Wednesday, 27 September 2017

The WTO threat is a bee sting

One increasingly notable feature of Brexit discussion, emanating largely from Leave-supporting politicians, is the idea that the government must now start to plan for a no-deal, or what is called the WTO option. This involves abandoning all negotiations with the European Union and falling back on the WTO/GATT framework, including the provisions of both the TBT Agreement (Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade) and SPS Agreement (which refers to sanitary and phytosanitary trade) as a basis for trade-relevant matters.

There are several problems with this which vary in magnitude. Firstly, this option does not take into account agreements required from the EU on matters not related to trade, like cross-European research and educational initiatives. Secondly, WTO provisions are not designed for states to use them as primary mechanisms for trade facilitation. This is mostly because they do not address regulatory divergence and partly because dispute settlement is slow and arduous. 

If they were, then why does no, even remotely, major economy trade with the EU exclusively on such terms? Third countries have top-up, bilateral agreements, such as MRAs, FTAs and Customs Cooperation Agreements upon which to base trading relations. Supplementary deals ensure more extensive customs cooperation and a more targeted, streamlined (normally bilateral) approach to resolving disputes. Beyond this, we have to deal with tariffs and, more importantly, the impact of non-tariff barriers, which are under-discussed and house the real economic minefield which accompanies a no-deal Brexit. 

Upon leaving the EU, becoming a third country and recreating solitary membership of the WTO, Brussels is legally obliged to impose upon Britain the same tariff schedules as it does other ordinary members (there are exemptions for countries with which members have FTAs or those which are Customs Unions). It isn't predatory action, it is a fundamental aspect of a no-deal situation. This is based on a principle known as 'Most Favoured Nation', which conceptually means that WTO members must treat others equally and apply one standard to all - barring the aforementioned examples. A tariff applied to a country covering wheat, for instance, must be attached uniformly to other members. This is done for the purpose of promotion a culture of non-discrimination, and the EU will honour such rules. 

Source: WTO

After the EU applies new, inferior tariff schedules to the UK (the same ones it currently applies to other third countries), if we retaliate and fight back, we must do so - again - uniformly. If we apply punitive tariffs to certain goods in response it has to be done to similar goods from all other countries - or more specifically: every single WTO member with whom we do not have an FTA, which by current count is every member. This will have a marked impact upon domestic pricing, as I'm sure readers have worked out. But, even with this precedent, tariffs are still of little relevance to the grand scheme of global trade. They have plummeted thanks to globalisation and pale in comparison to the economic importance of non-tariff barriers (NTBs). 

Non-tariff barriers to trade come mostly in the form of regulatory divergence and differences in domestic law. Being that they are any barrier to trade no relevant to tariffs or duties, they are practically limitless in terms of what they can be. Their scope is varied and this is why they can inflict profound financial harm upon trading nations. It has been estimated that NTBs add up to twenty percent to the cost of international trade, so our national failure to talk about them has been especially worrying. In a no-deal Brexit, they form a stick web of problems which have the potential to bring large portions of British trade to a standstill. 

To understand why, we first remember that the UK is a ghost in international trade. Or perhaps parasite is a more accurate term. There are no UK-specific trade agreements of any kind, and crucially, no UK customs cooperation agreements. This is because over forty years we have latched onto commonly crafted, EU trade deals. When we leave, we leave them. There is no way around this, we do it to ourselves. Leaving with nothing in place means to quite literally start from scratch. And what is of paramount importance to highlight is the fact that the UK has no customs cooperation agreements, like Mutual Recognition Agreements, in place to be able to establish or participate in conformity assessment verification. This will undoubtedly lead to standstills and our goods being turned away at borders.

Conformity assessment is important. Programmes, usually established as per treaty provisions, make useful attempts to crack down upon criminal action, like fraud, and shields consumers from faulty or dangerous goods. Without valid agreements in place, consignments of British goods at Border Inspection Posts (BIPs) and docks will find themselves at the mercy of customs officers unable to (electronically) verify that they meet national standards required for entry. It is not clear what third countries would do in such scenarios, but what does seem apparent is that trade flow will be immeasurably damaged.  

Delays for goods inspection will take up precious time for our exporters. If containers of goods require detention for inspection purposes, fines are issued to exporters and they can be expensive. Perishable or fragile goods may find themselves at risk of being wasted or damaged and subsequently devalued if held in storage for long periods. All ensuing costs are the unseen effects of erecting technical barriers to trade. This is where the no deal option will pinch most. Specifically, if we take an issue like food exports to the EU of animal origin, we will find doors to frictionless trade slammed quickly in our faces. And regulatory equivalence, which we'll have, is not enough. 

We will initially have to apply, as all other third countries have to (remember - equal treatment), in order to qualify to export certain categories of food to the EU. This process could take a couple of months to complete. Then, after this, we have compliance to deal with. We will need to have our establishments (warehouses, factories, production equipment, this sort of thing) legitimised to ensure they provide sufficient conditions for producing the food. We will then have to ensure that we abide by animal health requirements, with certificates and documentation often requiring the signatures of vets. Lastly, consignments headed for the EU will be diverted to a BIP, such as in Dunkirk, where a percentage (perhaps a third) of goods will be physically inspected in order to assess whether standards have been met. 

These are problems which staying in the Single Market would have meant avoiding. EFTA/EEA states (such as the dreaded Norway) enjoy a plentiful supply of exemptions from third country provisions, largely because they enjoy a high level of trust and have adopted the full EEA acquis covering food controls, BIPs and import regimes. Issues like this are what encouraged me to change my mind on our place in the Single Market. My above example concerning food exports of animal origin is a small but pertinent one. These difficulties add up, and where they do, lorries will stand idly on motorways and congestion will disrupt ports: thus causing delays for vehicles behind. 

