Friday, 18 August 2017

What is the basis of the alternative?

On Monday, the BBC reported on Neil Hamilton’s call for Plaid to work with UKIP; yesterday there was an article on Nation.Cymru calling for a coalition between Plaid and the Tories.  It’s obviously August, and the traditional dearth of hard political news is being replaced by the equally traditional speculation, which is unlikely to lead to anything at all once 'proper politics' recommences in September.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a serious point underlying all this though.  There is a perception that Wales, and Welsh democracy, have a problem.  We are eighteen years on from the founding of the Assembly and one party has either formed, or led, the government for the whole of that time.  Only once, and then only briefly, was there a serious possibility of an alternative, but since then the possibility has disappeared and currently seems further away than ever.
I’ve talked before about the question of the so-called rainbow alliance in 2007, and I’m not going to rehearse all the arguments here.  For a variety of reasons, some of which I’ve mentioned before and some I have not, I was opposed to that proposal, but my opposition wasn’t based on some vague ‘principle’ about never dealing with the Tories; it was more to do with whether such a government was viable, and to what extent it would advance the cause of independence.
Those latter questions go to the heart of my reaction to the idea that Plaid should be prepared to work with the Tories.  Any party of independentistas should be judging and responding to that question on the basis of an assessment of whether, and to what extent, such a government would be a step towards or away from achievement of that goal, and an assessment of the political costs and benefits to the national movement over both the short term and the long term.  It says a lot about the stage that Plaid has reached that the reaction is more to do with a refusal to work with evil baby-eaters than about making such an assessment, predictable though such a reaction is.  Plaid, as I’ve commented before, seems unable to decide whether Labour are pink Tories, little different from the real ones, or a progressive force which should be supported.  It frequently seems that they believe – and want the rest of us to believe – that both of those things are simultaneously true.
I don’t entirely share the analysis in the Nation.Cymru article, but neither do I believe that basing the entirety of Welsh politics on an assumption that the Tories are inevitably and immutably toxic is showing any understanding of the reality of political trends in Wales.  For sure, the threatened Tory surge in the June General Election didn’t happen, but the fact that – however briefly – the polls suggested it as a serious possibility underlines, yet again, that Welsh politics (at Westminster level at least) is converging with, rather than diverging from, the mainstream of English politics.  Any party which bases its whole approach on an assumption that the Tories and their ilk are forever beyond the pale is likely to find itself being overtaken by events.  It’s simply a question of time before such an essentially negative approach fails.  And there’s a danger that Labour take Plaid down with them.
The bigger problem that I have with the suggestion of such coalitions is the assumption that having an alternative government is, axiomatically, a good and necessary thing for Welsh democracy, and that, if the people don’t choose one themselves when they go out and vote, it’s down to party political manoeuvring to create one.  After all, we have a Labour-led Government in Wales, and have had one since 1999, because that’s what the people voted for under the electoral system which is in operation.  One could (and I do) criticise the electoral system for not adequately representing the range of opinions amongst the Welsh electorate, but even under my preferred option of STV, I’m certain that Labour would have emerged from the Assembly election as far and away the largest party.
The so-called ‘problem’, in short, isn’t that there is a lack of an alternative government, it is that the government we have is the one that the electorate chose; and any post-election stitch-up between parties which claim to be fiercely opposed to each others policies, with the sole aim of displacing Labour, lacks any obvious legitimacy.  I agree with the perception that continuous government by one party is leading that party to be complacent, timid, and lacking in vision.  But the solution to that is to do with persuading people that there is a better alternative and getting them to vote for it, not some back-room deal.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

The obvious continues to elude them

The stated aim of the UK Government in publishing ‘position papers’ in relation to Brexit is to start providing some clarity about what the UK actually wants.  On the basis of what they’ve come up with so far, it appears that they’re really no clearer now than they were 14 months ago.
Amongst their proposals to date are:
·       There should be a customs union which mirrors the existing one in all important respects except that the UK uniquely should be free to negotiate different trading arrangements with non-EU countries than those negotiated by the EU itself, because ‘obviously’ a country with a market of 60 million and no trade negotiators will get better deals than a market of 450 million with a host of experienced negotiators.
·       There should be something called ‘regulatory equivalence’ under which the UK basically mirrors all the EU regulations except that it also retains the right to vary them as and when it chooses.
·       There should be completely frictionless trade between the EU and the UK except that the UK should have the right to opt out of all the mechanisms and costs involved in managing that trade.
It amounts to little more than an elaboration of what we already knew – the UK still expects both to have its cake and eat it, and any attempt by the EU27 to prevent that will be portrayed as a deliberately punitive response.  The Brexiteers continue to believe in the fantasy that ‘they need us more than we need them’.
Yesterday, we had the latest thinking (although that may be too grand a word) on the question of the border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.  According to the Northern Ireland Secretary, the proposal is entirely reasonable and should be accepted because of the trade involved on all sides.  This seems to be repeating the same mistake that the UK Government has made from the outset – they have a deeply ingrained mindset that tells them that trade is the only factor to be considered.  Once again, they show themselves incapable of understanding that for all the other EU countries there are a range of other factors to be considered – it isn’t only about trade and economics.  It’s a transactional approach to international relationships which fails to grasp the wider motivations.
One essential element of the proposals on Ireland appears to be a heavy dependence on IT as a way of managing and controlling border crossings.  The UK Government – of all colours and over many decades – has an appalling record on delivery when it comes to large new complex IT systems.  They almost never come in on time or budget (and closer examination of those that do claim to have met the time and budget would almost certainly reveal that it’s often a result of ‘descoping’ – delivering a lesser system than that original envisaged).  That in itself doesn’t augur well; but in this case, they’re talking about delivering a complex system the scope of which has not yet been defined, let alone agreed, within a fixed and immutable timescale.  Still, it will generate some good revenues and profits for one or two large IT companies, whose directors are likely to be laughing all the way to the bank.
There is, though, a cheap and easy way to maintain frictionless trade with the EU27, to maintain regulatory equivalence, to retain a customs union, and to avoid a hard border across Ireland.  I wonder how more position papers need to be ridiculed before they work out what that might be…

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

What's the question?

Someone once said that if the answer is ‘more politicians’, then the question must be a very strange one indeed.  A similar feeling struck me over the past few days as I read about the speculation over the next Tory leader and Prime Minister.  If Jacob Rees-Mogg is the answer, then what on earth is the question?

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

A price worth paying?

