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Labour must beware becoming the handmaiden of a Tory Brexit

It is absurd to say that it is undemocratic to demand that the people be free to have a say on what the final deal is. 

2018 will be the year when the fate of Brexit and thus of Britain will be decided. 2017 was too early in the negotiation. By 2019, it will be too late.

Realistically, 2018 will be the last chance to secure a say on whether the new relationship proposed with Europe is better than the existing one. And to insist that the “deal” contains the necessary detail to make the say meaningful.

On Thursday, we publish “What We Now Know”, detailing what we have learnt about Brexit since 23 June 2016.

I make no secret of my desire that Britain stays in the European Union. This is the most important decision we have taken as a nation since the Second World War. It decides the destiny and fortunes of our children for years to come. And I believe passionately that by exiting the powerful regional bloc of countries on our doorstep, to whom we are linked physically by the Channel Tunnel, commercially by the single market, historically by myriad ancient ties of culture and civilisation, and politically by the necessity of alliance in an era which will be dominated by the USA in the West and China and India in the East, we are making an error the contemporary world cannot understand and that future generations will not forgive.

But the campaign in the first instance is not to reverse the decision; but to claim the right to change our minds once we see the terms of the new relationship.

*

No one disputes the 2016 vote. And no one disputes that if it stands as the expression of British opinion, we will leave.

The issue is whether as facts emerge, as the negotiation proceeds and we have clarity over the alternative to present membership of the EU, we have the right to change our mind; whether the “will of the people” – this much abused phrase – is deemed immutable or is permitted to mutate as our perception of reality becomes better informed.

When we voted in 2016, we knew we were voting against our present membership of the European Union, but not what the future relationship with Europe would be.

It was like having a general election in which the question is “Do You Like the government”? If that were the question, few incumbent governments would be re-elected.

Once we know the alternative, we should be entitled to think again, either through Parliament or an election or through a fresh referendum, which will, of course, not be a re-run of the first because it will involve this time a choice based on knowledge of the alternative to existing EU membership.

Over the past months, the Brexit landscape – hitherto obscured in the fog of claim and counter claim – is being illuminated.

We have now had the Budget prediction that, due to Brexit, economic growth is going to be below expectation – not just this year, but averaging 1.5 per cent for the next five years in a row. This has not happened for over 30 years. This is in addition to the fall in our currency, fall in living standards and now the first falls in employment.

Concomitant with that, was the admission that we would, despite previous claims, have less to spend on the NHS and that, for the next few years at least, we will not be getting money back from Europe but, rather, giving a large sum to it.

Then there is the Northern Ireland negotiation. The claim the issue is now “resolved” is risible. It is merely postponed. Instead, the negotiation revealed the nature of the real choices we face and the tension at the heart of the government’s negotiating position.

In essence, there are four options in approaching the Brexit negotiation:

  1. To re-think and stay, best done in a reformed Europe, where we use the Brexit vote as leverage to achieve reform.
  2. To exit the political structures of the EU, but stay in the economic structures – i.e. the single market and customs union.
  3. To exit both the political and the economic structures of Europe, but try to negotiate a bespoke deal which recreates the existing economic benefits and keeps us close to Europe politically.
  4. To exit both structures, to make a virtue of leaving, to negotiate a basic free trade agreement and market ourselves as “Not Europe”.

Here is the rub: all the last three options are Brexit. But they have vastly different impacts and outcomes.

The government has ruled out option two, is seeking to negotiate option three, but a substantial part of the Tory party is prepared to go for option four.

The problem with option three is that it is simply not negotiable without major concessions that make a mockery of the case for leaving.

The problem with option four is that it would involve significant economic pain as we adjust our economy to the new terms of trade.

It is absurd to say that it is undemocratic to demand that the people be free to have a say on what the final deal is, given the wide disparity in the forms of Brexit and their consequences.

How can we assess the true “will of the people” before we know what the alternative to present EU membership looks like, given that each option has such different effects?

*

Northern Ireland is a metaphor for the central Dilemma of this negotiation: we are either in the single market and customs union; or we will have a hard border and hard Brexit.

It is the difference between the status of Norway and that of Canada. In the Norway case, there is full access to the single market but with its obligations, including freedom of movement.

In the case of Canada, there is a standard free trade agreement with considerable easing of trade in goods but with border checks and without anything like the services access of the single market.

