Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Reflections on £350m a week, the BBC and a Brexit bill

When I chose to start afresh and take my old blog to this new domain, I knew that I wouldn't be able to take all of my work with me. This was primarily because certain pieces no longer reflected the evolution of some of my views. I now recognise that in moving on so quickly I have misplaced posts which I believe were high quality and I'm sad that this is so. 

One of my friends, Charlie Peters, only the other day asked if I still had somewhere a blog post I wrote outlining the case against arming all of Britain's police officers. Another, which I was reminded of earlier, was a piece defending Vote Leave's use of the £350m per week figure (albeit not on a technical basis, but rather in terms of how politically sellable it was during the referendum). 

This piece on the BBC website had me searching my desktop for it, but alas, it has gone. Though I am glad that they highlight the fact that the UK does indeed send hundreds of millions of pounds to Brussels every week, I am bemused as to why the BBC has all of a sudden decided it cares about nuances and factual bases for claims, given that it spent many months badmouthing and lying about the Norway option. Sometimes by stealth, through important omissions, and sometimes not. In one particular feature, the following serious and outright untruth was penned: 

"Now, as Norway is not a member of the EU, it has no say over these or any other EU rules. It can lobby against them, but it does not sit round the table when they are proposed, discussed, amended, debated, or voted into law. The consequences can be huge."

A rebuttal is not in keeping with the point of this post, but a useful response to it can be read here

So why has the BBC taken issue with our financial contributions all of a sudden? We received ceaseless coverage over the figure during campaign season, which as I wrote at my old blog, was perfect. It meant that voters were thinking about our contributions to the EU budget rather than focusing on the economic scare stories circulated by the Remain campaign. Attacking the figure was counter-productive in that despite its controversy, it merely reminded folk that by whichever measure you used to produce a figure, it was an extortionate one. And on that note, the author actually got the final statement in the 'reality check' wrong: we rounded down from £367.4m, which doesn't quite wet the appetite on the side of a bus. 

In political discussion, whether at home or in the media, detail bores people. It is usually overlooked or left unchecked for the sake of convenience. Many just like to skip round it in order to arrive at the opinion they want to have. This is true of any referendum. We are not the Swiss; we've yet to develop a 'referendum culture', of sorts, and do not, I don't think, acclimatise especially well to them. This might be because we've had very few in our democratic history. In that sense, it seems democracy is learned behaviour. In Switzerland, all constitutional issues are put to referenda. The people there are more used to them and campaigns know that they are less likely to get away with misleading voters, who think about consequences and issues more frequently. 

At Vote Leave, we took the mindset of the average taxpayer, who in scanning a bank statement and seeing words like 'debited', would view costs as absolute. I am debited £300 therefore I pay £300. We took a very similar position when the rebate came up in conversation. If my salary is £25,000, I say that I earn £25,000, I don't tell people that I earn a few thousand less after tax. It was this attempt at connecting with voters that enabled us to perform surprisingly well in the economic argument. And, crucially, enough people thought that repatriation of funding would make up for any economic disruption caused by leaving the single market. 

My guess is that it is because Brexit negotiations appear to be stuck at the divorce bill stage that the BBC have decided to dig this stuff up again. I feared this would happen. I can't wait for, upon exit and paying some sort of compensatory sum, the Lily Allens of this world to begin their trumpeting of 'Leave told us we'd save money, not lose it!' This argument, of course, completely overlooks the fact that the money would have gone to Brussels in just a few years anyway, depending on the size of the bill agreed upon. This will at least be a one-time payment. 

During my three years at university, Britain contributed around £30bn, net, into the EU's coffers. So any talk of 'this could be spent on education' is vacuous. Notice, also, that it's coming from exactly the same commentators and outlets who continually bashed us for advocating redirecting money to the NHS (which was as genuine a suggestion as any and would have been acted upon had Michael Gove not halted Boris Johnson's leadership bid). There is therefore understandable anger - we have given more than enough of our money to the European Union. 

I would, though, like to add one further point, which is that, while there is no requirement within the provisions of Article 50, per the amendments of the Lisbon Treaty (2007), which state that a withdrawing member must pay a compensatory fee, it is likely that Britain owes a financial recompense for European initiatives that it has signed up to ahead of time and for which owes money. I don't know that this is the case. I am speculating. Certainly, if this is the case, talk of £36bn is unrealistic and makes me think that Brussels will try to use a Brexit bill as a means of preserving a pot of cash used as a welfare fund for the lower tier of member states, notably those in Southern and Eastern Europe. 

We should expect an amount somewhere in the region of £18bn to eventually be agreed upon by Davis and Barnier. That is my gut feeling on the issue. But what worries me more is the far heavier price we will pay come trade talks in the autumn, specifically when tackling non-tariff barriers. The price, that is, for not having a plan for the most profound legal, political and economic undertaking probably of this century. 

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