Many years ago, I remember one independentista telling me that he would be willing to eat grass if that were to be the cost of Wales becoming independent.  It’s rather a fundamentalist position, and not one that I share.  And it’s certainly not a case that I’d ever be willing to put before the people of Wales in an attempt to persuade them to support independence.  There is a price to independence of course – just as there is a price to not choosing independence.  And much as I might wish it were otherwise, neither of those prices can ever be fully known in advance; there is an element of faith on both sides.  Both sides can produce their own numbers ‘proving’ the truth of their prior beliefs, but neither can ever actually be certain that they are right.
That underlines the point that there is a more general truth underlying that grass-eating argument; most of us are willing, in principle, to pay a price of some sort for something which we believe to be of greater overall good than mere material wealth.  For example, I don’t doubt that democracy costs more than dictatorship, and can often be more decisive, but few of us would actually choose to live in a dictatorship purely for a small reduction in taxes.  In principle, that idea that some freedoms are worth having even if they come at a price is an entirely reasonable and honourable political position to take.  The extent to which others can be persuaded to support it will depend on how much they value those freedoms and how large the price is, and both of those factors are legitimate issues of political debate.
I detect an increasing tendency amongst those who led us down the Brexit path to adopt a similar position, arguing in effect that freedom from what they portray as ‘interference’ from ‘Brussels’ is of value in its own right, even if it involves taking an economic hit in the process.  It’s certainly more honest than their previous position of arguing that we were all going to be better off, despite all the evidence to the contrary.  The problem is, though, that it’s being honest after the event.  It also omits spelling out that those taking that hit will not be themselves, but the rest of us.  Honesty now is not enough to make up for previous dishonesty, and the ‘people have spoken’ mantra is a wholly inadequate defence.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Big lies and bigger lies

There has been widespread coverage today of the release by the UK Treasury of its estimate of the amount of money “sent to Brussels” each week (£156 million), and the comparison between that and the headline figure on the side of that infamous bus, which was £350 million.  The i newspaper has an opinion piece by John Redwood in which he makes a number of points in response.  He glosses over the figure by saying that everyone was aware “that a large sum of money was at stake”, and that “the two sides disagreed about just how large a sum it was”.  Well, yes, they did indeed disagree about the sum involved, but I’m not at all sure that the fact that the £350 million was an outright and blatant can be glossed over by calling it ‘a disagreement about the figure’.

Anyway, he (like others) makes the point that the real issue was that “taking back control of our money”, and “being able to spend our money on our own priorities” were key issues for the Leave campaign.  And in a related story the Director of Get Britain Out makes the rather fluffy point that even £150million per week “is clearly still at too much” without advancing much by way of argument to explain why, or how much exactly would have been acceptable.  The problem with all of this is that the assumption is being generally made that, after Brexit, the UK will be free to spend this money – whatever the actual figure – on things like the NHS and social care.  Put in simplistic terms – give the money to Brussels, or spend it on the NHS – the attraction to many is obvious. 

It’s not an honest choice, however, unless we first consider what else we lose by not paying that money ‘to Brussels’ – because it isn’t simply some sort of membership fee which simply disappears into the so-called bureaucracy in the UE.  Firstly, the UK will need to replicate all the bodies which we currently share with the other members of the EU on a collective basis; and the cost per head is likely to be higher for unique UK institutions than it is for shared agencies.  Then there are little matters such as payments to farmers, and regional aid, the continuation of which the UK has conspicuously declined to guarantee.  Rather than 'NHS vs Brussels', a more honest choice would be NHS vs Regional aid and farming subsidies.  Perhaps people would still choose cuts to both of those in preference to EU membership, but at the moment the reality of the choice that they think they've made isn’t even being made clear to them.

And, in reality, that’s no surprise.  People like Redwood and Farage never suddenly developed a deep commitment to paying for the NHS and social care; they merely latched on to an argument that they thought – rightly so as turned out – would persuade people to vote for something which would otherwise be seen to be against their own best interests.  And that’s the real issue about the infamous £350 million for the NHS.  It’s not just that the sum was a complete lie, it’s also that the whole line of argument was a lie.  The choice was never a real one, just a ploy to achieve the aim of Brexit. 

Monday, 7 August 2017

Coming back to bite them

One of the problems with simplistic political slogans is that turning them into reality never quite matches the image that those targeted by the slogans took them to mean in the first place.  One obvious example, in relation to Brexit, was “control of our borders”.  It is increasingly obvious that what many of those demanding this outcome meant was control of other people coming into the UK; they certainly didn’t intend it to be reciprocal.  Hence the outrage being increasingly expressed by the tabloids about delays to holidaymakers entering other countries.

People who have, for years, demanded a tightening of border controls are now complaining bitterly about the delays which result from more stringent checks of passports and other entry documents.  But what does "controlling the borders” mean if not paying more attention to who is entering a country and whether they are who they claim to be?  It could be, of course, that what they really intended was for more people to be employed to man the borders.  Perhaps it was all a giant job creation scheme for the border agency.  That might be a bit more credible if the same tabloids hadn’t also spent years complaining about the ‘bloated public sector’.

Personally, I suspect that it is related to the long-standing tradition of British exceptionalism.  It’s not ‘freedom of movement’ that they want to stop, it’s other people’s - foreigners’ – freedom of movement.  The traditional blue British passport which they think they’re going to be getting back always asserted, as I recall, the demand of ‘Her Britannic Majesty’ that the holder should be allowed through without let or hindrance.  For some strange reason, however, those strange foreigners don’t see things in the same way – they actually have the nerve to think that UK subjects should be treated the same way as everyone else.  Inevitably, this clear and logical outcome of Brexit will be portrayed as yet another example of Brussels punishing the UK.  Of course.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Baldrick and the cunning plan

Could it really be, as some in Brussels are starting to suspect, that the UK’s apparently shambolic approach to Brexit is all a bluff, part of a cunning plan to lull the EU27 into a false sense of security?  Under this interpretation, it’s not that they don’t have a strategy at all; it’s more that their strategy is one of pretending not to have a strategy so that they can brilliantly blindside everyone in a few months’ time.
I can see why the rest of the EU might fear that this might be the case.  And I can see why many in the UK might be hoping it’s the case – it’s far better to believe that than to believe that the government really is completely clueless.  But such an analysis goes against a variant of Occam’s razor.  When in doubt, the simplest and most obvious explanation (in this case, total cluelessness) is generally to be preferred.
And as we learned from that master of philosophy and deception, Baldrick, cunning can sometimes be a euphemism for extremely stupid.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

