A secretive trade deal between the US and the EU. Photo: Flickr/Flazingo Photos
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TTIP: the biggest threat to democracy you've never heard of

A trade agreement between the EU and the US currently under secret negotiation will have a profound impact upon our democracy, but it’s been overshadowed by more typical eurosceptic coverage in the media.

Last weekend, The Daily Mail published a guide to vacuum cleaners being removed from the shelves as a result of new EU regulations. Yesterday the Daily Express said that now the EU is coming for our kettles. These are typical eurosceptic tabloid stories that have had many people fired up; they’ve turned relatively niche issues into a mainstream panics. So why then has the wide-reaching impact of TTIP been relegated to niche issue status?

TTIP, the acronym for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, is an agreement between the US and the EU currently in the negotiation stages. It is being negotiated in what are highly secretive circumstances; the majority of what we know comes from leaks. What we do know though is that the treaty will have significant repercussions for our democracy. The treaty, if passed, will provide powers to corporations that raise serious questions about where the power lies in the world today.

No doubt many of those reading this will have at some point heard someone give a stereotypically vague and lefty rant about "the corporations" in a pub or on the street with a placard. It seems though that if TTIP goes through, this concern will no longer be the preserve of the few but of the many. TTIP will provide transnational corporations with the power to sue governments for lost future profit as a result of government actions; the case would then be taken to a secret arbitration panel, which makes its decisions based upon the ominously phrased, ‘free market values’.

An American union has, for example, warned that under this agreement a corporation could sue a government for raising the minimum wage. In another example that is perhaps specifically worryingly for Ed Miliband, a similar trade treaty meant that when Argentina froze water and energy prices in the recession, the government was consequently sued by international utilities corporations for the profit they had lost out on. Through removing the regulatory differences between the different markets in order to pursue profit, TTIP is essentially legally ensuring that corporations outrank governments.

Given this grave threat to British democracy, why is TTIP so starkly absent from our media? Behind the multiple stories of bananas, hoovers and kettles lies the fear that the UK is no longer being ruled by its own government; that is the crux of what fuels many people’s euroscepticism. TTIP, which represents a fundamental shifting of power, not from one government to another, but away from government entirely, is absolutely a threat to sovereignty and yet it has so far been largely ignored.

To be fair, it’s a pretty complex issue and frankly it’s harder to get people fired up about trade agreements, which appear abstract and removed, than it is about their kitchen appliances. Perhaps in this regard it is a similar political issue to climate change: both are highly complicated, often technical and do not sit comfortably within one area of policy or interest, but rather affect multiple areas. That being said, it is not as though these reforms will not produce the kind of stories that gain traction in the media; if the movements of the European Court of Human Rights can make headlines for overruling the UK, then surely a multinational corporation suing a government can? And if that doesn’t work, what about the fact that the NHS is not excluded from TTIP, leading many to fear  imposed privatisation and systemic changes.

It’s not even as though large corporations are all that popular in the press anyway. Just look at G4S, the security company that appears "too big to fail" despite a history of rank incompetence. Remember the anger after G4S failed to fulfil its security obligations for the 2012 Olympics? Just imagine how angry it would make people to learn that G4S would essentially outrank the government as a result of TTIP. This isn’t an issue just for the left, or even for those who believe that the government should be bigger than corporations; for a government to be able to govern, it must be able to set policy without fear of financial repercussions.

Who do you want governing you? A democratically elected government or an unaccountable multinational corporation? It makes the old maxim that money is power into a brutal reality.

One major justification for TTIP is that it will generate around an extra 1 per cent in GDP growth. The question that has to be asked is whether this 1 per cent is worth the damage to our democracy? I would say it's clearly not. This is the greatest threat to democracy that we don’t know about, and that’s more important than how powerful your vacuum cleaner is.

Dan Holden is deputy editor of Shifting Grounds

GARY WATERS
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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt