Sunday, 11 June 2017

My unsolicited advice for a UK government

After my spectacular success as UK election pollster let my try my luck as UK political adviser. Offering outsider continental perspective from a citizen of a countries where coalition governments are normal.

The electoral results could not have been more complicated. The conservatives lost their majority. Against British custom collaboration is necessary.

Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May has proposed to govern together with the [[Democratic Unionist Party]] (DUP), a small deeply conservative Northern Irish protestant party with ties to terrorists after decades of religious terrorism.

That coalition has a majority of only 2 seats.

Other possible Conservative coalitions would be with the Liberal Democrats, with the Scottish National Party and the taboo option with Labour. Reversely, the only realistic coalition for Labour would be with the conservatives.

A Tory-DUP coalition is highly problematic. The DUP will have to get something in return for their collaboration. Typically a small coalition partner needs to get a lot more than their vote share to make it worthwhile and to survive the next election. Given how extreme they are, a majority of only 2 seats will often mean that more moderate conservatives will not be willing to give them what they bargained for and need.

The UK government is, furthermore, supposed to be neutral in Northern Irish problems. I have the impression that the UK does not fully realise that also in the Brexit negotiations Northern Ireland will be an extremely difficult problem. If the UK really wants a hard border this would cut Northern Ireland off from the rest of Ireland, which will cause economic problems for everyone and will make it harder to visit family and friends (for Catholics).

The DUP would at least make sure this problem is not ignored until it is too late, but their role would be far from neutral.

h/t Simon Noone‏

The two seat majority will likely dissipate quite quickly in future special elections. That could lead to another election in the middle of the Brexit negotiations.

The Brexit clock is ticking and the UK will have to make decades worth of political decisions in about one year time. I do not see that happening with a two-seat majority. It would have been a herculean task with a large majority and a capable prime minister.

More logical coalition parties for the Conservatives would be the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party. However, they both do not want to be add-ons to a dominant Conservative party, especially after the bad experiences the Liberal Democrats had in their recent coalition with the Conservatives. Still given the situation I feel these parties should give this option more thought (after the disposal of May).

For the UK it would be highly unorthodox, but I see a coalition of the Conservatives and labour as the best option. Possibly together with the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party. In Germany and The Netherlands we have such coalitions of conservatives and social democrats more often, although only as coalition of last resort. In Switzerland the government is always made up of all parties governing in partnership.

Not being used to coalition governments the UK is lacking a culture of adult behaviour and professional political debate, especially between the Tories and Labour. Maybe a neutral Prime Minister (of the Liberal Democrats) could help to hold a grand coalition together. I realise that that makes the coalition even more unorthodox. But these are also not normal times.

This would be nothing for a non-communicative prime minister with brittle personality and a penchant for kabuki theatre. Also Boris Johnson would also be an utter catastrophe, I hope this does not need explaining, but he may be a useful tool for regicide.

The kind of personality able to lead a grand coalition would also be the best personality for the Brexit negotiations with the EU. Many in the UK seem to see the EU as the enemy who is now laughing at UK's misery. On Twitter someone asked for a German word for the current predicament. Most offered was "Schadenfreude". I would say "Mitleid" (sympathy), "Verunsicherung" (confusion) and "Beunruhigung" (worry).

The UK gutter press like to cite anonymous antagonistic EU assholes. Anyone on twitter will be able to confirm that anonymous assholes are never short in supply. But that a few percent of humanity does not deserve that title does not change geography: Europe and the UK will always be neighbours. People in England seem to often forget that we are even neighbours with a land border.

The EU is interested in friendly relations with its neighbours. A concept that may be difficult to comprehend for (formerly) fascist rags. We are grateful for Monty Python, British expertise on the weather, and for the liberation from fascist occupation. A Russian liberation would have been much less pleasant. Just like young Brits got to know other Europeans as mostly nice people with shared values, European appreciate the UK. One day these young people may want to join their EU friends again.

No deal or a bad deal is damaging for the UK, but thus also unfavourable for the EU. A no-deal Brexit in no way fits to the nearly 50/50 outcome of the referendum.