All models are wrong - and some aren't even useful

On Monday, the Tory group leader in the Assembly demanded that the First Minister dissociate himself from Corbyn’s policies, claiming that they would result in around £4,000 of extra debt for each person in Wales, and that the UK would end up paying around £5.8 billion a year in additional interest payments if Labour’s plans were implemented.  It’s the stuff of good political knock-about, but without a lot more information on how they’ve done their sums (and the Tories don’t exactly have a brilliant record when it comes to financial arithmetic), it’s difficult to know what, if any, relationship exists between his figures and ‘truth’, in the mathematical sense of the word.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s suppose his figures are accurate ones.  Is it really the economic disaster as which he paints it?  Of course, £5.8 billion sounds like a very large sum of money to be paying in extra interest every year, but that’s in absolute terms.  And it makes a number of unstated but implicit assumptions.
The first comparison that has to be made is not, as the Tories effectively claimed, with the status quo, but with what the outcome would be over the same period with a Tory Government.  The implicit assumption in what Davies said is that Tory spending plans would not lead to a similar outcome, but given the way in which out-turn has varied from predictions over the last few years, and the way in which much of the (uncosted) Tory manifesto has been ditched, that looks to me like an invalid assumption.  If there is a gap between the likely outcome under a Corbyn government and the likely outcome under a Tory government (and even that is a significant ‘if’) then it is probable that the gap would be much smaller than Davies is suggesting.  All the signs are that the Tories will also increase borrowing to pay for their programme; the honest question is not how much Labour would need to borrow, but what is the difference in borrowing levels between the two.
The second question is about what proportion of GDP the debt would represent, and what proportion of expenditure any extra interest payments would represent.  Both of those are dependent on a range of assumptions and guesses about the likely level of inflation, economic growth, and interest rates.  Given the propensity of all involved to get such estimates wrong, it would be a very brave person who would claim to know the correct value of any of those variables over a five-year parliament.  But in principle, simple mathematics shows that a debt which increases in absolute value by a smaller percentage than the rate of economic growth will end up reducing the ratio of debt to GDP, which is why the absolute value being used by Davies is irrelevant.  The same mathematics also demonstrates that when interest rates are lower than the rate of inflation, paying more interest in absolute terms can still result in a reduction in the percentage of government income committed to paying interest.
What we do know is that, as things stand today (and I accept that’s a very important caveat), the UK Government is effectively borrowing money interest-free.  It’s costing us, in real terms, absolutely nothing, and given the demand from people who want to lend money to the government, there is no immediate problem in borrowing more.  Indeed, some would even argue that increasing government spending actually generates more tax income than the amount spent: the calculation all depends on the value assigned to the infamous ‘multiplier’.
Now of course it is true that different economists will give different answers to questions such as these, but that merely serves to underline that economists base their predictions on models rather than on absolute truths, and there are a number of different models available.  As the famous statistician, George Box, said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful”.  It’s a point worth bearing in mind that when politicians state categorically what the outcome of a particular policy will be for the economy they are depending on a model of some sort, whether they admit it - or even realise it - or not.
As I said at the beginning, this sort of guff from Davies is all good knock-about politics, but it’s really froth; he has no more clue than do I about the accuracy of what he says.  The real question is why one particular model – the idea that the government is like a giant household, which is used by the Tories when they come out with this stuff – is taken as gospel truth by a media which regularly demands that politicians from other parties explain themselves in the terms mandated by that model.  It would be more useful to political debate – let alone to economic policy – if the idea which underlies much of what they say was challenged more forensically rather than being simply accepted.  And it’s a shame that more opposition politicians don’t appear to have the understanding or the confidence to do that.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Agreeing to disagree

The increasingly public disagreements within the UK cabinet would be funny if the issue weren’t so serious.  Their attempts to claim that they’re saying the same thing when they are very obviously saying something very different are stretching the meaning of language considerably.  Agreeing that ‘freedom of movement’ ends in 2019 because the EU rule no longer applies, but then arguing that ending compliance with the rule does not mean that people will no longer be free to move for some years to come is a distortion worthy of Orwell.  And even that distortion isn’t acceptable to the Foxes of this world.
It isn’t only the Tories who are struggling, though.  When John McConnell claimed last week that Jeremy Corbyn and Carwyn Jones ‘are on the same page’, I surely wasn’t the only one left asking myself whether they were indeed looking at the same page number, but in completely different books.  In a similar attempt at distorting language, it seems that the claim is based on them wanting the same thing – the ‘exact same’ benefits of membership of the single market.  It’s just that half of them believe that they can have that without being a member of the single market whilst the other half have at least a nodding acquaintance with Planet Earth.
The denied divisions are having a serious impact on both parties.  On the government side the paralysis caused by infighting and a lame duck Prime Minister is increasingly hampering the government’s ability to do anything very much; and on the opposition side, some are even starting to talk about splitting the party over the issue. 
Margaret Thatcher once famously said that her greatest achievement was New Labour; that she had, in effect, provoked a change as a result of which the party became little more than a clone of the Conservative Party.  She didn’t do a lot for the Tories, though.  She left them as she found them – bitterly divided over Europe.  It’s a division which has haunted her successors.  The Cameron-May legacy doesn’t look to have done anything other than made that problem worse, although perhaps they too will look to what they’ve achieved for Labour instead.  Infecting that party with the same toxic virus over Europe as their own party has suffered for many years is an achievement, of sorts, I suppose.

Friday, 28 July 2017

The problems are all somebody else's

Amongst the many problems which the Brexiteers never really thought through is the question of the arrangements for the border between the UK and the Irish republic.  If the UK were willing to consider remaining in the single market and customs union, then the problem would be greatly diminished, but given the outright refusal of both the government and most of the main opposition party even to consider such an option, the issue could end up becoming one of the major obstacles to progress.
Initially, some in the UK Government seemed to be suggesting that the Irish Republic could carry out UK border checks in its ports and airports, seemingly insensitive to the way in which treating the Republic as being somehow ‘part of the UK’ for customs purposes would be received by an independent state.  Subsequently the UK Government has suggested some sort of ‘hi-tech’ land border across Ireland, a suggestion which has not gone down well in Dublin, which sees any reintroduction of a land border as being in danger of re-opening past divisions and damaging both parts of the island.  Their response has been to propose that the Irish Sea should become the border.
Unsurprisingly, the idea of imposing customs and passport checks between one part of the UK and another (effectively treating the north as part of the Republic for customs purposes) has not gone down terribly well with the DUP in the north of Ireland.  One of their responses has been to suggest that there are only two options – there will either be a hard land border, or the Republic will have to follow the UK out of the EU.  As an exercise in cold logic, it’s hard to fault that, although as an understanding of political reality it fails miserably, and would lead inexorably to the imposition of a hard border. 
But it also underscores the underlying attitude of many Brexiteers from the outset on two points in particular.  The first is that Brexit only ever made any sense at all as a precursor to breaking up the EU, and the second is that the problems caused by Brexit are somebody else’s – in this case, the Republic of Ireland.  It’s another example of the UK’s sense of entitlement and exceptionalism that the problems should all be resolved by others bending down before the might of Britannia.  