This really is a zero sum game: the nearer the Norway option, the more the obligations; the nearer the Canada option, the less the access.

It is not a matter of who is the toughest negotiator. The Dilemma flows naturally from the way the single market was created. It is a unique trading area with a single system of regulation and a single system of arbitration namely the European Court of Justice.

The whole point of it is that it is not a free trade agreement. It is qualitatively different.

So there is no way you can say: “I want to be out of its rules, but in its advantages.”

The single market is one game; a free trade agreement is another.

Think of it in this way. Suppose the English FA wants to arrange a football match with France. There are many things to negotiate about: the venue, the timing, the price of the tickets etc.

But suppose the FA then said to its French counterparts: “We also want to negotiate whether we have 15 players on our team not 11.” The French would say: “Sorry but you have the wrong address, talk to the Rugby Federation.”

Yet this seems to be the negotiating position of the government.

David Davis asserts we will leave the single market and customs union but replicate “the exact same benefits” in a new free trade agreement.

Boris Johnson talks of diverging from Europe’s regulation but having frictionless border trade and full access to Europe’s services market.

The PM insists we will have the most comprehensive trade deal ever, weirdly forgetting we already have it.

Philip Hammond is arguing for close alignment to Europe after Brexit.

Meanwhile Liam Fox is cheerfully talking up the trade deals we will make once we are out of the customs union and away from that alignment.

*

Of course the free trade agreement can be far reaching, though the more it covers the more complicated the negotiation and the greater the regulatory alignment.

But it can never replicate the “exact same benefits” of the single market; not without obedience to its obligations and regulation.

The concessions we were rightly forced to make in respect of Northern Ireland express and expose the Dilemma.

If we want freedom of movement of people across the border on the island of Ireland, we can do it but only by effectively abandoning border controls on migration. So someone could move from mainland Europe to Dublin to Belfast to Liverpool without any check.

It is often said by Brexiteers that Norway and Sweden don't have a hard border for the movement of people. It is true. But that is because Norway is part of the single market; and so accepts freedom of movement.

In any event, it is now virtually conceded that Britain needs the majority of the European migrant workers and as our study shows, Brexit is already seriously harming recruitment in vital sectors, including the NHS.

If we want free movement of goods, then Northern Ireland will have to be in a relationship with the EU where the rules of the customs union still apply.

But if we do that, then how can the UK be out of it?

This is the conundrum we will face across the board. How will financial services and other sectors be able to trade freely in Europe without regulatory alignment?

Suppose Europe even agrees to do this on a “pick and choose” basis, the “alignment” they will demand will be alignment with Europe’s rules.

And how will disputes in these circumstances be arbitrated other than through the involvement of the ECJ?

Once this central Dilemma becomes manifest during the negotiation, the split in the government will re-emerge.

The PM will still be in favour of option three, making the concessions and trying to present them as consistent with “taking back control”.

The true-believer Leavers will recognise the concessions contradict the essential reasons for leaving and will be in favour of then moving to option four.

The British civil service is - or at least was in my time - probably the best in Europe. The problem isn't with the negotiators but with the negotiation.

The risk is that we end up with the worst of all worlds. We muddle along, alternating between options three and four, depending on what part of the Tory party is in the ascendency, try to “leave” without really leaving, with a patchwork of arrangements which allows the government to claim Brexit has been done; but which in reality only mean we have lost our seat at the table of rule-making.

This would be a grim outcome for the country.

And it is where the Labour Party faces its own challenge.

*

I would like the Labour Party to be on the high ground of progressive politics, explaining why membership of the European Union is right as a matter of principle, for profound political as well as economic reasons.

I disagree with our present position strategically.

But even tactically, it is mistaken.

First, because the Labour Party is saying that we too would do Brexit, we cannot attack its vast distractive impact. Labour could mount such a powerful assault on the government’s record from the appalling state of the NHS to crime, which through neglect and failure to support the police is on the rise again, if we were saying to the country: here's the agenda which could be delivered for the people were not for the fact that all the energies of government and substantial amounts of cash are devoted to Brexit.

And, second, it puts us in a vulnerable position when the government concludes “the deal” some time in 2018.

My bet is that the government will try to negotiate an agreement which leaves much detail still to negotiate, because there is no way round the Dilemma. They will bank some low hanging fruit possibly e.g. tariff free access for goods (leaving for later non-tariff issues). For Europe, since it has a whacking great surplus with Britain on goods, this is a no-brainer.

