Thursday, 22 August 2019

Motes and beams


When I first saw the story that Trump wanted to buy Greenland, my immediate reaction was to check the date of the story.  There are far too many ‘old’ stories reshared on the internet – this one surely was from April 1st, wasn’t it?  But no, it was genuine.  The fact that the detail went on to say this wasn’t a priority for his administration, just some sort of vague suggestion was a little reassuring – until he cancelled his visit to Denmark and it became clear that he thought the whole purpose of his visit was to agree the details.  He also, it seems, took umbrage at the description of the Danish Prime Minister of the idea as ‘absurd’, claiming it was a ‘nasty’ comment.  It struck me as a rather restrained comment; countries buying and selling other countries over the heads of the inhabitants may have been done in the colonial past, but it isn’t acceptable now.
Closer to home, it seems that one of the proposals put forward by the PM to overcome the problem of the Irish border is that Ireland should leave the EU’s single market and follow the rules laid down by the UK instead.  The word used was ‘temporarily’, until such time as some other fix enables two countries in different regulatory regimes to maintain the integrity of their respective markets with no border controls, but since no such fix exists and there is no prospect of one  being developed, this would inevitably become a permanent arrangement.  And rather than try and agree this directly with the Republic of Ireland, the suggestion is that it should be negotiated with the EU who would then tell the Republic what they need to do.  What was that about buying and selling countries over the heads of their inhabitants?
How we all laughed at Trump’s ‘absurd’ suggestion!  But what, in essence, is the difference?  Playground bullies seeking to dispose of smaller countries over the heads of their inhabitants, not even beginning to understand what is wrong with their proposals – Trump and Johnson are increasingly two of a kind.  We often look at the US and wonder how anyone – let alone a significant section of the media – can treat Trump with any degree of seriousness, but looking at the way Johnson is treated here, it becomes a lot easier to see how it can happen.  The world, including the UK but excluding a large chunk of America laughs at Trump; the world excluding a large chunk of the UK is laughing at Johnson.  It’s just harder to see from the inside.

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Finland 'taking back control'


One of the reasons given for the UK’s decision to stop attending many EU meetings is that it will save time for those involved who would otherwise have to read the papers in advance.  Only those meetings where a subject will be of ‘significant national interest’ to the UK will be attended.  The first and most obvious question is how they will know whether there’s anything fitting that definition if they don’t read the papers?  But the second, and perhaps more important question is about timescale.  Clearly, for a government planning to leave on 31st October with no transition period, decisions taken now by the EU are going to be largely irrelevant.  However, for a government which was planning a lengthy transition period as part of an agreed withdrawal deal, decisions taken now will continue to affect the UK for some two years or more.  The conclusion about the government’s intentions is clear – no deal is now their sole aim.
It might only be for two months if they get their way, but there’s also something rather ironic about a government which claims to be determined to ‘take back control’ from the EU delegating its voting rights at meetings to Finland.

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Just another stunt


As I understand Boris Johnson’s somewhat belated missive to the EU27, he is arguing that a mechanism to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland be replaced by a mechanism to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.  The key difference is that the mechanism in the Withdrawal Agreement is defined, whereas his is not.  Why replacing a defined arrangement with an undefined ‘alternative’ one would be acceptable to anyone is one of the many unanswered questions, but ‘because UK’ is not much of an answer.
In his letter, he commits the UK to accepting a “legally binding commitment” to “not put in place infrastructure, checks or controls at the border” and vaguely hopes that the EU will make a similar commitment.  That makes it sound like a major and generous concession which it would be churlish not to reciprocate, but for a regulatory regime which seeks to abolish tariffs on imports and reduce the standards to which goods and services must be provided it’s very easy to remove controls with an area with higher standards and tariffs.  It’s considerably more difficult for the regime with higher standards to simply lower the gates and let anything and everything through, and the PM knows that.  It will always be those states which wish to maintain the highest standards which have the incentive – nay the requirement – to control the external borders of their market.
It’s probable, of course, that his letter wasn’t really aimed at the EU27 at all; making such a letter an open one and releasing it to the media at the same time as sending it to the EU looks more like a stunt aimed at the UK public than a serious attempt to negotiate anything, and I’m sure that that is at least a part of the truth.  At another level, though, it underlines yet again the real aim of the Brexiteers, which is to destroy the EU as an entity.  Keeping an entirely open border between a carefully constructed single market and a regulatory regime which seeks to reduce or abolish standards and controls can only end up one way – the integrity of the market would be destroyed, not least because the infamous WTO rules would require the EU27 to apply the same rules to the rest of the world as to the UK. 
Brexit, in isolation, has never made much sense, and it’s never been the sole objective of the Brexiteers.  As the first step towards destroying the EU and reducing the extent of regulation on employee rights, environmental standards etc it is a great deal more coherent as an objective.  They have always claimed that it was never the economic aspects of the EU which they didn’t like, only the political ones, such as the reference to ‘ever closer union’.  In truth, what they don’t like is that the EU has been a force for controlling capitalism (even if not to the extent that some of us would like) rather than allowing it to operate entirely unfettered, and that’s more about the rules of the single market than about political union.  It’s a curious irony for those of us who originally opposed membership of the EEC because it looked like a capitalist club that it has actually done more to control the worst excesses of capitalism than the UK would ever have done alone, and that the real promoters of unfettered capitalism have proven to be the domestic variety.
I don’t think Johnson’s letter has anything to do with negotiation; it has everything to do with justifying his position, blaming other people, and getting on with the job of dismantling the regulatory structure that the EU has jointly developed.  Those who accuse the EU of using the situation in Ireland as a means of keeping the UK under the EU’s regime are themselves trying to use the situation in Ireland to undermine the EU itself.

