The light and the fading stars

Some while ago, about sixteen centuries ago in fact, a fisherman out of Gesoriacum, becalmed among the northern banks of an evening, looked out over a fogless sea and saw the dancing light of the great beacon at Rutupiae.  Then in a moment as he watched, it was gone.  It was not to shine again.

To those on the shores of Gaul who saw the light go out, the whole island had been plunged into darkness.  Seeing the single ember of Roman Britannia disappear, it was as if the whole island had gone.

After the voting finished seven years ago, I went along to the count. Our MP was there, and we chatted cheerfully enough, though he had campaigned on the other side.  I have respect for honest, reasoning Remainers who had the national interest at heart, though they were wrong, as it turns out, and their fears came to nothing.  The evening was pleasant – so I was stunned in the morning to see hysteria amongst some of defeated side. They had claimed to be the rational ones, something the BBC repeated without thinking.  The months went by and the fury remained, all through into the general elections that followed, and all up to the gleeful political assassination of the Big, Blond Brexiteer-in-Chief, all beyond reason.  There are political causes to be angry about: I hope I would have been as vehement in defence of British unity had the Scottish vote gone the other way all those years ago, but to spit bile in the name of a trading bloc suggests that there is something else behind it, in a different vision rejected, which need not be that of the disciples of Monet across the Channel.

No world-changing event has taken place:  we have merely adjusted our trading treaties, as any nation may.  Some feel deep in their hearts though that a light has gone out in Rutupiae.  There may be those who looked across from the Gallic shore too and watched the twelve stars go out in our land and thought of it as an end, but the lights are blazing across our islands, brighter indeed than those in Europe.

In the days of the bewildered fisherman, when there was no world beyond Empire, Britannia falling dark might as well have sunk in the sea.  This though was not a little island.  This was the one nation within their borders whom the Romans feared, amongst whom the Romans garrisoned more legions than the whole of Africa, whose wild-eyed people were never trusted with office, and the one which had refused to stop speaking its native tongue.  The Britons were raising their own kings in their own land and would not be gone so easily.  In later ages it was the Britons who would remake the world.

One half of my ancestors of course destroyed this happy vision, striding the sea, driving the native Britons off their land, displacing to the mountain wastes the tongue which had survived even the iron boot of Rome.  In time though, when the Church had calmed the heathen English a little, the name of Britain was heard again on the lips of these new farmers and kings and an ancient concept of unity within the band of the sea was sought out.  Irish monks taught the English to read and to pray.  Across the island scholarship and invention flourished, so that the Dark Ages were less dark in Britain than in most of Europe.

It was an English monk who taught Charlemagne to wear his crown, and English missionaries who sailed to Germany and later to Scandinavia to reform those nations.  We are still remaking the world.

Charles de Gaulle thought that “c’est l’Europe, depuis l’Atlantique jusqu’à l’Oural, c’est toute l’Europe, qui décidera du destin du monde”, but it has not.  The English-speaking nations have shaped the world while Europe has shrunk in on itself.

De Gaulle’s phrase, echoed unthinkingly by innumerable European leaders since, has caused this current war in the Ukraine. It sounds to Russian ears like a deadly threat: “to the Urals” says to their ears “we will come to cut your country in half”.  It would be wiser to say with modesty that the European vision is from Brest en Finistère to Brest-Litovsk.

However expressed, we lie off de Gaulle’s Atlantic boundary, the end of his vision.  While Europe may be content to lie between the two Brests, our roving hands have wider ambition.  For us, outside the Atlantic Wall, the sea is no boundary but the beginning of our endeavours.  We are born upon and borne upon the sea which laps the world.  Britons are in every port and a Briton by blood and culture outside these shores is as much a Briton as I am, though he be born in New York or Darkest Peru.

