Wednesday, 26 July 2017

The problem with an EFTA transition

Yesterday, in a blog post explaining my advocacy for a British return to EFTA as a means of leaving the European Union, I wrote: 

"The UK should, on a transitional basis, rejoin the European Free Trade Association. I don't necessarily propose that EFTA membership should be the UK's permanent solution, but the foresight required to develop a plan beyond this one is way above my head."

Some clarification and correction is in order. Upon further consideration and consultation with readers and correspondence, I have realised that I am guilty of making a rather hasty mistake (that I am told others, better and more knowledgeable than me, have also made). I was under the impression that most in the Flexcit web regarded membership of EFTA as merely a transition; not something to be viewed as a permanent solution or alternative to a stay in the European Union. 

I don't mind making errors of this kind. I can't take credit for any involvement in the Flexcit plan, nor in the success of the web of strategic bloggers who have helped to build its profile and commentate on the referendum, merits of leaving the EU and Brexit negotiations. I joined far too late and don't claim to have the commanding knowledge of, for instance, the Norths. But what I can bring is a door to a slightly new audience of readers and political activists. This blog has been added to the blogroll at, for which I am grateful and treat it as a sign that I can prove useful both as a former hard Brexiteer and as a writer with a surprisingly large audience at such a young age. I don't know of a young blogger in Britain who maintains a weekly readership that now extends into the thousands. 

The great thing about blogging, as I bring your attention back to the sticky EFTA transition, is that it allows me to build and reflect on my views in a way that censoring guides do not allow columnists to do. For a newspaper, a publishing error is a stain on credibility. For me, an error represents the steepness of the learning curve I have willingly ventured onto. Grasping the intricacies of leaving the European Union cannot be done easily or overnight. It has taken the best of the best many years. And this rule of thumb will be no different for somebody like me. I just wish, like the web of EFTA-supporting bloggers around me, I had started much earlier on in my political journey. 

This morning I woke up and began my usual task of interchange with readers. Large portions are, of course, unhelpful renditions of 'Brexit means leaving the single market' (which it doesn't), but some was helpfully critical. Paul Reynolds' piece was brought swiftly to my attention by a reader and was something I found particularly insightful, followed by a post published by Pete North a couple of weeks ago. North explains:

"It should be noted that just the process of joining an Efta EEA arrangement is in itself is a major legal undertaking that would likely take anywhere up to five years - and we haven't even started the ground work. Why would the EU, or indeed Efta, want to go to the trouble for what would be a temporary and disruptive process? Answer: they wouldn't."

EFTA membership is a pre-made package, but that doesn't mean acquiring it or getting there will be easy. The UK is apart of the EEA by virtue of its EU membership, but it cannot negotiate rejoining EFTA until after the Article 50 period has been completed. This is because until then, the UK is an EU member and thus not in direct control of its trade policy. The four other EFTA states, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, will not want to enter arduous negotiations for a deal that will likely last just a few years time. Any serious attempts made to rejoin EFTA will have to be conducted in a manner which affirms a desire for the European Free Trade Association to be a longstanding and more or less permanent home for the UK. Otherwise, there simply won't be the political will required for successful and productive negotiations. 

It is also worth adding that Britain will need to accommodate and sync 27 existing EFTA FTAs with 38 different countries into its trade remit. I know very little about Free Trade Agreements but most careful thought will lead one to the conclusion that this may present difficulty. It will also be cited by Remainers as evidence that in leaving the EU we are actually relinquishing control, in that we will be adopting trade terms that we played no role in creating. My point is: why bother with all this if we aren't in it for the long haul. Writing yesterday, I was under the assumption that, since the UK had acceded to the European Union directly from EFTA in 1973, all it had to do was reverse the process and slot back into the EFTA EEA. But this was clearly too simplistic a notion. 

My view, though, is unchanged by this. EFTA is great mainly because it offers the economic safety of single market access coupled with avoidance of ever closer union and the salvaging of vital sovereignty. It is democratically superior to our current political stance in Europe. 

Regardless, I apologise for the error and will not make it again. 

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Brexit: a time for pragmatism, EFTA and the EEA

Quite unlike Her Majesty's opposition, I have made up my mind on the terms of Britain's European Union departure. I believe the smoothest possible exit can only be guaranteed by following the path laid out by the Leave Alliance last summer. The UK should, on a transitional basis, rejoin the European Free Trade Association (EFTA); an organisation it helped to form back in January 1960, as outlined in the only existing comprehensive Brexit plan. The document, entitled Flexcit, can be found here

This is a view I have arrived at fairly slowly. My ties to Vote Leave throughout 2016 made conversion pretty much impossible. I expanded upon this at this blog a couple of weeks ago, for those who did not manage to read. But the need for a proper, concise exit plan has only recently become plainly obvious to me. The good thing about re-accession to EFTA is that it is a pre-made package that requires minimal fuss, allows us to avoid economic meltdown and gives us a substantially better deal than we have today. The only real stumbling block is trying to convince hard Brexiteers (and having been one, I know how insistent these people are) that EFTA membership isn't retained EU membership through the backdoor. 

For the purpose of addressing the diagram, the European Economic Area (EEA) is the single market; itself a collaboration between the three EFTA states and the European Union countries. Switzerland put membership of the single market to its people in a referendum in December 1992 and accession was rejected, albeit by a margin of just 0.6%. They have, therefore, separate bilateral arrangements with the single market. Even I, a relative newcomer to the Flexcit bandwagon, am already growing tired with media outlets and so-called political experts confusing the EU with the single market. They are not the same thing. The four freedoms (goods, services, people and capital) enshrined into UK law befall unto us by virtue of our membership of the single market, and not by virtue of our membership of the European Union. 

This morning I re-watched Jeremy Corbyn's hapless performance on Sunday's Andrew Marr show, wincing in discomfort over his dishonest claims about what leaving the EU meant. Just minutes into his interview, he claimed that the UK could not stay in the single market if it was leaving the European Union. This is a worryingly large deceit. With false promises like that, it is no wonder that thousands of young people lined up behind him in droves at this year's General Election. He can fool them, perhaps, but he can't fool those of us who pay attention. And Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for International Trade, wasn't much better either. Full of platitudes and soundbites and totally devoid of answers to even simple questions. There is something to be said here for how harshly Brexit is exposing a political class whose obligations have largely been devolved and passed upwards to the European Commission for the last 44 years. They remind me of scurrying ants fleeing from a destroyed nest. 

