Thursday, 18 October 2018

Some things are beyond parody

Perhaps we’ve all misjudged the Prime Minister, the Government and the Brexiteers over the past two years by assuming that there was ever a serious objective of negotiating a Brexit agreement.  I’m wondering if the real objective all along has been to try and parody as many as possible of the most well-known comedy shows of the past 50 years.  Some sort of dare, maybe – after all, at least one minister has form on that score.
We’ve had more cunning plans than Baldrick, and Basil Fawlty’s ‘not mentioning the war’ has been taken to new heights by bringing the subject up at every possible opportunity.  Earlier this week we had the PM’s very best impression of Corporal Jones with her call for us all not to panic.  Yesterday, we moved on to Monty Python, with her insistence that her plan is not dead at all, although she didn’t go as far as to tell us whether it was stunned, asleep, or just resting.  Definitely not nailed to the perch though.  Meanwhile, the negotations have displayed the bargaining skills of Del Trotter.
Perhaps we were never meant to take any of it seriously, just do our best to enjoy the poorly-written attempts to remind us all of the comedy greats of the past.  I have a horrible feeling, though, that it will all end with some sort of parallel to the final episode of Blackadder – and that was not at all funny.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Panic and doom

There was something very Corporal Jones-like about the Prime Minister appearing before the House of Commons on Monday.  The difference between ‘Don’t Panic’ and ‘This is a time for cool, calm heads’ is more about the tone in which the words are uttered than in the meaning which they convey.  And, for once she’s right; that’s exactly what is required.  But surveying the people around her, where does she think that she will find such a commodity?  Her cabinet is hopelessly divided, with around a third of the members actively and very ostentatiously plotting to undermine her; her party is split into at least three different factions, and the main opposition party is united only in demanding a better unicorn that the one she can never deliver.  The two cabinet ministers who actually got around to resigning because they don’t agree with her plans can’t even agree with each other – David Davis has magical spectacles which seem to see the EU in a state of panic which would allow the UK to press home its imaginary advantage, whilst Boris Johnson has an entirely different pair of spectacles which see a domineering EU forcing the UK into separation or submission.  Just as well they’re not on the same side, eh?  If the future really does depend on finding a few ‘cool, calm heads’ amongst this lot, then perhaps it’s Private Frazer to whom we should be listening, not Corporal Jones, because it means that ‘we’re doomed’.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Hiding the fiscal facts

