Friday, 14 December 2018

Clarity is in the ear of the beholder

If there's one thing that the Prime Minister is very good at - exceptionally good, in fact - it's remembering to start every sentence by reminding us how clear she has been, is being, or is about to be.  If it were an Olympic sport, she'd win gold.  The problem is that what follows that statement is invariably either not at all clear at best, and completely meaningless at worst.  Worse still, having given what she (presumably, giving her the benefit of at least a little doubt) believes to be a very clear statement, she takes the bemused and incredulous faces of her listeners as agreement and consent.  The reports today that the EU leaders are unable to offer her much by way of assistance because they don't know what she wants, and feel that she has been far from clear, demonstrate the vital element of clarity which she utterly fails to understand: if those listening don't understand you, that's your problem not theirs.  'Clarity' is defined by the listener, not the speaker.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Being syncretic

There was a review last week on Nation.Cymru of a book telling the story of the foundation of the new political party, Ein Gwlad.  In principle, having more than one political party in Wales advocating independence is to be welcomed; independence isn’t a concept owned by one particular part of the political spectrum, and having a range of parties arguing for different visions of what an independent Wales might be like would be considered entirely normal in most of the other European nations where there is an independence movement.  The reason why it hasn’t happened here is, first and foremost, an electoral system which favours unity rather than disunity, and I suspect that will be the rock on which Ein Gwlad eventually founders.  Electoral reform is long overdue and would probably be a game-changer for political debate in Wales, but things are as they are.
Having said that, I’m highly sceptical of any party which claims to be ‘syncretic’, not occupying any particular place on the political spectrum but able to pick policies, a la carte, from all parts of that spectrum, selecting whatever is best for Wales.  There are, as I see it, two main problems with that approach.
The first is that it assumes that the ‘spectrum’ is actually quite narrow.  If it is possible to mix and match policies from, say, Labour, Tory, Lib Dems and Plaid, then that is because, in essence (and perhaps excluding the constitutional question), the policy differences between them are, by and large, much smaller than any of them would have us believe.  It’s true that the degree of consensus which seemed to be growing in the post-war years has reduced, but broadly the mainstream politicians of all those parties differ mostly in emphasis and degree rather than in principle.  There are people with rather more radical views in all parties, but mainstream debate in UK politics revolves around a fairly narrow axis.
The second problem is how and who decides what is ‘best for Wales’.  The idea that anyone can make such a judgement independently of their own priors is simply not credible, even if the role of those priors is restricted to determining the criteria to be used in making the decision.  What is really ‘best for Wales’ is not something which is either self-evident nor objectively determinable, it is open to a range of differing opinions based on different criteria.  I suspect that syncretism is generally more of a euphemism for populism than a viable political philosophy and amounts to selecting those policies which are most popular amongst the electorate.  But it can never be as easy as that – low taxes and high-quality public services would both be popular, but they don’t combine terribly well.  Oh, and independence isn’t terribly ‘popular’ either.
I believe that it would be ‘better for Wales’ to have multiple parties arguing for independence from different political perspectives (entirely accepting that that belief is based on my own priors rather than on demonstrable proof), but I’m not at all convinced that pretending not to have a political perspective is the way of achieving that.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Squaring the circle

I think that I've just about got this right:

The Prime Minister accepts unreservedly that any withdrawal agreement with the EU27 must include a legally binding commitment to a 'backstop' which prevents a hard border across Ireland.

In order to get this through her own party, she is asking the EU27 to give her a legally binding commitment that they won't hold her to her own legally binding commitment.

Thus far, at least, she hasn't spotted the flaw in this plan, and is busy trying to implement it.  At least she'll have something else to occupy her for the next few days...

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

"No-one voted to make themselves poorer"