Incompetence of this kind to me demonstrates that most Brexiteers thought that developing an exit plan wasn't a necessity. Last year's referendum campaign, thanks largely to my former colleague Dominic Cummings, did not present an actual plan for leaving the European Union. And there is a good reason for this. There exists no plan for leaving the European single market. Had the Leave campaign recommended rejoining EFTA to the electorate, there is no way we would have won the poll. EFTA membership, thanks to its participation in the single market, means we continue to accept the free movement of people to the United Kingdom, and since immigration was the largest single issue arousing most Leave voters, it would have been politically infeasible to work with such a plan. 

But, the referendum has gone, and Whitehall has a mandate to negotiate Britain's exit from the EU. The question, therefore, is how best to approach it. I now advocate rejoining EFTA for a multitude of reasons. The first is that whilst the European Union is a supranational organisation - where sovereignty is sucked upwards and outwards to Brussels - EFTA is an intergovernmental arrangement that is democratically much more desirable. Within EFTA, reclamations of sovereignty are once again possible. EFTA states are not obliged to take part in the Common Fisheries Policy (the very reason Norway opted to stay out of the EU in the first place, and unsurprisingly so), the Common Agricultural Policy, Defence and Foreign Policies, or indeed the Customs Union. 

EFTA states can, unlike EU members, negotiate their own bilateral trade agreements, are exempt from the EU's VAT Policy, are not subordinate to the European Court of Justice and, crucially, do not subscribe to the ever-closer-union outlined in 1957's Treaty of Rome and can escape approximately 80% of EU law. The remaining 20% of EU law relates to the single market, but many such rules did not originate at European level and are adopted from global bodies like the World Trade Organisation. I think there are clearly very notable gains to be made outside of the EU and inside the single market. I don't necessarily propose that EFTA membership should be the UK's permanent solution, but the foresight required to develop a plan beyond this one is way above my head. I also think it is important to address some of the worries that other Leave voters have with rejoining EFTA as far as immigration is concerned. 

The first issue raised is how we can possibly accept continued freedom of movement, given how important an issue it was during campaign season last year. Article 112 of the 1994 EEA Agreement (which established the single market's conjunction with EFTA) says:

"1. If serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties of a sectorial or regional nature liable to persist are arising, a Contracting Party may unilaterally take appropriate measures under the conditions and procedures laid down in Article 113. 

2. Such safeguard measures shall be restricted with regard to their scope and duration to what is strictly necessary in order to remedy the situation. Priority shall be given to such measures as will least disturb the functioning of this Agreement. 

3. The safeguard measures shall apply with regard to all Contracting Parties."

By right of our joining EFTA, we have controls against excess of these freedoms that we do not have in the EU. I oppose mass immigration for reasons to do with social fabric and integration, but I recognise the need to prioritise single market access and thus the economy during such a sensitive negotiating period. I just think we have to be a little more patient on immigration. Since the referendum result, net migration has fallen, likely due to the political instability presented by our two-year negotiation period and governance by plan-less politicians. I don't suppose this trend will be reversed any time soon. 

Leaving the single market is a profound economic risk primarily because the European market treats what it calls third-party countries on much less favourable terms. This isn't a point about trade. It's a point about common sense. If you build something worth having, you will want to set an example and won't accept letting everyone in. That's why, during the referendum, I never argued that the European Union needed Britain more than we needed them. For my allies to have done so was paralysing stupidity. And that's why now, as we move towards the point of no return, I'm arguing for a pragmatic Brexit that sees the UK remain an influential cog in the single market wheel, and in doing so make EFTA a larger and more powerful trading bloc. And the best part about all of this is that the plan is already in place. 

Monday, 24 July 2017

Why we should abandon the concept of virginity

On the 9th July, I moved my previous WordPress blog to this, Google Blogger domain. The old site has been deleted and I have since lost quite a lot of work (much of which is now redundant or unreflective of changes to my views). From time to time I may thread in old work here that I think readers will be interested in. One of the pieces I was glad to be able to recover through Word was a mini essay I wrote back in November 2016 on virginity and why we should abandon its concept in discussion. I reproduce it below because I like it and think it may be useful for others to refer or relate to:

First, a warning. This essay is about as progressive as I get. I am no liberal, and nor can I be described with any uncertainty as a feminist. But on the issue of virginity, I share some surprising common ground with those I would usually describe as opponents.

Most people who bother with the concept or losing of one’s virginity do so without fully understanding the extent of its incompatibility with contemporary society. The state of being a ‘virgin’ is one of the more frequently misunderstood labels that our culture demands we place on others; a shocking fact given the nature of its origins. I’d like to argue not only that our attitude towards virginity is largely ignorant, but that our usage of the term actively sours sexual discourse, shaming both sexes and discrediting sexual minorities.

Conceptually, ‘virginity’ is anchored in sexism, emerging from the days of female commodification. Centuries ago, patriarchal capitalism allowed for men to treat women as goods, to be sold or passed on from one owner to the next. Women were classified according to their ‘purity’, effectively transforming their bodies into reliquaries of male desire. 

Without modern medical practices, men had to be sure that any offspring they fathered belonged definitively to them. “Sexuality was also, of course, regulated by religion, which made sex shameful and taboo outside of marriage. And for the most part, contraception was unattainable, so it was important for women to remain virgins for their husbands to ensure the purity of his bloodline. Basically, virginity served as the medieval form of a paternity test”, writes Erin McKelle.[1]

But the idea of virginity in establishing status goes far beyond this. Nowadays, it is used primarily as a vehicle to shame both sexes, and – quite interestingly – for opposite reasons. Men, expected to have had as much sex as possible even at relatively young ages, are made to feel compelled to have sex, whereas women who do lose their ‘virginity’ can be demonised either for losing it too young, or for having sex far too often. Angella D’Avignon noted in a recent article that “while having sex for the first time is a universal experience, the conditions that define virginity are socially constructed and have been used to control and exploit women.”[2]

It is particularly astonishing that men, too, fall victim to this kind of labelling, given that virginity has no anatomical or historical importance to them at all. There are no physical indicators on the male body that confirm an alleged loss of virginity. Memory, being intangible and impossible to observe, does not count. Since men do not have a hymen, the ring of tissue surrounding the vagina which, when stretched, becomes the barometer for the loss of virginity, it is very difficult to assess how being a virgin actually relates to males.

