What happens if the British Prime Minister Dies?

Boris Johnson image from Chatham House

The world is full of uncertainty, so it is always prudent to have a contingency plan in case of the unexpected. For any kind of organization, the most important contingency plan to have is a succession plan, so that the organization can continue to exist and operate even if key people within it are suddenly and permanently unable to perform their tasks.

This is why monarchy is the oldest form of government in recorded human history, and why it was, for millennia, the most popular political structure in the world, independently emerging in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. “When I die, my oldest son is in charge” is a very simple and intuitive succession plan. However, when the Founding Fathers of the United States explicitly rejected monarchy, that meant they had to come up with a new succession plan for the Constitution they were writing. Thus, Article II not only created the office of President of the United States, but also created the Vice President, who is elected at the same time and takes over if something happens to the President. Good thing, too, as there have been nine times in U.S. history that the Vice President has had to step up and take over as President. What’s more, Congress has created a contingency plan for the contingency plan, passing a law listing who takes over if both the President and Vice President die or are otherwise unable to serve, creating a clear line of succession that is 17 names long.

Now, the United Kingdom is a monarchy, of course; it’s right in the name. United KINGDOM. So when the Queen eventually passes from this world, her eldest son, Charles, Prince of Wales, will immediately become the new king. His eldest son, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, will then become the new Prince of Wales and next in line to the throne. The line of succession to the British throne is quite clear, and like in the United States, there is a long list of people in that line, ensuring that come what may, SOMEONE is there to take the Crown even in the most unthinkable of circumstances.

But what about the Prime Minister?

As I write this, the world is gripped by a global pandemic caused by a highly contagious and sometimes fatal viral disease dubbed by the World Health Organization as “COVID-19”, popularly referred to as “coronavirus“. The current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was hospitalized and put in intensive care after contracting the virus. As of this writing, his condition has significantly improved, with his spokesperson stating he is now “able to do short walks between periods of rest”.

This scare has brought up an interesting question: what, exactly, happens if a Prime Minister dies in office? This is a question that the United Kingdom hasn’t had to face in living memory, as the last Prime Minister who died in office was Lord Palmerston in 1865. The answer isn’t exactly simple, either, and to understand it, we have to first understand the exact role the Prime Minister plays in the British political system.

The United Kingdom, unlike the United States or most other countries around the world, doesn’t actually have a formal, codified constitution. Instead, the British political system is the result of nearly 1,000 years of gradual evolution. Its “constitution”, as it were, would be a good subject for a future Cat Flag post, but for now, suffice it to say that it is based on centuries of laws, court rulings, scholarly texts considered to be “authoritative”, and plain old tradition.

The title of “Prime Minister” was originally a slang term for the minister who assumed the main leadership role on official policy within the British government, usually the First Lord of the Treasury. Indeed, as recently as 1829, the Home Secretary at the time said “nothing could be more mischievous or unconstitutional than to recognize in an act of Parliament the existence of such an office [as Prime Minister]”. Yet that’s exactly what Parliament did less than a century later in the Chequers Estate Act 1917, in order for the country estate named by that law to become the Prime Minister’s official country retreat.

The Prime Minister, like the other ministers serving in the British government, serves the Queen as her adviser, administrator, and liaison with Parliament. He is chosen by her and serves so long as he keeps her and Parliament happy. He isn’t even all that high-ranking; in the British order of precedence, the Prime Minister ranks 17th, behind the Archbishop of York.

Archbishop of York John Sentamu image by Iamwisesun

This guy outranks the Prime Minister.

Yet, in the great contradiction that is British politics, the Prime Minister is the one who actually runs the government of the United Kingdom. He is the boss of the British civil service, the most senior politician in Parliament, the leader of the political party in power (more on that in a moment), the architect of the British government’s foreign and domestic policy, and the public face of British politics.

The job of Prime Minister is just about the only one where you can tell your boss what to do and she does it. While the Queen could appoint whomever she likes to important political offices, she always appoints the person the Prime Minister wants in that role. The Queen summons and dismisses Parliament when he “advises” her to do so. The Queen signs treaties with foreign nations, but the Prime Minister is the one who dictates how the negotiations are to be handled to the Foreign Minister. The Queen is the Commander-in-Chief of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces and is the one who declares war, but the Minister of Defense, who manages the day-to-day running of the military and sets defense policy, reports to the Prime Minister.