I pause before saying that we will “remake the world” but we will do so, not by force but perhaps in a fit of absence of mind.  We are far beyond the convulsive Georgian age of politicians negotiating shifting alliances to exchange provinces between covetous neighbours and to roll from war to war, nor thankfully the Victorian age presiding over the dissolution of decrepit empires while sparks leapt between the ever-filling powder kegs of Europe.  In contrast, ours is an age our nation built.  The greatest peacemaker of our time, indeed the most effective since that light guttered and died in Rutupiae, has not been a statesman in his pomp, but our own Adam Smith of Kirkcaldy.  Amongst commercial, democratic states, he made war both redundant and repugnant.

If we sit back, content in a Fukuyama daze of peace and liberality, we forget that these are not universal nor inevitable: they are British, values, and American values by inheritance from Britain. A British-made world with our values is not inevitable. Rival visions, cruel visions, are rising. Nor even is civic peace inevitable: a sharp blow can shatter  even a civilisation three thousand years old: Syria is still at war several years after the cameras left. Such torn nations are not comprehensible within our cultural assumptions and so we must step back, outside our culture to our raw humanity. British values are needed more than ever.

Malicious naïvity is displayed by political voices which assert that evil must be an aberration explicable in Freudian terms within the narrow Western preconceptions of behaviour.  Rage, cruelty, oppression and lust for power are the base material from which man is made:  the suppression of our animal nature is the achievement and the object of culture and society.  To smash a society is to unleash the animal.  If a commentator implies that those who slaughter villages are not responsible for their actions, that they are good men at heart reacting to the actions of the civilised West; that scribbler should be drawn from his comfy salons to face the widows and the orphans, and let them speak.  They may tell what Thomas Hobbes knew over three hundred years ago, that men live without other security than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withal:  there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.

The idea of universal human values is a comfort blanket, but it has no root in reality as it is certainly not universal in place nor time.  Those values of peace, respect, fair dealing and democracy are values developed over centuries by the English-speaking nations and our gift to the world.

Even more today, we must express our values and not be subsumed in a bureaucrat’s barren conception. Evil is never further from us than space between the heart and the head, and the evil in the heart of man is to be cooled as it was in our nation centuries ago, by the building of society in prosperity that is prized by all.  It is not to come from the babbling idiot who praises with enthusiastic tone every century but this and every country but his own; criticism is helpful and constructive but one must be critical of one own criticism as one must be cynical of ones own cynicism.

Whatever faults may creep into individual actions over the ages, honesty can never disparage the great good that our nation has done in the world, and which we will continue to do.  Freed from gazing inwardly, we have new found lands to reach for again, to do good in spite of ourselves.

As the twelve stars go out in our land there should be no tears for the old familiarity with such idle idols.  When the stars begin to fade, it is because the dawn is coming.

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Floreat Ultonia?

The positive relief from the latest agreement is inescapable.  The Windsor Framework – is it the solution? It is not a miracle, but is pragmatic, at last.

The Ulster Protocol was out of date within months of signature: it was part of the initial Withdrawal Agreement, written at a time when it was not known if Britain and the European Union would sign a zero-tariff agreement, and so the main focus was how to charge customs duties across an invisible border. That became irrelevant: what remained was the imposition of a complex customs code and the banning from Ulster of everyday things brought from Great Britain.

You would think that when the Trade and Co-operation Agreement was signed, the Protocol could have been dropped – however there was still a lot of political anger in the air at the time, and the greyheads of the Commission were fired with a desire to punish Perfidious Albion.

Year have passed now, the greyheads have been inched out. We have all been through COVID and the tide of outrage is withdrawing. I have said before that the concept of common sense is culturally understood only in the English-speaking countries, one of which of course is long-suffering Ireland: maybe Ursula von L has a sense of it too.

Rhetoric rarely makes sensible decisions.  The idea at the time of the Withdrawal Agreement and its Protocols was that Ireland and Ulster should not be hurt by hindering the trade across the invisible border. Indeed, that was a sensible consideration. However trade across the North Channel is many times greater that that between North and South. The words of the latest document suggest that this realisation has been brought to the fore at last.

