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?

    Fantasy queues

    Reviving the spirit of the Blitz! Food queues in wartime London.

    On moving to the UK almost a dozen years ago I quickly noticed that the one thing that unites the political establishment, left and right, is that they don’t like foreigners. Or rather, maybe better phrased, they may personally like and even admire some foreigners, but they recognise that such exotic tastes are not for everyone, and that disliking foreigners is a valuable national pastime, deserving of their official support.

    And so, after claiming through the Brexit campaign that it was all about national sovereignty and repatriating billions of pounds for the NHS, and having spent the better part of two years diplomatically digging a grave for the national future, the Tories strike on bedrock: We have betrayed national sovereignty and destroyed the national economy, but it’s all worth it because we still get to kick out the foreigners. Or, in the prime minister’s words:

    “Getting back full control of our borders is an issue of great importance to the British people,” she will say, adding that EU citizens will no longer be able to “jump the queue ahead of engineers from Sydney or software developers from Delhi”.

    I’m willing to go out on a limb here and suggest that the subset of British — or, given their current fragile mental state, I should perhaps call them Brittle — voters who voted Leave with the thought uppermost in their minds of improving the prospects for Indians to migrate to the UK was… less than a majority. But even more striking, EU citizens who moved to the UK over the past 40 years, following the same agreements that allowed Brittle people to seek work and better lives anywhere on the Continent, are retrospectively branded as “queue jumpers”, the most rebarbative class in the English moral order. Theresa May is summoning her countrymen and -women to defend a fantasy queue.

    In the 1990s the German media teemed with entreaties to tear down the Mauer im Kopf, the “mental wall” (a phrase of the author Peter Schneider that actually long preceded the fall of the physical wall in Berlin), as a necessary prelude to a stable national identity, and a democratic and prosperous future. Maybe the Brittles need to dissolve their fantasy queues, to break up the Schlange im Kopf, before they can start building a new nation on the rubble they are making of their past.

    Social choice Brexit

    The discussion over a possible second Brexit referendum has foundered on the shoals of complexity: If the public were only offered May’s deal or no deal, that wouldn’t be any kind of meaningful choice (and it’s absurd to imagine that a Parliament that wouldn’t approve May’s deal on its own would be willing to vote for the fate of Brexit to be decided by the public on those terms. So you’re left with needing an unconventional referendum with at least three options: No deal, May’s deal, No Brexit (plus possible additional alternatives, like, request more time to negotiate the Better Deal™).

    A three-choice (or more) referendum strikes many people as crazy. There are reasonable concerns. Some members of the public will inevitably find it confusing, however it is formulated and adjudicated. And the impossibility of aggregating opinions consistent with basic principles of fairness, not even to say in a canonical way, is a foundational theorem of social-choice theory (due to Kenneth Arrow).

    Suppose we followed the popular transferable vote procedure: People rank the options, and we look only at the first choices. Whichever option gets the smallest number of first-choice votes is dropped, and we proceed with the remaining options, until one option has a first-choice majority. The classic paradoxical situation is all too likely in this setting. Suppose the population consists of

    1. 25% hardened brexiteers. They prefer a no-deal Brexit, but the last thing they want is to be blamed for May’s deal, which leaves the UK taking orders from Brussels with no say in them. If they can’t have their clean break from Brussels, they’d rather go back to the status quo ante and moan about how their beautiful Brexit was betrayed.
    2. 35% principled democrats. They’re nervous about the consequences of Brexit, so they’d prefer May’s soft deal, whatever it’s problems. But if they can’t have that, they think the original referendum needs to be respected, so their second choice is no deal Brexit.
    3. 40% squishy europhiles. They want no Brexit, barring that they’d prefer the May deal. No-deal Brexit for them is the worst.

    The result will be that no deal drops out, and we’re left with 65% favouring no Brexit. But if the PDs anticipated this, they could have ranked no deal first, producing a result that they would have preferred.

    So, that seems like a problem with a three-choice referendum. But here’s a proposal that would be even worse: We combine choices 2 and 3 into a single choice, which we simply call “Leave”. Then those who wants to abandon the European project entirely will be voting for the same option as those who are concerned about the EU being dominated by moneyed interests, and they’ll jointly win the referendum and then have to fight among themselves after the fact, leaving them with the outcome — no-deal Brexit — that the smallest minority preferred.

    Unfortunately, that’s the referendum we actually had.