Thursday, 19 October 2017

Points of no return

One of the arguments put forward by those justifying their support for Brexit is that all the woes predicted by supporters of Remain have not come to pass; things aren’t nearly as bad as they said they would be.  And to the extent that some Remainers predicted the end of the world starting the day after the vote, that is true.  The point is, however, that many of the predictions weren’t about what would happen after the vote, but about what would happen after Brexit – and Brexit hasn’t actually happened yet.
There are still two views amongst economists about what will actually happen in the immediate aftermath of Brexit itself.  The majority view is clearly that the economy will take a hit, whilst a minority continue to argue that it will be the opening of great opportunities.  Given the persistent long term failure of economic forecasts to get anything much right, I can understand anyone’s reluctance to put much store in any predictions, from either side.  I tend to the view that, in the long term, the UK economy will adapt to the new circumstances, but that there will be a serious hit in the short term.  Whether that’s a price worth paying depends in no small measure on whether you’re one of those paying it or not; my suspicion is that the cost will fall on those least able to bear it, and not on the leading advocates of Brexit, many of whom seem to be on the wealthy side already.
There is a sense, however, in which the cause of that economic hit isn’t Brexit itself; it’s not the sudden change in circumstances the day after we leave, for all the talk of cliff edges.  The cause is, rather, the myriad of independent decisions about location and investment taken by businesses about how they will respond to the changes which they expect to happen on or after that date.  Most of those decisions won’t be taken on or after Brexit day itself, they’ll be taken in advance.  Whilst they would like to have the certainty of knowing what the outcome will be before they take their individual decisions, the planning horizon is such that many are already taking those decisions, and more will do so in the coming weeks and months.  They will have to make assumptions in order to do so – and the safest assumption to make at present is that Brexit will happen, and that the UK will find itself in the worst possible trading position vis-à-vis the EU.  The damage, in most cases, might not kick in until after Brexit, but the decisions causing that damage will have been taken in advance.
Each of those individual decisions represents a small point of no return: siting a factory, moving a head office, or upgrading existing facilities – these are not short term decisions.  Once those decisions are taken, even cancelling Brexit would not lead to their reversal.  The Brexiteers claim that they are frustrated by the slow progress of negotiations, but this looks like playing a game to me, not least because the slowness of the progress is largely down to their own continued insistence on having cake and eating it.  I suspect that they’re really rather pleased at the slow progress.  On the one hand, it might give them the excuse that they need to talk away, which is what many of them really want to do even if that isn't what they said in advance; and on the other hand, even if they don’t just walk away, the scenario outlined above about decisions being taken now simply means that we’re getting to the same place slowly, one decision at a time.
There is not one single clear point of no return in this process, but continued obfuscation and delay suits the agenda of those who want a sort of economic revolution, with the UK becoming a low tax low regulation offshore island.  It’s an article of faith to them that this will be a better Britain; the question for the rest of us is, or should be, ‘better for whom?’.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Not depending on Labour

There are always dangers in ‘reading across’ from one situation to another; all countries have their own political traditions and experiences and those shape events and attitudes.  With that caveat, there are also similarities and parallels at times.
The PSOE in Spain occupies a similar part of the political spectrum as does the British Labour Party, and the two parties are part of the same grouping in the European Parliament.  The response of the PSOE to the situation in Catalunya has been to give its full support to the conservative government in its response to the referendum and any declaration of independence.  It argues for that position on the basis of upholding the Spanish constitution, and it is as absolutely committed to the unity of the Spanish state as the conservative government.
It isn’t a question of ‘left’ vs ‘right’, although historically the ‘left’ and the independentistas in Catalunya found themselves on the same side during the Civil War.  With the benefit of hindsight, and looking at the stance of the ‘left’ today, that almost seems to be more by accident than by design; having a common enemy to fight against doesn’t mean agreement on what should follow the defeat of that enemy. 
Although the Catalan government is led by a broadly ‘centrist’ party, the more centrist independentistas in Catalunya were pushed into holding the referendum by the more ‘left-wing’ parties in the coalition there, but PSOE nevertheless prefer to side with the PP (Conservative) government rather than support a more leftist vision for Catalunya, even though many would argue that the PP are, effectively, the heirs to Franco.  Preferring to work with the central political ‘right’ rather than the independentista political ‘left’ is a clear echo of the Labour Party’s position on Scotland and Wales.
Fortunately for Catalunya, the independentistas, whatever their political perspective, have long ago given up any hope that the Spanish ‘left’ will aid or support them, and have instead depended on a range of parties promoting the Catalan viewpoint, from a range of positions on the political spectrum.  There are clear lessons there for those independentistas in Wales who still harbour the illusion that the Welsh branch of the British Labour Party can somehow be nudged or cajoled into supporting the aspirations of those who seek independence.  When push comes to shove, they will always show their true colours as we have clearly seen time and again in Scotland; spending time trying to cosy up to and influence a British party (which is what the strategy of some seems to be) is a diversion from the real job of winning the hearts and minds of Welsh voters.
* I generally try and avoid terms like ‘left’ and ‘right’; they’re far too simplistic and general to be meaningful in many contexts.  I think, however, that the generalizations make at least some sense in this specific context.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Challenging 'obvious' assumptions

Yesterday, ClickonWales published an article by Labour AM, Mike Hedges, arguing for a long-term devolution settlement for Wales.  Whilst thinking aloud by Labour politicians is generally something to be welcomed, the problem with this one is that it did more to highlight the underlying axiomatic beliefs driving Labour than it contributed to original thought on the question of devolution.
Let’s start with the basic premise: that “We have had three devolution settlements for Wales and we are no closer to a long term settlement than we were before the first”.  As statements of fact go, it can’t be faulted; but the underlying assumption (i.e. that there should be a long term settlement) goes undiscussed and unchallenged - it is merely taken as read.  But why?  What is it about the constitutional relationship between England and Wales which requires us to draw up a settlement at a point in time and then stick to it?  In fairness, it isn’t just Mike Hedges and the Labour Party who suffer from this mental blockage; the Tories have been heard often saying the same thing, although they usually put it in pejorative terms such as ‘stop obsessing about the constitution and use the powers you’ve got’. 
And that, actually, illustrates the real reason why the UK parties are so keen to reach a point where they can claim that there is a long-term settlement; they want to put a limit on how far the process can go.  Perhaps they don’t all want to put the limit in the same place, and Mike Hedges seems to be willing to go further than many others, but ultimately, the wish for a long-term settlement is about reaching a point where the process can be halted rather than advancing it.  And there’s nothing wrong with that per se; it’s a valid position to hold, but it would be better if they could be more honest about their intention.
There is another aspect to my challenge about what’s wrong with a continuing process as well.  The situation in which Wales has found itself, from the outset of devolution with the referendum in 1997, has been as the subject of an interplay of forces, sometimes between parties, but more noticeably within one party in particular, Labour.  At no point has anyone really sat down and thought about what would be the right thing to do (and fair play to Mike Hedges - that seems to be what he wants to do): the outcome has always been a question of compromise at a point in time.  This particular contribution to debate is just one position amongst many.  I see zero prospect of it becoming the accepted position of his party, which means that the tensions between different players will continue.  Moving forward one compromise at a time is the best that Wales can hope for; and in that context talk of anything being for the long-term is just wishful thinking.
But there’s a second aspect to the question of axiomatic beliefs revealed by the article as well.  Whilst I can’t disagree with the statement that “Surely the question to be asked is what needs to be controlled by Westminster in order to benefit the whole of the United Kingdom as opposed to what each ministerial department desires to keep under its control”, which makes eminent sense from a unionist perspective, it leaves open the question of how we decide what fits where.  How do we define ‘needs to be controlled’?  Fear not, because for Hedges, the answer is ‘obvious’ – “There are the obvious areas that need to be held centrally: Defence, Foreign affairs, national security, currency, interest rates, overseas aid, immigration, Driver and car licensing, central bank and National Insurance numbers”
Declaring something to be ‘obvious’ is a way of trying to avoid challenge or debate, but I could look at any of those areas and argue for an element of devolution, even within a continued union.  Why for instance, must driver and vehicle licensing be a central function?  In the light of Brexit, there have already been proposals that Wales and Scotland should be able to set their own immigration quotas if they wish – why is it ‘obvious’ that they should not, and that ‘immigration’ must be centrally controlled?  Even in what is perhaps the most ‘obvious’ of all, Defence, why would it be impossible for, for instance, fishery protection using armed patrol boats (normally the preserve of the Royal Navy) to be devolved?  I’m not proposing any of these as policies here, merely challenging why they are axiomatically ruled out.
If we’re serious about asking what ‘needs’ to be controlled by Westminster, all of these should be open to debate.  Closing them all off on the basis of their being ‘obvious’ is another indication of an attempt to set limits on devolution, not debate what it should look like if we started with a clean sheet.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Beliefs and facts

