The time lords

The European parliament has voted to stop the practice of switching clocks forward and backward every year, from 2021. I’ve long thought this practice rather odd. Imagine that a government were to pass a law stating that from April 1 every person must wake up one hour earlier than they habitually do, and go to sleep one hour earlier. All shops and businesses are required to open an hour earlier, and to close an hour earlier. The same for schools, universities, and the timing of private lessons and appointments must also be shifted. Obviously ridiculous, even tyrannical. The government has nothing to say about when I go to bed or wake up, when my business is open. But because they enforce it through adjusting the clocks, which seem like an appropriate subject of regulation and standardisation, it is almost universally accepted.

But instead of praising this blow struck for individual freedom and against statist overreach, we have Tories making comments like this:

John Flack, the Conservative MEP for the East of England, said: “We’ve long been aware the EU wants too much control over our lives – now they want to control time itself. You would think they had other things to worry about without wanting to become time lords,” he said, in an apparent reference to the BBC sci-fi drama Doctor Who.

“We agreed when they said the clocks should change across the whole EU on an agreed day. That made sense – but this is a step too far,” Flack added. “I know that farmers in particular, all across the east of England, value the flexibility that the clock changes bring to get the best from available daylight.

So, the small-government Tory thinks it’s a perfectly legitimate exercise of European centralised power to compel shopkeepers in Sicily and schoolchildren in Madrid to adjust their body clocks* in order to spare English farmers the annoyance of having to consciously adjust the clocktime when they get out of bed to tend to their harvest. But to rescind this compulsion, that is insufferably arrogant.

*Nor is this a harmless annoyance. Researchers have found a measurable increase in heart attacks — presumed attributable to reduced sleep — in the days following the spring clock shift. A much smaller decrease may accompany the autumn shift back.

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.

    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!

    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…

    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.

    A wall with two sides

    Right after the EU referendum I commented

    Those now entering retirement have locked in promises of high pensions to themselves that no one before or after them will be able to receive…

    I can’t help but wonder whether, on some level, the over-60s see the situation they’ve manoeuvred the younger generations into — crumbling infrastructure, insufficient and overpriced housing, excessive pensions that will come at the expense of social spending for decades, and the only solution they can see — since a pension isn’t worth much if there aren’t enough working people to actually provide the services you depend on — is to block off their children’s potential escape routes.

    Maybe it’s not about keeping THEM out. It’s about keeping the younger generation IN.

    This is, of course, intentionally provocative, and while I believe there’s some truth to it I’m not sure exactly how profoundly I really believe it. But I was reminded of this perspective while reading James C. Scott’s eye-opening “deep history of the earliest states” Against the Grain:

    Owen Lattimore… has made the case most forcefully that the purpose of the Great Wall(s) was as much to keep the Chinese taxpayers inside as to block barbarian incursions.

    In the latter part of the twentieth century people in the wealthy world got used to the notion that everyone is free to travel, but there is a natural right of nations to decide who to let in — a right granted primarily to wealthy individuals and citizens of wealthy nations. This belief was communicated to me so strongly that when I first encountered the historical fact that passports were originally documents confirming the permission to leave granted by a state to its subject — rather like the travel passes issued to slaves by their owners — I found this intensely shocking, and put it on my growing the-past-is-a-foreign-country list, right next to the Roman practice of “exposing” surplus newborns, leaving them to die or be picked up by other families in need of a slave. Indeed, I just came across this comment in Jill Lepore’s magisterial new one-volume history of the US, on the first US federal laws regulating passports:

    In 1856, Congress passed a law declaring that only the secretary of state “may grant and issue passports,” and that only citizens could obtain them. In August of 1861, Lincoln’s secretcary of state, William Seward, issued this order: “Until further notice, no person will be allowed to go abroad from a port of the United States without a passport either from this Department or countersigned by the Secretary of State.” From then until the end of the war, this restriction was enforced; its aim was to prevent men from leaving the country in order to avoid military service.

    The fact that the soi-disant German Democratic Republic had built a wall, with armed guards to prevent its own citizens from fleeing was widely seen to fatally undermine that state’s legitimacy. Indeed, the GDR’s rulers themselves seemed to concede this point, as they denied the obvious truth of the wall’s function, designating it in official proclamations the antifaschistischer Schutzwall [antifascist defensive rampart]. (Just by the way, I’ve long been fascinated by the way this word “Wall”, a partly-false-cognate to the English expression for what Germans generally called by the more standard German word Mauer, came to be used as a competing term in GDR propaganda.)

    Possibly one effect of rising economic inequality is that freedom of movement will be one of the special privileges that states had been routinely providing to their citizens that will increasingly be reserved to a privileged elite. And like the GDR, states like the UK will assure their citizens that they are not being kept in, but rather, that they are being protected from the barbarian hordes outside.

    (Title of this post with apologies to André Cayatte.)

    Social choice Brexit, 2: The survey

    Last week I suggested that it could very well be that a second Brexit referendum would stumble into Arrow’s paradox, with Remain preferred to soft Brexit, soft Brexit preferred to no deal, and No Deal preferred to Remain. I wasn’t expecting rapid confirmation, but here it is, from a poll of about 1000 British adults:

    Pareto’s revenge

    Several months ago I suggested that no one could ultimately support soft Brexit, because the soft Brexit strategy — something like EFTA, formally outside of the EU, but still in a customs union and/or the single market, still recognising most rights of EU citizens in the UK — is, to use a bit of economics game-theory jargon, Pareto dominated by staying in the EU. Even if the damage wrought by a no-deal Brexit would be vastly better worse by a negotiated surrender, if you look at it category by category — rights of UK citizens, disruption to markets, business flight, reputation, civil peace, diplomatic influence, sovereignty over market regulations — staying in the EU would be even better. There’s nothing you can point to and say, this is what we got for our trouble (which is why Theresa May was at such pains to bash immigrants when announcing her deal). We’ll always have Parisians.

    Apparently, some other leading Brexiters are noticing their Pareto trap. Earlier in the week Dominic Raab resigned in protest that the deal (that he was responsible for negotiating himself!) was worse than staying in the EU. Today it’s Shanker Singham, leading trade adviser to the Leave campaign, who says “From a trade policy perspective this is a worse situation than being in the EU.” (Much of the Guardian article explains how this leading intellectual light of the Leave campaign has a mostly fake CV.)

    The effect will be zero. The Brexit dead-enders only need to keep Parliament in turmoil and run out the clock, until their glorious Thelma & Louise consummation. I’m sure Jacob Rees-Mogg has shorted the pound, and the FTSE, so he’ll be fine. Would that count as insider trading?