Steve Bullock @GuitarMoog Immigrant, Musician, Sound Engineer, SNP, ex-negotiator for UK in EU. Brother of @JuliaKayPotts. Supporter of @FinalSayForAll. On Holiday. Back soon. Nov. 28, 2018 4 min read

Thread. A quick bit of political theory for non-specialists that might help in understanding Brexit & the Withdrawal Agreement.

Positive and Negative Freedom.

Inspired by (& cribbed from) this great article from before the 2016 Ref by @philosgreek 1/ 

As Isaiah Berlin most prominently pointed out in ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’, there are two types of freedom (or liberty, but I’ll use freedom):

Negative: freedom from being constrained by others
Positive: freedom to do what you want

They are quite different. Nobody is actively stopping me from becoming a massively renowned guitarist, so I can try to become one, but I don’t have the freedom to actually become one unless others agree.

What the Brexiters told us is that we needed to be free of constraints imposed (they aren’t as the article points out, more later) on us by others (the EU). Rules that limit what we can do. We need negative freedom. That sounds good. Free from constraints and rules. Lovely.

Why? So that we could set our own standards, make our own trade deals, basically, do what we wanted. That also sounds good. Do whatever we want. Choose for ourselves. Grand.

And this is where, as we’re seeing, it all falls apart.

Reading the work and insights of the brilliant and experienced trade experts on Twitter (list at end), it’s clear that trade doesn’t work like that. It works based on agreements between parties, with rules that they set between themselves and agree to be bound by.

Negative freedom is, in this case, pointless on its own, as the positive freedom (the whole point is to be able do what you want) is always limited by what others are prepared to agree to. (And the negative freedom is not complete anyway as there are rules outside the EU).

So the freedom from constraints made by others that was apparently so necessary is only partial, and the freedom to do as you want that it would bring actually depends on others agreeing with you, which they often don’t, and agreeing to be constrained.

Oops. That’s not worked, has it?

With the Withdrawal Agr, & particularly the Political Declaration, it’s slightly different. Almost every point requires a direct trade off between negative freedom (free from constraints) and positive freedom (free to do what you want).

One or the other, but not both.

For example, the UK can have the closer trading relationship it wants, if it is willing to be bound by EU rules. It can participate in the EU programmes it wants to participate in, if it accepts their requirements and rules. And so on and so on.

So the freedom is only useful, only allows the UK to actually do what it wants (positive freedom), if it accepts limitations to its negative freedom by agreeing to be bound by rules

Again, that hasn’t worked in our favour, has it? It was never going to either.

But here’s the kicker. As I’ve mentioned the article at the top of this thread points out, the rules were not made by others anyway. They were made by us and others together, just as the rules of the WTO and trade agreements are. That’s how the world works now.

However, in the future, the EU rules will be made by others, and the UK will only have the stark choice between accepting them so it can do what it wants, or rejecting them but not being able to do what it wants.

The reason everyone is so angry is that, in both cases, we were promised both types of freedom, and it is impossible to have that in the world as it is. You need to be willing to limit one of them so that others will agree that you can have the other.

An inability to realise and explain that these trade-offs are inevitable is, I think, one of the key reasons we’re here, and why (people who largely did PPE and should therefore know better) are still shouting about betrayal, EUSSRs and others bollocks like that.

Not sure this is as clear or as useful as I’d hoped, but perhaps it’s still interesting to someone.

Oh, and here’s the list I promised of great trade people to follow. Many apologies if I’ve missed anyone.
@CoppetainPU @SamuelMarcLowe @Lorand_Bartels @DmitryOpines @hhesterm @DavidHenigUK @EmporersNewC @AllieRenison @GeorgePeretzQC. Sorry it’s a bit of a Wurst-fest.


An here’s a tweet to reply to instead of filling up their mentions. 20/20

PS, there are more types of Freedom, and Isaiah Berlin may not have been the first to draw the +ve and -ve distinction, but I’m trying to keep it straightforward for the purposes.

You can follow @GuitarMoog.


Tip: mention @threader_app on a Twitter thread with the keyword “compile” to get a link to it.

Enjoy Threader? Sign up.

Threader is an independent project created by only two developers. The site gets 500,000+ visits a month and our iOS Twitter client was featured as an App of the Day by Apple. Running this space is expensive and time consuming. If you find Threader useful, please consider supporting us to make it a sustainable project.