Last week’s research findings about the unwillingness of people in Wales to lose anything as a result of Brexit are interesting, but there are dangers in the obvious interpretation.  A reluctance to pay anything for the perceived advantages of Brexit might, at first sight, encourage those of us who think Brexit a mistake to believe that they can be persuaded to change their minds.  But there is nothing in the least inconsistent between supporting Brexit and at the same time being unwilling to pay a penny for the privilege for anyone who simply declines to believe that there is any cost associated with Brexit.
We were told repeatedly during the referendum campaign and since by the exponents of Brexit that not only would there be no cost, there would even be a huge financial gain.  Seen from that perspective, a question about ‘how much are you willing to pay?’ is entirely hypothetical; answering it by saying ‘nothing’ whilst continuing to support Brexit is entirely consistent.  And the exponents of Brexit are still arguing that Brexit will be an overall gain for the UK.  Last week’s noise about spending money now to prepare for a ‘no deal’ wasn’t just about being ready for that scenario – listening to those making the case, much of it was about showing those foreign johnnies that we’re really, really serious about walking away if they don’t give in to our demands now.  It’s a position that makes sense if, and only if, they believe that not having a deal is better than having one, and that having a deal is more about us helping the EU27 than about them helping us.
There’s also the little question of confirmation bias.  For those who believe that Brexit will leave us better off, any suggestion that it won’t is just more ‘remoaning’; and if it actually comes to pass that we really are worse off after Brexit, then it will be the fault of everyone except those who voted for it.  Those nasty Europeans, the treacherous remainers who failed to jump on board the wagon, the half-hearted Brexiteers in the government and civil service – they will all be more to blame than those who actually led us to this point.  And besides, perhaps there would have been an economic downturn anyway – who can really prove that it’s down to Brexit?
Confirmation bias is an extremely powerful force; we should not read anything very much into research which shows that people who think Brexit will bring us net benefits aren’t willing to accept a net loss.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Parties and politics in Wales

One aspect of the situation in Catalunya which has attracted a bit more attention in the light of recent events is that the independence movement there does not depend on only one political party.  Indeed, the main, arguably centrist, party of independentistas, led by Carles Puigdemont, had to be pushed into committing to, and then organising, the referendum by smaller, more left-leaning, coalition partners.  Catalunya is no exception in this regard; the normal situation in most countries seeking independence is that there are several pro-independence parties, occupying different positions on the traditional ‘left-right’ spectrum, and that whilst they might agree on the aim of independence they are usually at loggerheads on almost everything else.  Even in Scotland, there are now two pro-independence parties represented in the parliament, and another three such parties contested the last elections.  Compared with the European norm, Wales is very much the exception.
In that context, the proposal floated by Royston Jones on Jac o’ the North, to establish a new party in Wales, could be seen as an attempt to normalise the situation here, by having a political party seeking to make the case for independence from a different political perspective than that of Plaid Cymru.  And it is also, of course, a reaction to the failure of Plaid Cymru to advance outside its core Welsh-speaking heartland.
I don’t share much of Royston’s political perspective, but that will surprise no-one.  And I’ve never been a supporter of the idea that a political party can campaign for independence and have no policies on anything else - which is an argument that I’ve heard advanced over the years - unless it is an ‘abstentionist’ party, fighting to win seats but then not taking them.  Non-party campaign groups, such as Yes.Cymru can certainly avoid taking a stance on other issues, but a political party fighting elections with the intention of taking seats will inevitably get involved in voting for or against policies in the legislature to which its members are elected, even to the extent of deciding which other party forms or leads the government.  Those voting for them surely have a right to know what they’re voting for before casting their ballot.  I have no regrets whatever over the small role that I played in the 1970s in moving Plaid into a clearer political stance.
I do share some of Royston’s analysis about where we’ve got to as a result, though.  I can understand why some people who support independence but disagree with Plaid’s stance on certain issues find it difficult to vote for Plaid, and feel that their views are not being represented.  Having a party which does seek to represent that political stance might indeed help to increase the overall level of support for independence, or at least give political expression to a wider cross-section of it.
I also share the frustration at the existence of a political party in Wales which seems to want to claim the exclusive right to represent all independentistas whilst being unsure as to whether it really wants independence at all, and reluctant to campaign openly for that end.  Whilst not sharing the whole of his analysis, I can entirely understand his frustration at the sight of a party which fails to put the case, is making no progress politically, and seems more interested in forming alliances with a British ‘left’ which has little if any sympathy with the idea of an independent Wales.  No party has the right to claim exclusivity on a particular issue, especially if it isn't doing very much about that issue.
This is not the first attempt to form an alternative political party to promote independence for Wales, and it probably won’t be the last.  But the biggest single obstacle to any such attempt to normalise the political situation in Wales remains an electoral system which rewards political unity, and penalises fragmentation.  Without changing that, I wonder how much progress the new party will be able to make.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Fudging answers

The media and opposition politicians are all being very beastly to the Prime Minister for failing to answer a simple enough question.  Failing to answer questions is what she does; why the surprise and shock now?  The real news this time is that she’s admitted that she’s not answering it, and even attempted to provide an explanation for that.  And it’s the explanation which is the most interesting part.
It’s paraphrasing, I know – but I hope fairly – but she basically said that Brexit is a very complex issue with a lot of detail to consider and if there were to be a new vote, then she would do as she did last time round, and consider all the factors very carefully before coming to a decision.  That’s not as unreasonable an answer as some have painted it; circumstances do indeed as she put it “move on”, and opinions can change in the light of that.  But isn’t that a pretty good argument for asking the question of the public again once the detail is known?  After all, if the person at the centre of all this can’t say whether she’d support it or not in a vote at this stage, why assume that all those who voted last time around can’t or won’t also reconsider the issue?

