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The Reviled American Media, Part 2

Jonah Goldberg gets it:

One need not paint with an overly broad brush or accuse the entire press corps of being part of a knowing conspiracy to manipulate the public. Many mainstream journalists sincerely believe they are operating in good faith and doing their job to the best of their abilities. At the same time, it seems patently obvious that the “objective” press is in the business of subjectively shaping attitudes rather than simply reporting facts.

Consider the hot topic of the moment: illegal immigration. The syndicate that distributes the column you are reading follows the AP stylebook, which says that I am not allowed to refer to “illegal immigrants” (i.e., people who migrate illegally), but I can refer to illegal immigration (i.e., the act of migrating illegally). Kathleen Carroll, then the senior vice president and executive editor of the Associated Press, explained that the change was part of the AP’s policy against “labeling people.”

Many news outlets followed suit, using such terms as “unauthorized” or “undocumented” to describe immigrants formerly known as illegal.

The move was hailed by left-wing immigration activists as a great leap forward. And for good reason: It is part of their agenda to blur the distinctions between legal and illegal immigration, and to make it sound as if objecting to the former is morally equivalent to objecting to the latter. But as a matter of fact and logic, the difference between an “unauthorized immigrant” and an “illegal immigrant” is nonexistent.

The media play these kinds of linguistic games all the time. Economics professor Tim Groseclose walks readers through countless examples in his book Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind. Partial-birth abortion virtually never appears without a “so-called” before it, and the procedure is virtually never described clearly. The word “kill” is almost never used to describe any abortion, despite the fact that this is what happens. Whenever some great sweeping piece of liberal social legislation is passed by Democrats, it’s a “step forward.” Whenever a law is repealed, Republicans are “turning back the clock.”

The language games are part of a larger tendency of journalists to follow certain scripts that conform to how coastal elites see the country.

The very same point that this blog has been making again and again and again and again and again.

Jonah Goldberg’s criticism of the mainstream media is all self-evidently justified, but as America’s premier news outlets rend their garments and weep about being unfairly demonised it is worth noting that hardly any of them have shown the slightest bit of introspection as to their role in becoming so widely despised and distrusted by a large segment of the American population, let alone contrition or a desire to do better, to reflect the objective truth or the concerns of the other half of the country.

Beltway journalists will neither acknowledge to their readers that their deliberate manipulation of language and skewed story selection might possibly have played a part in fuelling conservative distrust of prestige newspapers and television networks, nor promise to stop doing so in the future. Now, is this as bad as creating a brand new fake news website and churning out sensationalist nonsense about Barack Obama raising an army to take back Washington D.C. in a military coup? No, of course not. But the fact that the mainstream media’s crimes are of a lesser severity does not excuse their dereliction of journalistic duty.

As I wrote the other day, we must keep two competing thoughts in our minds as we navigate the Age of Trump: yes, the president is often worryingly unstable and his administration troubling across a whole host of areas, but the people tasked with reporting on Trump, holding his administration to account and keeping the American people informed are no angels, either.

And part of me would rather deal with Trump’s lies, which at least tend to be huge emblazened whoppers which are obviously false and easily disproven, over the media’s deliberate and cynical attempts to slowly reshape public opinion in a leftward direction under the false flag of objectivity.

 

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The Enemy

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When will key influencers on the American Left learn that they can criticise Donald Trump all they want, but that continually punching down and demonising everybody who voted for him is hugely counterproductive?

Does Nicholas Kristof’s latest New York Times column reveal an early glimmer of realisation among the elite left-leaning commentariat that demonising the 46% of voters who voted for Donald Trump – and effectively accusing them of complicity with a fascist regime – is no way to win back local, statewide and national power for Democrats?

Perhaps so:

I understand the vehemence. Trump is a demagogue who vilifies and scapegoats refugees, Muslims, undocumented immigrants, racial minorities, who strikes me as a danger to our national security. By all means stand up to him, and point out his lies and incompetence. But let’s be careful about blanket judgments.

