBC’s Politics Live programme that “Brexiteers’ arguments have now been shown, after 2.5 years, to be fantasies. And the more they shout the more they cry in realisation they have not got a plan”

Sadness

Many who voted to leave were sad about how life in Britain has changed since joining the EU in 1973.  They looked back to what they saw was a mythical and glorious British past.

There will be much to be sad about if we leave the EU:

  • The reality of Britain’s insignificant place as a small island (243,610 sq kms, ranked 81st in world), with a tiny population (<1% of global population) and little importance in the world will become all too clear!  Even its economic significance is rapidly declining from being the 5th largest economy in the world in 2017.
  • Food will rot in our fields because there is no-one willing to pick it. (2016: 7% of workers in agriculture, forestry and fishing are done by EU8 citizens)
  • Factory production declines because there are insufficient UK people willing to work in the conditions and for the wages offered in the sector.
  • There is a construction slump because of a lack of labour (2016: 9% of construction workers are from EU2, EU8 and EU14)

Positive emotions

And now let’s turn to some positive emotions that can be used to challenge Brexiteers.

Pride – in influencing global change

One of the many myths of Brexit was a belief that Britain could be great again alone!  There are actually many doubts as to whether Britain was ever “great”! Can an empire built in part on slavery and involving the immiseration and exploitation of millions of people in our colonies and former empire ever be seen as being truly great?  If anything, British greatness lies in our legal system, in our diversity, and in our support for social reform.  In a world of large powerful states, we need to work in coalitions and together with others, not alone.

  • As part of the EU we will have a voice that others will listen to; alone no-one will care what we say.  It seems highly probable that we will soon no longer have a seat as a Permanent Representative of the UN Security Council.  Many other countries have a stronger claim to this.
  • Being inside the EU we can take pride in influencing its decisions; outside the EU we will have no influence over what it does!  The EU, our nearest large bloc of countries, will have an enormous influence on our future.  Outside the EU, we will have no say in key decisions that will have great impact on our lives.

Relief – if we remain

There is almost nothing positive about leaving the EU.  There will be enormous relief among the many people and organisations who understand this and wish to remain.  However, too many companies have already relocated substantial numbers of staff and offices, and it seems unlikely that the UK will regain these if we were to remain.  The loss of the European Banking Authority to France, and the European medicines agency to the Netherlands are but two examples of the damage caused by Brexit

  • It only costs 39p net a day each for us to get all the benefits of EU membership (figures for 2016).  This is definitely well worth spending!
  • Marginal parts of the UK will only continue to receive substantial regional funding from Europe if we remain.  Some parts of the UK which received the greatest subsidies from the EU, such as Wales (52.5% in the 2016 referendum wanting to leave), voted  in favour of Brexit, and people living there will only continue to benefit if we remain (see map below).  The wise Scots in the 2016 referendum voted 62% in favour of remaining; they know the of remaining.

EU funding map

Hope – if we remain in the EU

  • Our children can grow up safe and secure in thy knowledge that we are part of the EU which has helped guarantee peace in Europe since the Treaty of Rome in 1957.

 

The logical arguments

Many of the above appeals to emotion are underlain by logical arguments.  As an academic trained for a lifetime in logic, I find it extremely difficult to argue otherwise!  However, those of us wishing to remain in Europe must use emotional appeals if we are to challenge those who want to remain, despite all of the damage they have already caused over the last couple of years.  If we can find a chink in the naive optimistic armour of Brexiteers, then we can support these emotional arguments with evidence and logic.  The following seem to be some of the most convincing evidence of the enormous damage that is already being, and will be further, caused by Brexit.

