Does the fall in the pound presage a financial meltdown?

The British pound is now at its lowest effective (i.e. trade-weighted) level ever, according the Bank of England’s 168 year index. There was a sharp initial fall after the referendum to leave the EU, and then a further fall over the last week after the prime minister’s conference speeches pointed toward a quicker and harder exit than expected. Is this just a routine fluctuation that can be shrugged off, as bigger falls have been in the past, or does it portend something nasty? It is, of course, too early to tell.

The pound’s fall has been seized on by supporters of Remain as the sole piece of substantive evidence to support their prediction that exit would make Britain worse off. Leavers are predictably unimpressed. Of course both sides seek to gather every scrap of evidence to justify the stand they took in the campaign, and this argument leaves us none the wiser. This blogger is not beyond such things, of course, but I do try to set a higher standard.

The first question posed by the depreciation is what was the pound doing so high before the referendum anyway. The country has a large current account deficit. In other words, as a nation we are spending more foreign currency in imports than we are getting in exports and investment income (or persuading foreigners to accept more sterling than they want to spend on British imports – it boils down to the same thing). In theory this suggests that the currency’s real exchange rate is too high. This has been a persistent and to me perplexing phenomenon since the late 1990s. Demand for sterling has remained high, notwithstanding the deficit. Investment by foreigners in property and business assets (or Britons selling off overseas assets and repatriating the proceeds) has kept the pound afloat for 20 years – though at a much higher level before the financial crisis of 2007-09.

This is, literally, a confidence trick. Investors have had sufficient confidence in the British economy to think that their assets will grow in value in terms of their home currency, rather than ours. It is hard to pin down why for sure. Britain is an easy place for foreigners to do business – we don’t have a xenophobic attitude to foreign investment, sometimes seen in countries as close as France. That encourages footloose capital in our direction. We have seen many takeovers of great British businesses (notably this year the chip designer ARM). Buoyant high-end property values have no doubt encouraged investors too, though it is hard to quantify.

Britain’s membership of the EU is doubtless part of the charm of Britain, for business investors at least. They can set up operations here with ready access to European markets, free of tariff and non-tariff barriers. Leaving the EU, and its single market, must surely dent the country’s attraction. But we don’t know by how much. It won’t change the ease with which foreigners can buy assets here. By itself it should not affect high-end property either.

There is, therefore, a clear case to keep calm. As sterling takes a fall, it makes British assets cheaper. This should be a compensation enough for British exit to the EU, though you might be wise to stay clear of some businesses, like motor manufacturing. A lower exchange rate should help rebalance the economy, reducing the current account deficit, and the country’s dependence on foreign investment flows. This is all self-correcting. And if you are a true Brexiteer you will be confident that a more efficient, better balanced economy will eventually emerge from any transitional wobbles. That may be right – I always thought that the hair-shirt case for Brexit, as I called it, was intellectually their most persuasive argument (referencing a post I made in March which stands the test of time). Could EU membership have caused that current account gap, or allowed it to persist, leaving us with an unbalanced economy?

There is a problem, though. Capital markets are not rational. Nobody really understands how they work, and they are at least as influenced by a complex game of second-guessing short-term movements as they are by cool, calm assessment of long-term prospects. They are prone to bubbles: excessive periods of confidence followed by excessive pessimism.

You can see this by the way market observers talk about movements in prices being persistent trends, rather than asking what the right price is. This is at its most striking in the property market, where price movements are talked as “performance” rather than finding an appropriate level. A long view investor might say that the pound has simply found a new and more appropriate level. A short view investor might suggest that the pound has been performing badly, so that further falls are to be expected. In the former case you have would expect the fall to be limited, in the latter the fall becomes a self-reinforcing trend. And the difference comes down to a not entirely rational quality: confidence.

Confidence is not a nice, mathematically well-behaved quantity. It is prone to behaving in a very non-linear way. It can disappear suddenly. Confidence in Greek government bonds used to be nearly as rock-solid as German ones. And then it disappeared. Could confidence in the pound, and then other British financial investments, like government and corporate bonds, disappear just as quickly? Could the 20 year bubble burst? It doesn’t have to be rational. If it does the wider consequences would be severe. Inflation could take off as the monetary floodgates are opened (by the government funding itself directly through the Bank of England); bank lending could simultaneously dry up causing a recession. Back to the 1970s in other words when, amongst other things, a massive rise in oil prices caused a rapid rebalancing. Is Brexit a similar shock? (even accepting, as with high oil prices in the 1970s, we end up in a better place).

It is hard to believe that things will turn out like this. There are some signs of vulnerability: property prices are high; the budget deficit remains high by historic standards, and so is the level of the national debt. There is little scope to restore financial markets by cutting interest rates. Gilt yields have been rising recently – suggesting that confidence in government finances is starting to fade. And yet the overall statistics do not suggest alarm – foreign exchange reserves, for example, look plentiful. But ultimately if the country has a current account deficit, and if foreign investors don’t want to finance it, there will be defaults or inflation or both.

As the FT’s Martin Wolf points out, a financial meltdown is not likely, but the risk of it has risen in the last week. The capital markets have given Britain an easy ride through its recent troubles, but that could change quickly. The government needs to be very careful about how it handles Brexit. Sovereignty in an interconnected world is always incomplete.

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Can Brexit be reversed?

First was the shock. It seemed as if Britain had driven off the edge of a cliff. Then denial. The dust settled and nothing much seemed to have changed. But now, among those that follow politics and business, there is a slow, creeping realisation of just how big a mess Brexit is. This isn’t so much that the country has ruined itself in the long run (many believe that to be true, but a cogent case can be made otherwise); it is the sheer extent of short-term disruption.  So we might ask: can it all be made to go away?

What has woken people up to the depth of problem is the government’s proposal to trigger Article 50 of the EU treaty in the first quarter of 2017, which leads to the country’s departure two years after that. That is not near enough time to put in place new trade treaties, and handle a host of other issues (who pays for British nationals’ medical bills in Spain? How do we manage the Irish border? And on, and on) all at once, given that this is all a matter of negotiation, and negotiations always go to the wire. That means that many businesses with an international dimension (not just exporters – anybody using imported parts or services from anywhere outside the UK) could hit a wall of confusion in 2019.

