Thursday, 26 November 2020

Maintaining the fiction


Discerning any sense of strategy behind the Chancellor’s increasingly bizarre policy choices is at times a difficult task. Imposing salary constraints on public sector workers in the midst of a pandemic which has shown the value and popularity of those workers is a strangely unpopular thing for a supposedly ‘populist’ government to be doing. It doesn’t even save significant amounts of money  – with inflation likely to be below the 2% target for at least the next 4 years (according to the OBR figures released yesterday), increasing those salaries in line with inflation would cost very little and be much easier to sell as a policy. It would also help to maintain the confidence of some consumers, and hence demand in the economy.

It’s true that spending on the most popular service, the NHS, is to increase, but whether it will increase by enough is another question. It’s almost as though they believe that bandying very large numbers around will impress people and deter them from asking about the detail. Indeed, it’s noticeable that most government announcements start with how much money is being spent as their headline, and tell us little about what we will be getting for the money. For former hedge fund managers, large sums of money may indeed be impressive; for most of us, anything with more than a few zeroes on the end is just a number. The difference between 6 zeroes and 9 is probably meaningless to most voters.

The announcement of a boost to schemes to help people find jobs is one of the most revealing of the policies announced – it underlines the ideological belief that the problem is that people are unwilling or unable to find jobs, rather than that there are no jobs available. Simply investing that same money in retaining existing jobs, or creating new ones, would give a much better and earlier return on investment than training people how to find jobs which don’t currently exist and the supply of which is being deliberately reduced  by government policy.

Perhaps there is, after all, a discernible strategy here. It is about ideology, not economics. In particular it's about maintaining the fiction that governments must balance the books and that ‘someone’ must suffer to achieve that. Not the hedge fund managers or the bankers, of course, however popular that might be. Public sector workers and people dependent on benefits (to say nothing of people living in the poorest countries of the world as a result of cuts to overseas aid) – these are the ones who will have to pay. And they will be paying largely in order to sustain the fiction that there is no alternative. It’s quite a neat trick when you think about it – they will be paying so that the government can convince them that there is no alternative to them paying. Many of them will indeed be convinced as a result, and will continue to vote for those who are making them pay. The government being blessed with an ‘opposition’ whose main disagreement is over the timescale over which the books must be balanced is just a bonus. Maintaining the budgetary fiction means that the long-term trend for wealth to accumulate in greater and greater sums in fewer and fewer hands will continue; and that, ultimately, is the objective of government policy.

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Fighting the last war?


Generals, so they say, are always preparing to refight the last war. It’s not entirely true, but there is an element of truth to the idea that military attitudes are always shaped to an extent by the last conflict in which they participated. One thing that does seem to hold true, however, is that they always believe that ‘the enemy’ is planning to attack and invade, a belief which justifies their persistent demands for more money and hardware. The current UK government is content to play along with this, at least partly in the mistaken belief that the Scots and the Welsh will understand that they can only be ‘protected’ by remaining part of a state which diverts huge sums into armaments, sums on a scale which Scotland or Wales could never afford.

The nature of this threat to UK territory is rarely elaborated, but generally attributed to Russia or China. Quite why Russia would want to invade the UK (even if the UK’s government wasn’t in the process of turning the country into a basket case) is never spelled out. Russia’s oligarchs find it easier and considerably cheaper to get what they want from the UK by bunging large sums of money at the Conservative Party, and China has no discernible interest in taking over a country more than 4,000 miles away. And if there’s no obvious reason or them to be interested in invading the UK, there is even less reason why they would somehow want to seize on the opportunity provided by independence to invade Scotland or Wales. It’s a form of madness to suggest that they would – and the madness of those in charge of the UK frightens me more than the fantasy of a Chinese invasion of Fishguard.

