Tuesday, 7 April 2020

Drawing lines in the right places

One of the greatest achievements of the European project over the last 70 years has been the removal of visible borders over much of the continent.  The Schengen area doesn’t exactly match the EU (some EU countries are outside it, and some Schengen countries are outside the EU), but it would have undoubtedly been impossible without the existence of the EU and the single market.  It has shown that the absence of borders and border control does not, of itself, threaten the national identity of anyone.
There are others, though, who like borders and, for them, the stronger and more visible those borders are the better.  ‘Controlling our borders’ was one of the core Brexit messages – and that in a state which wasn’t part of Schengen and had never abolished border controls anyway. The reason that Brexiteers bang on about ‘controlling our own borders’ is that those borders define a demarcation line between ‘us’ and ‘them’, with an often unstated but nevertheless ever-present fear and distrust of ‘them’; and the more visible the border, the greater the degree of demarcation.  Part of my opposition to Brexit is precisely about rejecting that demarcation, that ‘othering’ of foreigners; in European terms, I consider myself to be at least as much a part of the ‘them’ as of the ‘us’, particularly given the narrow and exclusive way in which ‘us’ is often implicitly defined.
I’m uncomfortable with the way in which so many countries have responded to the pandemic by reinstituting border controls.  Movement controls I understand, but are state borders the right place to impose and police them?  In France, the virus seems to be spreading from east to west, and in Italy from north to south; closing the eastern and northern borders respectively look like drawing lines in the wrong places.  Choosing national or state boundaries is an easy option, but it may also be a lazy and sub-optimal option - the determinant of where any lines need to be drawn is the progress of the virus, not nationality.
Here in Wales, I have no argument with the restrictions on movement which have been imposed to respond to the covid-19 outbreak, and accept that there is a need for enforcement of those restrictions, even if I have some doubts about the details of that enforcement.  It follows that I entirely accept the need to stop people travelling to second homes, potentially bringing the virus from urban hotspots into rural areas lacking the resources to respond to any major outbreak.  I can understand why local people in the areas most affected are concerned about people travelling to them under current circumstances. They are right to be concerned. 
There is, though, something that makes me feel uncomfortable about some of the language and rhetoric involved, particularly when it translates into fear and distrust of the ‘other’.  Calls for the effective closure of the Wales-England border when the virus is already circulating both sides of that line look like another example of trying to draw a line in the wrong place. There are holiday home owners in Wales as well, who would be unaffected by any border closure – unless we move to close county (or even community?) borders as well. 
Logically and rationally, restricting movement makes sense and enforcing those restrictions is a natural concomitant.  Those are things which can be undone easily and quickly if and when the situation allows.  But dark human emotions such as fear and distrust of others, once expressed and experienced, are much harder to reverse. Control of movement doesn’t have to be the same thing as managing flows across a line on a map and the association between ‘control of movement’ and ‘enforcement of borders’ is a potentially dangerous one.  Effectively encouraging the idea that people on the other side of an arbitrary line are in some way ‘others’, even if done entirely unintentionally and with the very best of motives, may have undesirable longer-term implications. 

Monday, 6 April 2020

Making assumptions about attitudes

Yesterday’s call from the queen for us all to take pride in the UK’s response to the pandemic reminds me of a speech at a Plaid event many years ago by a guest from the SNP.  She talked about having been on a British cruise ship in the Mediterranean which suffered engine failure followed by a breakdown in the power in the kitchens.  Drifting in the middle of the sea with only cold food to eat, one of her fellow guests referred to the stoic nature of the response by saying “Doesn’t it make you feel proud to be British”.  Her quick response was to say that she’d have been rather prouder had the ship been underway and had they been eating hot food.
And so it is with the UK response to the pandemic. Of course it’s good to see most people responding responsibly and accepting the temporary deprivation in mostly good spirit, but I’d find it a great deal easier to be proud of the UK if the government hadn’t spent 10 years cutting back on the NHS and other public services, four years working out how to cut ourselves off from our nearest neighbours and sources of support and mutual aid, and two months underplaying the extent of the crisis, doing too little, too late, and increasing the toll of preventable deaths as a result.  There’s more pride in competence than incompetence; a willingness to learn from and work with others is a better cause for pride than pretending we’re exceptional, different, and know better than anyone else; and honesty and straight talking generate more pride than obfuscation and lies.
I don’t doubt that there are many in the UK whose attitudes are coloured by a rose-tinted folk memory of ‘the war years’.  Most of them weren’t actually there, of course, but they hark back to a sense of unity and resolve, ignoring the huge rise in crime and selfishness which was also a major characteristic of the time (if anything, the real surprise today is not that some people flout the rules but that so few do). For that group, the presentation of facts which undermine that interpretation is not only unacceptable, it’s almost treason. The government and the monarch are assuming that those attitudes, that ‘official’ version of history, is one shared by all, or almost all the population, and that an appeal to that folk memory will rally the populace. That might well turn out to be just another miscalculation by an out-of-touch elite.

