The middle class should leave rioting to the professionals

Couldn't the riots have been influenced by, well, the riots?

Something else has been bugging me. About the riots. Or more specifically, our attempt to find rhyme or reason for them.

We seem to have left no sociological or psychological rock unturned. Poverty and social alienation. Poor parenting and educational support. Cuts to everything from EMA to police numbers. Oh, and the bankers. Mustn't forget those dastardly bankers.

But something's been missing. For a while, I couldn't quite put my finger on it. And then, in a flash of inspiration, it came to me.

Couldn't the riots have been influenced by, well, the riots?

We had some. We definitely had some. I distinctly remember. They started with Conservative Central Office getting smashed up, and a couple of police officers nearly being decapitated with a fire extinguisher. Then, if memory serves me right, half the West End got trashed. Not once, but twice. First by the students, then by a mob of anarchist fellow travellers trying to ride the coattails of the TUC rally.

Yet, for some reason we -- and by we, I'm using my traditional lazy short-hand for the left -- don't seem to have mentioned this. John Harris didn't mention it in last Thursday's Guardian, when he pointed the finger squarely at greedy MPs. John Pilger chose to overlook it when he blamed just about everyone but the rioters, here at the Statesman. No. The left has decided to scurry by, looking for more ideologically acceptable excuses. Sorry, causes.

Let's return to the group every right-minded person knows were the true instigators of this month's disorder. The bankers.

If you accept, as I do, that greed and an arrogant assumption of a right to material gain at any price were at a minimum a subliminal cause of the looting and mayhem. And you further accept the bankers, at least generically, are poster boys for that greed and arrogance, then I think the link between their excess and the excess on our streets is a legitimate one.

But if we believe the rioters were spurred on by the image of those in positions of wealth and influence flouting the rules to the detriment of society, surely we must extend that principle to people like Charlie Gilmour and his fellow undergraduates, who not only flouted the rules but physically indulged in rioting themselves. If the sight of a millionaire in red braces pushing a button in a City dealing room is supposed to incite a young inner city teenager to put a brick through a shop window, what effect is that sight of a millionaire in a Keffiyeh putting a brick through a window themselves supposed to have? To judge from the silence of the liberal left, none.

Let's cast the net a bit wider. What about the direct action movements, like UK Uncut? When middle class youngsters lawlessly occupy shops, and are feted for their "brilliant protests" that can "unite us all", we conveniently assume our inner city youth will instinctively know where to draw the line. And for some reason we also assume that whilst a banker engaged in legal activity at his desk can be the spur for a looter, a protestor illegally entering Fortnum's and spraying graffiti on the wall cannot.

This blame game can be fun. Especially when we get to write our own rules, and pretend we're the only side that's playing.

Just ask Jonnie Marbles. Self-styled crusader for truth, justice and the pie-pushers' way. Jonnie, if you recall, decided the rule of law wasn't for him. He had grievances, and a sense of injustice. He needed to fight the power; to take it to the man. So he took it the man, and assaulted an 80 year-old pensioner. He didn't care about the police. He didn't care that his actions would be broadcast on live public television. No balaclava for Jonnie. Jonnie laughs in the face of authority. Taunts it. Flans it. And what's more, he's got himself some much needed street cred. Just read this excerpt from his 'prison blog':

We both break into grins and the familiar dance of how, why and handshakes plays out. I give him the short answer first, then the long one. Five minutes later Beebop, my newest lag friend, is getting me to sign his copy of The Sun.

Eat your heart out, Oscar Wilde.

Is Jonnie Marbles directly to blame for the riots? Of course not. No more than Charlie Gilmour, or Edward Woollard.

But if we seek to go beyond direct to subliminal causes -- apparently all the rage -- then why are they no more or less to blame than Fred the Shred? Because our search for answers is not a search for answers at all. It is a desperate scramble to clean up the house before our parents get home.

Before 6 August, disorder in our streets was fashionable. It was raw and exciting. Empowering.

So long as it remained the preserve of the middle class. The students. The anarchists. The gentleman insurgents.

Then the big boys turned up. Bad boys. Boys who aren't content to sit listening to Asian Dub Foundation while huddled around burning copies of the Socialist Worker, sharing solidarity with the Arab Spring.

Middle class Britain has been having fun with its own unique brand of direct action. But this month the fun stopped. Ed Miliband is right. We do need to look at "irresponsibility" in all its forms.

And perhaps from now on the rioting should be left to the professionals.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.