So, how is the Prime Minister chosen? Again, the Queen could pick whomever she wants, but she always bases her decision on the outcome of the most recent Parliamentary election.

The House of Commons, the democratically elected part of the Parliament, is made up of 650 Members of Parliament or “MP’s” who represent local districts. The leaders of the major British political parties are always MP’s from a “safe” district that always votes for that party, and if one party commands an outright majority of all the seats in the House of Commons, the Queen picks the leader of that party to be her Prime Minister. If, however, no one political party has won a majority, then the Queen picks the party leader who can show her that he or she can get the “confidence” of the majority, usually by forming a coalition with one or more of the smaller parties to squeak over that “majority” threshold.

In this way, the Prime Minister is sort-of democratically accountable. If the people don’t like a Prime Minister, they will be more likely to vote for the other party at the next election. Not only that, but a Prime Minister can be dismissed by the House of Commons if they pass a “vote of no confidence” in his or her government. If that happens, the Queen gives the House 14 days to sort itself out, either through the Prime Minister regaining the House’s confidence or through the main opposition party’s leader showing he or she has the House’s confidence. If neither of these things happen, she calls for a new election.

What about contingency plans, though? What if something happens to the Prime Minister?

Well, while we haven’t seen too many vacancies at 10 Downing Street caused by a Prime Minister’s death, we have seen quite a few caused by a resignation. David Cameron stepped down as Prime Minister in 2016, and was succeeded by Theresa May. She stepped down last year, and that led to Boris Johnson taking the job.

Interestingly, all three of these Prime Ministers have been the head of the Conservative Party. Since the Conservatives have held the “confidence” of the House of Commons continuously during this time, the Queen automatically appointed the new leader of the party as the new Prime Minister in each of these instances. This meant the decision as to who would be the new Prime Minister was, for all practical intents and purposes, decided by the Conservatives through their own, internal leadership election. As we will recall from a recent Cat Flag, political party membership is quite rare outside the United States, and so it was that in the summer of 2019 the decision as to who would be the new Prime Minister of a nation of more than 67 million people was effectively decided by 139,318 voters.

At least in the case of a resignation, though, the current Prime Minister can stay in office for a few months while the party holds its election and decides on his or her replacement. Not so in the case of a death.

Yet there is no other procedure in the British political framework to replace a Prime Minister mid-term. There is no Vice-Prime Minister. There sometimes is a “Deputy Prime Minister”, but this is just an honorary title given to a minister in order to boost their prestige, often as a reward to the leader of a coalition party for supporting the Prime Minister’s party. Also, there isn’t currently a Deputy Prime Minister.

So, right now, while Boris Johnson recovers in the hospital, the next-most-senior minister, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, has taken over and is running the government as the United Kingdom deals with the pandemic emergency.

Dominic Raab image by Richard Townshend

Raab’s seniority is symbolized by the honorary title “First Secretary of State” indicating his status. Just as with “Deputy Prime Minister”, the title doesn’t inherently come with any responsibilities, as indicated by the fact that the official website of the United Kingdom’s government leaves the “Responsibilities” section on the page describing the office blank. Yet, it means that he is the second-highest-ranking minister, so it makes sense that he would step into this role so the government isn’t without a leader during a time of crisis.

It’s here where I’m going to start speculating. The world has changed since 1865, and no nation can go without proper leadership for an extended period of time, especially in a time of crisis. I think it is most likely that in this day and age, if a Prime Minister were to die in office, the Queen would probably name the First Secretary of State as a sort of interim Prime Minister until the majority party in the House of Commons can choose a new leader. However, if she were to do this, it would be the first time since the reign of her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, that a British monarch had chosen a Prime Minister without consulting Parliament. Such a decision would probably be controversial.

However, it is possible that the case of the hospitalized Prime Minister might galvanize the British political system to finally put in place a proper contingency plan and set some rules as to what should happen in the case of a Prime Minister who dies in office.

Why is housing so expensive in California?

Los Angeles has more than 15,000 homeless residents living in their vehicles. In San Francisco, the median home price is $1.4 million, 59% of Silicon Valley tech workers can’t afford a place to live, and 88% of all households can’t afford to purchase a home. In San Diego, some have turned parking lots into de facto apartment complexes whose “residents” live out of their cars. Silicon Valley firm MainStreet has gone so far as to pay $10,000 for some employees to relocate out-of-state. Facebook is donating millions to build an apartment complex for teachers.  Apple has pledged to spend $2.5 billion to do what it can to alleviate the housing crisis.

The cost of housing has steadily increased since 2012, according to Zillow, which at the time of this writing lists the median California home price as $550,800. Four of the top five most expensive metro areas for housing are in California. Indeed, the cost of housing in California is one of the main reasons cited by people who either have left the state altogether or are considering doing so. Indeed, about half of Californian voters have considered moving out of state. Not surprising when Californians spend more than half their income on housing.

Except, that doesn’t actually make sense. In 2018, 700,000 people left California. This marks the eighth year in a row that the number of Californians moving away has increased, an the 15th that the state has experienced a net population loss. A basic understanding of supply and demand would make one think California’s housing prices should be going down, not up.

For comparison, neighboring Arizona’s median housing price is half of California’s. Now, you may say, that’s Arizona, a land of arid deserts with 100+ degree weather for much of the year. Yet Oregon, another state on the beautiful and temperate West Coast, is still far cheaper than California for housing. On the East Coast, meanwhile, states like South Carolina are cheaper even than Arizona.

So, why is California’s housing so expensive?

Because California hasn’t built enough houses.

I mean, on the surface, that seems like an obvious answer. If demand is decreasing, but prices are still rising, it logically follows that the demand must still be far higher than the supply. California’s high housing costs are a simple result of there being too many people trying to buy or rent places to live in California. Mystery solved!

Except, that immediately leads to a follow-up question: why hasn’t California built enough homes?

There are a few reasons. For starters, building in California is difficult. Look at a map of the state, and you will see a rugged terrain of mountains and coastlines that aren’t exactly amenable to tons of construction.

California map from the USGS

Not only that, but California is a known for its earthquakes, presenting architects and engineers with an expensive challenge to make structures that will be safe when the ground shakes. Then there’s the wildfires, some of which have recently destroyed once-thriving communities. News headlines like this raise safety concerns about letting new developments sprawl into areas that could be vulnerable to fires, such as forested hills and mountains.

Another factor is the labor pool. The housing crisis is something of a self-reinforcing vicious cycle. The types of skilled and unskilled labor that are required for a healthy construction industry don’t generally pay enough to afford the cost of housing in California, and that means a shortage of construction workers and higher labor costs for construction projects. This, in turn, makes it harder to build affordable housing.

Even with these factors taken into account, there is still another key reason that housing in this state is so expensive that popped up again and again in the sources I found when researching this topic: the state and local governments.

Let’s say you want to build a brand-new affordable housing complex in some California community. First, you better do your research: California has extensive land-use regulations that have increased in number year after year for decades, making it far harder to even get a land-use permit. Next, you have to have your proposal reviewed by a myriad of government agencies and bureaucracies, each of which can place additional restrictions you have to abide by in order to get permission to build (making your project more expensive). This process can take months, by the way.

Oh, and let’s not forget that you are building in CALIFORNIA, a state that has a long history of taking environmentalism seriously. Any new building project has to have its environmental impact assessed, a process that can literally take years.

Did I mention that you have to pay fees at every stage of this process? Many of these fees are not exactly easy to learn about in advance, either, with hidden fees bringing up the total you would have to pay up to 18% of the cost of your project in some jurisdictions.

Then, you have to get the final approval from the city council or county board of supervisors. These local politicians are under immense pressure from NIMBY voters (short for “Not In My BackYard”), most of whom already own property in the community and like having high housing prices as it makes their own homes more valuable. They will probably give long-winded speeches about how your development could “change the character” of their community. Pressure from these voters have already pushed quite a few communities to adopt laws that explicitly restrict housing growth.

Now, a few observant Cat Flaggers may be wondering, “Won’t the high housing costs cause these people to have to pay skyrocketing property taxes?” Well, no, thanks to a 1978 ballot initiative passed by California voters known as Prop 13. This law caps the property taxes that can be assessed on housing. Basically, California bases property taxes on the value of a home at the time of purchase, and only allows a slight annual inflation increase. This means that Californians who have owned their home for decades are taxed far lower than the actual current market value of their property would indicate.

This law is incredibly popular among Californians, especially homeowners (for obvious reasons). Yet one big unintended side-effect is that it eliminates the incentive for local governments to approve residential developments. The city or county would earn far more revenue from approving a retail store.

