Saturday, 23 January 2021

Dogma kills


Despite various suggestions floated or leaked to the media, the UK Government is strongly resisting any further tightening of restrictions in order to fight the pandemic, clinging instead to the early signs of a slight reduction in infections and the hope that vaccinations will start to make a difference before too long. Instead, they say, they are concentrating on ‘enforcing’ the existing set of restrictions. The problem is that they seem to have a very narrow view of what ‘enforcement’ means.

There is no doubt that failure to comply with the rules which have been set is a major problem in fighting the virus; non-compliance gives the virus the opportunity to infect and ultimately kill more people. There is also no doubt that the more flagrant breaches of the rules which get reported – house parties and the like – annoy many of those who are doing their best to follow the rules. But an approach to ‘enforcement’ which concentrates on identifying and punishing those who engage in such activities largely misses the point. Punishment as a deterrent is an article of faith to Tories, despite limited evidence that it works. It depends on an assumption that people carefully weigh up both the chances of getting caught and the likely penalty before engaging in the activity, an assumption which is highly dubious. More importantly in this context, punishing people after the event doesn’t prevent the potential damage done by the events, which is what the real objective should be. Worse still, those flagrant breaches which they are targeting are not the biggest problem.

We have known for months that most of those who should be self-isolating are not fully doing so, and there is recent evidence that some people with symptoms are not even getting tests for fear that they will be positive and thus lead to a requirement to self-isolate. This means that there are thousands of individuals quietly wandering around spreading the virus in ways which are much less obvious – and more harmful – than the tiny minority who organise house parties. They’re also harder to identify, and a policy based on fining transgressors will not improve compliance amongst this group. The reasons for their non-compliance have also been well-known for many months. People who don’t qualify for the various government schemes, people who could lose income, or even their jobs, by not working – these are the ones probably doing most to spread the virus. Identifying and fining people who are already on the financial margins just makes things worse, in terms of both the financial impact on the individuals who are caught and encouraging others to do more to conceal their infection. It doesn’t have to be this way; the government could, right from the outset, have done more to help people to self-isolate by providing a proper support package. It’s not too late, even now, to put policies in place to make self-isolation easier, but another article of faith for Tories is that governments should avoid giving poor people money. It’s a rule which doesn’t apply to their millionaire backers and supporters of course, but it most definitely does apply to the most financially vulnerable.

Articles of faith, or dogma as they are otherwise known, are the last thing we need in current circumstances, but are the first tools out of the box for the current UK government. The current appalling death toll was neither inevitable nor accidental; it’s a direct result of Tory dogma.

Friday, 22 January 2021

Independence is about joining the world, not returning to the 19th Century


The ‘modern’ diplomatic system dates back to the fourteenth century, when the term ambassador first started to be used. Rights, obligations, responsibilities – to say nothing of quaint but arcane processes such as presenting one’s credentials to the Court of St James – have accumulated over the centuries. Amongst those is the concept of diplomatic immunity, one of those things that makes eminent sense in theory (providing safe passage for accredited representatives and guaranteeing that they won’t be persecuted by the host nation), but has been extended in practice to prevent prosecution of even the most heinous of crimes. There is no obvious reason why the range of those covered should be extended as far as it has been, nor why diplomats should be exempt from following the laws of the country in which they serve, both issues raised by the recent case of Anne Sacoolas.

But, for all its imperfections, the system of ambassadors works reasonably effectively most of the time. It allows and facilitates communications (including the confidential variety) between governments, encourages trade, provides representation and support to citizens, and generally ‘oils the wheels’. Given the UK Government’s repeated statements that it wants to have the warmest possible relationship with the EU after Brexit, the decision not to recognise the EU’s representative as an ambassador with all that that implies appears at first sight to be perverse. I can’t imagine the EU’s ambassador to the UK being particularly put out at not having to get dressed up to travel to St James Palace to formally present his credentials to the monarch, and I hope that he and his team would not be exceptionally upset at not having the right to ignore and breach UK law at will. But when 142 other countries across the world have decided to give the EU’s representatives the same ambassadorial status as any ‘nation-state’, it would be understandable if the EU were to be a little miffed at the only state – and its nearest neighbour to boot – which refuses to do likewise. And if we ask ourselves ‘who loses as a result?’, the obvious answer is that the UK is set to lose more than the EU from what most will see as a rather petty decision.

