Monday, 27 June 2016

Toomas Karmo: Brexit, Adversity, and Good Cheer

Quality assessment:

On the 5-point scale current in Estonia, and surely in nearby nations, and familiar to observers of the academic arrangements of the late, unlamented, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (applying the easy and lax standards Kmo deploys in his grubby imaginary "Aleksandr Stepanovitsh Popovi nimeline sangarliku raadio instituut" (the "Alexandr Stepanovitch Popov Institute of Heroic Radio") and his grubby imaginary "Nikolai Ivanovitsh Lobatshevski nimeline sotsalitsliku matemaatika instituut" (the "Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky Institute of Socialist Mathematics") - where, on the lax and easy grading philosophy of the twin Institutes, 1/5 is "epic fail", 2/5 is "failure not so disastrous as to be epic", 3'5 is "mediocre pass", 4.5 is "good", and 5/5 is "excellent"): 4/5. Justification: There was enough time to develop the relevant  points to  reasonable length.

Revision history: 

  • UTC=20160628T2018Z/version 1.2.0: Kmo made a substantive revision on the basis of fresh e-mail from a London friend, amplifying the discussion of the "350 million GBP per week" in the pro-Brexit leaflet, and calling on readers to help him get further particulars (and he revised the right to make also tiny, nonsubstantive, revisions, without formal documentation in this revision history, over the coming 30 days, as versions 1.2.1, 1.2.2, 1.2.3, ... ). 
  • UTC=20160628T1545Z/version 1.1.0: Kmo made a substantive revision, improving his discussion of the GBP-versus-USD exchange-rate history (and he reserved the right over the coming weak to make tiny, nonsubstantive, revisions, without formal documentation in this revision history, as versions 1.1.1, 1.1.2, 1.1.3, ...). 
  • UTC=20160628T1526Z/version 1.0.8: Kmo made further tiny tweaks, which he deemed sufficient to justify a "patch" incremenent from 0 to 8 in the "major.minor.patch" formalism; and he reserved the right over the coming week to make further tiny, patch-level, tweaks, without formal documentation in this revision history, as versions 1.0.9, 1.0.10, 1.0.11, ... . 
  • UTC=20160628T0001Z/version 1.0.0: Kmo uploaded base version (and planned to upload in the ensuing four-hour interval, without formal documentation in this revision history, nonsubstantive revisions, as versions 1.0.1, 1.0.2, 1.0.3, ...) . 

0. Preamble

2016-06-14 was the publication day on this blog for my reticent note "Contribution to Brexit Debate (Diplomatic-Leverage Question)". As an Estonian national currently living in Canada under dual Estonian-Canadian citizenship, and as a resident in Britain from 1974 September through 1978 August, I felt I had to say something on 2016-06-14, even while keeping my contribution terse. 

But on writing back then, I had failed to imagine the potential full gravity of the looming situation. Now, with the actualization of what was already then imaginable by the pessimist, I do best to write at length. 

1. Situation Assessment: A USSR-1991 Rerun?

In that 2016-06-14 note, I pointed out the need to cast the Brexit debate in terms deeper than the crassly economic. 

To be sure, economics has its (modest) place. We may as well start there, before advancing from pounds and pence to things that more deeply matter. 

Most of us - in Canada, in the UK, in Estonia, in the USA, almost anywhere - have run out of patience with our current business leaders. We see only too plainly how our towns here in Ontario and Nova Scotia have in the last quarter-century been hollowed out, to the point where our once-vibrant main streets have been relegated to the twenty-dollar psychics, to the porn shops, and to the Golden Arches. Here in Richmond Hill, even suburban malls are now showing signs of failure - as when Timothy's is replaced by Starbucks, and Starbucks is in turn replaced with brown paper behind silent glass.  