That’s not to say that there aren’t people (not necessarily states) in the world who want to harm the UK; it’s more about recognising that traditional warfare, whether by air, land or sea isn’t their chosen method, which means that tanks, guns and aircraft won’t help. The ‘inexhaustible’ energy beams which the PM was promoting last week won’t help either (although if they’ve really found an inexhaustible energy supply to power them, there are much better peaceful uses waiting, not to mention a Nobel prize or two and the complete rewriting of physics). Cyber security is more important for our future security than warships or planes, although why we need the predominately offensive capability proposed rather than a merely defensive one is another unanswered question.

But the real question which an increase in military spending doesn’t even attempt to answer is why there are people who want to destroy our society, and whether there are other things that we could do to make ourselves more secure. Not attacking other countries, and not building up an offensive capability to attack other countries might be a good place to start. A rules-based international order in which states agree rules and stick to them is another. Increasing rather than cutting economic aid to poorer countries is a third. It would be naïve to think that there won’t always be alternative world views which seek to impose their views on others, and we will always need a level of protection against that. We’d need rather less protection, though, if the UK wasn’t apparently doing its best at times to recruit more people to their cause.

Monday, 23 November 2020

Skunkflowers and Conservatives


Since Boris Johnson’s party defeated the Conservatives in the last election, the Prime Minister has declared several times that the UK will not be returning to the austerity policies of the wicked Conservatives. He has also repeatedly insisted that there will be no significant tax increases. Meanwhile, his next-door neighbour has been equally insistent that the UK will have to return to a ‘sustainable’ level of debt (something which he is completely unable to define) and ‘repay’ the costs of dealing with the pandemic, and seems to be using that ‘requirement’ to repay debt as his excuse to launch an attack on public sector pay. He argues that this is not austerity at all, which leads to the conclusion that it’s the word that they object to rather than the policy. But a rose would still look and smell like a rose if it were called a skunkflower, as Shakespeare didn’t quite put it.

It certainly is true (and this is one of the excuses used for an attack on public sector pay) that job losses and lost income have impacted the private sector more severely than the public sector during the pandemic, but the consequent suggestion that the solution is to reduce the real income of public sector workers looks more like levelling down than the levelling up which we’re being continually promised. It’s also silly, even in simple economic terms. One of the key factors in ensuring economic recovery in the private sector is to maintain a level of demand in the economy; ensuring that all employees feel equally fearful about their future income levels is counterproductive.

It is also true that the UK’s annual deficit is large and growing, and that is working its way through to what are clearly very high levels of total debt compared to GDP (although the extent of that is somewhat exaggerated by the fall in GDP as a result of the pandemic). But to claim that that must be repaid is to look at only one side of the equation; those to whom the debt is owed are in no great hurry to be repaid and many of them don’t really want to be repaid at all. In the first place, of the approximately £2 trillion total, almost £900 billion of that (approaching half) is owed to the UK Government. Calling it a debt is just an accounting trick perpetrated for political ends. It’s simply not the case that the UK Government is demanding that the UK Government repays this debt urgently, or even at all. And the rest of the debt is what looks to those to whom it is owed like savings or investments, which carry a low level of interest but are entirely secure. If the government insisted on repaying them, what would they do with the money? They’d probably look to reinvest most or all of it, preferably in new government bonds – if not in the UK then elsewhere, hardly something which is going to help economic recovery.

There is no debt crisis, and there is no sign that there will be one any time soon. Politicians who pretend that there is – aided and abetted by the media – are peddling a lie. Controlling public sector wages is based on ideological hostility to the public sector, not on economic necessity. In some ways, Boris Johnson’s new party looks quite a lot like the Conservative Party of old which it replaced, just with more blatantly dishonest spin.

Friday, 20 November 2020

What 'prizes' does he have in mind?


One thing of which we can all often be guilty is a failure to understand a different point of view. It’s easy enough to understand why – but things which are ‘obvious’ to one person are not so to everyone else. But however normal it might be, it’s something which politicians in particular need to be careful about. The current Prime Minister is not only not careful about it, he doesn’t even seem to understand that it can be a problem.

