Monday, 19 February 2018

A cause for laughter


According to the Sunday Times yesterday, a new group of intellectuals has been established to back Brexit. The report quotes the group as saying that seeking to reverse the result "would outrage democracy, cause dangerous and lasting dissension, and make the United Kingdom an international laughing stock".  But all of this is open to challenge.

I agree that holding a referendum and then ignoring the result would be an outrage.  But equally, ignoring any subsequent change in public opinion would also be an outrage.  There is  nothing in any definition of democracy which I can come up with which requires any democratically taken decision to be absolute and eternal.  Overruling a decision is one thing; but it isn't at all the same thing as trying to persuade people to change their minds.  Preventing the second of those things is surely an equal, if not bigger, outrage.

On the second point, it isn't the holding of a referendum or the taking or implementing of a decision which causes the dissension and division.  That already existed, and has existed for many years.  The referendum may have exposed it, but it didn't cause it.  There's no magic wand which will make that division go away, and the expectation that those who 'lost' the referendum will now simply change their minds and agree that it was the right decision after all in an attempt to paper over the cracks is a wholly unrealistic one.

But it was the third point that I 'liked' the most.  In essence, it says that we can't change our minds because people will laugh at us if we do.  It's a bit late for that; they are already laughing.  The implication is that even if we realize that the decision was a mistake, we should carry on regardless to save face.  But which is the bigger laughing stock - the one who realizes his mistake and changes his mind, or the one who realizes his  mistake and carries on regardless in case people laugh?

Friday, 16 February 2018

The final fling


I remember that when I was a child growing up in the 1950s, it was common talk among those of my parents’ generation, and older, that ‘the only good German is a dead German’.  In the immediate aftermath of a horrific war during which there can have been few families which did not suffer a direct loss, the attitude was understandable.  In order to keep people onside, there had been positive encouragement by government and war time leaders to see things in simple terms of goodies and baddies, and to learn to hate the ‘enemy’.  There were also in the 1950s and 1960s a whole host of war comics in circulation.  These invariably portrayed the ‘Jerries’ and the ‘Japs’ as fanatical and ruthless (as well as often cowardly and bunglingly incompetent) whilst soldiers of the UK and US were portrayed as brave, heroic men (invariably men) of principle standing up for righteousness and justice against the foe.  It is fairly easy to see how a generation or two could have become imbued with a hopelessly over-simplistic understanding of what has always been a complex relationship between European powers.
It was a strong current, and it didn’t stop at one or two generations – the England soccer fans who chanted ‘two world wars and a world cup’ whenever their team played against Germany were of a much younger generation, but were expressing a variant on the same raw emotion, albeit at least third hand by that point.  The understanding of European history which many in the UK possess, particularly those in older generations, is largely based on that oversimplification which sees ‘the Germans’ as hell-bent on world domination by whatever means possible, whilst the UK is that plucky little island state which stood up to them and defeated them.  Twice.  It’s a poor version of history, but as a mechanism for transmitting nationalistic sentiment from one generation to another, it has been remarkably effective, even if that effectiveness has declined over time, with the majority of younger people – a generation which has had the time and the money to travel and meet people from other countries – tending to judge the situation as it is today, not as their forefathers were led to believe that it was in the past.
That difference is reflected, of course, in the generational variance in attitudes towards the EU and Brexit.  The prism through which we view ‘Europe’ is either that of a place full of shifty and untrustworthy foreigners, out to dominate us at any chance they get, or that of a continent which has tried (and largely succeeded) to put the past behind it and come together in a peaceful and co-operative fashion from which all benefit, albeit in structures which are far from perfect.  I still see, in comments on this blog and elsewhere, references to the EU as the Fourth Reich, the latest means by which those dastardly Germans are attempting to dominate us.  And even if some more educated politicians (such as the Foreign Secretary) don’t put it in such crude terms, when they talk about rules being ‘imposed’ upon us by foreign powers they are essentially trying to tap into the same sentiment.
There should be no surprise when people like Johnson say that there can be no turning back from Brexit.  They know that this is probably the final fling for a particular view of Europe and the world; demographic changes are against them.  They need to cement their ‘victory’ as solidly as possible, and inculcate a new sense of jingoism and nationalism in the younger generation before their generation loses all its influence as a result of the inevitable process of natural attrition.  Their appeal for a return to the ‘greatness’ of the past, and their demand that we should all ‘get behind’ Brexit is, in its very essence, an appeal for the sort of blind loyalty to king and country which their generation took for granted, yet which they see crumbling all around them.  In a sense, I almost feel sorry for those whose world view is so strong and immutable that they cannot understand why others don’t share it as instinctively as they do, believing instead that it’s simply a matter of repeating the same message over and over again.
What they don’t get – and probably never will – is that the world has changed irrevocably under their feet.  People, and especially younger people, are no longer willing to be told what to think, and have mechanisms for disseminating alternative views which don’t depend on the media controlled by our ‘leaders’.  Brexit is a critical juncture in the movement from one view of the world to another.  The timing of the referendum was crucial to the outcome, and the ‘winners’ know that they can’t afford to concede another chance.  Every day that passes reduces the number of Leavers and increases the number of Remainers.  The only real question is whether demographic changes will be able to redirect the political processes before too much damage is done.  The future belongs to trust and co-operation, not the division and competition of the past.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Boris and the Giant Damp Squib


Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the Foreign Secretary sincerely believes that it is possible to combine his obvious pitch for the leadership of his party with a genuine attempt to appeal to those who still think Brexit a terrible mistake, I wonder if he even begins to understand why his attempt at the latter yesterday was such a dismal failure.  The belief that doubling down on the misleading, inaccurate and incomplete picture presented during the referendum, coupled with an appeal for blind faith based largely on some nineteenth century sense of British (for which read English) nationalism served only to underline the gulf between two very different world views.
He majored on things which he clearly thinks that ‘everyone’ believes deep down, and tried to tie them into Brexit, but it seemed to me like a student drawing a conclusion from premises without showing the workings in between – largely because there is no logical process involved.  Two examples in particular struck me.
The first was his assertion that the UK should be global and outward-looking.  He may be right in saying that we all want that (although it needs a bit more definition, rather than rhetoric, before I’d sign up to it).  But what he does not explain is why that is incompatible with membership of the EU.  Are the other member states not outward-looking?  Does the EU not seek to play a part in the wider global community?  To reply that being outward-looking and global means that we need to negotiate our own separate trade terms is to answer an entirely different question.  Indeed, I’d go so far  as to argue that any country which wants to negotiate its own unique bespoke trade deals with the rest of the world rather than work in concert with partners in the interests of all is being inherently selfish rather than outward-looking.
The second was his statement about “for the people, of the people, and by the people”.  It’s a noble sentiment, almost the textbook definition of democracy, and as a Welsh independentista, I’m hardly going to disagree.  But what is so special about the UK that this rule should apply only to the UK, and cannot be applied to, say, Wales or Scotland, let alone to the EU as a whole?  There’s nothing about the phrase that mandates a particular size or set of borders, yet Johnson speaks as though it does and as though that set of borders is self-evident.  And how can anyone, in all seriousness, square that definition of democracy with having a hereditary head of state, or an unelected legislature which contains people who are there by right of inheritance, by dint of being senior clergy in one particular religious denomination, or as appointees?  And finally on this point, what is there about that definition of democracy which explicitly precludes us from deciding voluntarily to share part of our sovereignty with others for the greater good of all?
For people like Johnson, these are questions that do not even need to be asked, because the unique and special nature of the UK is a given.  The speech was revealing, not for its clarity, logic, or reasoning, but for its insight, once again, into a mind-set which places the UK at the centre of the universe, as an inevitable part of the natural order of things.  There are those who argue that Johnson’s equivocation at the time of the referendum – he famously wrote two articles, one in favour and the other against, before making his own mind up – shows that he is not a natural Leaver, and therefore well-placed to woo over Remainers.  I disagree; I don’t think that he was ever torn between two world views, only between two different approaches to implementing his own (to say nothing of pursuing his own career ambitions).  I believe that he really doesn’t understand how an alternative world view can even exist, which is why, even if yesterday's speech was a genuine attempt to do more than stake his claim on the leadership, it was always doomed to fail.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

