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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