But on access for services, a sector which has driven most of our export growth over the last 20 years, represents 70 per cent of our economy, and where we have the surplus, we will be blocked without major concessions. Unless the government has found some miraculous way round the Dilemma, it will probably try to emulate the December Northern Ireland “agreement” and have some general headings – more aspiration than detail - with a lot to negotiate after March 2019 during the transitional period where Britain will continue to abide by the rules of the single market.

The government will then say it is this deal or no deal and Labour will be left arguing that they would be better negotiators. This isn't credible.

And here Labour has its own “cake and eat it” phrases. The shadow chancellor says we will not be in “the” single market but “a” single market.

The shadow industry minister talks of keeping the benefits of the customs union agreements but still being free to negotiate our own trade deals.

This is confusing terrain on which to fight.

Far better to fight for the right for the country to re-think, demand that we know the full details of the new relationship before we quit the old one, go to the high ground on opposing Brexit and go after the Tories for their failures to tackle the country’s real challenges.

Make Brexit the Tory Brexit.

Make them own it 100 per cent.

Show people why Brexit isn't and never was the answer.

Open up the dialogue with European leaders about reforming Europe, a dialogue they're more than willing to have now because they realise Brexit also damages Europe economically and politically.

At every PMQs, nail each myth of the Brexit campaign, say why the Tory divisions are weakening our country - something only credible if we are opposed to Brexit not advocating a different Brexit, and challenge the whole farce of a Prime Minister leading our nation in a direction which even today she can't bring herself to say she would vote for.

If we do leave Europe, the governing mind will have been that of the Tory right. But, if Labour continues to go along with Brexit and insists on leaving the single market, the handmaiden of Brexit will have been the timidity of Labour.

This piece appears on Tony Blair's Institute for Global Change

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Game of Stones: The power struggle at the heart of British curling

Dynasties, scandal and “the curse” behind the scenes of the only Olympic sport you can play while eating pizza.

At the 1980 annual Canadian men’s curling championship, the Calgary competitor Paul Gowsell ordered a pizza mid-play. With tangled red hair down to his shoulders, a thick beard and in his signature plaid trousers, Gowsell – or “Pizza Paul” – had become a cult curling figure in the late Seventies.

“The rebel of the curling world” was known for his drinking and partying on the curling circuit, and rocking up to tournaments – or “bonspiels”, to give them their proper name – in his battered VW van.

Legend has it that a stray olive from his pizza on the ice lost his opponents the game that day.

Since Gowsell’s heyday, curling has professionalised. It became an official Winter Olympics sport in 1998 (the previous and only time it had this status was in 1924), but remains one of the most peculiar competitions of the season.

“We do get made fun of a lot” 

The brooms, frantic brushing, screaming from the “skip” (the captain of the team in charge of strategy), gliding on one knee, and even the equipment itself – 44-pound lumps of granite known as “stones”, which look a bit like old-fashioned irons – make for bizarre watching, as competitors release their stones before the “hogline” in an attempt to reach the “house”: the target at the end of the rink.

The etiquette is to shake hands before a game, and say “good curling”.

Its quirks are not lost on curlers, who appear to embrace the gentle mockery of their sport. The array of outlandish patterned trousers worn by the Norwegian men’s team brought a goofy humour to Pyeongchang (pink hearts for Valentine’s Day were a particular hit), inspiring an entire Facebook page of half a million Likes dedicated to their legwear. Meanwhile, the moustachioed and red-hatted US curler Matt Hamilton has been memed as Mario by his own team.


A veteran curling commentator I speak to, who does not want to be named because he remains closely involved in the sport and wishes to speak frankly, says comedic takes on curling – like the 2010 episode of The Simpsons “Boy Meets Curl”, in which Homer and Marge accidentally discover their innate talent for the game – “generally help promote the sport”.

“People definitely make fun of it! There are a lot of awesome personalities in curling and I think part of it is because we do get made fun of a lot. You kind of have to have a really good sense of humour to curl,” says John Cullen, a 32-year-old Canadian comedian and competitive curler in the world-ranked Team Joanaisse.

Every time the Winter Olympics come along, curling manages to entrance audiences. It’s one of the few sports to be played for the entirety of the Games because of its “round robin” structure (where each country has to play the other, at least once).