It’s a statement often made by those opposing Brexit, and it has a nice ring to it, but it simply isn’t true.  Some people certainly did vote, consciously and deliberately, to make us all poorer.  And that is far from being as irrational as it sounds; there’s nothing at all wrong with doing exactly that if one is convinced that there’s a greater good involved.
Much of the debate surrounding Brexit has been based on the economic consequences rather than any perceived non-economic costs and benefits.  That is part of the reason for the huge gulf in understanding of what the EU is about between the two sides in the negotiations – for most of the other EU states, economics has always been only part of the argument.  The EU is, and always has been, at heart more a political project than an economic one, and the failure of the UK side to recognise that, assuming instead that economics would eventually bring the EU round to the UK position, has been a major factor in the time taken to reach any sort of deal.
We all place a value on things which cannot be priced in strictly financial terms, and there is always a trade-off between those things which can be priced and those which cannot.  Democracy and sovereignty, for instance, have a value, and at least some of those who voted for Brexit will have valued those more highly than any anticipated economic disadvantage.  People in that group really did consciously vote to make us all poorer.  (There were also a larger number who unconsciously voted to make us all poorer – this would be those who placed a similarly high value on democracy and sovereignty, but simply didn’t believe those who told them that these things come at a price.  And I can’t blame them when many of those leading the Brexit campaign knew full well that there would be a price but simply lied - and are still lying today).
That underlying trade-off – between sovereignty and democracy on the one hand, and economic benefit on the other – is one we all make; it’s just that we don’t all assess the trade-off in the same way.  I remember one independentista (no longer with us, sadly) telling me that he’d eat grass if that was the cost of independence for Wales.  It’s not a position with which I could ever agree, but it illustrates the point.  And it works in the other direction as well.  Given a choice of being poor in a democracy or rich under a dictatorship, which would we choose?  For some – at either end of the spectrum – it’s a black-and-white issue.  For most though, it’s more nuanced than that; it requires asking a few more questions, such as ‘how poor?’ and ‘what sort of dictatorship / what sort of democracy?’  It’s an oversimplification, but faced with a choice of grinding poverty in a democracy or having adequate food and shelter in a dictatorship, I can see why many of the poorest might prefer the latter, whilst it is those who can afford to lose a little who might be more willing to take the more principled position.  And it is that question of nuance, balance and trade-off between the economic issues and the non-economic issues which is where the debate should have been from the outset, instead of which we’ve had something closer to absolutism on both sides; one demanding that economics takes precedence and the other insisting that sovereignty and democracy are more important.
That helps to explain why it isn’t enough to simply ‘prove’ that the economic consequences are bad.  We also need to talk about the other side of the equation.  And here’s the thing – membership of the EU does, unquestionably, reduce the absolute sovereignty of the member states.  (The democracy question is rather less straightforward: I’m not at all sure that the EU can really be considered less democratic than a state in whose parliament the majority of members are appointees, hereditaries or bishops.  It is, however, true that the electorate of a single member state cannot by themselves dismiss those running the EU, and from a perspective which believes that absolute sovereignty should sit at the level of the member state, that can be, and has been, too easily presented as ‘undemocratic’.)
Part of the reason for the current mess is that proponents of greater European integration have generally been unwilling to even discuss this issue of sharing or pooling sovereignty, and why that isn’t at all the same thing as ceding sovereignty to someone else.  Anglo-British exceptionalism has made them afraid even to attempt to explain the difference.  The result has been that a narrative developed, over decades, that the UK was no longer a sovereign state.  It brings us to a strange situation in which it is those who have given most thought to the question of what constitutes independence and sovereignty, the independentistas of Wales and Scotland, who argue most strongly for a twenty-first century definition which involves nations coming together as equals with a degree of sharing and pooling for the common good, whilst the Anglo-British not-nationalists-at-all, who have given a lot less thought to the question, are stuck in an eighteenth century mindset in which things were much more absolute – and where they and their ilk were in charge and the rest of the world simply did as they were told.  My fear is that, if it comes to a second referendum – an eventuality which is now looking increasingly like the only way out of the current deadlock – that that argument about the nature and extent of ‘sovereignty’ in a highly-connected twenty-first century world will be lost by default again.

