Waitrose or Wuhan?

Note: Longer and updated version of article originally published at The Conservative Woman on Wednesday 25 March 2020

As mainstream and social media reports of selfishly excessive panic buying and empty shelves in anticipation of government restrictions to control the spread of Coronavirus exploded into a major issue in itself last week, the public relations departments of major UK supermarkets were eager to reassure the public about continuity of supply and ease of access for elderly or otherwise vulnerable customers.

However, as stories proliferated of hoarders failing to respect so-called ‘elderly hours’, or clearing the shelves in advance of them unimpeded by supermarket staff, it was hard to avoid the impression that some supermarket chains were making ‘caring’ announcements for publicity purposes, but then doing little either to enforce them or even notify their staff of them.  That certainly appeared to be the case with one alleged ‘elderly and vulnerable only’ queue in Leamington Spa.

'Elderly & vulnerable' queue Leamington Spa

Less obvious was any great detail about the extra precautions they intended to take to prevent the spread of infection on their premises, although Aldi promised to instal clear screens at checkouts to protect employees and customers, and Tesco pledged to introduce distancing methods at checkouts to reduce customers’ infection risk.

Not before time, either: as one writer of a Letter to the Editor of a national newspaper put it, ‘Precisely how can we keep our distance while needing to shop for food?‘  

Costco Thurrock, queues distancing

In addition to that, reports had already been circulating on social media from disgruntled employees about businesses being cavalier, to say the least, about protecting even their own staff.  The example below is graphic, but by no means untypical. Read the entire thread.

So it was not without slight trepidation that, early last Saturday morning, I found myself contemplating a potentially hazardous expedition into dangerous territory, aka the local branch of Waitrose.

Now, as soon as the seriousness of the COVID-19 epidemic first became apparent, a local wine merchants not far from my home had been quick to react.  They emailed their entire customer base to say that, with immediate effect, they would provide mandatory-use hand-sanitiser and hand-washing facilities at the entrance to the store, have all trolley handles disinfected after each use, move temporarily to exclusively non-cash transactions, and hygienically wipe credit card machines after every sale.

Surely, I thought, I could expect similar precautions to be in place at a busy branch of a national, and generally regarded as up-market, supermarket chain?

Nope.  Despite my arriving within 15 minutes of opening time, the Waitrose Head Office-announcedThe first hour of business is now dedicated to elderly and vulnerable shoppers‘ policy was nowhere to be seen.  Neither were any hand-sanitising facilities, nor even requests for customers to use the adjacent washrooms for that purpose, in evidence.  As for trolley handles being sanitiser-cleaned before re-use, forget it.

Notwithstanding all the reassuring corporate PR from Head Office, anti-coronavirus precautions within the store looked almost non-existent – although, in fairness, apart from pasta and rice, the shelves were reasonably well-stocked, and anti-excess-buying measures were visibly being enforced.

But not much else.  At one stage, standing no further than one to one-and-a-half metres away from me and half-blocking the aisle, was a young woman staring vacantly at her phone (and not at a shopping list on it either, because she had a written one) while treating everyone in her immediate vicinity, including her two- or three-year-old daughter perched on her shopping-trolley child-seat, to the sound of her rasping dry cough.

At that point I began to feel seriously relieved at my decision to wear nitrile surgical gloves because of the potential for infection from trolley handles, tins, credit-card machines and the like. Apparently, the virus can linger for up to 72 hours on a hard surface.  OTT, maybe, but why take the risk when it’s there but easily avoided?  Some other customers were wearing surgical gloves too, but we must have been in a minority of 5 per cent at the most.

Which minority, remarkably, evidently did not include the servers at the in-store bakery, delicatessen, butcher and fishmonger.  The server on the cheese counter went to cut me a wedge of whatever cheese it was, unwrapping it with his bare hands, and not wearing gloves at all.  I told him to keep it.

Neither did I see any of the checkout operators using gloves, although the Saturday-job youth on the one which I used looked a touch guiltily at my own, then sheepishly produced a pair of latex surgical gloves from beneath his till and put them on.  Had they, I wondered, been issued to till operators, but no-one was verifying that they were actually being worn?  No problem either, with any cash-and-change transactions there if you wanted, and not a hint of credit-card terminals being hygiene-wiped afterwards.

On reaching home, my outer clothes made it straight into the washing machine.  I made it straight into the shower, despite having already showered before leaving.  The nitrile gloves didn’t even make it as far as home.  On the way from the trolley-deposit bay back towards my car in the car park, they went straight into a (closed) rubbish-bin.  And some answers to questions about how the virus had managed to wreak so much devastation so quickly as it spread outwards from Wuhan, China, were much clearer.

UPDATE: This article was written on the afternoon of Monday 23rd March. On Tuesday (24th), a friend visited a different Waitrose branch in my locality.  In the period from Saturday (21st), they had obviously started to get more organised. There was a one-in, one-out policy in operation to limit the numbers shopping at any one time, free disposable gloves were available, and 2-metre distance-markers had been placed at checkouts, and enforced.  Better late than never, perhaps. 

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Brexit-Watch: Saturday 21 March 2020

Note: article originally published at The Conservative Woman on Saturday 21 March 2020

A weekend update on some recent key Brexit-relevant story headlines, choosing four which, while not necessarily meriting a full-length article, nevertheless warrant two or three paragraphs of comment, rather than merely a couple of lines.

(NB: (£) denotes article behind paywall.)

 

Far from requiring delay, coronavirus strengthens our hand in post-Brexit talksDaily Telegraph (£) 

Former Brexit Party MEP Ben Habib is right to say Britain enters its COVID-19 emergency response in a stronger position than the EU. Not only do we embark on it with lower unemployment and lower public debt than the main EU member-state economies.  Having, correctly, not joined the Euro, we also retain our own currency and thus control over both interest-rate and monetary policy, giving us the independence and flexibility to cut rates and launch a monetary expansion quickly, as seen this past week.

When the EU bloc emerges from the Coronavirus crisis, it is likely to be in a weaker state, economically, than the UK.  To re-stimulate its economies, it will need more urgently a trade deal with the country with whom it enjoys a substantial trade surplus, and also be in far less strong a position to go on insisting on its shamelessly protectionist ‘level playing field’ regulatory equivalence.

We should, therefore, be pressing home our advantage, not to exploit, but either to try to conclude a Canada++ style Free Trade Agreement or, if rebuffed, to declare exit on WTO terms, on 31 December 2020.  We have the leverage, and we should use it, ruthlessly if need be.  There is no room for All-England Tennis Club etiquette here.  We are in a hard-nosed negotiation with an uncooperative foreign power, not a genteel game of mixed doubles where you wait politely for your opponents to recover before continuing.

 

The Budget, The Virus, and Post-Brexit Britain – Briefings for Britain

Assuming, firstly, that Britain’s overall Coronavirus approach, a mix of mitigation and suppression strategies rather than one or the other, actually works, and secondly, that the Brexit Transition is not extended, our first year fully outside the EU should see faster than normal growth. Paradoxically, the fastest growth should, all other things being equal, occur in the sectors which have taken the biggest hit from the virtual shutting-down of the economy, like the travel and hospitality industries.

However, since Professor Gudgin’s piece was written, the Chancellor has announced his £330 billion business assistance package, and the Bank of England has launched a further £200 billion of quantitative easing. The former will overwhelmingly be funded by additional borrowing, which eventually means increased debt servicing costs to be paid by individual and business taxes.  This makes it even more critical to secure a post-Brexit trade deal which doesn’t impose ‘level playing field’ regulatory cost burdens on British business.

 

Britain and EU exchange Brexit Agreement draftsReuters

In a welcome counter to the multiple calls for a formal postponement of the Brexit trade talks, and consequently, of the date of full-Brexit itself, Johnson this week published a draft Trade Bill, whose effect would be to expedite and facilitate Britain’s ability to trade with other countries outside the EU. In addition, draft legal texts were also exchanged between Britain and the EU itself on how the two parties would conduct business after the end of Transition.

From the texts, it looks unlikely that a delay would be productive in terms of any softening of Brussels’ intransigence.  Britain fundamentally wants a sectoral agreement under which some issues would be wholly excluded from it, whereas the EU wants an all-encompassing deal from which almost nothing would be excluded.  With the two sides as far apart as this on basic principle, it is hard to see what a delay would achieve.

 

We must question suggestions the transition period should be extendedBrexit-Watch.org

Given that European responses to the Coronavirus crisis are primarily being directed by member-states’ national governments acting individually, rather than centrally from Brussels, it increasingly looks a weak excuse for deferring full-Brexit. Apart from that, every extra month we stay in Transition means a continuing financial contribution to the EU’s coffers, taxpayers’ money which, one suspects, taxpayers would rather see being spent domestically in Britain on healthcare.

