Tag Archives: EU referendum

An awful moment in British politics, and it could get worse

Yesterday I spent most of the day helping my local Liberal Democrats in the Tooting by-election. Alas there was little to show for it as the two main parties steamrollered all the others; we hope to have built something for the future.

But that, of course, is not what prompted the title of this article, though it hardly helped. During the day a British Labour MP, Jo Cox, was shot and killed by one of her constituents while she was holding a surgery. This comes on top of week where English football fans exhibited shocking, loutish behaviour at the European Championships in France, and in the EU referendum, the Leave campaign took a firm lead in the opinion polls, as it sank to new lows in ad hominem attacks and the raising of irrelevant fears. This included a poster showing refugees modelled on one devised by Goebbels in Nazi Germany.

I did not know Ms Cox. Her murder has shocked the political establishment, and she has drawn eulogies from across the political spectrum. Her attacker seems to have taken exception to her internationalist outlook, be it support for the Remain campaign or helping refugees from Syria and elsewhere.

I, and many of my friends, are linking these depressing events. The Leave campaign is riding on the crest of a public backlash, especially by older, less-educated English white males , against the political establishment. Immigration and Muslims are their subjects of choice. Political correctness is condemned. As this movement gathers momentum, people feel free to indulge in all manner of rudeness in the cause of “putting Britain first”, by which they usually mean England. This is a far cry from murder, maybe, and I’m sure that Leave campaigners are as shocked as anybody else, but the fire they are playing with reduces the psychological barriers to violence.

And it is leading nowhere good. A Leave result next week will provoke political chaos – and perhaps economic chaos too, according to the FT’s usually sober Martin Wolf. The paradox is that the aggressive anti-world, anti-establishment campaigning of the Outers leaves the country ill-equipped to deal with the consequences. While some Leave campaigners hope for a confident Britain making its way in a world without its horizons limited by the EU, it is not this which is giving their campaign traction. The country will enter one of the most politically and economically challenging periods of its recent history virtually leaderless, and with little sign of where any coherent leadership will come from.

And the world is not nice place at the moment. The week started with the shocking massacre in Orlando. Xenophobia is rising in the rest of Europe. The peoples of the Middle East are helplessly mired in conflict. And that is to say nothing of the self-indulgent nationalism of Russia and China who feel take no responsibility for making the world a better place except for their own ruling elites..

Still I hope that enough British Leave supporters will draw back at the last moment, after gaining a sense of the abyss into which they may push our country, and stay at home or perhaps event vote the other way. It is but a faint hope; deep down I think things are going to get worse. And the consequences of even a narrow remain victory look difficult.

At times like this my habit of political optimism is very hard to sustain. And yet we must keep trying for better.

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Britain after Brexit: Singapore, Switzerland or Japan?

What would Britain become if it left the EU after the Referendum on 23 June? To most campaigners for Leave this may seem an unfair question: they are not a government in waiting. To them EU membership is inherently bad, and we should sort out what the country is to become one democratic step at a time once we have decided to leave. But to many Remainers it is the lack of a coherent and convincing alternative vision for Britain that is one of the strongest reasons for staying in the EU. So it helps to think it through. One way of doing that is to look at the example of other countries.

One of the early alternative visions put forward by Leave advocates was Singapore. This is especially popular amongst businessmen. Singapore broke free from the Malaysian Federation in 1965 (it was expelled) and has prospered as an independent state. It now counts itself as part of the developed world, unlike the continuing Malaysia, which has advanced not nearly so quickly. Singapore made itself an easy country to do business in, and developed as a trading entrepot through, for example, very efficient port facilities. Meanwhile Malaysia became bogged down with the politics and corruption of a larger state, notably engaging in the politics of ethnicity.

Likewise Leavers say that Britain is bogged down with the politics and inefficient regulation of an entity that is too big and complicated to be efficient. Why can’t we be something nimbler and more entrepreneurial, like Singapore? There are many problems with this idea, of course, which is no doubt we don’t hear so much of it now. First is that in size and complexity Britain looks more like Malaysia itself, rather than Singapore, while the EU looks nothing like the Malaysian Federation, with its autocratic leadership. The second is that Singapore is run very autocratically itself: a firmly-led one-party leadership forces through its pro-business agenda in a way that Britain’s government can only dream about. What stops Britain from being like Singapore is less the restrictions of the EU, and more its own raucous and vibrant democracy. A common complaint of Leave campaigners is that the EU is not democratic; following the example of Singapore suggests that it is in fact too democratic.

Enter a second possible exemplar: Switzerland. Switzerland is prosperous and European; it is also probably the most democratic country in the world. Referendums are a very regular occurrence; Swiss people are constantly consulted. And they rejected joining the EU (and the EEA, a diluted version that includes Norway) exactly because it threatened its democratic standards. But the Swiss example throws up a couple of interesting problems. First, the country has found that the only way to make a proper democracy work is through a level of local devolution that is alien to Britain’s freewheeling ways. The central government is weak; most of the action occurs at cantonal level. This level of local government is actually quite intrusive; woe betide anybody that runs their washing machine late at night. A number of years ago many London firms threatened to migrate to Geneva in reaction to intrusive financial regulation; they did not follow through as their staff found the city a difficult place in which to live.

Well that is more interesting than a decisive argument over Britain’s choices. It may show that many Brexit campaigners have mixed feelings about democracy, but Britain can still choose to runs its affairs differently. The second problem is more difficult: in order to prosper, Switzerland has found it necessary to participate in EU structures to secure its part in the single European market. It must comply with many EU regulations, allow the free movement of EU citizens and even pay into the EU budget. There is a tension between these things and Switzerland’s democracy (especially over allowing EU nationals in to work), but Switzerland has been forced to compromise. The Leave case to the voters is based heavily on stopping the free movement of people and on stopping EU budget contributions; it follows that the country could not follow the Swiss compromise, and would sacrifice much of its prosperity as a result.  Indeed the Swiss compromise makes little sense – why not accept the EU structures and participate in their management in a way the Swiss are unable to? it is not as if we have such democratic traditions to protect. Indeed we might find some of the European structures useful to protect our citizens from our own government, elected with very unconvincing democratic mandates.