No representation without full responsibility


In introducing the proposal of the Welsh Government for to allow 16 and 17 years olds to vote in local elections, the minister, Alun Davies, said “I think everybody who pays taxes should be able to vote”.  It’s a nice line, with echoes of the ‘no taxation without representation’ slogan used by American colonists in the 18th century as part of their demand for independence.  In the context in which the minister used it, however, it’s utter nonsense.  Few, if any, 16 or 17 year olds pay council tax to the only bodies for which he proposes that they will be allowed to vote; it’s not so much abolishing taxation without representation, more a case of introducing representation without taxation.
They are, of course, also ‘consulting’ on a separate proposal to allow the same group to vote in Assembly elections, as part of a wider consultation on changes to the Assembly; but any government which really believed in the principle being propounded by Alun Davies would have taken that element out and included it in the proposal to extend the franchise.
In a move which I thought curious, in its timing at least, the same government subsequently announced that it is to ban intimate piercings for those under 18, thereby declaring them old enough to have a vote on who should represent them, but still requiring protection from themselves on an age-related basis.  It highlights the strange mish-mash of different ages at which people are considered to be ‘adults’; there is surely a case for aligning them all at one age.  Part of the problem is that people mature at different rates; some people are more mature at 15 than others are at 25.  Short of introducing a test of some sort to determine maturity, the legislation can only work by setting an arbitrary age, but that doesn’t really reflect the reality.
How could we determine, or judge, maturity?  I’m pretty certain that, had 16 and 17 year olds been allowed to vote in June 2016, the result of the referendum on EU membership would have been a lot closer.  Whether that demonstrates maturity or immaturity is entirely a matter of perspective.  One UK government minister rejected the idea of votes at 16 on the basis that young people are not sufficiently mature, but what does he mean by that?  There is no maturity test for voters; indeed, it’s hard to see how there could ever be, because such a test would be necessarily highly subjective.  And him telling an opposition spokesperson to “grow up” doesn’t exactly suggest that maturity is either a requirement for, nor a common attribute among, elected politicians, even of quite an advanced age.
At whatever age the right to vote is given to people, it’s hard then to argue that people who can vote for or against proposals, politicians, and the future of the country are not old enough to make all other decisions for themselves. On balance, I still believe that giving people the vote at 16 is the right thing to do, but proposals such as that on piercings make me wonder whether the proponents have really thought through all the logical consequences.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Detail and headlines


Yesterday saw a report about an initiative in the Vale of Glamorgan to encourage parents to complain to the Welsh Government about the apparent low level of pupil funding in the county compared to the rest of Wales.  Leaving aside the not-exactly-subtle politics of a Tory-run council complaining about the funding they receive from a Labour government, do they actually have a point?
At a detailed level they have some valid issues, but the danger is that the point is lost in an over-simplistic comparison of totals at a headline level.  They argue, for instance, that “…the formula has not had a total review since 2001 and uses census data from as far back as 1991 to distribute some elements of funding”, and “…the formula allocates funding for pupils with additional learning needs based on factors of poverty rather than the huge amount of information available based on pupil needs”.  Both of those seem to me like reasonable points to make, but I suspect that, in the grand scheme of things, the likely difference in the overall total would be very small. 
The headline complaint is based mainly around a comparison of total allocated broken down by authority, which shows a difference of £1,360 per pupil between the authority with the highest allocation and that with the lowest, the implication being that some children are being short-changed.  However, that misses the point, rather, about the underlying objective of the funding formula being used by the Welsh Government, which isn’t simply about funding schools.  It is also about distributing funding ‘fairly’ around Wales and recognising that differences in wealth and opportunity should be reflected in differences in funding.  Merely equalising spending per pupil – which would be a very easy response to argue for - would serve to reinforce existing advantages resulting from comparative wealth, as well as ignoring the differences in costs faced by different areas based on questions such as rurality.
I’ve argued previously that comparisons between average spend per pupil in Wales and average spend per pupil in England are essentially meaningless because they ignore differences in need and circumstance; the same applies within Wales.  There isn’t a ‘right’ amount per pupil to be spending; and even if there were, the chances of that ‘right’ amount being the same across a country like Wales with wide divergences in geography and population levels would be close to zero.  None of that is intended to defend or support the detail of the existing formula in use; there is always scope for review and revision of any such mathematical calculation to ensure that the premises and assumptions are valid as circumstances change.  The point is, however, that, difficult though it might be, the discussion needs to revolve around the detail of that formula, not simply around its headline outcomes.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Facts and beliefs