On Friday morning, former MEP David Campbell Bannerman raised a further powerful reason for not extending the implementation period.  Late on Wednesday evening, the European Central Bank unexpectedly announced a €750 billion stimulus programme of bond purchases, after its €120 billion big-bank stimulus package of only six days earlier had signally failed to reassure volatile sovereign debt markets.

If – or perhaps when? – the Eurozone collapses, suggested Campbell Bannerman, if still in Transition, Britain is in real danger of having to pay hundreds of billions through European Investment Bank liabilities and/or EU Commission decisions on EU ‘solidarity’. 

When Britain is already borrowing another £330 billion to prop up our coronavirus-hit economy, that prospect alone should be enough to rule out any extension.

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Brexit-Watch: Saturday 14 March 2020

Note: Longer and updated version of the article originally published at The Conservative Woman on Saturday 14 March 2020

A weekend update on some recent key Brexit-relevant story headlines, choosing five which, while not necessarily meriting a full-length article, nevertheless warrant two or three paragraphs of comment, rather than merely a couple of lines.  (NB: (£) denotes article behind paywall.)

 

Don’t be surprised if this virus delays BrexitTelegraph (£)

From the moment COVID-19 Coronavirus appeared on the horizon as something likely to cause more than the usual winter virus disruption, its use as an excuse to justify delaying Brexit was probably inevitable. The infection potential of both non-essential travel and face-to-face meetings are the grounds most often cited, but it’s also been suggested that the Brussels negotiators may just unilaterally decide to suspend negotiations anyway. Purely for medical reasons, obviously. . . .

Both economically and politically, Brexit is the government’s Number One priority after the Coronavirus outbreak, and as the Prime Minister is not conducting them personally, nothing should be allowed to interrupt them. Meetings can continue via video-conferencing from sterile areas.  The texts of drafts of agreements or appendices can be exchanged by email.  If the EU’s negotiators refused to continue with them, then the PM must make it clear that no extension of the Transition Period will be sought, and that Britain will revert to WTO terms in the event that no deal is reached.

Had the Coronavirus outbreak occurred in 2022 or 2023, causing a global downturn one or two years after full-and-final Brexit, would anyone have seriously suggested reversing Brexit and rejoining the EU as a response to it?  Of course not.  Then there’s no reason to defer it now, especially as Britain remains under EU trading and other rules including the Common Fisheries Policy, and also subject to ECJ jurisdiction, until the end of the Transition Period, which the EU itself defines as ‘until at least 31 December 2020 (my italics).

 

Von der Leyen on virus: ‘EU will do whatever is necessary’EU Observer

Which may be: not very much, or not very much that makes a significant difference, anyway. The EU, at least as represented, in Angela Merkel by a lame-duck German politician, in Ursula von der Leyen by a failed German politician, and in Christine Lagarde by a French Eurocrat widely thought to be unsuited to her present ECB role, have by the latter’s admission yet to come together at all, never mind developed a co-ordinated response, let alone sold it to member-states. 

The EU’s institutional sclerosis, along with its lack of a practical either fiscal or monetary policy toolkit commensurate with its supranational pretensions, will almost certainly prevent it coming to either a swift, or especially effective, decision.  So far, for all its resolute declarations, it has dithered but actually done very little.  All that the competition-lawyer-pretending-to-be-central-banker Lagarde managed to do as Head of the ECB was to spook the markets.

The effect of that inaction is already being seen in individual member-states reverting to unilateral decision-making at nation-state level, or in Germany at even regional level.  Nation-state governments are re-asserting themselves and, more importantly, are being seen to respond to their citizens’/voters’ demands in a way that the EU either will not, or more likely institutionally just cannot.  Nation-state borders are back, as their elected governments reimpose them without even bothering to consult Brussels, such is the perceived urgency of protecting their own citizens.

The utility, even the concept, of pan-European supranationalism is being severely tested by Coronavirus.  Anti-democratic supranational technocratic government, open borders and free movement are all now effectively dead, which means the EU in its present form is quite possibly terminally damaged. 

As far as the Brexit negotiations are concerned, this should all strengthen Britain’s hand, and is another reason why the talks should not be allowed to be interrupted or deferred.

 

Macron orders closure of all schools in France and warns he may even shut the country’s borders to control Coronavirus Daily Mail

For the Macron who was once the Davos/Bilderberg globalist oligarchy’s poster-boy for both ‘enlightened’ government by supranational technocracy and wide-open borders, this is an embarrassing climbdown.  However, in the same broadcast as he used to announce it, he also warned against ‘nationalist withdrawal’ as a pitfall to avoid at international level in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, so policy-wise, he appears to be all over the place.

With Macron preoccupied with trying to reconcile securing the French nation against the Coronavirus outbreak with maintaining his EU-integration credentials, and both against the backdrop of difficult French municipal elections this coming Sunday and the next, his influence as one of the Intransigents on the Brexit negotiations is waning.

 

UK’s antivirus measures disguise radicalisation of Brexit FT (£) 

A slightly hysterical article from the FT‘s Europe Editor, claiming that Brexit is evolving into a project far more ‘extreme’ than even Leave-voters wanted in the 2016 EU Referendum, merely because Britain’s negotiators are concerned to ensure that it achieves visible separation from the EU’s political, regulatory and legal structures.

Barber quotes Britain’s withdrawal from the EU Safety Agency as evidence of this; yet goes on to conflate EU-centralised regulation of air safety standards regulation with ‘pan-European co-operation’, which clearly it is not.  Regulation is not ‘co-operation’.  It is to achieve the latter that we need to escape the former.

Barber then bemoans the UK’s alleged abandonment of Theresa May’s commitment to the so-called ‘level playing field’.  But the EU has made it abundantly plain that it interprets that phrase as UK perpetual alignment with EU rules, despite having no say in them and how they are formulated.  It’s hard to see his article in any other light than a polemic against any kind of Brexit which isn’t in-name-only.  Even after all this time.

          

EU’s demands in negotiations with UK revealed in draft treaty Guardian

The EU appears to have evidently learned very little, and therefore changed very little.  The draft continues to insist on ‘level playing field’ rules for (all) British and EU businesses, and also in regard to state-aid.  It maintains its previous demand for the ability of the European Court of Justice to hand down rulings binding on British Courts, and ongoing regulatory harmonisation with EU laws as they develop in other areas, effectively binding the UK to EU legislation, but with no input into it.

On fishing, it proposes ‘long-term’ (NB duration not specified) agreements on access to British waters but with each side’s percentage allocation also unspecified.  On security and intelligence matters, it requires Britain in effect to guarantee its continuing application of the European Convention on Human Rights, despite its manifest flaws, with data and intelligence sharing to be withdrawn if it does not.

The UK is expected to reject most of this as unacceptable, and rightly so.  The prospect of exiting the Transition Period without any satisfactory deal, therefore, goes up another notch, as does, inevitably, the futility and counter-productiveness of any extension of the Transition Period.

This in turn must prompt the question of whether it is worth Britain persisting in this charade at all, especially if it is to be prolonged on some spurious pretext using the Coronavirus outbreak as a transparent excuse. Better to abandon it now, declare negotiations at an end, prepare for a WTO/No-Deal exit from the Transition Period, and focus our energies on ameliorating the Coronavirus outbreak in this country.

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Brexit-Watch: Saturday 07 March 2020

Note: Longer and updated version of the article originally published at The Conservative Woman earlier today, Saturday 07 March 2020

A weekend update on some recent key Brexit-relevant story headlines, choosing four which, while not necessarily meriting a full-length article, nevertheless warrant two or three paragraphs of comment, rather than merely a couple of lines.  (NB: (£) denotes article behind paywall.)

 

Brexit row erupts after Barnier accuses UK of planning to ditch human rights commitmentPolitics Home

In a typically disingenuous combination of red herring and attempt to assert EU extra-territorial jurisdiction over the post-Brexit UK, Barnier has accused the UK of ‘refusing to continue to apply’ the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) after full-Brexit. This is arrant nonsense.

The ECHR is the creation of the immediate post-WW2 Council of Europe, is enforced by the Council’s European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg, and is separate and distinct from the EU.  The latter is not even a signatory to the Convention, merely requiring new member-states to be signatories, and the EU has no jurisdiction over it.

It’s conceivable however that, once freed of the obligation to be a signatory to the ECHR by virtue of its EU membership, the UK could decide after Brexit to enact its own Bill of Rights (possibly linked to a written Constitution) and, as part of that, withdraw from either the ECHR in full or merely from the jurisdiction of its ECtHR.

As Lawyers for Britain‘s Martin Howe QC explains, there’s a compelling case for such a move.  The Strasbourg human rights court has come to mirror some unsatisfactory features found also in the EU’s own European Court of Justice, principally a tendency to judicial activism rather than interpretation, introduction into European human rights law of concepts not present in the original text, and the predominance of the Continental Codified, rather than English Common Law, legal tradition.

