Monday, 23 September 2019

Don't blame the English


There are two aspects of yesterday’s report that English people living in Wales tilted the vote towards ‘leave’ in the 2016 referendum which cause me concern.
The first is mathematical.  It is probably true that English-born residents of Wales, especially those in the older age groups, voted more strongly for leave than did those born in Wales.  It is also probably true that, if only those born in Wales had been allowed to vote, then the outcome would have been different.  With a majority as small (in overall terms) as 82,000, it is easy enough to identify a particular demographic and say that, ‘but for them, the result would have been different’.  But a mathematical majority whose size just happens to coincide with the number of people in one group doesn’t make that group ‘responsible’ – and it isn’t the only group that could be identified in this way.  English in-migration doesn’t account for the results in places like Blaenau Gwent – indeed, the majority for leave was at its highest in some of the counties where the proportion of English-born residents is at its lowest.  Whilst the votes cast by English-born residents might have been sufficient to sway the overall national result, those votes cannot explain some of the more localised majorities.
And that brings me to my second concern.  There will be those who choose to interpret results like this in a way which blames ‘the English’ for the outcome, and which leads to complacency about the fact that so many native Welsh voters also supported leave.  The Anglo-British nationalism which drove the Brexit vote is not an alien philosophy here in Wales, no matter how much some of us might wish that it were so.  Welsh people are not somehow immune to the curse of xenophobia, the desire to blame ‘others’ for our relative poverty, or the propaganda of the tabloids.  Concentrating attention on those who have moved in would be a diversion and a cop-out.

Saturday, 21 September 2019

Students, Goldilocks and the Labour Party


The news that Labour is closing down its student movement for being too right wing was like a blast from the past, albeit with a twist.  I can remember when they were only disowned for being too left wing.
In 1970 or 1971, whilst I was in university, I was ‘associated with’ the university’s Socialist Society (I use the phrase ‘associated with’ because they didn’t have ‘membership’ as such – it was open to anyone to turn up and participate).  After protests from the Socialist Society at the invite to the university’s chancellor, Lord Robens (then also Chair of the NCB), to speak one evening, the Students’ Union had another guest speaker along a week or so later in the shape of the late Eric Heffer, then a Liverpool Labour MP.  He was often, shall we say, ‘out of favour’ with the hierarchy of his party (much like Jeremy Corbyn before he became leader, and for similar reasons).  During a robust exchange at one point, he told the audience that we should join the (Labour Party) Young Socialists to promote our views within the party.  One comrade quickly responded with the memorable riposte “But when people like us join the Young Socialists, the Labour Party disbands them”.
It seems that the Labour Party’s approach to its younger membership is a bit like that of Goldilocks – they should be at just the right degree of leftness.

Friday, 20 September 2019

Eye-openers don't necessarily change much


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

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Being neither fish nor fowl


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

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Is it raining or not?


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

Monday, 16 September 2019

Let's not repeat the mistake


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

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Heads the SNP win, tails the SNP win


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

Monday, 9 September 2019

Genius or simply lucky fool?


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

Friday, 6 September 2019

Johnson, Johnson and principles


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

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

How will the cards fall?


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

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Is the question valid in the first place?


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

Monday, 2 September 2019

'Bill' and 'Boris'


