Saturday, 25 March 2023

Maintaining the flow of people?


It’s far from clear just how many of the UK’s unwanted migrants Rwanda is willing and able to accept. Some initial reports suggested the number was around 200 (presumably, per year) but the Home Secretary has repeatedly insisted that there is no limit and that Rwanda can take many thousands. Whether the ‘bung’ that the UK government has given the government of Rwanda will be enough in the second case is doubtful; it would be a very strange arrangement which capped the cost but not the number of people involved. If the numbers are open-ended, the cost is likely to be open-ended as well. Perhaps they’re just hoping that the issue will never arise: they seem to fondly imagine that sending a single planeload, or perhaps two, will have such a chilling effect on all those seeking to come to the UK that the flow will simply stop, however unlikely that might seem to anyone else.

In the meantime, the Rwandan army is making regular incursions into the Congo in support of the M23 rebels, who are laying waste to large areas of that country. To date, it appears that around 800,000 people have been driven from their homes by the fighting and are living in refugee camps. No doubt some of those will, in due course, set out on a perilous journey to reach safety, possibly even involving small boats at some point. It would be a surprise if any of them thought that Rwanda might be a ‘safe place’ to be sent in the circumstances, but that doesn’t mean that Rwanda’s authoritarian leader wouldn’t be happy to be paid to take them. And I doubt that Braverman or Sunak would think twice about sending them either, along with a cheque. As if the whole Rwanda project wasn’t distasteful enough in itself, and the people smugglers insufficiently evil, the Rwandan regime is creating more refugees which will potentially keep the people (and the money) flowing. And the UK is likely to end up funding it; treating desperate people as a commodity to be traded seems to suit all concerned. People smugglers, governments – aren’t they ultimately doing the same thing here? The main difference seems to be that the people smugglers take them somewhere that they want to go, and they travel voluntarily. It's quite something when those evil enough to take money from desperate people before sending them on a life-threatening journey can almost look benevolent compared to governments. It all tells us more about the true values of Sunak and Braverman than anything they say can ever do.

Friday, 24 March 2023

Licensing criminality?


The Conservative UK Government and the Labour Welsh Government both want to claim their share of the credit for the granting of freeport status to two areas in Wales, and in the case of the one in Holyhead, the Plaid-run Ynys Môn council is staking its own claim for a share of the praise as well. It’s understandable that politicians want to claim credit for delivering benefits to their constituents, and clearly Wales needs a bit of ‘levelling up’, but I wonder if the enthusiasm all round is quite as justified as any of them seem to believe. Unanimity amongst politicians is either a very good sign or a great big red warning light; rarely anything in between. In this case, it brings to mind the old saying that ‘whilst success has many fathers, failure is a bastard’. Whether those claiming to have been part of the fathering process now will still be doing so in a few years time remains to be seen.

There is nothing new about the idea of freeports; there are around 80 in the EU and the UK had seven as well before the (Conservative-led as it happens) government abolished them in 2012. It’s not true (as Sunak declared) that this is some sort of Brexit dividend; that the UK could not have set up freeports whilst it was a member. It’s not entirely untrue either – the EU is taking an increasing interest in the operation of freeports, and setting tighter rules about what benefits they can offer, which might have constrained the detailed rules around the new ones. The EU is concerned about the potential for tax evasion, corruption and crime, all of which seem to have been a feature of freeports in the past, along, of course, with money-laundering. In theory, there is a customs border around every freeport, ensuring that goods brought legitimately into the freeport without paying customs duties are not then taken illegitimately into the wider economy. In practice, enforcement of that border is patchy at best – creating one of the many opportunities for criminal activity.

Even assuming that the new Welsh freeports manage to avoid all of those concerns, and run as they are intended to with everyone following the rules, the extent to which they provide real long-term economic advantage to the country as a whole is open to question. The UK Government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility has said (referred to here) that the proposed freeports in England are likely to reduce government revenue by around £50 million a year because of the tax breaks granted. If the extra economic activity is sufficiently large – and occurs in the places that need it most – that might be a price worth paying; it’s certainly not a reason in itself for not having freeports. But the OBR also points out that historical evidence suggests the "main effect" of freeports will be to move economic activity from one place to another. And it was largely that factor which led the Cameron government to scrap them.