With the exception of my critique of Patrick Minford, I have not explored the effects of the WTO scenario in depth because I can't quite bring myself to believe that the government will actually pursue it. Fronting a campaign against it didn't seem worth it beforehand. A no-deal conclusion to negotiations would bring untold harm right across Europe and nobody I can think of stands to benefit. Veering closer to it will spark EU member states into intensive lobbying, particularly those who enjoy massive trade surpluses with Britain and there is, to be clear, no patriotism to be found in storming arrogantly out of negotiations and leaving with no deal. 

The WTO option does have one use in that it can be used as a negotiating weapon. There is sense in using it as a bargaining chip and taking it to the table. Eliminating our options early reduces the scope for reaching an agreeable settlement. (Note here the peculiarity behind the government's insistence on ruling out the Norway option whilst ceaselessly threatening the WTO alternative, if we can call it an alternative.) The problem is that, as we have discussed, a threat is all it should be. Iain Duncan Smith, for example, now thinks we should make preparations for it, but intriguingly makes no real attempt to explain what a no-deal is or means. No wonder. I think government officials and the civil service should, if anything, make noise about planning for a no-deal but in reality maintain focus on reaching a settlement. If our bark is worse than our bite, we might get away with it. 

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Initial thoughts on Royal Holloway University and postgraduate study

Over the summer this blog largely transitioned itself into a campaigning tool for a more orderly and much softer withdrawal from the European Union. The idea was that by narrowing the scope of my writing I would develop something close to authority and be (even slightly) more likely to influence the Brexit debate. I can't decide for myself how worthwhile it has been so far. 

I am frustrated at present because I don't know how best to proceed. I know I can have some influence because I have a modest, but precious, connection to Westminster, and so exposure is never too far away, and because a large number of journalists read and share my work. There is only so much I can hope for but writing is what I do best (certainly, recent shaky performances on television have for now confirmed this) and it's better than doing nothing. 

We can't have the Norway option and we can't have the Canada option. The former is apparently domestically unacceptable and the latter will not work because it is infeasible for the UK to untangle itself from every EU mechanism and initiative, many of which are in the national interest to participate in (and therefore fund), and continue life with the obligations of our Anglospheric partners. So, what am I going to campaign for? What then will the purpose of this blog be? I'll ponder the question in the coming days and weeks. 

At least writing about other things will for now feel fairly refreshing. My academic interests once again occupy my immediate attention, having been away from university life for five months. After weeks of induction events, enrolment stages and tying up bureaucratic loose ends I have officially started my Masters degree. It's a part-time MSc in Elections, Campaigns and Democracy - and I'll be studying Quantitative Research Methods and Analysing Public Opinion on top, as well as three additional modules and a dissertation next academic year. I gather there will also be an opportunity for me to work for my professor, Chris Hanretty, when we provide various polling companies with research and political consultancy next year. 

I'm studying at Royal Holloway University, which was opened by Queen Victoria in 1879. It's a very good university by most practical measures and, importantly, scores well across Europe for quality of political research. Usually, though, I don't pay attention to league tables as I am somebody who believes that we make our education what we make of it. Tables don't influence my decision to study somewhere. Growing up poor meant I was able to avoid displaying all sorts of snobbery, and this remains my attitude towards academia. I know plenty of smart individuals who do not attend so-called Russell Group universities and plenty of fools who do. It is here worth mentioning to readers unaware that Russell Group was initially set up as a consortium of universities with the most research funding, a system unfairly weighted in favour of institutions which had medical schools. I do the best with what I have and I don't focus on others. 

Royal Holloway's main campus can be found poked just outside of the M25, in quite a quaint little town called Egham, east Surrey. Signs of life in the area mostly take the form of small crowds of bustling students and a flurry of aircraft taking off from Heathrow, which I suspected from the low altitude is based somewhere nearby. The town is lacking in certain features that I am used to. In my hometown, in the Bexleyheath and Crayford constituency, you don't drive for more than two minutes before reaching a major supermarket or restaurant. They're dotted around very close to one another and it can be a bit overwhelming. Certainly smaller shops have felt the pressure in recent years. Egham is far less busy and residents must put up with reduced choice in eating, drinking and shopping outlets. 

The town is quite noticeably a university town. The station sign even makes it clear that it is the home of Royal Holloway. There is no pretending that it is not its main attraction, and attractive it is. Royal Holloway's main building, known internally as Founders, is a beautiful exhibition of architecture. It's an eight-shaped masterpiece built mostly on four floors and complimented by a north-facing clock tower. When I first gave it a tour it reminded me quite distinctly of Hogwarts. Walking around it brings a certain museum vibe, with each department separated by walls of stunning paintings, including many originals, and quite old-fashioned looking stone staircases. It's a shame that Founders itself is not located more centrally in and amongst other university buildings instead of out the way, though it does espouse a reassuring majesty to students and visitors of all kinds. 

Monday brought my first lecture and seminar, which I maintain need to be interesting in order for me to justify a two-hour commute. I don't live on campus. During my first term I'll be exploring 'Elections and Campaigns', with two 3,000 word essays due for early November and December. I'm glad the work has come in thick and instantly because my boredom over the past couple of months has needed addressing. It will make a welcome change from sitting in my bedroom in my dressing gown reading European treaties. Now at least I'll be ploughing through journal articles covering election data, like this one related to this year's poll. I've a presentation to give classmates on populists and populism in a few weeks too, which is a topic I have become quite interested in of late. 

On top of this is a course in Quantitative Research Methods, which I am told involves a large amount of statistical analysis and using computers, which I am not especially excited about. SPSS is the software we'll be using and I have absolutely no experience of it, so I'll need time to adjust. I'm not a tech savvy guy and I can learn quite slowly. I am, though, determined to strengthen my ability to research and understand research as I want to continue in academic circles by doing a PhD. Masters degrees aren't always necessary in order to qualify for a PhD, but my undergraduate degree is not relevant enough to my current interests for it alone to be sufficient. 