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

Friday, 30 August 2019

Just pretending


An old joke from the Soviet era was that “the bosses pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work”.  It had a decent element of truth in it – the economic system worked, after a fashion, as long as everyone continued to pretend that everything was just fine.  But like any structure based on pretence and make-believe (and at the danger of wholly oversimplifying a complex series of processes) it all fell down when enough people stopped pretending.  Perhaps if the workers had truly believed, rather than just pretended to believe, that they were being paid they’d have truly worked, rather than merely pretended to do so.  And the system might not then have collapsed.  It’s conjecture, of course, but I tend to the view that ‘true belief’ can sustain the unsustainable for longer than would otherwise be the case.  Pretence by the few can be sustained if the many believe.
It was brought to mind by yesterday’s news reports which included comments by both Ruth Davidson of the Scottish Tories and Stephen Crabb of the Tories-in-Wales.  Both said that they had directly asked the Prime Minister whether he was serious about seeking a deal rather than a no-deal Brexit, both said that he had given them clear, or even ‘categorical’ assurances that he was, and both claimed to have believed him.  It was a case of the PM pretending to give assurances, and those to whom he gave them pretending to believe him.  (I could be unfairly impugning Davidson and Crabb here – perhaps they really did believe a proven serial liar who scatters categorical assurances around him like confetti before doing the opposite.  But suggesting that they’re stupid enough to believe the PM would be a greater insult to them than suggesting that they’re only pretending to believe him.)
It goes wider than that, though.  Currently, the PM is pretending that he is negotiating with the EU and that, if only he threatens to do enough damage to the UK, they will cave in – and large swathes of the media pretend to believe him, as they solemnly report on the subtleties of the different ways in which the EU are managing to phrase the word ‘no’.  (The same caveat applies – accusing the media of only pretending to believe him is the lesser of the accusations which could be laid at their door.)
Ultimately, however, the problem in all this lies not with those who are only pretending to believe, but with those who really do believe.  Pretence can and usually does collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, but true belief can withstand even the strongest application of fact.  To achieve the aim of getting people to support Brexit, the Brexiteers pretended that the UK had fallen under the control of a foreign power, pretended that that foreign power was in some way holding us back, pretended that immigration was responsible for problems in the fields of housing, education, and health, and pretended that immigration was the fault of the EU.  They knew all along that it was untrue, just a ruse to persuade enough people that their own future depended on them agreeing to voluntarily surrender their rights – or more accurately, the rights of other people.
Pretence by the few is being sustained by belief by the many, and it’s no accident that one of the key elements of the Brexit planning is a major propaganda onslaught designed to sustain that belief in those who already have it, and build it in those who don’t.  It might even work, for a while at least; the economy of the USSR bumped along for quite some time with everyone just pretending that it was working.  But the USSR also had the benefits of a totalitarian system controlling what people could read or say and spying on their every movement.  Whether a project so blatantly based on pretence can survive for long in today’s world of open and rapid communication is doubtful – the availability of alternative news sources and the inability of those driving the process to control them is at least part of the reason for the past three years of lack of progress.  Pretence eventually collapses; the question is about how long that will take.

Thursday, 29 August 2019

The arcane and the bizarre


Responding to the move to prorogue parliament yesterday, the Speaker denounced it as a “constitutional outrage”.  The Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg responded on BBC Breakfast this morning by saying that, “It is not constitutional for the speaker to express his opinion without direction of the house”.  It’s like a game of constitutional trumps.  They’re both right – and they’re both wrong.  Both are highlighting instances of actions which are, in one way or another, outside the norms of UK parliamentary process, but in a country whose constitution is unwritten and depends totally on precedent, nothing can ever, in strict terms, be ‘unconstitutional’.
The idea of ‘precedent’ assumes that little can ever change, and that the action to be taken in any given set of circumstances must be exactly the same as taken the last time those circumstances arose.  If the circumstances are unique (as, in reality, they always are), then the action to be taken must mirror as closely as possible the action taken in the most closely similar circumstances in the past.  It’s a recipe for superficial ossification, and in the absence of any real objective basis for deciding which is the closest historical parallel, for making things up as we go along.  And I’m really not sure which is worse – the de jure constitutional position that we always do whatever we did in the past, or the de facto constitutional position that we simply make up the rules as we go.  Neither seems compatible with a modern ‘democracy’, let alone one which its fans consider to be a model for the rest of the world to follow.
It’s not the only thing which is incompatible with a modern democracy, and if Brexit has served any purpose at all, it has been in exposing the inadequacies (or lunacies, more like) of the current system.  We’ve had two other examples this week alone.
The first was the suggestion that the solution to a situation where the PM of the day disagrees with majority opinion in a parliamentary chamber which is already hopelessly over-populated with unelected appointees, hereditaries and bishops is to simply find a lot more people who agree with him and appoint them as additional parliamentarians so that he can get his way.  Is there any other country in the world, with serious aspirations to call itself a democracy, in which the membership of one of its two chambers of parliament is completely unelected and where the government of the day can ‘adjust’ the membership so as to give itself a majority?
The second was yesterday’s news that the Privy Council had met with the monarch and advised her to prorogue parliament, advice which she then accepted.  It’s true that 3 members of the Privy Council flew up to Balmoral to impart their advice, and that, under the unwritten constitution of the UK, that amounts to a ‘meeting of the Privy Council’.  There are, though, around 700 members of the Privy Council, and we can safely assume that at least 650 of those didn’t even know that there was going to be a meeting yesterday.  And under the rules under which the Council operates, they didn’t need to know.  A ‘meeting’ of the Council need not consist of more than a few members, hand-picked by the PM of the day, sent to convey his views to the monarch.  It’s a complete anachronism, like so much else about the UK’s system of ‘democracy’.
The more Brexit teaches us about the UK’s definition of ‘democracy’, the more I find myself wondering whether the UK has ever really complied with the spirit of the EU’s charter on the rule of law, which is supposedly a fundamental requirement of membership (and which may now be used against the UK).  I’d like to think that current events might provoke more people into recognising that we need a proper written constitution which lays down processes and procedures to be followed, but I’m not going to hold my breath.  Regularising the arcane and bizarre is, though, a clear advantage to Welsh independence.  It is inconceivable that a new Welsh state would be so stupid as to follow the processes of the so-called ‘mother of parliaments’, isn’t it?