Barnier in effect wants the EU to have the power to direct the democratically elected government of an independent sovereign nation-state on which international treaties and conventions it should or should not sign up to. That is an outrageous demand that deserves to be dismissed out of hand.

 

Paris versus London: the clash of the financial centresJohn Keiger, Briefings for Britain

Having failed, in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 EU Referendum, to persuade many, if any, City-based European banks to move their London operations to Frankfurt or Paris, the French are now coming back, but cloaked in the EU flag, for another attempt.  The possibility that this is sabre-rattling as part of French domestic politics’ general background noise to the upcoming French municipal elections this month, where Macron looks likely to be embarrassed at least, can’t be ruled out.

Despite the European Banking Authority having made the move, London’s sheer size, global reach, expertise, power and capacity for innovation as an international financial centre compared to Paris suggests this will be a futile quest.  Even if this were not a factor, the far more onerous and restrictive, and significantly slower-deciding and less flexible, regulatory regimes covering both financial services and labour markets would surely be a disincentive.

The threat to withhold passporting rights from UK banks doing business in France looks similarly unlikely to succeed.  The French may have introduced this whole issue into the negotiating mix as a giveaway to be traded off in return for getting something else.

 

Negotiating deals with both the EU and the US will be tricky for Britain: but it does have a trump card Shanker Singham, Telegraph (£)

The overriding difference between the two sets of negotiations is this: that while both parties in the UK-US negotiation will focus on economics and trade, both parties in the UK-EU negotiation will not.  For the EU, this deal isn’t about economics and trade, but about politics, in particular, Brussels’ semi-existential political need to try and limit the competitiveness of an ex-member on its north-western doorstep, even at the price of harming its own member-states’ economies. That is bound to maintain, if not incrase, its tendency to intransigence.

Britain taking up its seat at the WTO this week, for the first time as an independent member in nearly 50 years, has sent what ought to be a powerful signal to Brussels that, if it continues to try to insist on setting both our regulatory environment and legal order after Brexit, then we are quite prepared to walk away and go WTO.

 

We must not allow the EU to bind our hands in trade negotiations with other partners Stephen Booth, Conservative Home

In what’s been appropriately described as a ‘multi-dimensional game of chess’, and despite the demands likely to be made on our trade negotiating resources and expertise, for Britain to conclude, or at least substantially conclude, as many overseas trade deals as possible during 2020, in parallel to the trade-talks with the EU, must be an imperative.

In macro terms,  one vital fact should not be overlooked. Time is not on the EU’s side. The Eurozone economy is suffering its slowest growth in 7 years. Internally, its rate of GDP growth continues to decline, while externally, it accounts for an ever-diminishing share of global GDP growth.

EU quarterly real gdp growth 2016-19

EU declining share global GDP growth

Seeing the UK reach trade deals with the parts of the world which are growing, not stagnating, is essential towards disincentivising the EU from continuing to insist on its absolutist level-playing-field on, e.g.,  state aid, environmental and labour standards, an approach which is intended, not so much as to facilitate trade, as to protect its own heavily regulated economies from competition.

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The BBC Empire strikes back: will PM Boris Johnson back down?

A combination of Johnson’s vacillation, resistance, and ministerial appointments reflecting both, together with a probable reluctance to counter and overcome the BBC’s self-serving resistance campaign, make it highly likely that he will abandon pledges to reform its anachronistic and illiberal funding model 

Note: Based on, but both expanded and updated from, the articles originally published at The Conservative Woman on Tuesday 11th February 2020 and Tuesday 3rd March 2020, respectively 

Is Boris about to wimp out on the BBC licence fee?‘, I asked here on 17th February.  In the mere two and a half weeks since, the answer has hardened from ‘Hmm, maybe.’ to ‘Almost certainly.’

At that time, the original proposal, to decriminalise non-payment of the fee and possibly scrap the licence altogether, had already been downgraded to merely modifying (but, er, not before 2027) the licence fee model, and only a ‘consultation’ on decriminalisation. 

In that earlier 17th February blogpost, however, I recounted how only four months previously, the Institute of Economic Affairs had published its own ‘consultation’ in the form of its policy paper New Vision: Liberating the BBC from the licence fee, its main recommendations for transforming the corporation into a subscriber-owned mutual being summarised here.

I went on to describe the alternative explanation – for Johnson’s apparent reluctance, that is, to follow up on his initial resolve, despite evidence of substantial public support – which was suggested by academic David Sedgwick in his book The Fake News Factory: Tales from BBC-Land, and I speculated that the Cabinet and Government appointments emerging from  Johnson’s reshuffle seemed to bear this out. 

So what has happened since then?    

Well, neither popular dissatisfaction with the BBC, nor support for the drastic reform of its funding model, have subsided.  On 23rd February a new ComRes poll found 50 per cent of people saying the BBC is poor value for money, and support for abolishing the licence fee at 61 per cent.  In early December 2019, YouGov had found that 48 per cent of Britons trusted the BBC to tell the truth either not much or not at all, while only 44 percent trusted it to tell the truth a fair amount or a great deal.  In the year to November 2019, 200,000 people cancelled their TV licence, and the licence fee evasion rate continues to grow.

Trust in the BBC YouGov 01-Dec-2019

BBC 'licence-evasion' rate 2010-2018

Meanwhile, the BBC has started mobilising its forces for the fightback against what, given the evidence above, would for it undoubtedly be an existential threat.

Firstly, its main staff union, BECTU, is organising a ‘save the BBC’ petition.  

Note how merely considering decriminalisation of non-payment of the licence-fee is presented as ‘continuously attacking the BBC’.  If this isn’t with the BBC’s at least full support, if not even co-operation, I’d be astonished.  Secondly, there’s also a pro-BBC petition by the left-wing campaign group 38 DegreesAgain, I doubt if the BBC finds it unwelcome.

Secondly, BBC grandees are being wheeled out to promote the corporation’s own version of Project Fear.  Chairman Sir David Clementi led the predictable shroud-waving, conjuring up an apocalyptic vision of a Britain plunged into civilisation-threatening darkness should a distraught populace be deprived of Strictly Come Dancing, before wailing that scrapping the licence fee would ‘weaken the nation‘. 

How the nation would be weakened merely by some of its people no longer being coerced to pay for something they do not want was not immediately obvious.  Or, as Continental Telegraph‘s Tim Worstall succinctly put it, disingenuous tripe: in effect ‘Without the licence fee we’d stop making Strictly Come Dancing ‘coz we’d have no money, so we’d have to make Strictly Come Dancing in order to make money’.  

Clementi went to list examples of programmes and national sporting events which would, allegedly, not be accessible under a subscription model – a risible argument which in effect acknowledges that the BBC couldn’t make programmes of sufficient quality or appeal to persuade customers to part with their money voluntarily.  In which case, it should be asked, why should they be forced to fund it coercively?

The ‘endangering coverage of national sporting events’ claim has even less merit. Clementi completely failed to explain why, apparently, a subscription-funded BBC couldn’t bid against its rivals for the right to broadcast major national or sporting events.

Thirdly, the corporation’s reliably on-message MPs among dripping-Wet ‘One-Nation’ Tories are distraught.

The BBC is so much a broadcaster that people love, gushed political pipsqueak Huw Merriman, overlooking consistent opinion-polling reporting the exact opposite, and whose own article ironically ended with a poll in which fully 92 per cent of respondents wanted the licence fee scrapped.

Merriman poll TGraph licence fee scrapped

Merriman, incidentally, is the erstwhile sycophantic PPS bag-carrier to former Chancellor of the Exchequer and arch-Remainer Philip Hammond, content to act as his anti-Brexit plotting master’s mouthpiece, and thought to have been the anonymous PPS who forecasted that Parliament not approving Theresa May’s (non)-‘Withdrawal’ BRINO Agreement would ‘put Corbyn into No 10’.  Yet despite being a relative nonentity, he has managed to become Chair of the Commons All-Party Parliamentary Group on the BBC.  It’s likely stance on the licence fee question isn’t hard to guess.

Destroying the BBC would be ‘cultural vandalism’, hyperbolised loyal May-confidant Damian Green, studiously ignoring the fact that hardly anyone demands its specific ‘destruction’, merely the reform of its funding model to make it non-coercive.

Even ministers are backtracking furiously, running scared.  The next BBC boss will need to be a reformer, squawked former DCMS Secretary Nicky Morgan in one of those proverbial statements of the bleedin’ obvious, but curiously forgetting that it’s the Government that’s promising to require reform.

