Friday, 24 March 2017

Recognising the emotional element

Speaking in the National Assembly on Tuesday, the First Minister said of independence: “The case for independence by those who make it in Wales is built not on the economy, to my mind, but on emotion.”  I’m sure that he really believes that to be true (and I’m equally sure that, for at least some independentistas, it actually is true), but to me it looks like the usual approach of politicians – present your opponents’ arguments as something which they are not, and then dismiss that.  It’s a lot easier than engaging with the real arguments.  It is, however, a hopeless over-simplification, which firstly claims, in essence, that there can only be two possible grounds for independence, and then proceeds to dismiss one as being unrealistic and the other as preferring emotion over fact.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, I don’t see things quite in those terms.
I have, in the past, described myself as an accidental independentista, because my own grounds for seeking independence for Wales don’t fit either of the categories outlined by the First Minister; and I suspect that there are many others who also wouldn’t categorise themselves in either box.  Independence has always been, for me, a means to an end rather than the end in itself as which opponents prefer to paint it.  So here are some very briefly summarised alternative thoughts on the issue of independence.
Being small is an advantage in itself.  I don’t simply mean that small countries often do better, in economic terms, than larger ones.  They do, as it happens, but it is by no means easy to draw a straight line between cause and effect, and assuming that Wales must do better by itself is far too simplistic.  What I mean is that for anyone who wants to see a more participative and localised form of democracy, smaller units are more likely to be able to facilitate that than larger ones.  There is much in the work done by people such as Kohl and Schumacher decades ago (which did more to convince me of the merits of independence than any lengthy conference speeches evoking the Welsh heroes of the past!) on the advantages of being a small country.  Putting people back at the heart of economics rather than seeing them as resources to be used is central to my own political outlook, but requires us to work on a smaller, more human, scale.
Identity is a bastion against globalisation.  Adherents of globalised capitalist ideology rail against what they refer to as ‘identity politics’.  From their perspective, turning the population of the world into identikit consumers is an entirely desirable outcome.  For those who see humans as being more than an economic resource at the disposal of others, meaning and identity are an important part of that humanity, and insisting on, and protecting, identity and culture (in the wide sense of the word) is part of resisting the forces of globalised capitalism which see us as purely economic entities.
Why Wales?  Nothing in the above necessarily mandates that the unit should be Wales rather than some other territory bounded by any other type of line on a map.  And I have posted before on the right of any group of people in any defined territory to take control of their own futures if that is what they wish to do.  My argument for treating Wales as a unit boils down, in essence, to the fact that a sufficient number of people see Wales as their nation and Welshness as their identity.  What either of those are, in reality, is a much more flexible concept to deal with (and something I’ve discussed previously), but building a polity around an existing identity has always seemed to me to be preferable to trying to build an identity around a polity. 
The break-up of the UK will be of benefit to all the parties concerned.  Even if they can’t all see it yet.  It is an oft-repeated truth that the UK is a post-imperial power seeking a new role but which has yet to find one with which it is comfortable.  This is the issue at the heart of Brexit; the UK has still not adapted to the loss of empire or understood that it is no longer the great power which once it was.  And to be honest, whilst the UK continues to exist, I do not believe that it ever will.  But the emergence of the new states of Wales, Scotland, and England seems to me to be the likeliest scenario in which all three can break free of their historical baggage; enthusiastically in the case of two of the three albeit with some reluctance in the case of the third.
Economics is about consequences not arguments.  The idea that whether Wales should or should not become and independent nation depends entirely on the economic case – which seems to be the First Minister’s position – is a curious one; and it’s even more curious that so many independentistas have fallen for it over the years.  The economic outcome of government policy within the current structures is essentially unknowable – the only reason that any individual economist has ever been able to make accurate predictions about anything is that there exist a sufficient number of economists to cover almost all the possible options (they’re a bit like monkeys with typewriters);  ‘economic forecasting’ is an oxymoron.  And if that’s true when the structures are known and stable, it’s even truer for any alternative scenario.  Of course we can make guesses and estimates about the future, but the idea that any of us can know, with any degree of certainty, what the economic outcome of independence (or the lack thereof) would be is fanciful to say the least.  All the most accurate economic forecasts and explanations are the retrospective ones; and what we can say with a degree of certainty is that those countries which have become independent have invariably adapted, and most have thrived.  A second thing that we can say is that if economics is the be-all and end-all basis for judging success of governmental structures, then the present approach hasn’t exactly served Wales well.
There’s more to identity than emotion.  People often confuse – sometimes deliberately – patriotism, nationalism, and identity.  The first of those, and to a lesser extent the second, can often be expressed and felt in terms which are highly emotional; but the third is something much more emotionally neutral.  One can be Welsh and proud of it; one can be Welsh and ashamed of it – but neither the shame nor the pride necessarily change the way in which we self-identify.  Trying to pretend that wanting to turn an identity into a polity is an entirely emotional response – which is what the First Minister was implying – is missing the point.  And probably deliberately so.
Independence is just the starting point.  Gaining independence for Wales isn’t just some dry academic constitutional obsession as often claimed by opponents; it’s about creating the conditions under which we can collectively build an alternative future for the people living in this corner of the world.  I have my ideas about what that future might look like – some of those will be clear from the points above and others have been covered on this blog over the years.  Other people will have alternative views.  The point is that it will be up to us to shape that future, not have it determined for us.  What exactly is the problem with that as a concept?
The problem that we face is that so many in Wales are, like the First Minister, so wedded to the axiomatic ‘rightness’ of the world as it is that they are unable to envision a different future.  Instead of thinking about what that future might look like and how we might achieve it, they grasp at false arguments to protect the status quo.  Having said all that, I will partially agree with the First Minister that there is an emotional element to my support for independence, based around confidence and hope.  But on that basis, there’s an emotional element to the First Minister’s position as well – it’s based around fear and timidity.  Faced with that choice, I’ll choose hope and confidence any day.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