We see how difficult it is now for young people to establish careers in growing things or making things, as opposed to establishing their careers in the mere trafficking of symbols. And even the latter type of career is far from what it was twenty years ago. Tech support, I gather, is still a career option in Ontario I.T. But I have the concomitant impression that much of the Java or Python coding - the duly skilled work -   has gone offshore. 

We see, if not from direct experience then at least from reading, how drastic these developments have been in that Mother of All Rustbelts which is the formerly industrialized Britain. To take one example: shipbuilding in Britain has been comatose for decades, with the small twin exceptions of naval work (now gone?) and rich-guy yachts. Or, to take another example, we find in Mike Carter's 2016-06-27 Guardian opinion piece "I walked from Liverpool to London. Brexit was no surprise", at, the following description of Walsall: "Everywhere there were betting shops, dozens of them, and right next door to every betting shop was a pawnbroker or payday lender. It was a ghoulish form of mutualism, or symbiosis, the 'natural' market at its most efficient." And from the same journalist comes an impression of Nuneaton: "/.../ more charity shops in its high street than anywhere I've ever seen. And some of those charity shops had closed down. What does it say about a town when even the charity shops are struggling?"

Yet the people who deal professionally in money have so far proven smart enough to get ahead. 

Which way have those smart operators been betting in recent days? One thing they do not seem to have a lot of confidence in is the pound sterling. The decline in GBP against USD on the first major trading day, 2016-06-24 (FRI), after the referendum was the sharpest in at least decades. Although we must eventually see some kind of modest rally in sterling, the decline has at any rate continued on my main day for writing this essay, 2016-06-27 (MON). At  UTC=20160627T190509Z, my screen is showing one GBP to be commanding a meagre 1.32 USD. In 2016 May, the rate, as taken in a daily timeframe by, had been rather higher and rather stable, varying between the extremes of 1.4673 and 1.4401. 


Turning now from economics to deeper points of governance, we note first that the referendum has triggered a meltdown in the two dominant UK parties. It is a meltdown with minimal, or with no, UK precedent. The Conservatives now face a leadership contest. Since, moreover, Mr Cameron's government has not as of this writing taken a decision on the EU's Article 50 (the referendum does not legally bind him), it is beginning to appear as though he may be intending to hand his - as yet unknown - successor a poisoned chalice, with eventual further harsh consequences for the Conservative party. (For the destabilizing poisoned-chalice scenario, on which it is Mr Cameron's successor, rather than Mr Cameron, that gets to launch Brexit by formally invoking Article 50, I would refer the reader to an excellent blog by legal scholar David Allen Green, at Labour, on the other hand, has lost a row of Shadow Cabinet figures, with a leadership vote-of-no-confidence an emerging possibility. It is the extremists, outside the traditional ranks of Conservatives and Labour, who are most likely to benefit from the Westminster tumult.

Second, we note the agitated state of Scottish public opinion. Every Scottish voting district sided with "Remain". (On such regional questions, the maps and tables at are particularly helpful.) Some are now complaining that Scotland will be dragged out of the EU against its will. Some additionally infer from this emerging complaint the emerging advisability of a 2018 Scottish "IndyRef2". 

Third, we note the likelihood, over coming months, of a resonant agitation in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland, like Scotland, had an overall majority voting for "Remain" - even though in that jurisdiction, in contrast with Scotland, some local voting districts did favour "Leave". Many members of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, already before 2016-06-23 rather willing to entertain the idea of reuniting Northern Ireland with EU member state Eire, will now be still more willing. The Protestant majority in Northern Ireland, historically cool to Irish reunification, in large measure comprises descendants from 17th-century "Ulster Scots" immigrants. This segment in the community might now for its part take some special interest in the evolving Scottish debate - taking due note of Scotland's strongly pro-EU, and in that context separatist, inclinations. 

These three points suggest a scenario on which the UK shrinks over the coming decade into a mere "United Kingdom of England and Wales" - a little before a rising North Sea starts washing over the East Anglian fenlands, and over London around the Embankment. 