What makes this worse is the realisation that the split is going to be more “hard” than “soft”, for the reasons I explained in my recent blog. Remain supporters desperately argue for some sort of middle way that protects trading relationships – but no compromise deal looks anything like as good as the real thing, membership with the layers of concessions that Britain had accumulated for itself over the decades. So can we call the whole thing off?

The problem is that as soon as Article 50 is triggered (which astonishingly the government claims does not require a parliamentary vote), then it becomes very hard to come back. The government would have to negotiate re-entry from a very weak position. Such concessions as Britain’s contribution rebate would become an obvious target. So something needs to happen before that. Any hopes must largely rest on a court case challenging the government’s right to invoke the article under royal prerogative. If the government loses, then parliament has the opportunity to throw a spanner in the works.

Could the government fail to find a majority to push through Article 50, if it was forced to? Its majority is small, though some of the Irish parties would support it on Brexit. A rebellion from its backbenchers, or even ministers, is certainly feasible. But would Labour turn up with enough numbers to back them up? In the old days that would have been quite a safe bet. The party in opposition loved nothing more than to make mischief for the government, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the case at hand. But the current party leadership seems little interested in such games. There would need to be strong political reasons to galvanise both Labour and any Tory rebels.

What might those political reasons be?   Remainers are trying to build a case around the idea that the Brexit vote did not amount to a mandate for the “destination”, or what replaces EU membership. This is weak. It suggests consultation just on the question of what type of Brexit we want – a choice between a miserable compromise or a highly disruptive major break. But the best alternative to hard Brexit is to overturn the referendum result itself. For that, something needs to happen to shake confidence in the referendum mandate.

Alas there is little sign of that. The lies peddled by the Leave campaign (most notoriously the idea that £350M would be available to spend on the NHS if we left) are being shrugged off, and set against some of the Remain campaign’s claims, such as that a Leave vote would lead to a draconian emergency budget. But something might blow up in the next six months and catch the public imagination. Or it could be financial instability, which is surely a possibility given the huge uncertainties and the country’s dependence of foreign finance. The wobbling pound is so far the only real sign of trouble – what if it keeps wobbling?

But these are thin pickings for people who support UK membership of the EU. It seems that the slim majority for Leave in the referendum, now routinely described as “overwhelming” by its supporters, has been the basis of a coup, which disenfranchises people like us. The people were consulted, and now the political elite has reasserted full control. The irony, of course, is that the Leave campaign was based on the slogan “take back control”, and appealed to voters who felt disenfranchised by political elites. No student of political history will be surprised that it is being used to consolidate elite power, albeit with some change in personnel.

There seems to be little that Remain supporters like me can do. It will take a feeling of betrayal from within the Leave camp, and a split, in order to give the idea of reversing the referendum result any traction. Unfortunately, if this ever happens it is likely to be too late.

So we must channel our anger into rebuilding the forces of liberalism for the long term. And we need to focus on two problems in particular. How can we give people a greater sense of political control over their lives, while enjoying the opportunities that global connections provide? And how should European institutions be reshaped so that they better serve European people, and so that one day, we may persuade the British people to rejoin? Meanwhile we must watch helplessly as a slow-motion disaster unfolds. “Told you so,” are the most unsatisfactory words in life, but I fear that it is all we are left with.

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The Tories take possession of Brexit; the Lib Dems will benefit

Theresa May, Britain’s prime minister, closed the Conservative Party conference yesterday with a striking vision of her political direction, which was consistent with speeches made by other members of her government. This is a marked change of tone from her predecessor, the rather liberal David Cameron, and his Chancellor, George Osborne. Brexit is at the heart of it.

Earlier this week, FT columnist Janan Ganesh suggested that the stream of social policies coming out of the Conservatives were an attempt to deflect the politicians’ obsession with Brexit. But this is to misunderstand what these policies are about – they are an attempt by the Conservatives to tell people that voted for Brexit that they “get it”. The vote to leave the EU is the starting point of the whole thing.

What Mrs May is trying to do is to adopt what I will call the “Brexit coalition” as a political base. This starts with her hinterland: the non-metropolitan middle classes – most especially their older members, as their children are going to university and becoming more metropolitan in outlook. This group has a nostalgic view of the past, and feel threatened by the cultural aspects of globalisation. All the talk of patriotism, the hard line on immigration and the attacks on liberal elites (Oh how sick I am of being told that I am part of a ruling elite when all I am is a school governor!). Other nostalgic policies, like promoting grammar schools are in the mix too.These are bedrock Conservatives, largely taken for granted by Mr Cameron.

What is more interesting is that Mrs May wants to add the disaffected working classes, who voted in droves for Brexit, notwithstanding the advice of the Labour Party. They share the cultural biases of the non-metropolitan middle classes, but add to this resentment about economic insecurity. Mrs May is making a particular pitch for this group: emphasising the struggles of people at the margins, though failing to observe how much austerity policies, such as changes to tax credits, have added to their hardship. For these people she made a strong pitch for “fairness”, and indicated that she would act on a series of economic problems, like housing costs and poor infrastructure. She also rounded on unscrupulous businesses. In parts she sounded not unlike Ed Miliband, Labour’s previous leader, allowing her to claim the “centre ground”. Strikingly she also included a pitch for ethnic minorities, acknowledging discrimination. Ethnic minorities make up large sections of the working class, after all – though the Brexit voters tend to be “I’m not racist but…” types who think it is them who are the victims of discrimination.

But one part of the Brexit coalition is being left behind by all this: the businessmen who called for a bonfire of regulations to make businesses more competitive. On the one hand Mrs May’s tough line on sovereignty, immigration and foreigners points to a hard Brexit, and so little need to heed EU regulations. On the other the threatened policies to limit immigration would add a very hefty layer of extra bureaucracy on businesses, and the appeals to “fairness” suggest a strong role for regulation and government intervention too. Regulation and democracy go together like a horse and carriage. They may be jumping from the frying pan into the fire. But this part of the Brexit coalition always mattered more for its money than its voter appeal.