That is, though, to ignore the Brexit mind-set, to say nothing of English exceptionalism. Brexiteers have argued throughout that the EU should not become, and therefore should not be treated as, a state. They tried (and failed) to negotiate directly with the bigger member states, particularly France and Germany. From their perspective, it is the member states which have legitimacy, not the EU as a bloc. Brexit could only ever be the beginning – being on the doorstep of a bloc like the EU without being part of it makes sense only if it’s a prelude to cracking that bloc apart. Part of that is conducting diplomacy directly with the member states, not with the EU. Post-truth politics demands that the EU not exist if we treat it as though it isn’t there. Brexit has always been a long-term project, just ask Rees-Mogg, and Brexiteers have always been clear in their own minds (although not so much in their public statements) that there would be economic losses for most of us in the short term – just the first half century or so. And we can always eat sovereignty in the meantime.

The underlying principle by which the English nationalist government works is that there is one, and only one, legitimate source of power in the world, and that is the nation-state. By that they mean not that the state is defined by the nation (which is perhaps the traditional definition), but that the nation is defined by the state. Treating the EU as some sort of lesser body with no real legitimacy is the same way that they regard the governments of Scotland and Wales, as we’ve seen in their actions to date. Over-ruling and ignoring Wales and Scotland isn’t oversight or carelessness, it’s the direct result of a world view in which only Westminster has legitimacy. They are simply applying the same rule both internally and externally. The choice we face in Wales is between joining their project, accepting their nineteenth century definitions of nation, state, and legitimacy, or joining the rest of the world in adopting twenty-first century definitions. Independence isn’t about opting out of an outdated English exceptionalist view of the world so much as opting into a modern internationalist world. The choice is ours – unless we allow it to become theirs by default.

Thursday, 21 January 2021

Blackmailing Labour would be counter-productive


Before the last Senedd election, Plaid Cymru announced with great fanfare that they would hold a referendum on independence in their second term of office as the government of Wales. It was always an odd statement to come from a party which claimed to be committed to obtaining independence for Wales. The stated rationale was that that was what had happened in Scotland, but the comparison was a specious one. The only reason that the SNP didn’t call for a referendum in their first term of government was that they were a minority government; there was simply no majority in the Scottish Parliament for holding one. The determinant of whether a referendum on independence should be held is not how many times a majority has been elected on such a platform but the simple fact that such a majority exists. Plaid’s position looked more like an attempt to woo voters opposed to independence by promising not to do anything about it for the five years of a Senedd term than a means of advancing the cause. The announcement last month that Plaid would call such a referendum if it won a majority in the Senedd in the forthcoming election was a welcome correction to a strange stance.

However, the suggestion this week that Plaid would make the holding of a referendum part of any coalition discussions with Labour would be a step too soon and too far. I agree with Mark Drakeford that the route to holding a referendum is to secure a majority of members of the Senedd pledged to holding such a vote. Trying to blackmail those elected on a platform of opposing a referendum into supporting one in order to be able to form a government isn’t at all the same thing.  Drakeford’s agreement that if a majority of members of the Senedd are elected on a platform of holding a referendum then a referendum should be held strikes me as entirely reasonable.

It sometimes seems as though the aim of holding a referendum on independence is in danger of eclipsing the underlying aim of gaining that independence. I entirely accept that, whilst a referendum isn’t the only possible or legal route to independence, in the particular circumstances of Wales in the twenty-first century a legally recognised referendum is the best way of ensuring both a smooth transition and rapid international recognition for the new state. But such a referendum will work best if it is a means of expressing and legitimating an opinion already widely-held – the job of winning it has to be done before calling it, not after announcing the timetable. Holding a referendum under a coalition government, the larger party in which only allows it to be held in order to retain power and then proceeds to campaign for a ‘no’ vote, looks more like a way of setting the cause back than advancing it. If parties supporting the calling of a referendum cannot even win a majority of seats in the Senedd, then it is highly improbable that a year or so later they will find a majority of the whole electorate for the substance of independence.