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Nations, states, prisons and freedom

The strongly-worded statement on Catalunya by UK Foreign Minister Mark Field will inevitably disappoint independentistas, but in terms of the element of surprise it’s roughly on a par with a declaration by the Pope that he’s a Catholic.  From the perspective of the UK Government, the Spanish declaration of the indissoluble unity of the territory and nation of Spain is an obvious truth, although of course that tiny little bit at the bottom of the Iberian peninsular can never be considered part of the territory of Spain.  Territorial integrity has its limits, after all.
No doubt the UK government would argue that the apparent discrepancy here is justified on the basis of the fact that every test of opinion in Gibraltar reveals that the population wish to remain British and not submit to Spanish rule, and they’d be right in that assertion.  It’s a little inconvenient, though, that they claim that the people of Gibraltar have the democratic right to decide not to be part of Spain at the same time as supporting the Spanish government’s assertion that the people of Catalunya can never be allowed the same right.
Hypocrisy and double-speak on this sort of issue are not, however, a problem for those who rule states like the UK, for reasons which are largely historical.  The larger member states of the EU – and I think here of Italy, Germany and France, as well as Spain and the UK – take their current form and occupy their current boundaries solely as the result of centuries of conflict and conquest.  The whole history of European statehood is one of shifting lines on maps, of states being born and then crushed out of existence, and of nations finding themselves in different states at different times.  For all the talk of Europe being composed of nation-states, a precise coincidence of national identity and state boundaries is very much the exception, not the norm.
Not wanting to go back to a situation where Europe is composed of a whole series of warring states arguing over where to draw lines on maps is a natural reaction to our common history (and it is our common history, whatever Theresa May might believe), but the response of demanding that the lines and structures must remain ossified at the point which they reached when the fighting stopped is a response which pretends that nationality and identity are firm, settled and objective realities.  That flies in the face of the human experience.  Preventing violent change is one thing, but preventing peaceful change ultimately makes the violent sort more likely.
Those larger states incorporating different national identities which were brought together by war and conquest pretend that they are in fact the natural state of affairs.  Those who ended up victorious in the process of aggregation of territory have long tried to meld together the disparate peoples and identities under their control into one single new ‘nation’, proving – if proof were ever needed – that the concept of what constitutes a ‘nation’ is itself highly flexible.  So, the nationalists running Spain claim that Spain is in fact one single nation, and demand that all those living within its boundaries accept the nationality thus bestowed upon them, and accept that any other identity which they might feel is ‘regional’ not national.  In its insistence on French as the only identity, France takes, if anything, an even harder line on those Bretons, Basques, Catalans, etc. who find themselves within its borders.
The history of the UK demonstrates another important aspect of this, which is that the creation of states doesn’t follow the existence of nations; it is rather that the creation of nations follows the existence of states.  The UK is defined as a nation state not because the boundaries follow those of an existing nation, but because the ‘British’ nation was created to match the boundaries of the state.  The same is true of Spain, France, Germany, Italy etc.  From the date of the incorporation of Wales into England, the state has pushed the idea that differences should be ‘extirpated’, and that all should share a common identity.
But here’s the sting: what history shows us is that even with a determined central power, and centuries of time to exercise that power, eliminating alternative identities is actually a very difficult thing to do.  It can work, up to a point, when people perceive a common interest – after all, the decline in the use of the Welsh language wasn’t a result of the actions of ‘the English’ but of those of Welsh people who bought into the idea that the future was ‘British’.  However, even with that assistance and complicity, it took centuries to get to the position where the language was spoken only by a minority; and even without the language, the ‘Welsh’ retained a sense of identity which was never entirely subsumed in Britishness.  (Whether that sense of identity should be given political expression in the structures of governance is another question entirely; the point is simply that killing a sense of national identity is no small task.)
The Spanish position on Catalunya, naturally and inevitably supported by the UK Government, is that if a Catalan nation ever existed it has subsequently been subsumed into a bigger and better Spanish nation, and that the ‘rest of that Spanish nation’ has an absolute right to over-rule the Catalans.  It’s a position which seems to make what is to most people the most obvious solution – a properly organised democratic referendum in which both sides put their case and the people decide – a non-starter.  But in the real world, there are only two ways of holding all the territory of an existing state together – the first is by consent and the second is by the exercise of force.  That a state which exists in its current form only because of the past use of force should see force as the natural means of assuring its own continuity will come as no surprise, just as the support of other states with a similar history is equally unsurprising.
Spain, like the UK, is in a sense the prisoner of its own history, with Spanish nationalists unable to see an alternative future based on co-operation rather than domination.  Part of the task of independentistas is to help the centralist nationalists escape from a prison which is of their own making.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Who's got the ball?

According to the Prime Minister, having made a few of what she calls concessions in her speech in Florence, the ball is now in the EU’s court; it’s their turn to make concessions.  It makes me wonder whether the PM and her government understand the nature of the negotiations in which they’re involved.
Actually, in most types of negotiations, she’d be right.  Typically, a negotiation between two parties sets out to improve on the current situation in ways which benefit both parties – the infamous and over-used phrase ‘win-win’ applies.  In such a circumstance, both parties know that allowing both sides to gain something means that both have to concede something, and they take turns in the process of negotiation.  And if they can’t reach an agreed position acceptable to both, then they can simply walk away from the talks, and the current situation continues.
In the case of Brexit, however, one of the parties has effectively said “we want to renegotiate this deal so that we’re considerably worse off, and we want you to change your rules to weaken your single market in order to mitigate the effects of our decision, oh, and by the way, we’re cancelling the agreement between us regardless of what you say”.  Not so much seeking ‘win-win’ as demanding ‘lose-lose’, accompanied by a degree of puzzlement as to why the other side doesn’t immediately see this as a brilliant idea. 
In return for committing a massive act of economic self-harm, the UK demands that the EU makes it possible for states to enjoy all the benefits of the single market with none of the costs, thereby threatening the integrity of both the single market and the EU itself.  In this context, the part of the Florence speech floating the idea of a two year transitional phase amounted to saying, “We’re going to reduce the amount of self-harm that we do to ourselves, but in return, we want you to start making changes which damage your single market”.  ‘Meeting in the middle’ when both sides gain is one thing; but ‘meeting in the middle’ when both sides are expected to lose is another thing entirely – especially when one side’s view of ‘fairness’ is that it lessens the impact on itself whilst increasing it for the other.
A normal part of any negotiation is to understand what ‘the other side’ want to get out of it, and ensure that what you offer them is attractive.  It may well be that May, Davis et al really do believe that weakening the rules around membership of the single market will be a good thing for the EU27 as well as for the UK.  I think they’d be wrong, but I could understand such a viewpoint from people who wish that the EU didn’t exist at all.  But they’ve not only failed to understand that things might not look the same from the other side, they’ve made no effort at all to explain to the EU27 why this is such a good idea, or how it will benefit them.  Instead, they merely demand concessions and call out the EU27 as bullies and dictators if they fail to give them.
When I read about the ‘progress’ being made in the Brexit negotiations, I’m reminded of the old story about a trade union negotiator who returned to his members and told them, “I’ve got some bad news and some good news.  The bad news is that I haven’t been able to get us a pay rise; in fact I’ve had to accept a pay cut.  But the good news is that I’ve managed to get it backdated”.  The way things are going, I suspect that even that trade union negotiator would get the UK a better deal from Brexit than the current team.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Laws and legitimacy

