Thursday, 21 February 2019

More of the same?

In all sorts of ways, Brexit is an epoch-defining moment, whether it ends up happening or not.  Tied up in the debate is a whole series of issues about what it means to be Welsh, British or European, whether the future lies in international co-operation or competition, and whether the UK has adapted, or ever can adapt, to its diminished status in the world.  I am in no doubt that it is, in its very essence, an Anglo-British not-nationalist-at-all attempt to turn back the clock to an age when, from their perspective at least (even if not in reality), people knew their place, the world kow-towed before the might of Britannia, and this glorious little island stood united against its enemies (especially, of course, the dastardly Germans).  It is precisely because the project is of that nature that I oppose it; people who voted for this strange vision of a ‘great’ British past really should not be surprised that it is accompanied by blatant attempts to rebrand everything with the Union flag.  I’ve argued before that the choice facing us in Wales is not between the status quo and complete independence; it is between a gradual transition to independent member status in the EU and being stuck on a small off-shore island dominated by the Anglo-British not-nationalists-at-all.
Even if the big underlying questions referred to above aren’t really being discussed, they underpin the debate, and coupled with the utter incompetence of both the Prime Minister and the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, the strain on those members of the two main political parties who possess a few brain cells between them has been intense, to the point where some have chosen to break away and form a new grouping.  Given the importance of this one issue, which will determine our future for a generation or more, if this was all just about Brexit, I’d be egging them on and hoping that more would follow them.  There are times when single-issue politics has a role to play, and this is such a time; if splintering the existing monolithic parties is an essential precondition to changing course, then so be it.  And I would, of course, give a more general welcome to anything which smashed the two-party politics which has dominated the UK for far too long, in which context a move to proportional representation is also essential.
But…  For all their fine words, I can’t help wondering how much of what drives them is a real desire for a change of direction and a change in the UK’s politics and how much is down to personal ambition or discontent with particular leaders at a particular point in time.  “Centrism” is paraded as though it is something inherently virtuous, neither one thing nor the other, whilst the Brexiteers on the one hand and Momentum on the other are presented as though they were dangerous extremists, despite the fact that (with the sole exception of Brexit) there is little in the policies of either which would be out of place in mainstream parties across Europe.  “Extremist” is just an insult; a label to avoid engaging with the substance of what others say.  And, at one level, it suits them all to play a game of pretending to be more different than they are in reality.
On any objective analysis, the UK has been dominated for the last 70 years by two broadly social democratic parties, the difference between which has mostly been of emphasis rather than of real substance.  Both support a capitalist economy, both support the existence of the NHS and the Welfare state (disagreements being limited to issues such as the scale and the role of the marketplace), both support the development and possession of weapons of mass destruction - the list is endless.  Minor disagreements are blown up into great issues of principle largely in order to differentiate between two very similar positions and world views.  We need change, we need to shake up the system, but do we really need yet another flavour of social democracy?  I think not.  If the unimaginatively-named Independent Group can be a movement for bringing some reality back into the Brexit debate instead of the Corbyn-May demand for the impossible, then all well and good.  If they can be a catalyst for electoral reform which opens out more future possibilities, then all power to their elbow.  But once those two issues are resolved there is no role or purpose for another party of ambitious politicians repeating the same old messages.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

When 'trust me' isn't enough

Chutzpah: a lovely little word to describe the audacity involved in making outrageous statements or claims, one of the few skills which ministers in the UK Government seem to be honing to a fine edge.  Yesterday, it was the Foreign Secretary’s turn to try his skills, claiming to EU leaders and officials that the departure of 7 MPs from the Labour Party meant that they should not trust the Labour Party, because that party is badly split.
But the real chutzpah comes in the claim that they should instead trust the Tories.  This is a government to which the real opposition is another party operating inside it, a government which is in office but no longer in power, a government whose leader is reduced to making increasingly desperate pleas to its own party’s members for support – pleas which are largely being laughed at by those to whom they are addressed.  It is also a government with which the EU27 spent two years reaching an agreement on which it is now trying to find a way of reneging.
In the position of the EU27, I’d certainly be wary of trusting Labour, but ‘wary’ is a wholly inadequate word to describe how I’d feel about dealing with the Tories.  Their chutzpah skills may be improving, but they still have a lot to learn about not taking it so far that it just makes them look stupid.