It is possible to admire the political cleverness of this. Ukip, who had been harrying the Tories on their nativist flank, are struggling at the moment, and this sort of thing should see them off, in Conservative constituencies at least. One might ask what the point of Ukip is. It also takes advantage of Labour’s disarray. At their own conference Labour failed to discuss Brexit. Their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, seemed to embrace it – but (admirably) failed to bang the drum on immigration. Other Labour big hitters want it the other way round: oppose or soften Brexit, but wave the flag on immigration. This leaves muddle at the core of Labour’s message on the top issues of the day. The party will no doubt maintain its iron grip on public sector workers, and those vulnerable to government reforms (students, benefit claimants, etc.). I would also be very surprised if their grip on ethnic minority communities was seriously dented. But this falls way short of an election-winning combination. It is not clear what is their appeal to grumpy working class voters, to say nothing of the non-metropolitan middle classes that former Labour leader Tony Blair made inroads on the last time Labour won an election.

But speaking as an ordinary decent liberal and proud citizen of the world (subject to a sneering jibe in Mrs May’s speech), I am aghast at the direction the Tory Party has taken. The are stigmatising foreigners and implying that I am unpatriotic. Many of us are friends, neighbours and work colleagues with people who are not British citizens, and we look on them as equal human beings who have earned our respect and a place in our society. I find that impossible to reconcile with some of the rhetoric coming out of the Conservative Party. And it gets worse. The EU referendum unleashed a wave of hate crime and anti-social behaviour aimed at people who are seen as not belonging here (not just foreigners of course). Much as the leaders of the Brexit campaign claim that this is nothing to do with them, Conservatives run the risk of allowing these attitudes to take root, even as they claim that it is not their intention. In the same way Mr Corbyn will not call off the misogynistic hard left thugs that are part his own coalition, contenting himself with mild disclaimers.

This is now becoming a real political opportunity for the Liberal Democrats. The party is now the best home for open-minded people who do not have a nativist outlook – or those of them appalled by developments in the Labour Party anyway. It becomes easier for the party to take credit for the better bits of the coalition years – which had accrued to Messrs Cameron and Osborne – rather than just the blame for the bad bits.

That opportunity for the Lib Dems will grow if the Conservatives fail to deliver on their new promises, as seems almost certain. As soft Brexit turns into a mirage, and hard Brexit turns out to be highly disruptive, and as the Tories fail to deliver economic gains, such as lower rents and better paid jobs, to working class and other struggling communities, and as the party’s small parliamentary majority bogs it down, then the appeal of Mrs May’s government will diminish. With Labour looking like an empty bubble of hope (or a pyramid scheme as suggested by the Economist’s Bagehot column), there is reason for the Lib Dems to gain.

Of course, the Lib Dems themselves have many serious questions to answer. But it may be easier than people think for it to double its vote share to 15-20% before coming under more serious scrutiny. As the keener Lib Dem activists travel to the latest by-election in Mr Cameron’s old seat in Witney, Oxfordshire, it is impossible not to notice the spring in their step. The bookies are already giving them second place (from fourth in 2015).

But this is a small shaft of light in a very gloomy British political landscape, as the wonton act of self-harm committed by its electorate in the referendum pushes events on a seemingly inevitable course.

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Soft Brexit is a mirage

Centrist politicians are hard-wired to look for a middle way when confronted with difficult problems. So after absorbing the shock of Britain’s vote to leave the EU last June, it is only natural that so many have sought one on this most perplexing issue. It goes by the name of “soft Brexit”, to contrast with “hard Brexit”, which refers to an uncompromising break. But is such a solution viable?

This question revolves around one issue above all: membership of Europe’s Single Market. The Single Market allows for the free movement of goods, and some services, across Europe’s borders. This came into being in 1990 as intra-European trade was stagnating, and restored momentum. The problem was that Europe’s free trading arrangements at that time did not go far enough. There were no tariffs, but plenty of scope for non-tariff barriers. There were many such barriers – I remember a particular story about all French imports of one particular type having to be sent to Poitiers to be inspected.

The Europeans had a clear model in front of them: the United States of America. This towering economic power was so successful  in large part because of its huge domestic market, which gave businesses time to develop products before having to tackle export markets. But here we bump into a famous trilemma, first articulated by US economist Dani Rodrick in his book The Globalization Paradox. People must choose between democracy, national self-determination and the benefits of global integration. You can have two of these, but not three. To achieve global integration means setting global rules. If nation states choose to participate in globalisation, they will sacrifice their voters’ rights to change the rules. The only way to make it democratic is to make it so at the global level, which means losing national autonomy.

And so forming the Single Market meant that the members of the European Union sacrificed significant sovereignty – albeit with the creation of some democratic structures at European level: the European Council of heads of state, and the directly elected European Parliament. Critics of the EU say that it is undemocratic – but the only ways to address this are either to dissolve it and lose the Single Market, or strengthen its union-level democratic structures, undermining the nation-state further. The problem with soft Brexit is that it attempts have all three elements of the trilemma at once.

Brexit means British withdrawal from the European Council and Parliament, to say nothing of its influence in the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm. But taking part in the Single Market, or even aspects of it, means leaving the rule-making to these European institutions. This cannot be acceptable. Norway, and to some extent Switzerland, suffer this indignity already. It is hard to see it working for such a big country as Britain. Voters would rightly ask what the point was in leaving the EU. “EU rules”  would still be the bureaucrats’ excuse of choice for badly implemented regulation, alongside that British favourite “health and safety”. Political suicide, surely?

Neither will it be easy to pick apart the structure of EU regulations so that the country opts out of bits of it. British politicians often assume that there is a deal to be done to limit EU migration into the UK. Businesses want to tackle EU labour regulation and various other things, like regulation of poisonous chemicals. The trouble is that the other EU countries will see this as trying to get an unfair competitive advantage – which could undermine the entire edifice.

And furthermore, Britain’s bargaining position is weak. One of the key arguments made by the Brexiteers was that because Britain imports so much from the rest of the EU, the EU (German car makers, and French cheese makers in particular)  will be desperate to give us an advantageous deal. That looks optimistic. Take the motor industry. This has significant economies of scale, and a single national market, even the size of Britain or Germany, is not enough to sustain a domestic industry. Before the Single Market, Britain’s motor industry was dying. After it Japanese and other carmakers invested in factories in Britain as an export base for the whole of Europe. Britain’s car industry revived, though it is still in deficit. If Britain withdraws from the Single Market, this industry comes under threat. If it withers, then surely other EU countries will gain. Why should Volkswagen press for an easy trade deal that would save their Japanese competitors? Britain can’t sustain its own motor industry, so it will have no alternative but to keep importing cars from its nearest neighbours in the EU – and perhaps in even greater quantities as Nissan and others are forced to divest.