There is no need to wreck the greater trade route to preserve the lesser, but also no need really to harm either. There are no customs duties, so there is no need for the Protocol, but for the incomprehensible need for Brussels bureaucracy. That bureaucracy was a big reason for our leaving.

A solution seems to have been found, according to the press release, in a “green lane” or free and unhindered passage of goods, while those destined for the South may still be hindered. That is good for the United Kingdom; not so much for the Republic of Ireland.

The restrictions which remain need only be one-way restrictions: there is no reason for Britain to hinder imports from the European Union. If they choose to hinder imports from us, we roll our eyes at their self-harming eccentricities and our government should try to limit the harm through the mechanisms of the Trade and Co-operation Agreement.

What of the Irish Republic? The vast bulk of it trade too is with Great Britain. I have stood watching the thundering lines of lorries crossing Anglesey from Dublin and Dún Laoghaire. The concern should have been to stop the Irish losing that trade, but this deal still leaves Ireland punished.  If the EU’s rules hinder the majority of Ireland’s trade, the obvious solution would have been to give the dual position, in and out of the EU restrictive market, to the Republic, or simply for the South to leave the EU market entirely.

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How to get things done

There is a way to organise, to remove the ineffectiveness that plagues Whitehall. The current system is fine-tuned to fail: deadlock to inaction is built in by design, as the last thirteen years have shown. Now that Whitehall is faced with an impossible labour, replacing all Brussels laws, a new way to do things is vital.

There is a known solution, described by John Stuart Mill, one of the few non-Hobbesians who is quoted on this site with honour.

A committee, which takes minutes and wastes hours, is an efficient way to do nothing. There is no need to repeat all the faults of committees, as we all know them.  Beyond the commonplace remarks, a committee is a way to bring together a range of thoughts and insights into likely consequences, but it is drawn from a narrow range of experience, and the system is devised to avoid personal responsibility, and to prevent coherent decision. One strident voice on a committee can cast doubt in the collective wisdom and prevent the overwhelming majority from making a decision there and then – it is something I have done often enough myself.

What remarkable system of work was it then that Mills described? –

This mode of conducting the highest class of administrative business is one of the most successful instances of the adaptation of means to ends which political history, not hitherto very prolific in works of skill and contrivance, has yet to show.

He refers to the system by which India was ruled in the latter days of the Company. It took the strengths of the committee system but eliminated its basic flaws. He wrote:

The relation which ought to exist between a chief and this description of advisers is very accurately hit by the constitution of the Council of the Governor General and those of the different Presidencies in India. These councils are composed of persons who have professional knowledge of Indian affairs, which the governor general and governors usually lack, and which it would not be desirable to require of them. As a rule, every member of council is expected to give an opinion, which is of course very often a simple acquiescence; but if there is a difference of sentiment, it is at the option of every member, and is the invariable practice, to record the reasons of his opinion, the governor general, or governor, doing the same. In ordinary cases the decision is according to the sense of the majority; the council, therefore, has a substantial part in the government; but if the governor general, or governor, thinks fit, he may set aside even their unanimous opinion, recording his reasons. The result is, that the chief is individually and effectively responsible for every act of the government. The members of council have only the responsibility of advisers; but it is always known, from documents capable of being produced, and which, if called for by Parliament or public opinion always are produced, what each has advised, and what reasons he gave for his advice; while, from their dignified position, and ostensible participation in all acts of government, they have nearly as strong motives to apply themselves to the public business, and to form and express a well−considered opinion on every part of it, as if the whole responsibility rested with themselves.

This simple description (in his work “Considerations on a Representative Government“) sets out an effective governing structure in which all councillors may contribute, and so the Governor has the benefit of their wisdom, and in which collaborative decision-making can be effective: but it has the crucial distinction that the Governor and councillors all take personal responsibility, and where, if the committee is deadlocked, the Governor will decide and act.

One might think that councillors would be cynical about their role, knowing they are constitutionally powerless, as the Governor will decide on his own. In practice the councillors are incentivised to work hard and be part of a collective decision.