My hometown, Yamhill, Ore., a farming community, is Trump country, and I have many friends who voted for Trump. I think they’re profoundly wrong, but please don’t dismiss them as hateful bigots.

The glove factory closed down. The timber business slimmed. Union jobs disappeared. Good folks found themselves struggling and sometimes self-medicated with methamphetamine or heroin. Too many of my schoolmates died early; one, Stacy Lasslett, died of hypothermia while she was homeless.

This is part of a national trend: Mortality rates for white middle-aged Americans have risen, reflecting working-class “deaths of despair.” Liberals purport to champion these people, but don’t always understand them.

In Yamhill, plenty of well-meaning people were frustrated enough that they took a gamble on a silver-tongued provocateur. It wasn’t because they were “bigoted unthinking lizard brains,” but because they didn’t know where to turn and Trump spoke to their fears.

Trump tries to “otherize” Muslims, refugees, unauthorized immigrants and other large groups. It sometimes works when people don’t actually know a Muslim or a refugee, and liberals likewise seem more willing to otherize Trump voters when they don’t know any.

More:

There are three reasons I think it’s shortsighted to direct liberal fury at the entire mass of Trump voters, a complicated (and, yes, diverse) group of 63 million people.

First, stereotyping a huge slice of America as misogynist bigots is unfair and impairs understanding. Hundreds of thousands of those Trump supporters had voted for Barack Obama. Many are themselves black, Latino or Muslim. Are they all bigots?

Second, demonizing Trump voters feeds the dysfunction of our political system. One can be passionate about one’s cause, and fight for it, without contributing to political paralysis that risks making our country ungovernable.

[..] The third reason is tactical: It’s hard to win over voters whom you’re insulting.

Many liberals argue that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote and that the focus should be on rallying the base and fighting voter suppression efforts. Yes, but Democrats flopped in Congress, governor races and state legislatures. Republicans now control 68 percent of partisan legislative chambers in the U.S.

If Democrats want to battle voter suppression, it’s crucial to win local races — including in white working-class districts in Ohio, Wisconsin and elsewhere.

Yes, a majority of Trump voters are probably unattainable for Democrats, but millions may be winnable. So don’t blithely give up on 63 million people; instead, make arguments directed at them. Fight for their votes not with race-baiting but with economic pitches for the working and middle classes.

Clinton’s calling half of Trump voters “deplorables” achieved nothing and probably cost her critical votes. Why would Democrats repeat that mistake?

Kristof is inevitably taking a lot of heat from many of his readers, whose blood is still up following the election and who think that falling back on the 2008-2016 Republican Party model of total opposition and demonisation (with an extra dose of left-wing moral sanctimony) is a winning, beneficial strategy for the country.

One angry reader concluded her comment by saying “I am scared and they are the enemy. Plain and simple.” Is this really helpful language to be using at a time of national division, and is the mindset behind it a healthy one? Surely not. Of course much of the fault lies with Trump, his bellicose rhetoric and his entitled, backward attitude towards women. But Nicholas Kristof and other commentators on the Left also bear some responsibility for having created such fear among their own readerships, by frequently hyping and exaggerating the troubling aspects of Trump’s administration for political reasons (playing with language to imply with virtually no basis in fact that the president has a deep antipathy to all immigrants or to people with brown skin, for example).

Many Trump supporters and residents of Trumpland are good, caring, conscientious people. Kristof’s reader only came to the conclusion that they are all “the enemy” because she has been told so, repeatedly, by people in the media whose partisan cunning and residual bitterness outweighs any sense of professional responsibility they ought to possess. And the concerning aspects of Donald Trump’s presidency are bad enough without the leftist spin machine, working through the imprimatur of prestige titles such as the New York Times, convincing their audience that half the country (apparently including millions of “self-hating women”) is somehow out to get them when this is usually not the case.

Nicholas Kristof warned of the dangers of demonising Trump supporters as a cohesive bloc back in November, when the wounds of the election were still very raw indeed. Unfortunately, he did so in the very same column where he suggested that the pain felt by American liberals in the Age of Trump would be akin to that of an addict in recovery, a grotesquely self-indulgent and self-pitying assertion  which made light of the struggles of those suffering from mental illness. As so often with the Left and their struggle against reality it was one step forward, two steps back.