Monday, 19 August 2019

A strange form of 'social justice'


Iain Duncan Smith and Social Justice aren’t words which naturally trip off the tongue in a single sentence (unless there’s also a negative to be found somewhere) so calling a think tank founded by him the ‘Centre for Social Justice’ has always looked like an attempt to give a warm-sounding name to an organisation likely to be aiming to do the precise opposite of what it says on the tin.  The latest report from this so-called ‘think tank’ is a case in point, recommending as it does that the state pension age be gradually increased to 75 by 2035.
It is hard to see what, exactly, that policy has to do with ‘social justice’, given that its greatest impact will be on the lowest-paid (i.e. those most dependent on the state pension in later life), whilst the higher-paid will continue to be in a position to retire a great deal earlier if they wish, since they generally have other, more generous, pension provision.  And whilst generalisation is not without its dangers, we know from other data that lower income is associated with poorer health and shorter life span, meaning that the number of years for which the pension is received by people in this group is significantly less in any event.  It’s an odd kind of ‘social justice’ indeed which suggests that the least well-off should have to work the longest, receive the lowest pensions, and enjoy them for the shortest time.  Clearly it isn’t the pensioners concerned who benefit from such a policy – the beneficiaries are the higher earners who are unaffected directly by the proposal, but who will be looking to gain from any tax reductions (or by avoiding what might otherwise be required tax increases) as a result of reducing the cost of providing pensions.
The report does actually recognise that issue, stating: “Low income households, therefore, have the greatest need to remain in work, but also face the highest barriers to working” (because, for instance, they “… have less opportunity to amass sufficient financial resources”).  Anyone serious about ‘social justice’ would be looking at why they have ‘the greatest need to remain in work’, instead of which they decided to concentrate on overcoming the barriers to them doing so.
It’s clear that the underlying basis for the proposal has little to do with social justice and everything to do with a particular ideological perspective, which for me is summed up in this sentence from the report’s summary, which reads: “Ensuring that this growing proportion of older people continue to make an essential contribution to our economy as workers, carers, taxpayers and volunteers is an important question for public policy”.  Had it been worded just a little differently, talking about how those older people who wanted to go on making a contribution in any of those ways could be enabled to do so, I wouldn’t raise any issue.  Not everybody wants to ‘retire’ and facilitating continued activity is an entirely valid objective of public policy.  (Although I don’t see how they get from a contribution as ‘carers’ or ‘volunteers’ to the conclusion that they don’t need a pension; it’s a strange juxtaposition.)  But the ideological underpinning here is the idea that people’s whole purpose in life is – or should be – to contribute as workers (either paid or voluntary) and taxpayers, and that the government should ‘ensure’ that they do so.  That is an attack on the whole concept of ‘retirement’ as it has been previously understood.  From this perspective, ‘retirement’, or rather the payment of the state pension, becomes increasingly limited to those who are physically unable to work any longer, and the objective is to pay it for as short a time as possible.
None of that is to deny that better health and an increasingly aging population don’t cause challenges for a pensions system which has always been run like a giant Ponzi scheme because the ability to pay pensions out of current revenue effectively assumes continuing population growth.  But that problem wasn’t caused by those who are about to find their working life extended significantly – it was caused by the politicians who designed and have presided over the scheme from the outset, and who have given themselves a different and better pension scheme meaning that they are unaffected by proposals such as this one.  There is a long-term challenge involved in putting the state pension onto a sound basis; deferring pension rights for the lowest-paid is avoiding the issue, not solving it.