I think a third exemplar fits much more closely with where Britain would head if it left the EU: Japan. Japan is an island nation positioned just off a continent with which it has difficult political relationships. It values social cohesion beyond economic prosperity, which means that it maintains strict controls against immigration, even though its aging population is creating a crying need for younger workers. It would rather seek solutions in robotics. It is democratic, though not in the free-wheeling way that Britain has become used to.  But a post-Brexit Conservative Party could establish the dominance that Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party has achieved. The result would not be the business-friendly wonder of Singapore, but an even denser thicket of regulations and bureaucratic meddling than Britain has now, which helps to preserve social cohesion and stability, and protect the interests of established major businesses. In principle I think most of Britain’s voters would settle for this, even as they might moan (the Japanese do that too).

The problem for Britain is that Japan’s economy is based on a strong industrial base. This is a historical oddity that would be very hard for Britain to replicate starting from where it does now (though would perhaps have been feasible starting from where it was in the 1950s). The businesses at the core of Japan’s success are mature ones, like Toyota, which has become the world’s leading motor manufacturer, alongside Germany’s Volkswagen. These businesses are not growing – indeed Japan’s economy has been in the doldrums since the 1990s, but they nevertheless provide Japan with financial security. Japan’s government is not dependent on foreign investors as Britain’s is. To replicate Japan’s success would require a rebalancing of Britain’s economy, led by a substantial devaluation of the pound, and several years of pain as living standards were squeezed.

Are Britons really up for this? The country has already advanced far further down the road of multiculturalism than Japan could conceive of – a legacy of its Imperial history rather than of EU membership. Britons have got used to their holidays in the sun, and the country’s relationship with its continental neighbours has always been more integrated than that of Japan’s with China and (to a lesser degree) Korea.

But if Britain votes for Leave – which is having the better of the referendum campaign so far – they may find themselves following the Japan road, with much less benign results than Japan has been able to achieve. That is a good reason to vote Remain.

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Brexit is winning the referendum campaign: what should Remain do?

I have been following British politics remotely for the last two weeks from Cuba, where I was on holiday, and where internet access is limited, even in international hotels. The EU referendum campaign seemed to be going well for Remain. A rash of polls after a bit of a famine showed them winning by about a 10% margin. But as I arrived home yesterday I was in for a bit of a shock.

First (hat-tip to politicalbetting.com – an excellent source of news on polling) any swing to remain shown by those polls was illusory. It came from the fact that most of the new polls were phone polls while those before them (showing a neck-and-neck result) were online polls; the online polls hadn’t budged. One of the curiosities of the campaign from the start is that phone polls have shown a distinct bias to remain (or online polls to Brexit, if you prefer). Then came yesterday’s shocker from ICM/The Guardian, which showed a 10% lead for remain being morphed into one for Brexit for 4%. And that was a phone poll.

Interestingly the evidence from ICM’s online polls (and a new online poll today) suggests that this movement is more to do with the phone bias disappearing than with a wider swing in sentiment. But since optimists like me had assumed that phone polls were more reliable, that is no comfort whatsoever. My best guess is that Brexit now have a lead. That is more than worrying.

Why? Well it’s nothing to do with my social circles, including those on social media, who continue to convince themselves that Remain is the only intellectually viable option, and pour scorn on the antics of the Brexit campaign. Unfortunately this is not the decisive battleground, and all the that sneering is probably not helping to convince the small numbers of Leave sympathisers and don’t knows that lurk in those circles. Brexit seems to have a decisive lead among the working classes, especially its ethnically white members, and in places outside London and its hinterland, and Scotland.

The Leave campaign seems to be well targeted here. Its early appeals to the intellect, around parliamentary sovereignty and an appeal to British history, have fallen flat – but the campaign has majored on two undeniable facts. First is that the taxpayer makes cash contributions to the EU; the £350 million a week repeated relentlessly by the campaign is a lie, but how much of a lie remains arguable – it is before an agreed discount (the “rebate”), and spending by the EU within Britain on farm subsidies and the like, which it is said could or should be spent on different things. This enables the campaign to suggest many alternative ways this money could be spent, with the NHS top of the bill, to appeal to working class voters. It makes no difference that most Brexit politicians are enthusiastic supporters of austerity cuts, or that they assure farmers that the spending by the EU would be replaced by similar spending by the UK government. The first rule of political argument is that you never have time to explain.

The second undeniable fact used by Leave is that membership of the EU includes freedom of movement, which allows people from other EU countries the right to live and work in Britain. That implies that leaving the EU would allow Britain to restrict immigration from other EU countries. Since immigration is popularly blamed for a wide variety of social ills, including stagnant wages and job insecurity, as well as high property prices and rents, and stretched public services, this is a powerful argument indeed. Cleverly today Leave campaigners proposed an “Australian style” points system to limit immigration. This moves the campaign from histrionic hand-waving to a seemingly sensible policy proposal from a government-in-waiting – just what Remain campaigners say that Leave couldn’t do. Even more cleverly, Leave campaigners are able to weave in fears about illegal immigration (some Albanians were caught trying to cross the Channel this week) and the refugee crisis in south Europe, even though these have nothing to do with Brexit, and might even be made worse by it. That libertarian Tories are signing up to an immigration policy based on bureaucratic central planning is one of the many paradoxes in the campaign.

So what should the Remain side do to neutralise this effective campaign? I can see two possible approaches. One is “no more Mr Nice Guy”, and the other is “keep calm and carry on” – in other words by copying Leave’s tactics or playing their opposite. Playing both strategies at once is possible too, but risky.

How might Remain copy Leave’s tactics? They need to start with some undeniable facts. What might these be? The most powerful is that all Britain’s trading relationships will have to be renegotiated by politicians and civil servants that have largely forgotten how to do it, and who would be overwhelmed by the task. This is bound to disrupt trade and investment for the short term, and it would surely create permanent damage too. Remain have tried to use this fact by way of warnings from authoritative figures and financial estimates of the impact on working families from economists. This has to be taken down market with visual images of redundancy notices and pay cuts – as well has trying to create more direct images of the scale of disruption involved (the number of treaties that would have to be negotiated, how long it would take, by how many negotiators, etc.). Remain have been accused of running a negative scare campaign – this strategy would mean living up to that description.