There are no ‘pre-ordained’ decisions, yapped Transport Secretary Grant ‘aka Michael Green’ Shapps, going on to label the BBC a ‘much loved national treasure’, but conveniently omitting to mention its 92 per cent ‘Bad’ rating on Trustpilot.

BBC rated Bad on Trustpilot

I suspect the strong probability is that, regardless of public opinion, a significant part of the Tory Parliamentary Party is already compromised.  And that’s before MPs start coming under pressure from astroturfing letter-writing campaigns to their local papers and similar phone-ins to their BBC local radio stations. 

In the meantime, the BBC remains able to treat its captive funders with undisguised contempt.

The Courts have refused an appeal against the decision not to grant a Judicial Review of its impartiality vis-à-vis the requirements of its Charter.  It backed its reporter who described the crowds celebrating in Parliament Square on Brexit Night as ‘too white’. Its Newsnight ‘expert on the deleterious effects of ‘austerity’’ was a far-Left activist. If its audiences hate its obsessively woke distortion of historical classics in the name of ‘diversity’, they can lump it.   

All these developments hardly suggest Johnson’s robust-sounding earlier pledges on the BBC’s iniquitous ‘licence-fee’ will be carried through swiftly and eagerly.  Or at all.  As early as 5th February, News-Watch’s David Keighley warned at The Conservative Woman that the licence fee ‘overhaul’ would be a damp squib.  Only last Saturday, the Taxpayers’ Alliance’s Sam Packer showed, also at The Conservative Woman, how the sock-puppet ‘consultation’ on decriminalisation will be manipulated to guarantee the result desired by both the BBC and its supporters within the Whitehall Blob.

So, to answer that question posed two and a half weeks ago: Yes, almost now a racing certainty.  Johnson will indeed wimp out.

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Brexit-Watch: Saturday 29 February 2020

Note: Longer and updated version of the article originally published at The Conservative Woman earlier today, Saturday 29 February 2020

A weekend update on some recent key Brexit-relevant story headlines, choosing four which, while not necessarily meriting a full-length article, nevertheless warrant a paragraph or two of comment, rather than merely a couple of lines.  (NB: (£) denotes article behind paywall.)

 

Dealing with the French: Frost versus Barnier, Bacon versus DescartesRobert Tombs at Briefings for Britain

Few are better qualified than Professor Tombs to expound on the historically different approaches to philosophy and law which govern the respective attitudes of the French and English towards the negotiating of treaties.  The former view the opening text as sacred, to be departed from only minimally, if at all: for the latter, it is merely a starting point from which give-and-take bartering can proceed towards, eventually, a mutually acceptable outcome.

Personally, I find it a curious paradox how, when it comes to the nuts and bolts of trade negotiations, it’s the British who are pragmatic and transactional, while the Brussels Eurocrats are institutional and inflexible: but that, when it comes to the philosophical question of EU membership per se, it’s the Eurocrats who are transactional, emphasising alleged economic advantage, while the British are constitutional, prioritising the principles of sovereignty, democracy and self-government over the risk of temporary economic disruption.

Anyway, to the schism identified by Professor Tombs must be added current domestic politics among the main EU protagonists. In Germany, Merkel’s originally anointed successor as CDU party leader and Chancellor having withdrawn, the contest has now degenerated into an unedifying struggle between two fairly unimpressive male apparatchiks.  In France, an already unpopular Macron faces municipal elections in late March from which he is likely to emerge weakened.

The two diametrically different approaches, coupled with more volatile both French and German domestic politics, could well turn the Brexit trade-talks into a dialogue of the deaf.  In which case, the likelihood of Britain deciding that further negotiation is pointless, and walking away to WTO terms, will become even greater.

 

EU’s uneven playing field revealed – Germans, Belgians, Italians, French are the worst offendersFacts4EU

This is about the EU’s restrictions on the power of member-states’ national legislatures on state-aid and competition. Yet despite the insistence by Barnier on ‘red lines’ for a ‘level playing field’ regarding his demand for continuing UK-EU ‘regulatory alignment’ after Brexit, the EU is, as ever, the greatest breaker of the rules it purports to impose on others.

Germany, France, Belgium and Italy all receive favourable state-aid dispensations at between three and four times the rate Britain does. Some ‘level playing field’. . . .  Moreover, identifying where responsibility lies for administering the rules is typically shrouded in bureaucratic obfuscation. It would be futile focusing on this area to the detriment of others in negotiation.

Once again, it’s possible to envisage this issue causing Labour some trouble domestically, especially if the party, though nominally united, has ongoing tensions between the soft-Left faction of presumed winner Starmer and the defeated hard-Left camp grouped around Long-Bailey.  Remember, Corbyn repeatedly appeared torn between his desire as a Remainer to stay within the EU’s ambit and his desire as a socialist to use taxpayers’ money to prop up failing businesses.

 

UK-EU: a question of trustFinancial Times (£)

Briefly, for those unable to breach the paywall, the article references the spat between Britain and the EU on the former’s accusation that the EU resiled from its offer of a Canada-style Free Trade Agreement, and the latter’s accusation that Britain is resiling from a previous agreement not to re-open aspects of Theresa May’s Political declaration. It goes on to regret the end result of the document supposed to guide the negotiations being at the centre of a feud.

It’s hard not to see a combination of naïveté and anti-Brexit EU-philia at work here.  These negotiations were always going to be conducted in an atmosphere of bad faith on the EU’s side.  The reason isn’t hard to discern.  Going back to Professor Tombs’ article, for Britain, these negotiations are transactional: for the EU, on the other hand, they are near-existential.

As the Bruges Group remarked this week. . .   

Indeed.  But that’s also slightly to miss the point.  The EU is conceptually incapable of treating us like any other country.  Alone among other countries who joined it, we have chosen to repudiate and quit their to them noble but to us neo-imperial Project.  For that, in their world-view, we are heretics who must not only be punished for our apostasy but be seen to be punished for it.  If that sounds quasi-religious, it’s because it is.  These negotiations were pre-destined to be acrimonious.

 

The UK and EU Negotiating Mandates ComparedGlobal Vision

It’s clear from this comprehensive, up-to-date summary, including all the developments of the past week, that behind the spin disseminated via the headline/soundbite-wanting media lie some potentially insoluble points of contention.

Fishing is the obvious and arguably also the most difficult one since, despite its relative insignificance economically, it is hugely important politically and even almost symbolically, given its public profile: one can easily see it being the bellwether by which the whole deal is judged.  The UK has rejected both keeping current levels of access for other EU member-states, and sequencing.  It could be the difference between an agreement and WTO.

The so-called level playing field and rules of origin issue, and I think we can expect EU obduracy on financial services, torn as it is between mercantilist envy of the City’s dominance and knowledge of EU firms’ dependence on it. Generally, if the EU refuses to budge on demanding its own legal order be supervening, the UK has made it clear there will be no agreement.  Don’t delete your online WTO guide just yet.

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For its own sake, the monarchy should now consider skipping a generation

The British monarchy should consider skipping a generation, to obviate the risk of its institutional survival being threatened by its political neutrality being compromised

Note: Full-length version of the article originally published in abbreviated form at The Conservative Woman on Wednesday 26 February 2020

As the behaviour of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex becomes ever more bizarre and unreasonable, the Prince of Wales is increasingly skating on thin ice.  In continuing to support them financially, and by not explicitly criticising them, he appears, if not to condone their conduct, then at least to tolerate it.  For the monarchy as an institution, this matters.

Since the Sussexes negotiated the terms of their withdrawal from public duties a month ago, both their intransigence and apparent selfishness as a couple, and for Prince Harry, his alienation from his family and former allegiances, have accelerated.

Their participation in a Goldman Sachs corporate event in Miamiallegedly negotiated up to a year in advance of their quitting the Royal Family  – and at which Prince Harry delivered, for a fee of up to £750,000, what was by reliable accounts a rambling, semi-incoherent speech on his mental struggles in coming to terms with his mother’s death – attracted widespread criticism, not only of profiting from it, but also of eco-hypocrisy in travelling to and from Miami by private jet. 

Nor was that the Duke’s only recent instance of rampant eco-hypocrisy. He’s just announced his plan to launch a new online scoring system to help tourists pick the most eco-friendly flights and hotels, ‘to bring more transparency around carbon [sic] emissions’ and promote ‘sustainability frameworks’.  The launch event wain Edinburgh this week, and of course, he flew in for it.  You might think this is all a bit rich, coming from someone who justified his own extensive use of private jets  – 4 times in 11 days at one point during 2019 – as necessary for his family’s safety.

Prince Harry Edinburgh eco-app Wed 26-Feb-2020 After initially seeming to accept the Queen’s wise decision to veto their use of their ‘SussexRoyal’ brand, owing to the tawdry nature of some of the activities with which they proposed to associate it, they rapidly switched to defiantly asserting their right to use it, with Meghan Markle even reportedly contemplating suing the Queen over it.