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Direct and indirect causes

Different people have reacted differently to the announcement by Honda that it is to cease production and close its plant in Swindon, depending largely on their views over Brexit.  Opponents of Brexit have been quick to claim that Brexit is clearly a factor, whilst Brexiteers have, quite rightly, pointed out that Honda’s statement placed no blame on Brexit; indeed, it specifically stated that it was not a Brexit-related issue.  That statement may not be quite as definitive as it sounds, though.
It’s certainly true that there have been major changes in the industry, and that the move away from diesel cars is happening faster than many would have predicted.  And it would be surprising if Honda, like other manufacturers, wasn’t looking more to a future which depended more on electric vehicles.  In that situation, ending production of a vehicle whose life-span is nearing its end anyway is an entirely normal, non-Brexit-related business decision.
More interesting, though, is the question which is not being asked as a follow-up.  As far as I can see, the company is not planning to produce fewer cars in total, merely changing the emphasis away from one type of vehicle to another.  And those new cars need to be produced somewhere – the company has decided to do that in Japan.  So, the question which hasn’t been widely asked is this: given that you already have a factory capable of producing vehicles with a trained and experienced workforce, why close that and invest in new capacity elsewhere instead of repurposing the existing facility?
The company’s own statement gives us the answer to that when it says that it is due to the relative size of the market in different locations.  Now we know that the original investment in the UK was part of a strategy to target the EU market from the inside rather than across tariff barriers; and we know that the new EU-Japan trade agreement facilitates trading with the EU directly, without needing a base within the EU.  We also know that the terms of trade between the UK and EU post-Brexit are a complete unknown at the moment, but there is no conceivable Brexit scenario (other than cancelling it completely) which will not make trade between the UK and the EU more difficult than it is at present – and potentially significantly more difficult than simply supplying the market directly from Japan.
So, in taking the short-term decision to stop production of the current model, I can well believe that Brexit was not a significant factor.  But in making the longer-term decision as to where to put future investment, not only can I not believe that the changes which Brexit is leading to are not a factor, but I also believe that if they weren’t, then the directors of the company would be guilty of a grave dereliction of duty.  And this matters; it matters a lot.  We are going to see a lot of changes happening, and in many cases it is going to be extremely difficult for anyone to say, with absolute certainty, that this decision or that decision was a direct result of Brexit. 
At the level of individual decisions, the Brexiteers will have a degree of what Nixon once called “credible deniability”, and they will attempt to use that to deny any causal link between their project and the economic damage which it does.  But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that whilst the changes resulting from Brexit may not be the direct cause in many individual decisions, they will undoubtedly be part of the context considered when those decisions are being made.  The influence of a deliberate decision to place the UK outside the world’s largest free trade area will not always be direct and obvious, but it will be extremely pervasive overall.

Monday, 18 February 2019

Who'd have thought it?

Apparently, if you want to do a trade deal with the world’s second largest economy, a country which just happens to have the world’s largest standing army, threatening them with military action in two years’ time when your big new boat is finally ready is likely to prove counter-productive.  Who’d have thought it?  Not the Defence Minister for sure.
It seems that if you live on an offshore island which trades heavily with its nearest neighbours, it is highly likely that the shortest and easiest sea crossing route will be vitally important to your economy.  Who’d have thought it?  Not the ex-Brexit Secretary, certainly.
If a large group of countries of which you are part spends several years negotiating a close trading arrangement with another large economy, and you then decide to walk away, then that country is likely to see your now much smaller size and negotiating leverage as an opportunity to claw back some of what they had to give away when negotiating with the larger block.  Who’d have thought it?  Not the International Trade Secretary, who cannot understand why they’re not offering better terms rather than worse ones.
And if you want to find an alternative route to transport goods between the UK and the EU, choosing a port with no facilities and a company with no ships is apparently not the best way of going about it.  Who’d have thought it?  Not the Transport Secretary, who thought it was a jolly good way of helping a start-up company.
It’s easy enough to see all this as being just down to good old-fashioned incompetence, seasoned with a good dose of Anglo-British exceptionalism and a delusional belief that things can go back to the way they were when the Empire ruled the waves and the natives did as they were told.  Alternatively, maybe it’s just the cumulative effect over the last two and a half years of the cabinet having been served Theresa May’s home-made jam tarts, complete with psycho-active mould.