Furthermore, there are a string of technical problems caused by the very definition of virginity. “The state of never having had sexual intercourse”, provided by one dictionary[3] doesn’t seem to take effectively into account that there are different types of sexual intercourse. “Someone who has never had sex”[4] also echoes this issue. Not only is sex defined (and vastly different) specifically by and for those involved in the act, it is also hard to establish objectively what we mean by sex.

In 2002, 164 heterosexual Canadian students were asked by researchers about what acts counted as ‘sex’. Results showed that “the vast majority of participants (about 97%) consider penile-vaginal intercourse to be sex. Slightly less (about 83%) consider anal sex to be sex. Less than 25% consider oral sex to be sex, and 15% or lower think genital touching is sex”.[5] 

Four years later, Trotter & Alderson concluded that “In some respects, the definition of sex is broader for same-sex couples (such as a higher percentage endorsing oral sex as sex for two female partners than they do for a female with a male partner). Definitions of sex also broaden in more established relationships; people include more behaviours as sex with a partner they have been dating for three months vs. a one-night stand. This means that the emotional connection with a partner also plays into definitions of sex.”[6]

Individuals, especially those who classify as sexual minorities (like myself), have the right to decide for themselves what sex is to them. Penis-vaginal sex holds special status in a context pertaining to procreation, but not in terms of the legitimacy of a sexual act. Homosexuals, for instance, will enjoy perfectly healthy sexual relationships and desires without venturing into a vagina or, in the case of lesbians, without experiencing a penis. Virginity, being a fundamentally heteronormative construct, tends to delegitimise the sexual behaviour of sexual minorities.

It also ignores the concerns of many women, and in some cases men, who are assaulted or abused during their first sexual experience and who may want to redefine their loss of 'virginity'. The social parameters we place around virginity and the ensuing labels make this process much harder. Free from the idea of losing virginity, or indeed of being a virgin in the first place, individuals can tailor their sexual career to their own emotional or physical needs, and can more easily ignore the ideals of wider society. They will more easily be able to view an initial painful or abusive experience as just an obstacle in the way of something greater, rather than something that person will never be able to get back.

Modern teaching would do well to phase out the importance placed upon virginity. It is a social construct that, when used as a weapon, can have devastating emotional consequences for both men and women. But most significantly, virginity reinforces our peculiar obsession with status, hoovering attention away from action or common good and attaching it to superficiality.

[1] ‘5 Reasons Why We Need to Ditch The Concept of Virginity For Good’, Everyday Feminism, [], August 2013, last accessed 18th November 2016

[2] ‘A Quick and Dirty History of Virginity’, The Establishment, [], May 2016, last accessed November 19th 2016

[3] Oxford Dictionary, [], last accessed November 19th 2016

[4] Cambridge Dictionary, [], last accessed November 19th 2016

[5] Randall, H. E., & Byers, S. E. (2003). What is sex? Students’ definitions of having sex, sexual partner, and unfaithful sexual behaviour. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 12, 87-96.

[6] Trotter, E. C., & Alderson, K. G. (2007). University students’ definitions of having sex, sexual partner, and virginity loss: The influence of participant gender, sexual experience, and contextual factors. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 16, 11-29.

Reaction to the government's LGBT reforms and survey

I was struck yesterday evening by the sharp divides within conservative circles over Justine Greening's proposed LGBT reforms. And I don't just mean with Tories. It is probably a testament to how powerful gender politics have become in the west. When I first became politically active, back in 2015, it seemed a reasonably muted issue, but it seems to have taken on a life of its own over the past twelve months or so. 

Some on the Right appear to claim that the right to choose your own gender sits firmly in line with basic conservative principles that affirm individual liberty, and I think, on reflection, there is something to be said for this argument. I don't have a particularly burdensome problem with the ability of others to change their legally recognised sex, having expressed no anger or frustration at current UK law (rooted in the 2004 Gender Recognition Act), but it does strike me that progressive policies should not necessarily be clamoured for by conservatives. Especially under the notoriously suspicious banner of 'individual liberty' (which, we should remember, is impossible on its own terms). 

I tweeted last night, only slightly in jest, that Ms Greening should probably resign and join the Liberal Democrats. Her plans to me scream of something that would appear in the civil liberties section of a Lib Dem manifesto, and I don't say this to insult or patronise. I shan't attack a liberal party for being liberal. Instead I prefer to moan at how unconservative our allegedly conservative government (and party) is. There are a couple of things that interest me about plans to allow individuals to change their legal gender. 

I think, firstly, that Ms Greening's new proposals do not necessarily appear to be solely about civil rights. The Foster-May agreement, signed just weeks ago, represented the most notable interference of social conservatism at Westminster in quite a long period of time. I have a feeling that these LGBT reforms could well have been the brainchild of public disinterest in the DUP's brand of conservatism, which I should add that I don't subscribe to. The DUP alliance, I have written, will damage Tory support in the country's more metropolitan areas, and so more liberalising reforms could be seen as a barrier to flailing support. 

The trouble that could potentially arise is that we may find scenarios in which certain individuals, most especially males, adopt the opposite gender in order to gain access to private spaces for women. I think Simon Calvert of the Christian Institute explained quite thoughtfully where this policy may lead:

"Allowing men to self-identify as female without any medical diagnosis allows them to invade the privacy of women and girls. Where this policy has been tried in the US, women and young girls have experienced the fear and humiliation of finding themselves sharing toilet and changing facilities with men."

It may be worth giving his comments some consideration before assuming that these changes liberating to all. I would also add that I don't think our understanding of transgenderism has matured to the extent that we can rush on ahead with potentially damaging and permanent reforms. 

Furthermore, I dislike the way we constantly integrate discussion about orientation with discussion about gender. As the 'B' in LGBT, I am confused as to why I must be bracketed with 'T' folk, when transgenderism is not about sexual orientation. By lumping gays and lesbians in with transgender LGBT reforms, an implication is made that those belonging to sexual minorities are perhaps just the wrong sex. Not all LGB people will feel this way, but some may find it a little disturbing.  