I can see why Plaid would want to mobilise all supporters of independence behind one party. After all, polls suggest that a majority of Labour supporters are at least open to the idea, and there’s no doubt that the idea is gaining ground. To succeed in that objective, though, requires that all of those who support independence will see that as their main priority and the key issue in the Senedd election, and will therefore vote with that aim uppermost in their minds. ‘Optimistic’ is one possible word to apply to that (I can think of others); there’s a lot of groundwork to be done first. To date, independentistas haven’t even succeeded in normalising debate on the subject, although Yes.Cymru have done a good job of laying the groundwork. There are, though, no short cuts: winning hearts and minds comes first.

Tuesday, 19 January 2021

An ill wind


The problems which Brexit has brought to Welsh ports are extremely serious, particularly for those whose jobs and livelihoods are threatened. And there is no doubt that the reduction in trade is likely to be long-term rather than ‘teething problems’ given the way in which hauliers are bypassing the UK and using more direct ferry services between Ireland and the European mainland. That will unquestionably damage GDP and prosperity in Wales. But having said that, I can’t help wondering whether there isn’t an environmental benefit being delivered by avoiding trucking goods offloaded from a ship on one side of the UK all the way across to the other side where they’re put back onto another ship (or train) to cross the water to the mainland.

If we started with a clean sheet of paper, would we really design systems the way that they were working prior to Brexit? I’ve often asked myself why (in the case of goods which are simply transiting across the UK) we don’t simply put them on a train at one port and then take them off at the other port – or even in Calais, after going through the tunnel. It would require investment in rail infrastructure, of course (although it might avoid, or at least delay, some investment in the road infrastructure by reducing the volume of heavy freight traffic) but would probably provide a faster overall transit at lower environmental cost than a stream of lorries. Avoiding the UK ‘land bridge’ by using longer distance ferries probably achieves similar environmental benefits, at the cost of a longer transit time.

Seeing benefits in Brexit isn’t something that comes entirely naturally to me, to say the least, but could the reduction in the number of lorries travelling across the UK from one port to another be a benefit? It’s clearly not an intentional benefit – the UK government seems genuinely surprised at the consequences of the deal it signed in such a rush. The problem is that, precisely because it is an entirely unintended and unforeseen (by the UK Government at least – clearly the Irish government and the ferry companies saw this one coming a long time ago) consequence, the government has not planned for it, or given any thought to the impact on jobs, livelihoods and communities. Rather than calling for changes to the deal so that we can go back to the way things were, might it not be better to start, even now at this late stage, thinking about how we respond to that impact, rather than act as though it is only going to be for a few weeks?

Monday, 18 January 2021

If I give you the vaccine, I won't have any left for someone else...


Some years ago, I worked in an office where the stationery was zealously guarded by the department’s administrator. Basically, the staff weren’t trusted to take only what they needed to do their job, and had to ask every time they needed a new pencil or biro, presenting the shortened or ink-depleted old one as evidence. On one occasion, I needed a floppy disk (yes, it really was that long ago!), and took myself off to the administrator’s desk, strategically placed in front of the locked stationery cupboard. “I’ve only got one left,” she told me. “That’s alright,” I replied, “I only need one.” “But if I give you this one, I won’t have any left if someone else wants one,” came the response, and no amount of pleading, let alone logic, would get the cupboard unlocked and the disk released into my custody.

What brought the incident to mind was yesterday’s astonishing statement from the First Minister that, because the supply of Covid-19 vaccines which has been issued to Wales has to last until the beginning of February, the government is eking it out to use it at a consistent rate over that period rather than using it all up as soon as it is available in order to vaccinate people more quickly. His argument for this is that, if we use it all at once, members of the vaccination team will then be sitting around idle until more supplies arrive. It’s not much of an argument; if the capacity to use it all in a shorter period exists, then the implication is that that capacity will be underused over the whole of the period rather than completely unused for part of it. To use the timescales quoted by the First Minister: in broad terms, the amount of resource needed to deliver the vaccines is roughly the same whether they’re done in a week or in six weeks – either way, a substantial portion of the capacity goes unused. It’s just that non-activity for five weeks is more obvious than under-activity for six.

