The promise-keepers

Liam Fox, the British international trade secretary, best known for confounding the Brexit critics with his stunning success in concluding trade continuity agreement with Andorra and the Faroe Islands, has stated in a radio interview that the government may just ignore the “indicative votes” that Parliament is expected to carry out, to express the will of Parliament on the way forward in Brexit. This is hardly surprising. The government, and Theresa May in particular, have been clear and consistent in their belief that a democratic government ought not to assign much weight, or allow themselves to be too much influenced by, votes that are formally non-binding. But I was struck by something else in Fox’s statement:

I was elected, as 80% of members were, to respect the referendum and leave the European Union. I was also elected on a manifesto that specifically said no single market and no customs union. That, for Conservative MPs who are honouring the manifesto, limits their room for manoeuvre.

This sounds pretty persuasive. We want politicians to honour their promises, particularly those that have been formally laid out in a party election manifesto. But it occurred to me — and I may be unusual in this — I never actually read the 2017 Conservative election manifesto. It’s available here, so I had a look.

The first thing I notice is that the single market and the customs union are each mentioned only once, and not exactly in the form of a resounding promise, but in a kind of passive construction:

As we leave the European Union, we will no longer be members of the single market or customs union but we will seek a deep and special partnership including a comprehensive free trade and customs agreement.

Is this a promise or a (mistaken) suggestion of inevitability? Why is it formulated in this weird continuing tense “as we leave the European Union” rather than “after we leave”? Why is that comma in such a weird, ungrammatical place?

On the other hand, the first thing the manifesto has to say about Brexit does sound like a promise:

We need to deliver a smooth and orderly departure from the European Union and forge a deep and special partnership with our friends and allies across Europe.

And then there is this:

We will restore the contract between the generations, providing older people with security against ill health while ensuring we maintain the promise of opportunity and prosperity for younger generations. That contract includes our National Health Service, which is founded on the principle that those who have should help those who do not.

And this:

Under the strong and stable leadership of Theresa May, there will be no ideological crusades. The government’s agenda will not be allowed to drift to the right. Our starting point is that we should take decisions on the basis of what works.

Many promises, and they can’t all be fulfilled. So the decision about which ones to abandon — no smooth and orderly departure or saving the NHS or ideological moderation, yes leaving the single market and customs union — is a free political choice. The government could say, well, whatever we think of the single market, we did promise a smooth and orderly departure from the EU, and the only way we can obtain that is to negotiate on the basis of staying in the single market. The deference to “promises”, the assertion of “limited room for manoeuvre” is a way of pressuring other politicians, and indeed the electorate. They don’t want a second referendum because they suspect that their policies don’t command majority support. So they refer to a promise made to a previous electorate.

The argument against a second EU referendum would apply equally as an argument against holding parliamentary elections in 2022. “We made a promise…”

Operation Yellowhammer

I’m sure I’m not the only person in Britain somewhat nonplussed to discover that the British government’s secret contingency plans for no-deal Brexit — now swinging into operation — is called Operation Yellowhammer.

Let’s start with the decision to call it an “Operation”, as though they were preparing to storm the Normandy beaches. This is of a piece with the choice to call the feckless band meeting at 10 Downing Street to plan this shit show the “war cabinet”.

The name of such an operation is an unconstrained choice, pure public relations, so I can think of only a few possible explanations:

  1. Whereas you or I might think the overriding concern at this moment would be to communicate reassurance, to calm a jittery public, the war cabinet thought it would be much more valuable to arouse a sense of panic and rage. The name is maximally emotional and violent: “yellow” is warning, danger, “hammer” is a crude weapon. (It’s not even like “yellowhammer” is a real word.*)
  2. Like explanation 1, but the war cabinet wasn’t thinking about the public at all. Instead, Boris Johnson worked everyone up into a fit of Churchillian indignation against the Eurofascists and their normed bananas (nudge, wink), and Operation Yellowhammer seemed like just the thing to arouse corresponding fury in the civil servants who would have to create the plan. That the plan might actually be executed, and the public would learn about the name, was too far in the future to bother with.
  1. They tried to be reassuring. The British are now just really bad at public relations, which seemed like the last thing they still knew how to do well, after they gave up on diplomacy and sensible government.
  • Rejected names:
      • Operation Channel Hurricane
      • Operation Second Armada
      • Operation Frogs and Sprouts
      • Project Europa Delenda Est
      • Project Fear (good proposal, but already used).

    * Update: I have been informed that the yellowhammer is actually a widespread little yellow bird that does not travel between Britain and the European continent.

    The real antisemites

    Donald Trump is concerned about a political movement that he believes harbors antisemitic views:

    The Democrats have very much proven to be anti-Israel. There’s no question about that. And it’s a disgrace. I mean, I don’t know what’s happened to them. But they are totally anti-Israel. Frankly, I think they’re anti-Jewish.

    But wait, you might be saying, aren’t the Democrats the favoured party of the vast majority of American Jews?

    Precisely.

    Everyone knows that antisemitism is a great evil troubling the world. And who are the pernicious globalists responsible for all the evil in the world?*

    QED. So obvious it took an outside-the-box thinker like Trump to recognise it.

    * Hint: Their name rhymes with the Enemy of the People.

    A law was made a distant moon ago here…

    As we know, from the esteemed chronicles Lerner and Loewe, in Camelot

    The winter is forbidden till December

    and exits March the second on the dot.

    By order summer lingers through September

    In Camelot.


    Not to be outdone, the British House of Commons has ordered that the departure from the EU, that will happen in just over two weeks, shall not happen without a deal. Right after voting resoundingly to reject the only possible deal.

    The magic continues!