I hesitantly support the Equalities Minister's plan to shorten the waiting time for gay men and sex workers to donate blood, from twelve to three months. I plan on giving blood soon for the first time, following on in a family tradition, and have always worried that any sexual activity I engage in with a man will hamper this. I think this policy is very thoughtful and I admit to having a personal bias in favour of it. The worry, though, will be whether or not new technologies can adequately detect any lingering HIV or Hepititis B and C in the blood samples donated by homosexuals or sex workers. If the presence of such viruses are not identified in the new blood, then these plans (if implemented) may have to be scrapped. 

As for the LGBT governmental survey, which I took and completed late last night, my initial gut reaction is that the findings will provide a pretext for introducing yet more sex education in schools, presumably at a younger age and with a more intensive focus on minority sexual orientation and behaviour.  At my old blog, I spoke out against sex education on the grounds that it attacks the sanctity of sex, assumes that sexually destructive behaviour is inevitable and that a wealth of evidence has demonstrated that teenage pregnancies tend to fall where governmental sex ed projects subside. LGBT specific sex education will likely be introduced in schools, possibly with pupils as young as 5, at some point in the near future. I will wait to see what effect it has before commenting on its merits. The survey itself focused on attitudes of others towards my sexuality at home, school and in the workplace. It was nothing especially invasive or exciting, and I was happy that its creators provided ample range in given answers to every question.

I would advise any fellow LGBT readers to take the survey, when you have a spare 20 minutes, here

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Extended reflection on Brexit, Flexcit and the EU referendum

I shan't be returning to this blog until Monday 24th July, as I am off to Greece early tomorrow morning with friends for what I hope will be a relaxing and alcohol-sodden week. As I now tend to do when I leave Britain for Europe (this will be my fourth trip abroad since polling day last year), I think quite seriously about the practical implications of leaving the European Union and about why, given its enormity and complexity, I supported doing so in the first place.

I suppose most Brits who travel frequently or even infrequently to the continent now have the burden of departing from the EU etched quite deeply into their minds. Some will feel shame, others dread over the increasing possibility of economic ruin (which I knew privately was likely during the referendum campaign). I don't feel such things. I remain excited about what leaving means for the UK; for the revitalisation of our domestic democracy and for the repatriation of powers we spent years pleading European Community members not to remove. 

But it can't all happen at once. In fact, one of the many things I have realised during a year of post-referendum reflection is that leaving the European Union is a process, rather than an event. Too often, the latter has been presented as being the case by populists and, I admit with some difficulty, by campaigners and activists such as myself. Many of them still won't admit to ignoring the nuances and complexities involved, but that is how it started with me. My interest in leaving the European Union was initially sparked in the summer of 2015, when I became involved with the UK Independence Party and inspired by Nigel Farage. In my youth and naivety, I was drawn in by Farage's charismatic and plain-speaking demeanour. 

To me, he had (and still does have) a way of presenting solutions to problems that were comprehensible. He over-simplified the process of leaving the EU, and cleverly managed to associate the problem of mass immigration with the UK's membership of the single market. I still think this is the reason for his success, and the same is true of Donald Trump in the United States. Those who speak plainly and passionately, regardless of the merits of what they say, stand out amongst establishment politicians. They can and will say what others know they cannot afford to. 

The more I was taken in by Mr Farage, the more I became assured that leaving the European Union was a simple, no-brainer that didn't require any particular in-depth plan or transition. The whole issue had for months been painted to me as black and white. We're in, then we leave everything, then we get tariff-free access. The end result was that I became involved in a referendum campaign inadequately informed and surrounded by people we refer to as 'hard Brexiteers' with no plan for an exit other than 'we are a great country, we can do this'. It is no wonder that I have soured so strongly against soundbites and slogans in politics. They remind me not only of my former ignorance, but of ignorance I confused with expertise as I took it to public platforms like television and social media.

And this theme continued well into the referendum. By the time I was an employee at Vote Leave, I was still without any real knowledge of the EU's institutions and mechanisms, let alone trade and regulation (which are still every bit as mystifying to me). I remember around late April asking Matthew Elliott what the campaign's position on access to the single market was after leaving. He replied: 'we say that there is a free trade zone right across Europe, from Iceland to Istanbul, with no tariffs'. I suspected at the time that it wasn't nuanced or reflective of reality, but it sounded convincing so I was happy to go with it. The public, I thought, wouldn't be interested in reading about the different trading relationships that many of these countries had with the EU, so why not go with what sounded simplest? 

During this time, my social media following and readership began to soar quite noticeably. I developed an arrogance which, being so involved in an important campaign, I chose to view as authority on such a major issue. As I look back, I realise that the idea that I was ever an authoritative voice on Brexit was laughable. People would send me tweets asking about how we left certain things, like the Customs Union, which I still don't fully understand, and I would respond pretending I knew the real answers instead of bothering to engage with the most informative material on the issues. 

Of course, I know now where to find the best work on a strategy for leaving the European Union. The only workable plan for departure was produced by the 'Leave Alliance' (a distinguished web of independent bloggers, researchers, authors and campaigners like the Bruges Group) some time ago in the form of 'Flexcit'. While there have been many involved in contributing to the plan, monographs, books, papers and blog posts, I have been most helped by the work of Dr Richard and Pete North. About a year and a half ago, I was blocked by Richard after we got into an argument on Twitter over the credibility of the Norway option; incidentally an argument I wouldn't dare venture into now, now that I have been stripped of my useless vanity and fully appreciate the wealth of knowledge on his side. 

Pete North, whose blog deservedly reached one million views earlier this morning, has also been extremely useful in helping me to wade through the nonsense in our national Brexit conversation. I hope his work continues to be read by large audiences, because in terms of the power and originality of its content, nobody can touch it. Both Norths are the primary reason why I have now more or less been converted to the Flexcit cause, but have stayed relatively quiet about it. I can only assume that I'll be labelled a traitor for doing so by the hard Brexiteers I used to call my political allies. I still like these people, too, which is why I have been apprehensive about 'coming out'. 

I am yet to finish reading the Flexcit document in full, but I am making good progress. What astounds me is how little it resembles the discussions over policy in the office at Westminster. Or indeed by how little of it is accurately covered by figures in the media, who more than anybody have let down the public during a period of time that will prove immensely significant in our history. It stands as blatantly obvious that Britain needed a plan for daring to leave an organisation with which it had become so politically and economically entangled. A little patriotism and good faith was never going to get the job done alone. 