Either way, it implies that the Welsh Government has put more capacity in place than it currently needs to deliver the vaccines available to it. Given the urgency of the programme, and the uncertainty of supplies, that’s not something for which it would be fair to criticise Drakeford. Much better to have excess capacity sitting around waiting for the supplies than to be under capacity when the supplies arrive, particularly if it is hoped and anticipated that in the fairly near future the rate of supply will increase dramatically. On the whole, Drakeford has come out of the pandemic looking more competent and compassionate than his English counterparts, even if the results haven’t always been as significantly different as we might hope; but his performance has not been perfect. Unless he has a better or more complete excuse than he’s offered in this case, he looks to have called this one wrong.

It would also be interesting to know whether the other parts of the UK have been following a similar approach. Just because the question seems only to have been asked (and therefore answered) in Wales, it doesn’t mean that a similar question elsewhere wouldn’t prompt a similar response (although in England, asking a question wouldn't necessarily lead to a response at all).

Saturday, 16 January 2021

Rewording the problem isn't a solution


Yesterday’s post referred to the report produced by a fringe group of members of the Labour Party on the subject of what they called ‘radical federalism’. The post concentrated in particular on the way that the report failed to address the huge issue of England, and its built-in majority in the current UK parliament. It gets worse than that. The detail of which powers would reside where reveals that this is really a proposal to reverse some aspects of devolution and return key powers to Westminster.

As things currently stand, the Senedd has significant powers in areas such as health, education, and housing to set its own standards and priorities. Under the ‘radical’ proposals put forward in this report, whilst what they refer to as the parliaments of “the historic nations of the UK” would be “responsible for their economies, infrastructure and the health and welfare of their populations”, they could only exercise their powers in the context of minimum standards for “health, social welfare, human rights, education and housing across the UK”. Whilst the devolved parliaments would be allowed to exceed those standards, they would be acting outside their powers if they ever fell below them. This is not the recognition of the sovereignty of those historic nations which they claim it to be so much as the imposition of further constraints on what they can do. It amounts to reclaiming currently devolved powers for the centre. In effect, they are proposing that England sets the standards and the other administrations must follow.

If England (through its majority in the UK Parliament) decides to change any of those standards, why should Wales be obliged to follow, even if the Welsh Government considers that its immediate priority, taking account of Welsh needs, lies elsewhere? That is, surely, a political question and, ultimately, a matter for political debate between the different parties in their campaigns for the Senedd. What they propose is, effectively, devolution of administration rather than policy.

In its introduction, the report quotes, apparently with approval, Gordon Brown saying that “…we have devolution but still a centralist mindset. We have, in theory, a decentralised constitution with supposed local powers of initiative, but a unitary state that won’t let go”. It then goes on to propose a solution which precisely replicates the problem. Calling something ‘radical’ doesn’t make it so.

Friday, 15 January 2021

Chasing a phantasm


A few days ago, a group of members of the Labour Party published a report setting out the case for something which they’ve called ‘Radical Federalism’. To call it underwhelming would be to understate the degree to which it fails to provide answers to any of the real questions. One of the biggest problems is that, as a member of Labour for an Independent Wales put it, “…the premise of the report is focused not on what reforms are necessary to improve peoples’ lives, but rather what is necessary to protect and preserve the union”. The continuation of the union is axiomatically assumed to be ‘a good thing’ with no real attempt to justify using it as a premise, an approach which necessarily constrains the ability of the authors to truly consider alternatives.

Perhaps my favourite sentence in the whole report was the first bullet point describing what a transformed UK might look like, which states that “The UK state would perform only those strategic tasks which could not be performed at a more local level”. It’s hard to disagree with that – the problem is how one decides what fits into that category. Any objective comparison with other independent states the size of Wales could only conclude that there is precisely nothing which fits that description; states the size of Wales across the world happily decide all matters for themselves. How they later in the same section arrive at the conclusion that the UK Parliament would be “responsible for the key areas of defence, macro-economic, trade, fiscal and foreign policy” is nowhere explained; it’s a conclusion pulled out of thin air. It’s a conclusion which goes a long way to justify Adam Price’s response that such a federation would commit Wales to “right-wing economics and illegal wars”, although that does also depend to an extent at least on who wins elections, rather than solely on the constitutional structure. Structures, in themselves, never determine policy.