It’s understandably difficult for any politician to do other than welcome a boost for the area which he or she represents, and taking a wider view can be hard. But is economic growth in Ynys Môn or Pembrokeshire, much-needed as it may be, really a boon to Wales it if merely shifts economic activity and jobs from Flintshire and Carmarthenshire, and reduces the income of national and local governments in the process? It’s a question which doesn’t even seem to be being asked in the rush to jump on the bandwagon.

Thursday, 23 March 2023

Loophole 22


One of the more surprising things about Boris Johnson’s performance yesterday was that he had spent several days rehearsing what to say and being coached about his answers. I dread to think how he would have performed otherwise. Whether we actually learned a lot that was new is another question; that a compulsive liar would lie about whether he had lied or not was a given from the outset. I have a smidgen of sympathy with his bewilderment at the fact that he was fined for attending his own birthday celebration whereas others present were not, but my bewilderment is not, like his, about why he was fined, but rather about why others, particularly those who organised the occasion, weren’t. Indeed, the whole approach of the Met to who was fined, who wasn’t and for what – and even as to who was or was not sent a questionnaire – seems to have been a largely random process. It’s a randomness for which he should be thankful, rather than critical; a more thorough approach would have seen the fixed penalty notices piling up on his doormat. After this week’s findings that the Metropolitan Police are institutionally misogynistic and homophobic as well as racist, it seems that we can add ‘incompetent’ to the charge sheet.

His defence, such as it was, to the charge of misleading the House of Commons was that he genuinely believed what he was saying to be true at the time: he genuinely believed that the rules and guidance which he put in place allowed everything that happened in Downing Street. In part it’s a very brave defence. Claiming that he was too stupid to understand his own rules might get him off the charge of misleading the Commons, but it hardly polishes his image as a man expecting to return to the top job. But he’s also trying to exploit a loophole: since part of the ‘guidance’ was, according to him, that people should ‘adapt’ the guidance as necessary to their particular circumstances, that was what he was doing. It's just that his ‘adaptations’ meant basically ignoring everything else in the guidance. That, one might say, is some loophole. We might even call it 'Loophole 22', since there is never any way in which anyone can break the guidance.

Overwhelmingly, though, what came across was someone who still doesn’t get it. He really does not understand why those who faithfully did as they were told should be in any way surprised or upset to find that he did something completely different. He’s always been special and different – the rules which apply to the common herd have never applied to him in the past and shouldn’t now. Indeed, even the rules under which he was being questioned shouldn’t apply to him – he more or less managed to say that he will accept the fairness of the process and the outcome only if, and to the extent that, it agrees that he is an entirely honest man.

The committee isn’t really investigating the gatherings in Downing Street at all; those gatherings are merely the underlying issue on which they have to decide whether he was, or was not, in contempt of parliament. They are working to a technical definition of that term, and it is for the committee members to determine whether the relevant criteria have been met or not, i.e. whether his misleading of the House was inadvertent, reckless, or intentional. However, in the wider sense of the word contempt, it was pretty obvious yesterday that he feels little but contempt for the committee and its members. Indeed, he seems to feel little but contempt for MPs, whether as individuals or a group, for the institutions of government, for the normal rules of political debate, for honesty and truthfulness, for the electorate at large – in fact for anything and anybody that isn’t Boris Johnson. Strangely, it’s still possible that, on the very narrow subset of his contempt for which he was being held to account, the members of the committee could still conclude that it was reckless at worst. But he surely did more than enough yesterday to rule out any possibility of inadvertence.

Wednesday, 22 March 2023

Playing the wrong role


In 1938, the then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, took himself off to Munich and signed an agreement with the then German Chancellor, a certain Mr Hitler, about the future of Czechoslovakia in an attempt to avoid war on the European mainland. Hitler, of course, never had any intention of abiding by any such agreement. As sometimes happens in history, a leader comes along who really doesn’t care a damn about conventions, laws or honesty, but is just prepared to say whatever is necessary at the time to get what he wants. Amongst those excoriating Chamberlain for appeasing Hitler was a certain Mr Churchill. The said Mr Churchill has long been an idol of one of his successors, the one who is hopefully facing his very own Waterloo this afternoon (to mix up the wars and metaphors), and who has long sought to model himself on the uncompromising approach of his hero.