Saturday, 17 August 2019

Brexit is not their real priority


If Corbyn’s proposal that he should head a temporary government with an agreed short-term remit to deal only with avoiding a no deal Brexit was, as some have suggested, intended as a trap for the new leader of the Lib Dems, then she certainly walked straight into it.  Having said that stopping Brexit was her absolute top priority, rejecting a firm proposal to achieve that end reveals that it isn’t actually her top priority at all – preventing Corbyn from becoming PM, and/or trying to establish the Lib Dems as the ‘purist’ anti-Brexit party are both more important to her.  The Lib Dems prove to be as keen on putting their own narrow party interests first as ever – if they were serious about stopping Brexit, they’d have immediately accepted the idea of negotiating and raised their concerns or put forward alternatives in those discussions.
Having said that, for Labour to gloat over having so badly wrong-footed her isn’t so clever either.  After also claiming that their top priority is stopping no deal, their move – coupled with an apparent refusal to consider alternative possibilities – reveals that they have higher priorities as well, namely getting Corbyn into Number 10 and smashing the Lib Dem revival.  If they were serious about stopping Johnson’s no deal, they’d have put their proposal on the table and indicated that they saw it as a starting point for an adult discussion, rather than as a trap for the Lib Dems.
As to the substance, well the Lib Dem leader does actually have a point.  There must be serious doubts as to how many of the rebel Tories and newly independent MPs who want to stop no-deal would support a vote of no confidence if the result was a Corbyn-led government.  That does, in turn, though reveal that those Tories and independents who say stopping a no-deal is the most important thing are fibbing as much as Labour and Lib Dems are, because they, too, have a higher priority, namely not being seen to aid Corbyn into Downing Street.  Having spent years demonising him for being something which he is not, they are now unable to exercise the necessary flexibility.  And Swinson’s point is of only limited validity anyway – for every Tory MP who won’t countenance even a single purpose short-term government led by Corbyn, there’s going to be a Labour MP who won’t countenance a single purpose short-term government led by someone other than the leader of their party.  Their opposition to putting a veteran Tory like Ken Clarke at the head of such a government is only what one might expect; but, in typical Labour style, their opposition to putting a different Labour MP at the head is even stronger for many of them.
So, there we have it – three disparate groups, all claiming that their highest priority is stopping no-deal Brexit, all in reality placing more importance on two entirely different questions, namely who is PM and where does the best advantage for their party lie.  Unless at least one of those groups starts to behave like a group of adults and recognises that the important thing here is the remit of any temporary government, not its figurehead nor their respective positioning once the dust has settled, then the Brextremists will win by default.  They have no need to behave like adults or win any arguments; their only requirement for success is that the clear parliamentary majority against their policy remains divided over the peripheral issue of personality.  At the moment, sadly, my head tells me that the Brexiteers are more likely to win if stopping them demands adult behaviour from their opponents.

Friday, 16 August 2019

Opening boxes


Perhaps Boris Johnson really believes that the only reason that the EU27 are not willing to move yet is that they are waiting to see whether parliament will block a no-deal Brexit, although given his past record it seems unlikely.  I tend to suspect that the only thing that he really believes is that if he says the same thing often enough, then enough people will believe him to vote for a government led by him in the forthcoming election.  Whether what he says is true or not, or whether he himself believes it to be true is, ultimately, irrelevant.  Sadly, there is evidence enough that that one true belief of his might actually be valid – there are indeed large numbers of people who do believe what he says to be true.  For all his talk about ‘uniting the country’, all he really wants to do is to ‘unite’ enough voters to give him a clear parliamentary majority and, with the vote being split in more directions than in the past in a seriously unrepresentative first-past-the-post electoral system, the number of votes he needs to do that is lower than has traditionally been the case.  Getting around 30-35% of the country to believe that what he says is true (or else to knowingly vote for a liar on the basis of him being less bad than the alternatives) is all he needs or wants.
Whether it’s a necessary or inevitable concomitant of such a narrow tribalistic view is open to debate, but part of the result of this divisive approach is to split people into two main camps – the ‘true believers’ and the rest, who he is increasingly labelling as ‘collaborators’.  He did it this week in his ‘uncensored’ session answering questions from the public which had been vetted and selected in advance, referring to “a terrible collaboration […] between people who think they can block Brexit in parliament and our European friends”.  I can’t have been the only one who read the word ‘friends’ in that context in the Orwellian sense of meaning ‘enemies’.  The same turn of phrase was used more bluntly by the Tory grass roots campaign, StandUp4Brexit, in referring to the brave statement by Guto Bebb that he would be willing to countenance a limited term Corbyn premiership as an alternative to the long term damage of no deal, when they accused him of “collaborating with the EU”. 
This use of language is no accident.  Accusations of ‘collaboration’ are an unpleasant echo of the past, especially from the 1940s in Europe; I can’t imagine how they must sound to French ears in particular.  Harking back to ‘the war’ is a standard part of the Brexiteer play book, even if what they’re harking back to isn’t even real memories but second or third-hand folk memories distorted through the lens of a bowdlerised version of history.  But that same period in history should make us very wary of any politician seeking to gain power on around 30-35% of the popular vote in a rigged system by branding anyone who doesn’t agree with him as a collaborator.  The distance between branding supporters of membership of the EU as ‘collaborators’ and demanding that such people be tried for treason isn’t as great as many of us might hope.  In his pursuit of power ‘by any means necessary’, Johnson is opening some very unpleasant boxes.

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Not a proper letter


In ordinary times, the letter to the future ex-Prime Minister signed by the former Chancellor and 20 other Tory MPs, including a number who were in the cabinet until very recently and others of a senior stature in his party, would be seriously bad news.  Given that he has a theoretical majority of only 1, and is leading what is already, in relation to the most pressing issue of the day, a minority government, a list of 21 from his own side making threatening noises ought to be terminal for the policy if not for the individual pursuing it.
Fortunately, Jacob Rees-Mogg has given him a ‘get-out-of-jail’ card by issuing a style guide for letters and reports.  The silly would-be rebels have forgotten to put ‘Esq.’ after the names of those male MPs who are not Privy Councillors, which means that Rees-Mogg can legitimately advise the PM that it’s not a proper letter and can safely be ignored.  That’s a better explanation than anything we’ll get from Johnson.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Changing direction is better than mitigation


Before and after the EU referendum, the Brexiteers told us repeatedly that we held all the cards and that the EU would be beating our door down to give them a good deal so that they could continue to sell their cars, cheese and prosecco.  The German carmakers in particular, so they told us, would lobby their government to ensure that they gave the UK a really good deal.  That last part has almost turned out to be true.  The German carmakers are indeed lobbying government strongly to avoid a no-deal Brexit, and who could blame them?  The problem is that they’re rather cleverer than the Brexiteers assumed, and they’ve worked out that the problem lies not in Berlin or Brussels, but in London.  Instead of the predicted lobbying of Merkel, there’s the much more logical lobbying of Johnson.  Who’d have thought it?
Although the government still tells us how wonderful Brexit will be, with or without a deal, they are now making preparations to bail out UK companies likely to be affected, by setting aside large sums of cash.  It is, at least, a step forward from the approach taken by Jeremy Hunt during the leadership campaign, when he said that he would be willing to tell companies bankrupted by Brexit that their sacrifice was worth it.  That was a rather different way of acknowledging the problems likely to be caused.  But just how much does it have to cost before they start asking whether the problem is really with mitigating the effects of the policy or whether the policy itself might be the problem?  Has there ever been a government so convinced that the direction it is following is harmful that it has had to allocate many billions of pounds in advance to mitigate its effects?

