Friday, 20 September 2019

Eye-openers don't necessarily change much


There’s always a problem with news stories based on ‘anonymous sources’, because they are invariably ‘credibly deniable’, to use a Nixonian turn of phrase, unless and until those who were actually present are prepared to say what happened openly and publicly.  Even when very similar stories appear in multiple publications, it doesn’t necessarily improve the credibility – it could just be the same source talking to multiple reporters.  There is, though, something very believable about the suggestion that the PM had something of an eye-opener in his meeting with Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier earlier this week.
The PM is, after all, notorious for not engaging with the detail and not listening to things he doesn’t want to hear (he has been reported as sticking his fingers in his ears and humming the English national anthem when presented with inconvenient truths as Foreign Secretary), and this is the first time that he has met directly with those in charge of negotiation on the EU side.  I rather liked the image of him turning to his aides and asking them whether this meant that his proposed scheme really wouldn’t work, but that may simply be a bit of embroidery on the tale.
The question, though, is whether it will make any difference.  One ex-Brexit Secretary was taken aback at how dependent an offshore island could be on the sea crossings to the mainland, but this amazing discovery doesn’t seem to have dented his enthusiasm for the project one iota.  There is no reason to believe that the man who invented cakeism will not similarly recover his composure (indeed, he probably already has, at least until the next encounter with a member of public), dismiss the inconvenient news and carry on regardless.  It’s been clear for years that mere facts will not faze him or in any way diminish his determination to pursue his sole aim of remaining in power.  There is one, and only one, thing which will deter him from pursuing a Brexit-at-all-costs on 31st October, and that is if he thinks that an alternative course of action will increase his chances of remaining PM.  With the vote share required for electoral victory likely to be around 30 – 35%, and the opposition parties divided, I don’t currently see what will change his thinking.  Those imagining that merely explaining to him the consequences of his actions will have any effect are missing the point.

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Being neither fish nor fowl


There is a key difference between a politician who wants to drive and create change and one who merely wants to govern, and that difference isn’t about whether they actually change anything or not, it’s about whether they lead or simply follow.  Politicians chasing votes and power can pursue change, even significant change, if it’s what the focus groups tell them will win them votes, but that isn’t at all the same thing as holding a clear view about what a better future looks like and seeking to persuade people to that view.
Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party started out with great promise: here was a man who had consistently stood against the prevailing consensus, a man not afraid to take a stand for what he believes and willing to champion unpopular causes.  He spoke to and for the membership of his party, often against previous leaders, and was elected as leader on the back of that.  He also argued for a greater role for the members of his party in deciding policy and direction after decades when power within the party had moved away from the grass roots into the hands of MPs.  How things change!  Yesterday, he said, in relation to Brexit, that his job as Prime Minister would be to give people a choice, to remain neutral and “to deliver that option that is chosen by the British people”, a position which makes him a follower of public opinion rather than a leader of it.  I think back to some of the Labour greats of the past and try to imagine them saying something similar.  Can anyone envisage Keir Hardie, for instance, a fervent opponent of war, saying that his job was not to support or oppose war, but to implement whatever option the people wanted at a time when jingoistic British nationalism was the norm?  Of course not – he saw his role as leading public opinion, not following it.  For anyone who seriously wants to challenge and change society for the better, remaining neutral is never an option.
Corbyn has a problem, in that he is a natural and instinctive Brexiteer leading a party which is increasingly remain-focussed.  But his determination to avoid coming down on either side indicates that he sees keeping his job as party leader and getting into Downing Street as being more important than either following his own principles or honouring the wishes of his party’s grass roots.  It also goes against all the reasons which led to the party so enthusiastically electing him as leader in the first place.  I can see how a decision to back what the membership is saying could turn his position around; I can even see how coming out and openly saying that he thinks Brexit is fundamentally the right thing to do, even knowing all that we now know, might restore something of his reputation, even if it isn’t the outcome that I’d want.  But a Labour Party led by a man who thinks that being ‘neutral’ on the biggest issue of the day is a reasonable or sensible approach looks to me to be utterly doomed.

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Is it raining or not?