Matters have escalated from there. Although reluctantly agreeing to discontinue use of the ‘SussexRoyal’ brand – the plan to haul the Queen into Court presumably not having survived the first consultation with M’Learned Friends – it’s clear, reports Camilla Tominey in the Daily Telegraph, that the Sussexes don’t plan to go quietly.  As is shown by the somewhat hostile and resentful tone of the statement issued via their website on 21 February, implying that the ban on their use of the ‘SussexRoyal’ brand is somehow ultra vires and unenforceable, but that they will graciously condescend to go along with it anyway.

Prince Harry’s abandonment of the former military commitments which earned him praise and respect continues apace. Managing to annoy the organisers of the Invictus Games, which he did so much to establish and publicise, by withdrawing from any future direct involvement, was disappointing enough.

But what really outraged even people who had hitherto been prepared to cut him some slack was in effect insulting the Royal Marines of which he was then Captain General, by skipping the 30-years memorial service for the 11 Marines killed by an IRA bomb in Deal in order to audibly pitch for voice-over work for his wife to Disney CEO Bob Iger at the London premiere of The Lion King.

If I’ve dwelt on these incidents in detail, it’s to highlight the reaction – or rather the lack of reaction – from his father, the Prince of Wales, the heir to the throne. The Royal Family is famously tight-lipped, and one wouldn’t ordinarily expect a father publicly to condemn his son, out of ordinary filial affection.  However, the Prince of Wales is no ordinary father, but one with constitutional, as well as parental, obligations. If his son’s actions could impinge on the monarchy and on his own constitutional position, his silence is perhaps no longer appropriate.

The last definite indication from the Prince of Wales on the subject appears to be in media reports of early to mid-January that he is prepared to keep on funding them, notwithstanding their intention to make as much money as possible out of their royal connections, and even, according to some online sources, to support them both financially and quasi-constitutionally, should they decide to return to Britain.

Nor does it end there: because they will deign to carry out a few public duties of their choosing, the taxpayer will still be responsible for estimated annual costs of up to £20 million for their security.

I believe that, in financing and indulging the Sussexes’ insufferable, narcissistic, über-woke posturing and petulance to the extent that he has, the Prince of Wales is risking his own tolerance by the British people. He seems guilty of failing to appreciate that, should public anger and exasperation with them keep on growing, his popularity will fall along with theirs.  That will reduce his acceptability as King, but he appears either oblivious to it or unconcerned about it.

Nor is this the only cloud hanging over his acceptability.  He has long been notorious for recurring partisan interventions on ‘climate-change’, one of the most politically divisive issues of our time.

In fairness, his interest does date from when even benign, aesthetic, non-political environmentalism was unfashionable and viewed as niche, if not slightly weird.  But when genuinely altruistic environmentalism got hijacked by the intensely political, anti-capitalist, catastrophist and eco-totalitarian Climatism of the Green-Left and became its eco-marxist creed, Charles either didn’t detect it or chose to ignore it, and promptly swallowed the entire deep-Green ideological package whole.

His interventions on the specifics are too numerous to list in detail, but his more recent ones on the generality illustrate the argument. His original ‘tipping point’ to ‘save the planet’ has varied from –

  1. 96-months in 2009; but https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/green-living/just-96-months-to-save-world-says-prince-charles-1738049.html
  1. had extended to ‘just 35 years’ by 2015; then https://www.climatedepot.com/2015/07/28/prince-charles-gives-world-reprieve-on-global-warming-extends-100-month-tipping-point-to-35-more-years/,
  1. was reduced to a mere ‘18 months’ by 2019; but https://www.climatedepot.com/2019/07/16/prince-charles-at-it-again-issues-yet-another-climate-tipping-point-deadline-after-previous-100-month-deadline-expires/
  1. was back to ‘just 10 years’ by a week ago https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8017939/Weve-got-10-years-save-planet-warns-Prince-Charles.html.

Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted that in some of these he appears to have bought in entirely to the anti-capitalism, anti-consumerism message of the Green ideology.

Except of course for himself.  Because despite hectoring us on ‘climate change’, the Prince of Wales appears to manifest the same eco-hypocrisy and tin-earedness as his younger son.  There’s the small matter of flying 125 miles to give a speech on reducing aviation-generated carbon [sic] emissions, plus the £20,000 a time cost of using the royal train, but this is comparatively minor.

It emerged in January this year that he’d flown 16,000 miles in 11 days, using three private jets, before posing proudly with the exploited, manipulated ‘climate’-puppet Greta Thunberg at WEF Davos, where the globalist, crony-corporatist, transnational, post-democratic oligarchy discussed earnestly the need for a worldwide ‘carbon’ [sic] tax to discourage the hoi-polloi from flying, before catching their own private jets home.   

Prince Charles Greta Davos compIf the Queen can drive a relatively hard bargain with the Sussexes, she really ought to have no qualms at all about giving Prince Charles an unequivocal warning that, notwithstanding his intense personal interest, to protect the monarchy’s neutrality he must end his interventions on such a divisive subject.

Moreover, with this Government’s apparent capitulation to the Green agenda – banning both our preferred means of transport and our most economical method of heating our homes – and with evidence mounting that, to the extent that it has calculated them at all, it has drastically underestimated the astronomical costs to both the overall economy and individual households of its Net-Zero policy in return for practically negligible effect, it is only going to become even more divisive.

Unless as King he desists from partisan interventions in this most highly disputed of political issues, the present Prince of Wales will be a disaster for the monarchy; but sadly, his stubbornness and petulance will probably make him ignore it.

As is indicated by his previous record of political meddling.  Many will probably recall what became known as the Black Spider Memos affair, when, after a protracted legal dispute, centred around the Freedom of Information Act, to prevent their disclosure, the Cabinet Office eventually released the portfolio of Prince Charles’ letters to ministers of the then elected government, persistently advocating for policy changes on a wide range of subjects.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the Prince of Wales’ political views, on climate change or any other issue, is immaterial.  In his position, we should not even be aware of what they are, as with the present Queen. He should stay totally out of the political arena, so as not to jeopardise the status of the monarchy within the Constitution.

Almost certainly, however, he will refuse to do so.  The fictional analogy of To Play the King, the second novel in Michael Dobbs’ House of Cards trilogy, in which a newly-crowned monarch with strong political views opposes the elected Prime Minister, but whose abdication is eventually engineered by the PM, could become a reality.

The Saxe-Coburg-Gotha-Mountbatten-Windsor lineage enjoys above-average longevity.  The present Queen’s mother lived to 101, and she herself, though inevitably frailer physically at 93, still appears in full possession of her faculties, including a degree of both subtlety and ruthlessness in the way she has dismissed the Sussexes’ more selfish demands.

So we face the prospect of Prince Charles, already 71 and the longest-serving heir to the throne, not succeeding her until possibly well into his late 70s. Should he, in turn, live as long as his mother and grandmother, Prince William, now 37 and along with his wife hugely popular, could easily have to wait until his early 60s before even becoming King. The precedent that likely to be set by his father does not inspire confidence that a long period as heir to the throne is a guarantor of good Kingship.

Skipping a generation, aside from all its other advantages, could alleviate that.  In contrast to the abdication-now, Prince-Charles-must-take-the reins solution advanced by Matthew Parris, who presumably sees as a Good Thing the accession to the throne of a fellow ‘liberal’ inclined to political meddling on behalf of fashionable but democratically unpopular causes, it is to Prince William whom his grandmother should hand the reins.

Despite all its recent scandals and troubles, support for the monarchy, both as an institution and as part of the Constitution, remains strong.

As I’ve stated previously, it seems Brits not only understand the distinction between the monarchy as an institution and the personality flaws of some of its current members.  They also recognise that, for all its faults, it’s still preferable to having some tainted, divisive, political has-been, or some washed-up grubby ex-“celebrity”, as an ‘elected’ Head of State.

But the present Prince of Wales may well prove an awkward, controversial, unsatisfactory monarch, and opinion may change as a result.  It’s significant, in my view, that the Republican Left is presently silent. With the widespread disapproval of the Sussexes’ actions and the financial implications, you might expect it to be more vocal in calling for the monarchy itself to be abolished on the death of the present Queen.

Given by the enormous popularity – and, at present, considerable sympathy at her cavalier treatment at the hands of her grandson – enjoyed by the Queen, could it be waiting for the more promising opportunity to bring about abolition which would arise with a controversial and unpopular King Charles on the throne? Or could it be calculating that radical Green-Left policies stand a better chance of being enacted with the imprimatur of the occupant of the throne?