Nation.Cymru carried a piece yesterday about the response by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling to a claim by Plaid that Wales isn’t getting its fair share of infrastructure spending. 
The claim that Wales doesn’t get its fair share is a long-standing one, and I suspect that it’s true although it isn’t quite as black-and-white an issue as its sometimes presented.  It appears to many of us in the west and north of the country that the allocation of capital spending within Wales is as unfair as the allocation of capital spending between Wales and England; there seems to be the same concentration on the south east, in and around the capital city.  But merely looking at share of capital expenditure in relation to percentage of population is an over-simplistic way of doing the calculation.  As an example, we know that the cost of building a mile of road will depend significantly on where that mile of road is built – it will cost more in the centre of Cardiff than in the middle of Powys, for instance.  But the difference in ‘cost per head’ of population living in the area will not be in the same ratio as the difference in absolute cost; and neither will the calculated economic benefit.  In addition, the timescale for many infrastructure projects is lengthy; what looks like an unfair share in one year can potentially end up looking very different over many years.  Fairness is an elusive concept when it comes to sharing out infrastructure investment.
But there was another point in the Minister’s response which caught my attention.  He said “I do not think that the Welsh can ever claim that their money is siphoned off to pay for the rest of the country, given the amount of support from taxpayers elsewhere in the UK that goes into Wales...”.  This is, of course, the standard unionist line about taxpayers in England subsidising Wales out of the goodness of their hearts.  It is, though, as over-simplistic as the idea that fairness in infrastructure investment is as easy to work out as spend per head.  The problem is that we simply do not have figures which are accurate and comprehensive enough to determine whether there is a fiscal transfer between England and Wales let alone the size of that transfer; such figures as we do have are inevitably based on estimates and often arbitrary assumptions about the way expenditure should be split.
The GERW figures published two years ago were a useful attempt to analyse income and expenditure for Wales as part of the UK, despite the fact that they were misused by some who attempted to present them as being in some way relevant to the concept of an independent Wales.  There are, though, always going to be problems with such figures.  To take one example, any analysis of expenditure in or on behalf of Wales will assume that Wales needs to pay a percentage of the costs of central administration of government activities.  This is not unreasonable in itself; clearly where the UK Government provides services from which Wales benefits then, under the current constitutional arrangements, it is entirely sensible to apportion part of that cost to Wales.  But it’s worth asking what then happens to that money – assuming that it’s spent once and gone isn’t the whole story.  The reality is that that expenditure largely goes on salaries, and the people receiving those salaries mostly live in England.  The personal tax those individuals pay on their income and on their expenditure (VAT, fuel duty etc.) is then all counted as English revenue based on residence.  Given that probably around 30-35% of all private income (on average) ends up going straight back to the Treasury in tax, every £million spent ‘on behalf of Wales’ but not actually in Wales only costs the Treasury a net figure of around £650,000 - £700,000.  And that’s without the multiplier effect as the people providing the goods and services purchased by those individuals then pay their taxes and buy goods and services themselves…
Now, within a unitary state, none of that really matters.  It’s just a question of book-keeping because there is ultimately one Exchequer and one big cheque book.  But it does matter when people start talking about ‘siphoning off’ and ‘subsidies’, because the truth is hopelessly obscured.  There’s another aspect to what Grayling said as well – every time unionists like him talk about subsidising Wales they effectively undermine their own case for the union, which is that we pool and share.  Still, I suppose that I shouldn’t complain too much about that.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Determining where duty lies

There’s nothing at all unreasonable in the Prime Minister’s demand that MPs should ‘do their duty’ and ‘act in the national interest’ over Brexit; the problem lies in her insistence that doing both of those things necessarily involves voting for whatever she puts before them.  The logic of the leap from the first proposition to the second may be obvious to her, but it isn’t going to be so obvious to many others.
I’ve posted previously that I tend to agree with what appears to be her interpretation of the Brexit vote, namely that the electorate wants firstly to be free of all the EU rules and institutions and secondly to keep all the benefits of membership.  Trying to get as close as possible to that outcome is one thing, but I’m astounded that she can have seriously thought for one tiny moment that she could ever negotiate something akin to that.  Refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer to such a wholly unreasonable request is what has led to us being where we are.  It is clear that any agreement which she can reach is going to seriously compromise one or other or even both of those two aims.  Attempting to find a form of words which suggests that she has compromised neither is an impossible task, but the one in which she is currently engaged.
I can understand why many might think that it is the ‘duty’ of MPs, as May says, to support Brexit (even though it was clearly stated to be an ‘advisory’ referendum).  Asking the people what they think and then ignoring the outcome cannot be good for democracy.  But how open-ended can that be?  Can it really be the duty of our elected representatives to vote for something which they believe to be seriously harmful – especially if there is evidence that opinions might have changed?
I can also agree that MPs should indeed vote in the national interest, but who decides what that is?  Do we not expect MPs to decide for themselves where they think the national interest lies rather than accept that it’s whatever the PM of the day tells them it is?  ‘Doing their duty’ and acting ‘in the national interest’ are precisely the drivers leading MPs to take such a variety of positions over Brexit – that is why the PM is having such difficulty finding any solution for which a majority of MPs can vote with a clear conscience.  Demanding that they follow her blindly looks more like expecting them to seek out the last refuge of a scoundrel than to act as thoughtful representatives of the electors.  It would have been better if we hadn’t had the first referendum in an attempt to settle an internal Tory Party row.  A second one is already too late to completely undo the damage already done, but it still looks like a better way forward than anything they’ve come up with to date.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Pre-conditions for referendums