There is a long-standing piece of advice to young journalists which says that "If someone says it's raining, and another person says it's dry, it's not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out of the ******* window and find out which is true”.  Whilst I understand the need for journalists to make an attempt to provide balanced coverage where points of view differ, that should never extend to presenting fiction as though it were on a par with fact.  Yet that is exactly what we seem to be getting on a daily basis in relation to Brexit.
As objective fact, everyone knows that there are no ‘negotiations’ happening with the EU at present.  There are discussions, and the frequency of those discussions is increasing, but there are no negotiations because, as EU leader after EU leader has confirmed, the UK has presented no proposals which can be negotiated.  As this report suggests, “Johnson’s team are refusing to put forward a written proposal to Brussels at this stage for fear it will be rejected out of hand or publicly rubbished”, although “There have been reports that David Frost, the UK’s lead negotiator, is keeping a plan locked safe in his briefcase but the wording has not been shared with Brussels”.  Having a plan for negotiation which you won’t share with the interlocutors because you know that they can’t or won’t accept it is not ‘negotiation’ in any reasonable meaning of the term.  Yet still the media report – almost daily – the government’s claims that the negotiations are going well, as though something becomes a fact or gains credibility just because the government says it is so.  Here's a classic example, saying that "Boris Johnson’s claims to be conducting a Brexit renegotiation have come under fresh doubt".  'Fresh doubt'?  A more honest description would be 'fresh proof' that Johnson is simply lying.
It’s true, of course, that whilst “cheating is a way of life for politicians” (as the late, great Dai Francis once said to a group of us), the UK is not really accustomed to the idea that the PM and the government would lie systematically, demonstrably and repeatedly about anything and everything on a daily basis.  The same media are quite happy to report accurately on the lies emanating from the White House, but there remains a residual level of respect which somehow prevents them being quite so blunt and direct about the home-grown problem.  I’d just like them to start looking out of the window and telling us, honestly and truthfully, whether it’s raining or not.

Monday, 16 September 2019

Let's not repeat the mistake


There’s no doubt that the increase in support for independence highlighted by a poll last week is stunning.  Neither can there be any doubt that this is good news for independentistas – it shows that opinions can and do change, and that they can change rapidly in the right circumstances.  There are, though a couple of concerns which should be noted.
The first is that a change which happens rapidly can also be reversed rapidly, and there has to be at least a question over the depth of the commitment to independence revealed by this poll.  A change driven by potentially transient factors may not be sustained long term.  Whilst it’s a good basis on which to build, and shows a growing willingness in principle to consider the concept, there is a need to do more than simply widen the support – it also needs to be deepened and strengthened.
But my second concern is bigger, and it revolves around the finding that 41% would support independence it if meant that Wales could remain in the EU.  As an expression of the number preferring membership of the EU to continued participation in the UK, it’s a useful headline figure, and very encouraging news.  I can’t help wondering, though, if it doesn’t also highlight the dangers of offering over-simplified options as binary choices – in the same way as happened with the EU referendum itself. 
If the question had included the wording “even if that meant customs posts along Offa’s Dyke”, would the response have been the same?  Yet, unless there is some as yet unstated solution to the Irish border problem, that is the likely outcome of a scenario where Wales is in the EU and England outside it, because the problem isn’t, and never has been, specifically about Ireland.  The problem arises where two countries or groups of countries want to both have entirely open borders for the movement of goods and services and at the same time operate different regulatory regimes.  There is no known way of achieving both those outcomes without compromising the integrity of one or both market regimes.  So, if England were to choose to be outside the EU whilst Wales, Scotland and (a united?) Ireland chose to be inside, there could be free movement of goods between Wales, Scotland and Ireland, but not between those countries and England.  The border problem doesn’t go away, it merely moves.
None of this invalidates the extremely interesting and encouraging result that as many as 41% currently would prefer to remain in the EU, but those taking it as a mandate to pursue such an objective need to spell out the probable consequences and what they would do about them.  Otherwise, there is a danger that a strong campaign could create a clear majority for an outcome expressed in over simplistic terms which is undeliverable in practice.  And we’ve had quite enough experience of that sort of outcome over the last three years.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Heads the SNP win, tails the SNP win


In terms of exposing the holes, gaps and inconsistencies in the UK’s unwritten constitution, Brexit is the gift that just keeps giving.  It is, of course, an entirely natural concomitant of having two or more different legal systems in operation that something which is lawful in one can be unlawful in another.  It is perfectly possible that the Scottish court which ruled prorogation unlawful and the English court which ruled it lawful are both entirely correct in terms of their own respective legal systems.  The problem arises in that the same action – prorogation – has effect in both jurisdictions, and it cannot remain both lawful and unlawful for long.
The Supreme Court will make a legal ruling, of course, rather than a political one, but the real impact of their decision will be political.  They could rule that it is lawful, but however such a ruling is presented it will inevitably look like a statement that English law trumps Scottish law.  Telling Scotland that their law is inferior isn’t the best way of promoting the idea of a union of equals.  On the other hand, they could rule that the decision cannot be lawful overall unless it is lawful in all relevant jurisdictions.  That would be an entirely reasonable legal outcome, reminding the UK government that it needs to consider the law in all parts of the UK before acting, but it would inevitably cue a hostile response from Brexiteers towards those ‘uppity Jocks’ who dare to have a legal system which stands in the way of the English majority.  Another good way of making the Scots feel like valued partners.
The words of that famous Scot who talked about weaving a tangled web will surely be ringing loudly in the PM’s ears.