The problem with the 'f' word

The manager of Labour’s Scottish branch office has cut a rather forlorn figure recently as she attempts to hoist the flag of federalism as an alternative to independence despite the obvious hostility of her party’s leader at Westminster.  In fairness to her, she’s not the only one attracted by the possibility of a federal structure for the UK; and I’ve long wondered whether many independentistas wouldn’t be prepared to settle for a truly federal UK as well.  Gordon Brown has been using the word since at least 2014, although it seems that his party is taking about as much notice of him as it does of Kezia Dugdale.
There is a serious problem with federalism, though, which I wonder if they’ve really thought through.  And the recent Supreme Court decision on triggering Brexit hasn’t helped.  A truly federal state depends on a clear separation of powers between the federal authorities and the individual member states, and stems from a recognition that the states are voluntary and equal members of the union.  Without a change to the UK’s unwritten constitution, it seems to me that this is simply unachievable; and the change required is so significant, that I can’t see the UK Parliament ever accepting it.
The whole constitutional settlement in the UK is based on the convenient fiction that god invested power in the monarch who in turn graciously shared it with parliament.  The usual phrase for the source of power and sovereignty in the UK is the quaint term “the Crown in Parliament”.  All laws stem from this source of authority, not from the people.  In historical terms, it’s nonsense, of course; the truth is that parliament gradually stripped the monarch of powers over the centuries.  But the fiction is maintained and sustained by a whole lot of meaningless pomp and ceremony, and it has one important consequence, which is that what parliament decides, parliament can subsequently undecide.  And that right is absolute.  
It’s the underlying problem at the heart of the devolution settlement – power devolved is power retained, and in terms of UK law, all the powers held by the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland parliaments are held only to the extent that, and for as long as, the real source of power permits it to be so.  That mindset came through loud and clear during the Supreme Court hearing on triggering Brexit, and it seems to be at the forefront of the Prime Minister’s mind as she approaches the repatriation of powers following Brexit. 
Above all, it marks a key difference between devolution and federalism.  Devolution is, and always has been, about lending some powers to the new parliaments, but it isn’t about giving them those powers.  Even when that split is enshrined in law, it is a law made under the same terms and the UK Parliament has the same right to repeal or revise it.  Devolution can work on this basis, after a fashion, provided that there is a modicum of good will all round.  Federalism can’t; the powers of the member states belong to those member states and to them alone, and can only be surrendered on a voluntary basis.
So, whilst a federal approach for the UK is not without its attractions, it requires, in effect, a change to the UK Constitution to accept that the monarch and the UK Parliament are not the fount of all sovereignty, and that the constituent parts have their own sovereignty, as of right, which cannot be removed by Westminster.  To be blunt, I see no chance of the Conservative Party ever accepting that, and very little chance that the Labour Party will do so either.  In practice, the individual parts of the UK would need to become independent first, and then agree to a new union based on a different principle.  The first part of that sounds like a good idea to me; but I’m really not sure why the second would then look attractive…