The report says that there would be a ‘UK framework’ (presumably agreed by the UK Parliament?) which would “guarantee minimum and common standards” in a range of fields, imposing immediate limits on what any of the constituent parts can decide to do (even ignoring the minor little question as to whether standards can be both ‘minimum’ and ‘common’). But how does that setting of standards work, in practice, in a union of unequals, where one ‘member’ can always outvote the others when it comes to setting or changing those standards? How does that federal parliament work? It’s a question which goes unanswered – and it’s easy to understand why!

On this issue, the report – like most proposals for a federal UK – ignores the giant elephant, otherwise known as England. How does a federation of four parts, in which one accounts for 85% of the population, work effectively without that single part dominating and outvoting the other 15% whenever it chooses? One potential approach is that the federal parliament contains an equal number of members from each of the four states – so England, with 85%, gets the same voice as Wales with 5%. Another potential approach is to break England up into 9 mini-states (based on currently recognised regions, although other configurations are possible), each with their own parliament exercising the same functions as the Welsh or Scottish parliaments, turning a very unequal union of four into a much more balanced union of 12 (or 13 if Cornwall were given separate recognition).

Just noting that there are only two potential approaches which are workable is enough to explain why that which might appear theoretically attractive turns out to be the stuff of fantasy in the real world. It requires either that English politicians accept that Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and England are equals or else that they agree to dismember England. And in both cases, they must accept that sovereignty does not reside exclusively in Westminster and that the UK parliament and government will have no control or influence over huge swathes of policy. Neither the English nationalist Tories currently in charge nor the Anglo-British nationalist Labour Party who seek to replace them (the key difference seems to be a question of how many union flags must be visible in the background when their leader speaks – Anglo-British nationalists only require one, but English nationalists always require two) are ever going to do either of those things.

A federalism which had considered these issues in detail and come up with a solution to them thirty years ago might, just, have staved off (or at least delayed) the demise of the UK. Perhaps. But coming up with a half-baked proposal which is just the vague wish list of a few fringe elements in the Labour Party but which can’t answer the key questions, despite such a proposal having been regularly floated for decades, and when the union is already on its deathbed, just doesn’t cut it. It looks like what it is – a last-minute and panicky attempt to protect a union for which they can’t even advance a half-decent argument in the first place. This ‘radical’ approach to preserving the union is almost the very definition of conservatism – protecting and preserving that which exists simply because it exists. When Scotland dissolves the union of 1707, Wales will face a choice between following Scotland or being more tightly integrated into England. The idea that ‘federalism’ offers some sort of third way is nonsense – Labour must, eventually, decide which side to support. Chasing irrelevant phantasms can be nothing more than a holding operation.

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Solidarity would be more effective than enforced obedience


The lesson that any normal empathic human would have learned from the Barnard Castle eye-test fiasco is that government messages can be seriously undermined if senior members or officials of the government are seen to be non-compliant with government guidance, even if that non-compliance can potentially be interpreted by some as ‘merely’ stretching a point rather than an outright and undeniable breach. All the evidence shows that Cummings’ jaunt had a serious negative impact on public willingness to comply, and left an unpleasant feeling that there’s one law for ‘them’ and another for everyone else. However, the lesson that Johnson appears to have actually learned is that toughing it out works. Not in terms of such minor questions as reinforcing government messages and protecting lives of course, but in the more limited but much more important – to him, anyway – sense of fending off a potential threat to his own position. To paraphrase an old saying, there are two rules concerning the world king: 1) the world king is always right, and 2) in the event of him being wrong, rule 1 above applies.