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Confusing government and country


When Johnson (Samuel, not Boris) referred to patriotism as being “the last refuge of a scoundrel”, he wasn’t referring to patriotism of all kinds at all times; he was referring, rather, to what he saw as the ‘false patriotism’ of Pitt the Elder.  Defining ‘false patriotism’ isn’t quite so easy, but when Johnson (Boris, not Samuel) demands that everyone ‘gets behind’ the government over Brexit, he is most certainly guilty of it.  Supporting the country isn’t at all the same things as supporting the government, a distinction which Johnson’s government is not unique in failing to draw.  Mark Twain suggested that “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it”, which makes a very clear distinction between the two things.
Of course, what “supporting your country” means isn’t exactly amenable to clear and objective definition either.  Ultimately, it comes down to supporting what you individually believe to be best for your country, and there will inevitably be some very different views about that.  The point is that opposing a government can be every bit as patriotic as supporting it.  Those who feel that the current direction of government policy is wrong for Wales (or the UK) can be every bit as patriotic as those who support it.  Deliberately conflating the two things is indeed the action of a scoundrel.
For many Brexiteers, their version of ‘patriotism’ is at the heart of their rationale for Brexit and seems to be based around notions of absolute sovereignty.  For others of us, what is best for our country considers the wider interests of humanity as a whole, placing the ‘country’ in a global context on the basis that individual survival depends on collective survival.  From that latter perspective, a willingness to share sovereignty through organisations and structures which take decisions collectively through discussion and agreement is an entirely natural outcome; the debate then centres on the nature of those partnerships.  Tying to reduce the issue to one of patriotism is trying to avoid real debate about where our best interests lie, for the long term as well as the short term.  And pleas for ‘unity’ around some idealised notion of ‘Great’ Britain (the “greatest place on earth”) are an attempt to move beyond patriotism into a jingoistic version of nationalism.
That Johnson is a practised and habitual liar is established fact; but on his namesake’s definition, he’s also a scoundrel.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Boris' brilliant idea


It might, of course, just have been some sort of strange Old Etonian dare that the PM was set by his old school chums.  Getting someone to tell porkie pies about real, actual pork pies sounds like the sort of jolly prank that I can imagine them playing on each other for their own amusement.  Whether much else of what he said in his criticism of US rules which keep UK products out of the American market was true or false is unclear, but given the source, it’s probably safer to assume that it was mostly invented.
He did make one interesting point though, when referring to the ‘fact’ (in quotes because I simply don’t know whether it is true or not, but let’s run with it for the moment) that a UK company wanting to sell insurance into the US has to deal with 50 different regulators rather than just one or two.  In essence, he may have hit on a brilliant idea here – rather than a group of states each having their own sets of rules and regulations, they could band together and agree a common set of rules which would make trade between groups of states potentially much easier.  Perhaps the countries of Europe could take up the idea as well.  We could call it, oh, I don’t know, how about something along the lines of a single European market?  Then, with a large and homogeneous ‘home’ market, it would become easier to sell our wares into other large homogeneous markets with fewer regulatory bodies needing to be involved.  I can’t imagine why no-one has thought of this before.