Friday, 3 April 2020

The lessons of history, according to the Tories

At first, I thought that the daily cabinet briefings on coronavirus were a good idea, an opportunity to provide information and answer concerns in an open and transparent fashion.  It hasn’t turned out like that, though.  It was clear that the PM was thoroughly bored with the whole thing within a few days – he probably saw catching the virus as a good opportunity to get out of doing something he didn’t really want to do anyway – and even when he did them, it was just another opportunity to lie and obfuscate.  To the extent that they were providing useful information, the fact that the data and some of the policy announcements don’t apply outside England is never made clear, leaving many people thinking that they’re getting ‘UK’ information when they are not.
As time has passed, however, they have come increasingly to look like auditions for the PM’s job (the Cabinet, at least, understand that his days are numbered, even if that hasn’t yet become clear to him, especially since even the Tory press turned on him yesterday for the government’s utter and obvious incompetence in the face of crisis), in which a succession of cabinet ministers show off their rhetorical skills and treat all questions as an opportunity to repeat propaganda rather than provide any information.  And when they come in for criticism for failing to answer, their response is not to provide better answers, but to hire an extra spin doctor to help them get better at avoiding answers.  There is, apparently, nothing wrong with their non-answers, merely the way they present them.
Yesterday, it was Matt Hancock’s turn to show that a spell of illness has not dented his ability to avoid questions, promise things that he has no idea how he will deliver, and add his own little rhetorical flourishes.  He even introduced the novel approach of allowing follow-up questions, giving him a second chance to avoid providing answers, setting a bar which others might well feel a need to emulate.  When his boss returns to the front line, he is not likely to thank young Matt for that particular ‘innovation’.
As part of his rhetorical flight of fancy yesterday, Hancock managed to tell us that “…history has shown that when the world unites together against a common foe then we will prevail”.  I’ve racked my brains to think about a single common foe against which “history has shown” that the world has both united and prevailed – and I’ve failed.  There’s no shortage of common foes which I can identify, mind – there’s poverty, hunger, and climate change for starters.  And what history actually shows in each case, just like in the current coronavirus crisis, is that many individual states prefer to compete with each other than co-operate, to grab more than their fair share of resources, and to resort to divisive rhetoric rather than united action.  In that sense at least, “history shows” that Matt Hancock and the government of which he is a part are responding in the same way governments have always responded.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Maybe it will take six tries...

It was entirely predictable that the Chancellor’s plans for dealing with the current crisis would rapidly unravel in the real world and, sadly, it is fairly predictable that his fifth try at a budget (due later today, I believe) will fail to get to grips with the issue – I suspect it will take at least a sixth go before he gets it right.  The problems with what he’s announced to date are not with the scale of his proposals so much as with the delivery mechanism and the consequent timescales.  Delivering cash to businesses and individuals who need it has been made contingent on three things, all of which have an impact on timescales.
The first is that it is largely being delivered through the banks, all of whom have their own lending criteria which need to be satisfied – the approach of threatening them with a big stick, as the Business Secretary appeared to be doing yesterday, doesn’t overcome their requirement to protect the viability of their own businesses.  The second is that it depends on businesses ‘doing the right thing’ and agreeing to keep staff on the payroll, even if there is no work for them to do.  Many are simply not playing ball, either because they don’t want to, or simply because they can’t.  And the third is that it depends on the submission of applications, which need to be evaluated and considered.  The net effect is that, whilst the scale of the cash which could be made available may be of the right order (although there are always questions of detail), the timescale of delivery depends on an assumption that businesses and individuals can somehow muddle along for three months before getting the cash.  That isn’t a problem, I’m pretty sure, in the social circles in which the Chancellor moves, but it isn’t the real world faced by most.
What is needed is an urgent delivery of cash to people and businesses now, not in a few months’ time.  The need to ensure that no cash goes to the ‘wrong’ beneficiaries is driving a process which means that the ‘right’ beneficiaries aren’t getting it either.  Better to run the risk of giving it to all and reclaiming any excess later than reduce people and businesses to ruin first and then try and recover later.  It isn’t, though, an easy thing to do – the government doesn’t have all the information that it needs to get cash to everyone, or even all businesses (although the second is easier than the first), but waiting until it can do the job ‘properly’ for everyone is equivalent to doing nothing for anyone.
I’ve long been attracted by the idea of a universal basic income (UBI), and the idea has been promoted by Plaid again this week as a potential solution in Wales.  There are some not insignificant issues of detail which would need resolution, but I don’t doubt that if such a system had been in place before the virus came along, we would be much better placed to protect people now than is currently the case.  That isn’t the same thing, however, as trying to introduce one in the middle of the current crisis. It seems to me that advocates of such a solution are underestimating the degree of change needed in order to implement UBI.  Merely identifying who should receive it and how they can be paid (collecting bank account details for 50 million people is no small ask even if there existed a list of names and addresses in a useable form – and around 10% have no bank account anyway) is a task which a civil service at full strength would struggle to undertake rapidly, let alone one depleted by sickness.
The question facing us now isn’t designing a perfect long-term solution (although we’ll need one in due course so we’re not caught unawares by the next pandemic) but getting cash to as many as possible as quickly as possible.  That means using existing systems and processes as far as possible, but getting rid of the requirement for applications, making the payments automatic, and recovering any over-payments later.  That would also help to free up resources in the short term to deal with the exceptions (such as the million applying for immediate universal credit) who are going to be increasingly desperate, by making emergency payments to them.  It depends, first and foremost, on the Chancellor abandoning his obsession with not giving money to anyone 'who doesn’t need it'.  I’m not convinced that he’s going to get there again today.

