9-11 – the world changed on that TV screen

9-11 – the world changed on that TV screen

It had been a warm late summer Tuesday morning
I hadn’t long finished eating lunch in my office in central Reading. At around 1:50 I took a call from a friend.
“Hey, Rob, you all right?”
“Aye. But listen. The North Tower of the World Trade Centre is on fire. It’s pretty serious, go and have a look.”
“Oh, really, thanks.”
“Call me back.”
“Cheers, will do.”
I walked along the corridor to the Labour Party’s South East Regional Office who were on the same floor. They hadn’t heard. I suggested they put the TV on. Sure enough, smoke was pouring from the North Tower.
Nobody on whichever news channel it was seemed to know what had caused what was clearly a very serious blaze. Those Labour Party staff who were in the office and my staff who I had shouted to come have a look, stood around watching a disaster movie and speculating. In less than 10 minutes we knew.
The world changed live on that TV screen.
The images were on every screen on the planet - the ultimate act of terror. What would follow was immediately evident – it was an act of war and war would surely follow.
My children were ten and a few days short of eight. There was no way they could, nor should, have been sheltered from the day’s events but I had no idea how what to say to them.
Quite a few years earlier I had sat on the WTC observation deck on a steamy afternoon looking north from lower Manhattan, on my first visit to the USA. There are some pictures somewhere. You could sit inside with your legs dangling by the windows - all perfectly safe but still vertiginous. The buildings themselves divided opinion, the observation deck was a bit 1970s crummy and little worse for wear but the view was unforgettable. I remember thinking, ‘Imagine working every day with this view, it would be brilliant, but it wouldn’t be special’. Some say the building was unloved by its occupants.
Visiting Ground Zero, was every time a moving experience. The many scribbled messages, informal memorials and tributes deserved and got time. They have now been superseded by the official memorial, though hopefully somebody recorded or preserved them. What struck me most was the void. The absence of something so immense and apparently powerful. A plane flies across the void and, inevitably, you see the image.
I’ve no idea how many words have been written about 9/11. I know it’s a big number. I cannot do justice to either the events of their consequences nor add much to what has been already said easily, though I do have my own take on it all.
Suffice to say the event, or something like it, had been coming. In my view the moment of change that had led to 9/11 was the Iranian revolution of 1979 that brought the ayatollahs to power and set in train a struggle within the Islamic world involving medievalist and more humane interpretations. That struggle remains unresolved, its damage is immeasurable.
In the last two weeks there has been a lot of writing about the ‘end of the war’. I find the premise absurd. The war hasn’t ended - only its current phase has ended. Like the Hundred Years War between England and France, it will flare up and die down, but this one will run and run.
Talking about ‘how it all affected me’ is the self-indulgent way that’s people in the comfortable first world seek attention. Objectively, individually really hardly at all - but the global implications were the end of the era of ‘post Cold War’/‘post history’’. I remember feeling rather numb, of being confused and fearful for my children’s lives in a way I had not previously. The headlines on the day of my daughter’s birth eight years less three days earlier were of the Oslo peace agreement with pictures of Arafat and Rabin - historic and hopeful, or so we thought.
Eight years after 9-11 she and I visited Ground Zero again. At the north east corner on Broadway is St Paul's Chapel, which like much else served as a living memorial. We sat there for a while in what is for me a symbol of the great contradiction of religion - a place where all seems peaceful across the road from the evil perpetrated in the name of god. The nearly 3,000 who died in the attacks were just the latest of the endless victims of the gods man made.
Posted by John Howarth
European Super League – West Ham Set for Title as FA Acts (If Only) …

European Super League – West Ham Set for Title as FA Acts (If Only) …

Following the announcement by the self-described ‘big six’ English football clubs of their intention to join a break away European Super League, the FA Premier League, after consultation with UEFA, has excluded the six clubs from this season’s English competitions.

Matches involving the six clubs held to be in breach of competition rules have been declared void. The Premier League season will be based only on the matches between the remaining 14 teams. The table, as of 18 April leaves West Ham in touching distance of the first English title in the 120 years since they rebranded from Thames Ironworks Football Club. With a game in hand over their nearest rivals, four points from the Hammers remaining five valid games will be enough to deny Leicester City a second title in five years. Leeds United are set to achieve the highest finish by a newly promoted side since Newcastle under Kevin Keegan, while Everton are favorites for the final Champions League spot.

The changes comes as a relief to the four teams in danger of the drop who will retain their top tier status with six teams moving up from the EFL Championship next season. Sheffield United, having thought their relegation had been confirmed on Friday evening ago will now remain in the top flight after all.

Leicester City, who had taken 16 points against the disqualified six against West Ham’s 6 points, look odds on to qualify for the Champions’ League again, they will also celebrate lifting their First FA Cup following their victory over Southampton yesterday. The Saints will take the FA Cup Europa League Spot while Brentford qualify for European football for the first time after being awarded the EFL Cup – how Newcastle United must wish they had turned up in against the Bees in December’s quarter final.

The summer transfer market is now likely to throw up a few surprises after the PFA announced their intention to initiate legal action against the disqualified clubs claiming material change in the employment circumstance of contracted players.

An FA spokesman indicated that while no decisions had yet been taken it was likely that were the six clubs to seek to return to English football the rules would require that they re-apply for membership, meaning they would have to work their way back up the pyramid from the bottom in the same way AFC Wimbledon had been forced to following the move of the franchise to Milton Keynes. It is thought likely that Salford City will ground share with Manchester United while Barnet are through the likely tenants of the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Manchester City Council is thought likely to re-possess the Etihad, claiming breaches of covenant.

Then we woke up …

Posted by John Howarth
Shirley Williams 1930-2021 – a personal appreciation

Shirley Williams 1930-2021 – a personal appreciation

A while back I was asked to write a list of the ten political figures who were most important to me during my lifetime. Like most of these lists I pondered long and hard about just who would make the cut, but one of the first names on the list was Shirley Williams*.

I came into active politics during the 1970s but I had watched political discussion on TV for as long as I could understand that it mattered. Shirley Williams caught my attention early because she sounded intelligent, passionate and convincing but also because she looked ordinary. One of the papers had unkindly described her as “the tousled housewife” – a misogynist put down, but could have been one of our teachers – and she would have been good (years later her students from Harvard spoke highly of her). She probably didn’t smile enough but you could believe her. When Ted Heath was evicted from number 10, Harold Wilson’s cabinet contained two (yes 2) women – Barbara Castle (another of my ten) and Shirley Williams who was given the prices and consumer protection portfolio and later, as the only woman in Jim Callaghan’s Cabinet, Education and Science.

I always felt Shirley Williams deserved better – she was far more talented than many of the depressing grey suits who were promoted over her, but as Education Secretary she was inspiring, not because of what she achieved – it was hard for any Labour minister to achieve a great deal in a government with no majority, but because she clearly believed in education as the force of personal liberation, betterment and social mobility that it damn well ought to be.