Hopefully with this new plea to his readers, Nicholas Kristof will at last hold on to some of the moral high ground he has occupied.

 

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The Reviled American Media, Part 1

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Donald Trump versus the media: bad cop, bad cop

A throwaway line in a Washington Post article goes some way to revealing exactly why the American media is so widely despised and mistrusted.

Musing about why many Trump supporters stubbornly insist on viewing his presidency as a success thus far (rather than the cataclysmic failure portrayed by mainstream narratives), the Post reports:

Several people said they would have liked to see more coverage of a measure that Trump signed Thursday that rolled back a last-minute Obama regulation that would have restricted coal mines from dumping debris in nearby streams. At the signing, Trump was joined by coal miners in hard hats.

“If he hadn’t gotten into office, 70,000 miners would have been put out of work,” Patricia Nana, a 42-year-old naturalized citizen from Cameroon. “I saw the ceremony where he signed that bill, giving them their jobs back, and he had miners with their hard hats and everything — you could see how happy they were.”

The regulation actually would have cost relatively few mining jobs and would have created nearly as many new jobs on the regulatory side, according to a government report — an example of the frequent distance between Trump’s rhetoric, which many of his supporters wholeheartedly believe, and verifiable facts.

My emphasis in bold.

Now, this is not about the merits and disadvantages of expanding coal mining. This is about the blasé arrogance of the Washington Post, suggesting to its readers that the creation of government regulatory jobs in any way makes up for the loss of manual jobs in coal mining.

How many ex-coal miners with high school-level educations will be eligible for these new regulatory jobs? Probably very few. But these jobs will enormously benefit the college-educated, Washington D.C.-dwelling professional class who are eligible for attractive jobs in the Department of Energy or the Environmental Protection Agency.

It is difficult to know whether the Post’s dismissal of concerns about coal mining job losses because they will be “offset” by new regulatory jobs is merely ignorant or deliberately callous towards the working classes. But either way, it reveals a huge gulf between the perspective of the Washington Post and its readership on the one hand, and Trump-supporting people from coal country on the other.

Maybe those coal mining jobs should be killed anyway. Ultimately, of course, they certainly should be phased out as part of a move away from fossil fuel dependence. But for the Post to speak haughtily about Trump supporters’ aversion to “verifiable facts” while misleading its own readership by pretending that the Obama-era environmental regulations (whatever their core merits) were anything other than a transfer of wealth and opportunity away from coal country manual workers towards the DC professional class is morally dubious and a dereliction of their professional duty as a supposedly objective national news outlet.

Essentially, the Post is suggesting that Trump supporters are somehow being irrational to cheer the overturning of anti-coal regulations that will restore some coal mining jobs, because they should instead be rejoicing at the creation of other, office-based jobs for which they are almost certainly ineligible. How terribly unenlightened of them to not cheer as their small-town jobs are sacrificed to create other jobs for city-dwelling public sector bureaucrats.

Assuming the best of intentions rather than the worst, this represents a vast gulf of understanding between the Washington media class and a large segment of the country on which they report. The frequent complaint of Trump supporters is that their interests have long been ignored by a political and economic elite who have time and compassion for everyone and everything save the rural and suburban squeezed white lower middle and working classes, with politicians and the media colluding to keep their struggles, concerns and aspirations off the political agenda. And now the media, which seems to be relishing its oppositional role to President Trump, seems determined to live up to that stereotype.

Accusations that the mainstream media is “fake news” go too far – the Washington Post or New York Times will never publish a breathless story about Michelle Obama being arrested for treason or Hillary Clinton participating in witchcraft rituals, the kind of ludicrous and obviously false clickbait which pollutes the internet and is sadly shared by too many a credulous conservative. The mainstream media’s form of bias is subtler and much more insidious. There are few outright falsehoods in the prestige media, but one can often achieve just as much through deliberately one-sided story selection and a deliberately skewed angle of coverage, made all the more effective because unlike fake news sites, respected outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times actually influence the worldviews and opinions of key decision makers in Washington D.C. and beyond.