There is no doubt that the boost to ‘defence’ spending announced yesterday will be popular amongst Anglo-British nationalists, and there is also no doubt that there are significant numbers of people in Wales (although perhaps rather less so in Scotland) who fit into that category and will be delighted. But in presenting it as an example of the strength and power of ‘the union’, Johnson seems to have completely missed the point that not everyone thinks that way. Worse, his claim that “If there is one policy that strengthens the UK in every possible sense, it is building more ships for the Royal Navy” is based on an assumption about attitudes to the UK’s grandiose notions which rather overlooks the fact that his target audience isn’t those who are already convinced about the union, but those who are not. And in his usual inept and bumbling fashion, he fails to understand that for those opposed to UK military aggrandisement and adventurism, his announcement will weaken rather than strengthen his case - independence offers a way out of excessive and outdated militarism.

Still, shooting himself in the foot by not understanding that not everyone is going to swell with pride at the announcement of further investment in technology to kill and maim is at one with his cloth-eared approach to most other issues.

There was one phrase in his speech which was worrying to say the least. In talking about modernising the armed forces and giving them new weaponry, skills, and techniques, he said that in the future “…the prizes will go to the swiftest and most agile nations, not necessarily the biggest”. I struggle to assign any meaning to that, and particularly the use of the word ‘prizes’, which does not imply that he sees military power as being a route to extracting something from less powerful or less well-armed states in the world by use, or by threat of use, of force. I suppose we were warned from the outset that the Brexiteers wanted to see Britain as a ‘buccaneering’ (i.e. pirate) state, although many of us assumed that they just meant that they wanted the UK to be a state which declined to follow the rules by which others live.

It’s not mere coincidence that the amount of extra military expenditure bears a similarity to the amount which they have been briefing that they intend to cut from overseas aid. That’s another indication of an intention to switch directly from the use of ‘soft’ power to the use of ‘hard’ power; the commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on aid put the UK among the leading aid givers in the world, and it was in 2015 (under a Conservative-led government, curiously enough) that the UK became the first G7 country to enshrine that commitment in law. The Brexit project has always been about an attempt to turn back the clock, to return to an imagined golden age in which Britannia both ruled the waves and waived the rules. This latest announcement looks like another step along that path, but the assumption that the rest of the world will allow, or can be coerced into allowing, the UK to do what it wants – which was more or less the case in the days of empire - is yet another example of failure to understand that not everyone else shares their view of the world - and in this case spectacularly so.

Inconsistent and incoherent are inadequate words to describe announcing a hopelessly overhyped and underfunded ‘green revolution’ one day and a commitment to an increase in spending on armaments the next. If the government was run using logic and reason, that much would be obvious, but then a government guided by logic and reason wouldn’t have put the UK where it is today.

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Taking from the poor to give to the rich


One of the advantages of the oft-debunked household budget analogy applied to government finances is that it is easily understood by people. That in turn allows ideologically motivated governments to create and promote false dichotomies about priorities for spending. The decision, for instance, as to whether to maintain and increase pensions has nothing to do with spending on health or education. And International Aid has nothing to do with the pandemic (or with housing ex-servicemen, to refer to a common meme on social media). ‘Looking after our own first’ may be a powerful message, but there is nothing other than ideology stopping the government from looking after our own anyway, and cutting spending on aid is more likely to boost the wealth of the wealthiest than to help a single homeless person. The simpler explanation is that just as the current government believes that the rich should stay rich whilst the poor remain poor, they believe that the same should be true internationally as well.

Of course it’s true that money spent on x can’t be spent on y, but the idea that we therefore must choose between them is dependent on the assumption that money is in limited supply. The counter-intuitive truth is that we can have as much money as we want. Limits apply only to the goods, services and resources on which we can spend that money: create too much money and inflation will result unless taxes are increased. In practical terms and in current circumstances that means that any decision to cut International Aid has nothing at all to do with pressure on domestic finances. The government is simply seeking a convenient excuse for reneging on (another) international commitment. And if there is one consistent truth about the current government it is that it is always the poorest – whether at home or across the world – who will suffer the most. That is an ideological choice, not an economic necessity.