Is it any wonder, then, that California’s housing is so expensive? It is remarkably difficult and expensive to even get a housing project past all the immense red tape that the state and local governments put up and all the objections of those who already have their own houses. Add onto this the higher cost of labor and the practical challenges of even building in California, and it seems a miracle that any housing is built here at all. A report in 2016 by McKinsey & Company says California needs 3.5 million new homes in the next six years to alleviate this crisis, yet the system is stacked against housing construction at every step. Meanwhile, California is now home to one out of four homeless Americans.

Thus, we can see that burdensome regulations, a voter-mandated tax policy, and the high cost of construction in California have left people stuck either scrambling and competing against each other to be able to find any housing at all, or giving up altogether and leaving for other states. Until all of these problems are addressed, this crisis will only continue.

Behind the Headline: Why is Catalonia Vying for Independence?

Boy, it has been forever since I’ve done one of these, huh?

So, yesterday, the Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, announced a plan to all but shut down the government of Catalonia, an autonomous region of Spain in the northeastern part of the country, and temporarily impose direct rule from Madrid. For his part, Catalan president Carles Puigdemont has announced in a speech that his government won’t accept the plan and hinted that they may formally try to break away from Spain. A massive protest flooded the streets of Barcelona, the largest city in Catalonia, with hundreds of thousands of marchers opposed to Rajoy’s proposal, which must be approved by the Spanish Senate to take effect.

These events are in response to a referendum held in Catalonia on October 1, in which 90% of voters supported Catalan independence (though the vote was considered illegal by Spain’s courts and many anti-independence Catalans boycotted the vote). After the referendum passed, Puigdemont and the Catalan government wrote a declaration of independence, but then immediately “suspended” the document, supposedly to allow for negotiations with the Spanish government. Rajoy’s latest moves are in response to Catalan leaders ignoring calls by Spain to clarify their position. Both sides have accused the other of stomping all over democracy and ignoring the rule of law. Catalan protesters have announced that if Spanish authorities try to have Puigdemont arrested, they will use themselves as a human shield to stop them.

Why is this happening? What is driving Catalonia’s independence movement? Why is Spain so adamant on stopping them?

It’s time to go Behind the Headline.

A history of Catalonia (and its relationship to Spain)

Our story begins in 711 AD. Yes, really.

That was the year that Muslim armies from North Africa invaded the Iberian Peninsula. Over the next seven years, they took over almost all of the peninsula, with the exception of a small pocket in the Cantabrian Mountains along the northern coast, where some Christians managed to hold out under the Visigoth leader Pelagius. It was this pocket of Christian resistance that would be the seed from which Spain would grow, as generation after generation fought over the centuries for the Christian reconquista (reconquest) of the peninsula.

However, Catalonia has altogether different roots. In 732, a Muslim invasion of France was defeated at the Battle of Tours by Charles Martel. His grandson, Charlemagne, was one of the greatest conquerors of early medieval Europe, and he wanted to ensure that his new empire was safe from any would-be Muslim threats, so he created a buffer zone along the border known as the Spanish March. It was here that the County of Barcelona was created, and over the centuries its power and influence expanded, thanks in part to Barcelona’s status as an important trading port in the western Mediterranean, and in part to a series of political marriages, wars, and treaties. By the 12th century, Barcelona had become the economic hub of the Crown of Aragon, a medieval federation of Catalonia, some neighboring regions, and eventually, even most of southern Italy.

The official flag of Catalonia, known as the Senyera, is based on the Crown of Aragon’s coat of arms – a gold shield with four red stripes. According to legend, when Count Wilfred the Hairy of Barcelona was wounded in battle, the French king Charles the Bald paid the count a visit to thank him for his bravery. During the meeting, Wilfred’s blood-soaked hands stained his copper shield, creating the red stripes. Today, the Catalan independence movement uses the Estelada, a flag that adds a star to the Senyera to symbolize national freedom and independence.

Of course, as we all know, in the 15th century King Ferdinand II of Aragon married Queen Isabella of Castile, creating modern Spain. Having said that, for several centuries, “Spain” was legally not a single country but a collection of autonomous kingdoms that happened to share the same monarch. During these years, Aragon, while unified with the rest of Spain, continued to enjoy a high degree of autonomy with its own separate laws. However, as time wore on, this autonomy eroded as successive Spanish kings demanded more centralization of political power, and eventually king Philip V formally abolished the separate kingdoms and created a unified Spanish nation-state in 1716.