In other words, too many respectable, prestige mainstream media outlets have squandered any trust and goodwill they one held with the public by subtly but repeatedly pushing a political agenda (the largely bipartisan agenda of the DC political elite). This climate of distrust is a problem of the media’s own making. And it all begins with having newsrooms full of reporters and editors with so few (if any) roots in the kind of community which came out strongly for Donald Trump in the 2016 election that they are utterly incapable of reporting on them with any real understanding, subtlety or empathy.

If the goal is to avoid events like the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, surely our first step must be one of introspection – not furiously shouting insults at people who often voted for Trump through despair or resignation, not misrepresenting their political views to the point of slander, but rather understanding how the political mainstream managed to consistently fail these people so badly that they felt they were left with little alternative. The Washington Post, for all the good reporting they often do, is light years away from recognising this fact, let alone showing such introspection in their coverage.

Indeed, if anything, the American media is moving in the opposite direction. Spurred by President Trump’s reprehensible attacks on the media as a whole, the Washington press corps is doing what they love to do best – talking about themselves and wallowing in a sense of victimhood and persecution, laughably painting themselves as noble and selfless heroes and seekers of truth in this new authoritarian age.

I’m sorry, but that is nonsense. Many of these reporters are the same ones who in the 2000s used to leap smartly to their feet, offering obsequious respect and nary a searching question whenever president George W Bush strolled into the White House press briefing room to announce the erosion of core civil liberties, exaggerate the threat posed by Iraq and then downplay his administration’s calamitous handling of the war. This is the same press corps that often treated every utterance from President Obama as sacred, unquestionable unicorn song, hyping his candidacy and forgiving his administration’s missteps.

This is the same press corps which gathers every year for the White House Correspondents Dinner, in which journalists and politicians slap each other on the back and toady up to power in one of the most sickening modern day political rituals known to man. Oh yes, and they are the ratings whores who gave blanket, uncritical rolling news coverage of Donald Trump’s every garbled word back when he was still just a laughable Republican Party presidential primary candidate, acting as oxygen to the the flames of the Trump campaign in the first place.

A healthy democracy needs a free press. But it sure as hell doesn’t need the craven, self-satisfied press we are stuck with at the moment. You can probably count the number of Washington or New York-based political journalists with a record of consistently principled, inquisitive and objective work on two hands. None of them work in television news. The rest are every bit as much a part of the fetid, corrupt political class as the politicians on whom they report. And now they take the angry anti-media rantings of President Trump and use them as an excuse to prance around playing the noble, heroic victim. We should not fall for their tawdry act.

Increasingly, the presidency of Donald Trump will require us to hold two competing thoughts in our head simultaneously: that yes, the Trump administration is troubling in a whole host of ways, but also that many of the people opposing Trump (from the sanctimonious, rootless, unreformed Democrats to the lazy and morally compromised Washington media) are also grievously at fault. And the sins of Donald Trump do not excuse the failings of those forces ranged against him, just as the spineless, uncurious, self-aggrandising behaviour of the Washington media does not excuse the authoritarian, impulsive excesses of the new president.

It is sheer lunacy to believe that the forces which gave us President Trump will be placated and put back in their box by a coordinated campaign of opposition from a Democratic Party and Washington political media class who have spent precisely zero hours pondering their own role in this period of “American carnage”, and who have shown zero willingness to change their own behaviour and policy preferences. Indeed, as newspaper subscriptions and cable news show ratings rise in step with the turmoil emanating from the White House, many in the Washington media are probably deluding themselves into thinking that they are actually doing a good job.

This could not be further from the truth.

As things stand, both sides will continue to antagonise one another; an out-of-touch Washington media class will continue to report on the residents of Trumpland as though they are some kind of fascinating but dangerous medical specimen best kept behind the safety glass in a lab, and Trump supporters, feeling patronised and wilfully misunderstood, will continue to distrust everything that the mainstream media says (including the 90% which is reasonably accurate, if sometimes politically skewed).