Next term I'll be doing a module on Analysing Public Opinion, in which we'll investigate phenomena like opinion shopping and confirmation bias, as well as why objectivity of perception is thrown out of the window when such polls as 'What do you think of the state of the British economy?' is asked of both Leave and Remain voters. The economy is what it is, but the results understandably diverge. I am interested in human nature as it relates to assessment and the desire to substantiate personal opinion. Third term is up in the air at present as I am a part-time student (for personal and financial reasons). As such, my timetable is stretched out and I will not be completing my dissertation until the summer of 2019.

Aside from working my way towards a PhD, which I must keep in the back of my head for now in order to focus on the present, I wanted to do a Masters because I felt that my political knowledge and wherewithal needed some kind of specialised grounding. I think I have a reasonable grasp of quite a few issues but I recognise the advantage to be found in having some kind of enclave of expertise. I don't think it will have a restricting effect, either. A large number of people have degrees, even MAs or MScs, in topics unrelated to their career. I also think having a Masters at my disposal will give me a competitive edge when job seeking in related fields. 

Last year was largely a period of independent study as I was doing my undergrad dissertation. Returning to the classroom is nice because it feels like I'm getting back to normality, especially after a few recent spots of publicity. It is also nice because it makes me feel slightly younger again, perhaps even school age, which I consider a blessing as time moves so quickly. I'll be 22 in November and I have a persistent fear of getting old. I want to do as much as I possibly can as a young man and not waste time and opportunities. And this degree is a great opportunity for me to showcase my academic skills, feed my intellectual curiosities and carve out a particular political proficiency. I'm ready. 

Saturday, 23 September 2017

A smiling mouse in Florence

After the signing of the Single European Act (which provided many of the foundations of the Single Market) back in February 1986, The Economist described it as a smiling mouse. Well intentioned, they meant, but ultimately diminutive and ineffectual. I think this description is befitting of Theresa May's speech in Florence yesterday. 

The content of what she had to say has already been roundly criticised by Brexiteers of all stripes. Oddly it has presented us with a rare occasion in which both hard and soft Brexiteers are united in grief. This has, I think, been because we are left now with even more questions than we had originally. And patience is being severely tested. 

I refer to May's speech as a smiling mouse because, although it may have sounded positive in tone, it wasn't pragmatic. It did nothing to break the negotiating stalemate which has been sat in place for a couple of months. It barely addressed the issues that need to be hurdled in order for substantial and speedy progress which trade talks require. Remember, as Michel Barnier pointed out in Rome on Thursday, we have but a year left. Six months will be necessary to ratify an amended treaty. 

A two-year transitional phase sounds very much to me like the government may well just have asked the 27 EU member states for an extension to the Article 50 period. It will have virtually the same effect: we will remain inside all European Union initiatives, including the Customs Union, and we will continue to make obligatory budgetary payments. I would add that a transition is not only necessary, because untying ourselves from deep political integration is a tricky business, it may also prove useful in terms of providing the country with economic respite. 

The reason why the Prime Minister has not asked for the Article 50 period to be extended is because she has spent many months telling the country that it will have left by March 2019. Of course, it is becoming clearer that this could well be leaving in name only. In fact, I am now certain that there will not be a 'Brexit Day' as such. Transitional arrangements look certain to be a fixture of the country's short-term future, and so determining an exact point at which the country leaves will prove difficult. 

Brexiteers are understandably frustrated about this. The one area where I have sympathy with Theresa May is that this isn't entirely her fault. The Brexit can being kicked down the street in many ways represents the inexistence of a plan for a hard Brexit. Being angry at the stalling for the sake of it will not bring us anywhere. And this has been a problem with euroscepticism for yonks: anger at the EU and a desire to leave it, but no real idea of how to get there. We have needed a credible plan but, until Flexcit, haven't been able to come up with the goods. 

The characteristic vagueness of May's speech in Florence likely reflects very open divisions which lay within her cabinet. She referred to an implementation period, but it's very unclear as to what this entails. On Thursday evening I appeared on Scotland Tonight and, given the hype which had greeted the speech, I said that I expected clarity in terms of the eventual deal; the Brexit we will eventually arrive at. I now think that will be a question for the Labour Party. May cannot and will not stick around much longer than 2019. 

As for my mouse reference, what strikes me most is how little attention was paid in this speech to the current negotiating obstacles lying in the way of progress. The Northern Irish border question, disgracefully ignored for many months now, will prove particularly bothersome given that we are leaving the EU's Customs Union, I now presume in 2021, and no outer portion of the border of a Customs Union is left entirely unpoliced. 

There is then the matter of citizen's rights, which ought to have been ironed out in the summer, and the RAL issue, which sees us honour prior financial commitments. This is, if anything, a moral question. We should cough up quickly and get those agreed projects and pensions funded if trade talks are to begin at any stage before 2018 (which isn't looking promising). Time is running out. 

These problems are symbolic of government attitude to negotiations ever since Article 50 was invoked. We are trying to cross bridges we see in the distance whilst teetering frighteningly on the one on which we stand. Every position paper published attempts to propose solutions to issues which simply aren't relevant to where we are at. We are jumping the gun and need to redraw our focus towards the three sticking points standing directly in front of us. And if we don't? Well then expect further speeches calling for further periods of transition. 

Saturday, 16 September 2017

My article in the Guardian

...on Labour's use of the Norway option to reclaim the public's faith in their capacity to build a strong economy can be read here

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Brexit: let's unify the moderates...before it's too late

Earlier on I spoke with Huw Edwards about the current state of our Brexit negotiations and the economic menaces posed by a no-deal scenario. Huw has a warm smile, firm handshake and good banter; exactly what you need in an impartial presenter. Somebody to make everybody feel at home, no matter your opinions. I thank him for the enjoyable interview, to which I will link below, and for having me on. 

I am currently enjoying a no doubt brief period in something resembling spotlight. I wrote for the Telegraph this week and I'll be on Channel 4 News next week in Wakefield for an hour-long debate with other Brexiteers. It'll no doubt be interesting and I look forward to exercising my intellectual muscles. I have a lot of useful information to pass on and, as a former hard Brexiteer and Vote Leave staffer who converted to adopting the Norway (soft Brexit) position, I fall into quite a niche category of Leave campaigner. 