Monday, 9 September 2019

Genius or simply lucky fool?


There is a natural human tendency to believe in ‘agency’; that when things happen, it’s a result of actions taken by people.  It isn’t always true, though; sometimes things happen as a result of a whole host of interacting causes and actions, and there’s often a large element of sheer luck involved.  Being in the right place at the right time is under-rated; but still we tend to prefer the simple explanation that attributes success to an individual.  One classic example is the oft-repeated claim that knife crime in London reduced when Boris Johnson was mayor.  In factual terms, it isn’t quite as clear-cut as that, but even if we accept that the statement is true, it doesn’t follow that the relationship between the two was a causal one, even if the chief protagonist regularly asserts it to be so.
We see the same phenomenon in the boardroom of public companies, where performance in one company is demonstrably not a particularly good indicator of performance elsewhere*.  But perhaps the most common example is that seen in the world of the round ball – football managers are regularly hired and sacked on the basis of the results achieved by their teams.  When a manager achieves very good results with one team and very poor results with the next, the logical response would be to consider what other factors might be in play.  But the actual response is to blame the manager and sack him.  Whether he was just lucky the first time, whether he just happened to be a better ‘fit’ with the style and ethos of the team, whether he just had a better bunch of players – all these are disregarded, and the manager carries the can.
As a result of the success of the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum, Dominic Cummings has been credited with a mystical set of superpowers and has come to be regarded as some sort of strategic and tactical genius.  On the basis of that success, he has been given unprecedented power in Downing Street to exert his control over other departments and to patronise and upbraid MPs and ministers, often, apparently, in colourful language.  This seems to be tolerated and even encouraged by the PM.  It appears that the ‘masterstrokes’ of the government so far – proroguing parliament, expelling 21 Tory MPs, backing the PM into a corner from which there seems at the moment to be no obvious escape route, threatening that the PM will disregard the law – all emanate from the ‘mastermind’ behind the PM.  But what if he’s not the mastermind as which he has been painted?  What if, in 2016, he was just lucky – he just happened to be in the right place at the right time to take advantage of factors which were moving in a particular direction anyway?  Is it even possible that the leave majority would have been greater but for his involvement?  The problem with these questions is twofold – firstly that we don’t have the data to answer them, and secondly that too many people aren’t even asking them.
The assumption that appointing a magic manager will turn around the fortunes of a poor-performing football club is not an assumption which is generally verified by the facts.  There’s no obvious reason to suppose that politics, in this regard, is much different.  Cummings is turning out to be about as helpful to Johnson as Rasputin was to Tsar Nicholas.  He just hasn’t been found out yet.
*There are, of course, exceptions to every rule.  It turns out, for example, that Boris Johnson’s performance as Foreign Secretary was an incredibly good indicator of his likely performance as Prime Minister.

Friday, 6 September 2019

Johnson, Johnson and principles


It struck me at the time that there was something strange about someone who resigned from Theresa May’s government because he was pro-EU and wanted a second referendum then joining an even more hard-line anti-EU government of which membership was restricted to those prepared to support a no-deal exit.  I put it down to blood being thicker than water.  One of the stories that I saw yesterday about the resignation of Johnson Minor suggested that before agreeing to serve he had asked for, and received, a specific assurance from Johnson Major that he was seriously seeking a deal.  And he believed it, presumably on the basis that an inveterate and habitual liar wouldn’t lie to his own brother.
There’s a pattern there, though.  When the leader of the Scottish Conservatives resigned, she also said that she had looked Johnson Major in the eye and demanded and received a similar assurance.  She also believed it, and again, presumably believed that ‘he wouldn’t lie to me’.  And there are members of the Cabinet who are known to be opponents of no-deal who seem to be loyally serving him.  I don’t know for certain, but it would be a shrewd guess that they had also sought, received, and believed similar assurances, because ‘he wouldn’t lie to us’.  All this tells us much more about those who have received and accepted those assurances than it tells us about Johnson Major.  For whatever reason, they have all been convinced that they are special; that a man whom they all know to be a devious, dishonest, and habitual liar would for some reason be honest with them even as he blatantly lies to everyone else.
I’m not sure that Johnson Major himself would see it as lying, mind.  This is a man who has gone through life saying whatever will advance his own ends at every juncture whether it bears a passing acquaintance with truth or not.  Fact and fiction are mixed and entwined in a way where he probably no longer knows the difference.  From time to time he’s been caught out, even sacked, but he always lands on his feet – his approach to the distinction between truth and untruth has served him well, so why would anyone expect that to change?  Those who thought they were in some sense special enough not to be lied to have only demonstrated their own gullibility and naivete.
So, at the least, Johnson Minor showed himself to be gullible and na├»ve, but it’s worse than that.  He has managed to get himself portrayed as having ultimately followed his principles rather than remaining loyal to his brother, but in what sense is someone who spends a day – never mind six weeks – agonising over the conflict between family loyalty and the interests of the country ‘principled’?  To have considered, even for a moment, that loyalty to his brother might be on, or close to, an equal footing with doing what he believes to be right for his constituents and the wider populace tells us all we need to know about his ‘principles’.  Minor manages to look good in comparison to Major only because we are comparing within a very narrow part of the spectrum.