But would that be playing into Leave’s hands? The alternative is to keep pumping out the vaguely positive and reassuring images, to try and show that all sensible people support Remain, and let the sheer wildness of the Leave campaign sow the seeds of doubt, and allow them to play on the minds of Brexit inclined voters, so they then fail to turn out, or even change their minds.

This blog does not presume to advise on this choice. I am not in close to or in sympathy with the decisive group of voters; my advice on Lib Dem electoral strategy, notably in the European elections of 2014, was well received but wide of the mark.  These are scary times for those of us who feel that a British vote for Brexit would be a catastrophic result for the country, and a betrayal for what it has stood for since so many of our ancestors died on European fields 100 years ago.

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The #EUref campaign so far: Leave 2, Remain 1

First an apology. I haven’t been posting much on this blog in the last few weeks. This is for two reasons. First life is intervening, in the form of school governance duties and London election work (administrative rather than political). But also because I am experiencing severe performance problems with my website, which are entirely mysterious to me. Having tried a number of things I have now migrated to a new  hosting company which is both cheaper, and billed as a WordPress specialist, and so better able to provide the technical support I need. It does seem to be working better already. Strangely enough yesterday I had an email from my old hosting company (5Quid) to say that it was being taken over by my new one (TSOhost) and would be migrating anyway. It may help that I have got in first. Still I now feel free to post again.

The big political story of the moment is the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, which is due on 23 June. I want to offer thoughts on how the campaign is faring.

The first thing to say is that it is not an edifying experience. I have heard it suggested that regular public referendums help educate the public on political issues. That may be the case in some countries, but it is not how it works in Britain. I learnt that from the 2011 campaign on the Alternative Vote. No argument was too spurious to field. The public found the “raucous” mudslinging enjoyed by the press more engaging than any attempt to grapple with the issues. Public understanding of electoral systems advanced not an inch; even quite respectable, educated people still say that it was all about proportional representation. And so it is this time. No argument is too spurious. Much easier to tackle the man rather than the argument. It is in this context that we must judge the progress of the two camps.

Leave scored an early goal when two senior Conservatives, the Justice Secretary Michael Gove and the London Mayor Boris Johnson came over to their side, after rumours that they wouldn’t. Personally I find it hard to take either of these politicians seriously, but they are clever men, and have followings. They gave the Remain camp respectability and gravitas (in a funny sort of way with Mr Johnson – but he’s a serious politician) that they other wise lacked.

Leave scored again, in my view, with a coherent and well-chosen core message in the first weeks, supported by some effective sound-bite arguments. This is quite remarkable since their campaign was and still is the more chaotic, with rival camps eager to dominate the argument. This shows some strong political instincts on their part. Their slogan “Take Control” gives a reassuring flavour to their proposition, in spite of it leading the country into a daunting political space. Two soundbite arguments stand out. First is that the gross contributions made to the EU (alleged to be £350M a week) could easily be spent on other things, specifically the NHS. This is nonsense of course, since most of the contributions come back into the economy in one way or another. Spending the money on the NHS would mean taking it away from farmers; the contributions end up being spent several times over with this sort of reasoning. And, of course, the financial effect could easily be swamped by bigger economic developments. No matter; all this requires explanation, and nobody is interested in stopping to listen to complicated explanations. The second soundbite argument is a more defensive one: which is that the UK’s trade deficit with the EU means that the UK can dictate trading terms, because otherwise those German exporters would get upset. Of course that only lasts as long as the trade deficit itself – and don’t we want to fix that? Even so, in the first weeks of the campaign this line of argument has been quite effective at neutralising Remain’s claims that the country will lose access to EU markets.

Meanwhile, Remain’s efforts seemed to fall flat. They tried to promote the idea that there would be short and long term damage to the economy. Leave called this “Project Fear” , which I thought was a mistake (drawing attention to the opposition’s claims), but it seemed to do the job. Steadily the polls started to drift Leave’s way. They had started with a Remain majority (which undermines my football metaphor a little – perhaps the campaign should be looked at as a return leg with Remain already 2-0 up from the previous one). A week or two ago the polls looked neck and neck – though phone polls (usually considered more reliable) showed a Remain lead, this was shrinking.

But this week Remain have pulled a goal back. This came with a weighty Treasury report suggesting that the economic costs to the UK of leaving, short and long term, would be very high indeed. The convenient headline figure was £4,300 per family – no doubt just as spurious as Leave’s headline numbers, but what the hell? This wasn’t news particularly, but it seems to have struck home. Why? Well it was weighty, and more objective observers, such as the FT’s Martin Wolf, consider it to be fundamentally sound in its analysis. But it also laid out in stark clarity the disadvantages of each of the various alternative trading arrangements. Again this is not new, but it had authority. It is the strongest intellectual argument for Remain, since each of the alternatives either has mighty drawbacks, or leaves you wondering what the point of leaving the EU would be, if you are still paying contributions and signing up to free movement of people.
That this move struck home was plainly evident from the Leave camp’s response. It was angry and panicky, and went for the man (George Osborne the Chancellor in particular – and economic forecasters in general). But they really didn’t want to take on the substance of the Treasury’s argument. Leave fielded their heaviest hitter, Mr Gove, but his economic arguments were  based on hope rather than substance, and he quickly tried to move the argument on to different ground. To do so he promoted his strange and a anachronistic ideas about Britain and its historical destiny, which will resonate with few. He accused the Remain side of treating the voters like children – but that felt like the pot calling the kettle black. As Martin Wolf says, “Avoiding needless and costly risks is how adults differ from children.”

Remain’s next step will be to use US President Barack Obama’s forthcoming visit to promote his support for Remain. Mr Obama has star quality in this country, if not his own, and it will undermine the optimistic picture painted by Leave of life outside the EU. Leave are already panicky about it, suggesting his views are hypocritical because he would never recommend restricting US sovereignty. But that is to suggest the countries are equals; in fact Britain is roughly the size of California economically; it is universally understood by Americans from Mr Obama down the California is better off in the USA than independent. Remain should score the  equaliser. The polls are already moving back their way.

But it’s not over till it’s over. Leave can certainly pull the contest back. Their strongest suit is the country’s anxiety over unrestricted migration from EU members, which can be used to promote all kinds of fears, from job security to terrorism. This is a genuinely open contest with at least a third of voters are not truly convinced by either side. And we haven’t even reached half-time.