Thus negotiations based on a common appreciation of long-term friendly relations would give the best results for all. There are so many topics that need to be negotiated that kabuki theatre on Gibraltar or holding EU citizens in the UK hostage are an enormous distraction. Next to EU negotiations the UK will have to negotiate trade relations with dozens of countries and trading blocks. The UK will have to build up institutions on the EU borders and institutions for the safety of drugs, chemical consumer product, banking products, etc.

Before the Brexit referendum we had ludicrous have-your-cake.and-eat-it propaganda. We are now nine months after the referendum and it is about time to have a public discussion what Brexit means. It is unfortunately only a slight exaggeration that this discussion was limited to Brexit is Brexit.  It is not.

It beats me why the UK also wants to leave [[Euratom]], which is not part of the EU. If necessary that could have been done later. They do not only work on nuclear power, but also nuclear medicine. Does the UK want the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts, [[ECMWF]], to stay in Reading? It is not officially part of the EU, but has many of the same member states.

Does the UK want to keep student exchanges with the continent, [[Erasmus]]? Does the UK want to stay part of the European research community? If yes how? There are programmes for applied joint European research, [[Horizon 2020]], for fundamental science, [[ERC]], and for scientific coordination, [[COST]]. The UK could pay into those programs. Switzerland pays their researchers directly if they are part of it and in case of COST even gives them some bonus funding for additional research to stimulate participation.

Those are just the examples from my field, science. Similar hard choices will have to be made on so many topics. Personally I would suggest to change as little as possible and (initially) contribute to EU programmes. Just the minimal Brexit program, rights of EU citizens currently in the UK and UK citizens currently in the EU (residence, work, healthcare, benefits, pensions, voting rights), trade and borders (seas, fishing, exploration, Northern Ireland, Gibraltar), are though to get done in about a year. Loosening the ties on all the other topics can be done later.

That requires a friendly and communicative leader and government. Clearly Theresa may should go and Boris Johnson is not an alternative. A grand coalition may be the best way to get a concrete national debate going and to have fruitful negotiations.

[UPDATE. Oh my. When even a reasonable guy like John Oliver buys into the argument that the EU will be extra hard on the UK to scare others from leaving. Because everyone wants to be member of a union that has no upsides, but will beat you up when you leave and diligently works on making it worse to leave yourself.

The EU exists because it has benefits for its members. The UK may not be able to see this after decades of propaganda, but the other EU states surely do. Leaving the EU will mean losing these benefits. No need for additional punishments. Except if you think it is a malicious punishment not to be in applied research program Horizon 2020 when not paying for it or expecting the discounts of a customer loyalty card without having a card.

Otherwise an excellent video with a guest appearance by Lord Buckethead.


Related reading

Political support grows for cross-party approach to Brexit negotiations. Theresa May under pressure from across political spectrum to build plural coalition – including Jeremy Corbyn – before EU talks.

Der Spiegel looks at the years ahead: A Wave of Anger Crashes over Britain - Brexit Is Dead.

New York Review of Books: Britain: The End of a Fantasy

Desmog UK: Let's Take A Closer Look at the DUP's Climate Science Denial


  1. My thoughts pretty much exactly. Keir Starmer (Labour) has about as much clue as anyone on EU stuff and is generally regarded as competent; he would be a good choice as interim leader.

    I doubt it will happen, obviously.

  2. I predict no Brexit at all, ultimately.

  3. It it possible for there to be no Brexit now that Article 50 has been triggered?

  4. It seems to be difficult to cancel Article 50, but if the political will is there I am sure they will find a way. The Lisbon treaty itself does not mention it, but there is also general international law that could be applicable and that seems to suggest it is possible.

    What would be hard would be to have eternal negotiations and ask all member states for a prolongation near the end. But to ask for a prolongation at this time or for a cancelling should be possible; I think the EU would welcome the UK staying and would try to find a way.

    A Brexit has become less likely with this election, but I think it is still quite likely to go through. The Brexit-elite who wants more power for themselves seems to be determined and the others too intimidated to speak up against the madness and too indoctrinated with propaganda that the EU is the enemy.