Monday, 12 August 2019

The face seems to matter more than the substance


Whether the PM’s aide, Dominic Cummings, is right or wrong about it already being too late for MPs to prevent a no-deal Brexit remains to be seen; at the very least, they’ve left it very late to turn their talk into action.  The constitutional experts seem to think that if MPs act quickly when parliament reconvenes and pass an early vote of no confidence, and if they can then find a majority in the Commons to support the installation of an alternative PM, then there is still time to avoid a no-deal on 31st October.
Those are two very big ifs though.  The first is just about possible if enough Tories decide that allowing Johnson any more time to run down the clock on the assumption that he’s bluffing is no longer a safe option, and provided that there are not too many Labour MPs prepared to support a Tory PM in a vote of confidence.  The much bigger problem is the second 'if', because it seems that if MPs can’t agree an alternative, then Johnson can cling on and set an election date for after Brexit has already happened.
In theory, the second part ought to be quite easy; it’s simply a matter of identifying an individual who will agree to take on the job of PM for long enough to ask the EU27 for an extension during which a General Election is held and after which the new government decides on a Brexit strategy.  That’s a very short tenure in Downing Street, during which the selected individual would have to agree to take on a largely administrative / caretaker role rather than attempt to implement policies with which the disparate coalition of MPs putting him or her into office might not agree.  As long as that limited remit is agreed and adhered to, there’s no logical reason why it matters who the figurehead is.  But logic and politicians aren’t necessarily words which belong in the same sentence.
It seems that most Labour MPs won’t sign up to such a plan unless the figurehead is Jeremy Corbyn, and most of the non-Labour MPs opposed to no-deal won’t sign up unless it’s somebody – almost anybody, apparently – whose name isn’t Corbyn.  For all their talk about stopping a no-deal Brexit being the most important thing, and being willing to do anything in their power to prevent it, it turns out that whether Corbyn is or is not PM is even more important to most of them, and doing everything in their power excludes doing the one thing that would work.  They’re hung up on the personality rather than the substance in a way which will allow Johnson to do as he wishes.  And if they carry on in this vein, they’ll be as much to blame as he is for the consequences.

Thursday, 8 August 2019

A small step, a giant leap, or a step in the dark?


The admission by the former First Minister that “We are not too poor to be independent” is a hugely significant shift in the debate about the future of Wales.  It’s not that there’s anything particularly new or radical in the statement itself; it’s merely a statement of the obvious plain truth.  The significance is that it marks a change from the position that the Labour Party has taken for decades which is to use the lie of being too poor as an excuse to avoid debate about the desirability or otherwise of Welsh independence.  For a significant individual in the traditionally dominant party in Wales to renounce the lie is to remove one of the biggest obstacles to holding a sensible and rational debate about our future.  Renouncing the lie also makes the rest of what he has to say more credible.
He expressed concern about the length of time which it took Ireland between gaining independence and becoming the successful economy which it is today.  It’s a valid concern, although there is always a problem in trying to work out the counterfactual: in this case, whilst we know the economic trajectory of Ireland after gaining independence, we don’t know what would have happened had Ireland remained a part of the UK.  The trajectory of Wales over the same period doesn’t give me huge confidence in any suggestion that it would have been better.  And Liz Saville Roberts also pointed out that the record of the Baltic countries (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) post-independence provides a rather different model.  Judging which is the best analogy for Wales is not straightforward, coloured as it inevitably is by our own prejudices and priors.  No two countries ever follow exactly the same path, but for what it’s worth, I rather suspect that Welsh independence inside the EU would be closer to the Baltic model and I fear that outside the EU it might well turn out to be closer to the Irish model.  Whatever, we know the difficulties with economic forecasting and the underlying assumptions which need to be made and which lead to different projected outcomes - and in all cases, the comparison we need to make is with an assumption that our current relative position continues.
Unlike some, I see nothing unpatriotic or anti-Welsh in the position now being adopted by the former First Minister in arguing that whilst independence isn’t impossible due to poverty, it is undesirable on other grounds.  The idea that every ‘nation’ must be reflected constitutionally in an entirely independent state is an idea which belongs to the eighteenth century, despite being central to the ideology of the Anglo-British not-nationalists-at-all driving Brexit.  I can and do disagree with the idea that Wales’ interests are best served inside a reformed UK, but I don’t see anything dishonourable or unpatriotic in making that argument.
The question, though, is where we go from here.  The problem with the First Minister’s position is not that there is anything inherently wrong with a ‘remain and reform’ agenda for the UK, it is about putting the flesh on the bones.  How can the nations of the UK develop a ‘more equal partnership’, as he puts it, when one of the ‘partners’ accounts for 85% of the population?  This is the rock on which all proposals for federalism founder; any arrangement which gives 15% equality with 85% in decision-making will always be regarded as undemocratic by the 85%.  And in a situation where the politics of the 85% is dominated by an Anglo-British nationalism based on a belief in their own superiority and an exceptionalism which drives them to claim that their form of nationalism is ‘not-nationalism-at-all’ because nationalism is only for lesser nations, what is the process which leads either to changing that, or else accepting that it’s time to pass through the exit door?
Carwyn Jones took a small step for a man which could turn into a giant leap for his party, but they still don’t give the impression that they have thought very deeply about where to place the next step.