Economic evidence

Many of the arguments in favour of remain are indeed based on economic grounds.  A fundamental challenge here is that economists are not actually that good at predicting the future, especially in abnormal contexts such as Brexit!  However, the evidence of what has already happened since the referendum in 2016 does provide many grounds for concern:

Labour

  • Immigration
    • Migrants, especially from the EU, contribute significantly to employment in the UK.  Should they no longer be able readily to work in the UK certain sectors are likely to suffer.  Evidence from 2010 suggested that the main jobs done by immigrants from the EU were: Elementary process plant occupations (factory jobs) – 18%; Process operatives (factory jobs) – 13%; Elementary agricultural (seasonal harvesting, farm work) – 8%;Assemblers and routine operatives – 8%, and Elementary cleaning (cleaners) – 8%.  Whilst some of these may well be automated in the not-too-distant future, the short- to medium-term labour shortage will have an impact on economic productivity.
    • The net fiscal impact of migrants to the UK is extremely hard to calculate, but overall it is generally seen as being slightly positive.  Full Fact suggest that it is just less than 1% of GDP; there is no conclusive evidence that migrants are a drain on our economy.
    • There is no clear relationship between immigration and unemployment in the UK (Tejvan Pettinger); it thus does not seem to be the case that immigration causes unemploment in the UK.
    • The threat of Brexit has already led to a downturn in the number of suitable applicants for jobs, with firms seeking staff  being hit by labour shortages due to a “reversal” in the number of migrants in UK workplaces. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has thus reported that the shortage of both EU and non-EU migrants reflects a falling interest in the UK as a destination for migrant workers (Source: BBC).

Trade

  • Our trade with the EU
    • 49% of the UK’s total exports and imports in 2017 were with other EU countries (Source: BBC).  During the 2016 referendum, the figure 0f 44% of our exports of goods and services in 2015 was widely cited, and this had fallen from about 54% in 2006.  In 2015, though, our imports from Germany alone were £60,859 million, compared with a relatively paltry £35,290 million from the USA (for trade statistics see HM Revenue and Customs).  Any damage to our trade with the EU is likely therefore to be hugely damaging to our economy.
  • Reaching new trade agreements
    • During the 2016 referendum, it was often said that reaching beneficial trade agreements with other countries would be easy after Brexit because so many wanted to trade with us.  If the UK leaves the EU without any withdrawal agreement, it automatically fall under the WTO rules. Many WTO tariffs (10% for cars and their parts; 35% for dairy produce) are actually very much higher than EU ones (about 2.6% for non-agricultural products), and so it is likely that prices in the UK would rise for many imports as a result.
    • Some 20 countries, including the USA and China are currently trying to block the UK from agreeing a swift deal with the WTO (Source: The Independent), and earlier in 2018 it was widely reported that countries that also included Brazil, New Zealand, Australia and Argentine were strongly resisting the proposed tariff plans (Source: The Guardian).  At the very least, reaching trade agreements is likely to be very much longer and more difficult than Brexiteers had suggested.  It is difficult to see Britain being better off in terms of trade deals outside the EU than within it.
    • For non-EU countries, it is very much easier to deal with a bloc of 27 countries than it is with individual countries.  This is one of the many advantages of being within the EU.  Outside the EU, the UK will be alone in its negotiations and is very unlikely to be able to reach better trade deals than it had within it.  In any case, countries wishing to make trade deals are much more likely to prioritise their deals with the large bloc of the EU than the (currently) single country of the UK.
    • The real challenge is whether the UK wants to be a rule taker with full market access, such as Norway, or a more usual free-trade agreement with the EU as does Canada (for a thoughtful overview see Owen, J., Stojanovic, A. and Rutter, J. (2017) Trade after Brexit: options for the UK’s relationship with the EU, London: Institute for Government)

Investment

  • Business leaders’ opinions
    • There have been many diverse views from business leaders about the future pattern of likely investment, and they were well represented on either side of the referendum vote.  However, since then there has been a growing body of opinion that Brexit is bad for the UK economy.  In early November, for example, 70 business leaders signed a letter to the Sunday Times calling for a People’s Vote, noting that the government’s present plans and a no-deal Brexit would both leave the country worse off, and they pointed out that the uncertainty over the last two years has already led to a slump in investment. (Source: Financial Times)