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

How will the cards fall?


Expelling 21 Tory MPs from the Conservative group in the House of Commons solves one problem for the PM, but potentially causes several new ones.  The danger of holding a General Election at the head of a party so hopelessly divided over Brexit was always that in the two likeliest scenarios (another hung parliament or a very narrow Tory majority of seats), a party which contained 20 or more MPs implacably opposed to no deal would resolve nothing.  A majority on paper isn’t the same thing as a majority when it comes to the key votes.  Removing those rebels and replacing them with no deal Johnson loyalists gives him a chance at least of getting a majority which he can use to deliver his do-or-die 31st October exit.
Some of the 21 will go quietly – at least 5 have already said they won’t be standing again anyway – but others may resist and may well have the support of their local membership in resisting.  Philip Hammond, for instance, has already been reselected by his local association.  Johnson certainly can stop them standing as Conservative candidates.  The law was changed some years ago to require that anyone standing under the name of a political party needs formal documentation from their party’s HQ before their nomination can be accepted by the Returning Officer.  (It was a welcome change from the previous situation where anyone could claim to be standing for party X – I can remember a situation many years ago where Plaid Cymru found that it had candidates standing in local elections about whom it knew nothing and whose names were on no membership lists, and I’m pretty certain that other parties had similar issues.)  But he can’t stop them standing as ‘Independent Conservatives’ for instance, nor can he prevent local members and activists from supporting them (although he can expel them too, after the event).  He also can’t stop legal challenges to his decisions, particularly if they can be demonstrated to be arbitrary and/or contrary to the party’s own rule book (I’m not familiar with their rule book, but ‘arbitrary’, given the unpunished record of a number of current cabinet members, looks like a reasonable accusation).  Fighting what looks like being a tight election whilst simultaneously being challenged in the courts and having the vote split between official and unofficial candidates in some seats doesn’t look like the best formula for success.
If the polls are right, the Tories are on course to win around 33-35% of the vote.  It’s probably a record low point for the party but under the inexcusably undemocratic electoral system in the UK it could still be enough to win an absolute overall majority of seats, if everything falls the right way.  That’s a very big ‘if’ though.  As well as the potential losses in the seats currently held by the ‘rebels’, it seems certain that the Tories will lose most or all their seats in Scotland, also losing a number of English seats to the Lib Dems. 
And then there’s the campaign period itself.  I doubt that Corbyn will enjoy a bounce to the extent that he did in 2017, but I’d still expect there to be a degree of improvement over current polling figures not least because of the requirement for broadcast ‘balance’, especially if Labour can manage to come to some sort of agreed position on Brexit.  I doubt that Johnson’s campaign could be anywhere near as bad as that of his predecessor in 2017, but his fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants approach makes at least a minor gaffe or two near certainties.  But his biggest problem of all, despite all his efforts (and those of Labour) to focus on other issues, will be over Brexit.  If he goes full out on no deal, he loses those few remain votes still going to his party, and if he doesn’t, he probably loses leave votes to Farage plc.
It’s a huge gamble that he’s taking, and one that on balance I think he’ll probably lose, a feeling based mostly on the sheer number of cards that have to fall the right way for him to win it.  I hope that’s more than wishful thinking on my part.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Is the question valid in the first place?