    Guilt of admission

    When I first arrived at Oxford I expressed admiration for the rigorously academic nature of the student admissions procedure. I have since soured somewhat on the whole segregate-the-elite approach, as well as on the implicit fiction that we are selecting students to be future academics, but I still appreciate the clarity of the criteria, which help to avoid the worst corruption of the American model. I have long been astonished at how little resentment there seemed to be in the US at the blatant bias in favour of economic and social elites, with criticism largely focused on discrimination for or against certain racial categories. Despite the enormous interest in the advantages, or perceived advantages, of elite university degrees, very little attention has been focused on the intentionally byzantine admissions procedures, on the bias in favour of children of the wealthy and famous (particularly donors or — wink-wink — future donors), the privileging of students with well-curated CVs and expensive and time-consuming extracurricular activities, the literal grandfather clauses in admissions.

    Now some of the wealthy have taken it too far, by defrauding the universities themselves, paying consultants to fake exam results and athletic records. The most unintentionally humorous element of the whole scandal is this comment by Andrew Lelling, U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts:

    We’re not talking about donating a building so that a school is more likely to take your son or daughter. We’re talking about deception and fraud.

    Fraud is defined here as going beyond the ordinary bounds of abusing wealth and privilege. You pay your bribes directly to the university, not to shady middlemen. The applicant needs to actually play a sport only available in elite prep schools, not produce fake testimonials and photoshop their head onto an athlete’s body.

    Of course, this is all fraud, because no one is paying millions of dollars because they think their child will receive a better education. The whole point is to lay a cuckoo’s egg in the elite-university nest, where they will be mistaken for the genuinely talented. For a careful (tongue-in-cheek) analysis of the costs and benefits of this approach, see my recent article on optimised faking.

    The next thing

    Theresa May has given a statement that very well summarised the Conservative approach to governing in general, and to Brexit in particular. Asked about what she plans to do in the (overwhelmingly likely) event that the Parliament rejects her deal again, in the vote that she has now scheduled for barely two weeks before the UK is scheduled to leave the EU her response was to dismiss the premise. Plans are for losers. Winners plan only for success. Or, in her inimitable words,

    Why is it that people are always trying to look for the next thing after the next thing after the next thing? It is pointless, we should focus on what we are doing now…

    Home Secretary: “Go back where you came from”

    I have written at some length about the different classes of British citizenship, and how even if you are born a UK citizen, if you come from the wrong ethnic or national background you will always be a citizen on sufferance. Nowhere is that more clear than in the announcement by Home Secretary Sajid Javid that Shamima Begum, the British girl who left the UK at age 15 to join ISIS, was having her citizenship revoked, despite the fact that she a) was a child victim of international sexual predators and b) was born in the UK and has no other citizenship. Since the UK is barred by international treaties from rendering a person stateless, Javid had to argue that she wasn’t really stateless, since she could claim Bangladeshi citizenship through her mother. Even if she was born here and it was the failure of British authorities that allowed her to be groomed and trafficked, she has proved herself unworthy of the first-class citizenship that she was born with, and those colonials will just have to give her one of those cheap non-British citizenships.

    Putting aside the autocratic air of a government official deciding, on the basis of a vague supposition that their citizenship is “not conducive to the public good”. At the very least, as long as the revocations were confined to people who had been nationalised as adults, and who retained dual nationality, there was some limiting principle other than ethno-nationalism. Now, anyone who simply could be eligible for another citizenship can be thrown out of their own country, at the stroke of the Home Secretary’s pen. Among those potentially affected, in addition to those potential traitors whose parents came from abroad, is of course any British person born in Northern Ireland — eligible for Irish citizenship — and any Jew, since they are eligible for Israeli citizenship.

    A Home Secretary who decided that the presence of Jews in the UK was no longer “conducive to the public good” could, by Javid’s precedent, simply sign the appropriate order to “send them back where they came from”. No new laws are required.

    The Brexit formula

    A collaborative project with Dr Julia Brettschneider (University of Warwick) has yelded a mathematical formulation of the current range of Brexit proposals coming from the UK, that we hope will help to facilitate a solution:

    Numeric calculations seem to confirm the conjecture that the value of the solution tends to zero as t→29/3.

    The executive-time branch

    We have all learned many things about the world that we might have preferred not to know, since the election of Donald Trump. One of the more bizarre little facts is that there is a rubric “executive time”, used by Trump’s minions to fill in the gaps in his schedule, when he is watching television or shooting the shit with random people. I assume that this is a term he picked up from his wealthy friends, even if few others are likely to be as assiduous as Trump in maintaining executive functions: it was recently revealed that 60% of the president’s schedule is devoted to “executive time”.

    Is there any better expression than “executive time” of the way plutocrats assure each other — and pay their underlings to assure them — that they deserve to be wealthy, that they earn it by being both smarter and harder working than the lazy stiffs sitting around just cleaning toilets all day, who stay poor because they “are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies” (as US Republican Senator Charles Grassley recently put it, in explaining why he thought there should be no estate tax at all). The poors deserve their fate because they waste their time watching TV; the CEO earns his million dollars a week with executive time, assimilating complex multimedia information. The same way bankers insist that their stratospheric salaries are recompense for risk, and then get bailed out from the public purse when their risky schemes collapse.

    The Labour MP Jess Philips summarised the hegemonic self-deception that goes into the government definition of “skilled workers” — those who would be entitled to immigrate to the UK after Brexit — as those earning over £30,000 (thus excluding most nurses and teachers, for instance) in her wonderful recent speech in the Commons, saying

    I have met lots of people who earn way more than £30,000 and have literally no discernible skills, not even one. I have definitely met some very rich people who earn huge amounts of money who I wouldn’t let hold my pint if I had to go and vote while in the bar.

    This is the sort of self-deceptive confusion between real skills and “high-level” or “managerial” skills that I have elsewhere called “how to do it“.