The electorate seems ungrateful. Political leaders embracing the mainstream political presumptions of the later part of the 20th Century seem less sure of themselves beyond the set-piece photo-ops. 

Trump has been a shock to the American system, but a shock that was some time in coming and not altogether impossible even if a little unexpected. Everyone could see it, few believed it. Brexit too, in the UK. 

The upset to the established order is widespread. Many a ‘liberal’ laments (in no particular order) PiS, Orban, Lega Nord, Le Pen on the right, Mélenchon on the left, AfD, SD, and little sign yet of the populist left/right tide slowing down.

Fewer tears are shed about the Austrian Government, an unsavoury alliance between ÖVP and the FPÖ – but then Chancellor Kurz is a friend of Merkel (all EPP together; along with Orban it may be noted). 

Then there is Duterte in the Philippines, and Bolsonaro in Brazil.

The only thing on which most pundits are ready to predict is that it is impossible to predict what will happen in 2019, or beyond. 

What is fairly apparent is a wiff of mild hysteria that seems to have driven some self-defined ‘progressives’ to the edge of unreason – and Democrats in the USA, Social Democrat types in Europe and beyond.

Which is why a second term of Trump cannot be discounted, nor a quick, confused, but ultimately clean Brexit; and that Orban, PiS, LN will keep on winning and those other than the mainstream left and right keep on rising in the polls. Instead of calling everyone a Nazi, perhaps it might be worth taking time to understand the electorate’s current interest in alternative voices.

Some have considered the nature and impact of social change, and some of this can be widened to consider why politicians seem out of touch with all but themselves. 

In ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff warn of three ‘dangers’:

1 Catastrophizing: focusing on the worst possible outcome as the most likely outcome.

Describing fellow Americans as ‘deplorables’, and Trump and his supporters ‘Nazis’, was wrong and didn’t prove to be an effective argument as to why anyone should vote Hilary Clinton. The mistake of challenging a populist to a bout of name calling ought to be obvious. 

Similarly, believing ‘Project Fear’ was a solid strategy to enter the Brexit referendum to support Remain in the EU was an erroneous presumption that basically the same ‘strategy’ had been crucial to a Yes vote in the earlier Scottish Independence referendum. That ‘Project Fear’ was the only strategy may have led to that presumption, rather than a willingness to accept that the electorate could see through the hype and bombast and make a rational decision based on what they believed best either way. 

Project Fear in the Scottish context had at least a number of people, not least and best articulated by Gordon Brown, who believed in the United Kingdom, warts and all. 

Of course, the result of the Scottish Referendum in 2014 meant that the predictions of ‘Project Fear’ in that campaign were never put to the test. 

In the Brexit referendum those advocating Remain all too often made the case that ‘reform is necessary, and we need to be inside to change the EU’, of course. It was as if no-one would notice that David Cameron had just come back with the sum total of zero from his ‘negotiation’ on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. Worse, following the Referendum, the predictions of Remain’s version of ‘Project Fear’ did not materialise, the catastrophe didn’t happen. The UK electorate voted to leave the EU and the economy did not crash in ruins the next day, or since. #DespiteBrexit

The same presumption, that the electorate is unwilling to take a risk, is evident in the same Project Fear type media programming the UK Government seems to be building around the Prime Minister’s draft agreement on the technical process of leaving the EU. There is neither the trust in Mrs May, or concern of the consequences of ‘no-deal’, to enable her current plan to pass easily through the House of Commons. 

Overstating the worst possible outcome may be the reason why the mood at Westminster hadn’t changed much between the suspension of the process towards the vote on the PM’s ‘deal’ before it was halted in the run-up to Christmas, and the mood as Parliament returned to restart that process.

The mood at Westminster was best summed up by Tim Shipman in the Sunday Times (6 January):

Contemplating a return from the festive break, one cabinet minister was short on Christmas spirit last week: “The next few weeks are going to be hideous.” When MPs disappeared a fortnight ago, Theresa May’s aides had hoped that a period of reflection would encourage more Tories to support her Brexit deal in the vote, already delayed, due on January 15.

“The hope was that MPs would go home and consume much milk and honey and return with a different perspective. But that doesn’t seem to have happened,” one of May’s team conceded. Another said: “The people with Brexit indigestion are still dyspeptic.”

Outside Westminster and the news cycle, and Twitter, life goes on. There is no public hysteria about a ‘no-deal’ scenario. Much to the chagrin of Remain supporters, and Government (though perhaps for different reasons), Project Fear II has been met with a shrug. 

2 Emotional Reasoning: “Always trust your feelings”, is a poor guide to the world compared to observing representative data or attempting to refute one’s intuitions with alternative explanations

An opinion expressed on Twitter remains just that. Yes, even when that opinion is The Donald’s. Democrats are furious with Trump, permanently. Mostly because he dominates the news agenda with a Tweet. A Trump Tweet is taken as fixed and permanent, no matter the when that permanency is far greater than afforded to it by Trump or his administration – the most recent example being Syria.

The current failure of the Democrats is that while they continue to demonise Trump, they offer little coherent alternative to the Trump agenda (whatever that is). It may even help Trump to gain a second term with the Democrats at their most obstructive and tribal for the next two years. If New York’s Ocasio-Cortez is the future of Democrats’ policy agenda, middle America will be permanently lost to them. 

With the count-down to the next Presidential race already started the next twelve months will be fascinating in the USA. Democrats will have to choose between feeling their way forward, or working out a concrete agenda that makes sense to middle America. 