Since departure is a process and not an event, a coherent strategy was always required in order to provide sufficient safeguards against severe economic harm. I think that most Brexiteers have failed to acknowledge two things after last year's result. The first is that immigration was, after all, not the most important thing in British politics, and that protecting the economy was always the bigger picture. The phrase 'be careful what you wish for' comes to mind a little here. The second, now illustrated more clearly since the elections of Mark Rutte and Emmanuel Macron, is that the EU is not going anywhere any time soon, and we need to negotiate and behave in such a way that recognises this going forward. Too many of us were under the impression, based on rising euroscepticism across the continent, that Brexit would create a domino effect and that the European Union would begin to unravel. This is not going to happen and I think we ought to accept this. 

I wish I could take back some of my own stupidity during the referendum campaign. I wish I had taken it as seriously as I will at Heraklion Airport tomorrow, as I follow the signs for passengers from within the European Union for perhaps the last time. I was, at least, very young (19 when 2015's European Union Referendum Act passed the House of Commons) and we can all be afforded the safety of that excuse from time to time. Thankfully I am now smarter and less gullible, and hopefully I'm not the last Vote Leave guy to join the winning team. 

Thursday, 13 July 2017

A warning against blind faith in Jacob Rees-Mogg

I can only interpret the blind, panicked support for Jacob Rees-Mogg's leadership of the Conservative Party as an acknowledgement that the Tories are both in serious electoral trouble and lacking in inspiring politicians. What I find most peculiar about it all is that there doesn't appear to be a defined or particularly obvious political reason for his apparently looming promotion. Theresa May and the current cabinet are, admittedly, hanging on by a thread, and I am sure that there will be yet another General Election before long, but nothing about that points specifically to Mr Rees-Mogg. 

I should say here that I actually quite like Jacob. I have met him twice in person, both times during the EU referendum campaign, and in the flesh he is refreshingly polite and certainly very charming. Even my mother, a devout socialist and Corbynite, finds him to be more appealing than most who don the blue rosette. The oddity I have noticed with the festering support for him to be Prime Minister and leader of the Conservatives has nothing to do with him as a man. Moreover, it appears to resemble some sort of belatedly hatched plan B after this year's catastrophic general election campaign. And, what is more, there is very little to suggest that Mr Rees-Mogg would have achieved much better than the Prime Minister. 

Careful examination of Mrs May, once she had been exposed to the harshness of leadership and the Public Relations industry, revealed that she was above all a wooden performer and lacked the ability to really grip and entice her audiences. What Tory members don't seem to realise is that Jacob Rees-Mogg is similarly reflective of that very same disconnect. He is, much like the current Tory leader, a devout Christian and Oxbridge attendee, living in the peace and comfort of rural seclusion. Mr Rees-Mogg is also inescapably posh and the beneficiary of inherited wealth. I don't mean these things to be personal attacks upon him, but crucially, they are all correct and will help to form a general impression that he is out of touch with the struggles and interests of ordinary people (I actually hate the phrase 'ordinary people' but I don't quite know how to avoid using it). 

David Cameron and Boris Johnson, despite also being posh boys, both possess an undeniable charisma. Mr Cameron was nicknamed the 'heir to Blair' for a reason, and Boris has always been very effective at deploying his alter-ego as clownish buffoon to help distract from certain inconveniences in his personal life and political track record. Make people laugh and they'll forget about your shortcomings. It is to my great relief that both these gentlemen are now toxic and either wholly unelectable or far removed from influence. Mr Rees-Mogg is not disgraced in any way that I can see, but lacks the charisma, youth and thus mainstream appeal that other Tories have been lucky to have at their disposal. The situation reminds me slightly of Ruth Davison in Scotland. She too rarely attracts any negative attention, and this bubble of invincibility is, I fear, damaging to debate. 

The only way to transition the Conservatives into whatever their next era looks like will be to hold another election. The government is so frail that any internal division will cause yet more constitutional chaos. The Tories will oust May before the Brexit negotiations are up, or immediately afterwards, and another General Election will be called. He may be a respected parliamentarian, family man, ardent local campaigner and committed to the supposed aims and values of the Conservative Party, but capable of launching a coup during such a sensitive period Mr Rees-Mogg is not. 

My focus on his character and identity is deliberate. I am playing the game of those who are quite willingly using him as a battering ram against the current leadership. They are (rightly) dismayed with having lost seats in an election they seemed bound to trounce and striking a deal with a Democratic Unionist Party that will damage pockets of Tory support in more urbanised and metropolitan parts of the country. Real social conservatism is powerful in that regard, and that should go a long way to dispelling the myth that the Conservatives are anything other than liberals who mouth conservative sentiment when it suits them. Oh, and that reminds me, much like me, Mr Rees-Mogg's views on a range of social issues would make the modern neoliberal Tory wince in discomfort. 

The support for his whisking into Number 10 boils down mostly to his dedication to Brexit, articulate manner which very few opponents have been able to match in televised combat and portrayal as a figure cruelly blocked from top positions and deserving of some kind of sympathy. These may or may not be true, depending on your view, but they aren't necessarily reasons for the establishing of a 'Moggmentum' movement. In fact, all this seems to me to do is symbolise that our politics is too often architected by presentation and not nearly enough by substance. 

Tories reading may think this sounds harsh, but ask yourself a couple of questions: why do you think Mr Rees-Mogg would make a good leader of the Conservative Party, and, secondly, can you honestly imagine him standing at that shining blue podium during leadership debates seducing the British electorate into voting for him? If you can, then more power to you. I am happy to listen to your reasoning. But are you sure this isn't symptomatic of a party losing sight of its once fearsome polling leads and scrambling to recover from the losses it has incurred?

Jacob Rees-Mogg may, in his possible appointment, provide short-term relief from the painful Theresa May experiment. He may even evoke a certain sentimentality with older Tories, who remember the days of chivalry at home and the empire abroad. But he's not capable of commanding an overwhelming majority in the House of Commons. And no amount of niceness or new children will change this. He is at best a plaster on a gaping and self-inflicted wound. 