Business relocation and employment losses

  • Numerous announcement of factory closures, and thus employment losses, continue to be made on the grounds of Brexit.  Whilst it is highly probable that some of these may well have happened regardless of Brexit, there is no doubt that Brexit has had an impact, as the following diverse examples indicate:
    • Michelin has confirmed that their Dundee tyre plant will close by mid-2020 with the loss of all 845 jobs.
    • Schaeffler plants in Llanelli and Plymouth are earmarked for closure, with the firm proposing to relocate production to plants outside the UK because of uncertainty over Brexit, with a possible loss of 550 jobs.
    • Jaguar Land Rover had spent some £10 m on Brexit contingency plans by July 2018, and indicated in September 2018 that it will close its Mini plant for one month in 2019 as a no-deal Brexit precaution.
    • The Norwegian-based fish company Skretting is closing its factories in Easter Ross and elsewhere as it pulls out of the UK, apparently largely because of Brexit.
  • Financial relocation
    • The lobby group Frankfurt Main Finance releases figures in late-November 2018 indicating that 30 bacnks and finance firms had chosen the city as the site of their new European Headquarters.  So much for those Brexiteers who suggested that there would be no impact on the UK financial market.  It is estimated that London will lose up to €800bn in assets to Frankfurt by March 2019 as banks start to transfer their business to the German financial centre.

Exchange rates

  • Since the 2016 referendum, the pound has collapsed against most currencies.  On 18th July 2015 it was worth €1.43720, on the 22nd June 2016 (the day before the referendum) it was at € 1.30373, and in 2018 it has fluctuated usually under €1.15, most recently being at € 1.12358 at close of trading on 18th November 2018.  This is shown very graphically in xe-com‘s visualisation below:

xe.com

  • While the significance of currency fluctuations can be interpreted in many different ways, the overall impact of this collapse in the pound is generally seen as having been negative.  There has been little substantial increase in exports, which might have been expected to grow because they would be cheaper in foreign markets, whilst imports have continued to become more expensive.  The Office for National Statistics, for example, has commented that “Falling exports of cares and rising imports of unspecified good were the main causes of a widening of the trade deficit in the three months to May 2018”.
  • For tourists, as well as those travelling on business , costs of living and working overseas have risen dramatically.

Food costs

Regional impact

Paradoxically, many of the regions in the UK that have benefited most from the EU actually had a high percentage of votes in support of Leave during the first referendum.  Clearly, unlike many parts of Europe where large posters informed the public that funding was provided by the EU, those responsible for marketing such funding in the UK failed miserably.  Government announcements in February 2018 highlighted the following interesting regional impact figures of Brexit:

  • North East England will suffer a 16% hit to GDP in the event of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit, although voters there overwhelmingly backed Brexit
  • Northern Ireland could face a GDP slump of 12% if Britain leaves the EU without a deal
  • Overall, the UK is predicted to suffer a 1.5% drop in GDP while remaining in the EU’s single market via the European Economic Area (EEA), a 5% drop if it agrees a free trade deal, and an 8% drop if Britain leaves the EU without a deal and reverts to trading on World Trade Organisation terms.

Social evidence

  • Rise in Racism.  In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum, there appeared to be a considerable rise in racism, directed not only at people who had been born elsewhere in Europe, but also towards second and third generation immigrants whose families had originally come from South Asia, African and Caribbean heritage.  The UN special rapporteur on racism following a visit to the UK in May 2018 was thus reported as saying that racism and religious intolerance had become more acceptable in Britain following the Brexit referendum.  Whether this has actually been caused by Brexit, or whether rising racism itself found an outlet in the demands to leave the EU is a moot point.  Nevertheless, racial tensions surrounding Brexit may well increase further should the Brexiteers get their way (see also Civitas, Hate Crime: the facts behind the headlines, October 2016).
  • Social innovation.  As with any challenges, Brexit also provides opportunities for change.   Given the social divisions that have been created by the original leave campaign, the referendum itself, and the subsequent vehement arguments over Brexit, it will be essential for people of good will to try to rebuild our society into one that is more united and caring, whatever the actual outcome of Brexit.  This is increasingly being recognised, with organisations such as Collaborate for Social Change already advocating for action (see, for example, Kippin, H., Knight, A. and Bergen, J., The Social Brexit? How fractious times could be a catalyst for collaborative social change in the UK, London: Collaborate CIC, 2018).