I won't waste the opportunities I get. This Article 50 period will not last forever and the economic and political ramifications of a hard Brexit will be profound. If I am able to influence opinion in a positive and pragmatic way then this will make me extremely happy. Which brings me to the point of all this. 

What Britain needs is somebody who can rally the moderates on both sides of a stinging debate. We have been gripped by ultra-partisanship, with the political consensus swinging from the Brexit Taliban to hard Remainers who will not let go of membership of their euro-federalist wet dream. It isn't healthy for a democracy to have the middle ground chastised and sidelined in this way. Without individuals who can unify and propose solutions which will satisfy a broad strand of the public, we go nowhere. Political schisms will turn to violence, and Brexit will be a chaotic nightmare. Not at all what I envisaged it would be. 

My Brexit mission over the next year and a half is to be a middleman; somebody who can provide some sort of guidance to Leavers who are unaware of the benefits of the Single Market and who are being given an undue monopoly on Brexit discourse. I blame solely the media for this. It is a rare occasion in which a so-called 'Liberal Leaver' like myself is given any sort of time on broadcast or column inches. Which is why my recent break could be of some significance. 

Richard North, the best researcher in this game and an absolute engine over at, is not to be mentioned in the Telegraph. So too has his son Pete been removed from any sort of publicity. I mention them because I know a large number of journalists and producers read this blog. It's a shame they have been entirely omitted given how much knowledge they could pump into the Brexit bubble. The only other time I remember a soft Brexiteer being given some kind of rub was Roland Smith, who appeared on Newsnight about two weeks before the referendum to (like me) propose the Norway option. 

The mantle is left with me, and that isn't saying much. I have various limitations: I'm 21, which naturally erects credibility barriers, I have a number of gaps in my knowledge which I will need to spend time plugging and I don't have access to the kinds of funding or audience that I would like to promote my work. I have a lot to learn, both personally and politically, and this will take time. This is why I am anxious about gaining traction and therefore publicity. It can be difficult for me to deal with mentally. 

I am actively trying to be the unifier that I mentioned earlier. I want to draw debate towards a sensible compromise that can address the demands of both Leavers and Remainers during the referendum. Leaving the EU is a national effort, not the plaything of Brexiters. Especially not hard Leavers, who do not make up all of the 52% by any means. Not, of course, perfectly, but what Brexit is a perfect one? Is remaining in the European Union perfect? For some it will be, but for the democratic legitimacy of Westminster and our media it won't be. They'll never be trusted again. And we'll lose certain opt-outs, so it'll be a hard Remain, rather than the current soft one. 

I think I can use certain circumstantial advantages that I may have at my disposal to de-hollow the moderate centre ground. The debate needs wrenching from hard Leavers, who don't, on their own terms, need to see Britain leave the Single Market. We can address freedom of movement in many different ways, we've a few chestnuts at our disposal, and I will go into more detail on this in future posts. Nor is there any real national guide on whether we should leave the Single Market. The margin between voters was 1.9% last year, with many Leavers voting out as per specific issues, like control of fisheries, which EFTA EEA membership allows us to regain, and a large number of soft Brexiteers marginalised completely, made to swallow endless nonsense about leavers uniformly wanting to leave the Single Market. 

There is an appetite and an anger amongst EFTA supporters. We feel let down by journalists who've not shown us a moment's notice, and now they are left to unravel and reflect public opinion in a way that is objective. Well, if you hollow out those of us in the centre, you are of course left in a scenario of ceaseless political headbutting between opposing camps. Somebody needs to stand up and say: 'I'm a Leaver who wants the Single Market, and I believe I have a solution which will heal a fractured electorate'. There aren't many candidates for this position. But if it needs to be me, I will give it my all. 

See my BBC interview in full here, in which I become the first man in history to mention Flexcit on live television. 

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

My article in the Telegraph

...on how the Norway option can satisfy Leave's referendum demands can be read here. To get past Premium, just quickly register for free and you'll immediately be able to read. 

I hope this is the first of many such appearances in the public domain. 

Monday, 11 September 2017

There is no trading in the Single Market without being of it

Jeremy Corbyn has practically no understanding of what the Single Market is or how it functions. This is made so utterly depressing by the fact that he is the country's principle opposition to the Conservative Party, who have become nothing short of dangerous if our negotiating progress counts as a sign of anything. Take, this, for instance. 

Every word you see above is spurious. As is the recurrent notion that it is possible to be a participatory benefactor of the Single Market without being bound by its rules. An agreed trading relationship, presumably either a series of transitional fixes or a Free Trade Agreement, would not replicate the terms provided by the Single Market. The EU would not reach such an agreement as it would undermine the very purpose of the EEA and might well violate WTO rules covering non-discrimination. 

What is important, firstly, is establishing what the Single Market actually is. Here is a very good working definition: 'The Single Market is a collaboration between the EU and three EFTA states (Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein), who are bound together by treaty provisions and regulatory union'. Therefore, by virtue of our definition, we can immediately disprove Jeremy Corbyn's false assertion that what he calls "formal" Single Market membership requires EU membership. 

The phrase 'regulatory union' is vital to understanding why in order to trade within the Single Market, you must first be inside it. To be in means to enjoy full regulatory convergence with other members, where checks are carried out at the point of production for the sake of convenience. To be out means to be a third country, simply by virtue of treaty withdrawal, and necessitates extensive customs and documentary checks at external borders in order to ensure that certain standards have been adhered to in relation to the production, transportation or treatment of a good. 

Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein enjoy full access to the Single Market. They are not associated with it or considered third countries. They retain strong trading ties with the European Union, substantial domestic sovereignty and avoid ever closer political union. Moreover, these countries are in no practical sense EU members in all but name. This is a lazy description of the mechanisms which form the EEA (remember that I use EEA and Single Market interchangeably). Note above that I described the Single Market as a collaboration. 