Tuesday, 17 November 2020

Disasters and blessings


Yesterday, Boris Johnson was reported as telling Tory MPs that devolution has been “a disaster north of the border”. This has been widely – and not unreasonably – interpreted (particularly given his additional comment that devolution was “Tony Blair’s biggest mistake”) as an indication that he is opposed to devolution. However, it was a form of ‘devolution’ which also gave us the post of Mayor of London, a post which as I remember gave a wholly undeserved boost to the reputation of a certain Boris Johnson. It appears that his remarks should not be interpreted as opposing that as well. It’s hard to tell what his real opinion is on the principle, largely because he is a man without an ounce of principle in his body. It would be reasonable to suspect, however, that his real objection is to any form of devolution where what he considers to be ‘the wrong people’ can be elected. The real ‘disaster’ north of the border is the elimination of his party as a significant political force: but his ‘disaster’ looks more like a blessing to most Scots.

Monday, 16 November 2020

Is England a nation?


And does it matter anyway? The questions were prompted by this report last week about the establishment of the Northern Independence Party to campaign for an independent Northumbria. It’s an interesting development, to say the least, although whether anything will come of it in the long term is another question. Certainly, if different parts of what we today call ‘England’ were to successfully dissociate themselves from Westminster and become independent states, the possibility that the federalism fairy is anything more than, well, a fairy tale, becomes a little more real, although it’s a very big ‘if’, and it would be foolish for anyone to start making plans around such an outcome.

Many will respond by arguing that Northumbria is not a nation, merely a region of England (a fairly arbitrarily-defined one at that, on the basis of the NIP’s proposals), and that the right of all nations to self-determination therefore doesn’t apply. But if we stop and think for a moment, isn’t that almost exactly what British nationalists also say about Wales, or Scotland, claiming in effect that both are part of the ‘British’ nation, and therefore already enjoy the right to national self-determination? Nationality is not an easily defined concept. I’ve never seen, nor been able to devise, an entirely satisfactory and objective definition of what constitutes a ‘nation’, not least since most of what makes people feel that they belong to nation X or nation Y is about a subjective identification with other people who happen to live in the same defined geographical area.

If the people living in Northumbria (however the area is defined on a map) come to consider themselves a nation over the coming years, there is no obvious basis on which anyone else can tell them that they’re wrong. And that applies whether they consider the new national identity to supplant or merely supplement their existing English/ British identity. Some nationalists in Wales attempt to tell people that they can’t be members of two overlapping nations, both Welsh and British, but telling what is probably a majority that they can’t be what they quite comfortably feel themselves to be has never struck me as a particularly productive approach to discourse.

Does it matter, though? One of the reasons for preferring the term independentista to nationalist is that it avoids the question of what a nation is or isn’t and simply affirms that the people living in any defined area have the right to decide collectively how they wish to be governed. That surely applies as much to ‘Northumbria’ as it does to Wales or Scotland. Ultimately the difference in viewpoint owes less to any sense of nationality or nationalism than it does to the simple belief that sovereignty starts with the people rather than the monarch (or God, to be strictly accurate in terms of the English constitution). ‘England’ as an entity came into existence in the same way as the UK – kingdoms and territories were conquered and assimilated. ‘England’ has no more of an absolute claim to be treated now and forever as a single entity than does any other state. The ultimate triumph of the ‘English’ nationalists now running the UK is that their ‘Englishness’ is increasingly being seen to be relevant to only part of ‘England’; their assumption that they can simply impose their own version of Englishness on the rest is leading many to question whether the entity known as England serves their interests. There would be a certain irony if the term ‘Little England’ came to be seen as a geographical term as well as one describing an attitude.