Width of experience in important in a council or a committee. In considering which Brussels rules of farming should be kept and which swept away or liberalised, there is little point having a committees manned with London-cloistered civil servants who cannot tell a cow from a bullock: that sort of impractical ignorance is why Brussels made it illegal to bury a dead sheep. Proper consideration needs farmers to lead, and those who know the specific regulations sitting beside them.

Generally, civil servants are open to outside advice. I have been involved with many consultations: the clerks in office know that they are ignorant of the realities in the fields they govern and so they ask for public comment from those in the relevant trade. It is a slow process though; a simple statutory instrument can take two years to settle. There is no time for that now: the Jacob Rees Mogg deadline at which all Brussels laws will expire is eleven months away. The committee system and the consultation system are incapable of doing the job with any degree of competence.

The path of least resistance, which the mandarins or Whitehall will press, is that every directive, regulation and decision the EU imposed shall be transcribed by copy-and-paste into a British statutory instrument, merely changing the ring of stars to the royal arms and removing the Slovenian translation. That is missing the point entirely: each imposition must be weighed in the balance and found wanting, or wanted. It may be kept only if objectively justified, and not out of mere caution.  For that we need Mill’s governors and their councils (if not by those names).

Therefore we come back to Mill. Each field of burden and regulation must be examined by a council constituted for the purpose, appointed by the minister in charge, and at its head not a chairman but a decisionmaker, guided but not bound by the council, whose sole decision will decide life or death to a regulation. On his or her voice alone, rules are repealed or repeated (or placed before the House to be). “This … is one of the most successful instances of the adaptation of means to ends … which political history… has yet to show”.

I would hope that they also have to hand and heart a copy of On Liberty.

Is it possible, even by this method, to achieve all this within the time allotted?

Depend upon it , sir; when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.

The impossible sunset deadline is to be held for two reasons: it is the only way to stop the bureaucracy from prevaricating; and it will distract them into a practical endeavour, to keep their hands out other petty interference.

Mill of course was not writing of Brexit but of India with a view that his observations be of wider application.  The lesson which can be learnt from applying this governor-council system can be applied to many fields of administration.  One might not name the decisionmakers as ‘governors’ – perhaps ‘executives’ or ‘commissioners’ or just ‘decisionmakers’. Those involved need not be drawn from the civil service: there is a good case for contracting functions out to private firms, more attuned t their client’s needs, as I have written before.

In this way the Whitehall deadlock can be lifted, as long as councillors with the right experience are drawn in, and sound decisionmakers are chosen.

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Five years, and who would have imagined?

Five years ago with a wobbly hand I put an X in the ‘Leave’ box, along with millions of others. I did not really believe the stories I told myself of the sunny prospects when we were out, but I knew there was only this opportunity. Now five years on, it has been achieved, and much more.

I could not have imagined it would take the Government so long actually to extricate us from the European Union: David Cameron (remember him?) said he would send the letter at once, and start the two years rolling, but instead he flunked it and walked out, leaving the task to a timid replacement with a backsliding team. Then out she went and the landscape was transformed – all this has been recited endless times and is raw in the memory.

Finally on 31 January 2020 we were out, after almost 4 years: there could not possibly be time by the fifth anniversary to have transformed the trade of the world, but here we are, with a ‘Canada+’ deal with the European Union, and another with Canada, world markets signing up, inward investment (that was meant to be fleeing, remember) pouring in as never before. Boris said during the campaign that we had been yoked to the only declining continent in the world, and now we are becoming linked to the growing ones. It is too short a time for it to have happened, but it has happened.

I was always told when young and wide-eyed that you can achieve whatever you want by putting your mind to it. I never really believed that – but these years have been proof that Governments fail to achieve because they dither and do not believe in what they are doing, but can succeed beyond all expectation if they put a collective mind to it. The night of the long knives after Theresa May departed was cruel, utterly necessary and successful.

It is unfashionable to say what I must, but God bless Dominic Cummings for his role in the transformation. They made a good team, Boris and Dominic, while it lasted.