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Laying the blame in the right place

In his latest remarks on immigration, Jeremy Corbyn seems to be moving his party further and further towards the position and rhetoric used by UKIP.  Worse still, he seems to be as determined as UKIP to blame the immigrants and/or the European Union for the failings of UK Government and UK legislators.
He’s actually right in drawing attention to one of the problems, which is unscrupulous employers and agencies bringing in workers from other EU countries – primarily Eastern Europe – and paying them very low wages, sometimes even below the national minimum wage.  One of the ways that they get away with this apparent breach of UK law is by providing transport and accommodation and then deducting those costs from the pay of the workers concerned.  The question, though, is who is to blame for this?
Reading Corbyn’s comments, one might reasonably conclude that it is a consequence of the ‘freedom of movement’ within the EU, and that Brexit would therefore enable a UK Government to put a stop to the practice.  However, the real problem here isn’t with the EU at all – it’s with the inadequacy of UK legislation covering agency workers, and with unscrupulous employers taking advantage of that inadequacy.  It doesn’t require Brexit to end this exploitation; it merely requires a UK Government with the political will.  On that score, the workers concerned have been badly let down by successive UK Governments, Tory and Labour alike.  And their failure to act is one of the misdirected reasons for an increase in resentment about foreign workers in the UK.
Perhaps if Corbyn gets the chance, post-Brexit, he might lead a government committed to taking action against this form of exploitation.  But for the long term, it’s more likely that legislation will be shaped by the Tories than by Labour.  And they’ve already made it clear that their preference is for less control over the way businesses employ people not more.  Deliberate obfuscation over the cause of the problem could end up making things worse, not better.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Fudge isn't leadership - it's just a snack

This article in Monday’s Guardian by Shadow Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner has drawn a great deal of criticism for saying, in essence, that Brexit is going to make us all worse off, but that’s what people voted for and that’s what we must therefore do.  As far as the conclusions that he draws are concerned, I agree with the criticism.  It should be incredible that the main opposition party can conclude that a policy is a really bad idea and then go on to support it with enthusiasm.  He’s not alone in taking this strange view of leadership by politicians – one of his colleagues said much the same thing yesterday, but went on to add that the Labour Party’s position could be flexible if public opinion were to change.  It’s a complete abdication of leadership and principle, and suggests that, at any time, the Labour Party’s political philosophy is whatever a perceived majority happen to think.
There are parts of Gardiner’s analysis, however, with which I entirely agree.  His opening paragraph:
“Most trade agreements arise from a desire to liberalise trade – making it easier to sell goods and services into one another’s markets.  Brexit will not.  Brexit arose from key political, rather than trade, objectives: to have control over our borders, to have sovereignty over our laws, not to submit to the European court of justice (ECJ), and not to pay money into the European budget.  When negotiations start it will be the first time countries seek a trade agreement with the clear understanding that they are increasing barriers between them.”
reflects a point that this blog has made a number of times: there is no such thing as a ‘soft’ Brexit, there is only continued membership under a different name. 
(Although I don’t entirely agree with his claim that both sides are entering the negotiations with the understanding that they are increasing barriers between them; I suspect that the Brexiteers really don’t understand that even now.  That’s one of the worst aspects of their position – and it’s largely mirrored by that of the Labour Party when they talk about having “the exact same benefits” whilst being outside the single market.)
I agree with his statement that Brexit arose primarily from political rather than trade objectives, and that the only way to give expression to those political objectives is to opt for the so-called ‘hard’ Brexit being pursued by the government.  That ignores, of course, the frequent statements made by Brexiteers during the referendum campaign that Brexit did not mean leaving the single market, but that was politicians campaigning, a process in which lying has become the norm.  It should always have been clear that, if the slogans about taking back control meant anything, they meant leaving the single market, whatever politicians looking for votes may have said at the time.
Gardiner is simply being honest in what he says.  A Welsh Labour MP, Wayne David, made a similar point yesterday, when he said that it would be very difficult to accept membership of the single market as being compatible with Brexit.  Whilst many of us see the so-called ‘Norway Model’ as more attractive than Brexit, I fully understand that it actually means a greater loss of sovereignty than formal membership of the EU, since it requires adherence to laws and rules with no representation in devising them. 
The real problem facing us is not people like Gardiner or David who are openly and honestly spelling out the consequences of the vote that was taken last year, but the fudging politicians who pretend that it is somehow possible to give expression to that vote whilst remaining a member of the EU in all but name.  It isn’t, and the better and more honest position is to argue that a mistake has been made on the basis of an utterly false prospectus and give people the opportunity to correct it.  The idea that democracy is – or ever can be – about a single irrevocable vote on one day in one set of circumstances is a misuse of the word ‘democracy’.  We need politicians to provide honest leadership on the issue, but they mostly seem too cowardly to do that.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Mirages are distractions from the real task

Last week, the Western Mail carried a story (to which I’ve been unable to find a link) which referenced the views of Professor Richard Tuck of Harvard University in the US on the question of Brexit and Corbyn.  I hope that I don’t over-paraphrase a complex argument if I say that, in essence, he argues that membership of the EU prevents a politician like Corbyn from implementing some of the things he supports, and that Brexit, followed by a Corbyn election victory, would set the UK free to pursue a much more socialist agenda.  It is, in a sense, the classic ‘left’ case against the EU, seeing the EU as institutionalising neo-liberal policies inimical to the interests of working people as understood by the classic British left.  It’s an attractive argument, and there is much about it which I naturally support.
However, as a counterpoint to that, there was an article in the Guardian last week by John Harris which suggested that underpinning the views of Brexiteers like Liam Fox is the belief that “Brussels is not the liberalising, pro-business force that reality suggests, but an eternal brake on enterprise and initiative that has to be comprehensively left behind”.  On this understanding of what the EU is about, Brexit followed by the election of a more right-wing Tory government is the outcome which they desire, since it would set the UK free of all the constraints on neo-liberalism which membership of the EU imposes.
It’s like two sides of the same coin, but can they both be right?  It is, of course, entirely possible that both are correct in their diagnoses, even if the proposed cures are very different.  The treaties and agreements built up under the EU over many years do indeed place constraints on the freedom of governments to give state aid to industries, and they do indeed place constraints on the ability of companies to exploit their employees.  Both sides concentrate their attention on those constraints that they don’t like.  We end up with an unholy alliance of people who are agreed that the constraints should be removed, but are hugely at odds about how the consequential ‘freedom’ should be used.  They can both be right about the existence of constraints, but they can’t both be right about what will follow their removal.  But there’s much more to this than simply deciding which of the two versions of an EU-constraint-free UK is the most (or least) attractive.
Four things in particular struck me about the arguments here.
The first is that, from both viewpoints, it’s not Brexit that makes the difference; it is the policies which the UK chooses to implement afterwards.  Freed from the admitted constraints, would the electorate choose a more state-directed future under Labour or a more laissez-faire future under the Tories?  Whilst the short term might well look to be Corbyn’s as things stand at present, the longer term electoral history of the UK – and more specifically England in this context – does not fill me with confidence.  Constraining the right looks the more attractive option, even if it also constrains the left.
The second is whether those constraints imposed by membership are the only thing preventing the implementation of socialist policies.  Personally, I think not; the world has become more intertwined - and global capital does not exercise its undoubted power solely through the institutions of the EU.  The history of “socialism in one country” is not a pretty one, and globalisation has made its achievement more, rather than less, challenging. 
The third is about confusion between institutions and policies.  For sure, policies can become embedded in the way institutions work, but it is never necessarily or irreversibly so.  And there are people with similar views in other EU member states.  So which offers the best hope for the future – seeking to change the UK, or seeking to change Europe?  While changing the EU’s underlying economic philosophy looks like a more complex and long-term task that I might wish, I tend to the view that it is ultimately going to be a better solution.  Issues such as climate change require collective action over a long period, and need an international perspective.
Fourthly, what about Wales?  The problem with the ‘left’ case against the EU is that it implicitly assumes the continuation of the UK, to provide a source of non-Tory MPs from outside England.  Not for nothing are people like Corbyn lukewarm at best about devolution, not to say hostile to independence; their vision for the UK depends on anti-Tory votes in Wales and Scotland.  At the same time as Labour’s position requires that continued union, Brexit also makes the alternative future – independence outside the EU – considerably less attractive and practical as an option, unless Brexit leads to the collapse of the EU, which would ‘normalise’ such a status.  That looks highly unlikely to me.
I know that there are many independentistas who sympathise with the views put forward by Professor Tuck, because they would want Wales to have the freedom of action he describes.  I suspect, though, that the ‘freedom’ is a mirage based on wishful thinking, and the better outcome for Wales is as a member of a multi-national and multi-lingual union of free nations.  Changing the nature of that union is the real task in hand – Brexit is an unwelcome diversion.