At the heart of events in Catalunya is a difference of opinion about the legitimacy of laws and constitutions.  The legitimacy of the position taken by the central authorities in Madrid stems from the Spanish constitution, which declares Spain to be an indissoluble whole, and the legitimacy of the position taken by the independentistas in Catalunya stems from the results of the last elections and a democratic vote in the Catalan parliament.  And from the perspective of outsiders, those supporting Madrid do so on the basis of upholding the law and territorial integrity of Spain, whilst those supporting the independentistas do so on the basis of both the democratic legitimacy of the Catalan parliament, and the wording of the UN charter, which guarantees the right of all peoples to self-government.
But one of the problems with the UN Charter is that whilst the wording is clear enough, the definition of ‘peoples’ is not; and a declaration of the rights of a ‘people’ to independence depends entirely on how we define a ‘people’ in the first place.  One of the disputes between the authorities in Madrid and those in Catalunya (and in other ‘regions’ of Spain, come to that) in recent years is whether Catalunya is a nation (as the Catalans would prefer) or a nationality (as Madrid insists, on the basis of the argument that Spain is one nation).  The implicit assumption behind that is that a ‘nation’ has rights which a ‘nationality’ does not.  Whilst the UK does not have the same debate about the precise wording, the same conflict exists under the surface, it’s just that ‘nations’ have different degrees of legitimacy.  So the UK Government is quite relaxed about using the same word (nation) to describe both Scotland and Wales on the one hand and the UK on the other, it is clear from their words and actions that they see them as two different kinds of ‘nation’. 
In both cases, the underlying question is about what a nation is and who defines it.  In the case of Spain, clearly the centre believes that it and it alone can define what is a nation, and that definition of nation can and should be imposed on all within its boundaries.  I suspect that there are some in the UK who would really like to be able to take a similar approach.  But nations are a human construct, and largely a subjective one at that.  People don’t consider themselves British or Spanish because the government insists that that is what they are; their self-identity is based on experience and history, and there are probably as many definitions of what it means to be Welsh, for instance, as there are people who claim to be Welsh.  And the same is true for any other identity.
The bigger question for me is why the question of identity or nationhood has any relevance at all here.  If the majority of the people in a particular country/region/area want to take control of their own affairs, why should it matter one iota whether they define themselves (or are defined by others) to be a ‘nation’ or a ‘people’ or not?  It seems to me that that is a wholly artificial barrier to the exercise of sovereignty by those to whom it belongs.  Ultimately, the right of any government to govern the people in the territory it delimits as belonging to it depends on the consent of those people; the right of the UK government to govern Wales, for example, cannot depend on the consent of those living in England, it can only depend on the consent of those living in Wales.  (And, by the same token, the right of the Welsh government to govern, say, Ynys Môn depends on the consent of the residents of that island – but that’s a subject for another post.)
And that goes to the heart of the current crisis in Catalunya.  Had the central authorities allowed the referendum to take place, and played a full part in it, putting their case before the people of Catalunya, opinion polls in advance suggested that there was at least a fighting chance that they would gain the continued consent of the Catalans, for a while at least – as happened in the Scottish referendum in 2014.  But effectively, they’ve simply declared that they don’t need that consent; they have the right to govern without it.  Ultimately, that is probably the best way to lose much of the consent which previously existed.  And it underlines that basic point that, in a debate of this kind, relying on a purely legalistic interpretation loses more hearts and minds that it wins.
Those who argue that law, and adherence to law, are a vital part of modern society are right in principle; but underpinning all law is legitimacy, a much vaguer concept, and that legitimacy always depends on the consent of the governed.  Failure to recognise that is a feature of dictatorship, not democracy.

Friday, 6 October 2017

A quick concession

A week or so ago, the Prime Minister gave what was reported as a robust defence of 'free market capitalism', extoling its virtues and claiming that it was under threat from Labour.  In her conference speech on Wednesday, talking about capping energy prices, she laid out an excellent exposition of why free markets don’t work, and why she is therefore going to intervene in the way the energy market works.  It was an interesting juxtaposition, to say the least.
The first thing to note is the way in which she conflated markets and capitalism.  This was either deliberate obfuscation or else she really doesn’t understand either; it’s hard to tell which in the case of Theresa May.  But they are not at all the same thing.
The ‘market’ is a product of human ingenuity and is the best enabler we’ve yet come up with for the exchange of goods and services, but it in no way depends on the use of a capitalist system for the production of those goods and services.  I can easily envisage a post-capitalist economic system which continues to use the market mechanism.  And why not?  Why throw away something proven to work?  The second question is then not about markets per se, but about how ‘free’ they are.
Insofar as there is an ideological dispute about markets, it is not about whether they should exist, it is about how they are controlled.  Very few people are calling for the abolition of markets – but there are also very few who call for completely unregulated markets.  All markets run according to a set of rules and regulations; the questions to be asked are what those rules are, who draws them up, and whose interests they serve.  Few people would argue that monopolies should be allowed to distort markets in their favour, and as we learned on Wednesday, even the Prime Minister recognises that markets with many small consumers and a very small number of large suppliers can end up favouring the suppliers rather than the consumers. 
But in saying that, she’s entirely conceded the ideological point which she was so determined to defend only last week - markets need intervention and control to make sure that they work for the interests of all participants.  Those calling for the removal of controls are invariably those who believe that they can benefit from such removal; but we need to remember that for some to benefit, others must lose.  It's not as easy as the management mantra about win-win suggests to ensure that there are no losers - dividing the world into winners and losers is the norm.  Making markets work fairly for everyone requires a degree of control and intervention - as the Prime Minister conceded on Wednesday.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Identifying the culprits

The complicity of EU institutions in the violent suppression of the Catalan referendum by the Spanish state is leading many to question their own support for continued membership of the EU.  It's a natural enough response, but I wonder whether they are aiming their ire at the right target.
The Brexiteers told us, repeatedly and incessantly, that the EU was a superstate from which the UK, like other members, was obliged to take instructions and to which member states were in some way subservient.  This was, and is, a travesty of the truth.  The power of the EU rests primarily in the Commission – whose members are appointed by member states – and the Council of Ministers – direct representatives of member states.  The elected parliament wields far less control over the EU than either of those bodies.  This means that the EU is, to a significant extent, more a forum for negotiating, and then enforcing, agreements made between the member states than an entity with a policy agenda of its own (which is not to say that Commissioners in particular do not have their own agendas).  When it comes to taking a stance on any issue, such as the situation in Catalonia, that position is brokered by the EU institutions, but crucially stems from the positions of the member states.
So it is the position of the member states which is at the root of what is, to put it mildly, a disappointing response from the EU.  As far as the larger member states are concerned – the UK, France, Italy, and Germany – there should surely be no surprise that they take the side of Madrid.  They all have secessionist movements within their borders to which they wish to give no comfort, and they all enjoy being the big boys in the yard.  Why on earth would anyone expect any of them to support a movement which could ultimately assist in promoting their own downfall?
Of much more concern to me is the response of some of the other states.  Whilst there has been some internal debate, it seems, within the Irish Government, the response of the Republic is particularly disappointing.  The Irish, above all, should be aware that the legalistic, constitutional route to independence doesn’t work when faced with a repressive state which refuses to acknowledge your right to self-government.  Malta gained its independence from the UK peacefully, although not until after what was effectively a Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1958 leading to the suspension of the constitution and imposition of direct rule.  Cyprus gained its independence from the UK after a long and bloody struggle.  Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia all declared their independence unilaterally after the fall of the Soviet Union, and Croatia and Slovenia emerged from the wreckage of Yugoslavia.
All of these EU member-states have at least some recent historical understanding of the difficulties in exercising their right to independence by following only the constitutional rules of the state of which they were previously a part.  Why are they so keen to support for Catalunya what they would never have supported for themselves?  Why are they not attempting to influence the collective EU position forcefully?  It is that which angers and disappoints me, not the predictable behaviour of the big boys or their servants (not masters!) in Brussels.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Circular arguments

