Thursday, 8 September 2016

The Last Straw

This is not an easy blog post to write – but it has been coming for a while.

First, a bit of background. If you've read my blogs, you'll know I have advocated the EFTA EEA option as an interim step for Brexit - based on the the ideas in Flexcit / The Market Solution, written by Dr Richard North, whose EU Referendum blog is frequently referenced in my own posts.

I was something of a latecomer to the EU debate. I first started searching for information beyond mainstream media in early 2015. Following the General election of 2015 and the prospect of an EU referendum, I accelerated my search. I went through as much pro and anti EU info as I could find : think-tanks ; books; various blogs etc – I tried to make sense of the competing arguments and visions.

After many months, I came back to EU Referendum blog and Flexcit and the penny dropped on what they were saying. I'd also read “The Great Deception” by Richard North & Christopher Booker (an excellently researched history of the EU up to rejection of the EU Constitutional treaty in 2005). I had reached a clear conviction that we needed to leave the EU, but that it would be complex and would need to be phased – especially to avoid trade and economic fall-out.

I actually went as far as setting up a monthly donation to EU Referendum – nothing spectacular, but I wanted to support what I saw as research far ahead of the crowd. I also responded to the call for bloggers issued by Pete North (Dr. North's son & working associate) and started blogging in the autumn of 2015. Later that year, a private message group was set up on Twitter for EU Referendum and associated bloggers, which I was invited to join.

A tale of two bloggers

I happily concede I was very much a newby and a junior figure in the group. I privately wondered if I was only invited because of my donation. Certainly there were 2 members of the group who stood out for their efforts and impact:
Roland Smith. Involved in the EU debate for decades – widely known as “White Wednesday” on social media. In March 2016, Roland voluntarily gave up work in the run-up to the Referendum in order to campaign full-time and promote Flexcit / interim EEA ideas in Westminster via his ASI institute connection - with notable success.
Ben Kelly has been an active blogger for many years (via “The Sceptic Isle” and Conservatives For Liberty) and was especially prolific during the Referendum campaign. He brought a significant social media profile to the group and also edited the Leave Alliance web site (Leave HQ) during the referendum.

But dont just take my word for it. Pete North marked Roland and Ben out for special praise on the eve of the Referendum vote here.

Yet within a matter of weeks of the Referendum victory, Dr North had attacked the reputations and integrity of Roland and Ben and accused them both of “plagiarism” and “intellectual theft”.

Roland had promoted interim EEA ideas via the ASI but shorn of their Flexcit label and Dr North's name in order to attract new audiences. This was undertaken with the full knowledge of Dr North and was a notable success - as confirmed by Dr. North himself. Furthermore, on 2nd June, the ASI had invited Dr North to write a blog post explaining Flexcit and how the ASI articles had drawn upon his ideas. The flashpoint for Dr North's change of attitude seemed to be an apparently innocuous blogpost written by Roland on June 10th referencing some comments by Daniel Hannan that were reported in the Evening Standard. Dr North has a longstanding antipathy to Hannan – who Dr North also accuses of intellectual theft. A subsequent ASI post co-authored by Roland Smith (after the Referendum) on the advantages of an interim EEA option prompted Dr North to launch a full-on attack on Roland. By this time, various voices had come out in support of the interim EEA option with no apparent connection to Roland or ASI. The ideas were in the public domain and out of anyone's control. Dr North never did take up the invitation to write his own post for the ASI.

During the Referendum campaign, Ben had written a number of guest articles for newspapers and web sites – again interim EEA ideas were floated without explicit reference to Flexcit or Dr North in order to gain a wider audience. Ben's crime was to write a similar article after the Referendum for the IEA. Dr North reserves particular venom for the IEA - in his eyes they “rigged” their 2014 IEA Brexit competition and “snubbed” his Flexcit submission. A full-on attack ensued, including a particularly low blow by Pete North regarding some payments made to Ben. As far as I am aware, the majority of funds collected via EU Referendum and Leave HQ web sites were directed to supporting Pete in his full-time blogging activities. As someone who donated to these funds, I am extremely glad that some of the money made its way to Ben. His efforts in the referendum campaign were unstinting – he deserves every penny.

A question of ownership and loyalty

So what exactly is the “intellectual property” that has allegedly been stolen ? Dr North describes the essence of Flexcit as
(i) The EEA option as an interim step. I can confirm that Dr North and Flexcit was how I came across this concept. But there have been suggestions of the EEA option as a way to leave the EU pre-dating Flexcit and I have also seen other suggestions that  EEA could be used as a transition ahead of a longer term deal that are not associated with Dr North. I do not see how Dr North can claim sole ownership over this idea.
(ii) EFTA/EEA members have independent voice/veto in international organisations (unlike the UK) where international regulations and standards are framed. It is quite possible that Dr North was responsible for revealing the role of international organisations in framing regulations and standards, in particular the discovery of the“ diqule ” (dual international quasi-legislation). Whether revealing the way international governance works is copy-rightable is another matter.

It is clear that Dr North sees these concepts as his own personal intellectual property. But what is he expecting as a result ? Royalties ? The right to stop other publications by injunction ? He has stated he simply wanted acknowledgement that articles are based on his ideas. But ask yourself why license was given during the Referendum campaign to re-use material without Dr North's name or the Flexcit brand – and why such a strategy was so successful in gaining traction.