Fast forward to my university days and the split in Labour. Shirley Williams was a regular drop in at the University of Essex where she had academic friends who leaned toward social democracy. It was an awful time in and for the Labour Party not unlike the past few years and I was wrong about an awful lot of things – youthful idealism and just plain stupidity in equal measure. I was deeply disappointed when Shirley Williams got involved with the others in the ‘gang of four’. Roy Jenkins, I could forgive because of the things he did as Home Secretary, the other two were dreadful and many of the Labour MPs who followed them were a very mixed bag, as many had deselection difficulties because they were lazy as did because of their politics. These days we almost take it for granted people will be 'good constituency MPs' - it wasn't always true.

After the formation of the SDP she came down to the campus to do an open meeting. When you are young you are stupid and arrogant enough to believe you can do anything, so I was up for interviewing Shirley Williams for the campus radio station. Shirley, thoroughly polite and decent of course, completely shredded my hopeless attempts to take her on, chewed my up and would have spat me out if she had been less well brought up. It was an early and valuable lesson, only partially learned. Off mike after the interview she said that she could see she where I was coming from, that I was angry with her and she appreciated why. I told her she was right because she had been one of my heroes and I was sad she had left the party. “They left me”, she said.

I bumped into her a couple of times at Westminster, but only in passing – a great pity I was never able to recount the encounter and say thank you.

The political choices she made meant she spent the rest of her political life on the fringes, never having the impact in Government that she might have had by remaining with Labour. Ironically, she was far more radical in terms of social, economic and international policy that some who stuck with Labour. In my view it was ultimately a flawed strategic judgement, though it’s worth remembering how close the SDP came to breaking the two major parties. The point of being in politics is to make a difference and I can’t help but think she could have done so much more. However there is a point for most people in politics at which you ask if this is who you really are and where you want to be? If you are not true to yourself you will carry that regret to your grave. I don’t imagine Shirley Williams had many regrets.

I disagreed with her on much, of course, but I have continued to admire her over the years and was always happy when she popped up on TV. Shirley always had something to say that made you think. Her passing is a reminder of another age – the ONLY woman around that cabinet table. It’s really not so long ago.



* The others were Barak Obama, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Muhammad Ali, Tony Blair, Barbara Castle, Harriet Harman, Mikhail Gorbachev and Robin Cook, but that’s for another day.

Posted by John Howarth
The pandemic proves everything everybody always thought…

The pandemic proves everything everybody always thought…

In the early months of the Covid Pandemic claims of all kinds were made for the political significance of the (hopefully) once in a lifetime events. The pandemic and its consequences were essentially held to justify whatever a particular politician might have always thought.

Variously, Covid was a point in time where:

  • As in 1945, people would want to see major social change toward greater equality
  • Outsourcing in the NHS couldn’t possibly continue after this
  • Society would re-evaluate and decide collective approaches were better
  • Post-industrial, climate friendly policies would be embraced
  • Work-life balance would be re-evaluated and consumer materialism rejected

The common thread was that ‘people would want something different’. Very few of those writing such polemics said why any of this was inevitable - it just was! There didn’t appear to be any evidence of why this might be the case nor any real effort to determine what the views or ambitions of the population may be - it was “just obvious”. While it may well This kind of political wishful thinking has long since damaged Labour and the left in general. I have a vague memory of a tie produced by the Fabian Society the pattern of which was formed by the words, “the inevitability of socialism”. Covid is just the latest event - scandals, wars, economic collapse - that was to have an ‘inevitable’ consequence leading toward the historical inevitability of ‘social transformation’ in a progressive direction.

It is hard to know what is more depressing - the intellectual laziness of these conclusions, the fact that the same old determinist logic can be at play after more than a century of evidence to the contrary, or just how out of touch with the aspirations of everyday folk left-leaning politicos seem to be.

Far from Covid being the catalyst of social change it is worth considering what is important to ‘most people’ - and ‘most people’ do not engage in that much political thought away from election times. ‘Most people’ know politics is important, but ‘most people’ claim little knowledge or interest - this is widely supported by polling evidence. ‘Most people’ will cite the welfare of themselves and their families as their top priority most of the time - that is again, well supported by polling evidence. Also, ‘most people’ in affluent societies (and whatever else may have taken place the UK still qualifies here) where ‘most people’ are not in poverty, quite like the lives that they have and like or have a measure of pride in the place in which they live - again, well documented both in terms of economic and social research and polling evidence.

Hardly surprising then that even though the voters may be open to ‘building a better world’ their priority as citizens is to get back to their lives - to their jobs (though not necessarily at an office), to their holidays, to having lunch with their families, to going out with their friends - whether it be to pubs, shops, restaurants, theatres or football grounds - and to other aspects of their ‘normality’. Neither should it be surprising that the longer and more traumatic the pandemic became the more ‘most people’ yearn for a future like the past.

None of this means that the pandemic might not lead toward political and social change, nor that its management by the Johnson government should not be the subject of serious scrutiny, but simply that those changes will not be automaticity determined by events. Polling evidence through the past year of anything but normal politics showed very clearly an initial spike in support for the government (replicated all over the world) seeking to deliver a national effort to combat the pandemic, followed by a significant fall when it became clear that those efforts, their communication and the behavior of those in key positions was wanting and a recovery when things appear to be going in the right direction. Opposition parties do not ‘make the weather’. So far out from an election and with only one issue in the mind of the public their efforts hardly impact on the thinking of the electorate.

Finally, another fact that seems to have escaped the minds of some politicos is a simple reality. We have a Government with a large majority for the first time since Labour left office in 2010. No need now for the Government to scrape by - though it is sometimes still in the mindset of the three preceding ministries who needed an eye to their coalition partners, their backbenchers, the immediate drifts of public opinion and how opposition might coalesce. None of that matters. The Government can ignore everyone and everything: so it is by no means ‘inevitable’ that the totally justified public inquiry* into the handling of the pandemic will happen any time soon - if at all, nor is any other ‘obvious’ need - in the NHS, schools, the public services or the economy - on the agenda if the Johnson administration doesn’t want it. This is a cold reality Labour politicians face and which, to some extent, has been masked by more than a year of pandemic politics. After a decade of instability, five years of uncertainty and eighteen months of restrictions, the most important indication is that ‘most people’ crave stability and a break from bad news. This, rather than delivering a desire for radical change, is the climate with which Labour’s strategists will need to wrestle.


* for a summary of the case for an inquiry read ‘Failures of State’ by Sunday Times journalists George Arbuthnot and Jonathan Calvert.

Posted by John Howarth
Labour: for the many? Really?

Labour: for the many? Really?

Harold Wilson famously said, “If the Labour Party is not a moral crusade, then it is nothing”.

Harold Wilson knew very well, however, that the old way to deliver any aim, moral or otherwise, was through winning and retaining the power to do so. This author has made the point repeatedly that no political party has any right to form governments, lead the opposition or even to exist in a meaningful way. At the beginning of the pandemic the jury was out on Labour’s future, after the outcome of the leadership election the jury remained out and after more than a year of political stasis a verdict has yet to be reached.

If, however, Labour is to have a meaningful future its self-analysis has to extend well beyond the confines of who may of may not be part of its shadow cabinet. The unanswered question is what and who the Labour Party is for?

