Thursday, 9 July 2020

Johnson testing the limits?

It was no real surprise that the official guidance stating that if employers pay for Covid-19 tests for their staff, that will be treated as a benefit in kind on which the employees will be required to pay income tax. The surprise was that it got to the stage that it did before being reversed. When I first read about the policy, I thought it must be a spoof – fake news – but no, it was there, in black and white, in HMRC’s official guidance. I know that not all ‘minor’ details of the implementation of policy go before ministers for decision, but something like this will have gone through several levels of review and discussion before being released, and I can’t imagine a discussion amongst a group of civil servants which concluded that raising a tax charge on employees in such circumstances did not require ministerial sign off. Which means that it was most probably signed off by a minister – was the individual concerned asleep on the job?
The same applies to the decisions to reinstate parking charges for NHS staff and to make the £500 bonus for Welsh care staff taxable. The first has already been reversed but the second not yet, as far as I’m aware. The public reaction to all of these decisions was entirely predictable, but the government took them all, leading to wholly avoidable U-turns. Donald Trump famously said during his election campaign that he could stand in 5th Avenue in New York and shoot someone and it wouldn’t affect his level of support. Perhaps Johnson is just testing the theory here: with 60,000 dead as a result of his handling of the pandemic, turning on the staff who’ve worked so hard to help the sick ought to be political suicide but support for his party remains inexplicably high. Just how bad does he have to get before it has an impact on his core supporters?

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

The folly of reciprocity

The nature of travel controls in dealing with a pandemic is that the logical priority is to stop travel from higher risk areas into low risk areas. Why anyone would want to travel from a low risk area into a high risk area is one of life’s little mysteries, but there is no obvious reason for preventing them from doing so as long as they expect to be quarantined on their return. It should, therefore, be no surprise to anyone (although it does seem to have come as a surprise to some) that any list of countries from which a high-risk country like England will accept travellers will be longer than the list of countries prepared to accept travellers from that high risk country itself. And indeed, of the 59 or more (a number which keeps changing) countries considered ‘safe’ by the English government, 32 are still imposing some sort of restrictions on travellers from England. The only surprise in that, for me, is that 27 are not – I wonder who’s doing their risk assessments.
There is a problem for Wales and Scotland in this, of course – although the guidance on who may enter the country legally without a period of self-isolation applies only to England, the countries named in the English guidance are inevitably applying their rules to the whole of the UK. I can’t blame them given the lack of control over movement between those parts of the UK committed to eliminating the virus on the one hand and England on the other which is committed only to keeping infections at a level with which they believe that NHS can cope. That situation has been unnecessarily confused by the English government’s lack of discussion and consultation with the devolved administrations. The leader of the very best (but entirely non-nationalistic, of course) country in the world in every respect simply doesn’t see any need to consult anybody. Even, or perhaps especially, his own toadies cabinet. Discussion is for wimps, not world kings.
The English government has also added to the confusion with its unwillingness to spell out the  unavoidably one-sided nature of its advice (presumably for fear that doing so would reveal the true extent to which England’s handling of the pandemic has been so poor compared to other states), almost encouraging people to think that the problem isn’t with England’s handling of the virus, but with those pesky foreigners declining to reciprocate. From an Anglo-centric perspective, if ‘they’ won’t accept ‘us’, that’s evidence of ‘their’ mean-spiritedness rather than ‘our’ utter incompetence.
But reciprocity in such circumstances is a ludicrous idea – it amounts to demanding that because ‘we’ assess your country to be low risk on the basis of the number of cases and the rate of spread, ‘you’ must state that you consider us to be equally low risk and ignore all hard numerical evidence to the contrary. It’s English exceptionalism at its very worst; a demand that the rest of the world believes the lies and spin and accepts the overall greatness of England. It doesn’t help puncture the bubble when the official opposition seem to have bought into the same exceptionalism and unreasonableness – Labour’s transport spokesperson criticised the government this week saying "Now we see a plan to let residents of 60 or more countries into England without any reciprocal arrangements". English exceptionalism knows no party boundaries.
It’s an open question whether countries signing up to any lessening of quarantine restrictions are acting too soon – only time will tell. The English government’s decision looks more like a short-term economic one (which, if they’ve got it wrong, will actually turn out to be much costlier in the end) than anything related to public health. Seeking to arrive at mutual or reciprocal arrangements is about politics and spin; it has nothing to do with disease control.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Identifying borders