Thursday, 22 August 2019

Motes and beams


When I first saw the story that Trump wanted to buy Greenland, my immediate reaction was to check the date of the story.  There are far too many ‘old’ stories reshared on the internet – this one surely was from April 1st, wasn’t it?  But no, it was genuine.  The fact that the detail went on to say this wasn’t a priority for his administration, just some sort of vague suggestion was a little reassuring – until he cancelled his visit to Denmark and it became clear that he thought the whole purpose of his visit was to agree the details.  He also, it seems, took umbrage at the description of the Danish Prime Minister of the idea as ‘absurd’, claiming it was a ‘nasty’ comment.  It struck me as a rather restrained comment; countries buying and selling other countries over the heads of the inhabitants may have been done in the colonial past, but it isn’t acceptable now.
Closer to home, it seems that one of the proposals put forward by the PM to overcome the problem of the Irish border is that Ireland should leave the EU’s single market and follow the rules laid down by the UK instead.  The word used was ‘temporarily’, until such time as some other fix enables two countries in different regulatory regimes to maintain the integrity of their respective markets with no border controls, but since no such fix exists and there is no prospect of one  being developed, this would inevitably become a permanent arrangement.  And rather than try and agree this directly with the Republic of Ireland, the suggestion is that it should be negotiated with the EU who would then tell the Republic what they need to do.  What was that about buying and selling countries over the heads of their inhabitants?
How we all laughed at Trump’s ‘absurd’ suggestion!  But what, in essence, is the difference?  Playground bullies seeking to dispose of smaller countries over the heads of their inhabitants, not even beginning to understand what is wrong with their proposals – Trump and Johnson are increasingly two of a kind.  We often look at the US and wonder how anyone – let alone a significant section of the media – can treat Trump with any degree of seriousness, but looking at the way Johnson is treated here, it becomes a lot easier to see how it can happen.  The world, including the UK but excluding a large chunk of America laughs at Trump; the world excluding a large chunk of the UK is laughing at Johnson.  It’s just harder to see from the inside.

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Finland 'taking back control'


One of the reasons given for the UK’s decision to stop attending many EU meetings is that it will save time for those involved who would otherwise have to read the papers in advance.  Only those meetings where a subject will be of ‘significant national interest’ to the UK will be attended.  The first and most obvious question is how they will know whether there’s anything fitting that definition if they don’t read the papers?  But the second, and perhaps more important question is about timescale.  Clearly, for a government planning to leave on 31st October with no transition period, decisions taken now by the EU are going to be largely irrelevant.  However, for a government which was planning a lengthy transition period as part of an agreed withdrawal deal, decisions taken now will continue to affect the UK for some two years or more.  The conclusion about the government’s intentions is clear – no deal is now their sole aim.
It might only be for two months if they get their way, but there’s also something rather ironic about a government which claims to be determined to ‘take back control’ from the EU delegating its voting rights at meetings to Finland.