Some would say this is clear in Labour’s Constitutional Aims and Values. Others would say Labour is and always has been a ‘broad church’ party of the left. But that is not remotely sufficient for the situation in which we find ourselves. The need for a broad electoral coalition embodied within a single political party is a product of an electoral system that penalises third and smaller parties and rewards plurality disproportionately. Elsewhere, in more of less proportional systems, electoral coalitions are by degrees less necessary. Dependent on the voting system, electoral coalitions can fracture to the point where it is viable for parties to represent narrow interests and  no party can realistically claim victory. Even if UK Labour had retained the support of its former base of the industrial working class it could not deliver its aims solely on that basis - they simply are not sufficiently numerous.


When successful Labour has constructed a articulated and in varying degrees delivered the material improvement of living standards of the majority - poor and not so poor, blue collar, white collar and professional. Labour has stood for optimistic self-interest of all people who work for a living. Families like mine voted Labour to improve our own lives. Labour since 2010 and to some extent before that retreated into a narrow and essentially pessimistic appeal to benevolence.

Without question Conservative-led Governments since 2010 have penalised the poor, increased inequality and used the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008 as the excuse to dismantle a great deal of state provision. Without question it is a disgrace that in a developed and (still) rich country increasing numbers in the population rely on food banks, in fact it is a disgrace that the UK needs food banks at all. But it is also without question that those reliant on state provision and charitable organisation remain a minority lacking of themselves of any real political power and that their ‘mobilisation’ as such is a pipe dream.

Poverty alleviation is without doubt part of Labour’s message and should always remain as such but delivering that outcome requires the votes of those who are not of do not see themselves as poor and who are primarily concerned with their own position. Some have argued that economic interests no longer apply, that ‘cultural’ rather than ‘economic’ issues now dominate political discourse. This is an argument made on the left and on the right equally. It has also been made by some who believe that the collapse of Labour’s ‘red wall’ support happened in spite of the apparently dire economic plight of many of those towns and semi-rural constituencies. That is a mis-reading of cultural and social trends driving votes in those constituencies. Politicians, myself included, who advocated remaining in the European Union did so in part because we believed it was objectively in the interests of working people and their families. However, it is quite clear from all research that a segment of working people were not persuaded of that view - their support for leaving the EU was not just about ‘Englishness’, migration or other cultural factors they perceived as in their economic interest, particularly so in ‘red wall’ (and ‘red wall’ like) areas.

The aspiration of ‘working class’ voters (C1s, C2s and D/Es if you prefer) for a more comfortable life, for a decent home of their own, for opportunities for themselves and their children - including those for whom University is not the best option, for access to good health and social care and for a neighbourhood in which they can take a degree of pride is as strong as it ever was. That desire may have found means of expression beyond the simply ‘economic’ but it has not gone away. The thing about recessions and depressions is that their effects are not uniform - ‘losers’ are a disproportionally hurt minority, ‘winners’ still make money and those in between seek to protect what they have. While the middle classes feel insecure an offer of radical change and with it further insecurity is even less appealing. Meanwhile in those small c conservative towns and villages the construction of new private housing estates goes on, as does the drift toward former industrial towns becoming affordable aspirational suburbs. While in 2019 Labour lost in places it had held for nearly a century, other bricks in the red-wall had been more recently marginal with Conservative MPs during the Thatcher era - Darlington, Hyndburn, Blackpool and so on. Not so much a return to the 30s as a trip back to the 80s.

There is no shortcut for Labour economic arguments have to reflect aspiration. There has to be ‘something in it for me’ and we have to be able to articulate the self-interest of a Labour vote. Poverty and a low-wage, casualised economy makes no sense for voters across a wide range of interests who look ‘not for  a hand out but for a leg up’. Core policies need to address core concerns: fair pay in fair work, fair taxes that reflect the changed nature of the employment and contributory principles, pragmatic trade and security policies, local authorities with the resources and responsibilities to act and deliver pride in place. It is not the full picture but it is one of the essential elements without which ambition to change the country for the better will fall flat. It is also the only element that would enable Labour to re-unite the diverse elements of its vote that made it a plausible political force. Tilts toward social conservatism will never be enough, nor in any case are we those people - we need to be the owners of security, social and personal protection and the freedom to be yourself and make the best for yourself.

Self-interest will always be the motivating factor of the groups that in the UK’s system determine the outcome of elections - a system that isn’t changing any time soon. Labour forgot that and it has paid a massive price. Whether the party can re-learn it will determine the verdict once the jury returns.

Posted by John Howarth
Kashmir’s ‘double lockdown’ is a matter for humanity

Kashmir’s ‘double lockdown’ is a matter for humanity

(Article re-published from 8 August 2020, above, At Kashmir Solidarity day, London Feb 2020 and EU Human Rights Kashmir Forum 27 October 2020)

It is 12 months since the protected status of the disputed territory in the Indian administered state of Jammu and Kashmir was revoked by the BJP Government of Narendra Modi. Since then disappearances, beatings, and other serial violations of the human rights of Kashmiris have continued, hidden from the gaze of the world by a state imposed black-out of the internet.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic hit the planet in February the Kashmir siege has become a double-lockdown. The vital role played by on-line information channels in seeking to combat the spread of Covid-19 has simply not been available to the Kashmiris. They have faced an imposed militarisation - the most intensive on the planet reportedly involving towards half a million Indian troops alongside a public health lockdown.

The irony of the removal of internet access should not be lost. The manipulation of the democracy indifferent internet by Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP in common with the tactics of populists and national conservatives around the world meant that the BJP government understood fully its importance. It is incumbent upon democrats and progressives to help ensure the flow of information to opinion leaders is maintained and truth is spoken to power on this entirely unacceptable situation.

The response of the international community to the latest episode in a dispute seven decades old has been predictably weak. It is a weakness amplified by the continued undermining of multilateral institutions by the likes of Donald Trump. Until it is recognised that the strengthening of the international community is essential to producing brokered solutions the prospects for progress in Kashmir and the in the 39 other disputed regions around the world are grim.

However there are levers to pull and there are actions that can be taken. The desire of the UK for trade arrangements present an opportunity to raise the necessity for respect for human rights - Ms Truss is likely to discover that India is a difficult place to conclude such arrangements. UK politicians can nonetheless use the opportunity to highlight how the actions of the BJP government are damaging India’s international reputation. The message should be simple – the situation in Kashmir is bad for business, standing in the way of economic development in the South Asia region.

Elsewhere the European Union represents a much greater prize for India but also a jurisdiction where trade deals are openly scrutinised by MEPs and where progress on human rights is key to their conclusion. The same rules must apply to India as have been applied to other trade treaties. In this conflict it remains open to the EU either to be a force for good or to ignore the problem. Friends of democracy and human rights can help ensure the former both in the EU institutions and among the governments of the 27 member states.

Behind the changes to the status of Jammu and Kashmir last August several things ought to be clear.

First, it is hard to see, given a population of ten million, how the notion of promoting ‘settlement’ in the Jammu and Kashmir with the intention of changing the demographic can be sustainable. Unless, of course, the policy is accompanied by another policy of ‘removal’ and the deliberate creation of a refugee crisis on a massive scale. We would all naturally hope this is does not come to pass - but just hoping genocide will not become policy has not always worked elsewhere.