I am tempted to suggest that angling for soft Brexit is just the bargaining phase of the five stages of grief from Remain supporters, coming after denial and anger. Depression comes next.

Of course the real situation is not as black and white as I am painting it.  But if Britain has to be outside the EU, its best bet is to start with hard Brexit, and then negotiate arrangements sector by sector – much as Switzerland does. Except that we would not go anything like as far as Switzerland. But we have to acknowledge that the UK will lose its comparative advantage in industries that benefit from the Single Market – like the motor industry. That will mean quite a bit of dislocation.

But it won’t be the end of the world. Basic economics teaches us that where comparative advantage diminishes in one sector, it emerges somewhere else. The country may be poorer as a result, but it need not be a disaster. Where will this new comparative advantage lie? We cannot do a Singapore, a favourite of some Brexiteers  – which exploits its strategic position on key Asian trading routes. But industries that are not subject to Single Market rules will be at a relative advantage. This may help Britain’s successful service industries – though making headway in this highly protected arena will be hard. The county’s geographical position should help wind and tidal energy – though not solar energy, presumably. We also need to look for areas where EU regulations look badly implemented.

But just how big any short-term disruption will be is unclear. It is also not clear that the British public actually intended to sign up to it. If they didn’t the only way back is to reverse the Brexit decision itself. That is the true alternative to hard Brexit. But that is another matter.

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Where do Remainers go from here?

Last Saturday I joined the March for Europe in LondonIMG_1114. These are the hard core of people who voted Remain in June’s EU referendum. By my estimate between 10 and 20 thousand marched from Hyde Park to Parliament Square, with Liberal Democrats prominent among them. The anger of these marchers was evident. Where to go next politically was not.

It is worth considering what the feelings of the protesters is, as media types and professional politicians attempt to move on. These people feel that a part of their birthright has been taken away – that the result is an assault on their very identity. They were not pro-EU because, as the Remain campaign emphasised, they thought they would be a bit better off economically. They feel part of a bigger Europe. And if there is one single thing they feel most acutely about, it is freedom of movement, because those rights to move and work around the Union are the most tangible and beneficial to them. Some were citizens of other EU countries who have settled here, having felt secure in rights to do so. Many more were British but want the right to move around the rest of Europe – or more strongly, they want that right for their children. It was an Australian, with a British daughter, that made that point most forcibly to us; Ozzies are acutely aware of the difference that an EU passport makes in freedom to move around, and they prize that freedom.

This is significant because British politicians have rightly identified that the issue that bothers Brexit voters the most is precisely freedom of movement – or fear of immigration from other EU members, especially the less developed countries or the less skilled workers. Many are searching for a compromise whereby much of the single market is preserved, but freedom of movement is restricted. This would cut no ice with most of the protestors, though the umbrella Remain organisation, Stronger IN, has hinted at compromise, while renaming itself Open Britain.

It is easy to understand the politics of the compromisers. The Brexit majority was small, and within that 52% there was a clear divide, between those who reject globalisation and want to adopt protectionist policies (echoing Japan perhaps), and those who chafed at the EU’s slow engagement with the rest of the world, and want Britain to embrace free trade (echoing Singapore). If you detach the latter group, and attach it to the Remain 48, you might get a majority behind a “Swiss” solution, with one foot in the EU, but nevertheless outside. Except it would not be like Switzerland, because the UK would need to be able to restrict immigration from EU countries, perhaps severely.

This would not satisfy the hard core Remainers. So what do they want? They want to stay in the EU, and to ignore or reverse the referendum result. A number of arguments are made. The Referendum was merely advisory: parliament can take a different view. Only 38% voted to leave the EU (even if 36% voted to stay) and therefore isn’t a strong enough mandate for such a drastic change. The Leave campaign was deliberately misleading. They might give credence to reports of buyer’s remorse immediately after the result. Alas these arguments carry little weight in the current political landscape. Most (estimated at 421) English and Welsh MPs will have found that their constituencies voted Leave. Under a first past the post constituency vote there would be a majority to leave of  getting on for 220. That strengthens the mandate. The aftermath of the vote has turned to anticlimax, allowing Brexiteers to say that the economic costs of the vote were highly exaggerated by Remain supporters, neutralising the “lies” argument somewhat. There is little hard evidence to show that buyer’s remorse adds up to anything substantial. There is no basis to call a repeat referendum.

And what would a second referendum be about? A popular proposal is to have one on whatever new deal for exit is eventually struck. The trouble is that we will only know what that is long after Article 50 of the EU treaties has been invoked, by which time the situation will be nearly irretrievable. The UK would in effect have to re-enter the EU: but on what terms? The danger is that we have yet another referendum whereby a loss by the government will create uncertainty and chaos.

Still, the political situation may change. A backlash by Brexit supporters against the claims made by leave campaigners would start to build the case for a reversal. The trouble is that even if they wake up in time, they are likely to blame the Remain politicians anyway. This is clearly the narrative that Brexit politicians are now trying to build. The government should have prepared the ground for Brexit better, they say. The politics of anger and resentment is like that. Admitting you are wrong is as hard for voters as it is for politicians.

So do we hardcore Remains give up and shout abuse from the sidelines? Not yet. The government’s majority is small; it will find it hard to form a consensus around a new vision for Britain. A constitutional deadlock could yet unfold. In that situation things could change.

That is a small hope at the moment. Otherwise we must await a generational shift of voters’ attitudes. Brexit is almost bound to disappoint a large number of its supporters, if only because they want so many different and incompatible things . Younger people are more international and open in their outlook; their views will increasingly become mainstream. Re-entry to the EU, or perhaps a reformed successor is still something to hope for. But this time the case needs to be made on identity and emotion, and not by pretending that such things don’t count.

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The post-Brexit phoney war on the economy

Two months after Britain’s shock referendum result, and what has happened? Not a lot. Though you wouldn’t think it from reading the running commentary. So was Project Fear the hoax that the Leave campaigners always said? Probably not.

The few days after the result seemed to fulfil Project Fear more quickly than even Remain campaigners suggested. The pound fell sharply and many stock indices tumbled too. There was much talk of this or that investment being stopped, or this or that institution or business being under threat. Remain supporters have kept up the pace of alarmist talk ever since, to judge by my Facebook feed.