One side will have to blink first. You would hope that it might be the DC chattering class – through some instinctive self-preservation reflex, if nothing else.

 

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Irony Overload At The Grammys

This article was written on February 13th 2017, back when it was still vaguely relevant

 

Capping off another celebrity awards ceremony in which cossetted stars withdrew to their bubble to rend their designer garments at the state of the world – with the likes of Katy Perry, Busta Rhymes and James Corden running to their safe spaces this year – Recording Academy President Neil Portnow had this to say in his speech at the 2017 Grammy Awards:

We are constantly reminded about the things that divide us. Race, region and religion. Gender, sexual orientation, political party. But what we need so desperately are more reminders of all that binds us together — our shared history, our common values and our dedication to build for ourselves a more perfect union.

I’m sorry, but who has been constantly reminding us of the things that divide us? Who has been incessantly emphasising differences rather than commonalities at every turn? Who has been the loudest megaphone and amplifier for vicious, self-serving and corrosive identity politics throughout the culture over the past decades? Ah yes – it was that branch of the American Left which includes so much of the entertainment industry.

Often in ignorance more than malice, I’ll concede, but the nerve of a man like Portnow to stand before the kind of people who recorded Hillary Clinton’s “Fight Song” and complain that Americans are being deliberately divided by race, region, religion, gender, sexual orientation and political beliefs is almost beyond belief.

One does not have to be a MAGA-shouting Trump supporter to be drearily, expectantly depressed at the glib self-satisfaction, unawareness and utter banality that took place at the Grammy Awards – as well as at last night’s BAFTAs. This blog certainly abhors Donald Trump and all other ignorant, amoral, authoritarian would-be strongmen like him.

But the answer to a democratic outcome one opposes is not to bemoan democracy itself and ignore one’s own part in bringing about defeat. Hugging identity politics ever-tighter and going back before the American electorate with a leadership team comprising Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, Hillary Clinton 3.0 and the same vacuous, corporatist policy book will not put a Democrat back in the White House in 2020.

Introspection is not to be expected from the big egos of Hollywood, I think we have all learned that by now. But a large dose of it must appear from somewhere, and soon, or the opposition to Donald Trump will fall as flat as James Corden at his entrance to the 2017 Grammy Awards ceremony.

 

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Theresa May’s Brexit Speech: Soaring Ambition On A Foundation Of Sand

A grandiose speech with little serious thinking to back it up

Well, if anything lures me back to blogging then it may as well be Theresa May’s speech outlining the government’s long-awaited plan for Brexit.

I must admit that I am rather conflicted. This blog is on the record as holding Theresa May in rather low esteem in terms of her commitment to small government, individual liberty and conservatism in general, but it cannot be denied – least of all by someone like me who routinely criticises political speeches for being dull and uninspiring – that from a purely rhetorical perspective, May’s speech was satisfying both in terms of emotion and ambition.

Here was a speech almost in the American political tradition – reaching back through history to affirm the roots of British exceptionalism, the challenge now before us and the promise that an even greater Britain can be ours if only we strive for it:

It’s why we will put the preservation of our precious Union at the heart of everything we do. Because it is only by coming together as one great union of nations and people that we can make the most of the opportunities ahead. The result of the referendum was not a decision to turn inward and retreat from the world.

Because Britain’s history and culture is profoundly internationalist.

We are a European country – and proud of our shared European heritage – but we are also a country that has always looked beyond Europe to the wider world. That is why we are one of the most racially diverse countries in Europe, one of the most multicultural members of the European Union, and why – whether we are talking about India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, countries in Africa or those that are closer to home in Europe – so many of us have close friends and relatives from across the world.

Instinctively, we want to travel to, study in, trade with countries not just in Europe but beyond the borders of our continent. Even now as we prepare to leave the EU, we are planning for the next biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 2018 – a reminder of our unique and proud global relationships.