Second, there is no military solution to the problems of Jammu and Kashmir. Like conflicts elsewhere, it has not and will not resolve the issue and that fact must be recognised by all parties as an essential step toward peace. De-escalation is more important than ever, the presence in international observers is more important than ever, demilitarization and the deployment of international observers is urgent and is the most significant step toward improving the lives of Kashmiris and respecting their human rights.

Third, there is no solution to the Kashmiri dispute without the involvement and consent of the Kashmiris themselves. This truth should be self evident, sadly it has evaded many in positions of power and powerful vested interests.

Finally, it is simply not good enough to dismiss this conflict as ‘an internal matter’ for India any more than the plight of the Rohingya is an internal matter for Myanmar or the persecution of the Uighur is solely the concern of China. Neither is it sufficient for it to be dismissed as a bi-lateral matter for India and Pakistan. Kashmir, like those tragedies, is a matter for humanity.

Posted by John Howarth
US Elections two weeks out

US Elections two weeks out

Were this a normal US election it would all be over bar the shouting, but it is neither normal, nor in the minds of some close to the White House an election at all.

The numbers would seem to indicate a Biden win followed by Democrat majorities in the House of Representative and probably the Senate too. The numbers have proved misleading in previous elections and in 2016 there was a general, though by no means uniform, polling error in favour of Trump. Apply that same polling error state by state to the numbers we are seeing and even with a pessimistic slant Joe Biden still makes it past 270 votes in the Electoral College.

On the face of it that should be enough, but Trump has long since sought to call the election into doubt. The desire of more extreme individuals in the Trump rear guard is to find means of dragging the election into the courts and ultimately to the US Supreme Court, nicely stacked in favour of a Republic fix. They may not win a vote but they can win a legal battle - and that's how they see it. Anybody who doubts the likely actions of the Supreme Court – even before the death of Ruth Bader-Ginsberg – should look at their decisions on multiple voter suppression suits brought by the Republicans.

Sufficient polling error and enough disputes in states where there are influential republic legislators willing to manipulate the outcome and that may be enough to call into question the result into question despite a wider lead in the popular vote than was achieved by Hillary Clinton in 2016. A very bleak prospect indeed with no guarantee of a peaceful outcome.

There are substantial Biden leads in states where in 2016 Trump received very narrow majorities, however some of those states gave at some stage comparable polling leads to Hilary Clinton. The popular vote would seem to have widened when at the same stage in 2016, Hillary Clinton had a polling average lead of around 3.5 points in a tightening race. There is little doubt that the announcement of further inquiries by the FBI into the Clinton email allegations moved the mood of the campaign and the polling numbers. Even though few voters seemed to understand either the allegations or the implications the very notion of an investigation stood up the doubts over Clinton’s propriety and backed Trump’s attacks. I was in Washington DC on the day Comey made the announcement and you could feel the mood shift.

In this election campaign Joe Biden has had some strokes of luck that evaded Hillary Clinton. He avoided a long drawn out and damaging primary battle, first of all through a well-judged strategy that deflated the Sanders balloon and then first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic curtailed the primaries. Trump’s handling of the pandemic then pushed perceptions of incompetence, hard-heartedness and bungling into full view while the handling of issues of racial injustice seem to have less traction in the suburbs that Trump’s camp had hoped.

We remain a long way from the end of a campaign that has had very little ‘normal’ about it. A great deal can change, events and the climate remains unpredictable, the ballot will retain the potential for dispute and it is unclear whether and how the polling organisations have compensated for the biases that caught out the commentators and forecasters in 2016. All that is before anything gets anywhere near a court which we can only hope it doesn’t. A Trump White House not having to care about re-election is where US democracy dies.

We who want the end of Trump's presidency more than just about anything else right now know that it’s the hope that kills us. So even though this race is in a far better place than might have been imagined at the turn of the year we will remain on the edge of our seats

JH 19.10.2020

Update - Eve of Poll

In the two weeks since posting his article little has changed. Joe Biden’s polling lead has remained stable, greater than that enjoyed by Hilary Clinton in 2016 both nationally and in swing states and with lower levels of undecided voters.

While nothing has cut through to damage Biden, Trump’s people continue to talk openly of seeking to steal the election, of finding ways to prevent votes being counted and indulging in rhetoric that can only be aimed at winding up supporters to intimidate and provoke civil disorder.

Early voting turnouts suggest something is happening that we may not yet fully understand. It is no exaggeration to say that American democracy faces a test few of us would have believed possible or necessary. We can but hope it passes.

JH 2.11.20


Posted by John Howarth
The LibDems still don’t get it

The LibDems still don’t get it

A look at the Liberal Democrats, their history and their positioning right now and John concludes that they are not going to be much help in the years ahead.

Ed Davey seems to have some clue that the Liberal Democrats are in a bit of a mess. What he intends to do about any of this is less clear and whether or not he sees himself as having been part of the problem, even less so.

If we are to believe Mr Davey’s conference leader’s speech then the strategy that will pull the Liberal Democrats out of their electoral trough will be based upon ‘speaking for carers’, talking about ‘universal basic income’, not going back to the way things were before Covid-19 and familiar stuff about ‘green jobs’.

But, say’s Mr Davey, to do any of that his party has to change – though, apart from ‘needing more black MPs’ what kind of change was entirely vague. It was all rather light touch stuff – not attempting to speak truth to the powerless, not spelling out what change involves ‘not being’ and strangely devoid of actually leading.

The Liberal Democrats are a notoriously sensitive bunch. It may be that Mr Davey doesn’t feel he has the mandate or the power to actually lead his party right now, when in fact he now enjoys his greatest leverage. A newly elected leader uses their mandate or loses it – and Davey got two third of the vote, how big a mandate does he think he needs? A new leader needs to show a sense of purpose, a direction, and agenda. For Mr Davey that agenda seemed to be about ‘being nice’ – he didn’t need to spell out exactly what his political strategy might be but he does need to seem to have one.

The broad grins and warm words about the wonderful things the Liberal Democrats “did in government” (he mentioned two things) reveal part of that failure to understand or at least accept the failure of the LibDems political strategy post 2005. What the wider centre-left needs to understand is that these defeats contributed to the wider defeat of liberal democracy represented by Brexit and the further dismantling of Labour’s electoral coalition that followed.

Talk to Liberal Democrats about their party and its positioning and you will get a string of replies that will differ, some will see themselves as primarily anti-Conservative, some the opposite. Opinion will be shaped by location and opportunity – and may then differ at local government level from ward to ward. The driver has been the UK’s first past the post electoral system.

Liberal Electoral Politics Post 1945

From 1945 to the present the Liberals, the SDP Liberal Alliance and their Liberal Democrats successors have represented 105 constituencies at Westminster. 10 of those were held pre 1945 by Liberal or National Liberal MPs. 69 were gained from the Conservative and Unionist Party and 26 from Labour. When the Liberals won seats from the Conservatives, they have held onto them for on average of 20.4 years but when they have won seats from Labour they have been lost in an average of 4.9 years (1)

It took seventeen years for the post-war Liberal Party, which had clung on to a few distant outposts, to show signs of life. A mini revival was sparked by a by-election gain at Orpington in 1962. Under Jo Grimond, a plausible man with the luxury of the most distant constituency with a tiny electorate and a personality vote, Liberal representation doubled from six to twelve by the 1966 election. During this revival they gained nine seats from the Conservatives and one from Labour while Labour gained four at their expense.