  5. It's interesting to see these world powers stepping back towards isolationism. I've heard it said that Merkel, Macron, and Trudeau (in that order) are stepping in to fill the void and claim the title of leader of the free world.

  6. I have said such things about Merkel. But mostly in jest because it would be so weird for Germany. Leading also means taking initiative. Germany is very jittery about doing so because of their history. The German pendant to American exceptionalism is the "Deutscher Sonderweg" and it is viewed very negatively. Although they slowly get some more self-confidence, Germans prefer to act as part of coalitions.

    Macron may be more willing to lead. Both Merkel and Macron can only lead via the EU. Germany and France by themselves are quit small on the world stage, just like the UK.

    It is interesting how the balance of power is shifting and the world order is getting more multi-polar. In a way it is nice the way Trump destroys nationalist parties all over the world, but I fear how future international crises will be handled. Trump is more likely to provoke it than to be the one to solve it. It will be interesting to see who the world will look to to solve the crisis. Still America, somehow circumventing Trump, or some more distributed solution, which by definition takes more time, especially the first time. We live in interesting times.

  7. There is this petition currently
    Which is, in part, what you suggest - a coalition of sorts, but specifically for the Brexit process.

  8. Interesting idea and petition. Most of what her Majesty's government will do will be Brexit, so the difference is not that large. I did not write it, but had expected that a grand coalition would collapse after the negotiations.

  9. Victor

    Of course we have experience with compromises and coalitions. The Tories were in coalition with the lib dems from 2010 to 2015. There is also plenty of experience with minority or small majority governments

    The dup are a ttadional values party such as you will find throughout Europe. Whilst originating with Ian paisley they are now much more moderate. They are the largest party in northern Ireland and it makes perfect constitutional sense for them to join with by far the largest party in England

    You have your numbers wrong as sinn fein do not take their seats at Westminster. the lib dems are also going to vote on a case by case basis. They have no leader and their very pro eu stance did them no favours and they have little appetite for another election. so the majority is by no means comfortable but greater than you think.

    80% of the MP's belong to parties that explicitly voted for Brexit and campaigned on this in their manifesto.

    One of the very positive aspects of the election was that the SNP have been neutralised and indyref2 is off the table.

    Anyway, how is it going with holland. Has a govt been formed yet?


  10. Didn't I understand it right that the military arm of the DUP recently assassinated someone? Not sure if the right would have been so lenient if the DUP had been for traditional Muslim values rather than traditional protestant values.

    Even if they would be really great guys, it would still be a problem that Downing Street 10 would no longer be a neutral party in Northern Irish affairs and that could lead to new Troubles.

    Agree that an idyref2 is now less likely. Also because the chance of an extremist Brexit that would not fit at all to the 50/50 EU-referendum result has become a lot less likely and there would thus be less need for Scotland to join the other European social democratic nations and leave England in their pact with Trump-Murdoch countries.

    Asking the question likely means that you know The Netherlands is still negotiating. Because we have a professional political class, a well functioning bureaucracy and parties that are on talking terms it is no problem to have a demissionary government. The deep state keeps working. I am sure most people and companies appreciate a period without major changes. This negotiation period is the most important period in Dutch politics. The rest is mostly just execution.

    It is quite difficult this time. Many parties that for some reason or other do not want want to govern or are too extreme to work with others. And with refugees still being an important topic we have an ethical problem where it is harder to compromise than when it is just money or power. They will find a way. Empathetic traders and good negotiators by nature.

    A new election does not make sense yet, only small changes visible in the polls.

  11. Victor

    My apologies for not replying but there is a problem either with my lap top or your site. Trying to reply I get quite a small window and whilst I can see 'choose an identity ' I can not see the bit about the robot nor publish.

    On my iPad I can see everything perfectly.

    Perhaps it's the browser on my laptop? I don't know if anyone else has problems?

  12. Sorry about that. This is the first time I hear of this problem. For me with a small Windows laptop and Firefox it works fine.


Comments are welcome, but comments without arguments may be deleted. Please try to remain on topic. (See also moderation page.)

I read every comment before publishing it. Spam comments are useless.

This comment box can be stretched for more space.