And it is important to recognise this fact. June the 23rd was not the moment Britain chose to step back from the world. It was the moment we chose to build a truly Global Britain.

The peroration was particularly good, as May eschewed the temptation to bribe the electorate with glib promises of riches today and instead asked us to consider the longer term good, as well as our place in the history books:

So that is what we will do.

Not merely forming a new partnership with Europe, but building a stronger, fairer, more Global Britain too.

And let that be the legacy of our time. The prize towards which we work. The destination at which we arrive once the negotiation is done.

And let us do it not for ourselves, but for those who follow. For the country’s children and grandchildren too.

So that when future generations look back at this time, they will judge us not only by the decision that we made, but by what we made of that decision.

They will see that we shaped them a brighter future.

They will know that we built them a better Britain.

When nearly every other major set piece speech in British politics is little more than a dismal effort to placate a restive and self-entitled electorate by promising the people Free Things Without Effort or Consequences (ask not what you can do for your country but what your country can do for you), here was a speech that set its sights a little higher and actually aspired to statecraft.

May’s criticism of the European Union and justification of the UK’s decision to secede from the EU was very good, particularly coming from someone who herself supported the Remain side and kept her head firmly beneath the parapet during the referendum campaign:

Our political traditions are different. Unlike other European countries, we have no written constitution, but the principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty is the basis of our unwritten constitutional settlement. We have only a recent history of devolved governance – though it has rapidly embedded itself – and we have little history of coalition government.

The public expect to be able to hold their governments to account very directly, and as a result supranational institutions as strong as those created by the European Union sit very uneasily in relation to our political history and way of life.

And, while I know Britain might at times have been seen as an awkward member state, the European Union has struggled to deal with the diversity of its member countries and their interests. It bends towards uniformity, not flexibility.

Without straying into undiplomatic language, May firmly placed responsibility for Brexit at the foot of a Brussels supranational government which is inflexibly committed to endless political integration by stealth, with member state individuality subordinate to European harmonisation.

The prime minister was also at pains to point out that dissatisfaction with the EU is by no means a uniquely British phenomenon, and that significant numbers of people in other member states hold many of the same legitimate grievances:

Now I do not believe that these things apply uniquely to Britain. Britain is not the only member state where there is a strong attachment to accountable and democratic government, such a strong internationalist mindset, or a belief that diversity within Europe should be celebrated. And so I believe there is a lesson in Brexit not just for Britain but, if it wants to succeed, for the EU itself.

Because our continent’s great strength has always been its diversity. And there are 2 ways of dealing with different interests. You can respond by trying to hold things together by force, tightening a vice-like grip that ends up crushing into tiny pieces the very things you want to protect. Or you can respect difference, cherish it even, and reform the EU so that it deals better with the wonderful diversity of its member states.

Of course this blog, unconstrained by any need for diplomatic restraint, would have gone further. Theresa May was at pains to state that a strong and united European Union is in Britain’s interest, which sounds magnanimous and sensible until you actually recognise the punch which is being pulled.

If the EU is an antidemocratic straightjacket imposing unwanted political integration on national populations who are ambivalent at best, why do we wish that the organisation prospers for decades to come? Do we not think our European friends and allies as deserving of democracy and the right to self-determination that we demand for ourselves? But this is nitpicking – the Brexit negotiations would hardly be served if May openly salivated at the prospect of the breakup of the European Union.

In her outreach to other European leaders, assuring them of Britain’s continuing goodwill, one almost hears an echo (okay, a very, very distant and diminished echo) of Lincoln’s first inaugural (“The Government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors…”) as May asserts that the UK government will negotiate in good faith so long as the EU reciprocates:

So to our friends across Europe, let me say this.

Our vote to leave the European Union was no rejection of the values we share. The decision to leave the EU represents no desire to become more distant to you, our friends and neighbours. It was no attempt to do harm to the EU itself or to any of its remaining member states. We do not want to turn the clock back to the days when Europe was less peaceful, less secure and less able to trade freely. It was a vote to restore, as we see it, our parliamentary democracy, national self-determination, and to become even more global and internationalist in action and in spirit.