Monday, 24 July 2017

And he was doing so well until then...

In responding to last week’s release of details about high salaries for some BBC staff, Corbyn made some good points.  He started by saying that the issue isn’t just about a few very high-paid performers in one organization, and that the issue of gender inequality goes much further than that.  I agree.  He moved on to talk about the wider issue of pay inequality, and suggested a statutory limit of 20 times the lowest salary in an organization for the pay of the highest paid.  I might quibble a bit about the number 20, but any number quoted in this context is going to be essentially arbitrary and it’s better to start with a high limit than with no limit, so I agreed with him on that as well.
Then he went and spoiled it all by adding the words “in the public sector”.  Why?  Pay inequality between the highest paid and the lowest paid is a much bigger problem in the private sector than it is in the public sector, and insofar as pay inequality is a driver of wealth inequality and inequality of opportunity, the private sector represents a much bigger problem.  It’s as though politicians, of all colours, can’t resist falling into the meme of believing that the public sector is somehow less useful and needs more control than the private sector, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
On frequent justification for that line is that public sector salaries are somehow being paid for out of ‘our money’, whilst private sector salaries are not.  This is demonstrable nonsense.  Taking just the world of broadcasting as an example, there are three different mechanisms by which we all pay the salaries of those involved.  For programs on the BBC we pay a licence fee for possessing and using a television set; for subscription services such as satellite or cable we pay a monthly fee to allow access to them; and for services supported by advertising, we contribute to the salaries of those involved every time that we purchase any product advertised.  And in every case, that is true whether we watch any of the programs or not.  And in the case of programs supported by advertising, we make that contribution even if we have no television.
In all cases, the salaries of broadcasters and managers are paid for out of ‘our money’, it’s only the route by which we pay that is any different.  Broadcasting is but one example, similar statements could be made about any other industry or activity – ultimately, the salaries of those involved are paid for by us, whether as customers or taxpayers, and the argument that we have a more direct interest in the salaries of those paid for by one particular method stems from ideology rather than logic.  It starts from the underlying assumption that the public sector is somehow a ‘burden’ rather than an asset, and it’s disappointing, to say the least, to see Corbyn effectively starting from the same viewpoint.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Swansea isn't the end of the line

A promise by a politician is rarely worth the paper on which it often isn’t even written, and there is no reason why a promise to electrify a railway should be any different.  Breaking the promise to electrify the line to Swansea will not exactly enhance the reputation of those who’ve done it, but in all fairness, they are currently hard at work breaking much bigger promises than that one.
I’d give them almost full marks for inventiveness in selling this as an advantage because we won’t have the disruption of all the engineering works in carrying out the upgrade, but I do wonder where that line of argument will lead.  It could easily become an argument for not doing a lot of other things.  There is, after all, quite a lot of disruption involved in building hospitals, schools, roads …
They are right in arguing that it will give us better more modern rolling stock with more seats more rapidly than waiting for electrification all the way to Swansea with electric-only trains, and they’re also right in arguing that it won’t make any difference to journey times between Cardiff and Swansea because the restriction there is the track, not the source of power or the rolling stock.  That does, though, rather gloss over the fact that the new trains will be heavier, more expensive to buy and run, and less environmentally friendly than the all-electric ones we could have had if the project had gone ahead.  I’m not particularly convinced either about some of the arguments put forward about this being a huge blow to the image of Swansea in trying to attract investment.  I would have thought that the quality and reliability of the transportation would be more important than the source of power.
There is another advantage (in the sense of it being an ill-wind which has none) to the decision taken yesterday which few seem to have even realised let alone commented on, and that is its impact on those of us who live even further west of Swansea (although I entirely understand that people in London might not be fully aware of our existence).  That advantage is that bi-modal trains don’t have to terminate their journey at Swansea; like the existing aged beasts they will be perfectly capable of travelling past the end of what seems to be regarded as civilised Wales and out into the sticks where some of us insist on residing. 
One of my concerns from the outset has been that the electrification project would take away the few through trains which we currently enjoy.  As a short term expedient that might have been something up with which we might have had to put, but the problem with the electrification project has long been that it has been seen as a single one-off project rather than part of a longer term vision to electrify the whole network.  We still need that longer term vision of an all-electric railway; all that’s really changed is that the section of line from Cardiff to Swansea has been added to that part of the network for which that vision is required.  I hope that those who so far seem to be mostly interested in making political capital out of the decision will also take that on board and not restrict their arguments to one short stretch of line.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Money, students and manifestos