Following an outbreak of coronavirus in Melbourne, Australia’s government announced yesterday that it was closing the border between New South Wales and Victoria. They obviously need Boris Johnson out there to explain to them that what they have done is quite impossible. (I’m sure we could spare him for a year or two. Or longer. Preferably longer.) Australia is one country and there can be no borders within a single country. Only recognised international borders can be controlled - Johnson was very clear on that point last week when he said that the line separating England from Scotland is not such a border so it cannot be policed or closed. Of course, if he’s otherwise engaged making models of buses out of wine boxes, we could always send his father instead to show Australians how to render the ban ineffective by travelling between the two states via some other country. (Do they have flights to both via Bulgaria?) Alternatively we could send Boris’ fellow Etonian Jake to explain to the Australians that New South Wales and Victoria are merely districts or areas within a single country, and that means that there is simply no way to impose travel restrictions between them. It just can’t be done, as anyone with an expensive education knows. If only they hadn’t been so foolish as to leave the Empire, the Australians might understand these things too.
Perhaps it really is down to the school which they both attended. I wonder if their parents have ever regretted spending so much on an education which has taught their offspring so little about how things work in the real world that they believe that merely stating something makes it a fact. On the other hand, their parents seem to think the same way, judging by the actions of Johnson père. Perhaps suffering from delusions is an inherited trait.

Monday, 6 July 2020

Where is the planning for change?

Last week, the Tory MP for Monmouth accused those expressing anger over job losses at Airbus of ‘crocodile tears’ and argued that some people have “spent the last few years decrying the airline industry and talking about the climate emergencies and the rest of it… I hope they now realise that this is what they have been calling for”. It was a typically robust performance from a man not exactly known either for his sensitivity to the difficulties of others or for thinking about the consequences of his words. And I suspect that those Tories holding seats in the north of Wales – especially those who only won them a few short months ago – won’t be rushing to thank him for his intervention. But however poorly he expressed himself and however unthinking his comments, he does actually have a point. A reduction in flying will inevitably impact some jobs.
There was another, apparently unrelated, story in the Sunday Times a week ago in which a number of politicians, including Tory Theresa Villiers and Labour’s Andy Burnham, called for staff who have been working at home to return to their offices in city centres because the shops and restaurants there depended on their custom. Never mind that they have shown that they can work effectively at home, never mind that public transport is working well below normal capacity meaning that a return to city centre offices means an increase in the use of private cars with its accompanying congestion and pollution: shops and restaurants depend on their business so people should go back to what they were doing before.
The common theme is that those of us who want to build a different type of economy, one where people travel less and one which is less environmentally damaging and more personally fulfilling cannot legitimately also argue that all existing jobs must also be protected at all costs. A move to a different type of economy, to say nothing of the changes which automation and Artificial Intelligence will bring, necessarily requires some jobs to become redundant, and it is dishonest to pretend otherwise. If we get it right, of course, then they will either be replaced by other jobs and/or we will find other means of sharing out both the work and the rewards for doing it; that is all part of the alternative thinking that is required.
The immediate problem is that some of these changes are being forced upon us at short notice by unplanned circumstances. And part of the reason that’s such a problem is that, prior to the pandemic, governments have given far too little thought to how we manage the necessary changes over a longer period. Even during the pandemic, little thought has been given to whether some of the forced changes (such as more home working) might be beneficially continued for the longer term; the emphasis has all been on ‘returning to normal’. The Welsh government prides itself on some of the legislation it has passed, such as the Future Generations Act, and so it should. However, passing laws is meaningless and pointless unless the government also acts to bring about substantial economic change in a planned fashion, and the simple truth is that there has been little evidence of that happening. Ministers have, instead, used every opportunity to support what is rather than building what should be.
The loss of jobs at Airbus is a tragedy for those involved, their families and local communities, but pretending that the downturn in the aviation industry is something that will last a few short months, and seeking to find ways of maintaining the jobs over that period, is a sticking plaster approach. The combination of Brexit and the almost complete shutdown of aviation as a result of the pandemic have made it obvious for months that there would be a problem for Airbus. Where is the thinking about how those valuable skills can best be employed for the future, where is the thinking about how individuals, families and communities can be protected and supported through a period of change? I don’t really expect to see any of that from a Tory government in London but it’s disappointing, to say the least, that we’re not seeing it from the Welsh government either. Protecting existing jobs is no substitute for planning and managing a transition to a different type of economy.

