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Brexit Britain – Welcome to the Kingdom of the Blind

September 15, 2016

Gassed, by John Singer Sergeant, 1919.

Political policy-making, except in countries with overwhelming power and ruthless leaders, is largely a matter of informed guesswork. Can we be certain that a policy or a decision will produce the desired effects? Of course not, because we can’t anticipate all the factors and events that might derail the outcome.

We can only work on the basis of probability and risk. Our political masters make their decisions by taking account of the known unknowns. Or at least we’d like to think so. And as far as the unknown unknowns are concerned, well, as Donald Rumsfeld said, stuff happens. Nobody got fired for failing to anticipate Krakatoa.

In Britain we are now three months into the post-Brexit era. Except that we aren’t, because we haven’t left yet. And nobody seems to have a clue what the Brexit deal will look like. Every piece of good economic news is hailed as proof that the Remain camp were spreading fear for no reason. It seems that confidence is holding up, but that critical long-term decisions that will depend on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations are not being made. In other words, business as usual, but with a large dollop of hedging.

The government, meanwhile, is getting on with business that it can control, such as its new proposal for grammar schools, thereby distracting us from thinking too much about the stuff it can’t.

But I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that we are currently dealing with more unknowns – partly thanks to the Brexit decision – than at any time since World War 2. Here are a few of them.

The European Union will not preserve itself in amber during two years of negotiation specified after we invoke Clause 50 of the European Union Treaty. It’s quite conceivable that both France and Germany will have new political leaders in place before the negotiations conclude. If so, will they seek to tinker with what is in the process of being agreed? Movements in other member countries to change the nature of the union might also gain in strength. Juncker might be junked. In short, the EU that we leave in 2019 might be radically different from the one we voted to leave three months ago. It might even be an entity that we feel able to be a part of.

Then there’s the financial system. The frailties of the Eurozone have not gone away. It would not take a crisis of the magnitude of the 2008 event to upset the financial applecart. Italian banks appear vulnerable, and it’s quite conceivable that the lid will again blow off the Greek economy. It’s not impossible that Greece might leave the EU before Britain. And what political and financial dominos might fall thereafter?

The conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Libya show no sign of abating. The knock-on effect of further migration might blow the EU’s treasured freedom of movement principle into smithereens. Turkey is more unstable than it has been for decades. China might face economic meltdown. Putin might try a new adventure in Eastern Europe. Donald Trump might, if elected, fatally destabilise NATO. South Korea might attempt a pre-emptive strike on North Korea before Kim Jong Un develops the means to deliver his nukes. Saudi Arabia and Iran might move from proxy war to direct conflict. And we haven’t even factored in Israel and Palestine.

With all these factors in the mix, Theresa May, if she ever read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, must be yearning for Hari Seldon’s psychohistory, the magic algorithm that produced a Plan to limit the damage to humanity as the galactic empire crumbled.

Meanwhile, back in our soon-to-be independent homeland, we face uncertainties of our own making.

The Government is having to cannibalise the civil service to create two new ministries – one to deal with trade, and the other the Brexit negotiations. One wonders where these new people are coming from. After all, we apparently have no civil servants capable of negotiating trade deals.

The two ministers appointed to run the new departments are ideologues, not pragmatists. The next few months will see fissures in government as the “Hard Brexiteers” battle it out with the Remainers, who want to compromise with the EU in order to preserve Britain’s status in the single market.

Liam Fox, the trade minister, blunders around the country sounding off about fat and lazy business leaders who prefer to play golf on Fridays instead of working to boost exports. Very supportive. No doubt his department will come up with measures intended to bolster the UK’s export capabilities. But the question we should be asking is why they weren’t taken a long time ago. Brexit makes it harder for new businesses in areas that the government wishes to encourage to grow, since they will face import tariffs virtually everywhere.

He will also be looking to incubate new business sectors in economically deprived areas. It’s unfair to say that his predecessors have ignored this issue – the Northern Powerhouse and the National Graphene Institute in Manchester are example of previous initiatives. But they are long on aspiration and short on results.

And what of the skills we need to create blockbuster industries that will out-perform those in the five national economies larger than ours? We are cutting back on visas issued to foreigners who wish to study in our country, thus starving the universities of funds and depriving ourselves of the skills we have helped to develop. If we are unable to import or develop the skills we need to grow these businesses, they will grow more slowly. Restrictions on those wishing to study in the UK will mean that talent goes elsewhere.