Political evidence

  • Brexiteers claim that Britain can be much more influential (“great”) again if the country leaves the EU.  It is extremely hard to justify this assertion.  Although it may be very hard for some of those living in the UK to accept, Britain is a small and increasingly unimportant island off the north-west coast of Europe.  The EU stands as a powerful counter-balance to China and the USA at a time when the world is becoming more and more divided into large power blocs.  Outside the EU, we cannot continue to be part of this bloc, and have the political influence of the EU.
  • Whatever happens in the future, Britain will remain heavily influenced by Europe as it has throughout its history.  Outside the EU we will have no power to influence the political future of the EU, and will thus become increasingly dominated by an entity over which we have little influence.
  • PortugalMany other European countries, and particularly the smaller ones, want us to remain in the EU as a counter-balance to the Franco-German axis that has dominated it so strongly since its foundation.  Marching with people from our oldest ally, Portugal, during the October March, I was forcibly struck by the arguments that they were making about how disappointed many European countries were.
  • In terms of the UK’s internal politics, debates over Brexit have revealed the way that very many, if not most, of the UK’s politicians are concerned more about themselves and their parties than they are about the British people.  A fear that Westminster-based politicians had little idea of the needs and interests of people living beyond the south-east of England was indeed one reason that so many people voted for Brexit.  However, recent comments by Ministers and MPs, and the ways in which various politicians are now positioning themselves for the aftermath of Theresa May’s debacle highlight that self comes before service.  This applies as much to those in the Labour party, where Jeremy Corbyn has so far refused to back “Remain” or indeed unequivocally to support a call for a second referendum, as it does to those fighting among themselves in the Tory party.  One possible positive outcome of the Brexit debate could therefore be a reorientation of British politics, either through a government of national unity, or the growth of a political coalition or party that would be in the centre-ground of British politics.

Cultural evidence

  • It is difficult to measure the likely cultural impact of Brexit.  However, it seems very likely that a wide range of cultural exchanges between Britain and other European countries, such as school trips and student exchanges, will become more complex and costly, and will thus reduce in frequency.
  • Historically, Britain has played a very important part in European culture (see Tim Unwin, ed. A European Geography, Harlow: Pearson, 1998), and although the idea of “Europe” is much bigger and older than just the “EU”, it seems highly probable that our cultural linkages with other European countries will reduce in the years to come, especially since one of the main aspirations of Brexiteers was indeed to make an independent Britain great again by itself.

 

TimIn conclusion, it seems possible that MPs will vote against the deal that Prime Minister May and her government have negotiated with the EU on 11th December.  This deal suits neither the ardent Brexiteers who would be happy with the no-deal option, nor those who thought they could negotiate a soft-Brexit deal that would actually benefit the UK to the detriment of Europe.  There remains, therefore, a sliver of hope that the people of Britain will be given a chance to reconsider their choice, now that they have more of an idea of what Brexit would really mean.  I hope that the arguments summarised here will go some way to helping more people realise the disaster that Brexit would be.

[last updated, 23rd December 2018]

 

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Reflections on the People’s March: changing attitudes to Brexit

Tim 1It was a great experience marching through London yesterday along with around 699,999 other people in support of another vote on whether or nor Britain should leave the EU.  The organisers had originally expected some 100,000 marchers to be there, and  yet final estimates are that around 700,000 people participated. This was equivalent to more than 1% of the total British population, and it was the second largest march ever held in the UK (second only to the Stop the War march in 2003).  People from very different  political persuasions, of all ages, from many parts of the UK, and from varying ethnic backgrounds were all there. While I wish there had been greater ethnic diversity among the marchers (the majority seemed to be rather white and middle-aged) it was great to listen to the very diverse Chuka Umunna, Sadiq Khan, Vince Cable, Caroline Lucas and Anna Soubry all united in their support for the people to have a final say on whether or not Britain is to leave the European Union (EU).