This conceivable drama looms in the context, moreover, of seldom-seen electoral tension in the USA, as the (in my view) unacceptable candidate Trump squares off against the (in my view) unacceptable candidate Clinton. Mr Trump seems a demagogue, willing to countenance even violence at his rallies. Ms Clinton's EmailGate troubles, some are arguing, will intensify, with the FBI a legal factor. I believe, without having at present done more than glance superficially, that probes this side of the electoral contest, considering the loudest legal drama to lie as yet ahead of us.   

So now we have a worst-case scenario, against which we must try to brace ourselves emotionally. Perhaps, on this scenario, 2016 will go down in history as the year the UK-USA Anglosphere started to break, with normal political life disintegrating in both countries, in an upheaval of ultimately  Gorbachevian proportions. 

2. "Remain" Counterarguments to a Pro-Brexit Flier

Just after the referendum, a friend in London, in one of the NW postcodes, kindly e-mailed me a PDF scan from a one-sheet flier. The flyer had been delivered to his place of residence by the "Leave" side. It is advisable that in this essay I spell out, with details, my case for "Remain". Although the referendum is over, the real crisis is starting, and all of us everywhere will need to keep our eyes open. 

An easy way to discharge my duty of clarification is to counterargue, against the flier, so to speak clause by clause. Helpfully, the flier lays its advocacy out with short bullet points. In each case, the flier prints the core of its point in bold type, adding a little bit of amplification in lightface. I will repeat this style of typography, but with my own successive commentaries - in essence, rebuttals - set in italics. The one special emphasis (I use underlining for it) is in the original:  

