Sunday, 23 September 2018

Even now you could fix this EU (and the UK)

The subject of the EU has long being a polarising subject in the UK, but what is striking about the response to the referendum is that, rather than it being a shock to the system and causing the EU and its supporters to pause and reflect on why Remain lost, instead the result has been even greater polarisation. Those who voted Leave are depicted as stupid and inward looking rather than having a viewpoint that needs to be understood, with consideration given as to what the EU needs to learn from the result. If this happened, there may be at least a chance of finding a way forward. The issues I suggest need considering include the following. Some of these are ones for immediately addressing. Others are ones that need longer term attitude change, but where the agreement that they are needed should be made clear now.

1. Address the core practical issues that got us to this point

At the core of the concerns within the referendum was immigration. The difficulty is that to say this makes some people assume that anyone with these concerns is against all immigration, but the clue to the real issue lies in the 'take back control' slogan of the referendum. David Cameron negotiated with the EU when they knew that the referendum was imminent, but all he came back with was a few temporary fixes such as a four year brake on paying certain benefits to EU immigrants, together with a statement from the EU that they expected a return to full compliance within four years. Is it any surprise that the response of many people was to feel that the UK did not have control over its own country? Take this together with the view that the lack of border controls between EU countries meant that once someone entered one country they could easily cross multiple others. This added to the concern.

The issue is not how much or little immigration there is. The issue is the UK deciding that for itself.

A few very practical steps would take the heat out of this:

a) Introduce a requirement that, although freedom of movement continued to exist, border controls are put back into place, so that anyone with an EU passport would be able to quickly show their passport at borders and travel into other EU countries, but anyone with a non-EU passport could only travel to another EU country if they had the appropriate consents to do so.

b) Create a requirement that EU citizens living in another EU country only acquired rights to key public services such as benefits, healthcare and social housing after they had lived and paid taxes there for a set number of years. Until then, their home country would be responsible for these.

c) Allow individual EU countries to decide they had sufficient workers of particular skills within their own country and so citizens of other EU countries moving there could not take up those occupations. This would help prevent the undercutting of income for many self-employed people.

d) The UK government to take vigorous action against any companies who are indirectly discriminating against UK citizens in their employment practices (e.g. where a company has virtually no UK employees and almost 100% employees fo
from a particular other country, there is a prima facie case that they may be racially discriminating against UK staff. This should be pursued every bit as vigorously as any other racial discrimination issue.)

2. Recognise that the UK does not have the same emotional attachment to the 'European Project'

The very fact that the continent of Europe has a history of different countries invading one another, and the fact that it is many centuries since the UK was invaded, give them different drivers. I don't put the fact of the UK not being invaded as due to any greater merit on its part. Rather it is the practicality of being an island and the grace of God. However, Europe's history means that its leaders, and some of its people, see European integration as inherently a good thing. For the UK it is at best a neutral subject. Quite apart from whether the EU was ever presented to the British people as more than a trading relationship, the reality is that a trading relationship is all that many of the British people feel the need for.

This unconscious assumption within the EU about integration being a good thing means that all too often EU leaders both have failed to even think about the need to make the case for it to the UK, and appear to be offended if anyone questions it.

If the EU wants support for 'the European Project' to develop in the UK, then it needs to start to explain and make the case for it, and have the humility to accept it as a subject for active debate and scrutiny, one in which different opinions are absolutely leigitmate.

3. Recognise the London and the UK are not the same thing

This is as much an issue for the UK government and institutions as it is for the EU. Listening to Londoners discuss the referendum in advance of the vote, one got a clear sense that they thought Remain would win easily. Listening to people elsewhere, the picture was much more mixed. Yet Londoners seemed to not know that, and genuinely seemed shocked at the outcome of the vote-and continue to be so.

Londoners seem to genuinely not know that the rest of the UK does not have the same dependencies on EU staff as they seem to. To hear Londoners speak, both during the campaign and since, they seem to think that the whole country is dependent upon EU staff for the NHS, hotel work and much more. Now, is the UK dependant upon overseas staff for these types of work? Yes, but if you look elsewhere in the UK, we are much more likely to be heavily dependent upon staff from the Middle East and Asia than the EU. Conversely elsewhere in the country, some of those from the EU were seen as primarily being in self-employed roles where they were content to charge lower rates than UK citizens in the same jobs would have been. One can argue for this on a competition basis, but the media, and too often the government, seem blind to this issue and talk about the NHS, hotels etc issues as if they affected all of the UK. Small wonder that those elsewhere then took this into account in their vote.

This problem has continued since. I remember shortly after the result was announced, Radio Four, in choosing a company to study which was highly dependent upon immigration, picked a specialist IT company in Reading-not exactly representative of the UK as a whole!. It's that lack of recognition that the different parts of the UK have different concerns and the need to tailor both messages and policy to reflect this which is badly needed.

4. Recognise that the different legal and governmental systems of the UK and the EU have a hidden big effect

Any discussion of this issue will inevitably involve a large amount of simplification, but nevertheless it is important. There are two key differences between the UK and many EU counties that lie at the heart of the culture clash.

Firstly, UK law is based on the principle that one is free to do anything unless the law forbids you from doing it. European law is based on the principle that rights come from the law saying that you can do a given thing. Behind this difference lies the UK's bafflement at the EU's desire to issue regulations to define everything when the UK's attitude would be 'if there's no problem, why feel the need for a law to define it'?

Secondly, the UK government is based on the principle that it is parliament's role is to approve legislation with the role of civil servants being to advise and to develop proposals for legislation, but being very much the servant of government in doing this.