Friday, 3 July 2020

More than a loophole

Many years ago, when I was a member of the Vale of Glamorgan Council, I remember that the then (Tory) leader of the council rose to his hind legs to lecture the rest of us about something or other and during the course of his oration informed the world that people don’t swim in the water off Barry Island, they merely “go through the motions”. It was a refreshingly honest assessment of the sea condition at the time, although I did wonder how he squared that assessment with his role in promoting the Island as a tourist destination. “Going through the motions” – in both senses of the phrase – strikes me as a good description of the English government’s approach to quarantine for people arriving in the UK.
Johnson senior’s scenic little trip to Greece via Bulgaria highlights one of the major problems with the approach being adopted by the UK. The PM is not, of course, responsible for the actions of his father and, fortunately for him, even the mildest form of embarrassment is not something with which he is in the least bit familiar. It would, in any event, be wholly unfair to blame him for the behaviour of his father (although it’s a good deal less unfair to place a degree of blame on the father for the behaviour of the son). The point is that the system being used by Greece to determine who’s allowed in (and by the UK to decide who should quarantine) are based on the last, rather than the original, point of departure for the individual. So, whilst people are barred from travelling to Greece from the UK, if they stop in some intermediate country like Bulgaria they can enter freely. Similarly, a person travelling from New York to London would be required to self-isolate, but if the same person changes plane in Dublin the requirement disappears. And by the time the government publishes what looks likely to be an extensive list of exceptions in addition to the Republic, what’s left looks like little more than motions. Again, in both senses. ‘Loophole’ is a wholly inadequate word to describe it.
It appears that the English Government has agreed its list of exceptions with no consultation with the devolved administrations, which are expected to immediately fall meekly into line without discussion, or be blamed for delaying the decision. In the circumstances, it is reasonable for the devolved administrations to take, or consider taking, actions to protect their people from the reckless decisions being made in London. The PM’s objection to any idea that some sort of border exists between England and Scotland is a knee-jerk reaction – he seems quite happy to draw a border around Leicester and seek to apply controls over movement there. But then being consistent lives in the same box as embarrassment (see above). He is putting Scotland and Wales in an impossible situation – probably deliberately. Even if the Welsh Government were able to stop flights from an airport which they own (and incredibly, it seems that they are not, although I fail to understand how, under current guidance, anyone can legitimately arrive at the airport to catch the flights) they have no easy way of stopping people who arrive at Bristol or Heathrow from traveling into Wales. Whilst they may have the nominal power to impose their own rules on arriving aircraft, those only apply to airports within Wales. It’s almost as though Johnson wants to turn mild-mannered Mark Drakeford into a raving independentista. But that would require an ability to plan and think ahead (see embarrassment and consistency above).