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Oh to be young and trapped

I am slowly learning that quite often in life, when it rains, it pours. I was informed today at work that I am to be made redundant over the next couple of days, which was not the ideal circumstance to have weighted on my shoulders before I go on holiday (on Sunday). I work in the civil service, at local government level, and have done so since March. 

Working in local government is enjoyable, particularly if you (like me) are based in an area that you are familiar with. The most rewarding aspect of it is seeing the work you put in translate on the ground into what we call public policy. There is an intimacy and a closeness to the public from a Council perspective that I suspect those working in Whitehall do not get to experience. A five minute walk in Westminster teaches you every thing you need to know about being detached from everyday life. 

The job I am in until Friday this week was not originally intended to be long-term, though I would have happily stayed for another two years. But my early redundancy, which is rational given the lack of a workload justifying my continued employment and thus blatant irresponsibility of wasting public money, came as a surprise. The decision to let me go was correct and I am not angry at having to leave. I like to think I am a little more objective about things than some others may have been, and there are certainly more important things on the horizon for me to worry about. 

Losing my job brings home the realisation that I have a number of serious decisions to make over the coming months. When I work I tend to focus on the present, and since I was relieved to have finished my previous degree, I wanted to forget about academic pursuits entirely and scrape together some savings. I am trying not to let them form dark clouds over my holiday (to Malia, for a scorching, drunken week), but like my mother I am a persistent worrier and pessimist. 

My intention has been to study a Masters in the science(?) of 'Elections, Campaigns and Democracy' at Royal Holloway University, part-time, and for the next two years. Earlier in the year, I didn't give much thought to funding living costs and balancing work and study whilst I was there. I was too focused on attaining the relevant grades in order to have my conditional offer accepted and perhaps naively considered postgraduate study to be a replica of relatively cushy undergraduate life. Perhaps it is if you're rich or your parents own the home you live in. 

The problem I must now deal with is working out how to transition into the next stage of my life, where I begin to set my affairs in order and think more seriously about lining myself up on the right career path. Masters Degrees are intended to provide those they are awarded to with an enclave of expertise and an advantage when competing for professional opportunities. I suppose the former is more consistently true than the latter. 

I have always known two things about myself to be true. The first is that I can write, and the second is that my best decision making comes not from the influence of others, but from my gut. My gut instinct tells me unequivocally that a Masters Degree is the path I should follow. I have always believed in higher education opening doors. When, during my A-Levels, my friends warned against going to university, I knew I had to stick with my gut feeling, swallow the prospect of debt (I was then much more Left-wing) and embark upon higher study. I just knew it would be right for me. And it was.

This should, therefore, be an exciting time for me. But I have only very suddenly begun to appreciate the nature of the crossroads lying ahead of me. I must now decide whether it is financially viable for me to go back to university for postgraduate study, knowing full well that I am unlikely to find the right part-time work to weave in between my study periods, or whether it would be best to postpone my Masters Degree, get a full-time job and begin the long, painful process of saving for a property of my own and running the risk of never returning to education. I sit trapped between two painfully depressing scenarios. 

Of course, the ideal situation would be to pursue the Masters with a part-time job in politics or government on the side. But I cannot work magic in the marketplace just yet (indeed this could be why I am so keen to continue my studies) and life will not bend over backwards to accommodate whatever my needs are. I may even have to consider topping up my new student loan of £10,280 with a loan from my bank to help cover travel and living costs, but there is something about approaching my bank for money that I dislike. Doing so may have knock-on effects for my mortgage (ha) prospects or damage my credit rating. 

If I had the security of a middle class or well-off family behind me, one that owned its own home and didn't require monthly payments from me in the form of rent, I'm sure I would feel substantially freer. There are plenty of people in worse positions than me and there was always food on the table for me and my two siblings. The good thing about growing up poor was that I now appreciate the value of money and hard work. Had my father not walked out on my brother and I, leaving my mother alone with her children and less financial support, family finances would be more stable. But I don't like to complain too much. The situation is beyond my control but I am too intelligent to turn in on my mother. Her efforts deserve my respect and gratitude. I certainly will not engage in destructive street violence and robbery like mindless youths in Hamburg this week. I know better than to channel my frustration towards theft and thuggery. 

The feeling of entrapment that now sits upon me is not unconquerable, but it is a problem. I will need to ensure, above all, that my mental health does not collapse and that I can retain a positive mindset. These things often begin and end in the mind. The catch 22 situation I am in tells me that if I opt for full-time work, and thus lack the time to attend lectures and complete a second degree, I can save a lot of money, but for what cause? Renting is dead money and mortgages are within touching distance of youngsters like Britain is within touching distance of a clean and orderly Brexit. It just isn't going to happen. The best I can hope for is a downward spiral in the cost of housing, similar to that seen in 2008. 

Sometimes, when I commute to work or go about my private leisure, and I am on the bus or train, I stare out of the window in gormless fashion at the better quality houses owned (no doubt) by pensioners who spent proportionally much less on their properties. I know it sounds silly, but owning a house is a dream to me and yet it shouldn't be. There is no starker reminder of inter-generational equality than that seen in Britain's contemporary housing market. And yet we seem far more transfixed by the continued existence of a triple lock on pensions. I fear we are missing the point. 

I often bemoan the young for being childishly demanding of things they think they should have for free. But on housing, our concerns ought to be acknowledged and acted upon. The trouble is that Tory governments, for ideological reasons, tend to avoid massive house-building schemes. This can easily be explained by their commitment to austerity, but I have always privately believed the real reason is that they want the price of their voters' assets (through insatiable demand) to soar. I understand it, but it is very cynical. 

All sense of optimism seems to have completely drained from me. I seem to remember a couple of months ago pondering whether or not to write about how I overcame depression, which I thought would have been useful to many of my readers, but perhaps I was a little premature. Young people are facing difficulty. Graduates of immensely difficult degrees work in coffee shops, competing with automation and increases to the national minimum wage. They should be perched in industry, competing with the best produced by global research and enterprise. 