All this goes some way to explaining the statement by Johnson today that he will vote against the Conservative government tonight over the Northern Ireland Protocol agreement which his successor-but-one has negotiated with Brussels. Indeed, in comments reminiscent of Churchill’s accusations of appeasement, he is demanding that the government tear up the Protocol (negotiated by Johnson) as well as the amendments negotiated by Sunak and unilaterally renege on the agreement it made with the EU, leading to a probable all-out trade war with our continental neighbours. All very Churchillian. Except…

As usual however, his command of the detail is a little deficient. He doesn’t seem to realise that the role he’s acting out is that of Hitler, not Churchill. The man who signed an agreement he had no intention of keeping; the man who could never take yes for an answer, and would always go on to demand more until all-out war became more or less inevitable. His Churchillianism is what it’s always been – superficial, and based on a rhetorical style which he fondly imagines he is emulating, but which others can see for the bluster which it is. It will be on show again this afternoon.

Tuesday, 21 March 2023

Getting the best defence


The Guardian carries a profile of David Pannick KC, the high-flying and extremely expensive barrister engaged by Boris Johnson to support his attempts to prevent him from being found guilty of a contempt of parliament and being sanctioned in consequence. Like any good lawyer, he’s obviously set out to do the best for his client, giving him the best defence possible, although (also like any good lawyer) he’s probably well aware that the object he’s been given to polish isn’t exactly high in carats. But looking for potential loopholes, failures in procedures, possible infractions of natural justice (even if parliamentary rules mean that parliamentary processes cannot be challenged on such a basis) is all part of the job. After all, it’s allegedly a principle of British law that any defendant is entitled to the best defence possible (although the practice differs from the principle in that the best defence is only ever going to be available to those with enough money to pay for it).

Best defence possible - unless, of course, the defendants are asylum-seekers or migrants, in which case any lawyer following what looks in principle to be a remarkably similar course of action in order to give his or her clients the best chance of success would be dismissed and condemned by Johnson and his supporters as a ‘lefty lawyer’ seeking to obstruct the processes of government. There is another key difference as well, of course. Much of the work done by immigration lawyers is done wholly or partly on a pro bono basis in support of desperate people, but, as the Guardian notes, “Pannick is not known for doing much pro bono work but rather for his extremely high legal fees. The peer is known to charge approximately £5,000 an hour for his services.” But then, in Borisworld, that strange place inhabited by the man himself and a significant number of other post-truth Tories, the idea of doing something for nothing is probably enough in itself to put someone beyond the pale. Oh, and there’s another difference: in Johnson’s case, it isn’t even the client who’s paying the bills – it’s all coming out of government funds. Our collective generosity to a man who has done so much damage to all of us apparently knows few bounds.

Monday, 20 March 2023

Stupid or mad?


Reading some of the stories about Boris Johnson’s planned ‘bombshell’ defence to the charge of misleading parliament, it appears that there are two main elements to his response. The first is that Sue Gray is going to work for Keir Starmer, so everything she said and all the evidence she collected are tainted and invalid and can be ignored, and there is no other evidence that the parties actually took place at all. And the second is that whilst Boris Johnson was on the television night after night telling us all that we must not meet with other people indoors unless strictly necessary for work purposes and even then we must maintain social distancing, there is no written evidence that anyone told Boris Johnson that attending an event not strictly necessary for work purposes and not maintaining social distancing was against the rules. This is a man who claims that he didn’t even know he was at a party because no-one emailed him to tell him so. The defence will, of course, be delivered with the customary bluster, distraction, and outright mendacity for which he is famous, but stripped down to its basics it sounds a lot like pleading either stupidity or insanity. Too stupid to understand his own rules, or mad enough to believe that anyone else will believe that what he says is in any sense true.

That doesn’t mean he won’t get away with it, of course. There are those in his party who seem to believe that a majority of the seven members of the investigating committee who painstakingly and unanimously put together their interim report will be bowled over by his (alleged) charm, wit, intelligence, erudition and occasional classical allusion, and will agree that Boris Johnson couldn’t possibly be expected to know what the rules set out by Boris Johnson were. It doesn’t seem the likeliest outcome, and would be the death knell for any claim that the House of Commons has any standards at all when it comes to the truthfulness of ministers. It’s more likely that the majority – under increasing pressure from Johnson’s allies – will agree some minor slap across the wrist, which Johnson will take as seriously as he took the police fine which he received, whilst claiming it as a complete exoneration. However, attempting to browbeat and undermine the independence and integrity of the four Tory members of the Committee doesn’t look like the smartest move for someone who wants them to let him off, and going in with guns blazing – which is what he seems to be preparing to do – isn’t likely to help them find a way of reversing the conclusions of the interim report.