The answer is self-evident – Dr North is toxic to the cause he espouses. He has a long-standing reputation as a hostile, angry person and a history of bitter fall-outs. He alluded to this history on his blog in July when he launched an attack on Roland Smith . In reality, he actually has a much longer list of people and events that he views as “betrayals”. Having seen the appalling treatment of Roland and Ben, I have plenty of reason to doubt Dr North's version of past events.

A classic example is provided by the Leave Alliance launch of Wednesday 16th March. Two conservative MPs attended but walked out after Dr North had insulted Vote Leave, its leaders and Conservative MPs. The events are described on Dr. North's blog and Pete North's blog – judge the tone for yourself. Pete North states “the consensus is that Dad arriving late and in a foul mood spoiled the presentation a bit …. we had yet more calls to moderate behavior and language” before dismissing such calls outright. In other words Dr North's own supporters were uneasy over events but got short shrift. This was the last straw for one particular member who subsequently left the group.

The case for Dr North's intellectual property is thin at best and the charges of plagiarism against Roland & Ben are baseless. Will anyone who has followed Roland and Ben not be aware of their association with Flexcit and Dr North ? Does anyone seriously believe Roland & Ben wrote the articles for personal gain ? Their crime appears to be that their loyalty was to securing Britain's independence, not to the promotion of Dr North and the denigration of his enemies.

The Last Straw

Dr North spent much of the rest of the campaign attacking Vote Leave and the Leave campaign. He assumed defeat was inevitable and seemed to be relishing the prospect of revenge on those he would blame. Nor did the Referendum victory mellow him at all. He continues to attack all and sundry while complaining that “the bubble” ignores him.

So what happens when someone in “the bubble” approaches Dr North, as John Mills (head of Labour Leave) did recently ? Dr North published their exchange of letters in his "The Mills File" blog post of 27th August. Mills is clearly trying to understand what can be achieved as a minimum within the 2 years Article 50 time-frame. Dr North's responses had a familiar "passive aggressive" edge.

Granted, Mills has weaknesses in this area of debate (like many public figures in Westminster), but he at least accepted the need for additional protocols/agreements over and above the WTO framework and was aware of the financial services passporting versus equivalence debate. But Dr North's focus seemed to be on attacking his "enemies" for proposing options that are impossible, specifically because of the 2-year Article 50 timescale. Notably:
North describes negotiating an MRA as a hugely complex and time-consuming task, although previous posts by him and Pete North paint a different picture.
North highlights issues associated with customs code and drafting new customs law. He neglects to mention that the Flexcit / EEA option will also suffer from the same drawback.
Finally, in the last response, North states “Even the Efta/EEA agreement could be very tight, in two years. We could even find ourselves having to seek an extension of time.”

The admission that EFTA/EEA may require an extension of the 2 years deadline is critical. In fact, Dr North has admitted this several times since the Referendum:
24/6/16Even with the best will in the worlds - adopting the EEA core acquis unchanged - concluding the settlement within two years is going to take Herculean effort.”
29/6/16We could, for instance, apply for a three-year extension, making five years in all – thus taking the time-limit off the agenda. We could even make the total ten years.”
12/7/16leveraging an early notification against an agreement by the EU to extend the negotiation period – say to five years”
2/8/16Even with a fair wind, though, with every possible stratagem adopted, no realistic assessment will suggest that there is any reason for optimism. The chances of completing negotiations within two years have to be considered slight.”

Note also what Dr North states regarding the bi-lateral option in his  Monograph 4:
"On this basis, it is highly improbable that a de novo (bespoke) bilateral agreement under the aegis of Article 50 could be concluded in two years - something which is being increasingly recognised. Five years is probably more realistic. Whatever their attractions in theory, the bilateral options seem hardly viable, purely on the grounds of the time needed to negotiate them."

If an extension is contemplated for the EEA option, it can be contemplated for other bi-lateral options. The core Flexcit argument is that the constraints of Article 50 dictate the EEA option as the only option - that no longer stands.  

This is a highly significant change, but not an isolated one. A series of posts over recent months have changed the nature of Flexcit considerably. Co-incidentally, the first of these posts appeared within days of Dr North accusing Roland of thievery. It is as if North feels that the “old” Flexcit has had its day, and new ideas are required to create a “new” Flexcit, distinct from the one that in his own mind has been “stolen” by imagined "enemies". 

Flexcit is essentially the container for Dr North's research, but it also seems to be the vehicle for his own private wars.  For me it has become an unreliable source.

Ultimately, the Mills File post was the last straw for me. Dr North complains of “the bubble” ignoring him - in reality he does not want to share his ideas with “the bubble” - as evidenced by his treatment of Roland and Ben, who were singularly successful in promoting these ideas. It seems to me that Dr North is actually inside his own bubble – one where only he is right and everyone outside his bubble is to be attacked as “morons”, “children” or "behind the curve".

I will happily acknowledge I have learnt a lot from the Norths and will acknowledge their work in my posts. They do provide unique and interesting research around trade and regulations and I would recommend reading their blogs – just try and ignore the angry rant stuff. I have wondered for a while whether I should just drift away from the group quietly (as others have done). In airing my views on this blog I have probably set myself up for some brick-bats and vitriol, although I may escape that if I am considered to be too small-fry to bother with, e.g. “why give him the publicity”. In the end I have decided to be honest about my views – I hope it is the right decision.