My problem, I know, sounds like a good one to have. A full time job, from a CV which I believe is remarkably good at the age of 21, or postgraduate study? What more could I want from life. But that is an overly-simplistic characterisation of my affairs. It is about future, progressing towards something and improving my career prospects. Instead I find myself trying to work out which route is least likely to see me plunged into financial ruin. If I choose my degree I risk running out of the money necessary to support my mother and help with rent, and if I choose work I ignore my gut and potentially permanently sideline one of my most burning academic desires. The work I am likely to get this summer will almost certainly not provide a looseness that will allow me to choose which days I do and do not work. And on top of that, I don't yet know my prospective timetable for next academic year.

I now understand better why so many adults told me to treasure my days at school. What a cheery quandary to have to think about as I lay on my beach towel next week. Thank fuck the alcohol is cheap.  

Sunday, 9 July 2017

A fresh start

As is now clear to regular readers, I have decided to change the host and domain site for my blog, ditching WordPress for Google Blogger. There are a few reasons why I have chosen to do this, but I won't bore you all with the ins and outs. 

I began political blogging exactly two years ago today at my old blog site,, which has now been deleted. I don't call my blog a specific name because I cannot think of anything appropriate and now realise that my surname has become fairly distinct. Most people I know now refer to me as 'Norgrove' (incidentally a name I consider to be quite ugly), which I'm sure has boosted any small amount of notoriety I now have. 

Over the past few days I have been reflecting extensively upon the evolution of my work and of my views. I thought now represented a good time to undergo a fresh start, in part because past posts no longer reflected my thoughts on a wide variety of issues, and in part because I am now a much better writer and, crucially, a much better thinker. 

My readership has grown, I am proud to say, from nothing to a dedicated monthly knit of 2,500. I want to thank all those who read, criticise and praise my work. Your feedback has been largely invaluable. 

In two months, I will be off to Royal Holloway University to begin a two year Masters Degree in the science of 'Elections, Campaigns & Democracy' and I am immensely looking forward to it. I now take academia, political debate and knowledge-expansion far more seriously than at any point in my life, and I hope this blog comes to reflect this. 

A myth exists, I am saddened to say, that blogging is now dead and utterly futile. I do not think this is true. My previous blog alone strengthened my employability and provided me with a string of broadcast opportunities. My work is read frequently by journalists, politicians and activists, and policy proposals I have written have even been circulated amongst MPs. 

Anybody who reads what I write and is interested in blogging themselves should know that it is rewarding and extremely useful in aiding personal and professional development. Just make sure you are consistent and keep at it, as I shall hope to do at this new site. 

North Korea’s nuclear brinkmanship is a negotiating ploy, not an incitement to conflict

Pyongyang’s announcement on Tuesday that it had successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) should not have come as a huge surprise. It is true that their jurisdiction of attack has increased markedly, but what has always been less clear is their motive for persevering in this tiresome game of nuclear brinkmanship.

If, as our media and politicians constantly suggest, Pyongyang was irrationally hostile and intent on nuclear destruction, it would surely have acted in decisive fashion by now. But this is not the case. In fact, the historical record (rarely examined for ideological reasons) sheds light on an altogether more rational, if not coercive, pattern of behaviour. Mostly, North Korean bravado has been a beckoning call to major powers; an attempt at gaining political concessions, like a child crying for sweets.

What shocks me most is that large numbers of people fail to realise that none of this is even remotely new. The North Koreans were prepping and posturing with (then non-nuclear) missiles back in 1993, before spurning the Clinton administration into signing a Framework Agreement which sought after a reboot of diplomatic ties and deeper consideration of national interests.

The deal represented progress, but was not adhered to perfectly on either side. It symbolised the ongoing nature of US-DPRK relations: hesitant, half-willing and mistrustful. Washington’s promise to provide supplementary oil supplies was made impossible to honour by persistent blocking in Congress. Pyongyang responded by engaging in weapons trading with Iran, swapping missiles for the oil it needed to address its deepening energy crisis.

In his authoritative State of Paranoia, Paul French notes:

“By the end of the 1990s it had become clear to Pyongyang that the US was not going to live up to its side of the Agreed Framework without some form of coercion. Pyongyang saw no other way to enforce the agreement except to restart its nuclear program and continue to develop medium-range missiles with potentially long-range upgrade capabilities.”

In other words, North Korea has in the past relied upon nuclear maneuvering and the issuing of outlandish promises or threats to force foreign states into negotiation. It should be noted that Pyongyang has always viewed with immense importance the ability to craft missiles that reach the United States; the very state it relies on for much of its aid and most important diplomacy. Any suggestion that Kim Jong-Un’s government plans to bite the hands it feeds from does not hold up to any logic.

Of course, it is not just Washington with a vested interest in North Korea’s nuclear portfolio. Both Russia and China desperately want to avoid a nuclear arms race in Asia, particularly if Japan is forced to ditch its non-nuclear status. Pyongyang’s missiles have on more than one occasion been tested in Japanese territory, making their apprehension entirely reasonable. A domino effect of this kind would ultimately disrupt the balance of power in the Far East. Japan has no current motive to embark upon a nuclear weapons program, in part due to China’s ‘no first use’ policy designed to ease her neighbours and in part due to American defence obligations.

North Korea is a pitiful irrelevance on the international stage, unable to match most other countries by all reasonable political measures. It has stuck rigidly to an economic system exposed by the global withering of Marxist-Leninist ideology and appears to be ineffectually trying to fight its way out of a corner it pretends is worth sitting in. Pyongyang accepts that the danger of complete collapse looms menacingly in the distance. The party state’s primary concern has always been national security, maintaining doggedly its existing societal order, and seeking external military assurances that its territory and interests will be respected by foreign powers.

It seeks financial and humanitarian aid from the United States, as well as fundamental security assurances, such as those agreed in 1994 and re-discussed eleven years later. American policy towards North Korea has always been reactive rather than proactive. John Swenson-Wright, a senior lecturer in Modern Japanese Politics and International Relations, has noted that Washington lacks a clear strategy for dealing with Pyongyang.

This is probably captured quite accurately by the unnecessary hysteria which still meets North Korean nuclear brinkmanship. The endgame is concession extraction, not any kind of devastating military conflict. North Korea is not strong enough to finance such a war. It can certainly inflict sizeable damage upon the Republic of Korea to the south, but its Armed Forces are depleted and equipped unimpressively, and the regime knows it will be wiped out in the event of major conflict. Nor is a military attack upon the DPRK wise from an American, or indeed Chinese, perspective.