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Brexit divides the middle class but the vote will be decided elsewhere

It’s often said the Britain’s referendum will be decided on emotions rather than facts. Well facts belong to the past, and the referendum to the future, so perhaps that is as it should be. The critical question is about the sort of country we want Britain to be. There is a difference between factually based opinion and raw emotion – but usually the former is just a tidy veneer on the latter. Our attitudes are driven by who we are, amongst the middle classes anyway.

There is clearly something cultural about it. It is very striking that amongst my friends and family, those with whom I feel able to talk about politics, the almost universal wish is for the country to remain in the EU. I have been politically active in the Liberal Democrats and its predecessors for 35 years, so perhaps this is not surprising. But it includes people who support Labour, the Conservatives and the Greens too. It also spans a wide range of ages; it is an issue where the younger generation agrees with its parents.

Who are we? We are middle-class, usually university educated, professional, civically minded, and political and social liberals. We hold a wide range of shred beliefs about the world, which go beyond the EU, including, for example, a belief in man-made climate change and the priority to reverse it.

And middle class folk who take the Brexit side, whom we hear every morning and evening on our radios and see on TV, are the fellow-citizens whom we most detest. We view them as self-interested, greedy hedge-fund managers and businessmen, or the sort of annoying intellectuals who take pleasure in disrupting consensus and ruining any kind of cooperative progress. Interestingly, from what I can make out, the Brexiters view us as the soft-minded, cosy consensual ruling elite, and themselves as the brave tellers of truth to power. They reject a whole range of our beliefs, including climate change, or what to do about it. Funnily enough, we Remainers, most of us, don’t feel that we rule anything more than school governing bodies, and we feel besieged. Indeed we trust our ruling elite so little that restricting them with constitutions and systems of rights seems to be a good idea. We don’t think that driving out he EU means taking back control – just handing it to an even smaller elite whom we distrust. The “elite” is always somebody else.

I think that this clash of values is based on civic-mindedness rather than liberalism. Many of the Brexit middle classes (think of Douglas Carswell the Ukip MP) have a basically liberal outlook. They like engaging with foreigners, are socially liberal, though some struggle with the idea of cultural diversity within their own communities. But they invest more effort in self-promotion, or individualistic activities, as opposed to cooperative, or civic ones (being school governors, helping at the church, and so on). Of course many Brexiters take part in civic activities, like supporting their local Conservatives or local business networks – but these seem to have a strong self-promotion agenda. People who join the Lib Dems after being with the Conservatives remark on how different, and less dominated by personal ambition, the culture is – though the Tories have many civically-minded people in their ranks too.

The idea of individualism against cooperation seems to be the central one. Individualists distrust government structures, and struggle to understand the point of cooperative ventures like the EU. Some think the EU is a plot to establish control over our lives by a shadowy elite. One such is the pseudonymous Alexander Niles, whose latest book on Europe I was asked to review. But it was so paranoid as to be unreadable by somebody not already in sympathy with that way of thinking. Cooperative ways of working seem simply to be beyond the imagination – they are either futile and ineffective, or a cover for a hidden elite, covering their tracks with lies.  And yet to many of us cooperation (and attendant compromise) is the very essence of how a complex society must operate. And the process of engagement with others often gives us energy. We are disposed to like other people rather than despise them. We are slower to condemn people as fools.

What has this to do with the EU? It is in essence a cooperative organisation, of course. That gives it permission to exist in the view of cooperativists, but it does not necessarily justify it. There is something about freedom of movement, and the right to go to another part of the continent and take many of our civic rights with us – or invite people from other parts of the continent to join us- that we like. We feel this openness is the surest path to human progress. It expands our horizons. And European-ness is part of our identity – it is particularly useful in setting us apart from Americans, that nation of individualists whom we struggle to understand.

If the polls are to be believed, we cooperativists outnumber the individualists in Britain’s middle classes – there is a solid majority for Remain in social groups A and B. But the vote will be decided elsewhere, by people with a very different outlook. Traditional working classes, a dying breed, but with a substantial hinterland of retirees and victims of economic advance, are disposed to vote to Leave. The arguments and passions of the middle class Remainers will cut little ice. They are not culturally adventurous; freedom of trade and movement seem more threat than opportunity.

I suspect that the decision rests a new working class of service workers, whose jobs are often insecure, but for whom opportunities remain. I’m thinking of the “new affluent workers” and “emerging service workers” from Mike Savage’s recent book on class. These are more culturally diverse and adventurous than the traditional working classes, but less secure than the middle classes. They may worry that free movement of people is a threat to their job security or pay; they may also fear the damage that the disruption of leaving the EU is likely to wreak, even if it is only for the short-term.

We, the divided middle class, rehearse our arguments about the EU in front of this decisive audience. But neither of us really understand what will make up their minds. And it really is very hard to see who will end up on top.

 

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Why isn’t the sovereignty argument for Brexit making traction?

Maslow Hierarchy ofNeeds.svgThank you to Politcal Betting’s Alistair Meeks for giving me the idea of using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to offer insight to Britain’s referendum on whether to leave the European Union. It poses an interesting conundrum about the campaign for a Leave vote.

Maslow’s hierarchy is old-fashioned psychology, which has no doubt been left behind by practising psychologists long ago.  But it contains enough truth to resonate with political analysts. This hierarchy is presented as a series of layers, usually visually presented as a pyramid. At the bottom are physiological needs (food, shelter, etc.); at the top is “self-actualisation” – the higher needs of confident people. The idea is that while needs are unmet in lower layers of the hierarchy, higher needs will count for little. People won’t worry about safety if they are starving, and so on. The political message is that high-flown arguments about democracy and freedom will not appeal to people unless more basic needs and fears have dealt with.

Mr Meeks puzzles that many Leave campaigners are obsessed with the European Union, and its supposed effects on national sovereignty, and yet the EU hardly registers in lists of important issues identified by ordinary voters. It is trumped by issues such as the economy and immigration, which speak to needs (security and, perhaps, belonging) that are lower down the hierarchy.