This is a large part of why the relationship between Spain and Catalonia is so complicated. Catalonia was its own separate thing for centuries. It has its own national culture, its own traditions, its own cuisine, its own holidays, and even its own language. In fact, the Catalan language is actually more closely related to the dialects of southern France than it is to Spanish. Yet, at the same time, Catalonia has been a part of Spain for hundreds of years, and numoerous generations have thought of Catalans as fellow Spaniards.

In living memory, however, the real touchy hot-button subject is the fascist dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975. Franco promoted an ideal of Spanish nationalism that emphasized unity and rejected diversity. Spanish national culture was “whatever Franco happened to like” (flamenco dancing, bullfighting, the Roman Catholic Church), and all other traditions were banned and suppressed. Catalonia, which had sided against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, was especially targeted. The use of Catalan in public was banned, as were traditional Catalan dances and festivals. This is a part of why the soccer team FC Barcelona came to be so popular; for many Catalans, it was the only legal way to express their national pride and sort-of voice their distaste for the Franco regime.

After Franco died and Spain transitioned to democracy, a new constitution was drawn up that, among other things, allowed the Spanish government to grant various regions of Spain autonomy and self-government. This is why Catalonia is able to elect its own regional government with control of many local affairs. That is, until these latest developments happened.

So, why is Catalonia seeking indepedence now?

In a word, economics.

The Great Recession hit Spain especially hard, and it has suffered from a major unemployment crisis as well as ballooning public debt. Yet Catalonia has, by and large, managed to weather the storm, and it is one of the most well-off parts of Spain, with a robust manufacturing sector and plenty of tourism. Catalonia alone is responsible for 20% of Spain’s GDP.

Madrid has taken full advantage of this, using billions of euros of Catalan tax money to help prop up struggling regions elsewhere in Spain. This is completely natural and rational from the Spanish government’s point of view, and indeed, using resources from better-off parts of a country to help those in worse-off areas is perfectly normal in many countries. Here in the United States, there are many states that depend on money from the federal government to function, but a few, such as New Jersey, Delaware, Illinois, Minnesota, and Kansas, actually pay more in federal taxes than they get back in federal spending. I’m certainly not aware of any major secessionist movements in Kansas right now.

The difference is that many Catalans don’t see themselves as Spaniards (thanks to their own national culture that evolved separately) and don’t trust Madrid (due to the decades of repression under Franco). To these Catalans, it is completely unfair for them to be paying for the rest of Spain – they want their taxes to pay for Catalonia’s needs. They feel Spain is an anchor that they are forced to drag, and would be better off going it alone.

Having said that, some economic experts question whether Catalonia really would be better off without Spain. If Catalonia gains its independence, it will need to provide for itself those government services that Madrid currently provides, such as a military, embassies around the world, and the like. About a third of the products Catalonia makes are sold in other parts of Spain, so there is an immediate question regarding trade across the new Spanish-Catalan border. An independent Catalonia would also be outside the European Union, and if it wants to stay in the EU it would have to apply for EU membership. Mind you, being admitted as an EU member requires the unanimous consent of all existing EU members, including Spain. You know, the very country they would have just gained their independence from?

Still, Puigdemont seems adamant in pursuing Catalan independence with zeal and determination, reportedly even over the objections of other leaders in his own political party and government. What will be the outcome of this latest political crisis? Will Catalonia gain its independence or will Spain succeed in stopping this train in its tracks? It looks like we will all find out soon.

Behind the Headline: The UK votes to leave the EU

Brexit image from The Millennium Report

The vote is in: 51.9% of British voters approved leaving the European Union, a vote that has shocked the world and shaken the world’s economy. Already, the value of the pound sterling has fallen, there is talk of thousands of people in the UK losing jobs, and doomsayers predict the European Union falling apart as others decide to follow Britain’s path. In the run-up to the vote, most economic experts, big businesses, and politicians from around the world urged British voters to stay in the EU, with the most notable exception being U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump. In response to the news, British Prime Minister David Cameron has announced his resignation, saying he will leave office in October.

So what, exactly, happened here? What happens now? And how will it affect you? It’s time once again to go Behind the Headline.

What is the European Union, and why was Britain a member?