Edward Heath’s victory in 1970 knocked the Liberals, now led by Jeremy Thorpe, back to six seats to six seats. If not off, the revival was postponed. During the seventies the domination of the two big post-war parties was under threat. The two General Elections in 1974 were more of less scoreless draws with Labour and the Tories each below 40%. Not just the Liberals, but the SNP and Plaid Cymru made gains, their campaigns boosted by by-election successes that reminded of their existence.

Without the peculiar institution that is the UK Parliamentary by-election neither Liberal revivals nor their development as a third party with a periodic influence would have been much more difficult. First past the post by-elections offered the opportunity for the Liberals to be an acceptable tactical alternative for voters looking to defeat their main enemy – especially so when four out of five Westminster seats are ‘safe’ at general elections. The Liberals offered a chance to send messages/give bloody noses/make a change/get a ‘different’ MP without actually voting for the opposite opinion or having to think about affecting government. 10 of 29 by-election gains were lost at the subsequent general election, only 13 were retained at two or more general elections, contributing to the core of growing Liberal representation (2). Because the strategy depended on the ability to face both ways it could not however contribute building a core vote.

Nonetheless, Liberal successes at general elections continued to be more at the expense of the Conservatives than Labour. During the 74-79 Labour governments the Liberals, now led by David Steel and with a series of media-familiar if oddball MPs (3), largely held on at the 1979 election, losing only two seats in the South West including the disgraced Mr Thorpe his neighbour, supporter and Steel’s main rival, John Pardoe.

Thorpe’s refusal to prop up Ted Heath and Steel’s pact with Jim Callaghan set a direction of travel toward an essentially anti-Conservative positioning. This trend, hastened, by both the Conservative move toward the monetarist right and Labour’s descent into civil war presented an opportunity that SDP defections confirmed (4). Through the next decade or so the SDP-Liberal Alliance and then the Liberal Democrats continued a strategic anti-Conservative positioning coupled with the familiar by-election strategy of opportunist tactical vote harvesting, ‘Con/Lab can never win here’ and dubious graphs. However, the objective, explicitly as the Alliance, was not to ally with Labour but to replace Labour – something that another point on their 1983 general election share might have seen them pull off. Instead, Labour pulled back from the brink under Neil Kinnock and the Liberals consumed the SDP, nonetheless remaining largely in an anti-Tory space, firmly cemented by Paddy Ashdown’s ascendancy.

Lib-Dem de-facto anti-Conservative positioning at parliamentary level had not followed through to other levels of UK politics. Ironically, the factors that drove their shift under David Steel also saw the extinction of the Conservatives as an effective force in local government in the northern conurbations. By the ‘80s the claim that either Labour or Conservative “could never win here” under first-past-the-post had a forty-year evidence base. Accordingly, the ‘franchise’ for opposing Labour under first past the post moved from Tory to the LibDems in parts of Northern England. Nonetheless, 1997 brought Ashdown’s approach to fruition with gains almost exclusively from the Tories taking them to 46 seats, consolidated to 52 in 2001. More importantly, the LibDems under Ashdown helped erode the legitimacy of the Conservatives and consigned them to years of irrelevance. Labour and the LibDems together accounted for 60% and 59% of the vote in 1997 and 2001 which helped deliver and cement important constitutional and social change. The failure to move to fair votes at Westminster meant allowed the Conservatives to reverse much of the legacy of those years and worse.

Like so much else the pivot came in 2003, through it was a pivot that would eventually prove fatal. The post-9/11 Iraq conflict saw Charles Kennedy seeking political space to the left of Labour. It was not difficult to predict that much of Labour’s ‘Guardian demographic’ would seek another home and so it. While there was little space in the political centre, positioning on this and a few others to Labour’s left provided a comfortable home to students and lifestyle voters which took Labour ‘university’ seats in 2005 or caused their loss to the Conservatives by unwinding the anti-Tory tactical vote. The dipping of Labour fortunes also allowed the LibDem ‘franchise’ to build its local government strength, taking councils including Newcastle and Sheffield. The Liberal Democrats had reached their high-water mark.

The changes taking place in the Liberal Democrats, with the election of Nick Clegg, positioning himself toward a ‘free market’, ‘free trade’, increasingly pro-individualist position, may have been lost on the wider electorate to whom LibDem internal affairs are something of a mystery. After 35 years of dominant anti-Conservative positioning and defending seats where, overwhelmingly, the main challenger was Conservative, the Liberal Democrat voter was essentially left of centre. Having held 57 out of 62 seats Nick Clegg took the Liberal Democrats into coalition with David Cameron’s toned-down Conservatives and, at a stroke, lost for the two-thirds of the vote they had built through three decades of anti-tory positioning.

Davey's on the road again - but to where?

The Liberal Democrats now hold eleven seats – one fewer than they won in 1945 and they are the fourth party behind the SNP. All of the seats they initially gained at by-elections have been lost. In their former concentrations of strength – rural Wales and the South West, they hold only a single seat (Bath) and only one of their seats, Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross, was formerly Labour. They have no Westminster representation in five regions/nations and a single seat in a further three.

What should be most disturbing, however, is how few of their former seats are in play at the next general election. Even though the 2019 election saw the LibDems move into second place in 53 more seats it took them to only 91 overall, 80 behind the Conservatives, nine being Labour and two trailing the SNP. Few of these second places represent a serious challenge in 2024. Taking even the most optimistic view, which acknowledges the LibDem ability to produce larger swings than Labour-Tory marginals tend to see, gives them a change in 13 former seats and a handful of possibles beyond those (Conservative with the exception of Sheffield Hallam (Labour) and East Dunbartonshire (SNP)). However, of the eleven current LibDem MPs only two can realistically say they can relax and regard themselves as safe – past experience suggests one or two will fail to get back. Even with a substantial breeze behind them it is hard to see the Liberal Democrats with more than 25 MPs at a 2024. Anything beyond that requires storm force optimism.

Ed Davey seems to understand that this is not going away any time soon, but he doesn’t seem to know what to do about it, or if he does, he doesn’t want to talk about it (5). This is both strange and deeply unhelpful. It signals that the Liberal Democrats have learned nothing from their experiences. It would be easy to kid ourselves that none of this matters but unfortunately it does. Depriving the Conservatives of a majority in the next Parliament would be considerably easier were the LibDems in contention in more Conservative seats.

Those who argue for formal anti-Conservative arrangements at parliamentary elections miss the point. Political parties do not own their voters. They cannot be directed to vote for another party – if they wish to vote tactically, they will make that decision for themselves. A strong liberal current in political debate, however, helps move the mood of the country against the Conservatives who have been the dominant UK party for the past two centuries and have been valuable allies in times of important social reform that contributed to a political majority for change in the UK. Nick Clegg and his allies squandered the Liberal Democrat vote while failing to gain the substantial reform to Westminster elections. Fair votes should have been their red line instead Clegg settled for a limited referendum in which PR wasn’t on offer and thus change was easily seen off, probably for a generation or more.