But the puzzle doesn’t end there. The Economist’s Bagehot column points out that there is a great educational divide in attitudes to the EU, and uses two nearby cities to illustrate the point. Middle class, well-educated Cambridge is strongly for Remain; working class Peterborough is the opposite. And here’s the puzzle: it is the middle classes, much further into self-actualisation level, to whom the standard Leave argument about sovereignty should appeal. And it seems to be having little or no impact there.

And that is not from lack of exposure. For the last five years people on BBC Radio 4 have been banging on about it, and not just in news programmes. Arch Eurosceptic MP John Redwood presented an Analysis programme on Europe; conservative philosopher Roger Scruton majored on it in one his Sunday morning point of view programmes. And it has been repeated endlessly in the last week, most notably by Conservative cabinet minister Michael Gove, usually reckoned to be a thoughtful type, as well as the more opportunist Boris Johnson, London’s Mayor. And almost no argument has been offered against the idea that the EU is an outrageous assault on British democracy and in effect a foreign dictatorship. Instead responding Europhiles quickly migrate down the Maslow hierarchy and talk about jobs and security, or pick off relatively minor points, such as challenging the figures on Britain’s budget contribution to the EU. And yet for all the apparent one-sidedness of the high intellectual debate, Remain seems to be winning at the top of the Maslow pyramid.

I think that is because there is a massive disconnect between Leave campaigners and members of the general public on the nature of Britain and democracy. Mr Gove paints a picture of a proud history of the British freedom and democracy, against an EU that has achieved little and is stuck in the past. He wants laws made in Britain, by lawmakers the British people can throw out if they don’t like them. But it is all very well for Conservative MPs holding safe parliamentary seats to wax lyrical about British democracy (and to talk aggressively about throwing the blighters out – a very distant prospect I their own personal cases…), and decry the limits that the European treaties place on their exercise of power – but ordinary people, even nice, educated, middle class ones, don’t feel connected to their lawmakers. They distrust their parliamentarians, and aren’t sure that they actually would be “thrown out” if they didn’t like them. Indeed when it comes to elections, the same politicians delight in suggesting to electors that they have no real choice at all – vote for them or for chaos. And don’t waste your vote on Greens, Liberal Democrats or Ukippers. Many voters are persuaded to vote for people they don’t really like or trust, for fear of something worse. It is hardly surprising if people have rather more nuanced views about British democracy than their elected representatives.

This is all reinforced by standard political wisdom. Democracy is not supposed to be elective dictatorship. Hitler’s attack on minorities and opponents was not legitimated by the fact that he had a mandate from an elected parliament. As the Americans appreciated from the start, freedom and democracy is about checks and balances. And there are frighteningly few of these against the British House of Commons, whose majority, these days, is based on the votes of about a quarter of the electorate. The European Union presents one of the few remaining checks, and usually for reasonably sensible things, like protecting the environment, ensuring public procurement isn’t stitched up, or that there are some standards of job protection. These regulations may not be especially loved, but they offer some bastion against our own politicians, especially Conservative ones, who celebrate the freedom of employers to sack people at will, and landlords to do as they please. The EU is not imposing taxes or calling up our young people to serve in a European army. This “dictatorship” has a rather muted impact on our daily lives, it turns out, which well be rather benign in the long run.

There is another problem with the sovereignty argument. What is so special about the British level of polity? Mr Gove is annoyed that French or German politicians have a say over our laws. But don’t Scots voters feel even more strongly about the say of English Conservatives over theirs? Why should London voters have so much say over what goes on in Manchester or Cornwall? Politics is clearly a much more complex business than is being made out. It is interesting to deploy the arguments of Messrs Gove and Johnson to the question of Scottish independence. And to note that to most Scots the EU does not look like an instrument of foreign oppression.

Furthermore, many middle class voters may be rather less than convinced that the rest of Europe is such a bad place that we should have nothing to do with them, or (a longer shot) that the EU has achieved nothing. Things seem to work well enough in France, Germany and Austria – and even in Spain and Italy. The EU’s mission to extend democracy and the rule of law to south and east Europe may not be entirely successful or complete, but surely it is a worthy cause? And surely the most important moments of British history, from Waterloo to the First and Second World Wars show that what happens over the Channel affects us deeply. Europe is where Britain belongs, surely?

This is not to say that there are not many insecurities that the Leave campaign can play on, especially amongst working-class Britons. These, especially including fears over immigration, may yet win them the referendum. But banging on about sovereignty is unlikely to help them much.

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What will 2016 bring? Remain will win and the Tories will stay together

New year predictions are not something this blogger has indulged in before – but it seems to be a universal obligation for the first blog of the year. There is little to be said for it at face value: predictions are either banal continuations of current trends, or depend too heavily on events that are unpredictable. Still, they may reveal something interesting about the way the blogger sees the world- so here goes.

The most important event of 2016 in British politics (and that will be my main focus) will be a referendum on UK membership of the European Union. This is not certain for 2016, but nevertheless looks more than likely. I predict a comfortable majority (in the region 60-40) for the Remain campaign – I am not joining the crowd who suggest that it will be very close, or that Leave will win.

Unlike fellow Lib Dem blogger David Boyle, I don’t think the referendum campaign will be a repeat of Scotland’s independence campaign. Not because I think that the status quo supporters will be any more inspiring or less negative.  There are routine calls for Remain supporters not to repeat the “mistake” of Scotland’s No campaign, which failed to make a positive case for the Union. This rather overlooks the fact that No won in Scotland, in spite of a brilliant Yes campaign. There were signs of ineptitude on the No side – but that more applies to the minor tactics, which were dictated by a Scottish Labour Party whose lack of political skill was shown to all in this year’s General Election, when they were reduced to a single seat. I expect the Remain campaign will manage things better.

But the main reason why the EU referendum will not be like the Scottish one, is that their is no equivalent of the SNP-organised Yes campaign. They managed to motivate their supporters through a very positive, inclusive message, which appealed to young people. There are people in the Leave EU campaign that think that life outside the EU is a fantastic and positive opportunity for Britain, but they look very unlike the Scots Nationalists. For a start many of these are businessmen who think that leaving the EU means deregulation, so that they can screw their employees, customers and the environment even harder. They are fundamentally unconvincing when they suggest that this will make more than few people better off – there is no economic card equivalent to Scotland’s oil.