But Brexit campaigners have a point when they poke fun at this. When it comes to cold, hard economic statistics it is very hard to see much, or any, adverse impact. The stock markets have fully recovered. Retail sales, employment and prices all looked pretty healthy in July. The government still finds it laughably easy to raise money on the bond markets; the Bank of England’s currency reserves went up. Only that fall in the currency has persisted. And no doubt that reflects weaknesses in the economy before the vote – given the scale of the ongoing current account deficit. The various indicators that have taken a plunge represent sentiment rather than hard fact, and may have been contaminated by the sheer shock of it all, as might the gloomy reports from the Bank of England and the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

On only one thing can Brexiteers be disappointed. The remaining EU has sailed on just as smoothly as the UK, with the Euro strengthening significantly against the pound. This defies predictions of imminent panic and collapse gleefully made by (some) Brexit campaigners. No other country seems at all inclined to follow Britain’s lead to the exit. Even as the emerging kerfuffle on Italian banks is as good evidence as you might ask for about problems with EU rules and democratic mandates.

There is, of course, one possible explanation for this insouciance: denial. Maybe people think that exit is so hard, and will have such obviously dire consequences, that it will never happen. Speculation about the invocation of Clause 50 for formal exit pushes it further and further into the future. If so it shows remarkably little insight amongst the market makers. Any process by which the referendum result is reversed will be very messy, and entail a lot of collateral damage.

Personally I think people are putting too much faith in the markets’ ability to see trouble ahead. The signs that the 2008 crash was in the works were obvious more than a year beforehand, when the interbank markets froze. Strong enough, as I don’t tire to point out, for me to move my pension portfolio from shares into index-linked gilts and cash. The more perceptive would have seen the trouble coming a year before even that, when US property prices started to slide, threatening the foundations of the whole financial edifice. And yet the markets did not reflect the mounting danger at all.

And at the other end of the scale, when it comes to the multitude of small decisions taken by consumers and businesses that drive the short term statistics, there is also a sort of built-in inertia. Short term decisions quickly overwhelm intangible longer term worries. People don’t know what to do, so they carry on as normal.

There are two ways in which the Project Fear may yet turn out to be on the money. One is a slow decline that accumulates: slower growth turns to a shallow recession that persists. That would be perfectly consistent with current statistics. The other way would be like the 2008 crash: a delayed reaction leading to a sudden crash.  Both of these follow my metaphor of the economy being holed below the waterline in my post in the week after the result. The ship is in mortal danger despite no damage visible above water.

Why might trouble happen? It comes back to the basic weakness of the British economy (which, it must be said, EU membership was doing little to help) – a substantial trade and current account deficit. Britons as a whole are spending more than they are earning, and have been for many years. That has been OK because plenty of foreigners have been prepared to lend us money, or to invest in British businesses or property. Also British multinationals may be selling off foreign assets and bringing the proceeds home. Brexit is putting that investment flow at risk.

What happens if the country can’t get enough currency to pay for imports? Demand for Sterling falls, and the currency sinks. That might attract investors (British assets look a bargain) or scare them (with the risk of further depreciation). Currency reserves, private and national, start to be drawn down. That will affect living standards. Then either the trade balance corrects (buy fewer imports and sell more exports), or things start getting nasty with a financial crisis as the stability of banks and the entire payments system comes into question – which is what happened in 2008, for different reasons. These changes tend not to happen smoothly.

The problem is that the financial system is very complex, with all sorts of buffers and hidden dependencies, which makes it non-linear. Responses are not proportionate to the changes to the system. Past performance is a poor guide to future dangers. There might be a lot of short-term factors stabilising things, but that could be undermining resilience. The country could be building up vulnerability to the next financial crisis, just as the Labour government of the naughties created vulnerability to the banking crisis of 2008.

Or perhaps the Brexiteers are right. The financial system will adapt to the new realities calmly and the British economy is fundamentally stronger than the pessimists say. The economy will sail serenely on and gather strength to boot.

The thing is that it is just too early to tell. It could be many months, or even years, before any crisis caused by Brexit emerges. I will be watching for signs of trouble. But, to be honest, I haven’t seen them yet. It’s all a phoney war.

 

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The Liberal Democrats: a rebirth not a fightback

Britain’s political system is in turmoil, and each political party faces distinct problems. For now the Conservatives seem to be weathering the crisis best; the referendum result was the right one for them, in party management terms at least. Labour’s crisis is looking terminal, “the reek of death” as this excellent article by Nick Cohen has it, describing the particular lunacy of the political far left. But what of the party that has already suffered death: the Liberal Democrats?

Death might sound a bit strong. It continues to bob along at 8% or so in the opinion polls, win the odd local election, and its membership is resurgent. But the party has regained little of the political traction it lost during its coalition with the Conservatives from 2010 to 2015. And so much of the human capital and community connections it built up in its growth years in the 1990s and early 2000s has gone. Locally I can’t get over the fact that the Lambeth party has lost all its councillors – I remember so well the process by which the party took de facto control of the council in 2002, a process that will now have to restart almost from scratch. The party is now almost completely ignored by the mainstream media. In David Cameron’s valedictory Prime Minster’s Questions last week the Speaker saw fit not to call any of the party’s MPs, in spite of the important role the party played in his premiership. Only Lib Dem activists noticed.

And yet new life is stirring. Last year, after the calamitous General Election, party membership surged, and the Autumn conference was one its best attended, though ignored by lobbyists and media. But that is as nothing compared to what has happened in the last month – after the referendum. Membership has surged again (my local party has grown by about 60% – this may be the strongest it has ever been), but it is very different from last year. In 2015 the members were sorry for the party; they were interested in it, but few were up for a fight. In 2016 they are boiling. Membership events are better attended than ever; new and recent members want to get involved. The party is benefiting from a general increase in political engagement, which is benefiting most other parties too.

What is happening? Last year the party celebrated the membership surge under the hashtag #libdemfightback. This made me cringe. The old party is dead. A new party is being born. Not enough of the party’s remaining old hands recognise the difference between a fightback and a rebirth. With the latter you are dealing with a new party.

I want to say something about what I suspect about the reborn party. This is unashamedly based on my local experience in this part of cosmopolitan London, plus reading the odd blog and social media comment. I may be proved wrong – this year’s party conference in Brighton will be an important test. But here goes anyway.