And then we have what in any rational world would be the likeliest outcome based on any examination of the facts – guilty as charged. With that guilt exacerbated by his own attempts at denial and continued refusal to accept the validity of the process, never mind any conclusions it reaches, any self-respecting parliamentary committee could only see his response as requiring a more severe penalty than might otherwise be the case, an outcome which neither he nor dozens – perhaps 100 – Tory MPs are likely to accept. And then what? Is he really prepared to blow up the Tory Party and the government in pursuit of his own selfish interests and insistence that he is right and every one else is wrong? All the past evidence says yes to that. Pass the popcorn.

Saturday, 18 March 2023

Bring back Norman Wisdom


The story about Llangollen International Eisteddfod deciding to change its motto because Google Translate can’t translate it correctly is a sad sign of the times. The expert advice obtained by the Eisteddfod authorities (“Their unanimous advice was that the motto is beautiful when read with an understanding of the nuances of the Welsh language, but that for non-Welsh speakers and new generations of audiences and indeed Welsh speakers, the intended meaning is not clear enough.") seems reasonable enough (although the idea that new generations of Welsh speakers can’t understand the phrase “byd gwyn” should raise some concerns about the education system). It’s not a bad argument for having a different but parallel motto in English; the idea that the one has to be a direct translation of the other is a strange one. It’s not much of an argument for changing the original Welsh, though.

Where do we end if we start expunging phrases from Welsh because Google Translate can’t handle them? As an experiment, I tried asking Mr Google to translate “bwrw hen wragedd a ffyn”, a phrase which I don't think any Welsh speaker would have much difficulty understanding. The answer I got was “cast old women and sticks”, an ageist phrase which is obviously offensive to elderly humans of the female gender with its suggestion that it’s acceptable to throw them around the place. And I don’t doubt that there are many other idioms which we all use daily which will not always translate literally into English. Are we to strip them all out of the Welsh language because of the inadequacies of an automated translation software package?

And does the argument apply to all languages compared to all other languages (there are probably few phrases in any language which wouldn’t cause a problem sooner or later if literally translated into every other language)? Incidentally, it isn’t only Google that can struggle with idiom: there is a story about a meeting in the European Parliament where “Nous avons besoin de la sagesse normande” (la sagesse Normande being a French idiom for common sense) was translated by the interpreter as “We need Norman Wisdom”. A beautiful and entirely accurate literal translation, but utterly destroying the meaning of the speaker’s words. As it happens, Mr Google has the same problem with the phrase; it also gives Norman wisdom (albeit with a small w) as the translation of sagesse Normande.

Notwithstanding that the ‘problem’ demonstrably also affects other languages, I suspect that I know the answer to that question about the more general applicability of the proposed approach to other languages, sadly. As a nation, we have a more than unfortunate tendency to compare everything we do with our larger neighbour; for some, it seems that even the words we use can only be judged by comparison with any potential translation into English. It’s a sad reflection on us that the proposal for change has got as far as it has.

Friday, 17 March 2023

What are the odds?


The old joke is that you can tell when a politician is lying because his or her lips are moving. There is another rule as well, though, which is of less universal application, which is that denying things three times turns them into certainties. I think it was devised after Nixon had denied three times that he was going to resign – and then did. A variant of this applies to Boris Johnson – the more firmly and frequently he commits to doing (or not doing) something, the more certain it becomes that he will do the opposite of what he says he is or is not going to do.

The Guardian is reporting today that he has been reselected to stand in his current constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. It’s not the first time he has committed to standing there again, but being formally nominated and accepting the nomination surely increases the odds that he will, in fact, do something completely different. The Guardian’s sub-headline claims that this is “...quashing speculation that he might seek safer seat”. Au contraire; according to the Nixon rule, giving such a firm promise to the members of his party in that constituency merely increases the probability that he will indeed seek a safer seat. He has, after all, something of a reputation for firming up on promises before breaking them. And letting down people who depended on him is second nature. Time will tell, but today is probably a good day for those who enjoy a little flutter to visit their local bookie and lay a bet against him standing again in Uxbridge.