But a deeper problem for the Leave side is that most of their supporters are of the stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off type. To them the EU represents the intrusion of the modern, globalising world, and leaving it will enable the country to put up stronger barriers to the world. Especially when it comes to the free movement of people. This is a striking contrast to the Scotland Yes campaign. The Leave campaign are (mostly) convinced that immigration is their trump card – and many Remain supporters agree, and are duly worried. Most people outside London are convinced that immigration is too high and one of the main problems that Britain faces. But I don’t think this will be as easy a card to play for Leave. First I doubt whether the public quite has the courage of its convictions on the issue – on the same principle that most voters talk about how much they distrust established politicians, but then keep electing them anyway. Second, the referendum will not change Britain’s political class, and the public doubts its will to deliver lower immigration, even outside the EU. Perhaps these two points two sides of the same coin.

So Remain will win. What will that do to British politics? The conventional wisdom, which I have supported, is that this will tear the Conservative Party apart. But I have changed my mind on this. Europe has been a defining issue for many Tory activists, and they will be upset that the referendum was lost. But we must remember two things about the Tories. First: their party is not “democratic”, by which I mean that its members don’t control things through electoral processes, as they do in the Lib Dems and Labour (sort of, in both cases). The controlling elite has huge power over party direction and can weather the odd storm. Second, the party has the prospect of political power before it. They are in power, and the opposition is weak; too many people, with too much money, will not want to throw away the opportunity to hang on to that power. The example of Ukip, now a chaotic, busted flush, is not encouraging to rebels. The main threat to the Tories comes from who they choose to succeed David Cameron as leader. But this is quite tightly controlled by the parliamentary party, who have an instinct for survival. No equivalent of Jeremy Corbyn is in the wings.

What other predictions? Jeremy Corbyn will remain leader of Labour, and consolidate his power. Labour’s Sadiq Khan will win London’s Mayoral election. Labour “moderates” will bide their time; setting up a rival party is unrealistic on so many levels. And the Lib Dems? They will achieve some local successes, which will be enough to convince insiders that they are making a comeback, but nobody else. The SNP dominance of Scotland will continue in the Scottish parliamentary elections, but I will be surprised if the Conservatives manage to overtake Labour.

And the economy? I think that trouble will strike before 2020; the economy looks too much like its old self in the days of Blair and Brown.  How will it come about? Britain is vulnerable to events elsewhere in the global economy. Perhaps foreigners will start pulling out of the London property market, causing developers to get into trouble, and then whoever is lending them money. This could spark off a long term decline on Britain’s property values, quite opposite to the conventional wisdom that prices are driven by excessive demand, rather than excessive finance. And yes, that process could start in 2016.

What about elsewhere in the world? Perhaps 2016 will produce an unexpected drama in the US elections, but I expect the winner to be a Democrat. Hillary Clinton looks a shoo-in, but could she be derailed by something in her back history?

And Syria? The civil war looks like a stalemate until Saudi Arabia and Iran decide that they need a rapprochement. Continued low oil prices could force that. A coup within Islamic State to produce a new regime that seeks alliances with other actors should not be ruled out. – and less sponsorship of outside terrorism. But terrorism will go on.

Of course the last three paragraphs have enough escape clauses to not count as serious predictions. But that will have to do for now!

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Are Eurosceptics suffering from the boiled frog syndrome?

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By CJ – Juesatta

Within two years the United Kingdom will have a referendum to decide whether or not it stays in the European Union. Despite a fair amount of noise in the media, the serious political campaigning hasn’t started yet. But the Ins seem to have the edge. This is an interesting turn of events.

It helps to put your passions to one side to make any sense of the emerging campaign. I heard one commentator  suggest that the electorate is split into three roughly equal shares: those who are firmly for In, those firmly for Out, and those who are floating between the two. I don’t know how accurate the numbers are (the firm Ins sound a little high), but it’s a good way of looking at it. The campaign will be decided by the floating third, and these voters do not have the emotional investment in the issue that of either the Europhiles like me, or the Eurosceptics. The arguments the committed supporters on either side find convincing will cut little ice them. The In and Out campaigns will have to concentrate on the sort of arguments that will sway these uncommitted voters, and not those that have already made up their minds.

I think that this is giving the Europhiles the edge. Until recently the Eurosceptics have had the field to themselves. They dominated the media with their passionate arguments about sovereignty, over-regulation, and the general incompetence with which the EU is run. Europhiles were in despair; we never heard somebody coming up with a really convincing argument about why we should stay in – just some rather soft stuff about trade and peace and international prestige. We were losing the argument, it seemed. The Outs raced ahead in the polls. But they also became over confident in the strength of their own arguments. The Europhiles, on the other hand, were forced back to a more realistic assessment what they had to do – and they realised that the main thing going for them was sheer bloody inertia. Passion would not win the day for them.

But the Eurosceptics, or too many of them, still think that their passion and argument is what is needed. But this is no good for the cold, hard job ahead. That they can’t agree to form a single umbrella organisation shows that they haven’t understood this – discipline among the passionate is hard. It reminds me a little about the fable of how to boil a live frog. The story is that if you throw a frog into hot water, it will just jump straight out of the pot. But if you put it into cold water and slowly heat it up it will not notice until too late. I hope nobody has tried this out on real frogs, and it almost certainly wouldn’t work if they did. But makes an important point anyway.

The Eurosceptics have been placed in a favourable media environment, like the frog in cold water. But ever so gradually it has become less favourable. The turning point was probably when the Prime Minister, David Cameron, decided to call his bankbenchers’ bluff and hold a referendum. Then it was clear that leaving was no longer a theoretical proposition, and the quiet voice of inertia started to speak. It was certainly no great push by the In camp in the media. The polls slowly but surely turned against the Outs, though in the last month the Ins have dropped back, after Europe struggled with the refugee crisis. Too many Eurosceptics haven’t noticed how the climate has changed, and are failing to adapt.

This is especially evident with attitudes to Mr Cameron’s “renegotiation” of the UK’s membership terms. This clearly an important part of the In strategy. He plans to flourish some impressive achievements to the electorate as a clinching argument to the floating voter group. This could be a decisive move, but only if he manages to exceed expectations. So a subtle Out campaign should be trying to raise those expectations. Instead most of them pouring scorn on the whole exercise. The Europhiles are egging them on by also playing down expectations – but that is in their interests.