While the Liberal Democrats struggle to decide on or even seriously consider their positioning they will remain on the fringes and any vote they accumulate will remain fragile. Overall, that will only make the UK less socially liberal and Conservative Party more secure in government.

JH 3.10.2020


1. There are a number of complicating factors here. Boundary redistribution makes it very difficult to compare Westminster Constituencies over the 75 years this article considers. Some of the constituencies that have had Liberal or Lib/Dem MPs have disappeared altogether, others have change substantially, others in only minor ways or now have different names. The numbers are based on author’s research of public sources (below).

2. By-elections include gains at four contested by the SDP on behalf of the SDP-Liberal Alliance in which three seats were won from the Conservatives and one from Labour. Mike Hancock lost his seat in Portsmouth South in 1987 but won it again in 1997 as a LibDem. I concluded that to include the by elections at Richmond Park, which had been won in first in 1997 and subsequently lost to the Conservatives and at Winchester which was the result of an election petition by the Conservatives should not be included as their circumstances were exceptional. The same is true of the 2019 by-election at Brecon & Radnorshire, which had been a former LibDem seat.

3. Jeremy Thorpe, Clement Freud, David Penhaligon, Cyril Smith …

4. Defections from either of the two main Westminster parties are not included in this piece unless the seat was subsequently held as a Liberal Democrat at a subsequent election. The defections from Labour to the SDP in 1981 are not included for similar reasons. Only three of these seats were retained by defecting MPs – Robert Maclennan won went on to hold his Caithness seat as both SDP and Liberal Democrat and Ian Wigglesworth in Thornaby/Stockton South held also on in 1983. David Owen held on in Plymouth Devonport until 1990. These MPs were part of a different political narrative to the post-war Liberal Party.

5. Some have suggested that from Labour’s point of view Layla Moran may have been a better option. Her campaign declaration that if she was elected she would ‘go after Labour’ suggests that she doesn’t get it either. Also, from personal observation, I do not believe that the electorate would have regarded Ms Moran as either a plausible or personable leader.



UK Parliament Briefing Paper CPB 8749, 28 Jan 2020


Electoral Calculus

The Guardian


Times Guides to the House of Commons


Posted by John Howarth
Japan, trade and the supreme irrelevance of Stilton

Japan, trade and the supreme irrelevance of Stilton

The Trade Secretary, LIz Truss, has been bouncing around the world seeking the ‘trade deals’ that will come to define the UK’s post-Brexit future as ‘global Britain’. An early success in this plan was to be a quickie deal with Japan. This would potentially lead on to the UK becoming a member or a party to something called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTTP). Yes, Pacific - you read that right.

That was the plan anyway - and it might still come to pass. The UK has a territory in the Pacific, the Pitcairn Islands, permanent residents 43, which apparently provides some kind of rationale for being a ‘Pacific nation’. More importantly, even though the initial deadline of the end of July has passed, the UK may yet conclude a trade arrangement with Japan before the end of 2020.

Japan is a big country. It is much more economically significant than Canada, Australia or New Zealand, in fact more so that all three put together and has twice the population of the United Kingdom. Japan is the third largest economy in the world after the USA and China, the fourth if the EU is considered a single economy. In those terms, if your are going to do trade deals at all, then a trade deal with Japan should be worth doing.

Trade between the UK and Japan was “worth £29 billion” last year (2018) and the UK, while a member state of the EU, has been highly successful at attracting Japanese investment. Japan concluded a trade deal with the EU in outline in 2017, signed it off in 2018 and it came into force in January 2019. That was pretty quick for a trade agreement between major economies.

Now things have changed. The UK is not an EU member state and, without some kind of agreement, the trade arrangements with Japan of which the UK is currently part until 31 December will no longer apply.

What does this mean in practice? Actually, not that much. It does NOT mean, should a deal not happen, that the UK will fail to do any business with Japan. It does NOT mean, if a deal is done, that the UK will see immediate benefits. Trade benefits build slowly, could fall more quickly but maybe not. Existing trade and investment built since Japan emerged as a major post-war economic player in the 1960s, largely in the absence of a trade agreement. The UK Government estimates the benefits of a trade agreement as a potential additional £15.2 billion - around an additional 0.7% of GDP over the medium term. This is not out of line with the projections made by the EU Commission of the potential benefits of the 2018 agreement with Japan, which the UK has had no time yet to realise. Japan currently accounts for around 2% of the UK’s exports - that is less than a third of stuff we sell to the Netherlands, only a little more than a third that we sell to Ireland and a mere fifth of the goods we sell to Germany.

However, Japan made a conscious decision to pursue a policy of free trade agreements and has delivered on its intent. It’s agreement with the EU represents the largest bi-lateral trade agreement in existence. The UK is a smaller but important market within that which Japan would like to retain with as little disruption as it can manage. It seemed like the first step was to roll over existing trade arrangements - i.e. to take the arrangements that currently apply and sign them off quickly. Indeed, rolling over existing arrangements and seeking minimal disruption appeared to be the policy of the UK Government for some time.

Sake all round?

All good then? Common sense prevails? Sake all round? Unfortunately it seems not.

Whatever went on at those meetings that Ms Truss’s people thought necessary to remove from the public record, we know that the agenda of the Brexit Ultras is not continuity of any kind. Any trade agreements done by the EU must be bad - because the EU did them. So any trade agreements concluded by the UK and third parties must be ‘better’ than the existing arrangements between the EU and those parties. So into shape focus comes Ms Truss’s well documented penchant for cheese, in this case Stilton. Selling more cheese was to bethe barometer of a ‘better deal’.

There is certainly scope for more cheese. If the potential benefits of an rolled over trade deal with Japan are modest, the scale of Stilton exports is supremely irrelevant. Apparently the UK currently exports £102 million worth of Stilton to Japan per year. Stilton is expensive stuff, but even taking some pretty heavy discounting into account, that quantity of Stilton amounts, very roughly to a single 747 worth of passenger luggage at most. No more than 100 grams (3.5 ounces, if you prefer) each year for each Japanese person - but probably a lot less, more like a pharmaceutical dose. The website savvytokyo.com in listing the 10 foods not to serve at a Japanese dinner party puts blue cheese at number 2. They really are not big on the stuff at all. Reportedly he Japanese weren’t so keen.

So why does it matter? Well, it doesn’t. Not in the slightest, but it is an example of what happens when in trade negotiations the agenda is broadened and especially if stumbling blocks are placed in the route to an agreement. It doesn’t mean it isn’t possible but it certainly takes longer.

So Ms Truss finds herself between a rock and a hard place. She either backtracks to conclude the ‘easy deal’ with the partner ‘most committed to free trade’ on the basis of what is possible and least disruption or she holds out for a ‘better deal’ and quite possibly ends up with nothing. A rational politician would go for the first option, but Brexit long since dropped out of that pattern. Nonetheless the choice of Stilton is baffling. Expert opinion suggests that there is all sorts of scope for ‘commitments’, ‘declarations’ and even a few practical agreements over things like financial services or digital economy - that are actually useful to the UK economy - that can then be dressed up as a ‘better deal’ that the EU-Japan FTA and trumpeted as such. Like I say, this might yet happen.

Meanwhile back on Pitcairn ...