Friday, 15 February 2019

We need to find a trusty dog

It might be at least partly down to advancing years.  Policemen are definitely getting younger, and that’s supposed to be one of the more reliable signs, isn’t it?  I don’t think it’s down to rose-tinted nostalgia, though – I mean, I’ve always known that politicians will say one thing to get elected and then do the opposite when they’re in power, even if it took a while to realise that no party is exempt from that rule.  The first elections in which I took any interest were those of 1964 and 1966.  I was too young to vote, but had I been old enough, I would have voted for Harold Wilson’s Labour Party.  They were going to bring about radical change, to re-forge Britain in the “white heat of the technological revolution”, and above all, they were going to scrap Polaris.  They didn’t of course, and (apart from a brief period of hope under Michael Foot) I’ve never trusted anything the Labour Party has said since.
But if I can’t explain it in those terms, then perhaps it really is true – there has never been a time when politicians told such outright and easily demonstrable lies on the scale which we are witnessing today.  The Prime Minister lies on an industrial scale, even if MPs are told off for pointing it out.  But the fact that it is contrary to parliamentary rules to call the PM a liar doesn’t mean that she isn’t.  Day after day she opens her mouth and what comes spilling out is in complete contradiction to objective, provable truth.  It isn’t just her, of course; but we’ve reached a stage where mere ‘facts’ are no longer relevant; her nearest thing to a saving grace is that she hasn’t yet reached the level of Trump, who seems to feel himself bound to utter six demonstrable untruths before breakfast.
She told the House of Commons this week that she’s spent two weeks ‘negotiating hard’ with the EU when, in reality, they are still waiting for her to define what she actually wants.  There are no negotiations – as some EU officials put it this week, the UK is only pretending to negotiate.  What she asked parliament to agree to yesterday was to give its approval to continuing the pretence for another two weeks; she still hasn’t a clue what it is that she’s trying to achieve or how it is in any way different from that which she herself solemnly declared to be impossible just a few short weeks ago.  It would be a foolish person who was prepared to wager that she won’t go back to parliament in a fortnight, declare that she’s still ‘negotiating hard’ but needs yet more time to define what it is that she wants.
In the worst days of the old Soviet Union, when the economy increasingly resembled a basket case, one factory manager was reported as saying of the workers “they pretend to work and we pretend to pay them”.  The UK seems to have reached a point where the government pretends to govern, the opposition pretends to oppose, and parliament pretends to have some influence.  Where’s Toto when he’s needed?

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Never mind Brexit - what about some jam?

In “War of the Worlds” there comes a point where the narrator is playing cards with the artilleryman whilst the Martians ravage the outside world.  As Wells put it “…with our species upon the edge of extermination or appalling degradation, with no clear prospect before us but the chance of a horrible death, we could sit […] playing the “joker” with vivid delight”.  It’s a surreal reaction to the horrors of the outside world.  There was a strange parallel this week, when it was revealed that, in the midst of the shambles which Brexit has become, the Prime Minister discussed with the Cabinet the edibility of jam with mould on top.
Apparently, she simply scrapes the mould off and eats the jam underneath, which is, she claims, perfectly edible.  There is some division of opinion amongst the experts as to whether this is or is not advisable; it seems to depend on the type and colour of the mould and whether you also scrape out the underlying few centimetres where the spores can be lingering, but I wonder if the PM hasn’t inadvertently let us know why the government is in such a mess.  Some moulds produce psychoactive toxins which can cause all manner of problems in the brain, including attentional problems.  Someone who has consumed such toxins might well forget what was said to her yesterday and see nothing wrong with repeating the same words and activities day after day, Groundhog-style.
It’s a better explanation than many that I’ve seen.

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Madness seems to be infectious

The idea that the government thinks that increasing the country’s ‘lethality’ and willingness to use military force to impose its will on others isn’t exactly something to be welcomed.  And quite what it has to do with Brexit escapes me completely; there is nothing in our treaty commitments to the EU which in any way prevents us sending an aircraft carrier wherever we want (as long as it isn’t to threaten action against other EU member states, of course).  There is a negative Brexit effect in that the inevitable short term hit to Treasury revenues makes it harder to afford post-Brexit, but Theresa can always shake that tree in the garden at Downing Street.
There can be few things that quite underline the delusions of grandeur which have driven the Anglo-British not-nationalist-at-all project called Brexit than the idea that freed of the non-existent EU constraints on the UK we can return to the days of Empire and send our gunboats around the world threatening the unruly natives - like those upstart Chinese for instance.  I mean, who do they think they are with their mere 1.2 billion people to think that they could ever resist the demands of the UK?  And there can be few things which do more to reveal it as the fantasy which it is than the fact that the boat that is being sent isn’t planned to be fully operational until 2021, with only what’s called an “initial operational capacity” due to be available from some time in 2020.  That’ll put the wind up them, no?  When they stop laughing, maybe.  And predicting where the new boat might be needed two years hence is an amazing feat from a government who can’t tell us what’s going to happen next month.
In fairness, though, they really shouldn’t laugh.  Writing in the Guardian, Simon Jenkins says that the defence secretary’s brain has gone absent without leave.  I think he’s being unusually kind; a man who thinks the UK can simply tell Russia to go away and shut up, and that a half-operational boat with a few borrowed airplanes can threaten the largest full-time military forces in the world might just be as crazy as his leader, who is busily doing nothing whilst jobs and economic activity leach irreversibly out of the UK in an attempt to convince the world that she really would cause a major recession lasting for several years by leaving the UK without a deal if she can’t get her own way.
The whole concept of “Mutually Assured Destruction” might have had the apparently descriptive acronym MAD, but in reality it was always based on the assumption that those in charge would behave rationally when push came to shove.  What happens when a government really can’t be depended on to do that is an untested proposition to date.  I’m wondering, though, for how long that will remain true.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Peas in a pod