  • Over a quarter of a million people migrate to the UK from the EU every year. This is the equivalent of a city the size of Newcastle every year. EU law means all members must accept 'the free movement of people'. Many immigrants contribute to our society. They also have an impact on public services. Experts disagree on the overall effect.  - No mention is made of the fact that the UK also takes in large numbers of immigrants from outside the EU. Further, the 'many immigrants' contribute' is a backhanded way of saying, rudely, in the manner of a modern Enoch Powell, 'Some do not.' Apart from being veiled demagoguery, this is not fully logical. The aged, the infirm, the weak, and the demoralized or criminal UK native-born could with equal justice (or with equally cruel injustice) be castigated as 'not contributing'.
  • The EU is expanding to include: Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey. When we joined, there were just 9 members states. Now there are 28, the most recent being Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia. Five more contries are in the queue to join, totalling 89 million people. When they join, they will have the same rights as other member states. - It is left unexplained that according to the 2016 Turkish census, Turkey's population is to three significant figures 79.5 million (in other words, that the overwhelming majority of the "89 million" are Turkish); that Turkey has been in EU accession negotiations since 2005; that EU membership for Turkey can only be granted if Turkey clears high ethical hurdles regarding human rights, and the like, as the existing EU members have, through devising and conducting some EU-accepted process of domestic reform; and (this is philosophically crucial) that if Turkey were to clear the ethical hurdles, then Turkey would have become as ethically respectable a member of the global community as the existing EU members are. At that future point, if it is reached, the objections to Turkey's joining could not be anchored in any coherent stance in political philosophy, but only in  prejudice. 
  • The European Union has changed enormously since the UK joined the 'Common Market' in 1973.  The EU has taken control over more and more areas such as our borders, our public services, and VAT. The need to prop up the Euro means that more and more powers will be taken by the EU. - This, although vague, is the best of the various bullet points. It is true that the EU has "taken control" in many areas, and it may be that the control is in various cases excessive. I do, however, counterargue that control was taken upon discussions among the member states (the UK included), with due engagement both by national parliaments and by the European Parliament, and that controls once imposed can in later deliberations be reformed, at any rate given a democratic consensus among the disadvantaged people.  - Further, I counterargue that the UK, as a big country, cannot plausibly complain of being steamrollered. If you are small, like Estonia, you might in theory be somewhat vulnerable to steamrollering. If you are big, like the UK (historically not always even polite in Brussels), you are, on the other hand, less vulnerable. - Finally, I counterargue that the UK will in any case now be "controlled" by a Continent that can threaten to impose unfavourable terms of trade, or even to impose some border formalities. There is plenty of "control" that can get imposed on you in diplomacy, especially once you have distanced yourself from your former partners - in other words, once you have given your former partners excuses for throwing hard balls at you. 
  • EU law overrules UK law. This stops the British public from being able to vote out the politicians who make our laws. EU judges have already overruled British laws on issues like counter-terrorism powers, immigration, VAT, and prisoner voting. The new 'deal' David Cameron negotiated recently can be overturned by the European Court after our referendum. - This argument cuts both ways. While the EU has reduced (it has not struck down) the legislative powers of Westminster, the EU also provides the UK subject some recourse against Westminster excesses. Wait, I remark to the prospective Brixiteer, until Westminster elects a government you really, really dislike (this historically happens every five or ten or fifteen years, no matter what your political inclination might be, since in the the UK Left and Right historically shuttle back and forth): at this point, you may long for a Westminster-Brussels duo to provide "checks and balances". - I find this very phrasing, of checks and balances, used independently of me, in a helpful blog comment by reader "luna" at John Michael Greer's, timestamped by Mr Greer's server as "6/27/16, 2:04 AM".
  • The EU costs us at least £350 million a week. That's enough to build a new NHS hospital every week. We get less than half of this money back, and we have no control over how it's spent: that's decided by politicians and officials in Brussels, not by the people we elect. - So that's about 5.50 GBP per head of UK population per week laid out, with something (admittedly, "less than half") eventually even coming back. The sum of 5.50 GBP per week, in comparison with what people have to fork out every week in total, in VAT (the UK sales tax), and as their weekly portion of their annual property taxes and annual income tax, is not too intimidating taxwise, even if (contrary to what is the case) none of it comes back - particularly given that this sum is being used to try to get, among other things, good terms of global trade for the EU, the UK included. - (1) I have found from my own quick Web researches some controversy, favouring "Remain", surrounding the 350 million GBP claim which underlies my little 5.50 GPB-per-capita calculation. Additionally, (2) I am told on 2016-06-28 by my London friend, in continuing e-mail correspondence, that according to The Economist (the weekly newsmagazine) the correct gross figure (i.e., the figure before we net off the "less than half" that eventually comes back) is itself significantly below the 350 million GBP stated here. My friend thinks, from memory, that The Economist gave as the correct gross figure, in place of  350 million GBP,  250 million GBP. (My friend also remarks that The Economist noted the further reduction which ensues when we go net, not gross: down to something, he thinks, around one-third of 350 million GBP.)  If some reader can help me here - e-mail, please, to Toomas(dot)Karmo(at)gmail(dot)com, optimally with quote from The Economist, plus date of publication and page number -  I will revise this essay accordingly, updating its version number in my top-of-essay revision history.. - I will comment more about terms-of-trade under the next two bullet points. For the moment, however, I note here a feature of political discourse surely pertinent to the "Remain" side of the debate just as much as to the "Leave" side, and in fact pertinent to every political debate I have ever seen, in any country at all. Please, folks (pols, editorialists, television writers, bloggers, you whole sorry lot): don't express weekly exchequer outlays in gross millions without also putting your numbers into context, by expressing them in parentheses as per-capita weekly exchequer outlays. 
  • You don't have to be a member of the EU to trade with it.  Countries across the world trade with the EU without being members of it. Switzerland is not in the EU and exports more to the EU than we do. Some big banks and multinationals think the EU is in their interests. Small and mediuim-sized business think differently. Only 6 per cent of UK firms export to the EU, yet all  have to obey EU rules. - If you as a state are not yet a member of the EU, it is, other things being equal, a little harder for you to trade with the EU than it is for an EU member to trade with the EU. You need to negotiate some special arrangement, as Norway has, and as Canada is now trying to. The special arrangement has, at least in the case of Norway, involved making contributions to the EU budget, similar in size to the contributions made by the EU member states themselves. There is indeed nothing to stop the EU trade negotiators from playing diplomatic hard ball over such things as your own domestic refugee-intake policy, even outside the strict sphere of economics (cf bullet point on "control", above). 
  • While we're in the EU, the UK isn't allowed to negotiate our own trade deals. This means we currently have no trade deal with key allies such as Australia, New Zealand, or the USA - or important growing economies like India, China or Brazil. Instead of making a deal which is best for the UK, we have to wait for 27 other countries to agree to it. Most small businesses say that Britain should take back the power to negotiate our own trade deals which we cannot do inside the EU. - This argument cuts both ways. It is also true that the EU has greater negotiating power in global markets than the UK would if negotiating solo. 
  • There are risks in voting either way.  Experts, politicians, and businesses are divided. People have to weigh up the risks and potential benefits of each course of action for themselves. - Agreed. 