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Just another stunt


As I understand Boris Johnson’s somewhat belated missive to the EU27, he is arguing that a mechanism to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland be replaced by a mechanism to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.  The key difference is that the mechanism in the Withdrawal Agreement is defined, whereas his is not.  Why replacing a defined arrangement with an undefined ‘alternative’ one would be acceptable to anyone is one of the many unanswered questions, but ‘because UK’ is not much of an answer.
In his letter, he commits the UK to accepting a “legally binding commitment” to “not put in place infrastructure, checks or controls at the border” and vaguely hopes that the EU will make a similar commitment.  That makes it sound like a major and generous concession which it would be churlish not to reciprocate, but for a regulatory regime which seeks to abolish tariffs on imports and reduce the standards to which goods and services must be provided it’s very easy to remove controls with an area with higher standards and tariffs.  It’s considerably more difficult for the regime with higher standards to simply lower the gates and let anything and everything through, and the PM knows that.  It will always be those states which wish to maintain the highest standards which have the incentive – nay the requirement – to control the external borders of their market.
It’s probable, of course, that his letter wasn’t really aimed at the EU27 at all; making such a letter an open one and releasing it to the media at the same time as sending it to the EU looks more like a stunt aimed at the UK public than a serious attempt to negotiate anything, and I’m sure that that is at least a part of the truth.  At another level, though, it underlines yet again the real aim of the Brexiteers, which is to destroy the EU as an entity.  Keeping an entirely open border between a carefully constructed single market and a regulatory regime which seeks to reduce or abolish standards and controls can only end up one way – the integrity of the market would be destroyed, not least because the infamous WTO rules would require the EU27 to apply the same rules to the rest of the world as to the UK. 
Brexit, in isolation, has never made much sense, and it’s never been the sole objective of the Brexiteers.  As the first step towards destroying the EU and reducing the extent of regulation on employee rights, environmental standards etc it is a great deal more coherent as an objective.  They have always claimed that it was never the economic aspects of the EU which they didn’t like, only the political ones, such as the reference to ‘ever closer union’.  In truth, what they don’t like is that the EU has been a force for controlling capitalism (even if not to the extent that some of us would like) rather than allowing it to operate entirely unfettered, and that’s more about the rules of the single market than about political union.  It’s a curious irony for those of us who originally opposed membership of the EEC because it looked like a capitalist club that it has actually done more to control the worst excesses of capitalism than the UK would ever have done alone, and that the real promoters of unfettered capitalism have proven to be the domestic variety.
I don’t think Johnson’s letter has anything to do with negotiation; it has everything to do with justifying his position, blaming other people, and getting on with the job of dismantling the regulatory structure that the EU has jointly developed.  Those who accuse the EU of using the situation in Ireland as a means of keeping the UK under the EU’s regime are themselves trying to use the situation in Ireland to undermine the EU itself.

Monday, 19 August 2019

A strange form of 'social justice'


Iain Duncan Smith and Social Justice aren’t words which naturally trip off the tongue in a single sentence (unless there’s also a negative to be found somewhere) so calling a think tank founded by him the ‘Centre for Social Justice’ has always looked like an attempt to give a warm-sounding name to an organisation likely to be aiming to do the precise opposite of what it says on the tin.  The latest report from this so-called ‘think tank’ is a case in point, recommending as it does that the state pension age be gradually increased to 75 by 2035.
It is hard to see what, exactly, that policy has to do with ‘social justice’, given that its greatest impact will be on the lowest-paid (i.e. those most dependent on the state pension in later life), whilst the higher-paid will continue to be in a position to retire a great deal earlier if they wish, since they generally have other, more generous, pension provision.  And whilst generalisation is not without its dangers, we know from other data that lower income is associated with poorer health and shorter life span, meaning that the number of years for which the pension is received by people in this group is significantly less in any event.  It’s an odd kind of ‘social justice’ indeed which suggests that the least well-off should have to work the longest, receive the lowest pensions, and enjoy them for the shortest time.  Clearly it isn’t the pensioners concerned who benefit from such a policy – the beneficiaries are the higher earners who are unaffected directly by the proposal, but who will be looking to gain from any tax reductions (or by avoiding what might otherwise be required tax increases) as a result of reducing the cost of providing pensions.
The report does actually recognise that issue, stating: “Low income households, therefore, have the greatest need to remain in work, but also face the highest barriers to working” (because, for instance, they “… have less opportunity to amass sufficient financial resources”).  Anyone serious about ‘social justice’ would be looking at why they have ‘the greatest need to remain in work’, instead of which they decided to concentrate on overcoming the barriers to them doing so.
It’s clear that the underlying basis for the proposal has little to do with social justice and everything to do with a particular ideological perspective, which for me is summed up in this sentence from the report’s summary, which reads: “Ensuring that this growing proportion of older people continue to make an essential contribution to our economy as workers, carers, taxpayers and volunteers is an important question for public policy”.  Had it been worded just a little differently, talking about how those older people who wanted to go on making a contribution in any of those ways could be enabled to do so, I wouldn’t raise any issue.  Not everybody wants to ‘retire’ and facilitating continued activity is an entirely valid objective of public policy.  (Although I don’t see how they get from a contribution as ‘carers’ or ‘volunteers’ to the conclusion that they don’t need a pension; it’s a strange juxtaposition.)  But the ideological underpinning here is the idea that people’s whole purpose in life is – or should be – to contribute as workers (either paid or voluntary) and taxpayers, and that the government should ‘ensure’ that they do so.  That is an attack on the whole concept of ‘retirement’ as it has been previously understood.  From this perspective, ‘retirement’, or rather the payment of the state pension, becomes increasingly limited to those who are physically unable to work any longer, and the objective is to pay it for as short a time as possible.
None of that is to deny that better health and an increasingly aging population don’t cause challenges for a pensions system which has always been run like a giant Ponzi scheme because the ability to pay pensions out of current revenue effectively assumes continuing population growth.  But that problem wasn’t caused by those who are about to find their working life extended significantly – it was caused by the politicians who designed and have presided over the scheme from the outset, and who have given themselves a different and better pension scheme meaning that they are unaffected by proposals such as this one.  There is a long-term challenge involved in putting the state pension onto a sound basis; deferring pension rights for the lowest-paid is avoiding the issue, not solving it.