We will continue to be reliable partners, willing allies and close friends. We want to buy your goods and services, sell you ours, trade with you as freely as possible, and work with one another to make sure we are all safer, more secure and more prosperous through continued friendship.

You will still be welcome in this country as we hope our citizens will be welcome in yours. At a time when together we face a serious threat from our enemies, Britain’s unique intelligence capabilities will continue to help to keep people in Europe safe from terrorism. And at a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty.

We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.

All of this is good. So why am I not celebrating?

Because then the prime minister proceeded to outline her government’s plans and priorities for the upcoming Brexit negotiation. And at that point it became clear that we are not dealing with Abraham Lincoln but rather with James Buchanan.

In other words, the real problem with Theresa May’s speech came when she pivoted from the background context to the government’s 12-point plan (or exercise in wishful thinking).

Pete North says it best:

In just a few short passages May has driven a horse and cart through all good sense.

For starters May has misunderstood the exam question. The process of leaving the EU is to negotiate a framework for leaving and a framework for continued cooperation. Instead she has taken it as the process of securing a trade deal – which doesn’t even begin to acknowledge the depth and complexity of the task. Because of this Theresa May will ensure we pay the maximum price possible.

By any estimation there is no possibility of securing a comprehensive agreement in two years and if we reach any kind of impasse then all of the leverage falls to member states as we beg for an extension.

Worse still, May has fallen for the mantra that no deal is better than a bad deal and is prepared to walk away from the table. This would result in the WTO option and would be the single most egregious act of economic self harm ever recorded. As much as that is to be avoided there is now every chance that it will happen by accident as our time expires.

May has drunk deeply from the Brexiteer kool aid and Britain is about to find itself substantially poorer with fewer opportunities for trade. This will be the Tory Iraq. Blundering with half a clue and no plan and no real understanding of the landscape, resting the fate of the adventure on some overly optimistic patriotic nostrums that fold at first exposure to reality.

While the EU Referendum blog patiently explains why Theresa May’s declaration of intent is such a tall order:

Mrs May has set her face against a rational, measured Brexit and is embarking on a wild gamble, the outcome of which she has no way of predicting.

Such is her idea of pursuing “a bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement with the European Union”, an undertaking which others have tried in the recent past – the most recent being Canada, which has spent eight years now in trying to bring an agreement to fruition, and we’re still waiting. The possibility, therefore, of the UK negotiating a deal (and getting it ratified) inside two years is, to say the very least, remote.

Nevertheless, there are those who think otherwise. They argue that, because the UK is already in the EU and achieved full regulatory convergence, transition from one type of agreement to another should be relatively straightforward and swift.

That, however, is completely to understate the complexity of modern trade agreements. In addition to regulatory convergence, there must be a dynamic arrangement that will ensure the automatic uptake of new regulation, and also the changes mandated by ECJ judgements. There must also be internal market surveillance measures, agreed conformity assessment measures, customs agreements, dispute settlement procedures, agreements on competition policy, procurement and intellectual property rights, as well as systems to deal with rules of origin.

These and much else, will require an institutional structure to facilitate communication and ongoing development, a form of arbitration panel or court, and a consultation body, which allows input into, and formal communication with the EU’s regulatory and institutional system.

And concludes:

This is my way of saying that to achieve a “bold and ambitious” free trade agreement with the EU inside two years is not just difficult. It is impossible. It cannot be done. And it doesn’t matter how many times it is discussed amongst the chattering classes, it still can’t be done.

It has been over eighteen months since this blog woke up to the fact that lazy Brexiteer tropes about quick-n-easy free trade agreements being the golden solution to every problem simply do not cut it in the face of such an unimaginably complex undertaking as extricating the United Kingdom from the European Union.

Since that time, it has become clear to me and many others that forty years of political integration cannot be unpicked within the two-year timeframe granted through Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and that any attempt to negotiate a bespoke solution within this timeframe would see us hit the deadline without a deal in sight, leaving us at the mercy of the EU27 as we scramble for an extension or risk going over the cliff and resorting to WTO rules.