3. Has Public Opinion Been Manipulated? 

There is a line which I conjecture must never be crossed in court. This conjecture I make as a non-lawyer, but all the same on the strength (because of my work in natural-heritage and cultural-heritage conservation) on the strength of some minor presence at proceedings. 

Advocacy in the courtroom, even to the point of omitting facts injurious to your side and beneficial to your adversary, is allowed. I have never to my knowledge done it personally, and I hope never to be intimidated into doing it personally - whether in the context of the David Dunlap Observatory urban-forest conservation battle or in any other context, in any country. I would, however, have to forgive it if it got done to me. 

It cannot, on the other hand, be excusable in the courtroom to outright mislead - to show a graph, for instance, which misrepresents a trend by resorting to an unexpected, and visually understating, logarithmic scale on your vertical axis, while in showing it hoping that nobody will notice how you chose your scale.   

To my surprise and alarm - I did not think UK politicians would sink to these depths - the "Leave" flier has as its principal graphic a misleading map (available on this blog in a separate posting). Albania, Macedonia, Turkey, Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey are coloured red, with accompanying text to the effect that they are candidates for EU membership. The map additionally shows two states, Syria and Iraq, in orange, without explanation in the accompanying text. The plain, albeit unwritten, suggestion is that Syria and Iraq are somehow states relevant to the topic of EU enlargement. Indeed the incautious reader is invited, by the context although not by the explicit words, to infer that Syria and Iraq stand in an accession queue behind the five states coloured red. 

The rest of the map is in shades of grey. The grey, however, is not uniform. The grey is quite dark over the three Baltics, Byelorussia, and Ukraine. Here the visual suggestion is, contrary to legal fact, that Byelorussia and Ukraine (not in the EU, and not even close prospects for EU accession) are in the same EU treaty position as the three Baltics (who have been in the EU for years). 

The shading is lighter over western continental Europe, with Portugal virtually disappearing on my screen. Spain and Italy are duly visible.

The oddest thing of all is that while Northern Ireland is duly visible, Eire disappears altogether, at least on my screen - and so, I presume, if not on all screens, at least on the screens of any who share my particular level of poverty, and who in consequence have rather old and rather downmarket flat-screen monitors (in my case, the modest old LG Flatron W1952TQ). Was the artist trying to make voters overlook the circumstances of EU member Eire - perhaps aware that many in London, while not themselves Irish, will all the same have over in Eire cousins-of-girlfriends, pals-of-cousins, and the like? 

4. Can we "Keep Calm and Carry On"? 

It is essential in public affairs to avoid what I will here call the "Optimist's Fallacy". The political Optimist is one who thinks that when things are bad, a shakeup, as opposed to a piecemeal reform, is liable to improve them. 