It’s only a few weeks since the UK General Election and already Labour seem to be rowing back on their promise to write off student debt, with claims in the last few days that it was more of an 'ambition' than a firm policy, even if it didn’t exactly sound that way during the election campaign. 
Here in Wales, Plaid Cymru, the party which helped Labour introduce tuition fees in the first place during the One Wales period, is now criticising Labour for increasing fees to match the latest change in England, claiming that the proposal goes against the Labour Party’s manifesto.  They presumably assume that we’ve all forgotten that when most of the Plaid AMs voted to introduce fees in the first place they were also going against their own manifesto commitment.  (And it’s worth noting that the politician taking the decision to increase fees is actually a member of the Lib Dems, another party with a somewhat, shall we say ‘chequered’, history on the question of fees.)  The whole issue of student fees seems to be one which unites governing parties in supporting them whilst opposition parties unite in opposing them, and that’s true whichever party forms either the government or the opposition.
The underlying question has two strong ideological elements to it.  The first is whether services supplied by the government should be collectively funded or paid for by those who actually use them, and the second is to do with the question of the availability of money for the government to pay for things.
Regular readers will know that I’m a committed supporter of the idea that services should be funded collectively rather than paid for individually, and I entirely accept that that is a position which flows from my own ideological standpoint.  In the case of university education, I accept that those benefitting from it often end up better off financially than those who don’t, but a properly progressive taxation system would ensure that those with the highest earnings also make the highest contributions to paying for services.  (And, as an aside, people who end their education at ‘A’ level tend to do better financially than those with GCSEs, and those with GCSEs do better than those without.  Why single out one particular type of education for payment at point of use?)
But let’s turn to the second ideological factor – the availability or otherwise of money.  Governments, of whatever colour, tell us that ‘we can’t afford’ to provide university education without charging for it.  But like all the other things that they tell us we can’t afford, it comes down to policy choices.  How much the government raises in taxes, how much it borrows, and how much it spends are all political choices.  When the government needs a few billions for some project or other – such as buying the support of the DUP or starting another war somewhere – it can always find it, because the UK Government controls the money supply.
However, the Welsh Government does not control its money supply.  It has long been a theme of this blog that governments are not like households, and they really don’t have to balance their budgets in the same way, but more accurately, that is only true for governments which can control the supply of money – like the UK Government.  The Welsh Government’s budget, on the other hand, really is more like that of a household, and a household whose purse strings are controlled elsewhere and which can be arbitrarily loosened or tightened.  Whilst I might have had more sympathy for Labour’s response if they had been more honest and spelled out more clearly that any promise relating to fees in Wales was wholly dependent on the election of a Labour Government for the UK as a whole (and therefore on voters in England), their basic point that they can only find the money to do something different in Wales if London gives it to them or they cut elsewhere is a valid excuse in itself.
The backtracking by UK Labour is a far more serious issue.  The interesting point is that in his interview McDonnell actually acknowledged that half the nominal amount of student debt will never be paid back in any event.  And figures elsewhere suggest that 70% of students will never repay the whole of their debt.  In essence, the whole edifice of student loans and debts is based on little more than an accounting sleight of hand. 
The UK Government pretends that it is not paying student fees because the students are paying them.  But the students do so by borrowing the money from the Student Loans Company which is wholly owned by the UK Government.  And where does their money come from?  From the Government, of course.  So, instead of using borrowing, taxation or the magic money tree to pay fees, the government raises the same money from the same sources to fund loans through the SLC, and for accounting purposes assumes that it’s going to get around half of it back over a lengthy period.  The other half – the bit that will never be repaid – will, in effect, have already been paid by the government – exactly what the government says it ‘can’t afford’ to do as a reason for introducing tuition fees in the first place.
Before the election, it appeared that Labour were offering hope to young people that they could enjoy a university education in exchange for paying a fair share of tax if they earned more when they took up employment.  It even looked as though they understood that governments are not like households.  After the election, it appears that they’re reverting to type and falling in with the Tories’ attitude towards finances after all.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Who's really overpaid?

It’s unclear whether the Chancellor actually used the word ‘overpaid’ in relation to the salaries of public sector employees, but there’s a lot less doubt that he and many of his Tory colleagues really do believe it to be true.  (At least, they believe it to be true of some public sector workers – as I understand it, Ministers and MPs are also public sector workers, and I’ve never heard any Tory suggesting that they are overpaid.)  I’m more interested, though, in how they have reached this conclusion.
It seems to be based on a very simplistic comparison of public and private sector average earnings, as though the mere fact of a difference between the two means that one group are ‘overpaid’.  I’m not convinced that it is based on any sort of like-for-like comparison, and it’s worth bearing in mind that decades of Labour-Tory government have seen many low-paid public sector jobs outsourced to the private sector.  In simple mathematical terms, moving low-paid employees from the public sector to the private sector increases the average salary in the former and decreases it in the latter.  That tells us nothing about the relative value of either.
Even supposing that the comparison is properly conducted and compares work of ‘equal value’ (a phrase which itself could be the subject of extensive debate), the mere appearance of a difference in averages is as likely to mean that one group are underpaid as that the other are overpaid.  It all comes down to one’s perspective.  And that question of perspective is key – from the Tory perspective (with the obvious exception of work done by really important public sector workers like Ministers and MPs, i.e. themselves) the value of work in the public sector is inherently lower than the value of work in the private sector.  That’s not about assessing value added, or contribution made to society or the economy, it’s about a simplistic axiomatic belief that work done in the public sector is a bad thing per se.
More generally, some of the other comments made expose a belief that salaries should be determined with no regard to the cost of living or the needs of employees but solely on the basis of any recruitment difficulties.  From that viewpoint, if there are no difficulties recruiting enough people to do the job, then there is no need for any salary increase, regardless of whether the living standards of those recruited, as well as those already doing the job, are falling year on year.  (Again, this rule doesn’t apply to themselves, whose salaries obviously need to be increased regularly – despite the oversupply of willing candidates.)  The best bit of all is that they get to call this ‘an economy which works for all’ without being challenged.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Parties and sisters