The Secretary of State for Defence has told us this week that the development of nuclear weapons by North Korea justifies the UK’s possession of such weapons.  Unfortunately, he does not set out the logical process he’s used to get from the premise to the conclusion. 
Insofar as there is a degree of logic there, I can understand why a state which fears that another nuclear weapons state might attack it could convince itself that it therefore needs to have its own nuclear weapons to act as a deterrent to a potential attacker.  But isn’t that precisely the logic which has driven Kim Jong-Un to acquire nuclear weapons in the first place?  In essence, Fallon’s argument seems to be that North Korea is developing nuclear weapons to counter what it sees as a threat from us, so we need nuclear weapons to counter the threat that they will pose us as a result.  It’s a circular argument which leads inevitably in only one direction – nuclear proliferation.  If the existence of nuclear weapons in one state justifies the retention or acquisition of such weapons by another, the solution has more to do with getting rid of them than with upgrading them. 
I can understand why Fallon might honestly believe that Kim is mad enough to use his weapons once they are ready, and I wouldn’t disagree with that assessment.  A closed dictatorial society where people are afraid to tell the supreme leader anything that he might not want to hear could well create the conditions for a nuclear conflict to break out, but that’s not much of an argument for threatening all-out retaliation; it just proves that ‘deterrence’ doesn’t work in those particular circumstances.  The whole concept of deterrence is based on an assumption that possessors of nuclear weapons will carry out a careful assessment of the likely retaliatory damage to their own side before using them.  It also assumes both that those involved will make a rational assessment, and that weighing up the probable millions of deaths on both sides to decide who wins is in some way a rational act.
The real reason that the UK insists on retaining and upgrading its nuclear weapons – despite treaty obligations forbidding it from doing so – is to maintain the fiction that the UK is one of the world’s great powers and keep hold of its seat on the UN Security Council.  It’s one of the most expensive seats in the world.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Bribes and transactionalism

Those clever Tories have noticed that they didn’t do very well at attracting the votes of young people in the election, so they’ve decided to do something about it.  In this case, ‘doing something’ means offering changes on issues such as tuition fees and housing.  And they’re being utterly shameless about it; they’re not even attempting to say that there’s anything wrong with the way things are at present – indeed, they give every indication of believing that current policies are the right ones.  They are making no attempt to explain why the changes they propose will be better for the country as a whole, or how they fit with their other objectives – I suspect that they are not really convinced themselves.
No, this is all about targeting a specific section of the electorate (not even all young people in fact) and offering direct bribes to persuade them to change their voting patterns.  Will it work?  I really don’t know, but I suspect that it’s just too obvious and blatant to have quite the effect that they want.  Confirmation bias is as likely to make people believe that they could have done these things all along if they’d really wanted to, so that all that guff about austerity was the lie that many knew it to be all along.
But I shouldn’t really be that surprised at the nature of the pitch they are making.  It is, after all, axiomatic to them that individuals will always act in their own best financial interests rather than thinking about any wider issues.  From that perspective, all they need to do is to explain to the target audience why voting Tory will make them as individuals better off, and turn it into a simple monetary transaction.  They’ve become so blinded by that belief that they really can’t see anything wrong with that approach.  Perhaps it’s another form of what someone said about the existing order containing the seeds of its own destruction.  Self-destruction certainly seems to be working its way up the Tory agenda these days.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Holding back the tide

There’s more than a little irony in the way that some who have previously argued that the EU has too much power over the affairs of member states are now suggesting that the EU should have done more to intervene in the affairs of a member state in support of the Catalans voting yesterday.  It underlines the reality of the EU – it is an organisation formed by a coming together of member states, and those member states continue to hold the real power.  It’s the exact opposite of what the Brexiteers told us.  That an organisation of member states supports the position of those member states should be no surprise to anyone; it’s an argument both for becoming a full member state and for greater democratization of the organisation.
Those controlling states invariably believe that they are part of the natural order of things, and that they are – or should be – eternally indivisible wholes.  That’s as true for Spain as it is for the UK, and in both cases the central authorities attempt to justify their actions by demanding that everyone accept their definition of national identity.  So the British nationalists in the UK demand that we accept that the nation is the UK and that other identities are of lesser validity in the same way as the centralists in Spain demand that all within the territory of Spain accept that they are Spanish.  And both seek to retain current boundaries and authority.
Unfortunately for them, people don’t always feel the sense of identity that they are told to feel, and many of us feel quite relaxed about having different and overlapping identities at the same time.  But identity isn’t the only determinant of what is or should be a state; more important even than that is the idea that the people living in any area ultimately have the absolute right to decide how they shall be governed, by majority decision.  It means that there are two, and only two, methods of holding existing states together.  The first is by the consent of the people and the second is by the use of force.  Yesterday, the central authorities in Spain abandoned all pretence at following the former of those routes in favour of resorting to the latter.
Can it work?  Well, history teaches us that it has usually worked for long periods in the past; most modern states were formed and subsequently held together largely by the application of force and often appalling levels of violence over decades or even centuries.  But that was in the past: I doubt that a twenty-first century ‘democracy’ can effectively maintain unity for long by the use of force in an age where the reality of events is immediately known across the world, as well as by those directly affected.  That only leaves the ‘consent’ route.
The thing about consent is that it is, to adapt an over-used phrase, a process rather than an event.  Consent is expressed in the everyday actions of millions of people in the way that they do or do not accept the established order and interact with the state.  It is not something which happens on a specific date when a specific generation turn out to vote on a specific constitutional proposal.  An event like that does not – and cannot – bind successive generations for all time.  To try and maintain the fiction that it does – which is effectively the position of both Madrid and London - is to ignore both history and the reality of human expression.  Consent once given can be withdrawn at any time; people always have the right to determine their own future, a right which includes both keeping things as they are and choosing an alternative.
Yesterday’s use of force by the Spanish central authorities will almost certainly turn out to be counter-productive from their own viewpoint, although I suspect that there are many more twists and turns to come.  The Spanish Prime Minister has succeeded in proving what Cnut set out to prove to his courtiers centuries ago – that it is impossible to turn a tide merely by ordering it to stop – even if that was the complete reverse of his intention.  Worse, he shows no sign of realizing what it is that he has proved so clearly.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Understanding plain English

After open hostilities broke out between the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister just over a week ago, peace was duly restored.  And that peace remains in place.  The two of them are in complete agreement over the length of any transition period and the rules that will apply during that transition period.  The fact that the Foreign Secretary also believes that the transition period should be shorter and that some of the rules won’t apply does not, apparently, signal any disagreement between him and the Prime Minister.  They are in complete agreement about everything, the Prime Minister has been her usual ‘very clear’ about that. 
If the EU27 perceive in any of this a certain lack of clarity in the UK’s approach, it’s obviously because they haven’t been listening properly.  These foreigners, eh – what are they like?