Wednesday, 22 March 2017


Boris Johnson was taken to task recently by a Swedish MP for using the word ‘liberation’ in the context of the UK leaving the EU.  I’m not particularly interested in the precise definition of the words here as much as the underlying attitudes which the uses of the word display.  It is clear to me that many Brexiteers really do see it in terms of regaining liberty and sovereignty (even though the government’s own white paper on Brexit makes it clear that sovereignty was never in doubt).  It convinces me that they really don't understand what 'domination' by another country actually means, but if they truly believe that exiting the EU is about regaining lost liberty it’s easy to understand why they are so surprised that most independentistas don’t support Brexit.  And conversely, it’s a perspective which helps to explain why some independentistas are so fond of Brexit.
It’s a question of more than merely academic interest, and is particularly pertinent to the debate in Scotland on a second independence referendum.  It’s a major part of the explanation as to why it isn’t possible to draw a simple line from the 62% pro-EU vote to a majority for independence.  The problem, for the SNP, is that a significant minority of those supporting independence also support leaving the EU, seeing both as a question of ‘freedom’.
At a superficial level, it’s easy to see how the misunderstanding arises.  Why, after all, would people opposed to decisions being taken in one capital outside their country support them being taken in another capital outside their country?  Why distinguish between one ‘union’ and another ‘union’?  Part of the answer, of course, is that the comparison is over-simplistic – the fact that the word ‘union’ is used in both cases is too easily interpreted to mean that they’re the same thing.  Explaining why the two are different is challenging in a political milieu which reduces everything to simple slogans.
From a historical perspective, there is a huge difference between a union brought about by military conquest, where one particular nationality is dominant, and where sovereignty is deemed to reside in the centre on the one hand, and a union which is joined voluntarily on the basis of a mutually agreed set of terms, which recognises that sovereignty lies with the people of the member states, and which is, in its very essence, a multi-language and multi-culture organisation dominated by no one country on the other.  Although it might look like decisions are being taken in faraway capitals in both cases, there are some key differences there as well.  In the case of one union, they are taken by a government which is dominated by one ‘member’ of the union, and in the other, there is of necessity a more collective approach to decision-taking with lengthy negotiations between the partners and a qualified majority system of voting at the end.  In other words, in the one union, we get to do what we are told, whilst in the other we get the same level of input as other members before a collective decision is taken.  We will still be outvoted on occasions, of course.  But to claim that that is somehow less democratic than simply being told what to do is to traduce the meaning of the word democracy.
Even the most committed Brexiteers display through their words that they understand the difference between the two, even if that understanding is not always a conscious one.  If the two were truly equivalent, than an EU which included England, Scotland and Wales as independent individual members would be, in effect, maintaining the “union” between the countries of the UK, simply on a looser, more equal basis.  The fact that they don’t see it that way demonstrates clearly that, at some level, they understand the different nature of the two unions.  And it underlines the essential nationalism of their position; one set of borders, one set of political and governance arrangements, is axiomatically “better” than another.
Some of the strongest arguments that I’ve seen against membership of the EU are based on opposition to the capitalist ideology underlying the EU.  They are arguments with which I have a great deal of sympathy, and they mirror the arguments used by many (including myself) in the 1975 referendum.  But the option of an alternative arrangement with a significant number of other countries outside the EU no longer exists, and the idea that Wales can build ‘socialism in one country’, to borrow a not-entirely-happy slogan from the past, strikes me as wishful thinking in the twenty-first century.  I’m simply not convinced that we can build our future in isolation from the rest of Europe; the world has become too integrated for that.  The problem, in a nutshell, is that however good some of those points are as arguments against membership of the EU, they do not stand up as arguments for the only alternative on the table, which is being part of an isolationist UK (with or without Scotland) in which the ideology so criticised in relation to the EU holds even stronger sway.
I understand why some independentistas want to have no part of either union (or presumably any alternative union) – and why they therefore celebrate rather than oppose Brexit.  I understand why that looks more like ‘proper’ independence than membership of either the EU or the UK.  But how realistic is it to argue that Wales could or should be ‘totally independent’ in the modern globalised world?  Joining any international body (including the UN) necessarily requires a pooling of sovereignty with other countries; it necessarily requires that not all decisions taken will be taken unanimously, and that sometimes we will disagree.  In addition, all the other members of the EU consider themselves ‘proper’ independent states, and would laugh at the idea that they are not.  Why does Welsh independence require us to be ‘more independent’ than them?  It seems to be taking a particularly ‘British’ or ‘Brexiteer’ view of what independence is, rather than looking at it from a Welsh or European perspective.  It’s as though parts of the Welsh national movement are forgetting our long history of taking that more European outlook and are instead being sucked along in the flow of defining things in very British terms.  To me, that’s a curious position for any independentista to take.
The question is how much sovereignty we should share and with whom.  Not all unions are equivalent, and probably none will be perfect.  I’m convinced that being in an organisation which includes a number of other similar sized countries with whom we can work offers a better future to Wales than being in an off-shore island totally dominated by the neighbour to our east.  Yet the latter is, today, the default future awaiting us.  And looking to the longer term, persuading people in Wales that our best future lies in opting out of that and becoming an independent state outside both unions looks to me to be a much harder task than persuading them to opt in to membership of a European union on equal terms with other European nations.  The latter is also more compatible with the general flow of European history in the twenty-first century.  Brexit takes that second option off the table, and independentistas supporting, or even facilitating, Brexit are, in my view, pushing Wales’ entry into the world into the far-distant future as a result.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Free trade and not so free trade