The monarchy skipping a generation would obviously be a massive constitutional issue, with formidable legal and technical obstacles to be overcome procedurally.  It would almost certainly be made even more so by the stubborn resistance of the current heir, who is doggedly determined to claim his constitutional inheritance and re-shape the monarchy, but in ways that aren’t necessarily conducive to it enduring beyond his reign. But happen it must.

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Brexit-Watch: 22nd February 2020

Note: Longer and updated version of the article originally published at The Conservative Woman earlier today, Saturday 22 February 2020

A weekend update on some recent key Brexit-relevant story headlines, choosing four which, while not necessarily meriting a full-length article, nevertheless warrant a paragraph or two of comment, rather than merely a couple of lines.  (NB: (£) denotes article behind paywall.)

 

The EU’s absurd and ever-changing position reminds us why Britain voted to leaveTelegraph (£)

Global Vision’s Shanker Singham on how, having originally offered Britain a Canada-style free trade deal with add-ons, the EU has backtracked to the extent of demanding a provision which it doesn’t insist on even in its FTAs with China and the USA: namely a guarantee that whenever the EU changed its laws, the UK would follow suit, in perpetuity.  This would in effect subordinate our own trade’s legal architecture to EU state aid rules and ECJ oversight.

Brussels also demands what it calls ‘dynamic regulatory alignment’; meaning in effect that, to secure a FTA, the UK would need to become a rule-taker from Brussels with no say in how those rules were set.  Both moves are perfect examples of the intransigence which caused us to vote to leave in the first place.  But Johnson will need to be watched to ensure there is no backsliding or dilution of our refusal to capitulate to this.

 

The EU isn’t interested in free trade with the UK, just political domination –  Briefings for Britain (formerly Brexit)

An argument whose first premise has been amply borne out this week by Brussels’ attempt to move the goalposts, firstly, by trying to hedge a Canada-style deal about with onerous conditions, in what looks like a naked attempt to hobble Britain’s ability to compete against an over-regulated, sclerotic EU.

Secondly, by Barnier’s ill-tempered refusal of a Canada-style trade deal on transparently spurious grounds of geographical proximity.  And thirdly, by even demanding the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece as part of any trade deal. 

With the growing presence of nation-state populists in both member-state and European parliaments, making Brussels desperate to make life outside the bloc as difficult as possible for Britain, the argument’s second premise is no less valid.

 

Post-Brexit funding row breaks out in BrusselsTimes (£)

Very much at the forefront of Eurocrats’ minds, in the sense of trying to show the remaining 27 member-states, by its treatment of Britain, just how difficult it will make life outside the bloc for any other country which decided to emulate Britain and leave, taking its contributions with it.  Brexit leaves a €75 billion-sized hole in the next 7-year budget.

The implications for member-states’ internal politics are significant.  Germany’s extra payments are 6 times France’s, and Merkel’s CDU is under electoral pressure from the Eurosceptic AfD.  France’s low-level Gilets Jaunes insurrection each weekend shows no sign of abating, and the Marion Maréchal (Le Pen) led Rassemblement Nationale expects to make big gains in this year’s French municipal elections.  Just to make life more difficult for Macron, the Dutch, with an economy only one-third the size of France’s, are objecting to paying EU contributions 70 per cent higher than France’s.

 

What Keir Starmer would mean for BritainFT (£)

To which headline must of course first be added the caveat: if he becomes Labour leader.  Admittedly, it looks unlikely that he won’t, but Rebecca Long-Bailey has the endorsement of Len McClusky’s Unite Union and, as far as I can establish, no candidate has ever won the Labour leadership without it.

In the short term, Starmer as leader will impact more on Labour’s internal politics than on the course of Britain’s exit.  Johnson has a compliant Parliamentary party with an unassailable majority, so Starmer won’t be forcing any change of policy.  He will however be far more soft-Brexity and even Rejoin-inclined than Corbyn, so could arouse some disquiet among Labour MPs in Brexit-voting seats who narrowly survived December’s massacre and could be the next bricks in Labour’s Red Wall to tumble.

What he will bring to the table, however, is a lawyer’s far greater ability than Corbyn possessed to absorb the fine detail of any agreements, and then subject Johnson to forensic questioning on them.  Boris is a big-picture blusterer, not a details man, so he could well under-perform when put under this kind of pressure.  Coupled with growing resentment at his eco-policies, this could well cause his popularity and approval ratings to dip.  So Starmer could impact internal Tory politics as well.

 

What these four articles taken together show is that the EU is visibly in big trouble on several fronts.  Not mentioned in any of the four above is the mountain of bank debt on the books of the ECB, which potentially limits it from engaging in any further quantitative easing to try and boost currently slowing growth in the sclerotic Eurozone. 

If only our own negotiators would recognise it, and leverage it to drive a harder and more advantageous deal for Britain.  Though if the evident intransigence of the EU is a guide, it surely increases the chance of our eventual exit on WTO terms.

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Is Boris about to wimp out on the BBC ‘licence-fee’?

With Johnson’s dramatic announcements of his intent, both to decriminalise non-payment of the BBC licence-fee and even to consider its outright abolition, already starting to be hastily softened and diluted, it’s justifiable to ask whether both won’t eventually be abandoned under pressure                

Note: Longer and updated version of the article originally published at The Conservative Woman earlier on Tuesday 11 February 2020

It all began so well.  On 14 December, under 48 hours after his stunning election victory, Prime Minister Boris Johnson initiated moves to decriminalise non-payment of the coercive, regressive, household TV-signal receivability poll-tax inaccurately known as the BBC ‘licence-fee’. 

It was hardly unexpected.  During the final week of the election campaign, Johnson had already condemned the iniquity of people being forced to fund the BBC despite having no wish to consume its output, and had raised the prospect at least of its outright abolition.  

He correctly branded it a tax – as had the House of Lords as long ago as 2006 when it determined that it was indeed a tax and not the ‘service-fee’ which the BBC disingenuously claimed and continues to claim – and his chief strategist Dominic Cummings was reported to be working on proposals for alternative ways for the Corporation to fund itself.  

As relevant as these considerations are, they’re in some ways almost secondary: because abolition of the licence-fee, or at the very minimum, decriminalisation of its non-payment, should, on principle alone, be so uncontroversial as to incontestable, given that a BBC TV licence is mandatory on pain of fine or even imprisonment, even if the householder wishes to consume only non-BBC output.

It’s a statist, authoritarian funding model, more suited to a dreary 1960s socialist semi-dictatorship than a modern liberal democracy with competitive free markets.  In a multi-platform, multi-provider broadcast environment, where we access hundreds of TV and radio channels, on computers, tablets or smartphones, inside or outside, at home or travelling, at any time, the BBC’s household TV-signal receivability poll-tax is anachronistic and outmoded to the point of obsolescence. It’s increasingly unenforceable, and ultimately doomed.

As an analogy, imagine being forced to pay Waitrose an annual £157 ‘trolley-tax’, just for the ability to choose always to shop elsewhere.  Imagine being forced to pay British Airways an annual £157 ‘flight-tax’, just for the ability to choose always to fly FlyBe or Easyjet.  Well, that’s the BBC ‘licence-fee’.

In the days following Johnson’s 14 December announcement, with ministers already instructed to boycott the BBC’s flagship Today Programme over credible allegations of its consistent anti-Brexit and anti-Conservative biases, it received widespread praise and approval from voters and commentariat alike, by no means all of them slavish Tory-supporters or Boris-worshippers.

A Savanta-ComRes poll found that BBC News was less trusted than ITV News on perceptions of impartiality and accuracy: that two-thirds of respondents believed the licence-fee should be either scrapped or substantially reformed: and that half of all under-55s would prefer to receive news free from commercial broadcasters funded by advertising, rather than pay for it via the BBC licence-fee.

The BBC is trapped in a Remainer-London bubble of its own making, wrote LBC broadcaster Iain Dale in The Daily Telegraph.  The licence-fee days of a BBC that drips with anti-Brexit bias are numbered, declared Ross Clark in The Sun.  The ‘diversity’-obsessed BBC is now mortifyingly out of touch with modern Britain, chided Sherelle Jacobs, again in The Daily Telegraph.  The paying public think the BBC’s ‘values’ stink, rasped former Labour and now SDP-voter Rod Liddle in The Sunday Times.

This notable unanimity between public and punditocracy continued into the New Year, the apparently imminent decriminalisation of the licence-fee given impetus, it seemed, by the announcement of the departure of the BBC’s Director-General.

Exit stage left, Lord Hall of the British Bias Corporation, observed BBC NewsWatch’s David Keighley at The Conservative WomanIn the age of Netflix, the licence-fee can’t be justified, averred Stephen Canning at the free-market championing 1828.com.  In the 21st century, we should be able to imagine life without the BBC licence-fee, insisted the Daily Telegraph’s Charles Moore.  The BBC is panicking at the public’s rejection of its left-‘liberal’ world-view, said Janet Daley, also in the Daily Telegraph.