To be fair, some of the Outs understand the problem. Lord Bamford, a notorious Eurosceptic, has reserved judgement on Mr Cameron’s renegotiation, and is wisely holding his fire for now. This was flagged by some of the Eurosceptic newspapers yesterday. That is better than slagging off the whole exercise, but still not quite the position they should be taking.

But things are far from hopeless for the Outs. Three things might work for them. The first is if they can focus anti-establishment anger on the EU. The establishment – mainstream politicians and big business leaders – will largely rally behind the Ins. And yet the public is suspicious of these figures. Anti-establishment-ism played well for the SNP in the Scottish referendum, though it still wasn’t enough. But that was a very different situation.

The second thing that could play well for the Outs is panic about immigration. Free movement rights within the EU is one of its great glories, and has been of enormous benefit to Britain – and Britons make use of it themselves with glee. But immigration makes most Britons nervous. If this nervousness is raised to panic proportions, the Ins have no really convincing answer. Unfortunately it makes no difference whether or not the panic is actually relevant to Britain’s membership of the EU. The media storm over migrants at Calais earlier this year had nothing to do with British EU membership (the situation would be just the same, perhaps worse, if Britain was out) – but it still dented people’s confidence in EU membership.

And the third thing is chaos within the EU itself. This might arise from the ongoing refugee crisis, or from another Euro zone crisis. It makes no difference that both these crises show that Britain’s already-negotiated opt-outs allow us to stand on one side. It still reduces the comparative advantage of staying in over leaving.

For all that the Ins need to hold their nerve. The best case for In is an unspectacular one. Britain has prospered by and large in its years as part of the EU (even if you can’t prove it would have been worse off out); EU processes are deeply embedded into our way of life – as the passport controls when travelling to EU countries shows. Leaving the EU would create a colossal mess which would, incidentally, put the Union at risk. It is up to the Outs to make a convincing case that life would be actually better outside. Not that things wouldn’t change much. And in concrete terms that affect daily lives, not in terms of abstract ideas like parliamentary sovereignty. That will be more than hard for the Outs to do.

So that is why I’m not that bothered that the launch of the In campaign this week was a bit anaemic, and is chairman a bit colourless. The task in hand is bit like that of a defence lawyer: not to prove his clients’ innocence, but to make the prosecution stew. in its own contradictions.  Like that boiled frog.

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Immigration remains the top issue in British politics

As the left chatters away about the Labour leadership contest, and the economic and diplomatic implications of a Jeremy Corbyn leadership, the real stuff of politics in Britain goes on. And there is no doubting the top issue: immigration.

Immigration has, as in many developed countries, become a lightning-rod issue for general discontent. Grumpy conservatives, especially those of lower middle class and working class standing and white origin, have decided that it is at the seat of most ills. They see a world changing around them, with middle ranking jobs disappearing, house prices and rents escalating beyond reach,  public services under stress, and strange terrorist threats at home and on holiday beaches. The racist attitudes that could be taken for granted in my youth linger too, albeit in “I’m not racist but…” form. “We’re full up” is what people tell each other, and this all seems to be plain common sense. That immigration continues is simply evidence that Britain’s ruling elite is not up to the job.

Meanwhile a refugee crisis strikes Europe. The utter collapse of once-stable Syria is the most important cause. But the dire situation in Libya, Somalia, Eritrea and even Nigeria all contribute to numbers of escapees who are prepared to risk their lives in pursuit of something better. This keeps the flow of desperate people in the news, and stokes up a sense of threat. Sadly, instead of, or perhaps alongside, compassion, many people seem to think “I don’t want these people turning up in my street”. And now net migration to the UK is at record – something that has little to do with the refugee crisis, and much more to do with the relative success of the British economy. A number of right-wing newspapers are happy to keep the pot boiling, drawing connections where there aren’t any and generally playing on a sense of crisis and discontent. It is difficult not to see this as a malign intervention by media oligarchs with an agenda of their own: but this stuff clearly sells newspapers.

Mainstream politicians know full well that how firmly held these views are amongst the public at large, and feel obliged by the process of democracy to do some something. The trouble is that doing anything substantive is likely to damage other things that the public hold dear – such as the economy or public services.

Ordinarily a bit tokenism, followed by some ducking an weaving would be all that is called for. A prosperous growing economy would help distract people, and, in the classic public way, many people don’t really want to go further than have a good whinge.

But behind all this is an issue of real importance: Britain’s membership of the European Union. And behind that lurks another issue: whether or not the United Kingdom survives, or whether the kingdoms of England and Scotland go their separate ways. The government is committed to a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in 2016 or 2017. Superficially things are going quite well for those that want Britain to stay in the EU. The polls that once showed solid majorities for exit have now switched the other way.

But Britain’s exit campaigners are a determined bunch. For many it is the most important issue in current politics; for them there is no ill that does not have Britain’s membership of the EU at its heart. It plays the same role as Communism did in my youth: something that provides unity and coherence to an otherwise disparate movement. Large parts of the Conservative Party think this way, perhaps most of its grassroots membership; and they are being harried by the insurgent Ukip. They know that support for the EU is lukewarm, and there is one issue that could turn it: immigration.

Free movement of people lies at the heart of the EU treaties, something that many Britons have taken advantage of with alacrity. Not that that affects the public debate: Britons abroad are benign “expats”, while those coming to this country from other places are malign “migrants”. Many other EU citizens are as sceptical about free movement as Britons are, but securing a treaty change, even if desirable, is not feasible in the next two years. Treaty changes require ratification by all member states, a process that often requires a referendum. Each treaty change has become more difficult than the last; there is now no prospect of securing this. And without treaty change the main features of free movement will remain in place – something that is thoroughly good for the EU economies, including Britain’s, but of no help to those who want to present a “reformed” EU to the electorate.

And so the antis are keeping immigration up on the agenda. The refugee crisis helps: even though this has no bearing on Britain’s membership question, it serves to raise public unease. And slowly but surely the anti-EU campaigners are drawing a connection between EU membership and high immigration. The most conspicuous recent example came from the Home Secretary, Theresa May, no less. She suggested that EU migration be limited to those already with jobs to move too. This is half-baked, but that’s not the point. It is something an EU renegotiation cannot deliver, and this will help stoke discontent.