Yet again yesterday, the UK Prime Minister told us that she wants a “good free trade deal” with what’s left of the EU after Brexit.  It isn’t just her, of course; the refrain about free trade has come from most if not all of her ministers repeatedly over recent months.  But when this message comes from the mouths of people who are deliberately placing obstacles in the way of free trade, it is reasonable to ask whether they are simply being disingenuous, or whether they really don’t understand what “free trade” means.
There are two types of obstacle to free trade – tariff barriers and non-tariff barriers.  But much of the discussion revolves only around the first of those; to hear them talking, one might believe that, if only we can come to an agreement on tariffs, the problem is solved.  But in reality, tariff barriers are the easiest part to overcome, and I am entirely willing to believe that, given an adequate timescale (which is almost certainly longer than the 2 years allocated for Brexit talks) and goodwill on all sides, a deal on tariffs will be possible.
It is the non-tariff barriers where the real obstacles will arise.  Free trade, as we know it at the moment within the EU, is based on the idea either of a common set of regulations across the whole free trade area, or as a minimum, a broad acceptance that regulations set by different countries can be regarded as equivalent.  This part of the agreement is the part which actually does most to facilitate the movement of goods and services across the national frontiers without checking or verification.  But the abolition of rules made “by Brussels” (in reality through negotiation between the 28 partners in a long drawn-out process which eventually reaches a position acceptable to all) is central to the aim of the Brexiteers.  They don’t want to follow the same rules as everyone else; they are seeking to gain an advantage by not having to follow those rules. 
Whilst I can see a prospect of a deal on tariffs, I see little prospect of a deal on the non-tariff barriers as long as one side is determined to  have a single set of rules and the other is even more determined to work to a different set of rules to give itself an advantage.  Yet for reasons which escape me, most Brexiteers seem to seriously believe that they will get their way on this.  The likeliest outcome is that a deal of some sort on tariffs will end up being spun as a free trade deal in order to claim a “success”.  But it is unlikely to look that way to those companies and employers who find themselves having to negotiate their way through different sets of regulations after decades of being faced with a single set.