There has been some confusion about UKIP's policy in relation to the National Assembly.  Actually, I could have written that sentence without the words "in relation to the National Assembly", and on everything except their core policy of Brexit, it would still have made sense.  Yesterday, the party's UK leader half backed the suggestion from the Welsh leader that the Assembly should be abolished, by calling for a referendum.  This is hardly a surprise; it's not so very long since UKIP were claiming that the very existence of the Assembly was all part of a vile plot by those dastardly Europeans to regionalise the UK, completely ignoring decades of agitation for a national legislature for Wales.

There is nothing at all wrong with making such a call - they have as much democratic right to call for such a referendum as I do to call for a referendum on abolishing Westminster's control over Wales (which is the effect of a referendum on independence).  The fact that we have had referendums in the past is not - and should not be - any bar to having another one if it appears that opinions have changed.  It would be nice, though, if they'd recognise that a similar rule should apply to Brexit - if one decision brought about  by referendum can be changed by a further referendum, there is no logical justification for saying that the same isn't true for another decision taken by referendum.  I don't really expect them to understand that, mind: logic and UKIP are not words generally used in the same sentence.

There is, though, a condition which they need to meet first, and it's the same condition which we independentistas also need to meet.  To hold a referendum on either proposition requires there to be a majority of AMs in the Assembly committed to that proposition by manifesto commitment.  It's a wholly reasonable bar to set as a means of determining whether opinion is moving in a particular direction.  It's not one that I see much hope of them crossing though.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Brexit and independence

The clarity with which Plaid’s new leader has expressed his opposition to Brexit is to be welcomed.  Whether it will win or lose votes for his party is an open question; I suspect that there will be some movement in both directions.  But if a political party is serious about seeking those changes which it believes to be in the best interests of its country, then it has a responsibility to lead, rather than follow, public opinion; to set out what it thinks and seek to win support for that view rather than merely regurgitate whatever the latest focus group tells it.
I don’t disagree either with Adam’s suggestion that a messy and damaging Brexit might well fuel the demand for independence for Wales, and I don’t see any inconsistency in the two positions.  Peter Black’s claim that this in some way suggests that Adam’s opposition to Brexit is insincere and that, deep down, Adam wants a bad Brexit in order to promote the independence agenda is more than just mischievous party politicking, it’s an attempt to distort the meaning of a very clear statement of opposition to Brexit, presumably in an attempt to claim that only the Lib Dems are really sincere in their opposition to Brexit.  But isn’t using Brexit to try and further the aims and interests of one political party exactly the sin of which Peter accuses Adam?
I’ve argued previously that there is a problem with the idea that Brexit will fuel the demand for independence, though, because Brexit will inevitably redefine what independence means – and probably not in a good way.  To completely misquote the porter in Macbeth, Brexit risks provoking the desire but taking away the performance.  Assuming that the Brexiteers get their wish and that we end up with what they are choosing to call a ‘clean break’ in order to avoid discussing the detailed implications, then the idea that Wales can break free of the UK (i.e. England) regulatory regime and re-join the EU is attractive but full of practical difficulty, with the inevitable requirement for a border along Offa’s Dyke.  The natural and sensible desire to avoid that border because of the close integration of the Welsh and English economies rules out EU membership and implies close adherence to the English regulatory regime.  It’s considerably easier to see Wales making the transition to independent EU member state whilst the UK remains part of the EU than some years after a complete break.  My view remains that the easiest route to independence is still via ‘internal enlargement’ of the EU, however difficult a process that might be in practice. 