I’ve talked about the European Union on Cat Flag before, so I’ll be brief: The European Union is a unique political entity covering 28 European countries that functions in some ways like an international organization made up of sovereign nations (members have their own militaries, embassies, passports, seats at the United Nations, and Olympic teams), and in other ways like a national government whose members are federal states (the European Union can pass laws that can override the laws of its own members, citizens of its members are also citizens of the EU, and people and goods can pass freely across its members’ borders with each other while the EU controls immigration and trade with the outside world). Many, but not all, EU members have agreed to use the euro as their common currency and to eliminate all border checkpoints between each other so people can cross from country to country the same way Americans can drive or fly from state to state.

The European Union evolved gradually over the decades into its modern form, originating in post-WWII trade and economic treaties that were designed to try to make a third devastating war in Europe impossible. It wasn’t even called “The European Union” until the 1990s; prior to that, it had been called the “European Communities”. Two simultaneous trends shaped the organization at this time – first, members gave the Union more and more power, and second, the Union admitted more and more members.

It was in this context that the United Kingdom joined in 1973, at a time when the European Communities were still a primarily economic and trade union that looked very different from today’s EU. It was primarily for economic reasons that the British joined; they were struggling economically, and hoped free trade with Europe could provide a big boost. This fact has long played a huge role in Britain’s relationship to the EU. To the British, EU membership was always about what was in it for them, and they never fully committed to complete integration into Europe as other members had. The British refused to adopt the euro, refused to throw open their borders to the same extreme degree as the rest of the Union, and repeatedly got into fights with the EU leadership and other EU members over the EU’s powers. Public approval of the EU has consistently been lower in the UK than most other member countries.

Still, there have always been pro-EU voices in Britain as well. While the vote to leave was close overall, 62% of Scottish voters had cast their ballots in favor of keeping the UK in the EU. British farmers have long been dependent on agricultural subsidies from the EU, and poverty-stricken parts of the UK such as Cornwall have been receiving economic investments from the EU for years. More than a million British citizens live, work, or own property in Europe. The most popular personality on YouTube, Felix Kjellberg, a.k.a. PewDiePie, is a Swedish national who lives in the UK and is able to do so because of the EU’s freedom-of-movement laws. The “Brexit”, as the British voters’ decision to leave has been called in the media, has put all of this in possible jeopardy. Already, many British voices are calling for a do-over because of these facts.

Why did the UK vote to leave?

That’s an easy question to ask, but a hard one to answer. The most common answer the political analysts seem to turn to is immigration. Even though the British had managed to get opt-outs of some of the EU’s open-border policies, at the end of the day, while it remained a part of the EU the British government had to give up control of its immigration policy to the Union’s decision-makers in Brussels. Furthermore, any person who was an EU citizen could freely visit and move to the British Isles. Thanks to the UK’s welfare laws, once somebody got in the UK, he or she could count on government-subsidized housing, taxpayer-funded health care, and government aid to pay for living expenses. Immigration has been a perennial issue in British politics for decades, with some arguing that the British Isles just aren’t big enough and don’t have enough jobs or resources to support too many immigrants, and some of the more extreme anti-immigration voices have been accused by critics of being racist or xenophobic. When you consider the haphazard way the European Union responded to the Syrian refugee crisis, it comes as no surprise that British voters may have felt the UK would be better off deciding for itself what its immigration policy is.

On the other hand, the European Union was in a crisis long before there was any talk of Syrian refugees in the news. Remember when the European Union faced a massive economic emergency in the wake of the Greek debt crisis? Or how Spain, Italy, Portugal, Ireland, and Cyprus also faced financial crises of their own at the same time? The economies of many of those countries are still weak, with unemployment reaching 24% in Greece, 20% in Spain, and 15% in Croatia as of February. Since EU members are required to send part of their tax revenue to the European Union, and 30% of the EU’s budget is spent on those regions that have lower incomes and weaker economies, British taxpayers have effectively been seeing their pounds spent on these other countries over the years.

Then there’s this analysis in the New Yorker, which looks at the demographic breakdowns of British voters who cast ballots for “Leave the EU” or “Remain in the EU”, and finds that the “Remain” voters tended to be well-educated, young, and well-off while working-class voters generally tended to vote “Leave”. The author of that piece suspects that working-class anger at Britain’s politicians, who have long been known to be more pro-EU than the general British public, helped tip the scales. I admit, though, that I am not an expert on British politics, so make of that as you will.

Is the UK the first country to leave the EU?