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Shared values?

Faced with confused and confusing statements from government ministers, many of which seem to be at variance with the detail of the laws that they have rushed through, it is no surprise that the enforcement action taken by police over the coronavirus pandemic has itself been patchy and inconsistent. Why should they be expected to understand the detail of what those responsible for designing the rules are unable to agree with each other about?
It is clear that most people are accepting of the need for exceptional rules in exceptional circumstances, and understand that the goal of protecting us all is both valid and important; a short-term interference with civil liberties is a small price to pay for the protection of the vulnerable. I’ll admit that I do have a concern that governments which take powers to themselves in a crisis tend to find it difficult to relinquish those powers later, identifying excuse after excuse for keeping legislation active.  And it doesn’t help that, in Priti Patel, we have a Home Secretary who gives a good impression of someone who’d like to lock up as many as possible of those citizens who she has not either had deported or hanged.
More worrying has been the way in which events have brought out an authoritarian streak in people. It isn’t just an occasional bit of heavy-handed policing where a quiet word might have been a better approach, it’s the way in which some people have been urging the police to come and arrest their neighbours for various perceived infringements of the unclear and inconsistent advice. I don’t want to understate the importance of us all following the guidelines as closely as we can, but there’s something very ‘un-British’, dare I say it, about some of what we’re seeing. The ‘British values’ that the government is always banging on about turn out to be rather more ‘flexible’ than even I had thought.  A crisis like the current one can provoke either a growth in social solidarity – and there have been many good examples of that – or else an outbreak of authoritarianism. Both cases require rules under which we operate and both require that those rules be enforced, but the way in which we collectively choose to enforce those rules tells us a lot about which approach we prefer and our own core values.  Not all of it is turning out to be entirely comfortable.

Friday, 27 March 2020

One more try is still needed

Just under a week ago, I wondered which would happen first – the Chancellor presenting his fourth attempt at a budget or the Prime Minister imposing the sort of lockdown of which his spokesperson claimed there was ‘zero prospect’.  In the event, it wasn’t even a close-run thing – the PM changed tack within two days, whilst the Chancellor took a whole five days to come up with his fourth effort.
Having seen the content of his fourth budget, we can but hope that it will be no more than a few days more before he presents his fifth, because he still hasn’t got it right.  It’s not that he’s got the scale of things wrong (there is a broad realization of just how much needs to be done) and it’s not that there is anything wrong with the principles underlying it (although there are always details which need to be sorted), it’s just that he seems not to have the remotest understanding of the need for urgency.  By demanding that systems and processes be designed to prevent potential overpayments or outright fraud (and I don’t simply dismiss those concerns), he has ended up with a set of proposals which mean that individuals and companies have to go through an application and assessment process and then get paid in arrears.  That assumes that people and companies either have, or can get access to, sufficient resources to cover their costs for at least a month, and potentially three to four months, with no certainty that they’ll receive anything at the end.  Who’d want to take on extra debt on that basis – even if they can?
It displays a complete lack of understanding of the financial situation of many companies (especially small to medium enterprises) and individuals (whether employed or self-employed), and it still excludes those who may be new to the labour market and have no pre-existing tax records to on which claims can be based.  The cash is needed now, not in a few months’ time, if the government were serious about standing with people rather than simply parroting propaganda and spin about how much they’re doing which seemed to be Sunak’s core message yesterday.  Of course paying out money now without validating claims contains an element of risk, and it’s undoubtedly anathema to a governing class which suspects that everyone is out to get something for nothing at other people’s expense (a suspicion which tells us more about their own modus operandi than it does about the population at large).  But now, today, those risks are lower than the risk of leaving people unable to pay for food and essentials – and any excess can always be clawed back later.
I really do hope that his fifth attempt at a budget will come soon, and that it will respond to the real world of ordinary people rather than the imagined world of the rich and powerful.

