A Resilient Society?

Months into the worst health crisis the world has known for a century, much of the focus is rightly on finding medical solutions for the pandemic, whether a vaccine, improved medical treatments for people with life-threatening symptoms, or reliable forms of testing for infection or resistant anti-bodies. But parallel to these issues, there is widespread concern that the effect of governments’ efforts to contain the spread of the virus will be the worst economic crisis this century.

The world’s stock markets have collapsed by some 25%, unemployment claims in the USA alone have risen to over 6 million, and economic growth forecasts for 2020 range from 1% in Asia to -6.5% in the UK and -7.5% in the Euro Area. Whilst lockdown measures in many countries are being slowly eased, no one is able to predict when the worst-hit sectors of the world’s economies – hospitality, tourism, events and travel – will be able to return to anything resembling normality. Instead there is talk of a “new normal” that will follow the health crisis.

Yet before COVID-19 struck, Greens around the world were already searching for solutions to many of these economic problems. Greens in Scotland advocate leaving oil in the ground and supporting “a fair transition of skills and investment (from the oil industry) to renewable energies and sustainable industries“. A range of political parties and politicians around the world advocate a Universal Basic Income, for example the Green Party of England and Wales. And a number of ecologically-minded economists have argued since 1972 for a no-growth economic model that operates within the limits of the earth’s finite resources.

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed the following conundrums of full-square in front of us all.

  • How can we manage a decline in overall consumption?
  • How can we survive without industries and activities that pollute and generate high greenhouse gas emissions?
  • How can we ensure that we can all survive as the economy throttles down?

These three effects of the pandemic are regarded in our current economic world as problems that need to be reversed. Yet in every case, from the point of view of the earth’s resources, they are actually desirable. The major difference is that greens and others advocate a managed transition, whilst the pandemic has hit us with these economic consequences without any forward planning or anticipation.

A recent article on the steady-state economy website argues that there is a silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic. What has been termed “wealth” by growth advocates can actually be better characterised as “illth”, activities doing harm to ourselves and the environment – noise and congestion, landscape destruction, environmental catastrophe and light pollution. Indeed the pandemic itself is now being partly blamed on our “excessive intrusion into nature..The solution is to have a much more respectful approach to nature, which includes dealing with climate change and all the rest”.

Intriguingly, a key tool in a planned move to a low-consumption, no-growth, and no-fossil fuel economy is localism. Analysts of greenhouse gas emissions, and governments around the world currently engaged in an all too slow transition to no-carbon economies, see transport as the top problem sector, the one area that is currently not achieving reductions in emissions. For example, Samual Alexander, research fellow at the Sustainable Society Institute at the University of Melbourne, argues that a de-growth economy will involve reduced working hours, a lot of growing of our own food (so-called edible suburbs), and much much less global trade.

Will COVID-19 force us into a more sustainable lifestyle? Probably not. As things stand today, owners of bars, cafés, restaurants, hotels, logistics companies, airlines, sports organisations, public transport and many more are looking for a way back to their previous existence. And governments are focussed on aid that simply bridges a gap rather than offers a transition. But many of these sectors will not see a way out of the crisis until a reliable vaccine is found. Perhaps in months to come, with a vaccine still a year away, the thinking will change. The irony is that the no-growth society, in the face of a COVID-19 pandemic that in such circumstances would probably not have happened anyway, would have been a much more resilient society.

Remainer Brexiteer Tactics

It’s intriguing that, on the day the Article 50 letter is delivered, the loudest voices around the kind of Brexit we’ll get are still those of the hardliners. Perhaps this is not surprising, given PM May’s strategy of aligning herself with them prior to the start of negotiations, and the position of the rabid right-wing press.

But at the end of the day, Brexit is an internal battle for the Tories, coupled with a political strategy for neutering the UKIP threat, at least in Tory-oriented territory. What seems to have been forgotten is the strong pro-EU balance among, not just MPs in general, but Tory MPs specifically.

Here’s a breakdown of the UK MPs position re Brexit in 2016, PRIOR to the Brexit vote on June 23rd:

Amongst these 185 remain Tories is Theresa May herself. So why would she be pushing for a hard brexit, as so many red tops and Kippers seem to think? The answer, of course, lies in the positions to be taken at the start of negotiations. These, in the UK government’s case, have little to do with the destination of these negotiations, but everything to do with giving EU negotiators much of what they want. A hint of this strategy was revealed in a Spectator editorial from December 2016. To quote:

Britain… has decided to press ahead with plans to join an EU-wide patent system. This is a major overhaul, requiring UK courts to give up jurisdiction over patents, pooling sovereignty with the rest of Europe….We might be witnessing the first example of Mrs May’s Brexit strategy — to leave the EU, but opt into the agreements that we find agreeable. The price for this would be to accept the supremacy of the European Court of Justice, something that had been considered off the agenda. But on patents, at least, Mrs May’s government has planned to accept the ECJ’s writ.

In other words, sector by sector, the UK government will aim to negotiate agreements that essentially mean paying the EU for access to these sectors, and under EU jurisdication. This will prove expensive, and will require giving up “sovereignty” to the extent that, following the Great Reform Bill, the UK parliament will be required to enact UK legislation in these areas that mirrors EU law.

All of this will probably be sellable to the Brexit mob with a little smoke and mirrors about all laws being passed at Westminster. But what of the EU? What cannot be seen to come to pass is the cherry picking that threatens membership’s raison d’etre. Even Norway is required to accept the free movement of peoples in order to gain paid access to the single market. How will the UK government get round this sticking point?

The obvious route is to pick up on ex-PM Cameron’s negotiated deal prior to the referendum, but simply try to nail the same deal from the outside rather than from the inside of the EU. That deal, which limited EU migrants’ rights to a range of welfare benefits for the first 4 years, could well re-appear in another form as part of the final Brexit agreement, seen on one side as limiting immigration, and on the other as confirming the right to the free movement of peoples. But the key to a final agreement lies in PM May’s real wishes, Looking at the political numbers, and despite the rhetoric, they do not seem to be hard Brexit.

All this has obvious repercussions for the situation in Scotland. Not for nothing is May arguing that a second referendum should be called only once the final details of the Brexit deal are known. My strong suspicion is that May is going to aim for a soft Brexit that would outflank the SNP’s position of offering voters in Scotland a choice between full membership and no EU access. A soft Brexit, a sort of neo-Norway model, is attractive to Scottish voters, including many YESers who voted to leave the EU. My advice to Nicola Sturgeon would be to keep your powder dry, and accept that we should wait until the details of the deal are known before actually calling IndyRef2.

It might well be that the EU cannot accept, yet again, a privileged position for an outside UK, after years of insider privileges. But if a deal is struck, to be magnanimous in accepting a soft Brexit would essentially confirm the Scottish government’s position set out in the Scotland’s Place in Europe paper. The reasoning behind IndyRef2 is gone. The Scottish government needs to remain open to both outcomes, and make more of the distinction between having the power to call a referendum, and actually calling it.