An article on Nation.Cymru this morning suggests that Wales should impose a tax on water transferred from reservoirs in Wales to consumers over the border.  It’s an idea which, in one form or another, has been around for many decades, and it’s difficult to argue with the proposition that, in a market-driven economic system, a country which has a wealth of a particular resource (in this case, water) should be able to capitalise on that resource for the benefit of its citizens.  Whether ‘market forces’ are the right mechanism for determining how essentials should be shared is a wider question, but as long as it remains the case, then Wales should be able to benefit.
There are complications, of course: there are questions about the ownership of the assets and infrastructure involved; and imposing a unilateral tax on one commodity going in one direction leaves open the possibility of unilateral taxes being imposed by the other party (in this case, England) on one or more commodities going in the opposite direction.  These are details which don’t detract from the principle but which do need to be thought through and resolved before acting.
My bigger concern about the proposition is that there is a danger of falling into the conventional economic narrative about the wealth of a country being determined by its natural resources.  One of the criticisms often thrown at independentistas is that Wales cannot afford to be independent because we have no natural resources.  ‘Water’ is a partial and useful answer to that, as is the fact that Wales has become a net exporter of electricity.  The ability to generate more electricity than we use (and to do so from renewable sources if we put our minds to it) in a world increasingly dependent on the availability of energy in that form is no small matter.  I wonder, though, whether in trying to find a ready response to the question we are not legitimising a question which is based on an essentially invalid assumption that the wealth of a country depends on what natural resources it possesses.  That is not to say that possession of a resource which is in great demand (oil, for instance) doesn’t help the economic viability of a country, but it’s a big leap from saying that to creating a dependency.  (I’ve often wondered whether the way in which Scotland’s oil has been used to answer the same question might have been counter-productive overall).
Where is the evidence that possession of ‘natural resources’ determines the wealth of a country?  One of the ‘wealthiest’ countries in the world is Luxembourg – can anyone list the ‘natural resources’ which make it so?  Sometimes, we need to do more than find an answer to a question – we also need to challenge the whole basis of the question.

Monday, 2 September 2019

'Bill' and 'Boris'


On a regular basis, I get those annoying phone calls claiming to be either from ‘BT Technical Department’ or else from the ‘Windows Support Centre’ (usually phoning from the subcontinent of India, judging by the accent, and going under an improbable name such as ‘Bill’) telling me that there’s a problem with my computer and that they’ll disconnect my internet service immediately unless it is fixed.  If I’m busy, I give them short shrift; but sometimes, I string them along for a while to see how much of their time I can waste.  A week or two ago, I let one get to the point where he wanted me to download the software which would allow him to take control of my computer before saying to him “You must think I’m an idiot”.  His response was surprisingly and unusually honest and ran something like: “Yes I do.  Everyone in Britain is an idiot.  I phone people every day and take their money”. This was followed by a string of expletives about me having wasted his time before he slammed down the phone.  It’s a scam, of course, but a well-organised one.  The calls come from what sounds like a well-populated call centre full of other people making similar calls, and their business model is based on an assumption that a sufficient proportion of those called will be gullible enough to do as the authoritative voice tells them to enable them to turn a decent profit.  By being based ‘offshore’, the wholly inadequate enforcement agencies of the UK – which seemingly can’t even act effectively in the case of UK-based scammers – are even more powerless to act.
It strikes me that the PM’s ‘business model’ for Brexit is based on a similar proposition, i.e. that enough people will be taken in for the enterprise to be successful, and that the enforcement agencies can in any event be rendered impotent.  It’s a highly complicated sting in two parts:
·        The EU are told that their backstop has been reporting problems and needs to be fixed.  If they will just permit the UK’s technical experts access to their systems, the problem is an easy one to fix, but like my ‘friends’ from the ‘BT Technical Department’, they won’t actually tell the EU what they’re really going to do.  And we all know that the ‘fix’ is anything but.
·        The populace at large is told that parliament has been compromised and needs to be fixed, starting with the traditional Microsoft-style reboot which will end the current session and start a new one, thereby bringing to an end the rogue processes which were causing the problem.
Just like the computer scam, it depends entirely on people accepting what they are told by those who speak with apparent authority.  The flaw, though, is obvious – it’s to do with numbers.  The approach works for the confident-sounding criminals in their call centres who, I’d guess, are working on the basis that something like a 0.1% success rate (or finding one gullible caller for every thousand calls made) is enough to make it all worthwhile.  But the entitled Old Etonian Oxbridge Anglo-British exceptionalists don’t have that advantage of numbers.  There aren’t 1,000 EU’s from which they only need to convince one.  The exceptionalists need a 100% success rate, not one of 0.1%.  That makes it a poorly thought-out copy of the business model, which overlooks the key success factor of the scammers.  Even my friend ‘Bill’ from the subcontinent would be able to see that flaw.
It turns out that the main difference between ‘Bill’ in his Asian call centre and ‘Boris’ in his Downing Street bunker is simply that ‘Bill’ has a better handle on numerical reality.