Monday, 20 March 2017

An immigrant from another galaxy?

Somewhere, in a galaxy a long, long way from Earth, there may be a planet on which the pronouncements of Liam Fox make sense to someone other than himself.  Maybe he even came from there and is merely struggling to escape the linguistic and political norms of his home world.  As explanations go, it may sound incredible, but it’s probably less incredible than trying to square his words with the norms of this planet.
Take this gem from his speech in Cardiff: “We want to realise a new relationship with Europe, based on free trade and prosperity."  Obviously, that is a relationship which is different to the one we currently have, which is based on working together to ensure … er … free trade and prosperity.  A relationship which he and others told us we should opt out of.
Or this one: "We know that when we leave the EU, we will not have an EU commissioner, MEPs or a seat at the European Council.  That is a political decision that we have consciously taken following the instruction from the British people at the referendum.  It is a political response to a political decision.  But it would surely be wholly inappropriate if our political decision was to be met with an economic response…”.  Only on another planet could taking a deliberate decision not to be involved in setting the rules governing the operation of a free trade area be seen as a solely political decision, and nothing to do with economics at all.
But perhaps the best bit of all is his claim that if “…barriers to trade and investment were introduced across Europe, that would damage the economic potential of all European citizens and those well beyond Europe too [and] would ultimately be self-defeating ...”.  At least, on this one, I can agree with him, in principle at least.  After all, the idea that introducing barriers to trade and investment might just possibly be economically damaging was, as I recall, fairly central to the arguments of those campaigning against Brexit.  But just remind me a moment – whose decision was it to opt out of membership of the organisation which was trying to guarantee that there would be no such barriers?  To read his words, once could almost believe that it was those 27 wicked European states which had conspired together to expel the UK rather than the UK taking a conscious (albeit misinformed) decision to opt out.  (Although I’m not sure that I’d really blame them if they had considered an expulsion…)
Like so much which comes from the Brexiteers, much of what he says is ultimately a demand for more British exceptionalism; for the right to enjoy more of the privileges of club membership than the members themselves whilst rejecting the club’s rules and declining to pay a membership fee.  And it’s all done without a touch of irony or self-awareness, and an assumption that everyone else will fall into line.  I’m not normally one for repatriating immigrants, but in his case, I am wondering if his home planet would consider taking him back?

Friday, 17 March 2017

Stupid or very clever?

Half a century ago, I remember my Chemistry teacher telling me that she was struggling to work out whether I was as stupid as I appeared to be, or very clever and trying to hide the fact by pretending to be stupid.  I thought that she was being very perceptive in her second interpretation, but that's not a proposition which would necessarily gain unanimous support. What brought the thought back to me yesterday was Theresa May's interview in which she was asked about the second Scottish independence referendum, when she followed her now customary approach of ignoring every question and just restating the same thing over and over again (in this case that "now is not the time").

It is, to follow the theme with which I started, entirely possible that she believes that to be an adequate answer to the question "when, then?" after the first iteration, however it is formulated. Or perhaps she believes that the rest of us will accept it as an entirely adequate response because she's the boss and she's said it.  In either case, I'd have to conclude that she really is as stupid as she appears to be. But what if we give her the benefit of the doubt and postulate that she is actually very clever, just pretending to be stupid? (And I'd really like to be able to do that; assuming that the Prime Minister really is as stupid as she seems to be is not exactly a comfortable position for any country to be in.)