First the new party is cosmopolitan, well educated, and, as a generality, distinctly younger than the old one.  Many in the old party, including me, find the new members to be kindred spirits. But much of the old party was built through local campaigning, and drew in a distinctly less cosmopolitan crowd. Many female activists reported casual sexism that would be anathema to the new membership. The new party may find it harder to rebuild in its old rural strongholds than many suppose, but it should be less dominated by white male representatives.

Second, the new party is not very tribal by British political standards. The need for political alliances to achieve wider political ends is often mentioned. The wider political scene, and especially the promotion of cosmopolitan values, is more important than the party’s own fortunes. Old hands need to be conscious of this, though the party leader, Tim Farron, has clearly picked this up.

Third, the new party is distinctly more centrist than the old one. After the coalition with the Conservatives ended in 2015, many old hands thought they could put those years behind them, and recover the party’s old standing as part of the “radical” left, which peaked in 2005. The new members will give them a shock. They may cringe at the tuition fees debacle, but they do not regard the coalition government, and its austerity policies, as a betrayal. They are largely private sector in employment and outlook. The more left-wing types have joined Labour. Members of the old party who think the former leader Nick Clegg should be erased from the party’s history will not find a receptive audience.

So, those are the main elements of the new party that is taking shape. What about its political opportunity? So far there is little evidence of traction with the public at large; but with the Conservatives embracing Brexit and Labour showing suicidal tendencies, that could easily change. At this point I just want to posit one negative and two positives.

The negative is shared with the emerging Labour Party, which is undergoing its own rebirth, except that in their case the old party hasn’t died yet. The social base of its membership is narrow. It will be a huge challenge to broaden the party’s appeal to less cosmopolitan groups – and yet that is what the party must do to succeed. At least the Lib Dems, unlike Labour, who are victims an overblown sense of political entitlement, can have few illusions about the scale of the challenge.

The first positive is that the referendum has proved to a cataclysmic political event, that has helped erase memories of what went before it, or at least changed their perspective. This gives the Lib Dems the chance to move on from its recent traumas more speedily that otherwise.

The second positive is that the referendum result has changed the political dynamic in the party’s favour, just as the country embarks on a course that it thinks is profoundly wrong. Previously being against the EU was a central organising theme of anti-establishment politics.  All sorts of ills could be blamed on EU membership, and it was very hard to refute these claims. Now that dynamic is reversing. The country’s ills can plausibly be blamed on Brexit, and life in the EU can slowly be built into a sort of promised land. Being pro-EU and pro-immigration will become anti-establishment. That is a much easier dynamic for an up and coming political party to play with, whatever the justice of it.

The media will continue to treat the Lib Dems as if their party was dead. The survival of the reborn party is certainly not assured. But something interesting is happening.

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Why WTO-plus is better than EEA-minus as Britain negotiates Brexit

It’s still very wounding to think of the UK leaving the European Union. The Leave campaign was based largely on lies and wishful thinking; those who voted to leave fell well below 40% of the electorate, which might be a reasonable threshold for such a major change. But Theresa May, our new Prime Minister, has said “Brexit means Brexit”. This is surely the best way forward. Rather than try to undermine the referendum result, it is better in the long run to test it to destruction.

Calls to rerun the referendum are understandable but unrealistic. The Conservative Party is overwhelmingly Eurosceptic amongst its membership, if not amongst its MPs. The party must rally to that cause. Members and MPs who don’t like it should leave the party. Politically it needs to rebuild its appeal to the working and lower middle classes outside London, who overwhelming voted for Brexit. Mrs May stands a better chance of succeeding here that the duo of David Cameron and George Osborne.

Labour is in an impossible position. Though its MPs overwhelmingly support membership of the EU, most of them had large Leave majorities in their constituencies. They will be unable to ignore this. So with neither the Tories nor most of Labour ready to fight to overturn the referendum result, that leaves the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and an assortment of Northern Ireland MPs to take up the fight. They are impossibly outnumbered. Which does not mean that they should stop putting the case. But that fight is the first step in a very long road. It may be possible that the UK could limp back into the EU as its negotiating position collapses and it faces a deep economic crisis. This would leave a bitter legacy and it is not to be wished for.

That leaves the question of what Britain should aim for in its negotiations for exit. Many advocate something referred to as “EEA-minus”. EEA is the European Economic Area, which consists of the EU plus Norway and Iceland and one or more tiny statelets.  EEA members have access to the Single market, but must also abide by the three key freedoms of movement: goods, capital and labour. The idea behind EEA-minus is that the UK would negotiate exceptions to freedom of movement of labour – as immigration was easily the most successful argument used by Leave campaigners. It feels like a pragmatic compromise between the 48% who wanted continued membership and the 52% who wanted to do something about immigration. It would reduce economic disruption. But it is a shabby compromise that would please almost nobody. Leave supporters would still find the country bound by EU laws and courts, and making budget contributions, with the indignity of not being able to influence them. It is hard to argue that it isn’t a net backward step on practical sovereignty. Remain supporters would look at the whole exercise as being pointless. And any fudge on free movement of labour is guaranteed to disappoint.

Actually, there is a deeper problem. Free movement of labour goes to the heart of the EU’s sense of itself. It is precisely what excites most younger EU enthusiasts about the union. And it is hard to understand why the other EU governments would want to fudge it – the risks for them would be enormous. Any negotiation is practically bound to collapse or at least prove an enormous disappointment.

The opposite possibility is hard Brexit. This means that Britain would be unambiguously outside the EU, without an overarching treaty to bind it in at all.  Trade would be covered by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) framework, guaranteeing some minimum standards. This is by no means as straightforward as many Brexit campaigners claimed in the referendum campaign – it actually requires significant amounts of negotiation in its own right (as the FT explains). But it is a robust baseline, and there is much merit in making this the main focus of the UK’s rather limited negotiating resources. The UK would then need to identify a series of priority issues to negotiate with the EU to add on top. Top amongst these are the rights of residence and labour market participation of EU citizens living in Britain, and vice versa. Also there is the passporting of financial services, though this is not an issue to die in the ditch over.

There are three advantages to a “WTO plus” approach, over “EEA minus”. First is that it presents a tough negotiating position, which will help to win concessions on critical issues. Second is that it follows the picture painted by Leave campaigners most closely; in the long run it is critical to call their bluff – they are either right in their optimism – in which case the EU needs to rethink itself – or they are wrong, in which case they will be undermined as the major political force they have become. And third it helps get the bad news out of the way quickly. There remains a lot of denial about the impact of leaving the EU; the announcement of WTO-plus would administer a second shock to the system, causing further losses to the pound and inward investment. But then it should hit bottom, and the momentum might be back upwards. This would be healthier in the long run than a drawn out series of disappointments that would erode confidence in the British economy and make it look the sick man of Europe. Getting the bad news over with is something the Americans usually do much better than Europeans – and we should learn from them.