There seems to be no doubt that, in the black-and-white matter of what the letter of the law says, taking himself off for a bike ride seven miles from home was not illegal under English lockdown rules (and that’s still true, even if, as seems likely given Downing Street’s apparent reluctance to either confirm or deny it, he and his security entourage drove that seven miles rather than riding it). But there is equally no doubt that, at a time when his own government’s ministers and the health experts are saying that the law is a maximum, not an entitlement, and that people should be avoiding any travel at all unless it is absolutely essential, let alone the continual hints that he and the government believe that current rules may not be strict enough, his trip was directly contrary to most of the messaging coming from himself, let alone those around him. It might be arguable that, for his security (to say nothing of the safety of other road users), having the PM and a posse of security officers riding their bikes in wobbly fashion through the roads of the capital is not the most brilliant idea that anyone ever came up with, and that it was therefore reasonable to use the lack of precision in the law to allow him some safe exercise. With a bit more self-awareness, to say nothing of a willingness to express a degree of contrition or regret, he might have tried that line, and many might even have sympathised. But feelings like contrition are alien to Johnson’s character – and anyway, the world king is always right.

How damaging it will be in the coming weeks and months remains to be seen – the Cummings effect is still strong after many months. One of the strangest aspects of the whole affair was that apparently, in a stark display of his own lack of self-awareness, the PM was so surprised at how many other people were at the park where he went for his ride that he took that information back to the cabinet for a discussion on how the guidance could be more strongly enforced. This, in turn, may well have led to the otherwise inexplicable decision to deploy the disastrous Priti Patel at yesterday’s press conference to promise draconian police action against all those mere plebs who dare to emulate the PM’s lack of compliance with what is mostly guidance rather than law. There is little doubt that stronger enforcement will be popular amongst the overwhelming majority who are attempting to follow the ever-changing rules and guidance and don’t like seeing others ‘getting away with it’. It’s a poor substitute though for encouraging a greater sense of social solidarity where people genuinely feel that the action taken is collective rather than simply individual. Johnson’s words and actions directly undermine such solidarity as does exist rather than increasing it. But then world kings don’t require solidarity, merely obedience.

Monday, 11 January 2021

To vote or not to vote


Last week, the English government declared that it fully intends to proceed with local and mayoral elections in May despite the pandemic, and categorically ruled out moving to an all-postal election. Based on the government’s record to date, the most reasonable assumption to draw from this is that the elections will be postponed and that all votes will be cast by postal ballot – whatever they rule out categorically one week usually becomes firm policy the next. There is, of course, a knock-on effect for the devolved administrations in Cardiff and Edinburgh: for either of them to go ahead if England delays, or to delay if England goes ahead will be spun against those administrations for the political ends of the English Conservative Party. That party seems to have no firm view on whether postponing is, in itself, right or wrong, only that Wales and Scotland must follow England.

In Scotland, on the other hand, the unionist parties are desperately keen to postpone if they can, given that the SNP are on course for another landslide win. In the first place, their one remaining hope of stopping the SNP’s progress seems to be the belief that, if they can only delay a while, ‘something’ might turn up. On such vague hopes their wish to preserve the union now rests. But in the second place, if they argue that it is entirely ‘safe’ to hold elections, they will struggle to argue that holding a subsequent referendum (by which time the pandemic should be even more under control) is somehow ‘unsafe’. Or at least they would struggle if consistency and honesty were traits with which they were in any way familiar.

On the substance of the question, it’s hard to assess how safe and sensible holding elections in the middle of a pandemic is in reality. Whilst there are plenty of examples of other countries which have done so, there’s no hard evidence of which I’m aware which assesses whether, and to what extent, those elections have helped to spread the virus. It would be surprising if an event which led to millions of people going out to polling stations had no impact at all, given how easily the virus spreads. But conducting the elections entirely by means of postal ballots would clearly be safer than insisting on people physically casting their ballots at a polling station, so there is an obvious way of dramatically reducing any potential impact.