Thursday, 2 July 2020

The problem with foreigners

There is a mantra beloved of self-help, positive-thinking gurus to the effect that if you believe strongly enough in yourself the rest of the world will accept you on that basis and treat you accordingly. If it doesn’t work for you, it’s not because there’s anything wrong with the approach (for which you’ve already parted with your hard-earned cash), it’s just that you aren’t believing hard enough. I’ve never been convinced about that; it’s an approach which seems to me to depend on turning off any sense of social awareness and objective reality and interpreting all reactions as some sort of self-validation. At an individual level it may appear a little eccentric but it’s generally harmless to others, and if it makes people happy… However, only a crazy person would think that extreme self-belief could be applied to interstate relationships. Fortunately for the UK, there is currently a plentiful supply of such people in positions of authority. They really do believe that the power of collective positive thought is so great that the rest of the world will bend to our will.
The problem with the rest of the world is that they just don’t understand how special and unique the UK (and especially England) is. It’s not as if they haven’t been told repeatedly, but they are all too thick to understand plain English, even when it’s shouted loudly and slowly at them. When the UK government says that it wants to rediscover the buccaneering spirit (aka piracy) of the past, it means exactly what it says – rules are for other people, the UK only has rights. Recent examples of foreigners’ stupidity include:
·        Believing that the UK would implement the protocol on Northern Ireland trade just because the government signed up to it in the Withdrawal Agreement. As Gove has pointed out, the arrangement was always going to be unacceptable to Unionists; it is utterly unrealistic to expect the UK to implement it. The Withdrawal Agreement specifies only the EU’s obligations, it’s entirely optional for the UK.
·        Expecting the UK to abide by WTO rules in the event of there being no deal. The UK government has made it perfectly clear that if tariffs are introduced in Northern Ireland, the government will reimburse those tariffs Reimbursing tariffs may be illegal under the WTO agreement but the WTO rules are an à la carte arrangement for the UK; they’re only mandatory for everyone else.
·        Not understanding that the UK has rights which don’t apply to anyone else. When the UK eschewed the not brilliant but nevertheless functional track and trace app in use elsewhere in order to pursue an alternative, it assumed that Apple and Google would agree that the UK should uniquely be allowed to amend and over-ride the proprietary code of their operating systems. There was no need to discuss that in advance because the UK is a sovereign country with the absolute right to do as it wishes.
·        EU negotiators insisting that the UK can’t pick and choose which rules to follow if it wants tariff-free access to the Single Market. Their refusal to countenance the idea that the UK can have such access and then change its own rules to give its own businesses a competitive advantage is wholly unreasonable – any trade agreement applies to the EU until changes are agreed but obviously only applies to the UK at the moment it is signed.
Some unkind souls may see this as a case of misplaced self-belief running into hard reality, but they’re wrong. If self-belief doesn’t work, it’s because we’re not all believing hard enough. It’s not the government’s fault (nothing ever is) it’s ours. We just need to believe harder. Apparently. That’ll show Johnny Foreigner what’s what.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Why were the Romans and countrymen omitted?

In a revelation surpassed only by the pending announcements about the toilet habits of bears and the religious affiliation of the Pope, Boris Johnson disclosed yesterday that he is not a communist. In a speech which largely announced that he was ‘speeding up’ existing spending commitments so that what he’d previously announced would happen over five years will now only take eight (his understanding of relative dimensions owes more to the Tardis than to Euclid) it was probably the closest thing to a fact. Although, given his well-known casual relationship with the truth, it is at least a possibility that he will have succeeded only in planting the seed of a doubt where none existed before.
In fairness, however, the statement has been taken out of context by many. The full sentence read “My friends, I am not a communist”.  The first two words are very significant; note the absence – by a classicist at that – of any reference to “Romans and countrymen”. It wasn’t addressed to all of us, merely to that circle of people whom Johnson regards as his friends. It is a very small circle (although it’s probably larger than the circle of people who regard him as being their friend as opposed to merely a useful idiot), but it’s the one he most needs to appease. And if we want to know to whom the PM might possibly think himself beholden, we have only to stop and consider for a moment one simple question: what sort of political beliefs do people hold if they might need, even for a split-second, a reassurance that Johnson is not a communist? As the old adage puts it – ‘by their friends shall ye know them’. He may have told us rather more than he intended.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