Thursday, 28 September 2017

The long road to acceptance

A debate that I’ve often had with some independentistas over the years is about the nature of national identity.  For me, national identity is ultimately a subjective concept rather than an objective one.  There are objective realities which may affect the sense of identity felt by an individual, such as history, language, place of birth, place of residence, but the decision to ‘feel’ Welsh, English or whatever is an inherently subjective one.  Identity is also fluid and flexible; it can change over time and it means different things to different people.  Such an approach also allows of the possibility that people can feel multiple identities, such as Welsh, British, and European, all at the same time, and even in different proportions in different contexts.
Others reject that approach and demand that people accept the identity that they wish to give them.  In that vein, some Welsh independentistas demand that people choose between being Welsh or British – or even more strongly, demand that they accept that they are Welsh whether they want to be or not.  It’s a closed approach to the subject.  And it seems to me that it’s not only counter-productive, but it also denies the reality of life in Wales.  If people want to consider themselves both Welsh and British – which is where most people in Wales would probably place themselves today – who are we to tell them that they can’t have that option; they must choose one or the other?  Besides, for those of us who believe that sovereignty belongs to all of us rather than having been invested by god in the monarch, whether people feel a common sense of identity is merely an aid to any decision to take control of their own lives rather than a prerequisite.
One of the uglier aspects of the Brexit landscape in the UK is the way in which the cheerleaders for Brexit take a very black and white (pun not entirely unintended) view of identity and seek to impose that on the rest of us.  We’ve had Theresa May claiming that anyone who wants to be a citizen of the world is actually a citizen of nowhere, and last week, Boris Johnson decried the ‘split personality’ of young people who think that they can be European as well as, or even instead of, being British.  And Boris isn’t the only one who thinks that the UK can and should be the ‘greatest country in the world’; it seems to be a core belief for many of them.  Another aspect of this has been the branding as ‘traitors’ of anyone who doesn’t ‘get behind’ the decision to leave.
It’s a form of nationalism which I fear, with its inherent notions of superiority and exclusiveness.  I don’t particularly want to live in the ‘greatest’ country; I want to live in a confident and relaxed country which sees itself as just one part of the wider world community, and as an equal with other parts.  There’s nothing wrong with taking pride in past achievements as long as we also acknowledge past mistakes, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting ‘our’ side to do well in rugby or football, but when the people of a country start to believe that they are in any sense ‘better’ or ‘greater’ than everyone else, it becomes unhealthy and dangerous.  Yet it is precisely that belief which seems to be coming to the fore at present.
Life outside the EU – if that actually happens – is likely to be something of a revelation to those who take such a view, even if perversely, in the short term, it serves only to reinforce their view that ‘we’ must be better or the rest of them wouldn’t be out to get us.  The road away from painting a quarter of the world red on the map to an acceptance of the reality of the UK’s position in the world has been a long and tortuous one.  It still has a few twists and turns to come as the readjustment continues.  Life post-Brexit will be uncomfortable for those of us who take a rather more flexible view on identity, but it would probably turn out to be the last hurrah for the faded glory of the past.
But if there’s an element of hope and optimism to be found in the whole Brexit shambles it is that the outcome could yet be a humbled UK deciding to remain, followed in due course by the independence of the last remaining outposts of empire.  An England which could be at peace with itself, and accept a role as an equal partner, rather than trying to make its own rules and dominate others, would find it had rather more friends in the world than the UK seems to have – or even want – at the moment.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

When is a loan not a loan?

The reaction from some quarters to Labour’s proposal to bring PFI deals back ‘in-house’ has been to claim that this would be very expensive, and would require a Labour Government to borrow money in order to buy out the PFI contracts.  The problem with that line of attack is that it assumes that the money involved in PFI deals wasn’t borrowed in the first place, and that is a contentious argument to say the least.
What is the difference between the government directly borrowing money to build a hospital and paying it back over, say, 40 years, and the private sector borrowing money to build that same hospital while the government pay a service charge over the same period and then take ownership of the hospital at the end of that period?  The difference is just a question of accountancy or ‘financial engineering’; effectively the government is borrowing in both cases but treating one type of loan as an ‘off-balance-sheet’ arrangement.  When private companies use off-balance-sheet arrangements, they are often accused of hiding the true state of their indebtedness.  That seems like fair comment to me, and it is equally true when it comes to the government.
The point is that the government already owes the money to pay for PFI deals; it merely pretends that it doesn’t so that it doesn’t have to count the total amount due in its debts.  Any proper due diligence exercise on HM Government’s accounts would, as a result, conclude that it owes a great deal more than its accounts show.  The question therefore, when it comes to terminating PFI contracts early, is not whether the government needs to borrow new money to buy them out, it’s whether borrowing from a different lender at a better rate might be a cheaper (and more honest) way of financing the same debt.  And given the exorbitant effective interest rates being charged on some PFI contracts, and the record low level of interest on new government debt, it’s hard to believe than buying out PFI deals at a fair rate based on normal accounting treatment of the value of future payments won’t be far cheaper than letting them run.
The real question to Corbyn and McDonnell is not ‘how will you pay for this?’, but ‘why did it take you so long to figure this out?’  The latter question gives me far more concerns about their financial acuity than the former; but it puts them way ahead of the Tories who still haven’t been able to figure it out.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Who cares what Labour think?

There has been criticism of the Welsh Labour government by Plaid politicians over that government’s refusal to support the right of the Catalan government to hold a referendum.  But I’m not sure why anyone would ever expect the Welsh branch of the British Labour Party to support the Catalan government’s attempt to lead Catalunya out of Spain.  Labour may be – albeit reluctantly in many cases – a devolutionist party, but at heart it supports devolution as a means of retaining and strengthening the union, not as a means of undermining it.  And its equivalent party in Spain, the PSOE, takes a similar stance.  Expecting Labour to support the position of the Catalan independentistas rather than that of its sister party is wholly unrealistic.
Insofar as there is a supposed parallel with what’s happening in Catalunya and the situation in Wales, Labour is being challenged to support a devolved administration against a centralist takeover which is, to all intents and purposes, closing down that devolved administration and taking power back to the centre.  However, the parallel with Labour opposing the power grab by Westminster following Brexit is only superficial.  There is a danger of oversimplifying a complex situation in Catalunya, but a more realistic parallel would be if a Plaid government in Wales launched a referendum on independence without the permission of a Tory government in London, and against the wishes of the Labour/Tory opposition in the Assembly.  Labour’s natural instinct in such circumstances would be to support the Tory government – so why expect them to do anything different in respect of Catalunya?
It’s true that the Catalans have been left with no obvious alternative route forward.  The referendum is unquestionably illegal under the Spanish constitution, which declares that Spain is a single and indivisible entity.  They could try to change the constitution, but no matter how big a majority they obtained in Catalunya for doing that, they would still fail unless the other ‘regions’ of Spain also supported them.  The constitution included that clause largely because it was the only way of getting the military back into their barracks after the death of Franco, and it’s true that an overwhelming majority of the Catalans backed that constitution in a referendum as a result, but – and there’s a parallel with Brexit here – who decided that a decision taken in a referendum could never be revoked; that people never have a right to change their minds?  And there was also, of course, a second later referendum in Catalunya, on a Statute of Autonomy agreed with, but subsequently repudiated by, Madrid: why is the result of one inviolable, but not the other?
The background to the referendum on independence is contested and hotly debated, but there is no doubt that, in strictly legal terms, the law is the law and the referendum is illegal.  It’s the sort of legalistic position invariably supported by Labour; and we should not forget that it was a Labour politician – Jack Straw – who argued after the 2014 referendum in Scotland that UK law should be changed to, in effect, mirror the Spanish constitution by declaring the UK to be equally indivisible, effectively outlawing any argument for independence.
There was under Spanish law no way forward for the Catalans to express their wishes regarding independence other than by organising a referendum themselves, after all efforts to hold such a referendum with the consent of the central government in Madrid came to nothing.  They were left with the choice of defying the law or simply abandoning their aspirations.  For those who believe that sovereignty belongs to the people rather than stemming from some central source, the people of Catalunya – and whether one regards them, as I do, as a nation or as others do, as a region is really irrelevant here – have a right to determine by majority decision how they should be governed, but that right is being denied them by a repressive central government, run by a party which is essentially the heir to the former dictator.
The British Labour Party is instinctively unionist, and it is a party which accepts and supports the fiction that sovereignty was bestowed by god on the monarch of England, who ‘graciously’ invested it in the UK Parliament which has, as a result, the absolute power to decide, for the whole of eternity, the governing arrangements for the territories under its control.  It is as much a British nationalist party as the Tories; it is a party which sees the UK as the ‘natural’ state of affairs, in which brotherhood and co-operation extend only as far as the English Channel, a stretch of water which mere foreigners should only be allowed to cross under sufferance.  Why on earth would anyone expect such a party to support the right of the Catalans to decide for themselves?  For Labour, the right of self-determination extends only to very foreign people far away, and certainly not to those which they define as an indivisible part of a greater and immutable whole.  No party of independentistas would or should expect them to behave any differently, and why Plaid are exercising themselves about Labour’s response is a mystery to me.