In 1982, Greenland, a large arctic island with a population of just over 55,000 living under Danish rule just northeast of Canada, voted to leave the federation, largely due to the island’s inhabitants wanting control of Greenland’s fishing regulations rather than being forced to abide by Brussels’s fishing rules. In 1985, the Greenland Treaty formally ended the island’s membership, and since then the island has been largely self-governing. As Denmark is still part of the EU, Greenlanders are EU citizens, but EU law does not apply there.

So what happens now?

Exit sign image by Alton

In 2009, the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force, and one of the things that it did was create a mechanism by which members could leave. First, a member country would submit some sort of notification to the EU that it intended to leave, and then the EU would negotiate an agreement with that country on what the future relationship of that country to the EU would be after it leaves. For example, a country might want to leave the EU but still have free trade with it, still have a working relationship with it on military matters and security policy, and so on.

There is a two-year deadline from the date of notification to reach an agreement, unless the EU and the country in question should agree to extend that deadline. If no agreement is reached, the country’s membership just up and terminates on the deadline date, and the EU treats the country just like any other foreign country. A country that leaves the EU can rejoin later, but would not receive any special treatment in its application.

In response to the vote, British Prime Minister David Cameron had initially said he would leave it to his successor to formally notify the EU, thus delaying the withdrawal process. The idea behind this would be to give Britain more time to negotiate an exit that would allow the UK to retain access to trade with Europe. However, EU leaders have told the British government to start the process right away and not delay, going so far as to say that “notification” need not be a formal written document; as one official told Reuters, “He can just say it.”

Why so hasty? Well, the United Kingdom, a country that is home to more than 65 million people as well as one of the world’s most important financial centers, has a much bigger impact on the EU than Greenland. People are already speculating in the media about which country might be tempted to leave next, and there are a number of upcoming national elections in several EU members that are facing political shake-ups in the wake of the euro crisis and Syrian refugee crisis. Better to rip the band-aid off quickly, the thinking goes, so the economy and diplomatic relations can re-stabilize and find a “new normal”. If the exit process is delayed too much, it could make things even shakier for far longer.

How does this affect me?

Obviously, if there’s one thing markets don’t like, it’s uncertainty. We’re already starting to feel the economic shocks from the vote, but I expect that will probably stabilize once we have a clearer picture of what is going to happen in the coming years between Britain and Europe. Still, not great news for anybody’s 401(k) plans.

Obviously, the vote also complicates diplomatic relations between the UK and the United States, and likely will for some time, though I doubt our two countries’ long-standing alliance will be diminished. We are both members of NATO, after all.

But what about you, dear Cat Flagger, sitting here reading this? Well, it looks like a vacation to the British Isles just got cheaper, as a weaker pound makes it easier for Americans to afford British prices. This article from BBC News lists several more ways Americans will be directly affected by the Brexit, from the possibility that British investors might want to get into the American real estate market to the strong likelihood that popular TV shows made in Britain such as Doctor Who and Game of Thrones will take a huge hit in the wallet.

In the longer term, I expect international travel in Europe to become more complicated. Anyone travelling from Britain to anywhere else in Europe, or vice-versa, will likely have to abide by new rules and controls, and may even need to get visas. If other countries follow Britain’s lead, that’s even more border controls that weren’t there before a traveler would have to deal with. Trade will also likely be affected in the long-term, as the United States had been in the middle of negotiating a huge trade agreement with the EU that now looks like it may not happen. Expect the cost of goods imported from Europe to go up if the companies that ship them over here have to pay more in tariffs.

For now, we can only wait and see, as it will likely be a while – possibly months – before we get a clearer picture of what a post-Brexit Europe will look like. However, I am optimistic that once we have started to get that clearer picture, things will start to improve. I believe that people are adaptable, and are very good at finding the right path once they know what map it is they are looking at.

Behind the Headline: America’s Never-Ending Presidential Elections

2012 Election map by Gage Skidmore

2012 Election map by Gage Skidmore

It’s presidential election season here in the good old U.S. of A. Already, 23 candidates have thrown their hat into the ring to run for the most powerful position in America. We’ve already had the first presidential debate, the statisticians are hard at work taking opinion polls of American voters and publishing their results, and the candidates have raised hundreds of millions of dollars to fund their campaigns.

Did I mention the election isn’t until November of 2016?