The recent UK General Election produced something of a mixed message as far as Plaid is concerned.  On the one hand, under the Westminster system, “it’s goals that count”; near misses are valueless and soon forgotten.  On that basis, an increase from three seats to four counts as progress on the scoresheet, and the closeness of two of those results is immaterial.  On the other hand, support leached away almost everywhere else; I’m not alone in wondering whether the repeated messages about needing one of those mythical beasts called a “progressive alliance” (led, inevitably, by Labour) was not in effect an open invitation to simply vote for the real thing and support the Labour Party.
There have been some calls since the election for Plaid to adopt a stronger stance on independence for Wales, making it the key part of the party’s appeal.  It’s an interesting answer, but I found myself wondering what the question was if that’s the answer.  If the question is about improving Plaid’s short-term electoral appeal, then making a position which has the support of only a small minority in Wales the centre of its campaigning seems a particularly strange response, and one unlikely to achieve the desired outcome.  It would be a silly response.
That means that the issue becomes one of what Plaid is actually for – a question which has been fudged for electoral purposes for decades now.  Because if we ask a very different question – how do we being about Welsh independence – then depending on a national party which declines to discuss the issue is an even sillier response.  The argument about the role of independence in the party’s campaigning is actually a proxy debate about the purpose of the party.  Is it to bring about that constitutional aim, or is it about winning elections to try and bring about smaller incremental change in the shorter term?  The party has, for years, tried to do both, and failed; failed, in fact, to the extent of appearing shifty and dishonest about its real aims.
In that context, Adam Price’s comments in Saturday’s Western Mail were an interesting response to the issue. 
One of the things he said was that “Yes Cymru is a very, very lively political movement which takes a more radical line on the independence issue than Plaid is able to do”.  The particular word which hit my eye in that sentence was the word “able”.  What exactly is it that prevents Plaid from taking a radical line on independence if that is what its leaders and members want?  The answer, of course, is ‘nothing’.  If independence was an objective that they really, seriously wanted to achieve, then there is nothing at all that prevents them from making that argument.  There would, though, be consequences; as discussed above, it would probably have a negative electoral impact for the party in the short term.  (I use the words ‘short term’ because the whole purpose of campaigning for independence would be to increase the numbers supporting it which in turn should lead to increased electoral support over the longer term.)  But to argue that the party is not ‘able’ to make the argument is to make the aim of independence secondary to the short-term electoral objectives.
Leaving that aside, there were a few other issues which struck me about the suggestion.
Firstly, when we look at “those areas where Plaid is not currently breaking through”, compared to those where it is, there is one obvious factor which differentiates the two.  That factor is the Welsh language, or rather the percentage of Welsh speakers in a particular geographical area.  Wholly unfairly, but unarguably true, Plaid is still associated overwhelmingly with the language.  And the implication of having a sister party working in the areas which Plaid is failing to reach is that Plaid would withdraw from those areas and leave the field free to a largely English medium party of independentistas.  It’s a very radical proposal and might even work; somehow, though, I doubt whether that was the intention.
Secondly, the comparison between the Labour Party and the Cooperative Party is an extremely poor one.  The second of those was effectively swallowed up by the first many years ago; although it has its own structures and conferences, it is always subordinate to the needs of the Labour Party and knows its place.  Taking a “very, very lively political movement which takes a more radical line on the independence issue” and subordinating it to the needs of a political party which is afraid even to discuss the issue looks more like closing the issue down than advancing it.  Those campaigning for independence outside the structures of any political party should be very wary of being seen as the servants of, or even a front for, one particular political party in Wales.
And thirdly, I’m far from sure that turning a ‘very, very lively movement’ into any sort of political party, whether as a sister or not, is the best way of advancing the cause of independence.  I’m much more attracted to the idea that a campaign outside formal political structures is a better way of building support. 
That is not the same as saying that there shouldn’t be more than one political party in Wales seeking the support of those desiring Welsh independence.  Having multiple independence-supporting parties is a normal and healthy situation in nations such as Wales.  If turning Yes.Cymru into a political party isn’t the way to achieve that, how else might it be achieved?  One obvious step would be for the Welsh branch of the Englandandwales Green Party to declare independence and adopt a position similar to that of its Scottish sister party on the constitutional question.  Sadly I see no signs of that happening at present. 
That aside, what is the obstacle preventing the emergence of alternative independentista parties?  The answer, it seems to me, is the electoral system under which we operate.  It encourages and incentivises people who otherwise have little in common in political terms to coalesce in a single party for fear of splitting the vote, and to continue to cling to that party even when it is making little or no progress.  I like Adam’s suggestion that there should be more than one party occupying the independentista part of the spectrum, but it seems to me that the pre-condition is either a willingness of Plaid to withdraw from large areas of Wales or else a change in the electoral system to STV.  Of the two, I think the second is extremely difficult, but still more likely and achievable than the first.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Friends and vultures

The UK Prime Minister has seized on Donald Trump’s statement that a trade deal with the UK can be done “very, very quickly” once the UK has left the EU.  According to the Sunday Times, she claimed it as evidence that Brexit is back on track.  Funny, though – I can’t remember her ever saying that it had gone off track; the official position has always been that everything is moving along in accordance with her plan.
Anyway, I know that she’s desperate and looking for straws to clutch at, but is there any other leader, of any country, who would take this sort of superficial fluffy statement from Trump at face value?  He’s shown repeatedly that he can say one thing one day and the complete reverse the next, all the while arguing that he’s being entirely consistent and that anyone who denies that is fake news.  Indeed, his behaviour is so erratic that some have even suggested that he would have been replaced by now if he were CEO of any large company.
Given how long other deals to mitigate or reduce barriers to trade – whether tariff or non-tariff – have taken to negotiate, I’m instinctively reluctant to accept that a deal which is good for both parties can be put together as rapidly as the Brexiteer politicians repeatedly tell us.  And knowing how few experienced trade negotiators the UK has only makes me further doubt whether a deal agreed quickly would be in the interest of the UK.
But perhaps that’s the point.  All those countries which are, according to May, lining up to offer quick deals to the UK might indeed, as she seems so willing to accept, be good friends wanting to help us adapt rapidly to the new post-Brexit reality.  But there is another possibility - they could be more like vultures spotting a weak and injured Prime Minister and seeing potential advantage to themselves.  Only time will tell.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Lead, don't follow

Today’s Western Mail headline declares that there has been a surge of support for a ‘soft’ Brexit according to an opinion poll conducted for the paper.  On closer reading, what the poll actually seems to say is simply that the balance of opinion between remaining in membership of the single market and controlling immigration has shifted in favour of the former.  That’s hardly surprising as the implications become clearer on an almost daily basis, and the lie that was spun last year about being able to do both becomes increasingly obvious. 
I remain unconvinced, however, that there is any such thing as a ‘soft’ Brexit, and the politicians that tell us that there is are being disingenuous.  In this instance, I agree with the comments made by a spokesperson for Tory group leader Andrew RT Davies and quoted in the report – “There is no such thing as a soft Brexit or a hard Brexit.  You either leave the European Union or you don’t.  Remaining bound by EU laws, unable to make new trade deals, and unable to control immigration would mean that we haven’t left at all.”  That is surely true – that which is being described repeatedly as a ‘soft’ Brexit amounts, in effect, to continued membership but without the influence and input which comes from membership.
That’s not to say that I think that would be a bad thing; it would certainly be preferable to the complete departure from the EU which is now the official goal of Labour and Tory alike.  It’s just that I think it’s a dishonest position to hold.  If politicians really believe that continued membership is the right solution, it would be preferable for them to come out and say so – and campaign for that outcome.  Anything else is just regurgitating the lie of the Brexiteers during the referendum, which was that we can retain all the perceived advantages with none of the perceived disadvantages. 
It’s true, of course, that any politicians adopting the stance that I suggest would initially at least be pilloried by the likes of the Daily Mail (although some of us might see that as more a badge of honour than a stain on their character), but opinion is already shifting, and I suspect that they’d find themselves on the right side of history.  And in the long term, they’d earn more credibility by leading than by waiting until they can tamely follow public opinion.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Not simple economics