This is accurate because its skeletal and operating structure is a two-pillar framework with co-determination. Each 'pillar' has its own unique institutions and court for dispute settlement. And both pillars engage in constructive dialogue, as in most trade arrangements, when deciding upon common rules and cross-pillar disputes. The ECJ and EFTA Court have achieved what is called 'homogeneity', whereby mutual bodies incorporate new law. EFTA states contribute to shaping such laws. 

There is, it is true, adoption of some EU law on the part of the three EFTA states, but this may well also be the case with the conclusion of a bilateral agreement, which appears increasingly unlikely. Switzerland, for instance, 'enjoys' many individual agreements with the EU, now well over 100, and is forced to accept the implementation of a large number of EU rules and regulations. This was because, after its people rejected Single Market membership in 1992, it began on a bilateral course and negotiated sector by sector agreements, which necessarily required certain harmonisation with EU rules. I mention this because, in other words, being outside of the EEA does not necessarily mean avoiding EU law.

I have an article in (likely) tomorrow's Guardian about Labour and the Single Market. I hope some of their parliamentary figures read it, because they could do with some guidance. This is further to my article in The Telegraph, also tomorrow, about the Norway option and its understated reconciliation with the referendum demands of Leave voters. With any luck, I can work some way towards informing the public and giving both the Single Market and EFTA/EEA the credit they deserve. 

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Brexit: finding my place

Back in July I made conscious changes to my blog which I believe have been enormously beneficial. I am not just talking about a domain switch or changes to formatting and presentation. I am referring mostly to a deliberate narrowing of the scope of my content, subtle changes to my writing style and a renewed sense of purpose and focus. I've become more combative, especially with regard to emphasising detail and exposing falsehoods. 

This blog has largely developed into a campaigning tool for a specific kind of Brexit. It reflects my ongoing growing and learning process and is a product of research and careful consideration. I realised towards the end of spring that in order to improve I would need to find something resembling a specialism to write about, even if that is difficult to do at 21 years of age. I noticed that I was spraying my opinions (often based on inadequacy) around like a sprinkler, with very little grounding in topics, and thought it best to become a sort of hose instead. Streamlined and targeted with a type of audience in mind. Otherwise, I thought, I would go on as I was, with a much smaller and more bit-part readership, that would dip in and out of what I was saying, and if then only for the sake of leisure rather than with guidance or discovery in mind. 

The difference since then has been extraordinary. And I still remain independent and unfunded. Whereas once, an average post would attract perhaps 75 unique visitors, I now expect between 600 to 800 unique readers per entry, and such instances require only a tweet and a Facebook post. Posts which garner greater interest are read by up to 5,000. But not just that. It isn't how many readers I have that interests me, it is who reads that I prefer to concentrate on. This blog has attracted praise from academics, politicians and trade experts from all over the world. As you'd imagine, I'm extremely pleased with my progress. 

Blogging is not a lost art and it certainly isn't dead. My blog stands out because I have certain circumstantial advantages which have made me surprisingly effective when trying to influence opinion. I am unique in that I am a converted soft Brexiteer who worked close to the heart of Vote Leave. This gives me a certain independence, an interesting perspective of events and, crucially, means I retain a modest link to the Westminster machine which can be useful where and when publicity is necessary. That is, after all, how our media operates. If you smell of it, they'll come swarming.  

A part of me feels a little guilty about this. Various contributions to Flexcit have been profound and worthy of widespread appraisal. Its principle architects are fantastic researchers, the best of whom has for quite some time been Richard North. Such people have received almost no publicity despite their work being the most comprehensive and useful yet produced. This speaks volumes about the priorities of our media, and indeed about the scope of content that the public are being exposed to. The best research has been ignored, whilst politicians have been briefed by substandard material and hard Brexiteers have been granted a monopoly on Leave's discourse. In kind, the mainstream media has placed too much focus on triviality, petty character assassinations and the contributions of those solely in Westminster, and not enough on the wealth of knowledge that exists outside of it. 

I am currently in discussion with producers at Channel 4 News, who have picked up on my position and are interested in including me in debating formats and on their news programme towards the end of the month. I will also, from here on out, be making a concerted effort to pitch to newspapers in an attempt to spread messaging and raise awareness to the EFTA EEA position. I recognise acutely the need to be proactive. There isn't much time left and anything that individuals, particularly those who are pragmatic and well-informed, can do to wrestle negotiations from a hapless government is advised. I can have some impact, even at a young age, and feel a certain responsibility to be as active as I possibly can be. No matter the odds. 

I don't care how many ministers rule out the Norway option. Their recurring obsession with it only indicates how resilient it is to criticism and opposition. It is the only Brexit that will not die or surrender because it is the best way of conducting our withdrawal. Michel Barnier acknowledges this, and believes that the second best option for the UK (behind remaining in the EU) would be to remain a member of the European Economic Area. There is also the question of time. The Article 50 period is quickly closing and increasingly we are pressed to begin substantive trade talks. My gut feeling is that we will reach a point at which a large number of European countries, including those within EFTA, will panic, recognising the urgent need to conclude terms of trade. 

This is perhaps where EFTA EEA will come in. I think there is more chance of the Norway option being selected as we draw closer to the end of the Article 50 period. The big bonus presented by the EFTA EEA position is that it is a ready-made package and provides Britain with the quickest and securest way out of the European Union. Far be it from being EU membership by stealth. The irony is that our current approach to talks may achieve an EU-lite position, with a succession of vague, hopeless transitional arrangements which do not see us leave in any meaningful sense. Once those alarm bells start ringing, in the autumn and winter of 2018, when no doubt insufficient progress has been made, advocates of EFTA EEA will have their moment in the sun. 

And I will be there waiting, doing my bit to help shape the path the country travels down. This isn't over until it's over and there are certain Brexiteers who can't, for the sake of sanity and our economy, be awarded victory. There is a golden opportunity for me to act as a bridge between pragmatic Leavers who appear not to be in receipt of promotion of publicity, such as those at the Leave Alliance and EFTA4UK, and audiences retained by our media. I need to seize it. 