Many european countries and hence the EU, operate on the basis that the role of government is to set broad policies, set budgets and scrutinise key decisions, but that much day to day government should be carried out by appointed officials (effectively the senior civil service-the Commission when it comes to the EU). That leads to the accusations of EU Commissioners being unelected by the people and unaccountable.

Is there an easy way forward to bridge such contrasting systems? Probably not, but again some humility on the EU (and especially the Commissioners) part in acknowledging the difference and recognising there therefore decision-making needs to involve particular care, explanation and the ability to challenge would start to address the issue.

5. Recognise that the needs of each country are different and so they should be free to be different

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has been one of the most controversial aspects of EU policy over the years, with a strong perception that it  was largely designed to reflect the important role farming plays in the French economy. Yet there is no inherent reason that the needs of French framers are the same as the needs of farmers elsewhere in the EU, let alone the wider needs of other EU countries. It is symptomatic of a wider issue of the EU moving into multiple issues where there is no real problem with countries having different policies.

A recognition of this, with a basic principle that the EU only does as one single policy issues which absolutely need to be done as one policy would fundamentally shift the balance of power toward individual EU countries, and shift the perception of people towards the EU.

Can all of these changes be made overnight? Some could. Others are about longer term attitudes and approaches, but even for these the recognition of the need to change and the intention to move in these directions could be started.

The fundamental problem is that the response of the EU, and of Remainers, has been to stick to the status quo, and attempt to make it as difficult as possible for the UK to leave. If that succeeds, it will not bring about long term success for the EU. It will create even greater resentment which history suggests has worse effects later down the line.

What I've set out are aimed to be practical responses which could build bridges and avoid that risk even at this late stage.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

ABC-Austerity, Brexit and Charlie Gard

(For various reasons I've needed to repost various past blog items. This is one from 2017).

If there's a key word of the last 12 months, it's been 'populism'. A word that, depending upon your view of the issue at hand, is said either with a cheer of triumph or through gritted teeth.

The odd thing is, the ones who are most likely to be saying it through gritted teeth, are often the ones who talk most about the need for the empowerment of ordinary people against the establishment-the need for the working class to stop being dominated by the needs of the rich elites. Yet, in issues like Brexit in the UK and Trump in the US, the response to ordinary people feeling empowered, participating in the voting system and expressing their views in large numbers is 'wrong answer you uneducated people Go back to the starting square whilst we explain the right way to you'.

The fundamental contradiction in such responses is that they say they want ordinary people to be empowered, but only if they come up with the correct answer. For example, contrast the response to the unexpected success of the Brexit campaign to the unexpected relative success of Corbyn in the election. The latter, also based on a part of the population that do not normally vote-young people-coming out in large numbers is seen as a triumph of empowering a disenfranchised group rather than an uninformed gaggle who have disrupted the predicted outcome.

Populism is seen as being an unintelligent, casual disregard for knowledge and evidence. See for example, the comments of Professor David Rothkopf-'Donald Trump has won power because his supporters are threatened by what they don't understand, and what they don't understand is almost everything'. Populism is seen as some kind of mindless disregard for the 'expert', a lack of care for evidence and knowledge.

Yet is that the case? Could it be that what people are really tired of is people saying 'we're the experts. Trust us', without them bothering to engage in debate, explain in ordinary people's language why they believe something to be the right way forward, and be seen to have the humility to listen and adjust their positions when ordinary people make a valid point.

This unwillingness to explain was seen during the referendum when the EU and the government basically ran their campaign on the basis of 'trust us. Leaving will be a disaster', without engaging with the real concerns expressed by people and seeking to answer them. It has been seen all the more so in the EU's response since the referendum when they could have stood back and looked at the result and said 'we have failed to engage and make our case to ordinary people. We have failed to address their concerns. How can we learn from this and make adjustments to rescue this situation?' Instead they just continue to adopt the approach of 'any right-thinking person would support the EU' and look haughtily down at those with a different view.

If I'm honest, I think we saw a politer, more toned-down example of the 'trust us. we're the experts' in the Conservative's approach to the last election. Theresa May's stance was 'trust me. You need a steady pair of hands at this time. We need to continue with austerity' and made no attempt to explain or win hearts and minds beyond that. Small wonder we saw a different form of populism emerge in response and vote for Corbyn.

Right at this moment, we see another example of the trust us. We're the experts' approach in the Charlie Gard case. I'm not pretending there are any easy answers on this tragic case, but what does concern me is the approach reported taken by medical staff in this and too many other cases (and I'm not at all pretending the issue is easy for them) is 'trust us. We're the experts' when the best interests process is far more meant to be about all those who know a person well engaging together and reaching a common view. Clearly that will not always be possible, but neither does that mean in such situations that the 'expert's' view prevails.

Am I arguing against the importance of expertise? Absolutely not. But I am saying that part of the responsibility of being an expert is that you engage with the public, explain your positions in ordinary language as much as possible, be seen to adjust your position in response to valid argument (even if it isn't put in the kind of technical language you might be used to) and, perhaps most importantly, be seen to act with grace when you lose an argument. Do not, like Hillary Clinton, dismiss those with different views as 'a bunch of deplorables'. (Any surprise that those deplorables, once you'd insulted them, then decided not to change their mind and vote for you Hillary?)

Even, I'm sad to say, in parts of the church that used to be noted for being mass movements catching people up on a mission together, we instead increasingly see key theological issues being discussed by expert talking to expert, regarding them as matters that most ordinary church members would not understand or be interested in. If we really believe that God gives gifts to all his body, that we have letters in scripture written both by the well-educated Paul and the ordinary fisherman Peter, this should not be the case.

We need experts, but we need them in order to bring wisdom to debates that engage large numbers of ordinary people, not who use ordinary people as cannon fodder until they reach the right decision.