Friday, 5 October 2018

It's our freedom too

Perhaps the previous incumbent did something to the water in the Foreign Office which means that all future occupants of the post are doomed to suffer from some strange inability to understand the rest of the world, but Hunt’s comments comparing the EU to the Soviet Union were deeply insensitive to say the least.  For people who lived much of their lives under Soviet domination (a list which includes both the German Chancellor and the current president of the European Council), it was a comparison which betrayed an ignorant and arrogant attitude to their reality.  For most of the former Eastern Europe, the EU has been a force which has promoted liberalisation, democracy and freedom.  That’s not to say that all of the countries have perfect democracies yet; there are troubling events occurring in some of them.  But then politicians from a state where over half the legislators are appointees, bishops, or hereditaries are hardly in a position to lecture anyone else on democracy.
Back in 1970, I travelled to what was then Czechoslovakia with a group of other members of youth clubs from Glamorgan, and we stayed in a youth camp along with young people from a whole range of Eastern European countries.  One theme was common; they all complained about their lack of freedom to travel.  In many cases, even travel within their own countries was restricted; travel outside the Soviet bloc was a near impossibility.  They understood – better than Hunt ever will – what lack of freedom meant.  For the young people of those countries today, membership of the EU has brought them unprecedented freedom to travel, live and work across the continent.  Here in the UK, we have also benefitted enormously from the freedom of movement which membership of the EU has given us, as barriers have been torn down and rights harmonised, even though the UK has insisted on maintaining more barriers than other countries.  It just hasn’t always been so obvious to us because the restrictions which previously applied were not so tight in the first place (although some of us can still remember needing visas for some countries).
From the point of view of those who have enjoyed such a dramatic increase in their freedom of movement, there is something very strange indeed about the extent to which people in the UK are actually celebrating the fact that their government is planning to remove that freedom from its citizens.  I can’t help but wonder whether that sense of British exceptionalism isn’t at work here underpinning attitudes; perhaps people really do believe that it’s only other people’s freedom of movement which is being constrained, and that ‘Brits’ will still have all their existing rights protected.  From such a perspective, it’s only the freedom of ‘migrants’ which is being restricted, ‘ex-pats’ will be able to carry on as before.  But calling something by a different name doesn’t change what it is.  How long can it be before people realise that what they’ve been demanding amounts to restricting their own freedom?

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Is Theresa May a Corbynite sleeper?

I’m struggling to imagine what sort of conversation could have taken place between the Prime Minister and her advisors which led anyone to think that equating ‘unskilled immigration’ with a salary of less than £50,000 a year was a brilliant election-winning strategy.  Unless, of course, her advisors – and perhaps May herself – are all Corbynite sleepers.  As a means of escaping from the interminable Tory internal wrangling, it’s a theory which makes a certain amount of sense.
Quite apart from the obvious truth that salary is, in fact, absolutely useless as an indicator of skill (others have already produced lists of occupations which are thus classified as unskilled, such as this one in the New Statesman), and leaving aside her clearly nonsensical comment that we should ‘train’ British workers to do the ‘unskilled’ jobs (who writes this stuff for her?), did no-one stop to think about the political repercussions of this?  According to the government’s own figures (available here), a total income of £50,000 per annum before tax in 2015-16 was marginally above the 88th percentile for income.  Who on earth thought that it could ever be a good idea to tell 88% of the UK population that the government considers them to be so unskilled that, if they weren’t here already, they would never be allowed into the country?

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Fairies and the Conservative Party