Monday, 25 September 2017

To see oursels as ithers see us

The part of Theresa May’s speech in Florence which made me cringe most was when she said: “…throughout its membership, the United Kingdom has never totally felt at home being in the European Union.  And perhaps because of our history and geography, the European Union never felt to us like an integral part of our national story in the way it does to so many elsewhere in Europe”
It’s not just that she dared to express that view as though it were the view of all UK citizens, based on a narrow majority in a referendum in which people voted as they did for a variety of reasons, bad enough though that leap is.  Nor is it the suggestion that the history of the UK means that we’ve never really been part of Europe, which flies in the face of the truth: these islands have been inextricably woven into the history of the wider continent for many centuries.
It’s more that it goes to the heart of the way that the English (and I mean English in this context) establishment view themselves and the rest of the world.  It’s a lazy expression of the ‘natural truth’ that we are somehow different from, and superior to, the rest of the continent.
But most of all, it’s because it shows an inbuilt tendency to have not a clue about how the words will be received by others.  She more or less told the rest of the EU that ‘the EU may be good enough for you, but not for us’ with that casual superiority which comes so naturally to people of a certain class and background, and completely fails to understand that people from a different background may not see that superior attitude in quite the same way.  Perhaps she genuinely saw it as nothing more than openness and honesty; but that is exactly the problem.  From the outset of the Brexit discussions, the UK has been represented by people who have absolutely no idea how they sound to others.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Recognising where the power lies

Some political commentators have interpreted the Prime Minister’s Florence speech as an attempt to go over the head of Michel Barnier, the EU’s Chief Negotiator, and appeal directly to the governments of the other member states.  Since the latter are the people who collectively set the negotiating brief, that would not be an entirely misdirected strategy – the people who set the strategy are the only ones who can change it.  Whether it will be successful or not is another question; past attempts to deal directly with individual member states have been seen as an attempt to undermine the unity of the 27, and been given short shrift as a result.
But hold on a minute – I’m sure that the Brexiteers told us that one of the reasons that we needed to leave was because member states were subservient to the ‘unelected Brussels bureaucrats’ and couldn’t influence the direction of the EU.  That couldn’t possibly have been another porky, could it?

Friday, 22 September 2017

A day out in Florence

The UK Prime Minister is off to Florence today to give her important speech on Brexit, so important that negotiations were put on hold for a week to wait for her pearls of wisdom.  The EU negotiators have said that they will pay careful attention to what she has to say, although they’ve also said that they won’t actually be present when she gives the speech.
That declaration raised another question in my mind – who exactly will be there to listen to her?  When the speech was first mentioned, I had assumed that she had been invited by some organisation or other to go to Florence and that she had decided to use the opportunity to put forward her views on Brexit.  It seems that I was being too kind to her – it is becoming increasingly obvious that holding the event in Florence is little more than a political stunt.  Not only is the speaker being flown in for the event, but so is the audience – largely cabinet ministers and journalists.  Am I the only one who finds it a little strange that a Prime Minister should drag cabinet ministers halfway across Europe so that they can smile, nod, and clap in all the right places as she tells them publicly what she’s already told them in Cabinet?
This is the expenditure of our money by the government to organise a jolly to Florence for an event which could equally well (and far more cheaply) have been organised in London, but is going to Florence to add a sense of drama and import to the event.  Perhaps they believe that journalists whose employers will be paying their expenses for a few days in Florence – conveniently just before the weekend, should they wish to extend their stay – will be minded to provide better coverage as a result.
According to the hype, the speech will make an offer to the EU side in an attempt to move the negotiations – currently going nowhere fast – along a little.  But if that’s the aim, it’s megaphone diplomacy.  If she has an offer to make, why not make it directly to the EU negotiators at the talks which were scheduled anyway rather than delay those talks to make it publicly at an event where the claimed target audience isn’t even going to be present?  The answer is, in all probability, that the real target audience for this speech isn’t the EU27 at all – it’s for a domestic audience.  Hard reality is starting to bite; the UK needs to give ground in a number of areas, and ‘leaving’ is starting to look more and more like ‘remaining’, in the short term at least.  The drama and build-up to this event is all about trying to carry the leavers in a direction which they’re not going to like, and trying to give the impression that the UK is driving events rather than having to respond to those horrid European types.
Whether it works or not depends on the degree of cooperation by the journalists - and the gullibility of the electorate.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Brexit Masterchef

Yesterday, the former chief of the Vote Leave campaign told us that triggering Article 50 to leave the EU was an “historic, unforgivable blunder”.  Strong words, but they don’t necessarily mean that he’s completely changed his mind about leaving the EU at all (although some of his comments suggest that he’s never been entirely convinced about Brexit).  It’s more a criticism of the approach adopted, and particularly of the way that the government has plunged into the process without having a plan or knowing what it wants the end result to be.  He’s not the only one in the leave camp who has expressed such doubts.
The problem with that analysis is that the Prime Minister really does seem to believe that the government is working to an agreed plan.  In response to the latest statements by Boris Johnson, she told us yesterday that “We are all agreed as a Government about the importance of ensuring that we get the right deal for Brexit”.  It’s a statement that I can believe, but it’s wholly inadequate if they don’t have any sense of agreement about what that ‘right deal’ might look like.  It’s as though they’ve decided to bake that famous cake which everyone is always talking about, but without deciding whether it’s for eating or merely having.  Even worse, they haven’t decided what sort of cake to bake – some want a good old patriotic Victoria sponge, others want a nice sticky chocolate cake, and yet others – I blame their education – will be happy to accept a good dollop of Eton Mess.  Worse still, they’ve started to bake the cake without having agreed on the ingredients.
Still, as the Prime Minister keeps telling us in lieu of answering any question put to her, she’s perfectly clear that the people simply want her to get on with the baking, and not to get distracted by such irrelevant detail.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Merely eliminating the negative