Then came the Brexit Weekend of 31st January – 1st February, when the BBC, far from demonstrating any acknowledgement of, much less contrition for, the precipitous decline in its audiences’ toleration of its coercive funding model and of its inherent institutional bias, simply doubled down on its contempt for its captive customers, as I described in detail here a week or so ago.  And then promptly compounded it by announcing, on Monday 3rd February, an increase in its so-called ‘licence-fee’.

Only a month before, a Public First poll found 75 per cent of respondents supporting abolition of the licence-fee outright, and 60 per cent favouring the decriminalisation of non-payment, indicating both greater dissatisfaction with the BBC and greater willingness to see its funding reformed than reflected in the Saventa-ComRes poll mentioned earlier.

Rarely can a set of political circumstances have been so propitious for a recently elected government to implement a pre-election pledge for an easy win, to widespread approval.  So we waited for what seemed the inevitable announcement.

And then something changed.

In the week after Brexit Weekend, a rather more hesitant, cautious, non-committal tone has started to emerge from certain Conservative Party figures and Government sources. It was very noticeable during an extended interview on Talk Radio between host Mike Graham and John Whittingdale MP, the former Tory Culture Secretary. 

By way of background, it’s worth recalling that Whittingdale was Culture Secretary at the time of the last BBC Charter Review in 2016; but also that, having previously voiced some disobliging opinions about the BBC in general –

  1. anticipating its demise as ‘a tempting prospect’;
  2. criticising it for abusing its privileged position and protected funding by merely chasing ratings rather than producing new content; and
  3. describing the licence-fee as ‘worse than the poll tax’,

he was sacked by Theresa May in her first Cabinet reshuffle after becoming PM after it had mysteriously – or perhaps fortuitously – emerged earlier in that Charter Review year of 2016 that he had had a previous relationship with a sex worker, his sacking prompting an outpouring of Twitter-joy by prominent BBC lefty-luvvies who might well have had good reason to fear a different BBC funding model reliant on persuading customers voluntarily to part company with their hard-earned cash.

Pro-BBC lefties 2016 Whittingdale

His discussion with Mike Graham on Wednesday 5th February is very much more emollient and less critical than his previous opinions. Instead, he comes out with stuff like this:

“there are serious issues to address for the BBC, in that the broadcasting world is changing very rapidly, there is now a huge choice available which simply didn’t exist before”

“the BBC clearly needs to reconsider at this point what its place is and what it change it needs to make”

“in terms of the licence, I mean all that’s being announced today is a consultation about whether or not to decriminalise, which is something that we looked at before, but which we said should be kept under review, but I think that in the longer term there is a case for asking whether or not the licence is still an appropriate means of financing the BBC”

By all means listen to the interview and study the transcript for yourself: but to me it suggests a party and government starting to row back from its implied promises, and almost leaving it to the BBC itself to decide its future funding method.

On the same day, current Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan – she who declined to stand again as MP for Loughborough because of the time pressures of politics on her private family life, but nevertheless accepted a Peerage from Johnson so as to remain Culture Secretary for a mere few weeks but then adorn the Lords’ red benches for life –  agreed that the BBC licence-fee could indeed disappear.

But, er, not before 2027.

In other words, for the remaining 7 years of the current 10-year Charter period, the funding model based on the coercive, regressive, household TV-signal receivability tax would be sacrosanct.  Bizarrely, Morgan suggested that this showed the government was ‘taking heed of public opinion’.  She then went on to echo Whittingdale by confirming that what was being launched was merely a ‘consultation’ on whether non-payment of the licence-fee should be decriminalised.  Cue sound of ball landing in long grass. 

Three days later, Morgan was back, this time with the revelation that the licence fee might not in fact be scrapped outright, but replaced by ‘tiered levels of access’ in which viewers could choose the level of services they required. Significantly absent was any mention of no payment being required from those who don’t wish to consume BBC output at all; presumably, therefore, under this ‘tiered levels of access’ model, there would still be a minimum level payable anyway, so it would still be both coercive and amount to a regressive tax, as now.

It’s reasonable to wonder why the Government needs its own ‘consultation’ at all.  The work has already been done. Only 4 months ago, the Institute of Economic Affairs published its policy-paper ‘New Vision: Liberating the BBC from the licence-fee“, whose main recommendations, transforming the Corporation into a subscriber-owned Mutual, summarised here, were –        

  1. The nature of the broadcast market has changed to such a degree that public service broadcasting, the current definition of which used by Ofcom is no longer coherent, should no longer be delivered largely by one institution.
  2. Niche providers are often better than the BBC at ensuring the broadcasting of good quality content to meet minority tastes.
  3. The fact that the market for broadcasting is now an international industry means that many artistic, educational and cultural programmes, which might not have been economic in the past, may now be economic and not need subsidy.
  4. Changes in technology mean that the current approach to financing, owning and regulating the BBC is no longer tenable.
  5. The BBC should be financed by subscription and owned by its subscribers, enabling it to determine different subscription models for different markets
  6. The BBC should lose its legal privileges and be treated in the same way as al other news and media organisations for competition and other purposes

Johnson professes himself a fan of ‘oven-ready’ solutions.  This is one he could prepare and serve right away, restricted only by the time it takes to pass legislation revoking the current BBC Charter and allow the BBC a reasonable, but not excessive, duration in which to transition to its new funding model.    

Since Johnson won the election, there have been several disturbing hints that he might be resiling from some of the positions he previously appeared to espouse robustly. Immigration reduction, HS2 and Huawei all come to mind, and that’s before the tentative ‘squeeze the rich’ Budget proposals. trailed and rightly excoriated as disincentivising and un-conservative over the weekend of 8-9 February.

Now it starts to look as if the Biased BBC and its iniquitous ‘licence-fee’ might be going the same way.  Superficially, it’s difficult to see why, given the public support the proposal enjoyed and continues to enjoy.  In footballing terms, Johnson has the ball at his feet with an open goal gaping in front of him, and the crowd roaring him on.  Has he –      

  1. panicked at the first contact with the enemy; or
  2. gone native after institutional capture by a BBC-Whitehall pincer movement; or 
  3. never ever had any genuine intention of decriminalisation or abolition anyway?

Or is there something more profound, even darker and more cynical, at work?

In his new book “The Fake News Factory – Tales from BBC-Land”, a searing excoriation of the BBC, its bias, and its abuse of the power derived from its uniquely privileged position and jealously-guarded protected funding, author David Sedgwick suggests a possible answer.

It is that Boris’ Johnson’s recent sabre-rattling about the BBC has much more to do with his personal annoyance at how it has intruded on his private life, most notably during the recent election campaign, than it has to do with any principles-originating conviction that its current coercive funding model is illiberal, authoritarian, and a wrong that must be righted. 

Brexit apart, suggests Sedgwick, as a metropolitan ‘liberal’-‘progressive’ Conservative, Johnson is, politically, largely in tune with the left-of-centre, state-interventionist, Green, socio-culturally Woke institutional groupthink of the BBC, on whose propaganda the political class relies heavily to get its message across.  And that, with this worldview predominant in the Conservative Party in its current iteration, not much can be expected of it in taking the behemoth of the BBC on.

More recent developments certainly seem to bear this out.  In Johnson’s recent Cabinet and Government reshuffle, the post of Culture and Media Secretary, carrying responsibility for the BBC, went as predicted to ‘rising star’ Oliver DowdenRemainer, Cameroon, ex-SpAd & party-insider.  With at least one careerist eye no doubt fixed on future promotion, the prospect of him rocking the BBC boat looks remote. 

Appointed as a Minister of State alonside him was none other than former Culture and Media Secretary John Whittingdale, whose hedging and non-committal remarks about the BBC ‘licence-fee’ to Talk Radio‘s Mike Graham were described earlier.

To complete the hat-trick, elected as Chairman of the Commons Select Committee to scrutinse the DCMS was Tory MP Julian Knight, whose first contribution to the ‘licence-fee’ debate was to suggest that imprisonment for non-payment should be replaced by stiffer fines.  Given that most ‘licence-fee dodgers’, as he put it, who get convicted don’t pay because of financial hardship – not surprising with the ‘licence-fee’ being a regressive tax – all that bigger fines would do is increase the number of people given a criminal record.  Brilliant.  The idea of abolishing the regressive tax instead had clearly not occurred to him.

These three appointments, and the developments preceding them, hardly suggest that Johnson’s robust-sounding pledges on the BBC’s iniquitous ‘licence-fee’ will be carried through swiftly and eagerly.  Or at all.  To answer the question posed in the title: Yes, almost certainly – Johnson will indeed wimp out. 