And for us EU supporters, we need to understand that freedom of movement of people is at the very heart of what we want, and we must recognise that we have, for now, lost the argument. But we must rebuild the case, using the traumas of Brexit as evidence. Meanwhile we must think about the sort of EU that we want. We are now witnessing an unholy mess as the Italian government and the EU Commission wrangle about rescuing Italy’s banks. The EU’s rules on state aid look much too restrictive.  The EU will survive, and one day Britain will rejoin it. But it will be a different Britain and a different EU. We must work to change both.

 

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The same arrogance that created disaster in Iraq is behind Brexit

It is a very British piece of political theatre. Yesterday Sir John Chilcot published the results of his enquiry into the Iraq. It is exhaustive, scrupulous, but examines events that are now ancient political history. Historians will find it useful, but in the big picture it tells us little we did not know already. It will have changed no minds. No currently active political career is affected. The US State Department spokesman sounded very puzzled over the attention the affair is getting, given the pressing challenges facing the world. No doubt that puzzlement is felt by other foreign observers. What was the point?

All I can say to that is that it is just the British way. We like to produce weighty reports that achieve little. Some people find it cathartic. It is much easier to reflect on the mistakes of the past than to consider a very messy present. I particularly enjoyed this reflection by an anti-war leftist in the New Statesman (Thank you Martha Zantides). I have always felt that moral certainties are evasions; my views on Iraq have always been ambiguous, notwithstanding the clear stand made by my party, the Liberal Democrats.

But I think it is a good moment to reflect on the nature of political power and decision-making. The immediate concern of Chilcot is Britain’s role in Iraq. And the main point here is how the moral certainty of Tony Blair, our then Prime Minister, managed to subvert the checks and balances of institutional decision-making to throw the country behind an American project, over which British leaders had very little influence. In Mr Blair’s eyes Saddam Hussein was a vicious dictator and a threat to world peace, and needed to be removed. He encouraged the Americans to work to that end, and backed them when they took the project on. After that he and the British were helpless passengers. British military resources, also committed to Afghanistan, were overstretched and forced into ignominious retreat – a small fraction of the continuing catastrophe that enveloped Iraq. Could this sort of thing happen again? Certainly; our institutions still favour the executive – though our capacity to act, and willingness to embroil ourselves in foreign adventures, are now much diminished.

But the British dimension was a sideshow. The real disaster in Iraq reflects the US political process. This firstly led to a reckless drive towards war, and, more culpably, a massive mis-judgement of how to deal with the aftermath. Driving these disastrous decisions was group of officials and politicians with a clear, driving vision. The most notorious was the Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; there was also Vice President Dick Cheney (who brought shadowy commercial interests into the picture) , and the highly influential Paul Wolfowitz, a real ideologue. Collectively these were known as the Neo-Conservatives, or Neocons.

The Neocons had a clear vision of the world and America’s role in it. They wished to push over dictatorships using US military power, and let the grateful people set up democracies and unregulated market economies in their place. They dismissed the legions of diplomatic and military types who made practical objections as being hidebound by old norms. They seized on small scraps of evidence that supported their case, and dismissed anything else. This was exploited by a group of Iraqi exiles, notably Ahmed Chalabi, who had no real political base, but told the Neocons what they wanted to hear about the country’s readiness to embrace American ways. This process, whereby an arrogant, visionary clique creates a simplified world view in the teeth of the evidence has been given a name: “groupthink”.  There are plenty of examples down through history. There are notable parallels within the ruling elites of Germany and Austria-Hungary before the First World War, for example. Democracies should not be as vulnerable as autocracies, as there should be more pluralism of thought, but Iraq showed that the US and British systems are not immune.

And in Britain we are now in the middle of another catastrophe brought about by groupthink – Brexit – though thankfully not one so threatening to human life. Amongst the supporters of Brexit in the British establishment we see the same ideological zeal, and the same unwillingness to get involved in the practical details. Chief amongst these is the Justice Secretary Michael Gove. This man is full of visionary zeal, but he seems unwilling to listen to experts. Indeed he publicly dismissed the usefulness of experts in the referendum campaign. This was evident in his stint as Education Secretary, when he dismissed the educational establishment as “the Blob”. Experts often lose the wood for the trees, and so must be open the challenge. But the answer is not to drive a bulldozer through them. Mr Gove’s term at Education achieved some good things, but was mainly a colossal waste of effort, which we are still picking up the pieces from.

Alongside Mr Gove sit, or sat, political opportunists like Boris Johnson and Andrea Leadsom, and anti-intellectual populists like Ukip’s Nigel Farage. And behind them there are a coterie of Brexit backers, a group of businessmen, financiers, think-tankers and retired officials who provide intellectual heft. These are united by a loathing of European Union institutions (admittedly not an inspiring edifice). These have created a construct of Britain outside the EU that is not dissimilar from the Neocon vision of Iraq after the US invasion. Hopelessly optimistic, and dismissive of the practical difficulties of achievement. These people are still popping up on Radio 4 to tell us all will be well after the first wobbles have been overcome. They have no concept of the pain that Brexit is inflicting on our very sense of self. It’s question of puling ourselves together and getting on with it. And if disaster ensues, it will be somebody else’s fault. Just like the Neocons in Iraq (and Tony Blair) who blame Iraq’s collapse on bad people, over whom they hold no sway.

Meaningful progress does not arrive through a visionary, revolutionary process imposed by a tiny elite. Neither does it emerge from a vacuum – the removal of the forces of order so that a new , more efficient system will emerge by market forces. It happens through a hard process of evolution, comprising a dialogue of bottom-up and top-down processes. It’s hard work and requires patience. Alas we have once more fallen victim to the impatient, who will walk away to leave others to clear up the mess.