The trouble with trade agreements is they have knock on consequences. Bi-lateral deals are all very well, but there are not the only relationships. A thing called ‘most favoured nation status’ means essentially that you can’t offer better terms to another partner without offering the same terms to the partner with whom there is a ‘most favoured’ clause in the agreement.

Thus, were Japan to offer better terms to the UK on something that is specifically documented in their deal with the EU then they have to offer that to the EU. So the best way UK negotiators can do a ‘better deal’ with Japan is to find things that are outside the scope of Japan’s FTA with the EU. This runs into problems when people start talking about cheese.
Triangular relationships are also important to the Japanese because they have used the UK as a stepping stone to the EU market and it is the base for many Japanese companies trading in the EU. I met quite a few Japanese business representatives during my time as an MEP. They expressed a uniform sadness come bafflement that the UK was leaving the EU at all and a firm wish that the UK should ideally stay inside the single market Norway style or at the very worst conclude a far reaching deal that kept relationships close. Japan still holds on to ther hope that sooner or later something like that may happen and wish to remain in the position of parallel trade agreements. This is centrally why they are still keen.

Meanwhile back in the Pitcairn Islands the UK seeks to position itself as a potential business hub for nations around the world interested in trading with the rest of the world. Thus, through the CPTTP, the UK Government seems to believe it will become the first port of call for the Pacific rim nations and possibly even as a “gateway to Europe” - oh, hang on a minute. The CPTTP is certainly interesting, having come out of the ashes of the Trans Pacific Partnership - which Donald Trump pulled the US out of because he didn’t think of it. CPTTP has a Commission, a disputes resolution mechanism and a number of agreements on things like state intervention. Is all this remind you of something.
Fanciful? You may say that - but all this Pacific stuff may help expain Tony Abbott - as if anything could explain Tony Abbott.

Posted by John Howarth
About these UK-USA trade talks

About these UK-USA trade talks

In between stories of the lockdown and its ongoing consequences the UK Government has been keen to spin out stories of the “trade benefits” of Brexit. Central to this official narrative is the progress of the talks between Britain and the United States.

The notion of a comprehensive trade agreement with the United States has long been held out by the Brexiteers as some kind of alternative to the UK’s trade with the rest of the European Union. For the past 47 years the EU has negotiated trade deals with other nations on behalf of all of its member states. The ability of the UK to negotiate and close its own ‘trade deals’ was held out as one of the main ‘positives’ of leaving the EU and, importantly, its customs union (1).

International trade is a complicated business the detail of which is known to only a dedicated few. Many of the politicians who engage with trade in concept, either at EU or national level, are more than happy to leave the detail to the specialists (I hasten to add, I am not an expert, though the trade nerds have darkened my door to educate me in the basics). The spectacle of pro-Brexit campaigners carrying placards demanding “WTO Rules Now!” was one of the more absurd sights of a surreal time in public life. Few people could name a single rule of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) or even what the organisation actually is and why on earth should they? After all, this is a subject with which the great majority of people rarely if ever come into contact.

What is a trade deal anyway?

You may know this, but just so all readers are clear, some basics. In a nutshell, the WTO, an international organisation to which most of the world’s countries belong (2), sets the rules for international trade that apply to all countries except where other bi-lateral (like an agreement between the UK and the US) or multi-lateral treaties (like the EU or EEA) apply. In this respect the WTO is, ironically, a bit like the EU - it’s a collection of governments making decisions for the benefit of everyone (you can argue about whether it works - but that's the idea).

The idea of trade agreements is to make trade easier and less expensive. If that is the case and more business is done, the countries involved and their populations become better off - that’s the theory and, in general, it seems to work. In a trade agreement - an international treaty between sovereign states or blocs of sovereign states - each side agrees to operate by a common set of rules covering some or all goods and/or services. In order to do so each party gives up its sovereignty over these rules to a common arbitrating body. Most of the time this sovereignty is theoretical, but when disputes or rule breaking arises this is vital to a trade treaty holding. The bigger the trade agreement the greater the benefits and the greater the breadth of the common rules. The biggest trade agreement of all is the European Union single market and the customs union that supports it. The European Court of Justice, to which each member state appoints judges, is the body that rules on trade disputes within the single market (3).

What is so special about a UK-US trade deal?

The USA is the second largest and second richest global market, so it has great potential to any business able to establish a good foothold. It is also, officially at least, English speaking, so UK firms are thought to have a ‘natural’ advantage. The UK’s largest existing trading partner by far is the European Union, accounting for around 45%(4) of the UK’s business. Next is the United States that accounts for 18% of the UK’s exports and 11% of imports. So the EU is currently around three times more important to British business than its US trade. Of course that can change and a comprehensive UK-US trade agreement would certainly improve business between the two countries. At present the UK trades with the USA without a comprehensive trade deal, but it has had some existing arrangements as part of the EU. 20 or so separate agreements govern limited aspects of EU-US trade, though there is no ‘comprehensive’ agreement. If no deal is struck between the UK and the EU that brings about their continuation, after 31 December 2020 Britain will no longer benefit from trade treaties negotiated by the EU with third countries. This includes Japan, Canada, Singapore and many more including the separate agreements with the USA. This is one reason for the urgency on the UK’s part.

Didn’t the USA and the EU try to do a deal?

In an ideal world the EU and the USA would have agreed a comprehensive trade treaty long since. In theory it is win-win business between two enormous and wealthy markets, however the world is far from ideal and the last attempt ended in failure. The negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, (TTIP - generally pronounced ‘T-tip’) as the EU-US deal was known, proved controversial and difficult. After 15 rounds of negotiation over four years covering 27 different ‘streams’ - some sectoral others cross cutting - the talks were ended by Donald Trump - though they had been effectively dead long since. The EU then buried the whole thing in April 2019 - all the detail of the negotiations is in the public domain.

There were a whole number of stumbling blocks and cultural differences between the EU and the USA. Key areas of failure to agree included healthcare markets - in which the US market model clashes with multiple varieties of socially provided care, aspects of public procurement and the social market model protecting European workers and, crucially, agriculture and food standards . These are all ‘non tariff’ matters (5). Tariffs - the taxes on goods applied at the border - have been generally low between the US and the EU - around 3% on most goods and are much less significant in trade talks than non-tariff matters. After the collapse of the talks Donald Trump, enacting his ‘America First’ mantra sought to turn his failures into a trade war, applying 25% tariffs to some EU imports. TTIP is not being revived any time soon.

The issues before UK and US negotiators

It is a long time since the UK negotiated any kind of trade arrangement. It was one of a number of things the UK Civil Service just didn’t have to worry about. Since the referendum in 2016 the UK has sought to recruit trade specialists, but that’s a tough business. A negotiation implies both sides want something and both must offer something to get it. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that all the same issues apply to a US-UK trade negotiation that applied to TTIP. You could take the view that the failure of those talks was all about the bloody minded, restrictive EU getting in the way of free and open trade. Many in the UK may agree with that on the face of it but push below the surface and they appear to be less keen. US negotiators reflect the powerful interests brought to bear on US politicians. American health companies wish to expand their markets. A trade agreement can provide that opportunity, so US negotiators will wish the UK to open the doors of the NHS to US ‘for-profit’ providers. American agri-business, in which hormone-injected cattle roam the prairies - or more likely shuffle in intensive sheds - and chicken is washed with chlorine based bleach toy mask the effects of lower photosanitary standards on farms, also wants access to the tables of British diners. When put in those terms the public is less convinced by the benefits of ‘free trade’. The Trade Justice movement sums up these and other concerns here.