Sometimes shakeups do help. The already-cited 1991 end of the USSR, under M.S.Gorbachev, brought a swift improvement in the human-rights, and an eventual improvement in the economic, conditions of northeastern Europe. The rapid 1947 end of the Raj might, for all I know, have been the best available thing for India (although here it might contrariwise be asked whether some kind of slower, say five-year, winding down could have prevented or reduced the terrible regional war over Partition). 

As often as not, however, shakeups disappoint. 

Cromwell worked out, on the whole, badly. 

Edmund Burke, celebrated for his caution, rightly denounced the French Revolution. It is true that he applauded the American Revolution. But was he right in applauding it? Had the Thirteen Colonies resolved their grievances with Westminster through mere political agitation (this was, with just minor exceptions, the path taken in the 1830s by Upper Canada, Lower Canada, and Nova Scotia), slavery might have ended in the South under Westminster's 1833 Slavery Abolition Act, as it ended in British North America. In that case, the American Civil War might have been avoided. So, I respectfully suggest, "Mr Burke, you were clearly right on France, and yet possibly wrong on America." 

This Brexit thing might work out, and it might not work out. It was in any case reckless of Mr Cameron to gamble, for what were ultimately reasons internal to the Conservatives and their farther-Right UKIP challengers, on momentous stakes. 


When under existential threat in the Hitler war, the UK Government produced a series of big posters, the last of which was famously headed "Keep Calm and Carry On". The "Keep Calm" press run comprised 2.45 million copies - enough, in other words, to allow one such poster for every (to two significant figures) eighteen wartime UK residents. 

Things got bad in the Hitler war. Although the real danger lay in a possible negotiated capitulation, rather than in an invasion (an amphibious assault requires preparations, considered by many or most 21st-century analysts to be beyond the scope of the Reich's hasty 1940 Unternehmen Seelöwe river-barge improvisations), contingency plans were nevertheless drawn up for evacuating  the Royals to Canada. A small chain of safe houses was selected, at a few points progressively closer to the Liverpool docks. Plans were also made for broadcasts by the King or other authorities, as the Government made its envisaged orderly westward retreat. 

As things turned out, the "Carry On" posters were never needed. They did not resurface until modern times. Now we have wonderful knockoffs, such as "Keep Calm and Knit On," and "Keep Calm and Learn Latin." I for my part want someday to put up, here and there in the University of Toronto, "Keep Calm and Carry on Promoting  a Formalism for Multivariate Calculus in which the Leibniz 'd' and 'curly-d' are Suppressed, with Due Recourse Made Instead to the Alonzo Church Lambda-Abstraction Notation in the Spirit of Sussman-Wisdom's Structure and Interpretation of Classical Mechanics."  

How do we, in the current situation, with the UK possibly headed for economic diminution, and possibly also for a territorial diminution, keep calm? 

It helps to think of this UK crisis as a potentially bracing move to a new, and manifestly inferior, neighbourhood. 

Groceries used to be readily affordable. Now, in these unfamiliar new shops, they cost more - perhaps reflecting the ratio (in light of this month's movements in GBP against USD) between 1.47 of something useful and a mere 1.32 of that same useful article. 

It used to be that UK bosses were reined in by some distant Continental laws, protecting safety in the workplace, and that UK constables had to be careful to avoid Continental court challenges. Now the bosses and their natural allies, the constables,  get a freer hand. 

But will the English and Welsh, in this conceivable "Amazing, Shrinking, UK", be downhearted, as their economy contracts and the warming North Sea rises? Perhaps everyone will now be exploring what special things their new neighbourhood might have to offer. Life goes on, and in every bad situation some good can be found. 

Such an attitude is not optimism, such as the Parisian poor inappropriately took in 1789. It is, rather, a cheerful pessimism. 

Good cheer can thrive in adversity. Adversity is a condition to which people in England and Wales (as, indeed, in other interesting jurisdictions, Estonia among them) are already long accustomed. 

[Next week, if the UK crisis allows it, I should again be blogging on the "Is Science Doomed?" theme.] 

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