The real impact which will worry the politicians more isn’t the holding of the election itself, it’s their ability to campaign, and particularly to have the direct contact with electors which is the basis of most campaigning. Whilst telephone canvassing can work up to a point, many electors have a strong aversion to it, particularly when it involves multiple calls from multiple parties. And don’t even mention robo-calls: why any party thinks they’re a good idea is one of life’s little mysteries. On the other hand, many years of direct experience of active campaigning on doorsteps has left me unsure as to the actual impact of canvassing at election times. Certainly, I’ve met many who have said that they would switch from party A to party B as a result of our doorstep encounter, but presumably, party A’s campaigners are also finding people who are switching from B to A as a result of the same process. And besides – whisper it quietly – it’s not exactly unknown for voters to lie to canvassers. Especially if they’ve been dragged away from Coronation Street to answer the doorbell and are keen to get back to it.

An election with limited campaigning is still an election, but to the extent that doorstep campaigning affects outcomes, the lack of such campaigning is likely to marginally favour incumbents and/or parties and politicians receiving favourable media coverage at the time*. That question of marginal advantage or disadvantage is, almost certainly, one of the main factors which politicians will be weighing up as they decide whether to support postponement. Currently, we don’t know how bad the pandemic will be in April/May, but we can probably have a degree of confidence that the situation will have improved by the autumn as the vaccination programme starts to have an effect, although new variants and mutations cannot be discounted. Whatever the politicians might think, I suspect that those front-line staff who are giving so much would probably prefer not to take an unnecessary risk if it can be avoided. That ought to be sufficient reason to take an early decision to postpone.

*Having said that, I’ve known candidates who would probably have benefited from not being allowed to knock too many doors! One who claimed to have been born on Venus immediately springs to mind, but there are plenty of more down-to-earth examples.

Saturday, 9 January 2021

Johnson underperforms Trump


This week, both the UK and the US have reported record levels of deaths from the pandemic. The US is reporting truly horrific numbers, and this is rightly being blamed on the chaotic leadership of the outgoing president, Donald Trump, who has spent the last few months fixating on imaginary electoral fraud instead of getting to grips with the pandemic. With the daily death toll passing 4,000 for the first time yesterday, and a total of 356,000 deaths to date, the incoming president, Joe Biden, has a huge task on his hands in trying to get control of a problem which has been ignored and downplayed by his predecessor. We need to remember, though, that absolute figures can be misleading, and relative numbers are usually more informative. With a population of 330 million, one would expect that the US would have a larger death toll than smaller countries even if its leader had given the problem his full attention, although that will provide little comfort to those impacted.

The UK has had a much smaller number of deaths in total. To date, the total is somewhere between 80,000 and 95,000 (depending on whether we start with the official daily running total or the ONS analysis of excess deaths) and has this week gone above 1,000 per day for the first time since April. The UK population is 66 million, about one fifth of that in the US, so one would reasonably expect, even if the level of competence and control was no better than that of Donald Trump (and that’s a very low bar indeed), that the death toll both overall and in terms of the daily peak would be no greater than one fifth of that in the US. Simple maths, however, tells us that it is worse – and significantly so. One fifth of the US totals would amount to 800 per day and an overall total of 71,000, both of which have been comfortably exceeded by the UK’s ‘world-leading’ performance.

What this tells us, in simple terms, is that the UK under Boris Johnson has performed less well than the US under the chaotic regime of Donald Trump. That’s worth repeating: Boris Johnson has demonstrably done an even worse job of managing the pandemic than Donald Trump. Yet still the sycophantic UK media trumpet the ‘world-beating’ promises and statements of Johnson and his cronies as though they have some relationship with fact. Poor management of the pandemic isn’t the only similarity. Both men have had their attention diverted by products of their own imagination – in the US it’s imaginary voter fraud and in the UK it’s the imaginary benefits of Brexit. Both have shown an astonishing inability to empathise with others, particularly those who have lost so much. Both seem to believe that they are the real victims – Trump of a vast conspiracy to steal an election and Johnson of being made to do things he hates. Instead of learning from experience and changing their approach, both heap praise on themselves for their achievements and seem genuinely surprised or even upset when others don’t do the same. And whilst the removal of either doesn’t guarantee a more successful approach, it is in both cases an essential precondition. The difference is that Trump is going now – we could be stuck with Johnson for almost four more years.