But what has been clear to this blog (since I first read of the Flexcit plan for a phased and managed Brexit with an eye to developing the new global single market which must eventually replace the parochial EU) and to a growing number of Brexiteers remains completely opaque and mysterious to Her Majesty’s Government:

So as a priority, we will pursue a bold and ambitious free trade agreement with the European Union.

This agreement should allow for the freest possible trade in goods and services between Britain and the EU’s member states. It should give British companies the maximum freedom to trade with and operate within European markets – and let European businesses do the same in Britain.

But I want to be clear. What I am proposing cannot mean membership of the single market.

European leaders have said many times that membership means accepting the ‘4 freedoms’ of goods, capital, services and people. And being out of the EU but a member of the single market would mean complying with the EU’s rules and regulations that implement those freedoms, without having a vote on what those rules and regulations are. It would mean accepting a role for the European Court of Justice that would see it still having direct legal authority in our country.

It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all.

And that is why both sides in the referendum campaign made it clear that a vote to leave the EU would be a vote to leave the single market.

So we do not seek membership of the single market. Instead we seek the greatest possible access to it through a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious free trade agreement.

That agreement may take in elements of current single market arrangements in certain areas – on the export of cars and lorries for example, or the freedom to provide financial services across national borders – as it makes no sense to start again from scratch when Britain and the remaining Member States have adhered to the same rules for so many years.

But I respect the position taken by European leaders who have been clear about their position, just as I am clear about mine. So an important part of the new strategic partnership we seek with the EU will be the pursuit of the greatest possible access to the single market, on a fully reciprocal basis, through a comprehensive free trade agreement.

Okay, great. And you plan to accomplish this in just two years, at a time when we are rebuilding our national trade negotiation competency from scratch? And what about the numerous other aspects of our co-operation with Brussels that do not directly relate to the single market? What process is there to be for evaluating and renegotiating these?

Ministers clearly still view Brexit through the narrow lens of wanting to sever all of the ties that bind us to Brussels and hope that a “quick and dirty” free trade agreement will somehow be a good substitute for patiently considering and unpicking each individual strand of co-operation between London, Brussels and the EU27.

And unless Theresa May has another, top secret Brexit ministry devoted to unglamorous issues like mutual recognition of regulatory standards (rather than burbling inanities about tariffs) then we are in for a very rude awakening at some point within the next two years.

Look: I like the ambition and confident tone of Theresa May’s speech. I like some of the swagger and self-confidence. And if May had been speaking about any subject other than Brexit in this manner I would be on my feet, giving a standing ovation. But unfortunately the prime minister has chosen to be smug and blasé about the one topic where airy self-assurance alone cannot win the day.

The prime minister accurately summed up many of the problems with the European Union, and did a good job in reminding people what an indispensable country Britain really is to the future economic, cultural and geopolitical prospects of Europe. That’s great. But it doesn’t begin to explain how Britain is going to negotiate an entirely bespoke new relationship with the European Union within two years when far less extensive deals focusing purely on trade routinely take over a decade to complete.

Ambition is good, but it must be tempered with reality. When John F Kennedy dedicated America to landing a man on the moon and safely returning him to Earth before the end of the 1960s, the specific technologies and facilities needed to achieve the historic feat may not all have existed, but the competencies to invent and build them certainly did. Not so with Britain and the goal of a two-year bespoke Brexit deal.

Unpicking forty years of political integration within two years would be an unimaginably tall order at the best of times, even if the organisation into which we are subsumed had not gradually drained us of the critical competencies required to complete the task. Theresa May promising a clean Brexit given our current national capabilities and negotiating climate is like President Theodore Roosevelt promising a moon shot in 1903, when the Wright brothers rather than Wernher von Braun represented the pinnacle of aviation technology.

So mixed feelings. How nice to finally hear a political speech that is so outward-looking and ambitious in content, positive in rhetoric. How sad that this particular one is likely to end in disappointment and recrimination.

 

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EU Renegotiation - Brexit - European Union

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