Is there any way in which we might we be able to conclude that there's some underlying cleverness at work? Well, I suppose that if she really believes that the Brexit negotiations are doomed to fail (as she apparently thought was the case before the vote itself) and has turned the whole exercise into a trap into which Johnson, Davis, and Fox have unwittingly rushed and are in the process of hoisting themselves by their own red white and blue petards, that might be quite clever.  She could just be waiting until they're all absolutely tied up in knots before reinventing herself as the white knight riding to the rescue of the UK to save us from ourselves by cancelling the Brexit project.  Or perhaps she has a cunning plan to allow Scotland to stay in the single market after all, thus revealing to the Scots that she's had their best interests at heart all along, but couldn't say anything for fear that those evil Europeans would be able to use her words against her.  That might turn out to look rather clever too.

Sadly, try as I might, I can't believe either of those.  In fact, I simply can't find any scenario which works better than the simplest assumption of all.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Time and war

Responding to an SNP MP yesterday, the UK Prime Minister made it clear that there is a huge difference between membership of the EU and being part of the UK.  And she's right, there is indeed; it's just that the important differences aren't the ones she highlighted. But what she said provided yet another indication (as if we needed one) of British nationalist thinking.

The first difference she highlighted was one of time.  She pointed out that we've only been in the EU for 40 years, but the union between England and Scotland has existed for over 300.  As a simple statement of fact, it's incontrovertible; but what is it about the passage of time which makes the difference?  And how much time, exactly, is enough for something to become 'permanent'?

I doubt anyone will give me a sensible or logical answer to that second question, precisely because setting any particular time limit, no matter how short or long, is self-evidently arbitrary. Well, it is to me; it clearly isn't to May, but doubt that she would have a clue about how much time is 'enough', even if she had stopped to think about that before making her statement.  I suspect that the real underlying answer is simply that it's another version of the usual fallback on British exceptionalism - in essence "because UK"; no more detail required.

She did though give us a clue as to the first point, about why the passage of time makes things more 'permanent'.  And the first part of that was the tried and tested "We have fought together". Whatever the question, this always seems to be the first line of defence of 'Britishness' and of what makes us 'British'; for jingoistic British nationalists like May, the unifying factor always comes back to the perceived glorious military might of the UK.  Wars, apparently are what unite us.  Perhaps, in some twisted form of logic, that's why the UK has started and fought so many of them.  

Precisely because it's one of the unwritten laws of Britishness that fighting wars together is central to our identity, it never occurs to these people that, actually, this attitude to war and the rest of the world, and Britain's place in it, might be part of what drives some of us to want not to be part of the UK any more.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Responding to Scotland

To the great surprise of precisely no-one,  I disagree with the response of Carwyn Jones to the announcement by Scotland's First Minister that she is going to take the first step towards calling a second independence referendum.  But in saying that the nations of the UK are stronger together than apart, he is at least recognising the alternative possibility.  I take the opposite view on the desirability of independence, but despite what some may say, I don't see anything particularly unpatriotic about arguing that perhaps a country can be independent if it wants, but that it should choose not to.  It's a stance which betrays an utter lack of confidence in the ability of the nation he purports to lead, and in the capacity of his own party and government to improve things, but none of that makes it unpatriotic or anti-Welsh.

The response of Plaid Cymru hardly displayed any more confidence.  Brexit might prompt calls for "greater control of our own affairs" is a statement which looks like it's either trying to say independence without using the word or else threatening to maybe perhaps ask for a few crumbs.  It's not the confident approach of a party which knows what can be done and is ready to lead; it's the approach of a party afraid of losing votes by taking a clear and unequivocal stance.

The Tories have shown their usual inability to deal with the substance of the question, as well as their total failure to understand why anyone in politics would want to have an aim, let alone try and achieve it.  And UKIP have resorted to their usual nonsense of claiming that membership of the EU is equivalent to surrendering all power to Brussels.