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Setting the narrative for the future

One of the problems with any action taken by large numbers of people is that it is difficult to know whether, or to what extent, there is a common underlying motivation.  And one of the results of that is that people looking at the same events from different perspectives can and do project their own interpretation on those events, to suit their own ends.  We saw it with Brexit, which some chose to claim was all about immigration, some blamed on xenophobia whilst yet others saw it as about ‘taking back control’.  There’s been something of a parallel this week.
The response to the English government’s appeal for volunteers (and in this context, it is an England-only scheme, set up by the English Health Minister to assist the English NHS, although one wouldn’t know that from news reports) has been staggering, and encouraging for those of us who believe in people’s better nature, especially at a time when we are seeing incidents which might cause one to doubt that.  We cannot know the motivations of all those involved, but it does seem to me to be a desire to help other people, and fill gaps in service provision.  It’s not the only possible interpretation, though – the Prime Minister’s language seems to suggest that he sees it as a great outpouring of (British) patriotism, as people are influenced by what he, no doubt, sees as his stirring Churchillian words (although others might see them as anything but).
For the time being it matters not what the actual motivation is nor the way that motivation is interpreted; the key thing is that as many gaps as possible get plugged and that help gets to those who need it.  The hows and the whys are questions for a later date. They will be important, though.  Many are already arguing that when the current crisis is over, things can’t go back to the old normal.  We can be certain, however, that some will want to take us back to that point – there are plenty of vested interests in ensuring that happens.  The outcome if this week’s surge of volunteers is interpreted as an expression of social solidarity and a desire to help others will be very different from the outcome if it is seen as a patriotic effort to overcome a short term crisis – an interpretation which could even lead some to conclude that austerity cuts to public services can continue, because volunteers will fill the gaps in an emergency.
In the longer term, it matters a great deal who does the interpreting and who sets the narrative.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Still they struggle with their own ideology

In his latest statement to MPs today, the Chancellor has excused his failure to provide any safety net for the self-employed by arguing that finding a way to help only those who need it is proving too complicated, because some help might go to those who don't need it.  But, in a crisis which is going to leave some people desperate, which is better: providing immediate support for all the people in that group and risk some of that help being unnecessary (with the possibility of clawing it back after the event always being available), or abandoning all the people in that group to their fate until such time as the bureaucrats can work out a watertight system of rules and application processes?  Tory ideology is still getting in the way of doing what is right and necessary.