Yesterday’s revelation that under the UK Government’s own figures (dismissed of course as fake news by those with blind faith in the Brexit project) all parts of the UK will be worse off than under any scenario except the favoured one involving free unicorns merely confirms what many of us already felt was fairly certain.  In economic terms, for the foreseeable future, Brexit will leave us worse off than continuing membership of the EU.  Any attempt at providing a justification for Brexit has to be non-economic in nature.
For anyone interested in facts and analysis as a basis for taking decisions, the report actually ‘proves’ nothing at all, beyond the mathematical certainty that a given model fed a given set of assumptions will produce a particular result.  As noted previously, the track record of economic forecasting is not exactly brilliant, because the real world never behaves exactly as the model says it should, and assumptions are always open to challenge.  There is a danger though of throwing out the baby with the bathwater; individual models may be untrustworthy, but when a whole series of models and forecasts start to paint a similar picture, it would be folly to simply dismiss them.  That, coupled with a belief that the assumptions are not unreasonable ones to be making, rightly causes concern.
However, for those who hold to the true faith of Brexit, the report allows much firmer conclusions to be drawn.  One is that the entire civil service, the BBC, and a whole host of others are in a giant and malevolent conspiracy to pervert their ‘facts’.  And a second is that the research showing that the areas which voted leave will suffer most clearly demonstrates the existence of a deliberate policy of punishment by the EU.
There is little scope for any meeting of minds between those two positions, which probably helps to explain the comparatively small shift in opinion which has occurred since the referendum.  What was missing at the time of the referendum – and is still largely absent today – is any attempt on the part of Remainers to present the EU as anything other than an economic entity from which we gain more than we lose financially.  Most of those likely to be convinced by that argument already have been, but it will do nothing to change the minds of those who see the EU as some sort of evil empire.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Trade deals and fantasies


The reason quoted most frequently for not staying in the European Customs Union – or indeed, any customs union – is that it would prevent the UK negotiating its own trade deals.  And that much is true; what they’re not so good at explaining is why exactly the UK needs or wants to be able to negotiate its own trade deals.  They just present it as an inherently good thing and are rarely challenged for clarification.
The EU already has trade deals with many non-EU countries, and the UK benefits from those.  The plan, insofar as there is one, seems to be that the UK will negotiate with all of those countries to ‘roll over’ those trade deals, so that the UK expends a certain amount of effort to keep exactly the same terms which exist today.  It’s a sensible approach, given the amount of time available and the even greater amount of effort which would be required to do anything different.  It does, though, take us not even the tiniest step forward from today (and if any of those countries were to decline to play ball, there is the possibility of taking a step backwards).  It merely 'rebadges' existing EU deals as independent UK ones.
Then there are the countries with which the EU does not have trade agreements currently.  With some of those, the EU is already in negotiations lasting many years to achieve an agreement.  For it to be worthwhile for the UK to seek to negotiate separate deals with those countries, there has to be a belief that the UK market of 60 million can get a better or faster deal than the EU market of 500 million.  On what basis could that be?
Well, one advantage which the UK’s negotiators would have is that the EU is trying to meet the requirements of 28 states (soon to be 27), all of which potentially have different interests; ensuring that those are all met is time-consuming and complex.  Direct negotiations with only one state could conceivably be quicker and easier (although whether a state in a rush to reach a quick deal would take into account the needs of all its parts rather than just those of the south eastern corner is a danger which we in Wales might like to consider very carefully).  Of course, avoiding one part of a customs union seeking a deal which gives it a relative advantage over another part of the same union is one of the reasons for the EU rule preventing such individual trade deals by its members.  The alternative would be customs and border posts across the EU.
A second route to a quicker deal would be to concede more to the ‘other’ side in any negotiation; indeed, given the much smaller market that we’re talking about here, that might even be essential.  Whether making concessions to Trump’s America for a quick deal would turn out to be a good thing or not is rather a different question, but I can certainly see how an independent UK trade policy might lead to a series of different deals over a (still longer than the Brexiteers are willing to admit) period.  
The underlying question which remains is whether those deals make up for the inevitable loss of trade with our biggest trading partner.  In the fantasy scenario of those leading the UK, this question doesn’t even need to be asked; we’re going to keep ‘frictionless’ trade with the EU alongside the exciting new deals, so it’s not a problem.  It only becomes a problem when they have to face up to the fact that negotiating formal generic trade deals (as opposed to individual sales) and retention of that ‘frictionless’ access are mutually incompatible, for the reasons noted above.  Fox and friends are absolutely right to argue that if the UK wants to do its own separate deals, it has to be outside the customs union; the fantasy is believing that being outside the customs union does not disadvantage trade with the rest of the EU.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Refighting the past