We still do not know what Brexit means. Our representatives in parliament will have no say in the timing of our exit, and, as far as we know, no opportunity to vote on any deal that the government comes up with. Another referendum might not be the answer, but scrutiny and approval by parliament of the terms is a must. Since the European Parliament will need to approve the deal, why shouldn’t our parliament have the same opportunity?

The voters must be given an unbiased view of the implications of each aspect of Brexit. This view should not be delivered by the politicians, who have proved themselves incapable of presenting credible, objective arguments. Perhaps it should be formulated either by the civil service or by an independent commission of experts who are capable of evaluating arguments free from political and emotional interference.

Therein lies an even bigger concern. Throughout Whitehall, government departments are planning, debating, fighting turf wars and hopefully coming up with solutions – but in secret. We voters are not privy to the deliberations. By and large, we are presented with decisions and arguments to support them. Occasionally we might be thrown a consultational sop in the form of a white or green paper, or a public inquiry. Those of us who follow the business of parliament can study the proceedings of parliamentary committees, but these often degenerate into bouts of political mud-throwing and inquisitions of public figures.

Unfortunately, only a tiny minority of voters pay attention to policy debates, and even if they do, they are rarely presented with arguments unencumbered by interest groups, political spin and media owners with axes to grind.

All too often we are presented with solutions without serious discussion of the alternatives or reasons why the preferred option is superior to the others. These discussions are taking place within government departments, but we, the electorate, are not privy to them. Or, if we are, the documents of public record are so complex that they are indigestible to those of us who don’t have the time, the inclination or the knowledge to figure them what they mean. We end up forming opinions based on mediated content we get from TV, the web and newspapers.

Opinion-shapers frequently brush over perfectly viable alternatives. Party policy and Rupert Murdoch’s prejudices don’t necessarily allow a full exploration of the issues.

The EU referendum, so full of lies, distortions and false certainty on both sides, is a classic example of what now constitutes political debate.

There are two reasons for this. Genuinely independent thinking is hard to come by. And emotion has become the dominant currency of debate.

Take the Hinkley Point nuclear power project. When was the last time a government commissioned a national review of energy policy, and presented it to the public in terms easy to understand? Have we fully explored the cost of the project, the security implications, the alternative measures we could consider in order to make up our imminent energy shortfall? Is there a publicly available review that takes into account emotional (meaning political) impact – fear of nukes, fear of China’s involvement, destruction of our environmental back yards by renewable energy technologies – as well as the economic and geopolitical risks of each approach?

The same question might equally apply to policies on education, defence, social inclusion, infrastructure and a host of other areas. We boast about our impartial judiciary. Is it impossible to find impartial expertise? Not people wheeled in to support your argument, to be deployed against experts engaged by “the other side”.

More often than not, we rely on our elected representatives to carry out due diligence on our behalf. But delegating power to Parliament is one thing. Expecting our representatives to display independence of thought in the face of the coercive power of party whips is quite another. Barring the occasional referendum, our view only really counts once every five years. Yet the British electorate is probably better educated now than at any time in our history. Isn’t it time that we were treated as more than just gullible bystanders?

As for emotion, we are not quite at the point where politicians are elected purely on grounds of how we the voters feel about things, as seems to be happening in the US at the moment, but we’re getting there. The Brexit campaign proved that.

Emotions have their place in politics. Of course they do. They should be used to inspire, unite, galvanise and celebrate, not to elicit fear, contempt, envy and hatred. Dark emotions are the tools of demagogues like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage. Those who use them to create rather than destroy – and for all their flaws, politicians like Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama come to mind – are somewhat thin on the ground these days.

It would be wrong to blame politicians for all our ills. They are after all fallible creatures of the systems in which they operate. Other contributing factors include our increasingly short attention spans, shortfalls in critical thinking skills, failures in communications across cultures and geographical space, and the deep reservoir of fear and uncertainty in most parts of the world that sits ready to be tapped by unscrupulous persuaders.

But I do believe that while we are going through the Brexit process, British politicians have the opportunity to reverse the tide somewhat. They can do this by admitting the risks of the solutions they propose, by explaining the probabilities and by stating the alternatives. They should let us in on some of the debates going on behind closed doors. They should be less squeamish about admitting to awful truths, such as things they can change and those that they can’t. They should stop treating us like children who crave the security of knowing that our parents know best and have everything under control. And they should stop manipulating us with fantasy, factoids and outright falsehood.

Above all, in two years’ time or however long it takes, whether it be through another referendum or some other form of national consultation, they should ask our opinion about the deal they’ve negotiated – warts and all.

Perhaps then we will cease to be the kingdom of the blind, in which the one-eyed man is king.

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