The march wended its way from Park Lane, along Piccadilly, down St. James’s Street, and then along Pall Mall to Trafalgar Square, before turning into Whitehall,  and concluding at Parliament Square.  By the closing speeches the last marchers had only just left the start on Park Lane!  Throughout, the march was good humoured, but full of determination and passion.  It was peaceful, and although monitored from on high by several police helicopters, the visible police presence on the ground seemed light and friendly.  As the pictures below show, there were some great posters and costumes!

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I left with one overwhelming conclusion: we must all do very much more to understand why those still advocating Brexit do so.  Unless we understand them, we cannot change their minds and their opinions.  No-one on the march had any doubts about why we were all marching in support of a new referendum, and most also seemed to believe that we should remain in the EU.  However, very few seemed to understand why what we take as being so obvious was not understood by all those still wanting to leave the EU.  In short, those of us wanting to remain have to do very much more to convince those wanting to leave that they are wrong.  Part of the challenge is that those wanting to leave usually do so primarily on the basis of emotion, whereas those wanting to remain do so mainly in terms of logic.  This was very much brought home to me on the way back on the train when I had to put up with the abuse of some of the passengers, shouting out “Brexit is Brexit”.  No amount of logic would work; they couldn’t even say what Brexit actually meant.

Tim 2Prime Minister May is so profoundly wrong when she says that there will be no second referendum on the grounds that it would be a gross betrayal of our democracy.  This march was democracy at work.  Tbis is the voice of the people.  Whatever the outcome, politics in Britain is not going to be the same again after March next year.  It is time we create new structures through which elected officials truly serve the people rather than their own self-interests.

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The half-truths and mis-representations that won Brexit

The Electoral Commission has clearly stated (17 July 2018) that the Vote Leave campaign broke electoral law, and it has been referred to the police.  To the chagrin of “remainers”, such illegal activities during the Brexit referendum campaign in 2016 do not seem to be sufficient by themselves to annul the referendum, and justify a new one.

One of the main vehicles through which the leave campaign built support was through an impressive and effective social media campaign.  Much of this was built on half-truths and emotive mis-representations.  Rather than its illegality, the much more remarkable observation is that so many people were influenced by this campaign and apparently believed the claims being made.  In part, this was because it resonated with their own concerns, but exaggerated them, making people much more fearful of remaining in the EU than they need actually have been.  It is also undoubtedly the case that those supporting Remain ran a desperately poor and unimaginative campaign.

In seeking to unravel and understand why so many people accepted these half-truths and mis-representations, I have categorized some of the images used in the Vote Leave Twitter campaign (https://twitter.com/vote_leave) into the following themes, many of which undoubtedly intersect, thus reinforcing each other.   I hope this encourages debate and discussion over the reasons why the UK has embarked on this desperately uninformed and misguided foray into apparent “independence” as its citizens sleepwalk into a Brexit catastrophe.

Immigration

A fear of continued mass immigration was one of the most powerful projections of the campaign, especially from countries such as Turkey which the campaigners implied was imminently about to join the EU.  Such immigration was primarily seen as being damaging to employment and the NHS.

 

Economic factors, including employment and tax

The UK economy was portrayed as being much stronger outside the EU, and the voices of apparently “trusted” senior figures in industry and government who supported Brexit (largely for their own interests) were used to support such arguments.

 

The NHS

The financial savings from Brexit were portrayed as bringing a much needed fillip to the beleaguered National Health Service.  One of the most believed assertions in the campaign was that Brexit would enable the UK to spend an additional £350 million a week, or £50 million a day, on the NHS.

 

Control of our own future

A powerful emotion conjured up by the Brexit campaign was that once the UK leaves the EU its citizens would have much greater control over their own future.

 

Support of the military

The Leave campaign also sought out the opinions of leading military figures who advocated that the UK would have greater political independence, and control over its own future, once it had left.  This was widely supported by the Veterans for Britain campaign as highlighted below.