Friday, 8 September 2017

Brexit: we have peacekeeping responsibilities

We are now at a point where it has become close to impossible to generate any excitement over Britain's withdrawal from the EU. This is painful for nobody more than it is active, committed Leavers. It is bad enough that the government's Brexit negotiators have failed to consider our inevitable 'third country' status upon withdrawing from the EU and EEA. Futile is their keenness on trying to cobble together a series of arrangements which emulate the framework of the Single Market without actually being in it. Where Brussels is actually maintaining its commitment to WTO rules (such as those covering equal treatment) and the integrity and purpose of the Single Market, Britain is misreading this as cynical obstinacy. Some, like John Redwood, refuse to accept this. 

A similarly pressing worry, though, is this government's lack of concern for irreconcilable division amongst the wider voting public. This from Chris Grey is insightful:  

"Perhaps the most important reason why it is inane to expect remainers to ‘get behind’ Brexit is the way that the government has quite deliberately chosen a path which treats remainers with contempt. One might have thought that the leaderly thing to do after so divisive a period would have been to seek to bring the two sides together, and to reach out to the losing remain side - a group which includes most business leaders, professionals and what might diffusely be called the intelligentsia and which numbers almost half of those who voted in the referendum."

I think he is correct. His blog approaches Brexit from a different angle to mine and that particular post calls on Remainers to resist an exit from the EU at all costs. The highlighted quote above is not itself an argument for remaining, but it does draw attention to the lack of inclusivity with which the government has approached its exit strategy. Brexit, remember, is not an event. It is a process. By definition it must be a part of something bigger. An EU exit by itself, with no complimentary domestic or international action, is largely pointless and will mean wasted opportunity. 

One critique I have always had of large numbers of Brexiteers is their annoying habit of treating Brexit like some sort of personal plaything. Many forget that EU withdrawal is a national effort with consequences for the nation. They prefer to dismiss scrutiny and reasonable criticism as mere obstruction and frustration of the people's will. I particularly dislike the term 'remoaner', which appears to have taken on a life of its own and serves only to dismiss and belittle individuals who use their democratic right to express diverging viewpoints. Brexit voters, of anybody, ought to recognise the value in democracy. No longer do I have any patience or time for soundbites and namecalling. It was fun during the referendum campaign, now it merely distracts from the seriousness of wandering hopelessly through the Article 50 period. 

The referendum result was not a hammering. It never was going to be. 48% of the public opted to remain in the European Union, and I suspect that figure is still somewhere similar now. Many such people will be frequent travellers, either for business or personal reasons, drivers and shippers involved in cross-border transportation of goods or recipients of funding for EU-related initiatives. There are livelihoods on the line and such importance clearly transcends the need for mockery and narrow mindedness. That referendum divide will likely never disappear, one way or the other. This is why leaving in the right manner is so vital to national interests. 

It is not just the question of Brexit which promotes internal division in the UK. The question of participation within the Single Market also has profound electoral implications. Though EFTA EEA is about so much more than just compromise, it is the best way of healing a fractured, possibly frightened population. It respects the mandate provided by the referendum and takes into account the economic concerns of almost half of the country (and perhaps a large number of Leavers). Most Remainers don't care too much for ever closer union, they were just understandably unnerved by the prospect of stunted trade flow and a possible recession. 

Equally, most Leavers aren't especially interested in the trading terms provided by the Single Market. They care largely about immigration, which can be unilaterally halted under Article 112 of the EEA Agreement, unlike within the EU where such an action requires unanimity. The EEA is imperfect and needs reform, but one major benefit of pursuing it is the calming effect it could have on economic instability, expats and immigrants and the voting public, who are likely to use the Single Market as an indicator of who to vote for at the next election. Stability needs to be the name of the game for the foreseeable future. 

We have a responsibility to listen to people with concerns and promote domestic peace. If Brexit is not pragmatic then it has no future. Any pig's ear made of these negotiations will come back to haunt Leavers, as support for re-entry into the European Union will fester once more. 

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Brexit: genuinely fearful for the first time

So back to Brexit. Not thinking about it for 9 days allowed me to rest a little and think about other things. Season 5 of Prison Break is fantastic and I've started watching Game of Thrones, because I just can't not jump on a good bandwagon. I also ordered my preparatory reading material for my Masters, which begins in a couple of weeks. The range of books I'll be starting with are refreshingly compact. It isn't until the second year that the scope of study widens somewhat. 

I can't say, though, that my break from following the Brexit calamity has rejuvenated my sense of optimism. Only today, as reported by Business Insider, David Davis closed the door on an exit through EFTA/EEA. Davis falsely described the Norway option as being "more difficult, more complicated and less beneficial", and then went on to say that Britain "will no longer participate in the EEA agreement once it leaves the European Union."

Intriguingly, the report goes on to note: "the government is considering whether it needs to take formal steps to 'confirm our withdrawal'. Davis then adds: "we are considering what steps if any we might take to formally confirm our withdrawal from the EEA agreement." I wrote about this particular issue here last month. It's important to stress that Davis' comments here are enlightening. They tend to suggest that if we were to pursue EFTA/EEA, then there is indeed scope for using the EEA as a bridge during negotiations, rather than leaving both it and the EU simultaneously. 

Leaving aside the merits of the Norway option for a moment and whether EFTA/EEA presents Britain with a solid alternative to EU membership, ruling such a move out is an absurd negotiating move to make. It is not as if we have all the cards or the advantage in this stand-off. In turning our backs on a valid and workable Brexit, we restrict the scope of our bargaining power. 

There is then the infuriatingly persistent myth that the European Union is punishing Britain during negotiations and behaving in an entirely unreasonable manner. To assert this is to utterly misunderstand the mechanics of treaty and Single Market withdrawal. The reality is that upon leaving the EEA, the UK becomes a 'third country', which necessarily equates to the re-imposition of currently absent border and customs checks. This will be hugely damaging to trade flow, and varied and extensive customs cooperation arrangements will have to be agreed upon. 