Sometime in the 1950s, I remember going to see Peter Pan.  It was a Christmas treat organised by the Cadoxton Conservative Club for the children and grandchildren of members (my grandfather was a staunch member).  We were taken to the theatre in a fleet of double-decker buses, and each child was given a bag of fruit – an apple, an orange, and an over-ripe banana come to mind.  (As an aside, given that Barry Docks was the port of entry for most of the UK’s bananas in those days, I never really understood why they were over-ripe, but that’s not really relevant here.  It must be a parable for something, though.)
One of the dramatic moments was when Tinkerbell’s light started to fade, and we all had to shout very loudly that we believed in fairies in order to save her life.  The shouting wasn’t loud enough at first, so we had to do it again and again until Tinkerbell recovered to full health and the show could continue.  In later years, of course, I came to realise that it didn’t matter how loudly we shouted - full recovery was pre-scripted into the show.
This week, the Prime Minister has told us how much she believes in Brexit, but to date she hasn’t shouted loudly enough to convince the members of her own party.  Somehow, however loudly she shouts it, I doubt that it will be believed by many of them.  It’s not only her own belief that matters, naturally; for Tinkerbell Brexit to recover requires all of us to proclaim our true belief from the rooftops.  Indeed, if we fail to shout loudly enough then, according to the Brexiteers, the failure of Brexit will be our fault.  Success or failure depends solely on the strength of our belief.  In Neverland, where children never grow up, it’s the way things work; only adults realise that the outcome of the story actually depends on the author, not the audience.
Birmingham this week has been like a pale copy of Neverland.  Boris Johnson did a better job of pretending to be Peter Pan than did Theresa May; he had more of the audience shouting out in support of their conviction than she is likely to get this afternoon.  She still doesn’t look like a true believer in anything much except that she should be in charge – something else which makes her pale in comparison to Boris, who is more convincing on that score as well.  But what neither of them – to say nothing of their audience – seem to understand is that the outcome will be shaped by the script, not by the devoutness of the audience.  And the script is largely being written elsewhere.
It must be comforting for them to be able to escape from the real world to a place where they can fly and where none of this is a problem at all, just as long as they can persuade us all to believe in fairies.  However, the script (over which they have absolutely no control) requires them to reconnect with reality eventually, and Michel Barnier doesn’t need to ape the crocodile by swallowing his clock for the rest of us to hear it ticking away loudly in the background.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Reading a book might not help much

There is an old story, probably apocryphal, about the Soviet historian who said, “In my country, only the future is certain.  The past is always changing.”  It was a reflection of the Soviet-era habit of rewriting the past, and even doctoring photographs of events, as and when different members of the Politburo went up – or more usually down – in favour.  It also reflects a more general truth, however: what we know as ‘history’ isn’t just a simple sequential series of events.  Facts and events are selected, importance is assigned to them, and they are interpreted, and all of those things are done from the viewpoint of the particular historian.  And yes, as part of that process, history often is re-written; the importance assigned to events, let alone their interpretation, can and does change over time.  A book on the story of the British Empire written now would not say the same as one written 70 years ago – nor as one written 70 years from now.  And for most of us, the version of ‘history’ which we carry in our heads is probably the version which was mainstream at the time we were in school.  It is hard to avoid that ‘remembered’ history colouring our judgement when we look at alternative views.
Yesterday, a spokesperson for the EU Commission reacted to some of the Foreign Secretary’s comments in his party’s conference by suggesting that Hunt could benefit “from opening a history book from time-to-time”.  My instinctive inclination to agree was tempered by the caveat that it depends which book, when it was written, and by whom.  The issue of different interpretations of history goes right to the heart of the problems which the Anglo-British not-nationalists-at-all are having in their negotiations with the EU.  The two sides have completely different views of European history; even when they agree on the basic facts, the importance which each assigns to those facts and the way in which they should be interpreted leaves them talking past each other with a complete lack of comprehension.  I doubt that getting him to read a history book would help at all – even if the book were chosen for him, he (like most of us) would be unable to read it without his judgement being coloured by his ‘remembered’ version of history.
I can’t really blame him for that; like all of us, he is a product of a particular era and culture, and it is always hard to escape that.  What it is entirely reasonable to blame him for, however, is his apparent complete lack of understanding that not everyone will share his particular historical perspective.  And not just him either – all the Brexiteers seem to be guilty of the same belief that theirs is the only valid historical perspective.  One of the keys to success in any process of negotiation is to understand the perspective of the ‘other side’, and especially to understand that what drives them may not be what drives you.  Even if you think they’re just plain wrong, you still need to understand their perspective and try and work with it.  The problem with the world view of the Anglo-British not-nationalists-at-all is that they ‘know’ that they are right and that everyone else is wrong.  As a starting point for a negotiation, it doesn’t get past first base.