The Secretary of State for Wales told us at the weekend that cutting just over a pound off the cost of crossing the Severn bridges will ‘power [a] new business boom with Bristol’.  It’s probably just as well that he made no attempt to explain how the one thing leads to the other, although it would be interesting to have seen him try.  It’s simply not credible that such a small change – or even the larger change which is in the pipeline when the tolls are abolished – will have as large an effect as he claims.
It’s certainly true that the tolls have, from the outset, been a disincentive to companies basing themselves in Wales.  It may not be a huge extra cost, but small costs repeated many times can become large sums, and it’s easy to see how that becomes a factor in deciding on location.  But the absence of a negative isn’t the same as the presence of a positive, as my old maths teacher would have said, and the removal of a disincentive doesn’t magically create an incentive.  The idea that a reduction in tolls – or even their abolition – can suddenly create new economic growth is fanciful at best.  During the years that the tolls have been in place, companies have already taken their decisions on location, and they aren’t suddenly going to change those because of this change; creating a more level playing field for future decisions isn’t the same as tilting it in our direction in respect of past decisions.
But when the promised land predicted by prophet Cairns fails to arrive, it will no doubt all be the fault of the Labour administration in Cardiff.  He seems to think that he’s done his bit now.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Brexit dividends

In his latest pitch for the Conservative leadership, Boris Johnson has returned to the ‘promise’ to spend an extra £18 billion a year (£350 million a week) on the NHS following departure from the EU.  The figure has been widely discredited many times and even most of those responsible for promoting it during the EU referendum have long since admitted that the ‘Brexit dividend’ – i.e. the amount of money available for other things because it’s no longer being sent to ‘Brussels’ would be a lot less than that.
I’d go further – I’d argue that there will be no Brexit dividend for the foreseeable future.  Perhaps there may be in the long term, if the economy really does outperform to the extent that Brexiteers believe want the rest of us to believe, although it’s beyond any reasonable or realistic forecasting window so we’ll never actually know whether we would have been better off staying in or not.  But in the short to medium term, most recognise that there will be a hit to the economy, and coupling that probable reduction in GDP, or at the least reduction in growth of GDP, with the requirement to spend a lot more on replacing all the EU agencies with UK versions, increasing the spend on managing the physical and economic borders, and the other increased costs which will come in the wake of Brexit, I believe that zero is a reasonable estimate of the Brexit dividend within any reasonable forecasting period.
Having said that, I welcome Johnson’s statement that the UK Government can spend an extra £18 billion on the NHS if it wants to.  And I agree with him; they can – it’s just that it has nothing at all to do with Brexit.  Looking at the detail of what has been said by Johnson and his supporters, that’s a truth which they come close to acknowledging themselves.  £8 billion of that total – more than 40% - has already been committed and is in no way contingent on Brexit.  What Johnson has asked for is that an extra £5 billion a year be made available in 2019 and a further £5 billion in 2022.  Given the ease with which more than £1 billion was found to buy a coalition partner, and the total government spend of more than £770 billion per annum, this isn’t much more than small change to HM Exchequer – less than 1.5% of expenditure.
However, for a moment, let’s assume that there is a relationship with Brexit.  Part of Johnson’s argument is that the UK should not honour any perceived commitments to EU budgets after the date of departure, and he wants a maximum transition period of six months.  If he’s right, then why isn’t the whole of the extra money available immediately?  Why do we need to wait until 2022?  And if he’s wrong, then where is the 2019 tranche of money coming from?  The answer to both of those questions is very simple – the initial premise is wrong, and a decision to spend more on the NHS is not contingent on Brexit; it’s a simple matter of policy.  The only reason for linking it to Brexit is to attempt to persuade us that Brexit has a short term benefit, when he knows as well as anyone else that it does not.  But then, Boris and truthfulness have been estranged for a very long time.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Tightening the bonds

I know that many independentistas in Wales and Scotland voted for Brexit.  Some argued that there was no point escaping from one union only to be swallowed up in another, although it seems to me that that view is at least partly a result of being trapped by the vagaries of language – the fact that the same word (‘union’) is used for both the UK and the EU doesn’t mean that they’re actually the same thing.  Another variant on the same theme was that membership of the EU wasn’t ‘true’ independence; it explicitly requires the surrendering of some of the independence which a country might otherwise have.  I’m not really convinced by that argument either – membership of any international or multinational body (including the UN, for example) implies a degree of sharing of sovereignty, and total independence is something of a mirage in the modern world. 
The questions to be asked are how much sovereignty we pool, in what sort of structures, and how much input we have on decision-taking.  I really don’t understand why some Welsh and Scottish independentistas insist that our two countries somehow require more independence than similar-sized member states of the EU, all of which would scoff at any suggestion that they ceased to be independent states when they joined.  The practical meaning of the word ‘independence’ changes over time, depending on the context, and in the context of European states in the twenty-first century ‘independence’ is equivalent to member-state status in the EU.
I’ve posted before that for me the question of Brexit has always been more political than economic – what is the context in which ‘independence’ for Wales is most easily and smoothly achieved?  And for me, the answer to that is clearly within the EU, where it amounts to a change in political and administrative arrangements without changing the trading relationships.  But, if that route is not available, then what?
Some in Scotland, including the former First Minister Alex Salmond, are arguing that an independent Scotland should join EFTA as a compromise.  No doubt some in Wales would make the same argument.  I can see the attractions, and if we were starting with an entirely clean sheet of paper, I’d be tempted by the possibility.  I fear, however, that from our current starting point, it would be seriously problematic for Scotland (and nigh-on impossible for Wales) in practical terms, unless England also takes the same decision.
We are already seeing, on a daily basis, how wrong the Brexiteers were in talking about a simple and swift separation of the UK from the EU.  If we assume that the UK government is ultimately going to reject the EFTA model (and all the signs are that it will, with the possible exception of a defined and short transition period) then the UK will become what is termed a ‘third country’ for EU purposes.  It’s a status which necessarily requires the creation of economic borders between the UK and the EU27.  Failure to do that leaves the UK as an open ‘back-door’ into the single market and compromises that market; something which the EU27 simply cannot afford to allow.  For Scotland and Wales to seek membership of EFTA whilst England does not would therefore, for the same reason, require the creation of economic borders between the countries of the UK.
It’s not completely impossible, of course – but we shouldn’t emulate the Brexiteers in underestimating the complexity of the task and the likely timescale for achieving it.  Moving from membership of the ‘UK single market’ to being outside that and inside the EU single market, whether through direct membership of the EU or the halfway house of EFTA, is an even bigger task than Brexit itself.  An economic union which has lasted 400 years in the case of Scotland (and closer to 600 in the case of Wales) is inevitably more closely integrated than one which has existed for only 45 years as in the case of the EU.  And there are extremely porous land borders involved as well.
Whilst all involved are still members of the EU, the pathway from being part of the UK to full EU membership as an independent state is an entirely political one.  It involves negotiations about representation and administrative arrangements, but the economic issues are minor – all the same regulations and processes apply before and after.  And whilst ‘internal enlargement’ is not something that the EU has experienced to date, ‘enlargement’, (and the inclusion of new member states) most definitely is.  It’s not an exact precedent, but it’s a sound starting point.
Many independentistas won’t want to hear this, but I can’t ignore what seems to me to be an obvious truth.  For the foreseeable future, the idea of Wales or Scotland not being part of the same trading block as England (and ‘same trading block’ includes the option of not being part of any trading block wider than the UK) is extremely problematic at a practical level.  That doesn’t mean that ‘independence’ is an impossible dream; merely that the meaning of the word changes once again.  And to a significant extent, what England decides controls that definition in a way that does not apply within the EU.  Entirely unintentionally, and for seemingly sound reasons, Brexit-supporting independentistas may have ended up contributing to a tightening, rather than a loosening, of economic ties within an increasingly isolated UK.