Deadbeat Britain

My prediction for quite a while has been that the xenophobia is going to heat up here pretty soon, when the UK activates Article 50 and is immediately confronted with immovable demands of the EU that do not comport with the due status of the Snowflake Kingdom — particularly the expected €60bn bill for outstanding financial obligations — and the negotiations stall. The tabloids will go nuclear, and turn their wrath on the European foreigners who are still enjoying her majesty’s hospitality.

But now Britain has just discovered a trick long known to deadbeats everywhere for escaping financial obligations: You flee the country, and so evade the jurisdiction of the courts. Such a simple idea, they wonder why they didn’t think of it sooner:

The EU cannot enforce a penny of a possible €60bn divorce bill if Britain crashes out of the bloc without an agreement, according to a report by a Lords committee…

“We conclude that if agreement is not reached, all EU law — including provisions concerning ongoing financial contributions . . . will cease to apply and the UK would be subject to no enforceable obligation to make any financial contribution at all.”

As part of the scheme, Great Britain will move to the Caribbean in the middle of the night, leaving no forwarding address. Seriously, is this intended to frighten the Europeans into offering better terms? It seems more likely to convince them that there is no use to making any reasonable offer to a UK that can’t be counted on to honour the spirit of any agreement, or even basic norms of decent behaviour. (Recall that before there was Brexit there was Grexit, threatened by the failure of Greece to meet its international financial obligations.)

But now the chancellor tells us

If there is anybody in the European Union who thinks that if we don’t do a deal with the European Union, if we don’t continue to work closely together, Britain will simply slink off as a wounded animal, that is not going to happen.

I can reassure the chancellor that no one else in Europe thinks of Britain with such bathos. In any case,

British people have a great fighting spirit and we will fight back. We will forge new trade deals around the world. We will build our business globally. We will go on from strength to strength and we will do whatever we need to do to make the British economy competitive and to make sure that this country has a great and successful future.

Apparently they’re going to threaten to cut off exports to the continent of tough platitudes, which seems to be the only industry in which this country is still world-leading. (Though if France asserts appellation d’origine controlée to restrict use of the cliché, it could doom the whole British diplomatic effort.)

The government’s negotiating posture reminds me of the famous scene in the film The Usual Suspects, where the gangster Kaiser Sose is confronted with opponents who have taken his family hostage, and he responds by shooting them himself, just to prove that he can’t be pressured.

 


Meeting our Waterloo

From the Guardian:

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Conservative, says the 23 June last year will be remembered as a great day in history. It is comparable with Agincourt and Waterloo, he suggests.

I guess that’s how people talk about it in Britain, but it seems to me everywhere else “Waterloo” is synonymous with a crushing defeat. I imagine the Brexit vote will be the same: Considered a victory in Britain, recognised as a crushing defeat everywhere else.

People’s Front for Britain

Life of Brian

From the new Brexit sequel to The Life of Brian:

Theresa May: If you want to join the parliamentary front benches, you have to really hate foreigners.

Jeremy Corbyn: I do.

TM: Oh yeah? How much?

JC: A lot.

TM: Right, you’re in.

I don’t know if it’s better or worse that he probably isn’t really xenophobic. But as I observed when I first arrived in this country,

In the U.K. context, it’s barely controversial to bash legal immigrants, much less illegal immigrants. In the most recent prime ministerial debate, the one thing David Cameron and Gordon Brown agreed on was that the Liberal Democrats’ proposal of an amnesty for long-term illegal residents was simply insane and indefensible. They didn’t even have to respond to his counter-arguments, pretend that they had an alternative solution for the problem. It’s the putatively left-wing party in power for the past 13 years in the U.K. that can’t think of enough new ways to attack foreigners, that they have to invent bizarrely creative ways to attack foreigners, like the law banning foreigners from marrying without Home Office approval, or instituting new proposals that immigrants need to perform “volunteer” work to earn citizenship.

Opinion polling can’t stabilise democracy

Something I’ve been thinking about since the Brexit vote: There was a prevailing sentiment at the time that the British people are inherently conservative, and so would never vote to upend the international order. In fact, they did, by a small but decisive margin. But how was this “conservatism” imagined to act? The difference between 52-48 for Leave and 48-52 is happening in the minds of 4% of the population who might have decided the other way. Except that there’s nothing to tell them that they are on the margin. If you are negotiating over a policy, even if you start with some strategically maximum demand, you can look at where you are and step back if it appears you’ve crossed a dangerous line.

A referendum offers two alternatives, and one of them has to win. (Of course, a weird thing about the Brexit vote is that only one side — Remain — had a clear proposal. Every Leave voter was voting for the Leave in his mind. In retrospect, the Leave campaign is trying to stretch the mantle of democratic legitimation over their maximal demands.) There is no feedback mechanism that tells an individual “conservative” voter that the line is being crossed. Continue reading “Opinion polling can’t stabilise democracy”

Moving the goalposts

Reactions to the high court’s ruling that Brexit requires approval of parliament can only be understood in the context of the fundamental unseriousness of British politics. It’s all sport, and they won, so you can’t take away their victory.
But “their victory” involves taking away people’s rights, so there’s a parliamentary procedure. That’s how politics differs from sport. If you win the championship, as the cliché goes, they can never take that away from you. In politics every victory is immediately followed by a struggle over what the victory means.