But leaving the EU would be a disaster for Britain. It would mire the country’s political leadership in many years of painful negotiation, and would give the Scottish independence movement a sound reason to rerun the independence referendum, and an excellent reason for Scots voters to vote for independence. Regardless of whether the Britain would be better off or not outside the EU in the long run, years of negotiation and uncertainty will damage investment, and no doubt slow down other areas of economic and political reform.

So what to do? Moderate Conservatives, led by the Prime Minister David Cameron, are trying to accommodate the anti-immigration movement, both in tightening rules, and in negotiations with the EU. This simply looks ineffectual – as well as damaging as the country’s demographic crisis slowly begins to bight, as well as the need for the country’s education sector to bring in foreign, fee-paying customers.

Labour have tried to find a middle ground too; this is an issue that bothers its working class core vote, now being picked off by Ukip. It has declared that its laissez-faire approach in the 2000s was a mistake. But it wasn’t, and this is intellectually dishonest. Amid such contortions it is difficult to sound convincing.

Nick Clegg, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, also tried to stake a middle ground. He wanted to combine clear and well-enforced rules on migration with a generally liberal attitude. The public wasn’t listening, though, and it sounded too much like liberal fence-sitting.

Which leaves liberals, left and right, in a bit of a bind. For now standing up for the principles of free movement and diversity is the only honest thing to do. But alongside the fictional problems that flow from this are quite a few genuine ones, that need real solutions. And anti-immigrant feeling is a sign of a deeper discontent, which liberals must address.

I think it has a lot to do with the hollowing out of society, as big institutions, from public ones like the NHS, to national commercial chains, take control. This provides the sort of rootless milieu in which outsiders seem much more of a threat to people’s security. It allows organisations that thrive on cheap, disempowered labour, often recruited abroad, to thrive.

But reversing that trend is a huge task. it means looking again at the standard language of economic growth and productivity. It is a cause that this blogger is increasingly devoting himself to.

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That speech: just a ripple on the surface of British politics?

Last week I commented on David Cameron’s speech on Britain and the EU, where he promised an in-out referendum, following a “renegotiation” if the Conservatives win the next General Election in 2015. For some days after I though this was a decisive moment in British politics, in which Mr Cameron seized the initiative, and the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, lost his chance to win the next election. A week on, the dust has settled and the news is dominated by other stories. Was is such a decisive moment, or a mere ripple, a failing prime minister making a promise he can’t deliver?

The weekend polls show no decisive shift, with the coalition parties trending up a tad, but Labour still comfortably ahead, following a trend already evident before the speech. One poll seemed to show a big advance by the Conservatives at the expense of UKIP – but on further examination it looks as if this has more to do with polling methodology than people changing their voting preferences. Mr Miliband’s calculation appears to be that the main issue for British politics is the economy, and so the best thing to do is to change the subject back to this issue. His line that the speech hurts the economy because it creates uncertainty, that old argument against any form of decisive leadership, seems to be carrying weight with the British public, according to a further poll published by The Independent – though this also showed Tory support rising. And in the ephemeral world of British political commentary that should be enough to say that this is just a small tactical victory for Mr Cameron, making his party less vulnerable to UKIP, and not much more. But I think two big things have changed, and a big problem has opened up.

Firstly, Mr Miliband has made a serious strategic error, even if its significance will not show up much before 2015. His strategy should be to focus the political debate onto a small number of subjects and overwhelm the opposition there. This is a strategy I have called “the same, only different” following a 20th Century advertising campaign for a product I have long forgotten. It was used by Tony Blair’s New Labour to devastating effect in 1997. Basically you shadow your opponent’s policies in almost every detail except for a small number carefully chosen issues, plus a big investment in mood music to make your party appear more caring and more competent. I remember the exasperation of Tories; whenever they came up with a new policy to try and get an edge on Labour, Labour promptly adopted it as their own. It prevented the other side from changing the agenda. This seems to have been what Mr Miliband is trying to do, albeit without actually committing to any policies just yet (again following Mr Blair’s example). He is not creating sharp policy differences with the government, and making the main focus of his attack the economy. He is trying to create the right mood music by painting the government as by turns gratuitously nasty, and shambolic and incompetant. This strategy was slowly paying off.

But Mr Cameron has hit Labour below the waterline. He has created a clear area of policy difference, where he is probably more in tune with the British public than Mr Miliband, and one in which he can guarantee coverage from Britain’s still-important press. But also the issue makes Mr Miliband look weak, indecisive and un-prime ministerial. That could be fatal. What Mr Miliband actually should have done was welcomed Mr Cameron’s speech and adopted his policies as his own. That would have taken the wind totally out of the Tory sails.

The second way that Mr Cameron’s move may be decisive is that it may have turned the advancing tide of British Euroscepticism, while at the same time unifying his bitterly Eurosceptic party. I have read Mr Cameron’s speech, and the most striking thing about it is how Europhile it is. He has well understood the arguments for Britain staying in, and put them forward. Britons are a suspicious, conservative bunch as the 2011 AV referendum showed. Leaving the EU would be a big step into the unknown, and the more people think about it, the more nervous they are likely to become. And yet the sceptics are happy because they have their precious in-out referendum.

Mr Cameron’s speech was a genuine act of decisive political leadership. There are risks, but there always are. There is also a risk that the EU needs to take forward a treaty change that we are forced to put to a referendum that is then lost. This risk has now been sidestepped, because we now have the opportunity to package it up with more popular changes and put it too an in-out referendum.

But there is a big problem with Mr Cameron’s speech, which I did not pick up last week. Aside from its tactical genius, it is intellectually vacuous. Its economics is based on a fatuous understanding of international competition and the fear of Europe falling behind the developing economies. Its analysis of how the EU needs to be changed is hot air with no concrete proposals. A single market without harmonised rules may sound good, but what does it mean in practice? I really don’t understand how this wishful vision breaks down into nitty-gritty negotiating points. Mr Cameron badly need somebody with intellectual heft to lead the negotiation – the job the Lord Cockfield did for Mrs Thatcher in developing the original European Single Market in 1992. The risk is that he will make no headway in the negotiations, and waste an opportunity to improve both Britain’s role with the EU, and the stability of the EU itself. That’s the big problem the speech opens up.

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