One of the constant refrains from some quarters in relation to Brexit was that the UK only ever signed up to an economic union – the Common Market – and not to a political union of European nations.  Whilst it’s true that many people have long believed that (I’m not convinced that those who signed the UK up to the EEC in the first place were much more honest than the Brexiteers who’ve led us out), it was never true in fact.  There was always a political element to the organisation; indeed, for the founders, it was always much more about a political vision of a peaceful united Europe replacing the warring states of the previous centuries. 
In a very real sense, economic union was more a means to an end than an end in itself.  Whilst there were some in the UK who also signed up to that, the overwhelming majority of the UK’s politicians have always appeared to treat membership on a more transactional basis: what we get versus what we put in.  That gulf in understanding about the aims of membership is part of the reason for the failure of the UK’s leaders to understand why they cannot have the economic benefits whilst the UK puts itself outside the political arrangements.  That is, ultimately, the basis for Barnier’s warning yesterday, but the reactions in interpreting it as a threat or hostile action serve only to underline that gulf in understanding.
But it isn’t only with regard to our relationship with the EU that UK politicians seek to reduce issues to economics, and see everything in terms of the pluses and minuses of the balance sheet.  The same is true when it comes to the question of independence.  In the UK context, there is always a demand for Welsh and Scottish independentistas to spell out precisely the economic consequences of independence, as though it were the act of independence which changes things rather than the policies pursued thereafter.  That isn’t true everywhere, however.  Here’s an interesting article by Iain Macwhirter of the Herald in Scotland, looking at the situation of Slovenia and Slovakia, two other European countries which have gained their independence in recent years.  The point which he makes very effectively is how little debate there was about economics before those countries took the plunge and went their own way.
As he puts it, “Ultimately, the case for independence will always stand or fall on a nation’s desire for autonomy, not marginal economic gain.”  It’s a point with which I entirely agree.  Ultimately, Wales and Scotland will become independent countries only when and if the people of those countries want to be independent and the task of independentistas is to create that desire.  That doesn’t mean that the sort of economic policy which different parties and groups would like an independent Wales to follow has no part in the debate, but that will involve the sort of choices which can only be made post-independence, and will to an extent at least depend on the nature of post-independence relationships with England, Scotland and the EU. 
Post-independence choices will also depend more on which politicians we choose to govern the country than on the fact of independence itself, and there are more routes than one to a successful future.  The article to which I linked discusses some of the economic decisions taken by Slovakia and Slovenia.  They’re not the only options and they’re not examples which I’d particularly like to see Wales follow.  The point about independence is that we would be free to make our own choices, and not be bound by those of others.  But the bigger point is that we have to want to take that responsibility first – and currently, we’re far too timid and frightened to do it, a situation which isn’t helped by a ‘national party’ which basically accepts the economic constraints placed upon us by the limited imagination and transactional bias of UK politics.
What ‘independence’ means varies over time.  I concur with Macwhirter’s conclusion (although I’d substitute Wales for Scotland) when he says that “It is not possible to envisage an independent Scotland that is not part of the EU, or in a halfway house like Norway.  And it is equally very hard to see what future awaits Scotland as part of a UK that has left Europe behind”, which is why I’ve always seen Brexit as more a political question than an economic one.  Alternative futures await us, but only when we have the desire and courage to pursue them.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

An honest Brexiteer

Brexiteer and honest aren’t words that I would normally use in combination, but in one important aspect at least they clearly apply to the newest member of the UK’s ministerial team handling the Brexit negotiations.  In comments he made in 2010, Steve Baker called not just for Brexit, but for the whole EU to be “wholly torn down”.  Labour, Lib Dem, and even some Tories have piled into the issue claiming that having someone with such views negotiating on behalf of the UK will be counter-productive, and one Tory MP said “It just reveals what the extreme Brexiteers have been about all along.  It’s not enough to take the UK out of the EU.  They want the entire thing to fall apart”.
Well, yes.  All of that is true, but why is it such a surprise?  Destroying the EU has always been the intention of most Brexiteers, even if they’ve mostly been rather more reluctant to say so.  Indeed, it’s the only position which really makes any sense of much of what they have said.  During the referendum, many of them told us that we could have all the economic benefits without membership, but never told us exactly how that could be achieved.  There is one – and only one – scenario in which that was ever going to be possible, and that was if the EU reformed itself into a much looser entity, based almost entirely on economic agreements and without any of the political elements which were the founding principle behind the organisation.  In short, the successful Brexit which they promised was predicated on an assumption that Brexit would result in a sea-change in attitudes in the other 27 countries.
And it isn’t just among the Little Englander type of Brexiteer that bringing down the EU makes sense.  I’ve noted before that Welsh independence outside the EU makes less sense to me than full Welsh membership of the EU, because the existence of the EU redefines the meaning of independence in a European context.  But take away the EU, and revert to a position where independence is again redefined as meaning the status of a country which is a member of a much looser trading arrangement, and an independent Wales once again looks like the normal state of any European country rather than something rather exceptional.  For independentista Brexiteers, destroying the EU is also the logical conclusion of their position.
In fairness to Mr Baker and his ilk, bringing down the EU is a coherent and consistent world view; the problem is that it shows so little understanding of the drivers which led the original 6 members to create the EEC.  Not all the more recent recruits to the EU wholly share that original vision of a different type of Europe, but that vision remains much more powerful in the seats of government of Europe than the Brexiteers have ever understood.  Instead of weakening the bonds tying the other 27 together, Brexit has succeeded in strengthening them – and getting rid of what has probably been the most awkward and disruptive member state may well turn out to be the biggest British contribution to European unity in history. 
It would be an unintentional contribution, of course.  The UK’s position has always been ‘divide and rule’, and we’ve already seen elements of that in the UK’s attempts to split individual members of the EU off into separate negotiations and discussions – with talk even of aid in exchange for support in some case.  The strategy hasn’t changed at all; it’s just that, in this case, it has the potential for backfiring spectacularly.
The reaction of those who disagree with his position was predictable, but I’m not at all convinced that it will make any difference at all to the position of the other 27 countries in dealing with the UK.  I’m sure that they’ve realised all along that the only logical context for Brexit was the collapse of the EU – they’re as capable of interpreting the demands for all the benefits with none of the limitations or obligations as I am – and will already have assumed that to be one of the UK Government’s aims.  Insofar as it makes any difference to anything, the domestic context is the more important.  A more open statement of the real aims of the Brexiteers can only assist sensible debate within the UK.