Thursday, 16 March 2023

Drifting apart


The main driver for the establishment of the European Convention of Human Rights in 1950, on which the European Court of Human Rights was based, was a certain Mr Churchill, and most of the drafting was done by British lawyers. It was heavily based on the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and was intended to provide a framework to prevent the sort of inhuman treatment of some groups which had bedevilled the European continent over the previous two decades. The values underpinning it were at that time generally (outside the UK at least) believed to be close to universal, with only rogue states declining to ratify the convention and join the court. It was one of the earliest and best achievements of pan-European co-operation and understanding.

It is strange that the state which did so much to ensure that it was written and implemented should now be the one most critical of its very existence. Even stranger is some of the language being used to justify that scepticism. A few days ago, the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman (and it continues to astound me that those four words can be used in conjunction), declared that "… it's a court which is politicised, …” and “I think sometimes the jurisprudence from the Strasbourg court is at odds with … British values more generally." For a court largely based on British values and the British interpretation of human rights to have strayed so far from its original mission would be quite a change. But wait – we need to allow for that strange Anglo-centric view of the world which has infected the Tory Party here. Because what’s changed isn’t the values – those ‘universal’ values – which were at the heart of the establishment of the court, but the values and beliefs of the English Government. Only a perverse Anglo-centric view of the world could conclude that it's everybody else who is out of step with ‘us’. And her suggestion that the court is politicised seems to be code for failing to do what the greatest nation on earth, as they see it, requires of it, which is to allow it to erode, step by step, those rights which the court is bound to uphold.

It might have been the British government and British lawyers who led the process of establishing the convention and the court, and the supremacists and exceptionalists amongst them (of which there were many) may well have believed that they were imposing British values on the rest of the continent in order to save it from itself, but they were not and are not exclusively British values. And they’re no longer even commonly-held in the UK. In the 1950s, it would probably have been fair to assume both that those values were commonly held across the UK and that many in the UK really did believe them to be uniquely British. Today, it is obvious that they are wrong on both counts. Not only is the English government increasingly an outlier within Europe, it is also becoming an outlier within the UK itself. The gulf between the values being expressed by the English government and those being expressed by the governments in Wales and Scotland is increasingly wide, and it’s hard to see how they can be reconciled in the long term. Whilst much of the debate around independence centres on economics, the question of shared values and a shared ethos is equally important. When those things no longer exist, what is the glue which makes people feel like part of a single whole? Just as England is drifting away from its continental neighbours, so it is also drifting away from those who share these islands with it.

Tuesday, 14 March 2023

EU red tape?


When major projects go wrong, there’s rarely a single, simple cause. That is obviously true in the case of HS2. Certainly it’s been hit by inflation (although the mathematical competence of anyone who argues that spreading the expenditure out over a longer period addresses that is open to serious challenge). The way that the UK has approached such projects is another, and mirrors one of the problems which has bedevilled the electrification of the GWR main line: disbanding the team after one project and starting from scratch a few years later on the next loses expertise and experience. Treating such projects as part of a rolling programme where the team moves from one project to the next, as other European countries have done, is a much more efficient and effective way of building and retaining experience and knowledge. An approach to getting approval which relies on individual business cases for each part of the project rather than taking a wider view (which is how we lost the electrification beyond Cardiff) is another peculiarity of Treasury thinking which makes major projects hard to build. And all that is without the complicated procedure for obtaining the various required consents, largely – to hear the Brexiteers talk – imposed by the EU when the UK was a member.

The visible result of this is a slow and disjointed approach to developing mass high-speed transport in the UK, whilst France, Spain and others have been building complete and coherent networks. One of the consequences is that France is able to talk about banning short haul domestic flights whilst the UK is busily promoting an increase in internal air services by adjusting the taxation regime. Whatever the reasons, it’s clear that construction and infrastructure projects in France can be progressed more quickly and effectively than they can in the UK.

I can’t help but wonder whether that was a factor in the announcement at the end of last week that the UK will pay France to build a detention centre for migrants. Under the new Migration Bill, the UK is going to need a great deal of additional capacity to hold detainees, a policy made especially difficult when Tory MPs (and even government ministers) oppose any and every such centre in their own constituencies. Given the inability of the UK government to build anything very much, it will be cheaper and quicker to pay France to build camps instead (although, unless they’re turning a tidy profit from doing so, the attraction to the French government is rather less clear). Obviously, France is not bound by the same EU red-tape and bureaucracy which is, apparently, doing so much to hold the UK back.