Whether the British public will get the chance to object in any serious way should a deal become possible is another matter entirely. In the European Union a trade agreement must be approved by the members state governments (and in some cases their regional governments) and by the directly elected European Parliament. In the UK international treaties are regarded a matter for the Government alone. In the USA the President drives the negotiations but Congress has to approve or reject the agreement. So unless the meat industry gets what it wants the votes of plains states senators cannot be taken for granted and the same can be said for other vested interests. This doesn’t mean a deal cannot be struck, but it does mean it is a long road from fine words in campaign speeches to an actual agreement.

What is it all worth?

The quantifiable benefits of trade deals are moot. Intuitively more business means more prosperity - just as in a recession less business results in declining real incomes - but the exact amounts are difficult to measure and harder to estimate (7). Remember the UK and the EU trade with the USA as things stand – so we are taking about additional trade/investment benefits over and above what already exists. The additional benefits of TTIP to the European Union had been estimated by the European Commission at €120 billion per year. The UK accounted for a seventh of then EU trade with the USA, so assuming Britain would have benefited proportionately, that would have meant a boost to the US Economy of about €17 billion (£15 billion). So putting an optimistic hat on, were the UK to be able to do a better deal and make more of it - say a third better, then maybe a US trade deal would be worth £20 billion or so each year. That sounds like and indeed is a lot of money, but some words of caution. First, everything is relative - £20 billion is less than 1% (around 0.85%) of the UK’s national income (GDP). Secondly, the European Commission’s estimates of the value of TTIP from which this figure is extrapolated with an appropriate dollop of patriotic optimism, were themselves held by many in Brussels (and by Brexit supporters especially so) to be deliberately optimistic to sell the notion of TTIP and fourth, TTIP included additional inward investment (the clue’s in the name). Additional investment estimates far outweighed the value of additional goods and services traded under TTIP, however, a key reason for US firms investing in the UK - a base within the European single market - is disappearing with Brexit, fifth and finally, by almost every available estimate Brexit is set to cost a great deal more than a potential US traded deal would gain for the UK - just in terms of reduced trade with the EU27 let alone inward investment or the UK’s tax base.

Who needs a deal?

For now, however, let’s stick with €25 billion. Earlier I said that the US was the destination for 18% of the UK’s annual exports (6) and the source of 11% of Britain’s imports - by any measure an important trading partner for the UK. But that 11% of UK imports accounts for 3% of the USA’s total exports. So UK-US trade is much more important to the UK than it is to the USA. The USA, much the larger economy and population, therefore holds much more clout in any negotiation. Add that to whatever concessions the USA might wish to extract and you don’t have to be Mastermind to work out that the UK’s leverage in the current trade talks is limited and that’s before we approach the vexed subject of what in the mind of Donald Trump is a ‘great deal’ or the pressure to get a deal, any deal as the single market exit approaches.

Will it happen, if so when?

President Obama’s ‘back of the queue’ comments were widely regarded as a mis-step in the 2016 referendum campaign since when Donald Trump has been keen to give the opposite impression to his Brexit supporting allies. Nonetheless, even were the talks themselves to run smoothly it is a tough call that suggests they will conclude before 31 December 2020. let’s remember that the EU’s deal with Canada took seven years. What might be a realistic idea is taking the existing terms of trade from the 20 or so existing US-EU agreements, bundling them and agreeing to carry on as before, perhaps for an initial period pending a full negotiation. However should the US request concessions from a UK Government desperate for a deal, especially on the NHS and food standards, in return for a quick agreement it could all end very badly one way or the other.

In the end it amounts to politics - and the politics of the UK-US trade talks have always been about politics. Donald Trump is facing an election campaign with an uncertain outcome in which he has already demonstrated his unpredictability. He is likely to maintain his hostile protectionist stance on trade. Add that to the fact that the US has an eye watering trade deficit (including a relatively small deficit with the UK and a larger one with the EU) that includes net trade deficits for a number of must-win states where promises to repatriate jobs were made in 2016. The UK is facing a probably cliff edge crash from the single market, in that context the failure to achieve aa trade agreement with by far the biggest ‘Anglosphere’ market would represent a significant PR failure for the Johnson government.

As I said at the beginning, international trade is fiendishly complicated and even in a long read like this one can only scratch the surface of what a trade treaty involves. What ought to be self-evident (and the subject of another piece) is that similar types of difficulty underly every trade deal Britain may wish to pursue. It was always the massive fallacy for the Brexit debate that, outside the EU ‘free trade’ would ride to the rescue of the UK economy.


JH - May 2020


(1) The benefits of “controlling our own trade policy” are easy to argue but highly questionable both economically and in terms of sovereignty. The Cook Islands are a sovereign nation, but lack any significant clout in trade negotiations. The EU is a very large and desirable market and their trade negotiators are not only experienced but are highly rated. Like the EU or hate it, underestimating its ability in this area is just bad strategy.

(2) The WTO includes 164 member states - almost every functioning government with the exception of a few pariahs like North Korea and Iran. The WTO is, ironically, under threat from and being bullied by Donald Trump for whom it is a just another convenient whipping boy. Expect the popularity of "WTO Rules" to fall away pretty fast.

(3) TTIP involved a system of tribunals, know as Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS)  which were criticised as beyond the control of the parties and thought likely to support corporate interests against the nation state and could make binding rulings on matters such as state aid. Any US-UK deal will involve some sort of court of appeal of this type - which is obviously why we were so keen to leave the jurisdiction of the ECJ.

(4) The EU is, of course, proximate to the EU. A great element of ‘ease of doing business’ is about proximity - gravity applies and size matters in trade. On the precise value and the quoted numbers - all come from state published figures in various jurisdictions, however, a problems with quoting exact comparative trade statistics are 1) they move on with time 2) they change with the values of currencies. So all of the percentage and other figures quoted in this article are approximate - which is good enough.

(5) Even non-trade matters matter more than tariffs. For example if the UK wished to do a trade deal with India it would not get signed unless the UK was prepared to grant visa-free travel and a great deal more student access to Indian citizens. Conversely, the EU’s trade negotiators have been encouraged to use their negotiating clout to seek improvements in the human and social rights of employees in third countries - sometimes they have done so, but not always. Neither example is trade as such, but both important politics. More of this in another article.

(6) Of the 18% only about one third of US-UK trade is in physical ‘goods’, the rest is services, though this is an increasingly difficult distinction. The point is a ‘goods only’ trade deal is of limited value to an economy like the UK which is now 80% services.

(7) Who really benefits from trade deals is also moot. Many economists argue that the benefits of trade deals do not get into the pockets of the general population in any significant way and the benefits are largely retained at corporate level. Others argue that, while there are benefits to the economy and population in general, they are mostly concentrated in the sectors that benefit most directly through job creation and sectoral growth.








Posted by John Howarth