Monday, 23 March 2020

The problem with distrust

A lot of people are condemning those who have been stripping supermarket shelves for being greedy and selfish.  There’s obviously an element of truth in that, but it isn’t the whole story, and it overlooks the vital question of trust – or rather distrust.
Many years ago, I was on a management training course where the attendees were split into three groups to play a game which was a variation on the well-known ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’.  In three separate rooms, and able to communicate only via an intermediary, the three teams had the choice in each round to decide whether to try and co-operate or compete; if all teams co-operated every round then the total number of points gained would be maximised.  My team (and I claim some credit for influencing things in this direction) opted to play the co-operative route every round, but the other teams went for competition.  My team ended up with ‘nul points’, whilst both the other teams scored well.  But the total number of points gained by both the other teams was less than could have been achieved by a more collaborative approach which shared rather than accumulated the points.  I suspect that different people learned different lessons from the exercise – some learned that co-operation benefits all, whilst others learned only that people seeking to co-operate are displaying a weakness which can be exploited.  I’m not sure that the game really contributed much to the objective of the course.
The parallel with panic-buying is this: after the first round, those who chose to believe that there was plenty of food and that they should think of others have been left with very little, whilst those who bought everything in sight have more than they can eat.  So, what card should we play in the second round?  It’s important to note that whilst greed and selfishness might be motivating some, the more important motivation is the belief that ‘others’ will be so motivated; even those whose instinct is to act for the collective good can find themselves doing the opposite because they cannot depend on everyone else to think the same way.  And when ‘nul points’ = no food, it’s not easy to condemn that.  Distrust is a pervasive and corrosive thought process.
An appeal to people to behave differently coming from politicians who’ve been telling us for decades that there’s nothing wrong with greed, that everyone should look after themselves, and that the state has no, or only a limited, role in ensuring fairness cannot resonate.  It’s at odds with everything that they’ve said before.  Some politicians have been trying to evoke the so-called blitz spirit by way of precedent for the way we should act in a crisis.  It’s a very poor comparison based on a rose-tinted view of events, which overlooks the fact that an approximation to food equality came about not because of an outbreak of collectivism, but because rationing was imposed by central government.  And alongside that, there were widespread black markets where those with the wherewithal could still get more than their share. 
I instinctively want to play the co-operative game, and I have long believed that humanity can achieve more overall by working together than by competing, but the idea that collectivism can be born suddenly because a bumbling congenital liar expresses a vague hope that people will ‘do the right thing’ is very much one for the birds.  Dissembling optimism from someone who’s never been short of anything in his life, coupled with government inaction – or, at best, ineffective action – which ignores the ground truth of empty shelves is only going to push more people into the ‘get as much as we can when it’s available’ way of thinking.  And, much as I’d like to, I can’t really argue that that is an irrational reaction – forcing the whole population to play prisoner’s dilemma won’t end well.

Saturday, 21 March 2020

Still not quite there

Yesterday, in his third attempt at presenting a crisis budget, the Chancellor at last showed some sign of understanding the scale of the problem and the nature of the response required.  As long as people get a mortgage / rent ‘holiday’, and given the reduced opportunities to spend, a level of 80% of normal salary doesn’t look unreasonable in most cases, although there are some details not yet provided, and there will be some people to whom it can’t easily be applied.  But it’s still unlikely to be enough – I suspect he’ll be back for attempt number 4 very soon.  The problem is that, despite abandoning many policy positions, there’s still one shibboleth of the Tory Party to which he is adhering.
The government has abandoned all that nonsense about balanced budgets and admitted that there really is a giant money tree which can provide all the cash required to keep things running.  We’ve even had the PM telling people to forget the individualism which his party has promoted for decades and embrace a collectivist approach, although there’s some doubt about how sincere he really is on that one.  It doesn’t help that, with his small beady eyes in a well-fed face he bears at least a passing resemblance to Napoleon (the pig, not the emperor), and coming from him collectivism sounds more like ‘I’ve spent three weeks digging this hole, it’s up to the rest of you to get me out’ than a slogan from the early days of the Labour Party before that party abandoned any pretence of socialism.
There’s one big ideological problem remaining, though – their aversion to universality, and to anyone getting ‘something for nothing’.  Instead of simply implementing their wage support plan, immediately, for all companies, the result is that there is an application process; and processing applications – by a civil service which is likely to be hit by sickness absence, self-isolation and a host of other priorities – inevitably means a delay.  For companies facing a sudden and complete loss of income, with no certainty about when or even whether that income will be restored, delay means laying staff off today, not next week.  They can’t even legally borrow money to tide them over – borrowing money with no guarantee of any income stream would be unlawfully trading whilst technically insolvent, and because there is an application process even the government payments are not guaranteed.
I’ve seen a meme on social media suggesting that large companies don’t need bailouts because they can simply borrow against their assets.  This ignores the effects of decades of financial engineering – many companies have no assets to speak of.  We have airlines which lease rather than own their planes; hotel companies which lease rather than own their buildings, transport and haulage companies (including the railway operators) which lease rather than own their vehicles, and services companies which lease rather than own their offices and most of the equipment in them – even down to the water coolers.  The capital is owned by banks and other financial services companies, not by the businesses themselves; the only ‘asset’ against which they can borrow is anticipated future income.  And for many companies, that ‘asset’ has just been instantly wiped out, whilst for many others in a whole range of sectors it is diminishing rapidly.
If they are serious about ‘doing whatever it takes’, the Chancellor will bring forward a fourth attempt, which embraces universality and makes the payments automatically to all private companies, in a range of sectors at least, immediately, based on their HMRC reporting in previous months.  He can always come back later, if he really wants to, when there is more time to consider the matter thoroughly, and claw back any payments subsequently deemed to have been unnecessary by taxing any excess profits.