B5

 

The wastage of EU bureaucracy

This was a favourite theme represented in many images, supporting the suggestion that we would be able to use all of the money that we had previously sent to the EU for our own direct benefit.

 

The Labour factor and Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn was widely cited as being critical of the EU in the hope of bringing out Labour supporters in favour of Brexit.  Corbyn’s continue reticence to be critical of Brexit remains one of the largest factors likely to prevent the success of those demanding a second referendum on the terms of Brexit, and the aspirations of “remainers” that the first referendum will be overthrown.

 

Trustworthy personalities

The use of images of, and statements from, politicians who were considered to be trustworthy, such as Gove, Johnson, and indeed Corbyn above, was also a powerful element of the Leave campaign.

 

Get out and vote!

Finally, the Leave campaign was also active and successful in persuading its followers to get out and vote.

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Labour, Corbyn and Brexit

I have long struggled with understanding why Labour under Corbyn has not been more forthright in supporting the Remain campaign. To be sure, such ambivalence must in part be because of the diversity of views within Labour’s membership, but they risk losing many of their younger supporters once the harsh economic, social, political and cultural realities of leaving the EU hit home.

The sacking of Owen Thomas from the shadow cabinet for his principled stand in favour of a second referendum, and for highlighting the risks of Brexit, emphasises the deep divisions within Labour and the power that the leader holds.

The most plausible reasons for Corbyn’s approach would seem to be that:

  • He has long been suspicious of the European project, seeing it as a means through which the owners of capital have been able to exploit labour more effectively;
  • He sees the EU as a threat to his ambitions fundamentally to restructure Britain, especially because he thinks that membership of the EU would limit his intentions to renationalize many of the utility industries that were privatized over the last half century; and
  • Because he wants to be seen as the leader who made Britain great again.

However, his logic, if indeed that is what it can be called, is deeply problematic.

Corbyn’s recent statements on the EU and Brexit have indeed shown a more conciliatory approach to Europe, perhaps as a sop to those Labour voters who wish to remain, but many of his previous statements leave little doubt that he is highly critical of both the European project, and of the EU institutions that are seeking to deliver it:

  • He voted to leave the EEC  in 1975;
  • In 1993, he spoke out against the Maastricht Treaty because it took “away from national parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers who will impose the economic policies of price stability, deflation and high unemployment throughout the European Community”;
  • He voted against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008; and
  • In 2016 he asserted that he wanted “a Europe that is based on social justice and good, rather than solely on free-market economics”.

To be sure, some people can grow wiser with age and change their minds.  After winning the election in 2017 he said clearly that he wanted the UK to remain a member of the EU, but most of his recent actions would run counter to this assertion.  Most importantly, he has done very little to put this aspiration into practice, and seeks to penalize any of his MPs who support a second referendum and express a desire to remain within the EU.

Corbyn’s criticisms of the EU fail to acknowledge the very considerable support that it has given to workers’ rights and social welfare across Europe.  Workers in Britain have benefited considerably from this, and it is unlikely that they would have done so had the UK not been part of the EU over the last 45 years.

The scenario that Corbyn seems to be hoping for is that:

  • May and the Tories will make a disaster of the Brexit negotiations, and will become unelectable at least for the next quarter of a century ;
  • The British economy will swiftly plunge into decline as a result of Brexit;
  • This will make his renationalization policies seem much more  plausible than they do at the moment; and
  • He will then be seen as the glorious saviour of a Britain that will indeed be made great again as a result of his actions.

For this to succeed, he cannot in any way be seen as supporting any of the present government’s policies towards the EU, he must continue to advocate that the EU serves the interests of the owners of capital rather than the workers, and he must encourage the collapse of our economy and society so that his policies can be seen as restoring our (and his) greatness again.

It seems so sad that on these critical issues he has failed to see the very considerable benefits that being part of the EU gives to Britain.  Instead of simply leaving the EU, we should remain at its heart and change it from within.  Outside the EU, Britain has little voice, little power, and none of the benefits that belonging to it can bring to all of our citizens.

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