Friday, 13 November 2020

Knowing their place


Dominic Raab is apparently very unhappy with the Chinese government. They signed a formal treaty with the UK a mere 36 years ago and, now that it no longer suits them, they are unilaterally acting in breach of it. The UK’s response is to seek the support of all of its partners and friends to act jointly to hold China to the terms of the agreement, because it seems that that is what happens when one party to a formal international treaty deliberately acts in contravention thereof.

Some unkind people might be wondering how Raab can say any of this with a straight face given the UK’s decision to unilaterally breach the terms of an agreement which it signed a mere 8 months previously, but that is to miss the point. The situation is obviously entirely different. Firstly, the Chinese are foreigners who live a very long way away. Secondly, they just don’t understand their proper place in the world. The UK, on the other hand, is not only British, but a ‘global sovereign power’ (© Boris Johnson, 2019) to boot, and therefore uniquely entitled to do as it wishes. It is entirely proper that the UK should gather its friends* around it to enforce the terms of one treaty, but equally entirely outrageous that the EU countries should act in concert to enforce the terms of another.

How lucky we are to have government ministers who can see the distinction so clearly and can explain it in terms that even China should be able to understand. And if they don’t, well the UK can always send a gunboat or two…

*Any suggestion that this is a small and diminishing group is as unworthy as it is accurate.

Thursday, 12 November 2020

Missed opportunity


In what looks like only a minor variation on the customary song that Wales should use its devolved power any way it wishes as long as it does the same as England, the Secretary of State has been complaining that the Welsh government has axed next year’s school examinations. Apparently, he sees some sort of strange equivalence between a devolved body acting entirely within its own powers on an issue which has been completely devolved, and a UK government which ignores the devolution boundaries, in the sense that both, in his view, should be subject to what he euphemistically calls ‘consultation’. It’s another illustration, not that one were needed, of the fundamental problem with ‘devolution’: it doesn’t recognise Welsh sovereignty as being anything other than a temporary loan of power from London.

Whether the actual decision of the Welsh government is the right one or not is another question, and is a legitimate subject for debate, even if it’s a debate in which the Secretary of State has no legitimate role. The problem is that it’s an issue clouded by ideology and prejudice rather than one led by facts and evidence; the question of whether exams are the ‘right’ way to assess pupils seems to be highly correlated with political outlook. There’s no doubt that some children are well-served by an examination process, but neither is there any doubt that others are not – for a variety of reasons, exam performance doesn’t always reflect the progress and ability seen by teachers in classrooms. On the other hand, there is more scope for teacher assessments to contain a subjective element in their assessment of pupils, no matter how hard they strive to avoid that. There is no perfect system.

In the limited circumstances of the pandemic, it is probably better to do as the Welsh government have done and take the decision early, thus giving themselves plenty of time to think through a proper and robust alternative assessment process rather than the chaos we saw last year, and it’s probably reasonable to assume that the approach of the Westminster government of leaving things until the last minute to decide will lead to more chaos in England again next year, unless they get lucky in controlling the virus. (And lucky is the right word, given the obvious lack of any planned approach to anything.) The problem remains, though, that this still looks like a one-off decision to deal with a particular anticipated situation next year, rather than an opportunity for a thorough review to determine what Wales needs from a system of pupil assessment and how such a system can be made fairer for all. It’s in danger of being an opportunity missed.

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Would-be world king achieves world-beating status


Boris Johnson as a child said that he wanted to be ‘world king’ when he grew up. There is no evidence that his ambition has changed; but then, neither is there much evidence of any growing up. There is, in any event, no such post, so the nearest that he could possibly get is to be recognised as a world-beating leader in at least one field of his choice. That is where the defeat of Trump comes in. No longer does Johnson face any serious competition for the title of leader of the most disreputable, dishonest, mendacious, corrupt, and incompetent government in the developed world which makes him now, indisputably, a truly world-beating politician in five different categories. Let’s just hope that’s enough to satisfy him, and that he doesn’t seek gold medal status in any other categories.