It’s an old saying that generals always want to fight the last war, meaning that their tactics and the weaponry that they want is based more on experience of the past than on anticipation of the future.  In some ways, the speech by the head of the army a week or so ago gave the lie to that statement, because he seemed quite clear that the next threat will be most unlike the last one, and will be more to do with cyber warfare than with conventional warfare.  And then he went and spoiled it by appearing to argue that the response should be to spend more on tanks and guns, in a vain attempt to match the military capability of Russia.  Certainly, all the coverage around his speech seemed to concentrate on the amount and quality of the hardware available, without explaining quite how any of that would protect us from a cyber attack.
There was another former military chief on the television a few days ago, complaining about potential cuts to the Royal Marines, and arguing that such cuts would lave them at half the strength that they had a few years ago.  He drew a comparison with hospitals and schools, arguing, essentially, that people would be up in arms if the number of hospitals or schools were to be halved, so why weren’t they doing the same about reductions to the military?  It’s a completely misleading and over-simplistic comparison, of course, because it merely considers the provision, not the demand.  If the number of children needing to be educated halved, or some miracle cures were developed which halved the need for hospital beds, then it would be madness to keep the same number of schools or hospitals, simple because that was the number we had before.  In the same way, the size of the military needs to be related to the requirement; the hard part is working out what that requirement is.
It is, I suppose, in the nature of generals to assume that somebody – perhaps everybody – is just waiting for us to drop our guard so that they can march in and enslave us; they don’t need to ask, let alone answer, the question as to why anyone would want to.  In that sense, the UK’s military posture is, after all, very much rooted in refighting the past, based on an assumption that the ‘enemy’ is hell-bent on world domination, and needs to be ‘deterred’ from acting in pursuit of that aim.  Coupled with an image of the UK as a great world power based firmly in the nineteenth century (or, at a pinch, the first half of the twentieth), it leads to a demand for military spending on a scale, and of a type, which is largely unrelated to any real threat to the UK.
The real problem is not about the size or scale of the military at all; it is about the continuing failure to recognise the place which the UK occupies in the real world, and adapt to it instead of pretending to be something which the UK is not.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Agreement and reality


On Saturday, Jacob Rees-Mogg told the world, in all seriousness, that the civil servants who had prepared the document showing that all credible types of Brexit were likely to be be worse, in economic terms, than remaining in the EU, were guilty of ‘fiddling the figures’.  It’s a very serious accusation, but the only ‘evidence’ that he seems to have produced is that he disagrees with the answers.  Personally, I very much doubt whether they have fiddled any figures; but what they have done is to look at a limited range of potential scenarios.  Very specifically, they appear not to have looked at the government’s own preferred scenario – that is, of course, the one that the government have so far found it impossible to articulate.

Yesterday, the Home Secretary told us that the Cabinet was more united on Brexit than people outside understood.  They are, she claimed, completely united on ‘on the need for "frictionless trade", the ability to strike international trade deals and avoid a hard border in Ireland’.  I suspect that she’s right about the degree of unity around those simple objectives; if that’s the level of detail to which they’re working, getting agreement looks like an easy task.  I suspect that it would also be fairly easy to secure cross-party agreement and wide public support for a demand that all taxes be abolished and the NHS budget be doubled.  The question is not whether they can agree about the desirability of the objectives, but about how useful an agreement to demand the impossible is likely to be.

I’m certain that the civil servants could indeed produce a model for Brexit based on the assumption that the EU27 will allow frictionless trade on terms unavailable to members let alone to any other non-member.  And if they did produce such a model, there’s a good chance that it would show that such a scenario would be no worse than remaining a member, and maybe even better.  Even Rees-Mogg would probably be happy to brandish the figures.  But how meaningful would they be?  Making the numbers add up to a total which provides the ‘right’ answer doesn’t make those numbers useful or relevant.

The agreement which the Home Secretary is so sure can be achieved within the Cabinet is based on a convenient suspension of reality, just like her boss’ declaration this morning that we will both have a different customs regime to the EU and avoid having any sort of border with that part of the EU which happens to be to the west of us rather than the east or south.  But who needs reality, when fantasy is so much more comforting?

Friday, 2 February 2018

What happened to all those EU constraints on trade?

In what will clearly be good news for some businesses in Britain and the people who work in them, around £9 billion worth of trade deals with China were signed off yesterday during the Prime Minister’s visit.  During the same visit, the International Trade Secretary suggested that deals such as this show that we shouldn’t be ‘obsessing’ with Europe, and should be looking wider afield.  Up to a point, I agree with him.
Here’s the point, though: they don’t have to be alternatives.  All the deals signed off yesterday were signed by the UK whilst still a member of the EU and within EU rules.  It’s true that the specific deals signed off yesterday aren’t the same as a generic deal covering terms; but the whole point of a generic deal is surely to enable specific individual deals.  If there is already significant scope for improving trade with China within EU rules, in what way would that wider deal ‘replace’ what is lost in terms of trade with Europe?  Only someone 'obsessed' with leaving the EU would see these as alternative, rather than complementary, approaches.