Curling benefits from a lot of airtime. Matches can last three hours, and there are mixed doubles as well as separate men’s and women’s tournaments.

But it also captures our imagination because, unlike figure skating or alpine skiing, we feel like anyone could have a go. Curlers don’t all look like athletes. The dedicated viewer can watch them chatting, see their anguished facial expressions – and hear them swear when they mess up.

“You still have people who make the Olympics who’ve got a bit of a belly”

“It has a big appeal for people because it seems – even though it’s not – like a game you could play, if you’re just a regular person watching the Olympics,” says Cullen, who has curled for 20 years. “Every Olympics, people think to themselves, ‘OK, if I started curling tomorrow, I could be in the next Olympics’.”

A bit like darts, he adds: “Curling is a lot more physically demanding than darts, but when you watch darts on TV, you think ‘oh these guys are drinking, they’re not in shape’.

“It seems accessible in a way other sports don’t… Curlers now are more fit than ever, but you still have people who make the Olympics who, yeah, they’ve got a bit of a belly, or they don’t really look like they spend that much time in the gym. They just kind of look like regular people.”

Adding to curling’s relatability, there are two real-life couples in the mixed doubles this year, and you can watch them bicker as they play. Norway’s girlfriend-and-boyfriend outfit Kristin Skaslien and Magnus Nedregotten admit to having heated arguments on the ice (she never sweeps for him, as far as I can tell from watching one of their games – you go, sister), whereas Russia’s wife-and-husband duo Anastasia Bryzgalova and Aleksandr Krushelnitckii have had their bronze medal tarnished by the latter’s suspected doping.

When a doping scandal reaches your sport, you know it’s made it.

***

Traced back to 16th-century Scotland, the sport nicknamed the “Roaring Game” – because of the sound of rolling across ice – was played socially with stones on frozen ponds and lochs by farmers in winter, when no farming could be done.

Competitions between neighbouring communities began in the 18th century, when Rabbie Burns would play and even wrote some poetry about it, and Scots took the game across the country with the arrival of the railways. They later exported it to places as far as North America and New Zealand.

But it took until 2002 for the general public to notice curling in Britain. The Great British women curlers’ unexpected gold at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City transformed attitudes towards the sport – it was the first time Britain had won gold at the Winter Olympics since Torvill and Dean’s Bolero ice dance in 1984 at Sarajevo.

 “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms”

An audience of 5.7 million people watched the tense final live on the BBC, when five previously unknown women from Scotland beat Switzerland with the final throw – since dubbed the “Stone of Destiny” – played by the skip, Rhona Martin.

“It definitely put curling on the map. We used to get wee write-ups in the back of the paper and that was it,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Ayrshire. “We used to get a lot of jokes about housewives with brooms, and curling your hair, whereas now people see it as a sport because they’re more knowledgeable about the game.”


Rhona Martin delivering the Stone of Destiny. Photo: Getty

A flag-waving crowd greeted her team when they landed in Heathrow – adoration they hadn’t been expecting. They received a congratulatory message from then Prime Minister Tony Blair (“You have captured the imagination of the whole of the UK”), appeared on everything from Lorraine Kelly’s sofa to Ready Steady Cook, were put up at Claridge’s and received MBEs from the Queen, and sat in the royal box at Wimbledon.

Curling fever didn’t last long, however. The women returned to full-time work or being full-time mothers. Talk of a Hollywood movie about their victory died. Two of the five endured intrusive news reports about their marriages breaking down, and Martin (now Howie after a subsequent marriage) was at one point a “single mother living on benefits”, as put by one of her agents.

This became known as the “Curse of the Curlers”, according to the Guardian. Indeed, Howie’s gold medal was stolen from the Dumfries Museum four years ago, never to be recovered.

***

Has the curse on British curling finally been lifted?

Two dynasties of curling champions dominate Team GB this year: the Muirheads and the Smiths. Both are Scottish farming families from Perthshire, both have two or more siblings on the Olympic curling teams, and all the competitors are children of world champions: they grew up on farms about 40 miles apart, and were regulars at their local rink.

“We’re all super-competitive”

The only member of the men’s team who is neither Muirhead nor Smith, Kyle Waddell, comes from another Scottish curling dynasty: his grandfather Jimmy was European curling champion in 1979.

