I voted Remain last year for two reasons. First, however irritating I found some aspects of the EU, I could not vote for the chaos I believed would follow a Leave victory. From the accession of Theresa May to the night of the general election, that looked like an excess of pessimism; now it looks like wise foresight. The second prong was an analysis of my own and my neighbours’ economic circumstances: in what sense was EU membership actually making us worse off? In my own case, not at all; local shops, hospitality outlets and tourist attractions, likewise. Subsidised hill farmers and fatter farming cats on the flatlands? Not really, even though broader frustration with Brussels made many of them vocal Brexiteers.
No, I would have had to travel 35 miles to Whitby or Filey on the Yorkshire coast to find a group whose livelihood had clearly been damaged by decades of over-regulation and unfair competition from Europe. I mean, of course, the fishermen, and I welcome a swift move by the new environment secretary, Michael Gove, to scrap the 53-year-old London Fisheries Convention — which allows our near European neighbours to fish in our inshore waters — as a preliminary to walking away from the Common Fisheries Policy that allows all EU members to fish between 12 and 200 miles from our coastline.
The UN Convention on which we now hope to rely asserts exclusive fishing rights within 200 miles (or to the mid-point of any channel between two countries) and even if we no longer have much of a fisheries protection fleet, an important principle will have been established. Because you can bet your boots that in tit-for-tat Brexit deal-making, a handy little counter like our diminished fisheries might otherwise be all too easily traded away.
But surely that’s not how it’s going to be? The European Council’s own Article 50 guidelines expressly exclude ‘cherry-picking’ or any ‘sector-by-sector approach’.Oh yes? ‘A City of London delegation will head to Brussels this week with a secret blueprint for a post-Brexit free-trade deal on financial services,’ says the FT, while ‘ministers push to keep EU pharma ties after Brexit.’ Coming the other way, a convoy of German car factory bosses who have read Deloitte’s report telling them a hard-Brexit reversion to WTO tariffs on cars and components could cost their industry 18,000 jobs and hit them as hard as the 2008 financial crisis. Sector-by-sector trade-offs will surely in the end be at the heart of this negotiation, but we should worry least about globalised sectors that already have high levels of cross-border flexibility. That’s not a description of our fishing industry, which has been crippled by Europe; its recovery would be a tangible measure of Brexit success and I’m glad Gove is moving early to protect it.
Pink coats on strike
My man in a pink tailcoat at the Bank of England has been keeping his head down under the humourless regime of Mark Carney, but this week he rings from the bookies in Cornhill with hot news: for the first time in his life, he’s going on strike.
It turns out he’s one of 80 out of 84 Unite members among the Bank’s maintenance, security and parlour-butlering staff who voted for a four-day walkout in protest against a measly 1 per cent increase in their pay pot for this year.
But aren’t you just being dragged into a publicity stunt to boost the current political bandwagon for lifting the 1 per cent cap on public sector pay — I ask him — at risk of having your job outsourced to Serco or G4S? Well maybe, he says, but morale in Threadneedle Street is so low these days, what with those dull dogs in the governor’s corridor agonising over whether they’ll ever be able to raise interest rates again, that he and the lads just want a bit of excitement.
They’ve even opened a book on who might succeed Carney when he departs, to general relief, in two years’ time — and would I like a 50-to-1 punt on Jeremy Corbyn appointing Yanis Varoufakis?
Twenty years on
Twenty years since Hong Kong was handed over to communist China, 30 since I moved there to live on Peak Road with a view of the harbour and run a small investment banking operation. Is it still the place of optimism and opportunity I remember — the place I so often urge young people to experience as a gateway to new career horizons? Answers from my focus group of friends and readers in the former British enclave present a mixed picture.
Business has never been better, says one financier, largely thanks to ‘the flood of Chinese money’; and ‘as for freedom, nothing has changed’. But others point out that income inequality — particularly visible in a place so dominated by rampant upmarket consumerism alongside packed tower-blocks with minimal welfare provision — has widened since 1997. A 2016 ‘Gini coefficient’ of 54 would place Hong Kong in the top 20 of the world’s unequal societies (on a scale of zero to 100, the UK scores 33 and the most unequal, South Africa, 63). And if London has become scandalously unaffordable to first-time homebuyers, Hong Kong is much worse: the ratio of median house prices to household incomes stands at 18.1, compared to 8.5 in London.
So in some ways it’s an even harder scrabble for those at the bottom of the anthill than it was in the era of British rule, when tides of penniless refugees arrived from Mao’s China. And economic power is ever more concentrated in politically connected hands, says another of my correspondents: ‘How can a territory characterised by crony capitalism feel like a place of opportunity? Thank God for Joshua Wong and his pals (the pro-democracy activists who tried to disrupt Chinese president Xi Jinping’s 20th anniversary visit) even if they don’t know when to stage a tactical retreat.’
But for all its faults, I gather, Hong Kong still hums and buzzes with positive energy; If I were 30 years younger, I’d leave uneasy Britain and head out east again.