China recognises that further instability across the border will see a torrent of refugees spill helplessly into its country, and the United States has calculated that due to North Korea’s porcupine strategy, the human cost of a North Korean bombing campaign would be domestically unacceptable, as well as there being the small issue of much of the DPRK’s heavy artillery sitting ticklishly close to the DMZ. Former CIA chief James Woolsey once estimated that in order to completely destroy Pyongyang’s nuclear program, 4,000 daily airstrikes would have to be carried out for a period lasting at least two months.

So what does North Korea want this time around? The lack of transparency makes this difficult to deduce. Given that the purpose of their nuclear muscle flexing is to draw the United States (and perhaps its neighbours) into negotiations, I suspect North Korea will be seeking relief from economic sanctions outlined in Executive Order 13722, as well as economic aid to help tackle food and energy shortages. Jong-Un may even want a peace treaty with Washington, establishing itself as a nuclear state to be left alone, and looser ties between South Korea and the United States. Certainly, he would prefer (with some scepticism) for the special relationship with China to continue.

This from Isaac Chotiner, for the publication Slate, is particularly insightful:

“North Korea needs the capability to strike the U.S. with nuclear weapons in order to pressure both adversaries into signing peace treaties. This is the only grand bargain it has ever wanted. It has already made clear that a treaty with the South would require ending its ban on pro-North political agitation. The treaty with Washington would require the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the peninsula. The next step, as Pyongyang has often explained, would be some form of the North–South confederation it has advocated since 1960.”

This, I would bet, is the real reason for the significance of yesterday’s announcement. We should probably stop pretending that we are on the cusp of nuclear conflict, and that we must scurry about like headless chickens desperately trying to solve a problem that we barely understand. It’s not a very good look for us.

Proof: tuition fees do not dissuade the poor from attending university

Apparently Jeremy Corbyn’s kinder, gentler politics do not include telling the truth. Especially when the (already converted) targets of his persuasion are his home faithful at anti-Austerity marches in London. The main danger of his continued claim that the cost of tuition in England dissuades disadvantaged students from attending university is that it sounds correct, and so becomes perfect fodder for sinking into the marshes of conventional wisdom.

Sound correct though it may, the issue is that it isn’t. It is a lie that many believe, despite mounds of evidence to the contrary. I have taken a rather keen interest in defending tuition fees in recent weeks, in part due to the growing list of respected, independent institutions defending them, and in part out of dismay at the vast amounts of ill-informed nonsense spoken on the subject by Labour politicians and Left-wing activists.

The proof that tuition fees do not have a disincentivising effect on poorer students wishing to attend university is incontrovertible. Even the useless Channel 4 News, perhaps to the frustration of Jon Snow, came to the conclusion that Mr Corbyn was wrong on the figures showing disadvantaged student attendance at university. If they can provide this evidence (to which I shall refer in a moment), then Labour ought to as well.

We should first examine the picture across the United Kingdom in order to get some perspective. Scotland does not charge home students tuition fees, though does charge modest fees to students travelling from other parts of the United Kingdom, and appears quite starkly to have the lowest proportion of disadvantaged students attending university amongst all the UK’s constituent countries. The Sutton Trust’s 2016 report Access in Scotland summarised:

“Overall, Scottish universities’ efforts to widen access for students from poorer backgrounds have achieved only partial success. It is not evident from the data that divergence in fee policy has given Scotland any specific advantage compared to other parts of the UK, in relation to increasing overall levels of participation or participation by more disadvantaged groups.”

Please see page 36 of the findings: They conclusively demonstrate that in comparison to the other, tuition fee-charging constituent countries within the United Kingdom, the acceptance rate of disadvantaged youngsters going to university in Scotland is markedly lower.

The Sutton Trust then add in their key findings:

“The gap in university participation between young people from the most and least advantaged areas is higher in Scotland than in the other home nations. However, Scottish 18 year olds from the most advantaged areas are still more than four times more likely to go straight to university than those from the least advantaged areas.”

The agency interviewed Scottish policy-makers, who proposed that:

“Where there is very strong competition for places, reserving a certain number for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds seems to be an effective way of increasing their representation.”

This recommendation seems to imply that direct measures must be undertaken in order to improve representation amongst disadvantaged students. It may be worth remembering that the idea behind scrapping tuition fees in the first place is designed to achieve this goal, as we are constantly told that debt will dissuade those in the poorest quintile, but in Scotland this has clearly failed.

As well as last year’s Sutton Trust report, we also have the work of UCAS to analyse, which has been usefully collated by ‘Full Fact’. The following chart shows that the number of applicants in the most disadvantaged band (quintile 1) has been steadily increasing year upon year right across the kingdom, including after two increases in the cost of tuition (in 2010 and 2012):

And so, according to their research, has the rate of poorer students attending university been increasing. For those, again in quintile 1, who are considered disadvantaged, proportions are continuing to increase despite constant streams of propaganda and scaremongering about tuition fees. See for instance, which shows the current rate of poorer students attending university increasing UK-wide, though some minor disparities crop up between constituent countries.

Full Fact conclude:

“The other measures we’re aware of to look at students from low wage families relate only to the rates of young people going to university (so these are effectively a year behind the application figures). These are all still at record highs, although there has been some levelling off in the growth in the past year or so.”

…and that

“The entry rate for state school pupils in England who received free school meals at the age of 15 has continually increased, and is now at a record high of 16.1% (in 2016, up from 15.9% in 2015 and 14.7% in 2014).”

Channel 4 News’ investigation into Mr Corbyn’s claims rebutted much of what he said, though I prefer not to use as much of their information, as it includes charts produced by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), who later admitted that their class-based data wasn’t particularly reliable.

It is odd to me that the Left would attempt to lure students into lies after twelve months of accusing the Right of engaging in post-truth politics. Of course, not everybody on the Left is culpable. The Economist, which I regard as being liberal and socially Left-wing, noted back in 2015 that “tuition fees are rarely paid up front. Although these add up to a rather hefty sum by the end of a degree, they are provided on generous terms (with repayment delayed until graduates begin earning a reasonable amount). The end result has been that the lowest earning one-third of graduates pay less under the new system and those who earn more, pay more.”

The idea that privatising funding for university and hitting students with the bill for tuition will dissuade poorer students from going to university has been comprehensively debunked. Why does the Labour leader insist on telling lies?