Friday 9 September 2016

The debate beyond Brexit

JD Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin has slammed David Cameron and George Osborne for their conduct during the referendum campaign. In great detail, he criticised them for failing to see the "political chaos" that continued membership of the EU - which he dubbed "an organisation of Byzantine complexity, run by five unelected presidents, with input from numerous other parts of the many-headed Hydra" - would create for Britain.

He's actually got this wrong. The EU is one of the head of this "many-headed Hydra". Normally when dealing with reptilian creatures if one cuts off the head the body dies. In our scenario though, cutting off this particular head causes it a good deal of pain and some considerable inconvenience But it it still a many-headed Hydra.

And the problem with describing the EU as an organisation of Byzantine complexity implies that to leave it that one is also leaving behind that Byzantine complexity into a simpler, more easily understood world. Thus you can understand the appeal of Brexit. But this is where the Brexiteers have it ass backwards. There might have been a time twenty five years ago when that other world existed but as we have headed down the EU cul-de-sac, the rest of the world has been arranging itself along similar lines.

They each take their technical regulation from the same organisations using more or less the same structures. What makes the EU unique is its supranationalism where there is a central authority with a monopoly on trade powers where member states have none of their own.

The problem though is that many newer regional integration bodies are gradually forming themselves in the EU's image whereby member states opt for bloc deals, which use the globalisation agenda to further regional integration - so this notion that post-Brexit the UK will be banging the drum for bilateral deals with independent states is looking increasingly spurious.

What we are actually going to have to do is engage on a multilateral basis looking at a universe of different agreements. Anyone talking about "free trade deals" is at the Janet and John level and they are in for a rude awakening. The agreements we have through the EU will have to be replicated and broken away from one system in order to join another. Through a series of negotiations we establish our own customs code, our own subsidy quotas and re-establish ourselves as an independent entity. But in so doing we being to participate in systems and organisations which did not exist when the EU was conceived.

And this is why there is not going to be this renaissance of sovereignty. It simply does not exist anymore unless you go the way of North Korea and have an internal economy. Some things won't change, can't change and if we did change them we would soon change them back to how they were because much of our technocracy is designed for the removal of obstacles to trade.

All we really get from Brexit is an enhanced voice in shaping that "Byzantine complexity" at the global level with some greater powers to refuse but in most cases, we probably won't. If you have a say in designing the rules then you don't need to veto them. If people think we need to leave behind this complex and tangled web of governance then our only option is to somehow relocate the British Isles in outer space.

And if people really do want to be taken seriously, and indeed if Britain is to make the best of Brexit, then we need to be having a realistic conversation about the world as we find it rather than the one that existed twenty five years ago when John Redwood last read a book.

Brexit to my mind has always been about taking a different path to the EU and navigating the global trade system in a new way. The classic arguments about sovereignty and democracy don't quite fit the mould anymore. This prompts a new debate about globalisation and whether we are in a post-democratic age where technocracy has a place and cannot be easily dispensed with.

It sounds superficially appealing to depart from technocracy but the consequences of doing so, when you give it any serious consideration, are less appealing. Those who argue for it do not seem to have thought it through. To my mind they sound like survivalists who want to live out their lives in a faraday cage and a tin foil hat.

But then of course we now we need democracy as a periodic corrective. So Brexit does present some interesting opportunities and a chance to redesign participation but that debate must include a debate about the limitations of it and a recognition that the people, generally speaking, do not want as much control as they say they do. Their actions do not match their words. That begs the question of whether we accept this dynamic or arrange our affairs so as to encourage greater participation. How much democracy is too much democracy and where do we draw the line against globalisation if we must draw one at all?

Brexit is not a transition from the complex to the simple. It is simply a reconfiguration of a complex machine that will stay complex. It is now complex to a degree where no single individual can possibly comprehend it where some of it works better for the absence of democracy.

Systems that run themselves often have no need of politics and do not benefit from the application of collective ignorance. This might offend the purist democrats but many of these systems enhance our wealth and our liberty And we need to start asking if part of the function of democracy is to defend those things against the extremes of political ideology. In some respects technocracy has abolished socialism and mutes the externalities of capitalism. It would appear we are creating a self-governing machine for the running of the planet that makes our short stay here materially wealthier. Is that really something we should take a wrecking ball to?

But then there's the rub. Humanity thrives on reinvention and renewal. We are not designed to cope without conflict and struggle because conflict and struggle is what defines us and gives our spiritual lives meaning. Like in the film The Matrix, the first Matrix failed because humans were too happy. Perhaps we are a species ill equipped to adapt to a utopia where we want for nothing. Perhaps we should write it all off as a bad idea? I would like us to be sure before we do though.

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