There has been a certain arrogance attached to the British government's attitude towards negotiations. Every position paper thus far published has either been vague or written on the assumption that this 'third country' problem simply will not materialise and life will go on as normal. I can promise readers that it will not. This is why I am, perhaps for the first time, fearful for the future of the country as we edge towards a default no-deal spectacle. And a spectacle it will be. May's reported speech later this month could well signify the start of something I've been dreading: abandonment of negotiations and pursuit of the WTO option, or at least a serious threat to do so. 

Threatening to do so won't, as has been suggested, force the EU into progressing talks. Brussels doesn't need to be forced into anything. By definition of our leaving, they are in the driver's seat. This is precisely why it has always been crucial that the country adopts a settlement which keeps trading ties as tight and harmonised as possible whilst we reduce any scope for political subordination. They will not blink first, we will have to. Brexit from here on out has to be considered a problem that we are charged with the burden of thinking our way through. 

And this is exactly what we aren't doing. The government is still haggling over issues which should have been ironed out in the early summer. This is the price we pay for invoking Article 50 without a clear understanding of the issues and then for holding an unnecessary election which achieved nothing in any way useful. Mark my words, Brexit will be the Tory Party's Iraq war when this is all said and done. They will be left demoralised and will take years to recover, with or without Jacob Rees-Mogg as their leader. 

The financial settlement is partly a moral issue and partly an economic one. It is true that money is not mentioned within the specifics of Article 50 (which, by the way, are pretty vague), but that does not mean the UK does not owe a compensatory payment. It is unclear what we have signed up to in the form of grants, subsidies or initiatives that we would have continued to pay for had we retained membership of the EU. David Davis should concede defeat over the issue and accept a fee if negotiations are to develop. 

Time is indeed running out. We have but a year and a half to reach something. Anything. My gut feeling is that we're headed for the WTO option; the worst of all worlds. What depresses me most is that this government's handling of proceedings has stripped me of any excitement and optimism that I once had. Fear, not of leaving the EU but of doing so in dismal fashion, is something I am now acutely aware of. I was a small part of this. People like me, however informative or honest, will get the blame when this all crashes. I'm extremely worried. 

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

A few thoughts on mental health, publicity and online abuse

Regular readers of this blog will by now know that I have spent the last week away from all forms of social media. There was little point blogging during this period because my work is mostly read through Facebook and Twitter. At the time of writing, I am still inactive on both sites but I am planning to rejoin Facebook after this post has been published. 

It might be worth backtracking here a little bit. Last Monday, I wrote a blog post outlining why Vote Leave did not ever advocate leaving the Single Market. In hindsight, I wish that for all the traction it got I'd introduced a few more points into it. That must be an issue for most writers - thinking of argumentation you forgot to include after publishing something. It's really quite frustrating. I'll probably expand upon it at some stage, so not to worry. 

The piece I wrote explained, with reference to campaign literature, that the campaign had a non-position on whether Britain should leave the Single Market, and was later republished in the New Statesman. I stand by what I wrote and am able to defend my position. After tweeting it out and going to bed, I was quite surprised to find the next morning that it had steamrolled and garnered a huge amount of attention from broadcasters, academics and politicians. 

Faisal Islam and several other mainstream journalists found what I wrote quite illuminating, and after doing some digging concluded that there was quite a lot of merit in what I was saying. The campaign stance on the Single Market, as I will maintain and say until I am blue in the face, was ambiguity. As I wrote before, if you don't believe me, check out our website (the briefing guide and page on 'What Leave looks like' are particularly helpful) and decide for yourself. 

Of course, the reason this blog occasionally attracts mainstream buzz is because, as Pete outlined quite correctly last week, I have a modest connection to the Westminster bubble. North writes:

"The political bubble, as we have previously discussed, functions entirely on prestige. One glaring example of this could be found on Twitter today. Oliver Norgrove, formerly of Vote Leave, had his latest blog republished in The New Statesman. Not wishing to discourage Oliver, but none of the points made are anything especially new, and indeed other bloggers have been making these same points for months. Oliver though, being a former Vote Leave staffer, has that glimmer of prestige.
It doesn't matter that Oliver is quite young and had a non-strategic role in the campaign - and in fact was quite junior. All that matters to the media is that he carries a scintilla of official Westminster bubble institutional gravitas. Nothing outside of the bubble exists. That is true of Brexit and it is true of everything else. Though I am extremely pleased that Oliver is getting this exposure, I am also quite annoyed because it tells us that those of us toiling in obscurity have largely been wasting our time."

As ever, what he writes is more or less spot on. The one thing I would add in reference to whether the Flexcit crew have been wasting their time is that quite often snippets of their work is found reproduced by think tanks or a handful of hacks, who clearly know where to go in order to find the highest quality research into the subject. I still believe that nothing compares to the breadth and power of the research that went into Flexcit, hence why I base my ideas fairly close to the centre of its gravity. 

One interesting thing to note about Flexcit is that in spite of this, as thorough and useful as it has been for thousands, quite a number of people working in the media have no idea what it is. There is no need to mention any names, but last Tuesday I had a few phone calls and email exchanges, as well as various Twitter exchanges with even quite well-known journalists and producers, who were not aware of what Flexcit was, much less read any of it. I always bring it up if I get anything close to media attention because its importance can't be overshadowed. 

I was in talks with Sky and a few programmes at the BBC last week, but decided before anything materialised to advise them not to have me appear on anything as I needed some form of withdrawal. The intensity of the reaction on Tuesday morning and afternoon was something I couldn't have prepared for. Furthermore, what shocked me was that it all seemed to flock towards information that is already public. I didn't reveal any secrets, just the uncomfortable truth that there is no such thing as a mandate to leave the Single Market. This point alone speaks volumes about where the priorities of the mainstream media have been laying since all this began. The fury and degradation which greeted me was astonishing. I have never known vitriol like it. 