The Daily Mail calls the judges “Enemies of the People” who “defied 17.4 million Brexit voters.” The Sun’s headline attacked the lead plaintiff for being foreign-born. The Daily Express said that three judges have “blocked Brexit”.

How odd, as many have pointed out, that the Brexit supporters suddenly object to parliamentary sovereignty.
Continue reading “Moving the goalposts”

The Brexit spiral begins

I’ve been warning since the Brexit vote that there could be a xenophobic feedback spiral:

We face years of escalating frustration on both sides of the negotiating table, as the British are confronted with the reality of a Europe that has no interest in making the fantasies of the Conservative Party come true. The British public will become more bloody-minded, unwilling to be dictated to by a bunch of foreigners, leading to a feedback loop of retaliation against the hostages, the EU citizens living in Britain and the British living in the EU. It could get very ugly.

According to the Guardian,

The chairman of JD Wetherspoon has fired a warning shot that the pub chain could stop selling drinks brands from other European countries if senior EU leaders maintain a “bullying” approach to Brexit negotiations.

For Britain to take a decision that harms its neighbours — with rhetoric that positively seems to relish the gratuitous harm to its neighbours — is a matter of high principle. Sovereignty! But when the neighbours respond in kind it is “bullying”.

I never heard of this chain, but then, the negotiations haven’t even started.

Existence and greatness

I commented before on the home secretary’s announcement of a plan to require companies to report on the number of foreign employees they have. Just to keep an eye on things, of course. Information is a good thing, natch. I missed this quote:

She justified that policy on the following grounds: “The state must draw a sharp line of distinction between those who, as members of the nation, are the foundation and support of its existence and greatness, and those who are domiciled in the state, simply as earners of their livelihood there.”

Far be it from me to boast that I am supporting Britain’s greatness, but surely I am somehow contributing to its existence? They don’t seem to mind taking my taxes, anyway, and they’re awfully keen to get their children into Oxford in order to be taught by domiciled livelihood-earners like me.

Refer madness

Shortly after the EU referendum, someone asked me why the EU referendum was made to allow such an enormous change from a simple majority. After all, many countries have either supermajority threshold for referenda, or requirements that a majority be attained in a majority of regions or states. The answer, of course, is that

  1. The point of this referendum was to settle a conflict between two wings of the Conservative party. This was not an election, but a sporting contest — though sooner or later, in Britain, everything turns into a sporting contest — and it would have been completely unacceptable if both sides did not feel they had a reasonable chance of winning.
  2. There wasn’t any threshold at all. As many have pointed out, this wasn’t a referendum in the normal sense of the word. It was an opinion poll. The relevant law, the European Union Referendum Act 2015, orders only that the question be asked, and describes eligibility for voting. It says nothing about how the result is to be interpreted or enforced. (The most intricate part of the law seems to concern the question of which hereditary aristocrats are eligible to vote.)

There is nothing inevitable about concluding that the UK should withdraw from the EU because 52% voted that way in the referendum. Most democracies would not make it so easy for one group of citizens to deprive another group of citizens of cherished rights — particularly when the groups really are clearly defined social groups, whether age groups or semi-autonomous component nations (Scotland and Northern Ireland).

In principle, there’s a good argument that the government is constitutionally obliged to get clear authorisation from Parliament before pulling the Article 50 trigger. And if they do that, the MPs could reasonably point to the national divisions, or just the lack of an overwhelming majority, as justification for avoiding such wrenching change.

They won’t, though. Because it’s a sport, and nothing is more important to the British than appearing to be “good sports”. They call this “democracy”, and there have been any number of articles from left-wing Remain supporters, arguing that a commitment to democracy requires that they get behind the Brexit project now. The people have spoken, and any other response is an elitist insistence that you know better than the unwashed masses.

Where does that leave us, the foreigners? I am reminded of the work of David Blight and other historians on the “Lost Cause” historiography of the US Civil War. Americans of the North and the South decided to come together in a spirit of reconciliation, requiring that the Northerners agree to look past points of dispute, like the civil rights of African Americans. They — that is, the white people — pretty much all agreed that this was the charitable and democratic thing to do. Similarly, Britons are divided by economic and class differences, but they can all come together in agreement that the real problem is the foreigners. This is something I noticed when I first arrived here.

Things aren’t so bad in Oxford — though we all know people who have at least been menaced in public in the last couple of weeks for speaking a foreign language — and those of us with good professional jobs have a fairly easy out, if we want it, by acquiring UK citizenship. At least, that gets us to the other side of the rope line in terms of formal legal harassment. Elsewhere foreigners have to be thinking imminently about being driven out of places where they have resided for decades, and where they mistakenly thought they were at home.