Taking the long view of human history, one feature that stands out as a constant factor is migration.  Wave after wave of migrating humans have swept across the surface of the globe and it is a truism to state that every country, every nation, every border owes something to migration in determining what they are and where they are.  The two most widespread languages in use (English and Spanish) both started out in small corners of Europe and were spread around the world by a combination of conquest and the ensuing migration.  There is something peculiar to me that, in a world largely shaped by migration, prevention of migration should have become such a significant political theme; it’s almost as though large sections of humanity have decided to forget how we became what we are and freeze history in aspic at its current point.
I saw an article a while ago in which Farage seemed to be arguing that it was wrong that citizens of EU states should have more right to come to the UK than citizens of Commonwealth countries.  It’s one of the few things on which I almost agree with him.  The problem arises, though, in the response to that inequality.
When two different groups of people have different levels of rights, there are always two obvious ways of resolving that inequality – you can either take rights away from one group or grant them to the other.  And the general problem with people who highlight this particular difference is that they always seem to want to diminish rights rather than enhance them.  It’s yet another case of the privileged few wanting to restrict freedom to themselves.  It also highlights the key difference in ideological perspective between two different world views.  It isn’t the simplistic one as which they present it, which is that anyone who doesn’t agree with them about controlling immigration is automatically in favour of mass immigration, it’s about where ‘rights’ start and end.  And there are two fundamentally different starting points.
The first is that, in principle, every member of the human race should have the right to travel, live and work wherever he or she wishes, and that it up to anyone who wants to restrict those rights to justify doing so.  The alternative starting point is that moving around is a privilege, not a right, and that governments should decide who can benefit from that privilege.  It shouldn’t need to be said (but probably does) that ‘privileges’ always somehow end up being disproportionately available to those who are already privileged, whilst it is the poorest who find the 'privilege' denied them. 
It’s perfectly possible, in principle at least, to end up with the same policies at a practical level when starting from either perspective, but the justifications will look very different.  From the latter perspective, it is the individual humans who have to justify why they should be allowed to move; from the former, it is for governments to justify why movement should be prevented.  It should be no surprise to anyone that a party like the Conservative Party, which believes in essence that ‘rights’ should be few and far between starts from the perspective that movement is a privilege not a right.  They do, after all, seem to think that the same rule applies to health, education, and housing. 
Superficially, it’s rather more of a surprise that Labour starts from the same perspective.  Yet their rhetoric tells us exactly that; it’s almost identical to the Tories.  There might be some difference of emphasis or in the rules governing exactly who and how many people should be allowed to migrate, but essentially, the party of self-styled “socialists” and “internationalists” is as strong in wanting to restrict movement as the Tories.  It’s a factor which Theresa May was quite right to pick up on in her response to Corbyn’s letter, when she pointed out that Labour was as wedded to the abolition of freedom of movement as she is. 
It’s only at a superficial level that Labour’s position should surprise us though.  As with so much which that party says and does, principle long ago stopped being the driving force.  They have adopted their current stance on migration not from principle, or because they think it’s right, or even because of any evidence relating to the economic costs and benefits; no, none of those drive Labour, only a cynical pursuit of votes.  They think, in short, that it’s what the people who vote for them want.  A party which set out to persuade, educate and lead people to a different and better form of society has become a political vehicle aimed at winning power by saying what they think people want to hear – a party which follows rather than leads.
It has been said that, in relation to Brexit, there are two things which both May and Corbyn want.  They both want Brexit and they both want it to be delivered by the Tories.  The reason we are in such a mess over Brexit isn’t just May’s red lines and utter incompetence (important though those factors are); it is also down to Labour’s cynicism and willingness to follow rather than lead.  The ‘game’ has become, for them, more important than the outcome.