Until now, I had totally underestimated the impact that online abuse can have on a person. And by extension the way it can affect an individual's mental health and perception of themselves. Lord knows how people like Owen Jones get by, having to put up with it almost every day. I experienced it for a full day, having stood for the first time in anything resembling spotlight, and needed some time away from social media. Twitter is especially poisonous. I think this is because it is a micro-blogging site, and the people on it tend already to be either very political or very opinionated.

I have friends who have reported to me in the past that withdrawing from social media is a useful way of recuperating. Mostly, they said, Facebook was the problem, but for me it was Twitter. Anybody who follows me on both knows that my approach to each platform is entirely different. On Twitter I am political and professional, on Facebook I am funny and spend most of my time mocking friends. This is deliberate: it reflects how I view each site and the uses they have for me. Differences aside, though, the point I have to make here is that deactivating and pulling away from it all has proved incredibly helpful. 

Attempting to explain why is difficult, but I will do my best at the risk of sounding a little bit mental. Closing an account down and deleting an app may seem like just an ordinary, mundane action, but it has a strange healing effect. When I look down at my phone and see the Facebook and Twitter logos, I see not just a graphic but a piece of me (and my identity) sitting inside of them. Withdrawing from these sites feels in some way like I am collecting damaged parts of myself and can focus on complete recovery. I noticed during my absence significant improvement in my relationship with my family, with whom I live, and especially with my younger brother. Perhaps this was because, despite our occasional, normal hostilities, they are familiar faces that I am comfortable around and I felt more able to connect with them without distraction or looking over my shoulder, so to speak, at the messages of strangers. 

Last Tuesday, I had what I would describe as a breakdown. My mental health in recent years has actually been fairly good. I can't complain too much. I had a torrid time with depression during my A-Levels but university life was much more enjoyable and, importantly, I found things (politics) I was passionate about. I have the brain that I have and I wouldn't change it, for its many limitations. But anxiety is now an issue for me. Receiving hundreds of messages from people, which were mostly abusive and condescending, revolving either around my age/junior role at Vote Leave or around my alleged betrayal of Brexit (which I have never been more in favour of) was extremely unpleasant. I am painting quite a moderate picture of the kinds of things I received because I don't want to overthink and have them return to my mind. Last week I was largely bed-ridden and nervous, going out late in the evening if I had to in order to avoid people. 

It's odd because I am typically quite a confident and funny person. Though it isn't just about the amount of abuse I can take, I thought my skin was thicker and that this sort of thing would influence me less profoundly. The issue is that online abuse is so often framed in terms of a person's threshold for offence-taking. This is only a partial story. The question of whether I am personally insulted by abuse online is often separate from the cause of anxiety, which is very often triggered by notifications or the speed of interaction alone. I dread returning to Twitter and seeing the 20+ sign atop my mentions. The thought of it is making my stomach churn. In that respect coming back to Facebook is easier in that the deactivation process means I won't be swamped by notifications upon returning. 

Compounding upon this has been the misfortune of losing friends, once again over political differences. I do wonder how many neurons must malfunction in a brain in order to produce a person who refers to another's view of Single Market participation as an important indicator of whether two people should be friendly with one another. Even individuals whom I know in person have turned their backs coldly in disgust at what I have become. This happened during the referendum, I'm no stranger to it. But it certainly doesn't get any less pathetic. 

In some ways it has been a useful experience because I now realise a couple of things. Self-discovery can be strange but ultimately it is my most useful guide. I know that I don't want to have a public profile for the sake of it. If I don't have sound mental health, there needn't be any point in having one. And I appreciate more fully the ways in which social media can have negative consequences on my mental health. Ironically, about a month ago I finished a fascinating book by the neurologist Susan Greenfield on how our brains are being changed by the cyber world. It's called 'Mind Change' and I do recommend it to anybody interested in the topic I am writing about. 

As for publicity, I think there is a certain, underappreciated disdain for young people who inch towards the public sphere. I think it sits largely with older people who believe that they are being overtaken by youth, who by definition lack experience and expertise. Well, so what? If there is one thing our media needs, it's a shake-up and new voices. If that means more young people then so be it. Moving in and around political circles, I now have friends my age with what I would describe as public profiles. I am happy for them. I don't have a public profile as such, but I do retain a very large readership and social media following, and this blog has been praised by numerous academics, trade analysts and researchers. 

Having a distinct surname often makes my work memorable and easier to find, which has its advantages. I don't write for newspapers because I don't pitch to them. I also do not write for publicity, contrary to the accusations of folks last week, having written what I wrote at my independent, unfunded blog. If I wanted to make a name for myself and attack the campaign I contributed to, I would dart straight for the Mail or somewhere similar. The truth is that I don't need to attack anybody and haven't written a derogatory word about any ex-colleague, despite the reasoned political transformation that I have undergone. 

I write because it is my gift and I'm fucking good at it. I use the word 'gift' in all modesty because I did absolutely nothing to get it. At school I didn't practice writing, I could just grasp it better than the other kids and it set me apart. On the last day of year 6, and I will remember this to my grave, my class teacher Anne Gardner tapped me on the shoulder and whispered 'keep writing' into my ear, which gave me some belief going into secondary school that I could be academically productive. I hope I can get in touch with her again one day, perhaps after publishing a book or achieving my doctorate. I believe that everybody is born with a certain gift, and that the key to achieving success is to find that gift and exploit it as best as you possibly can. She helped me to spot mine. 

I blog here for a number of reasons, and one of them is to make other people think. I am good at making people think because I have an air of independence. I know I influence opinion because people write to me or speak to me in person and tell me so. I am not bound by party politics or employment-related restrictions, have useful experience of the most profound democratic feat in recent political history and I put an enormous amount of effort into both the craftsmanship of my writing and the research which compliments it. Finding a tea lady or an intern, as I was hilarious referred to last week, who writes as well and as informatively as I do will be no small task. 

Which acts as a useful reminder, two weeks from the start of my Masters, that I have important things to focus on, worth in intellectual debate and a chance to demonstrate some personal resolve as I work my way towards ever closer union with political life and events. I told you I'm funny.