The United States has – by far – the LONGEST election cycle of all the world’s democracies. Most countries’ campaigns for office begin and end over a matter of weeks or months. Canada is currently in the middle of its longest election cycle ever – 78 days. Germany’s longest election cycle was 114 days. In the United Kingdom, people complained last year about a “long campaign” that lasted 139 days. Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) announced his candidacy for the White House 596 days before the election will actually take place.

To put that in perspective, a baby conceived today will not only have already been born, but will be nearly six months old when Election Day arrives. So, why are our elections here in the United States just so darn long? Especially when you consider:

It seems on the surface like long elections are bad for candidates, as it means they have to spend more time and money campaigning to capture a smaller voter base. However, it turns out that there are several contributing factors to America’s ridiculously long campaigns, each one pushing for longer and longer campaigns and making it hard to reverse the trend.

Factor #1: Primaries

Ballot box image from the Smithsonian Institution

Much like the madness of Black Friday, the overly-long U.S. presidential campaign cycle came on gradually, over time. George Washington didn’t even have to run for president at all, he was just sort of proclaimed president by unanimous consent (the only president to have that distinction). Later, when political parties started to become a thing, party leaders would get together at a national convention and decide who their candidate would be in the big contest. Often, this involved shady backroom deals, especially as late 19th-century American politics became dominated by ruthless political machines that bought votes and put forth candidates they could control. To counteract this, reformers began pushing for political parties in the United States to instead choose their candidates through primary elections, a sort of pre-election election to choose who would run for office in the final contest in November.

Today, both the Democrats and Republicans choose their presidential candidate through a system of primaries held on a state-by-state basis. Instead of every Republican and Democrat in America voting all at once, each state decides for itself when it will hold its primary. This can be a problem for states that vote late in the game, since it means that by the time their voters get a say in which candidate they want, it is entirely possible (even likely) that one candidate will already have won enough support to move on to the November prize. This gives each state an incentive to move its primary as early as possible, to vote ahead of everybody else. Iowa and New Hampshire have even written it into their laws that their primaries are held before anybody else’s. This has pushed the primaries earlier and earlier every year; in 2012, Iowans voted on January 3!

Both the Democrats and Republicans decided that from 2016 onward, most states would be barred from holding the primaries before March. However, exceptions were granted for four states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Why them? Because… um… reasons. (No, really – in an interview with Fox News, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee explained the exception by saying “It is years and years and years of history, and that’s a debate, too. It is what it is.”)

Factor #2: First mover advantage

Early bird image by OpenClipartVectors

In 1960, John F. Kennedy shocked Americans by announcing he was running for president in January. This gave him media attention, and soon he had an advantage over his rivals when it came time for the primaries, since his name was already on everyone’s lips. The message was clear: announce early, get your name out there, get attention. In 1991, Bill Clinton announced his candidacy in October, just over a year before the 1992 election. In 1999, George W. Bush announced his own candidacy in June.

Again, this trend of announcing earlier and earlier is a gradual thing that snuck up on us over time. It simply behooves candidates to get their names out there as early as possible to build momentum, garner attention, and put your name in voter’s minds as they have to wade through the list of candidates on primary election day. The 2016 election may be more than a year away, but considering how many candidates have already announced that they are running, anybody who tries to enter the contest now would have no chance of winning, since they would be at a disadvantage in fundraising, gaining media attention, and building a support base.

Factor #3: The media

News image by Gerd Altmann

This brings us to the final factor pushing us to the never-ending campaign: the news. For years, news coverage of election-related headlines has come earlier and earlier. Speculation and horse-race polling get views and clicks, and as we’ve covered before, this is what the advertisers who keep the lights on are looking for. Besides, if candidates are making announcements, giving speeches, and holding debates, that is newsworthy stuff. What, is the news media not supposed to cover that? Of course they will.

Still, political pundits and analysts build their careers upon talking about who is probably or possibly going to make what move and why. Did you know that news sites were talking about the 2016 election before the results of the 2012 election had even been counted? This article from the USA Today discusses the chances of Vice-President Joe Biden running for president in 2016 – on Election Day in 2012! This article from Salon talks about a gambling firm’s predicted odds of various possible candidates running for office in 2016 – two days before the 2012 ballots were even cast! This means that the news media has been talking about next year’s election continuously for the past three years!

Sheesh! Under that kind of media pressure, is it any wonder candidates want to announce early?

Thus, it seems, we are stuck with election cycles that run nearly two years for the foreseeable future, unless and until these trends start to reverse. I guess we’re all simply going to have to put up with it for a long, long while.