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21 October 2017

Brexit is like a soap opera in which the scriptwriters have run out of ideas

So-called “transitional arrangements” will be permanent, as no other outcome makes sense for either side.

By Peter Wilby

Another week of Brexit. More talks in Brussels. More dinners. More manoeuvres in the Tories’ never-ending civil war. More claims that, if there’s no deal, planes will be grounded, supermarket shelves emptied and motorways choked with lorries waiting for customs checks. Is everybody else as bored as I am? It is like watching a soap opera in which the scriptwriters have run out of ideas.

The outcome is obvious and has been all along. Britain will leave the EU on 29 March 2019 in obedience to the referendum vote but will remain in the single market and customs union for a “transitional period”. The “deal” will be announced after a charade of 11th hour talks. It will be obscured by verbiage, with the words “association agreements” prominent because the EU already has lots of those with countries including South Africa, Israel and Egypt. Nobody will agree on what it means.

The truth, however, is that the “transitional” arrangements will, for all practical purposes, be similar to those we already have with the EU and they will actually be permanent because no other outcome makes sense for either side. They will, no doubt, be against the spirit of the referendum vote but the people’s wishes have, as the planning lawyers would say, proved “incapable of implementation”.

The Brexit saga reminds me of its predecessor, Grexit, during which it was widely predicted that Greece would drop out of the eurozone. In this column, I assured NS readers it wouldn’t happen. I was proved right then and I shall be proved right about Brexit.

Rees-Mogg’s poor returns

Among those certain to oppose any agreement with the EU is Jacob Rees-Mogg. He believes Britain should have the vision and courage to make trade deals across the world. In one recent interview, he waxed lyrical about doing business in the Middle East. What does he know about such things? Not much, it seems. According to analysis by the Financial Times, the emerging markets fund he managed from 2003 to 2007 did significantly worse than similar funds over that period. Was it because he was too visionary, too buccaneering in his approach? No, former colleagues describe him as too conservative and careful. Rees-Mogg wants to take risks with his country’s future but he wasn’t prepared to take any with his own or his employer’s.

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Hammond’s tax folly

In a panic about how almost nobody under 35 wants to vote Tory, Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, is reportedly considering a tax cut for young people in next month’s budget. The concession would be financed by reducing or removing tax relief on older workers’ pension contributions. So ordinary folk will have to worry about whether they can eat and keep warm in retirement so that flash young hedge-fund traders who dine out on champagne and caviar every night can enjoy tax cuts? Good luck with that.

If the Tories want to try their hand at social justice, somebody should tell them about old-fashioned progressive taxation. You know: the higher your income, the higher the rate you pay in tax.

Where votes count for more

On the strictest criteria, Britain’s electoral system is becoming more and more unfair, even without considering the inherent unfairness of first-past-the-post. Constituency boundaries haven’t been reformed for nearly 20 years and so take no account of demographic changes. As a new report from the Boundary Commission reveals, some MPs represent nearly twice as many eligible voters as others.

Yet there is a kind of rough justice in this. The seats with small populations tend to be in declining industrial areas where people feel neglected and ignored. If their votes count for more, we should not begrudge them.

The Guardian’s actress ban

I shall leave it to others to mull over Harvey Weinstein’s behaviour. But I cannot resist reporting that the dear old Guardian has its high-minded knickers in a twist over how to refer to victims of his unwanted attentions. The paper’s style book – alone in Fleet Street, I believe – bans “actress” because it “comes into the same category as authoress, comedienne, manageress, ‘lady doctor’, ‘male nurse’ and similar obsolete terms”.

The trouble is that most people in Hollywood, including most female actors, seem to be wedded to the traditional usage. They include the anonymous female actor who wrote a Guardian article about how agents and managers were complicit “in the exploitation and degradation of actresses”. That, at any rate, was what she was allowed to write in print. Online, it became “exploitation and degradation of actors”.

Sweet airs

After a lifetime of deficient hearing, now exacerbated by age, I recently decided to try a hearing aid. Years ago, thinking the NHS would involve long waits, I bought an expensive private aid, which I threw away because it did little more than give me a headache. This time, I turned to the NHS. It took about four months to get a fully functioning aid but that was largely my fault. Over three appointments, I waited barely five minutes to see an audiologist.

My aid is a rather fiddly device that my wife has to insert each morning, and I don’t only hear sweet airs that give delight and hurt not – the turning of newspaper pages, for example, sounds like bacon being fried in a dangerously overheated pan. But I am learning to cope and, each day, the sound is less overpowering. I don’t have a headache and I can hear (even overhear) what people are saying.

All this was at zero cost. New batteries, repairs and adjustments will also be free. For exactly the same technology, the private sector charges thousands of pounds, perhaps rising to tens of thousands over the rest of a lifetime. Why does it have any customers at all? 

This article appears in the 18 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions