The Withdrawal Agreement in which the UK has negotiated the terms of its exit from the EU is, according to Angela Merkel, a ‘diplomatic piece of art’. And so it looks from the perspective of most European capitals, given how favourable it is to the long-term interests of the EU. Viewed from the UK, however, it represents one of the most abject failures of statecraft in modern British history. This is the story of how and why it got to be so bad that it has achieved the remarkable feat of uniting both ends of the political spectrum against it.
As is now widely acknowledged across political party lines at Westminster, the EU Withdrawal Agreement, in the form that was endorsed by the Council of Ministers on 25 November 2018, amounts to a strikingly bad deal for the UK.
Less coherent than any other available option, it leaves all of the fundamental issues as to the future unresolved, while committing the UK in international law to processes and outcomes that ought to be unacceptable to any democratic nation state. It concedes most of the UK’s original bargaining positions in return for no permanent benefit, and creates a fatally weak basis for negotiations on a future trade deal. In consequence, its adverse political and economic effects are likely to be worse in the long term than the disruption of a ‘no deal’ Brexit would be in the short term.
Moreover, these defects are not the product of the usual give-and-take of negotiation – a tolerable compromise, acceptable to everyone because it fully satisfies no-one. Instead they are the outcome of a series of avoidable decisions, the most important of them made in No. 10 Downing Street by the Prime Minister personally. As a result, the Agreement represents one of the most abject failures of statecraft in modern British history.
The things that are wrong with this deal can be summarised in four main points. But to understand them, and the Agreement itself, it is important to describe briefly how the UK got itself into this mess.
Continue reading The EU Withdrawal Agreement – how and why the UK government agreed the worst of all possible deals
(Part 1 of 2) The regulatory framework for public service television broadcasters, such as the BBC and Channel 4, contains a unique provision which requires them to produce part of their programming outside of London. How this works, how it is policed by Ofcom, and how the broadcasters respond to it, provide an insight into the serious structural problems with the government and economy of the UK, in particular the English regions.
Every year, the UK media regulator, Ofcom, publishes a set of data which receives far less attention than it deserves. This is the annual ‘Made outside of London‘ register, a list of television programmes produced outside the capital by, or on behalf of, the UK’s four public service broadcasters (the PSBs – BBC, ITV3, Channel 4 and Channel 5).
Two things are surprising about this document. The first is that it exists at all. Regulatory bodies typically have no interest in whether, or to what extent, their regulated sectors contribute to economic activity in the UK’s constituent nations and regions. The second (which explains the first) is that Ofcom compiles the data to monitor compliance with duties imposed by Parliament. Each PSB is under a legal obligation to ensure that part of its programming is produced somewhere other than London.
This represents an exceptional, in fact unique, example of the law being used to require a measure of decentralisation in a major sector of the UK economy.
The data would merit scrutiny if only because they were so unusual. On examination, it turns out that they also offer a stark illustration of the underlying structural defects in the government and economy of England.
Continue reading London Calling – the BBC, Channel 4 and the Problem of the English Regions
In the case of Buick, the Northern Ireland High Court explored whether government departments can continue to operate as normal in the absence of ministers due to the collapse of the devolved administration in Belfast. It reached a striking conclusion which, if upheld on appeal, would have significant constitutional and practical implications. It was mistaken.
The United Kingdom is currently engaged in an experiment in political anarchism. For over a year, it has been exploring what happens when one part of the country, in this case Northern Ireland, is required to carry on without an elected government.
The experiment arose inadvertently, and on the surface very little has changed. Belfast 2018 is not the anarcho-syndicalist utopia of Barcelona 1936, nor has it suddenly lapsed into a Hobbesian state of nature. But the very reason why hardly anything appears to be different – the continuity that is provided by the de facto technocratic government of the Northern Ireland Civil Service – gives rise to constitutional questions of real importance. The most fundamental question is this: can day-to-day government be carried on by civil servants without the need for direction or control by politicians; if so, subject to what conditions and within what parameters?
It was only a matter of time before this question fell to be considered in a court of law. And it has been, in the recent case of Buick  NIQB 43, in which the High Court was asked to determine whether Northern Ireland’s ten government departments are able to carry on without ministers in charge. It came to a surprising and unintentionally radical conclusion.