I recall after the vote, calling out some nonsense from LibDems, when they claimed that the economy would crash 10% after Brexit. The figures were bizarre, Diane-level calculations based on all trade across the Channel ceasing and everyone who so much as sniffs a baguette at work being sacked. Well, they were right, in a way, not because of Brexit, which actually lifted the economy, but because of the lockdown. We did not foresee that. (Even there we are recovering because of Brexit freedoms, while Europe languishes.)

It was not foreseen, where we would be. It is better than I hoped. Now we just have to win the Sausage War.

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Sign the Australia deal

There is a free trade deal with Australia to be had: sign it. No text is available, but the Australian government has published its terms, and they are exactly what the British side would be looking for too. It’s a bonzer deal, mate.

One thing I was told repeatedly when canvassing for Leave in the referendum: when we are out of the EU, we must apologise deeply to the Australians. What was done in 1972 was unforgivable, freezing them out of their main export market as we turned to Europe. Now it is overdue the time to return to normality, which is free trade between Britain and the Old Commonwealth. Australia and New Zealand were settled, established and made equal, independent realms on the basis that we were all one and equal and trading between ourselves: betraying those basic understandings unilaterally, insulting the tie of kinship, for a flawed engagement with Europe, was a scandal that hurt badly in Australia and New Zealand and has never stopped hurting.

Cynical commentators (though we do need cynics), portray Australia as a minor player, an exporter of mutton, wool and beef, but that is a generation out of date. There are indeed more sheep in Australia than people in the British Isles, and it is important sector, but the main game in town these days is mining: Australia is the world’s largest producer of iron and bauxite, and around the top of copper, coal and much else besides.. Cheap iron, steel, copper and aluminium are vital for industry. that is only in one sector: Australia is a wonderland for industry and agriculture.

It is in agriculture that the objections have been raised. Farmers’ representatives are screaming about being unable to compete with the vast economies of scale that Australia has in sheep and cattle. One could combat the worry by pointing to the distances involved that even in our crowded islands we have more than half the number of sheep that whole continent has, and our flocks are closer. However mathematics aside, we must never forget Adam Smith. It is almost two and a half centuries since The Wealth of Nations, and it is still hard to convince people of the truth and logic of its observations. Customs duties are imposed at the demand of local producers who fear competition, and in Smith’s day too these were mainly farmers. However every example he analysed over centuries showed that customs duties do significant harm to those who demanded them. By Adam Smith’s principles, farmers should be welcoming free trade. Even apart from competition on wool, all the equipment around the farm, from heavy machinery down to stock fences, needs steel and aluminium: without free trade these are more expensive. All that ore and bauxite coming out of the ground will, if duties are lifted, reduce the cost of farming and boost profit.

We could look at it another, more philosophical way too:

Imagine Britain is running out of land (as we are) and there appears out of the sea a new, practically empty country ideal for flocks and herds. The land is annexed and farmers are encouraged to cross to this new part of Britain and establish vast farms which our islands’ limited bounds could not fit until the new land appeared. We cheer the pioneers and encourage others to join them, not just farming but providing all the support, infrastructure industry and exchange needed so that the pastoral enterprise can thrive to its best. Then we may find that our mines are exhausted, but his miraculous new land has untapped resources, so we send miners there too. Would farmers in the old islands complain? Well maybe, but only with as much conviction as a hill farmer in Cumberland might grumble that those on the Cotswolds have it too easy: the new land was established to thrive and it has done. Now do we disown it and impose high taxes on those we encouraged to move to the new land? That would be shocking. This really though is the story of the settlement and growth of Australia.

Tony Abbott has observed that while Britain and Australia are juridically separate, we are not foreign to each other. That is at the nub of it. We are one nation, juridically separated, but of the same essential understandings and aiming for the same things. Our twin government can do deals for mutual benefit without trying to put one over on the other – a very different dynamic indeed from the negotiations with the European Union last year.

There is a deal to be done, and both governments have the same aims and criteria. Sign it.

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