The decision taken by Nicola Sturgeon is high-risk for the long term cause of independence for Scotland.  The result is by no means as certain as many independentistas seem to be assuming, and there'a s long hard road ahead.  Failure for a second attempt in such a short timescale would set the cause back by decades.  Much of the news coverage is suggesting that yesterday's announcement caught the UK Government on the hop.  Perhaps it did - but it should not have.  There is no excuse for not seeing what was about to happen, even if the precise timing was not so clear - it should have been obvious to the UK Government that the course on which they have set themselves was going to create a situation in which the Scottish Government was left with no credible choice; the fact that they seem not to have realised that speaks volumes.  

But the point that the UK Government doesn't understand it is no reason for the rest of us not to understand it - the SNP Government were left with little choice or room to manoeuvre.  Any sensible timing for the referendum, for all the reasons outlined by Nicola Sturgeon, is severely constrained by the decisions already taken at Westminster.  Many independentistas are naturally enthusiastic for the forthcoming campaign, and optimistic abut the result.  But the scale of the challenge is greater than some seem to think.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Avoiding broken promises

In this story last week about the Chancellor’s little local difficulty over the increase in National Insurance, the Tory MP for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire came up with a real humdinger of a suggestion; or at least it would be if he followed it through to its logical conclusion.  In essence, as he sees it, the problem isn’t that the Chancellor broke a promise, it’s that the Tories were silly enough to make the promise in the first place.  Matters such as taxation policy are best left vague, so that the government can respond to changes in circumstances.

That needs to be followed through, though.  Clearly, without knowing what any putative government is going to do on taxes, it’s difficult to make any spending pledges either.  And it isn’t only financial circumstances that might change, so perhaps all policies should be left unstated in case the government feels it needs to do something different.  It’s an approach which would lead to very short manifestos.  One sentence would be quite enough:

“We will do whatever we think needs to be done at any point in time.”

I’d like to think that it’s an approach which would never catch on, but it actually strikes me as a refreshingly honest statement of the current government’s approach.  I’ll bet that the PM won’t be overjoyed at seeing the cat let out of the bag.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Identifying what's actually broken

Yesterday’s news was full of accusations that the Chancellor broke an election promise by raising the level of National Insurance payments for self-employed people.  I think, though, that people are aiming at the wrong target.
In the Conservative Party, policy is made by the leader; the leader is ultimately responsible for the content of the manifesto; and the leader is responsible for keeping any promises.  So the ‘promise’ which Hammond broke yesterday wasn’t one made by him, nor by his boss, the Prime Minister.  It’s a promise made by a man who is no longer involved in politics and is in no position to either keep or break any promises he made.
Cameron may well have been elected on a manifesto containing the said promise, but we no longer have a Cameron government.  We’ve had a change of government, and under the UK system, it’s a fundamental principle that no government can be bound by its predecessor.  Neither can any Tory leader be bound by anything his or her predecessor may have said.  New leader = new government = new policies; any expectation to the contrary flies in the face of the whole history of the Conservative Party and the UK constitution.
Now some might object that all the Tory MPs were elected on the basis of that same manifesto and they should all be bound by it.  Actually, no they weren’t.  Under the UK constitution, people don’t vote for a party and they don’t vote for a set of policies.  They vote for one person in one constituency, and once elected, that person has the constitutional right to vote for or against any issue, solely as he or she pleases.
What’s my point?  This whole issue shows that something is indeed broken, but it isn’t a throwaway pre-election promise.  What’s broken is a constitution and electoral system which allows a change of personnel to become a change of government and a wholesale change of policy and direction with no elector input at all.  I’m not even sure that ‘broken’ is the right word for this – it was unfit for purpose in the first place.  Either way, in fairness to ‘Spreadsheet Phil’, he isn’t the one who broke it.  And I’m absolutely certain that hounding him for it isn’t the way to fix it either.  But then, who of those attacking him really wants to fix the underlying problem?