Meanwhile the same ability to dive down a rabbit hole seems evident at Westminster. Labour’s best policy, which Corbyn is trying hard to hold, is to not have a policy on Brexit. Even if that means the 29 March arrives and the UK leaves the EU without any transitional arrangement or concrete agreements on basic trade processes, because all can be put at the PM’s door. It might be possible to argue the toss on this, but for Labour it is surely better the Tory Party rip itself apart than the Labour Party which is arguably the more fragile of the two – it is only the immediate ability to provide votes against the ‘Tory Government’ that is holding Labour together. 

The other element to Tim Shipman’s observation that nothing has changed in the mood of Parliament is restated in the daily news letter (7 January) from Peter Foster, Europe Editor at the Telegraph : 

… today the European Commission was clear that there will be no contact with Barnier’s team “which is quite normal because negotiations have concluded.”

and continuing; 

“If Mrs May doesn’t want a customs union or a custom border in the Irish Sea, but wants a deal by 2021, then how does that work? It’s a question the UK still needs to answer, but can’t or won’t. It was this that Mr Juncker described as ‘nebulous’.”

The PM’s hope that words or some form of statement by way of ‘explanation’, rather than specific change to what would become a legal document, doesn’t stand up to the cold hard reality of not actually being able to explain exactly how any of this would work going forward.

Specifically, the idea that somehow the PM’s Draft Withdrawal Agreement (DWA) would bring business some ‘certainly’ going forward is a complete fiction. The DWA is only the technical agreement on how to manage basic interactions post-Brexit, and is in fact only stage one towards the longer term agreement on the long-term management of trade, and the negotiations required to get to that point.

When the UK-wide ‘backstop’ becomes the minimum requirement for a trade relationship going forward, imagine the outrage. If anyone believes there is no ambiguity or uncertainty in the backstop note the following from BBC’s Mark Devenport.

The next day on Victoria Derbyshire, Conservative Vice Chair (one of twelve), Chris Skidmore, clearly stated that divergence was possible – suggesting that it was inevitable and desirable. When pressed, as much as could be said for ‘the deal’ was that we had a guarantee that the UK could keep talking with the EU on trade:

Do we believe Bradley, Gove or Skidmore on what the DWA means?

Part of a longer conversation with the News Letter’s Sam McBride back in August 2018:

Northern Ireland businessman David Hoey, who headed up the campaign in Northern Ireland, argues that from the point of view of business a no-deal scenario, or “a clean Brexit”, would open Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK up to “more export markets more rapidly”. 

He says that leaving without a deal “will at least bring clarity” for business, adding: “I’m not saying it’s instantly going to be wonderful but it does allow businesses to make decisions from a position of certainty – and the most important thing in business is to know where you stand.”

The point made in the longer conversation preceding this article was that that business needs a start point. Whether good or bad, having a certain start point is important, and that business and industry is far more inventive, imaginative, and flexible, in managing change than Government. The important thing about 30 March is that there is certainty going forward. 

As talk of a ‘no-deal scenario’ increases, and the likelihood of a hard border recedes, regardless, with no planes falling out of the sky or significant barriers to trade (which would include the EU/UK border on land or sea), confidence based on what is fact rather than a fabricated fear may be the greatest challenge the Prime Minister must overcome.

Project fear relies on the worst possible outcome being the most likely outcome. But what happens when the worst possible outcome doesn’t seem that bad, and in fact seems preferable to more political calamity and a DWA that at best satisfies no-one and is a prelude to years more acrimoniuos negotiations.

3 Dichotomous Thinking: Collapsing the complex reality of the world into a black-and-white morality tale in which there are good and bad people.

Donald Trump is not a Nazi, any more than is Anna Soubry. Jeremy Corbyn is not a Tory.

Name-calling, to the left or right, changes nothing. It doesn’t win an argument, it simply closes down a conversation. Planting the term ‘extremist’ on everyone with a contrary view dilutes any moral sense of proportion. There are consequences.  

It would be wrong to suggest that an agreement on trading arrangement could be without compromise between the UK and EU. The PM’s ‘there is no alternative’ and the EU’s equivalent may be where we find ourselves, but there is a sense that everyone has been trying to be a little too clever; too clever to explain in simple terms the anticipated outworking of this stage of negotiations and what it means for the next round.

A black and white choice, when (see above) there is a lack of clarity on meaning and a lack of confidence or trust moving forward, cannot end well.

For all the talk of future partnership, there is a sense that neither side has a measure or understanding of the other. Red lines don’t make for practical decision making, particularly where two parties have mutually exclusive red lines and cultural, economic and political histories create a too often very different view of the world. 

There are no villains in the political story of Brexit, or in Trump’s America. What makes good headlines, and stokes conspiracist’s fantasies, usually has more mundane and simple explanation at its heart. 

Things aren’t black or white. The 30 March will follow the 29th, and the only difference will be that the UK is no longer a member of the EU. The UK will still be in Europe, but not part of the EU. Businesses will trade with each other, perhaps on different terms. Relationships on a nation to nation basis probably won’t change all that much. 

For certain, there will be change. Good. The UK was becoming too comfortable with a Blairite-style  technocracy, a cosy consensus of politics and business that induced complacency and a tendency towards crony capitalism – very much the EU direction of travel.

Technocratic rule has done Italy no favours; whose technocrats were appointed by the EU. Greece is no great advert for EU love of small nations. The Macron response to the Gilet-Jaune will take France outside EU budget rules, not for the first time. Germany continues to piggyback economic growth through the imbalances in the Euro – no wonder it resists change. The EU shrugs. Business as usual.

For too long Westminster has blamed EU for everything that was politically challenging – the EU made us do it; we were only following a Directive. No doubt it suited many to be comfortably coddled by the technocratic comfort of big decisions being taken in Brussels assuring no votes lost in, for the sake of argument, Broxtowe. 

While UK politicians seem to be less than in control currently, the challenge of leadership is there for the willing and able, and the un-coddled. 

Go 2019.

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