Eve Muirhead, skip of the women’s team, is the current queen of the dominant Muirhead dynasty. The three-time world medallist, now 27, was the youngest ever skip to win a Winter Olympic medal, when her team took bronze at Sochi in 2014. Her brothers Tom and Glen on the men’s team are making their Olympic debut.

The Muirheads’ father Gordon, a sheep farmer, is a world champion who competed at the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. Eve was inspired to begin curling at the age of nine.


The Muirhead siblings on their farm. Photo: Getty

Kyle Smith, the skip of the men’s team, is head of the curling house of Smith. His younger brother Cammy is on the same team. Their father David, a dairy and potato farmer, was a world champion skip in 1991, and their uncle Peter (known as “Pistol Pete” in the curling world, for his sharp-shooter-like accuracy) represented Team GB at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics.

Known as Team Muirhead and Team Smith, they still help out with their respective families’ farming duties. While training for the Olympics, Kyle Smith fed the calves before going to the gym in the morning or milking at weekends, and the Muirhead brothers combine their sheep farming duties with training (they’re missing the lambing season to be at the Olympics). But Eve – who also plays golf and the bagpipes – prioritises curling practice.


The Smiths and Muirheads playing together. Photo: Getty

The Smiths are trailing the Muirheads medal-wise and see themselves as “the underdogs”, but there’s more rivalry between siblings than between the two families, who often play on the same team.

“I know we’re all super-competitive,” Eve tells me down the line from Pyeongchang. “We all support each other to the bitter end. To have my two brothers here is really special, I guess it makes this Olympics a little bit more special than the other ones.”

Just last season, the Muirhead brothers were on different teams and went head-to-head, competing for the same Olympic spot, which made working together on the farm temporarily tough. They had to check up on each other’s flocks while the other was training to beat them.

“Our local rink has unfortunately now closed down”

“I have learned how to wind him up over the last year so I have a few tricks up my sleeve,” Thomas, the younger Muirhead, quipped at the time. All the Muirhead siblings are so competitive that no board games were allowed at home.

Curling isn’t seen as a “posh” sport, like skiing (although curling clubs have been linked to freemasonry in the past), and it’s likely that such a small pool of talent is down to the sport’s decline rather than a privileged elite.

Eve Muirhead tells me that her “local rink at Pitlochry” – where she played as a child – has “unfortunately now closed down”, and this is part of a trend in Scotland. At curling’s peak in 1993, Scotland had 31 ice rinks which offered curling. The number is now down to 22.

The veteran curling commentator I speak to says the Olympics have benefited the sport’s image, but the money spent on elite competitive curling “to ‘buy’ GB medals” in this country “hasn’t helped grassroots curling much; only a few curlers benefit”.

It’s even starker in countries with no curling legacy. China has just two curling clubs for a population of 1.4 billion and still sends teams to the Olympics. Cullen confirms this, from his experience of international play. “Once curling got us [Canada] in the Olympics, a lot of countries recognised this as an opportunity to get a medal,” he says. “So what they’ve done in some of those cases in China, Japan, Korea, is they’ve found athletes from other sports and converted them into curlers.”

***

But this doesn’t mean curling is easy; it just makes it a more competitive sport. With my only background in curling being an episode of Pingu I watched as a child (he sweeps with his foot, the innovator), I rounded up some colleagues and went to the Sliders Social Fun and Games Club at Queens ice rink in West London to try it out for myself.

The banging beats, disco ball, and giant projected episode of Pointless on a rink-side screen didn’t exactly scream 16th century loch, but we pulled on our studded grippy rubber soles and took to the ice.

While one colleague discovered that she was “actually sick” (her words) at curling, most of us found the stones impossibly heavy and rolled them nowhere near the target.




New Statesman staff curl

The author attempts to curl

After a few failed attempts, I tried a double-handed curl, but that didn’t work at all. One bolder team member developed a special “one-knee thrust” move, which worked quite well.

Even the brushing was quite tough, because you fear falling over at any moment. Some men on the neighbouring rink told us we were “rubbish”.

Essentially, curling is really hard. A lesson that adds to its status as history’s most misunderstood sport. But its players remain dedicated, and audiences engrossed. As Rhona Howie, the master of the “Stone of Destiny”, tells me: “Never, ever give up, and keep fighting, one stone at a time.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.