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Boris and Dom: playing a hostile media like a violin

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Chief of Staff Dominic Cummings are exploiting the ability of new-media to reverse the power-relationship between the Government and the traditional mainstream press 

Note: Longer and updated version of the article originally published at The Conservative Woman earlier on Thursday 6 February 2020

Cast your mind back to the immediate aftermath of Trump’s formal Inauguration ceremony as the 45th POTUS in Washington DC on Friday 20th January 2017, and the furore over the size of the crowd. That started when Trump took to Twitter to castigate the overwhelmingly hostile Liberal – i.e., left-wing in US political parlance – media for deliberately under-reporting both the number of spectators, which he put at 1½ million, and the size of the TV audience, which he claimed was the biggest in history.

Donald Trump Is Sworn In As 45th President Of The United States

Outrage duly ensued. For virtually the entire next two weeks, the media devoted nearly all of its resources and reporting to proving him wrong. TV stations were bombarded with requests for their respective audience viewing figures, so that they could be aggregated. Fact-checkers enjoyed a rush of business. Crowd-size scientists were swiftly engaged. The talking heads in the news studios debated endlessly how many people the eastern half of the Mall, extending from the steps of the Capitol to the Washington Monument, could theoretically hold. Camera footage from helicopters was obtained, to estimate crowd densities and apply these to the measured area of known spaces.

Helicopter area & crowd images, Washington Mall

While the Liberal media’s attention was focused almost exclusively on desperately trying for its anti-Trump Gotcha! moment, however, Trump’s attention was elsewhere. During those two weeks he initiated the process of reviewing, de-fanging and ultimately de-funding the Environmental Protection Agency, whose ideological capture by the Green movement and the ‘Climate-Change’ Industrial-Complex had helped to advance the eco-socialist agendas of both during the Obama years. Only The Guardian appeared to pick it up. By the time the mass of the US media cottoned on to it in the second half of March, and predictably clutched its pearls in a collective attack of the vapours, the process was well under way and virtually irreversible.

In short, as neat a way as you’re likely to find, outside the pages of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, of neutralising the enemy’s strength by turning it against itself.

I was reminded of this on Monday afternoon, as the row broke about No 10 Downing Street’s Director of Communications allegedly denying some accredited journalists access to Lobby briefings, the long-established system of privileged access enjoyed by the political correspondents of the major traditional newspapers and broadcasters.

For anyone who hadn’t followed the initial stages of this saga on Media Guido, the Lobby briefings were recently moved from the House of Commons to No 9 Downing Street, ostensibly on security grounds, but accompanied by some “inner Lobby” hacks being selectively invited to special briefings, with others excluded. On Monday afternoon, though, the entire Lobby walked out in protest, although the circumstances are, to put it mildly, disputed.

As Dan Johnson of The Article points out, the Lobby doth perhaps protest too much. The system is itself antiquated, is incompatible with the growth and increasing influence of New Media, functions as a restrictive-practice closed-shop run for the benefit of its members, and thus secures them competitive advantage over their rivals.

All true, but what struck me was the immediate Press reaction, and then the consequential implications for the way government communicates with the voting public, and vice versa. 

Just as with their American media counterparts three years ago, outrage and hyperbole duly ensued. Huffing and puffing (appropriately, you might think, from The Huffington Post) was the order of the day. 

Not very long elapsed before references to “Goebbels” and “fascism” were being bandied about, the principle of Reductio ad Hitlerum never being particularly far away when the Fourth Estate feels its dignity slighted. The incident represented a ‘frightening attempt by Johnson to exclude unsympathetic press’ apparently. . .

. . . although how a government that wanted to ‘exclude unsympathetic press‘ would have included BBC News, ITV News, Sky News & the Guardian in the specially-selected inner group invited to stay for the specialist briefing was not immediately obvious.

I suspect Dominic Cummings is the mastermind behind this, is taking a leaf out of the Trump media-playbook, and is doing it brilliantly.

For all their complaining, some sections of the traditional, established (and Establishment) media really have only themselves to blame if their past few years’ conduct is, as appears to be the case, leading ordinary people to accord their account of Monday afternoon’s events in Downing Street no greater credibility than the Government’s own version.

One gets an increasing impression of a general public sick and tired of significant parts of the journalistic profession eschewing proper factual and impartial reporting and analysis in favour of slanting, opining and trying to tell it what and how to think. Not to mention sneering at, demonising and insulting it whenever its opinion dares to differ from the homogeneous groupthink of those same parts of the media’s incestuous left-‘liberal’ metropolitanism.

Take the BBC’s discharge of its Charter obligations over the past few days. How did it choose to mark Brexit Day?

By using its CBBC Children’s wing to pump out a bitter, aloof, anti-Brexit and demos-phobic sneer at the entire country, hosted by alleged ‘comedian’ Nish Kumar, most noted for telling his white audience to ‘go home and kill your racist Brexit-voting parents’, and so egregious that it was condemned even by the BBC’s own premier political interviewer.

Kumar kill your racist parents

By refusing to broadcast the elected Prime Minister’s speech to the nation on the cusp of its most significant constitutional change in half a century, while covering the event in a way that left little room for doubt as to where its sympathies lie. 

BBC Studio Brexit Night

By sending a reporter to the celebrations in Parliament Square to ask participants whether the crowd wasn’t ’too white’. LBC’s Julia Hartley Brewer’s comment speaks for itself.

By reporting the crowd in Parliament Square as ‘a few hundred’. After which I decided, having been there, to try a little ‘crowd-science’ for myself. Measuring on Google Earth, the celebration area being used was roughly 6,500m2. Where my fellow-revellers and I were, the density was probably 3 people per m2, but let’s say 2.5 people per m2 on average. That equates to possibly 15,000 people,  maybe 18,000, but certainly not less than 12,000. Rather more than ‘a few hundred’, anyway.

Finally, on Monday, and with quite impeccable timing in view of the opprobrium rightly heaped on it over Brexit Weekend, the BBC announced an increase in its so-called ‘licence fee’ – or, to label it more accurately, its coercive, regressive, household TV-signal receivability tax.

The impression of an organisation knowing it has lost the trust of its audience and therefore doubling-down with impunity on its contempt for it, is hard to dispel. As is equally, though, the impression of anti-BBC opinion specifically and anti-media opinion generally, perhaps the previously restrained expression of dissatisfaction with both,  having ramped up exponentially after last weekend.

I suspect Dominic Cummings knows this, and is choosing his moment carefully, judging that the public may now be more reluctant to support the media in a spat with government than for a very long time: and also that, if the mainstream established Press thinks that this is the time to go to war with Downing Street, then it’s making a big mistake.

He has a point. 60 per cent of poll respondents support the decriminalisation of non-payment of the BBC ‘licence-fee’, and no fewer than 75 per cent want to see it scrapped altogether. The BBC’s risible denials of its institutional pro-Left, pro-Remain bias in its selection of Question Time panellists have been comprehensively demolished. As Daniel Hannan argues, the self-important broadcasters of the traditional mainstream media are yet to realise how irrelevant they now are

No 10 Downing Street cut the BBC out of its production of Boris Johnson’s Brexit Day address completely, preferring to use its own in-house videographer and then distribute it via social-media simultaneously with making it available to the mainstream TV news channels. It’s this – apart from the content of course, which must have been anathema to the BBC – which is apparently thought to be a significant factor in the BBC refusing to broadcast it.

This has been coming for years. It’s over a decade ago now that Peter Wilby, former editor of both the Independent on Sunday and the New Statesman, led the chorus of old-media criticism directed at then Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan’s demolition of then Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the European Parliament, which became such a hit on YouTube.

Wilby went on record afterwards as saying –

The online success of Daniel Hannan’s speech…………proves what we knew: the internet lacks quality control.

Prompting Hannan’s memorable reply –  

“Yup. That’s the thing about the internet: it turns the quality filters off. Until very recently, few of us could get political news direct from source. It had to be interpreted for us by a BBC man with a microphone or a newspaper’s political correspondent. Now, though, people can make their own minds up. The message has been disintermediated.

What Mr Wilby seems to mean when he complains that the internet “lacks quality control” is not that my speech was ungrammatical, or shoddily constructed, but that its content was disagreeable. The quality filters he evidently has in mind would screen out points of view that he considers unacceptable.”

Finally, the mainstream media is becoming less and less crucial to the communication process between government and governed, with social media engagement figures climbing rapidly. 

2020.02.03 Leave.EU social media engagement

Cummings, I’d surmise, is only too aware of this, hence the apparent willingness to treat the mainstream media with considerably less deference than it feels entitled to as of right, based on its assumption of its historic dominance continuing. New channels of inter-communication between electors and elected, however, risk its decline in significance accelerating.

In the same way that Trump often does, Number Ten is playing a hostile media like a violin, And it’s working.

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