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Brexit: the sound of ignorance

With the bright sun and cloudless skies mocking me, I’ve been stuck indoors for the last few days working on the third edition of The Great Deception.

If I ever get to finish it, though, readers will find it’s a very different book. I’ve only just finished the revision of chapter two and already I’ve lost 5,000 words, despite adding an amount of new material. Mind you, I’m looking to trim 40,000 to give me space to write about the last 15 years, so there’s a long way to go.

In terms of the new material, it might be imagined that there was very little more to say about plans for European integration in the period I’m currently working on – from 1918-1945 – but the research environment is very different from what it was at the turn of the century.

These days, there is vastly more original material online, in a number of different archives, so I am able to go direct to source when, previously, we were reliant on extracts and citations in other authors’ works. And sometimes, access to the original work offers the opportunity to refresh one’s views of past events.

That particularly goes for the National Archives in Kew. Back when we were doing the work for the first edition of TGD, Booker and I spent several days manually trawling through the archives, coming up with some new material that hadn’t previously been aired. But the process was expensive (in travel and hotels – as well as in photocopying), and extraordinarily time-consuming.

Now, an increasing amount of material is online and, for the duration of the lockdown, the National Archives have waived download fees, making government records even more accessible. Add to that, we now have online access to Hansard going back to the 18th Century, which opens up many new possibilities for the researcher, especially as the content is electronically searchable.

Even old-school methodology has been transformed. I remember spending hours in reference libraries, ploughing methodically through reference texts, or waiting weeks for inter-library loans to materialise, before one could insert a much-needed reference into copy written weeks before.

Courtesy of Amazon and AbeBooks, one can search online for second hand books held in shops throughout the world, buying them up at affordable prices for delivery at remarkable speed. I ordered a 1962 edition of a biography last Saturday, and had it on my desk the next day.

All of this and much more, one would think, removes any excuse for ignorance. But sadly, the increased accessibility of information does not seem to confer increased knowledge in the population at large. But I suppose that should not be a surprise. Research is a learned skill, and while many dabble, they are more often “factoid mining” – looking for snippets which will support a pre-conceived point of view.

And then the sheer volume of material ends up becoming a barrier. The process becomes one of sorting the wheat from the chaff and, as the noise level gets higher, this becomes increasingly difficult. Nothing is worse, for instance, than to have an arcane subject suddenly become newsworthy. Search engines become swamped and previously easily accessible material can take hours to find.

However, nothing of that compares with the boredom of the daily grind of monitoring the torrent of news on Covid-19, or having to trawl through the same, repetitive dirge that passes for news in the EU-UK negotiations on the future relationship – not that we seem to have either a future or a relationship.

Given that much of the media is indulging in “ignorance farming”, pandering to the prejudices of low-information readers (and watchers), rather than seeking to educate and inform them, the filtering one has to do has become more time-consuming than the search process.

Stripping away bias (inevitably inserting one’s own), and clearing the thickets of error, and rooting out the different agendas, is now necessary before one can even approach clinically the subject matter on offer. But even more difficult is dealing with sheer, unmitigated stupidity, especially when it is combined with prestige and reinforced with ignorance.

An example of this came a couple of days back when we had in the Financial Times a letter from Sir Malcolm Rifkind headed “A fair deal must set Britain free of EU laws”. In this, he was writing as a “remainer”, yet arguing for legislative independence.

He was attacking the EU’s insistence on a “level playing field”, particularly on environmental matters, health and safety standards, and state aids – one of the sticking points in the current negotiations. But he thus asserted that “no other country with which the EU has a free trade agreement has been asked to incorporate in its own laws existing and future EU laws”.

This, clearly, is a man who has never read an EU trade agreement for, had he done so, he would have seen South Korea adopting the EU’s REACH legislation in order to trade freely with the EU, and Japan taking in unchanged the EU’s environmental standards on automobile construction. Legislative harmonisation is central to the EU’s “new generation” of comprehensive trade agreements.

But, for Rifkind, it probably wouldn’t make any difference if he had read any number of texts. The writing the first edition of TGD we followed his actions in 1985 when, as one of Thatcher’s junior Foreign Office ministers, he was charged with representing the prime minister on the Ad Hoc Committee for Institutional Affairs to the European Council in 1985, commonly called the Dooge Committee.

Had Rifkind done his job on this highly integrationalist committee, he might have warned Thatcher of the intentions of the “colleagues” for a new treaty, and she might have been better prepared when she went to the Milan Council in June 1985 where, famously, she was “ambushed” and forced into accepting an intergovernmental conference which led to the creation of the Single European Act.

But, when we tracked down a copy of the final report, with Rifkind’s comments appended, we found that they were distressingly rare. For instance, where the Dooge Report declared that member states must demonstrate their “common political will” by creating “a genuine political entity”, namely “a European Union”, Rifkind had the opportunity to register the UK’s dissent (in the context where the UK was opposed to a new treaty), and to raise the alarm in Whitehall.

In the event, he did neither, and even when the Dooge Report recommended the strengthening of the European Monetary System, Rifkind was silent. As to the report’s most significant recommendation, the elimination of the national veto in favour of qualified majority voting on many new measures, Rifkind at last intervened.

But all he could offer was the anodyne comment that, where a member state considered that “its very important interests” were at stake, discussion should continue until unanimous agreement was reached – a reiteration of the long-defunct Luxembourg Compromise, agreed with de Gaulle in 1966.

Crucially, when the Dooge Committee decided that major revision of the treaties would be required, and formally proposed an intergovernmental conference to negotiate a European Union Treaty, Rifkind was also silent – thus paving the way for Thatcher’s humiliation.

People like Rifkind, therefore, long ago gave up any right or authority to speak dispassionately on EU matters. His dereliction of duty should make him a marked man but, here he is in his retirement, popping up as the great sage, offering opinions on a subject about which he clearly knows nothing.

But it is a measure of where we are that yesterday Rifkind was answered by Denis MacShane, one of Labour’s former Europe ministers – and a particularly odious one at that.

Noting that Rifkind had posed the rhetorical question as to whether the UK should accept the laws and regulations of the EU, he argues that, if France or Germany want to trade into, live and work in, open a business in the US, neither Paris nor Berlin can pick and choose which US laws to obey. No one has to obey a single EU law, MacShane asserts.

Thereby does the man completely miss the point. Under the EU’s level playing field doctrine, the UK will have to incorporate EU laws into its domestic statute book, whereas the scenario he is talking about is one where companies exporting to the EU have to ensure that their products entering the Single Market have to conform with EU law.

Such is the quality of the debate in the UK, where the subject matter is drowned by the ignorance of its participants, and informed commentary doesn’t get heard in the legacy media. Unsurprisingly, I am retreating to my garret to study my books. It is the only sensible thing to do.

Also published on Turbulent Times.


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