 

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Brexit: an own goal for the Eurosceptics

brexit20winnerIt must have seemed like a good idea at the time. A while back a right-wing think tank, the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), launched a EUR 100,000 prize for a blueprint for Britain’s exit from the EU, the “Brexit”. The winner was announced last week, to not very much fanfare. You can read it here: Brexit Entry 170_final_bio_web. It is not surprising that our mainly Eurosceptic media have given it a low profile. It exposes flaws that go deep into heart of the Eurosceptic case. Better to stick with Nigel Farage’s meaningless soundbites. No doubt the Europhiles ignored it as its thesis is still Eurosceptic. That is a pity. This piece of work deserves to be taken seriously by both sides of the debate.

First, though: credit where it is due. This piece of work is a breath of fresh air compared to most of what comes out of both sides of the debate. It is calm, factual and objectively reasoned. It reflects well both on its author, 30-year old diplomat Iain Mansfield and the IEA. Bar one or two articles in The Economist, it is about the best reasoned thing I have read on Britain’s possible exit from the EU.

The essay answers the question of what would happen if Britain voted to leave the EU. It considers the various negotiations that would need to be made, and what these should aim to achieve. It has a stab at assessing what the economic consequences would be. Along the way it explains a lot of the facts that impinge on this (such as what is the difference between the EEA and EFTA?). This is a welcome change from the airy hopes and assertions usually made by Eurosceptics – and the equally airy scorn poured on them by Europhiles.

Its central idea is quite a sound one. Britain would not bring up the drawbridge and retreat into “Little England”, as no doubt some older Ukip supporters would like. The UK would establish itself as an open nation, promoting free trade. This reflects the economic liberalism of most modern Conservatives. They feel that membership of the EU gets in the way of the country promoting a economically liberal policy agenda.

There is one big gap in this work as a review of Britain’s options. There is no sense of industrial strategy. British business would flourish in a less regulated environment; we would trade more with emerging economies. That’s about it. Where are Britain’s comparative advantages? Which industrial sectors would we rely on – and how would these be promoted after Brexit? And the gorilla in the room: what happens to international wholesale financial services (aka the City) in the brave new world? It is easy to see both positives and negatives for the City – but how would these balance out? If there is one thing that makes other European nations exercised about Britain, it is the financial industry. Surely they wouldn’t hesitate to use a Brexit to make mischief?

There is also a quibble. He says that Britain should gain a net £10bn per annum in net contributions – though not straightaway. He says some of this will have to be spent on building capabilities that we have delegated to Brussels, such as trade negotiation and antitrust, but mostly it would be a gain. And yet he freely suggests the need for agricultural subsidies, and a host of inducements to entice in foreign direct investment (FDI). That £10bn is unlikely to last very long.

But that’s a detail. Three big problems stand out from this study. Has the British public signed up to economic liberalism and deregulation? Is the Brexit strategy trying to have its cake and eat it? And is it worth all that effort?

There is common belief on the right that Britons are a nation of freewheelers, and that the inveterate regulators in most other European countries are anathema. We are more like the Americans. Leaving aside whether Americans really are such freewheelers (you need a licence to be a hairdresser in many states), this is not well founded. Britons love to whinge about excessive regulation, to the extent that “Health & Safety” has negative connotations, but attempts at deregulation usually fail. Mr Mansfield wants a “Great Repeal Bill” to roll back and replace a host of product and labour regulations. That promises to be the mother of all political battles, and its outcome is bound to disappoint. Britons have as much affinity with Scandinavia as America – and you can’t move for regulations there, not least in Norway, which is not even in the EU. Indeed the sort of new Britain that many Tory Eurosceptics seek is a kind of right wing dystopia so far as most Britons are concerned.

More serious is the strategy for European trade that lies behind the Eurosceptic economic case. For all his thoughtful detail and realistic attitudes, this looks like a strategic flaw in Mr Mansfield’s strategy. The idea is that Britain gets free access to most European markets (he rightly suggests this would be unrealistic for agriculture, though); but that our industry will be more competitive because it can avoid large areas of regulation, especially for labour. And he takes this a step further, by suggesting that, with the help of some extra incentives like low tax rates, the country can retain its popularity as one of the top European countries for FDI – so that these incomers can export to the EU. This is known as having your cake and eating it. This strategy requires the cooperation of the county’s EU trading partners, who have a name for it: social dumping. And the fact that Britain imports more from Europe than it exports to it does not, in fact, give the country a strong negotiating position, as many Eurosceptics suggest. To his credit Mr Mansfield does not mention this last argument, and describes the British negotiating position as weak.

Which leads to the next problem. When you get into the detail of what has to be negotiated, Britain will end up giving concession after concession. Mr Mansfield suggests that half or even two thirds of the aquis communitaire (the body of EU laws and regulations) would have to be retained by Britain. The scope is massive. The overwhelming impression I get from reading this essay is the sheer size of what would have to be dealt with in a series of extremely tricky negotiations. All for what? Mr Mansfield estimates a range of impacts on the economy from -2.6% to +1.1%, with +0.1% as “most likely”. He observes that the case is more political than economic.

In only one area might the general public, as opposed to right-wing politicians, think that this might be worth it: ending the free movement of people, and especially labour. We would still need quite a free flow, but it would be easier to manage – and it would be easy to establish inferior rights for European immigrants. I suspect that the whole case for or against the EU will turn on this – and Europhiles badly need to sharpen up on the subject.

At the end Mr Mansfield refers to the examples of Canada and New Zealand as being successful countries in spite of being separate from nearby behemoths (the USA and Australia respectively). Interestingly another study on the benefits of EU membership, reviewed in this week’s Economist, uses a comparison with New Zealand to suggest that British incomes are 25% higher for having joined the EU in 1973. New Zealand’s economic record, in spite of (because of?) being a bit of test bed for economic liberalism, has been pretty underwhelming. It has recently being doing better courtesy of massive exports of agricultural products to China. Well New Zealand is a small country far away from anywhere – so comparing it with the UK is a stretch. But at least it has a decent export engine based on its natural resources (as does Canada with its mineral wealth). Britain’s oil is fading (and mostly Scottish anyway); it has been in agricultural deficit for a century; it is not an option to despoil swathes of countryside to dig out minerals for the Chinese market. We have the City, and lots of management consultants. Is this enough to build big export industry with the developing world?

In recent article, Vagueness is a danger for eurosceptic demagogues FT columnist Janan Ganesh pointed out that the Eurosceptic case tends to fall apart when Euroscpetics try to spell out exactly what they think exit it all means. Mr Mansfield’s interesting and refreshing essay cannot hide this truth.

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