Friday, 8 February 2019

Shaping our past

There has been a lot of fuss this week about the fact that a piece of graffiti on a wall near Aberystwyth was vandalised by someone painting a different piece of graffiti over it and has subsequently been restored by a group of young people who have attempted to replicate the original graffiti.  No doubt some will be offended by my referring to the original as graffiti at all: it is, as they see it, a commemoration of a significant event in modern Welsh history.  And actually, I agree with them and am pleased that those local young people have restored the message - but I’m being deliberately provocative because there is an important point here.
It isn’t just the superficially obvious one about who decides what is or is not graffiti and/or vandalism.  Not that that point isn’t important in itself, of course; like it or not (and for the avoidance of doubt, I don’t), Elvis really is more significant in the lives of some Welsh people than Tryweryn.  I might, like many others, see Tryweryn as a hugely significant event in our modern history as a nation; but I also recognise the work which the possessive pronoun is doing there.  ‘Our’, just in the use of the word, presupposes a great deal, and I’m not sure that that is being widely-enough recognised.  There's rather more to making something truly part of the history of all of us than painting a message on a wall.
And that’s the underlying point that I want to come to.  The disrespect shown to what many of us regard as a memorial, albeit a completely unofficial one, has led to calls for people to be taught more about ‘our’ history.  The problem is that history isn’t just a series of events – any ‘history’ requires events to be selected or discarded; given a significance on a scale in relation to other events, and above all, interpreted.  And who makes all those decisions, none of which is entirely objective or impartial?  I am always concerned about politicians – of any hue – demanding that pupils be taught ‘our’ history; they invariably mean that they want their own take on history to be taught.  Like most people, I suppose, I don’t have a problem if politicians with whom I agree are selecting a version of history which I like; but when politicians with whom I disagree choose a rather different version, we can end up with situations like this one.  I remember the old story about the Soviet historian who allegedly said that “In our country, only the future is certain – the past is always changing”.  There’s something very Orwellian about politicians redefining history to suit the needs of the present, but continuing redefinition and reinterpretation is a normal part of developing history.
That there is a need for a better awareness of history, I don’t doubt.  But it isn’t just in Wales – one of the things which Brexit has revealed to be rampant in certain sections of society (even among elected politicians) is an over-simplistic understanding of the complex relationships between these islands and our continental neighbours (which for many apparently is all about the inherent German desire to dominate and the plucky English single-handedly defeating them).  It’s true that we all need to know more about our past, and that knowing the past is a key element of understanding who we are and how we got here, but it’s as na├»ve to believe that there is only one way of understanding that past as it is to believe that there’s only one way of being Welsh.  I’m no more a fan of Elvis than I am of Edward I – but they both fit somewhere in what we are today.  Deciding what to teach as ‘history’ is far from being as simple as some might suggest - and teaching dates and events without context and interpretation is unlikely to make much difference to anything.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Taking the rap

There have been many moments during the continuing Brexit debacle when I have wondered quite what the UK has come to.  This piece by Robert Peston was another of those.  In it he says that ministers in the UK Government are left trying to guess what government policy is on Brexit – they don’t know, and the PM is refusing to tell them.  She’s off to Brussels today to put her government’s latest request to the EU leaders – but it seems that she’s the only member of her government who knows what she’s going to say.  And I’m not entirely convinced that she knows either.
A cynic might suggest that that’s the only reason she’s not telling them - she doesn’t know herself – but I suspect that’s only part of the story.  The balance in the Cabinet is such that, if she actually comes down in favour of anything, a number of them are likely to respond by resigning; in Schrodinger’s cabinet, the uneasy truce can hold only until someone opens the box.  Dysfunctional as a description doesn’t do justice to the position in which we find ourselves; this is on a different scale completely.
How cabinet members square their consciences with the idea that they are bound by collective responsibility but haven’t a clue for what is an interesting if rather academic question.  I suppose that the spoils and trappings of power help, but at least a few of them must surely be starting to wonder whether it isn’t time for a change.  I’d be surprised if some of them at least weren’t starting to wish that the UK had a written constitution containing a properly thought-through 25th Amendment with a handy Section 4.  Still, even without that, custom and practice shows that the Cabinet can remove a PM when they are left with no choice.  That day is surely approaching.