A brave policy

It would be hard to argue that the Welsh government’s performance during the coronavirus pandemic has been brilliant. Errors have been made and they’ve been slow to act at times. Part of this may be the result of an over-willingness to seek consensus with an English government which has shown itself to have not the slightest interest in working with anyone else. Part of it may be down to a lack of power to vary some aspects of the response to the pandemic. And part of it may be down to the porous nature of the long eastern border of Wales, which makes divergence more difficult. None of that is enough to excuse the Welsh government for all its failures – a government which truly put Wales first and foremost would have diverged sooner and faster from the increasingly shambolic approach being taken by England rather then held back because of the largely political fear of being seen as ‘too nationalist’. Scotland’s response has not been perfect either, although the less equivocal political leadership and greater willingness to diverge there has helped.
Despite the imperfect response in Wales, the polls suggest that the Welsh government, like its Scottish counterpart, is significantly more trusted than the English government. The more cautious approach is in tune with public opinion, and the willingness to at least attempt to answer questions rather than bluster and lie has been notable. That some people are frustrated with the slower pace of release is unarguable; we still have less freedom than is being enjoyed across the border, and that seems set to continue for a while at least. However, public support for that position seems to be holding up. Whether that continues probably depends on what happens in England. If the release of lockdown leads to an upsurge in cases in England, the First Minister can probably count on becoming even more trusted, but if it doesn’t, then the frustration will grow. The evidence to date is that the former is rather more likely than the latter and like most I broadly support the Welsh approach even if I’d quibble with some of the details. Only time will tell.
The utter incompetence of the English PM and his disastrous handling of the pandemic has left the Conservative Party in Wales in a particularly difficult position – they had to decide whether to hang on to Johnson’s coat-tails or to strike a more independent position. They have chosen to ‘resolve’ that conflict by making repeated demands that Wales should follow England more closely. Being as kind as I can, I assume that they sincerely believe that Johnson has got it right and Drakeford has got it wrong, despite all the current evidence suggesting precisely the opposite. Because if I didn’t make that assumption, I’d be obliged to assume that their demands for copying England amount to a demand that we should increase the Welsh infection and death rates to match the English ones. They’re taking a huge gamble on Johnson’s competence in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. If they’re wrong, then effectively demanding that Wales should ‘level up’ the death rate rather than act differently would be a highly original election strategy. Sir Humphrey, in his customarily understated way, would probably call it ‘brave’.

Monday, 29 June 2020

Taking liberties

On Friday, the Prime Minister of England warned people not to “take too many liberties” with the coronavirus guidance which his government has issued. He presumably thought that the official guidance wasn’t sufficiently vague or meaningless, and there is little so vague in life which Johnson cannot, with a few ill-chosen words, make vaguer or more meaningless.
Taken literally, his words mean that people should consider themselves free to take ‘some’ liberties with the advice – which I take to mean free to ignore it – as long as they don’t take ‘too many’, but the definition of how many is too many is a matter which he will leave to that good old British common sense which led thousands of people to congregate on beaches last week. And although the outcome didn’t look exactly like the mass application of common sense, the individual decisions of those people heading to the coast were entirely rational within the context of the PM’s words. Anyone who believed that everyone else was going to follow the government guidance could legitimately set out for the beach (aka taking a few liberties) safe in the ‘knowledge’ that the beach would be otherwise empty. And that leads us to a rather different interpretation of the PM’s words.
He doesn’t really mean that ‘all’ people are free to take ‘some’ liberties at all – what he really means is that a small minority can take as many liberties as they want as long as the vast majority follow the rules. It’s another variation on the ‘one rule for us, another for everyone else’ philosophy which underpins his whole approach. There is nothing particularly risky about any individual taking a trip to the beach (or, for that matter, and choosing a destination not entirely at random, driving to County Durham); the risk arises when thousands individually apply the same ‘common sense’ assumptions to their own decisions. The actions of any one individual may be considered excusable, but the problem with excusing the actions of one is that it becomes difficult to condemn the actions of others for doing the same thing. Or at least, it would be difficult for anyone who applied rationality or a sense of justice and fair play to the question: for those who start out with a perception that some people are privileged and have more rights than others, it’s very easy to do.
What the PM was really telling us on Friday is that the many need to know their place and stay there so that the world is relatively safe for the few.

Friday, 26 June 2020

The matter is closed

This week, the media have been reporting that the PM is “under pressure” to sack Robert Jenrick following revelations about the minister’s role in granting a planning application in order to save a Tory donor millions of pounds. A few weeks ago, the same media claimed that he was “under pressure” to sack his chief aid following the infamous mobile eye test and breach of lockdown rules. But expecting Johnson to feel in any way pressured over the dishonesty of those around him is wholly unrealistic. This is a man who harbours a deep sense of resentment over the fact that he was himself sacked from two jobs for dishonesty, and that’s not indicative of a man who thinks that dishonesty should be in any way punished.
Someone who has lived his whole life believing that normal rules are for other people and that he is entitled to do whatever he wants is hardly likely to sack someone else for a similar offence. Applying the ‘normal’ expectations of what a PM should do in such circumstances is to misunderstand the man. When the world king declares a matter closed, it is closed. For those wondering just how badly a minister in Johnson’s administration has to behave to get sacked, the answer is obvious: act honestly, stand by your principles and say what you think. There are no signs of any minister being likely to qualify in the near future, not least because anyone meeting that description would never have been appointed in the first place.