Monday, 10 December 2018

30 Little Ministers

30 Gov’ment ministers sent far and wide
Told to get the people on Theresa’s side
For 40 million voters they were given 2 days each –
A target unattainable; completely out of reach
The spectacle of 30 government ministers being sent scuttling around the UK over the weekend to drum up support for Theresa May’s Brexit deal is just the latest twist in the long-running farce which Brexit has become.  The stated reason is, of course, as disingenuous as everything else that the Prime Minister says.  Even if it were possible for 30 people in 2 days to win over the millions – Leavers and Remainers alike – who think that the deal is a bad one, she has no intention of allowing them to vote anyway. 
I saw a snatch of an interview with Michael Heseltine in which he said that sending them around the country was a good idea – not because they would actually persuade anyone, but because it would get them out of London and away from the London media, the plotters and the leakers.  It would, he said, get them out of No 10’s hair.  It’s a rather cynical view.
Perhaps the PM really believes that people in their masses will be motivated to contact their MPs to demand that they vote for the deal.  But if she gave the matter a moment’s thought and considered perhaps how many of her own constituents ever contacted her about a political issue while she was a back-bencher, she would realise that it would only ever be a tiny proportion – what might be called the ‘usual suspects’. 
It seems to me that the only credible target of this onslaught of ministers (have I just invented a new collective noun there?) would be members of the Conservative Party.  It is, just, conceivable that at least some of those members might be motivated to demand that their MP show a little more loyalty to their elected government.  In such a scenario, having to hear the message on news programmes is just collateral damage for the rest of us in what is really yet another internal party discussion.  I doubt, though, that even that would be successful.  The indications are that Tory members out in the constituencies are much more likely to support ‘no deal’ than the agreement that she has negotiated.
Maybe Heseltine really has hit the nail on the head, and it’s all just a glorified form of displacement activity.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Carts and horses

There’s a lengthy piece by Labour AM, Mick Antoniw in today’s Western Mail (although I can’t find it online) arguing that a General Election is a better way forward than holding a second referendum, the so-called ‘People’s Vote’.  When it comes to the practical issues surrounding the arrangements for such a vote, I have a great deal of sympathy with his arguments; there are many details which are not as straightforward as many suggest.  I don’t believe them to be insoluble, though; and a second vote seems to me a better way forward than either Brexit based on the last vote regardless of any change in opinion, or parliament simply overturning the result of the referendum, despite the fact that it has every right, constitutionally speaking, to do so.
However, where I really part company with him is his closing argument that “a general election will increasingly become accepted as the only way to give the people a real choice”.  As long as the Labour Party’s leader clings to the notion that “Brexit cannot be stopped” and the delusion that, if only he were in charge, a better deal could be negotiated, there is no way in which a general election to choose between a Tory Brexit and a Labour Brexit is any real choice at all.  Even worse, and although I don’t always trust opinion polls, the polls currently suggest that it is unlikely that Labour would win such an election standing on its current policy.  Despite the complete disarray and incompetence of the Tories, they appear likely to out-poll Labour again.  And another narrow victory for the Tories will change nothing.
In fairness to Antoniw, he does also say that Labour would have to fight such an election on the basis of seeking a new deal and adds that “Labour’s manifesto would have to offer the promise of a ratification of any deal and an extension to the franchise to 16-year-olds”, i.e. a commitment to holding a second referendum after the attempted renegotiation.  It’s a face-saving formula; whilst Labour remains committed to red lines which include no membership of the single market and no freedom of movement, any ‘renegotiation’ is going to be as superficial as that undertaken by David Cameron, as well as further alienating our European partners in the attempt.  Still, the very fact that most Remainers will understand that limitation will not detract from the fact that they have a potential electoral home, even if for only one election, which will facilitate the outcome which they want to see.  And that could be an electoral game-changer for Labour.  The problem is that I don’t currently see the Labour leadership being ready to embrace such a line, even though it’s clearly their best chance of gaining a majority.  An election without that prior change of policy seems likely to do more harm than good – Labour need to sort out their position first.  And that probably requires a change of leader…

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Plus ça change...

During a recent sojourn in sunnier climes, I set out to read the first part of Don Quijote in the original version.  It was hard going at times, but what struck me was the timelessness of some themes in literature.
I mean, here is a man who is madder than a box of frogs, with his head stuffed full of a romanticised and largely fictional view of past glories and who believes that he can relive those glories in what was – to him – the ‘modern’ age.  Even when the facts are carefully spelled out to him – Sancho told him that that ‘giant’ was a windmill before he went and attacked it – he refuses to accept facts that clash with his carefully constructed concept of how things should be, and acts on the basis of his beliefs instead.  He invariably comes off worst from all his adventures but presents them all as great triumphs and/or blames his evil enemies for using trickery and magic against him.
My question is this – how did Cervantes manage to paint such a brilliant picture of the average Brexiteer politician 400 years before the EU even existed?

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Desperate measures

The Prime Minister is showing very obvious signs of increasing desperation in her demands that we all believe and ‘get behind’ her lies and obfuscation in order to make ourselves worse off.  It’s hardly surprising; even the thought of trying to do that is enough to make anyone desperate.  But how desperate does someone have to be to believe that Michael Gove is some sort of ‘secret weapon’?  She can’t even be entirely certain that he knows which side he’s supposed to be on, given his clear reservations about her dodgy deal, and his proven tendency towards backstabbing in relation to those who seek his support.  Still, it’s perhaps not quite as desperate as the idea that the solution to the problem is to bring back the man who caused it in the first place.  Now that really would be a silly thing to do - so it will probably become official policy shortly.

Monday, 26 November 2018

Building the lie

There is a key similarity between Trump and May – they are both inveterate liars.  Towards the end of this piece by Ian Dunt on, he brutally and surgically lists a series of lies which she has spun on Brexit ever since taking office.  Another similarity is that the lies they tell are so obvious and blatant, so easy to expose.  And a third is that they both expect us to believe them simply because of the positions that they hold.  There is a key difference as well, however.  I don’t know whether Trump actually believes what he’s saying to be true (can he really be that stupid?), but he gives a pretty good impression of believing it.  Our poor old Prime Minister never looks like she believes a single word of what she is saying but carries on because she can see no alternative that doesn’t bring everything crashing down around her.
Her latest missive is another example.  It is riddled with lies and half-truths, as has been pointed out elsewhere.  It’s hard to find a sentence in the entire letter which meets the standard of being the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  Yet some will still believe it.  She is still repeating the nonsense that the extra money for the health service is coming from the payments we would otherwise be making to Brussels for example.
There are perhaps three factors in which people can be persuaded to believe the opposite of the truth.  The first is that the lie is convincingly told, but she has failed miserably on that score.  The second is that the lie agrees with what people want to believe.  For those who believe that Brexit will bring nothing but benefit and that anyone who says anything to the contrary is just refusing to accept the result and engaging in Project Fear, then of course there’s a Brexit dividend.  The third is to start with a small truth; some of the biggest lies of all can be built on just one or two small truths.
In the case of the boost for the NHS, there are two small truths which are indisputable.  The first is that spending on the NHS is going to increase and the second is that we will no longer be making payments to the EU budget.  The lie is in linking the two, because it assumes both that the act of Brexit will in no way reduce government revenues and that nothing which is currently being paid for out of our EU contributions needs to be paid for by another means.  I mean, it’s not as if farmers really need payments, is it, to select just one example?  In the simplistic terms in which some people see the world, if the money in a particular line of the budget is not going to be spent on the EU, then it is ‘obviously’ available for other uses.  Obviously.
To use a simple analogy, a family could one day decide to stop using a particular supermarket for all its groceries.  All the money which they currently spend there is then available for other things – perhaps erecting a tall fence around the garden to keep out the neighbours.  The flaw is obvious to most of us – the family still needs groceries.  It’s less obvious to Brexiteers though, because they can simply demand that the supermarket continues to provide the groceries without being paid – and even threaten not to pay the bill for last months’ supplies unless they agree, on the basis that they’d be getting nothing extra in return for the payment.  The supermarket would probably respond that its business model doesn’t quite work that way: ‘you’re a valued customer, but no payment = no groceries’.  That, according to the Brexiteer would be just a negotiating tactic, because ‘they need us more than we need them’, and in any event, if they haven’t gone to the supermarket by one minute before closing time, the supermarket will be begging them to go and collect their free groceries.  How else will they get the Prosecco off their shelves?  They might even try telling the supermarket that the household held a vote and agreed that it should receive free groceries so free groceries must be provided.  The family has spoken; the will of the family is clear.
A household trying this approach would probably end up starving, but at least they’d be doing so behind a good strong fence.  And they might even have blue passes to get in and out.

Friday, 23 November 2018

'Knowing' what we think

Conservative Minister, Rory Stewart, was rightly ridiculed last week for inventing a wholly bogus claim that “80 per cent of the Brexit public support this deal”.  But he isn’t the only one who makes it up as he goes along.  Within the last few days, we’ve had David Davis talking about “the Canada style free trade arrangement that almost everybody wants for the UK”, and the boss herself saying that the public just want the process to be "settled" and see the UK leave the EU on 29 March 2019.  Both of these seem to be just as evidence-free as the remark for which Stewart was roundly criticised – Davis’ ‘almost everybody’ sounds like rather more than 80% to me, and ‘the public’ sounds a lot like a claim that everyone is included in the remark.  Perhaps Stewart’s mistake was actually putting a figure on it; the moral seems to be that they can get away with even more outrageous claims if they avoid making them sound quite so precise.  But here’s the thing – if they all ‘know’ with such certainty what the public thinks, why are they so afraid of proving it?