Saturday, 17 August 2019

Brexit is not their real priority


If Corbyn’s proposal that he should head a temporary government with an agreed short-term remit to deal only with avoiding a no deal Brexit was, as some have suggested, intended as a trap for the new leader of the Lib Dems, then she certainly walked straight into it.  Having said that stopping Brexit was her absolute top priority, rejecting a firm proposal to achieve that end reveals that it isn’t actually her top priority at all – preventing Corbyn from becoming PM, and/or trying to establish the Lib Dems as the ‘purist’ anti-Brexit party are both more important to her.  The Lib Dems prove to be as keen on putting their own narrow party interests first as ever – if they were serious about stopping Brexit, they’d have immediately accepted the idea of negotiating and raised their concerns or put forward alternatives in those discussions.
Having said that, for Labour to gloat over having so badly wrong-footed her isn’t so clever either.  After also claiming that their top priority is stopping no deal, their move – coupled with an apparent refusal to consider alternative possibilities – reveals that they have higher priorities as well, namely getting Corbyn into Number 10 and smashing the Lib Dem revival.  If they were serious about stopping Johnson’s no deal, they’d have put their proposal on the table and indicated that they saw it as a starting point for an adult discussion, rather than as a trap for the Lib Dems.
As to the substance, well the Lib Dem leader does actually have a point.  There must be serious doubts as to how many of the rebel Tories and newly independent MPs who want to stop no-deal would support a vote of no confidence if the result was a Corbyn-led government.  That does, in turn, though reveal that those Tories and independents who say stopping a no-deal is the most important thing are fibbing as much as Labour and Lib Dems are, because they, too, have a higher priority, namely not being seen to aid Corbyn into Downing Street.  Having spent years demonising him for being something which he is not, they are now unable to exercise the necessary flexibility.  And Swinson’s point is of only limited validity anyway – for every Tory MP who won’t countenance even a single purpose short-term government led by Corbyn, there’s going to be a Labour MP who won’t countenance a single purpose short-term government led by someone other than the leader of their party.  Their opposition to putting a veteran Tory like Ken Clarke at the head of such a government is only what one might expect; but, in typical Labour style, their opposition to putting a different Labour MP at the head is even stronger for many of them.
So, there we have it – three disparate groups, all claiming that their highest priority is stopping no-deal Brexit, all in reality placing more importance on two entirely different questions, namely who is PM and where does the best advantage for their party lie.  Unless at least one of those groups starts to behave like a group of adults and recognises that the important thing here is the remit of any temporary government, not its figurehead nor their respective positioning once the dust has settled, then the Brextremists will win by default.  They have no need to behave like adults or win any arguments; their only requirement for success is that the clear parliamentary majority against their policy remains divided over the peripheral issue of personality.  At the moment, sadly, my head tells me that the Brexiteers are more likely to win if stopping them demands adult behaviour from their opponents.

Friday, 16 August 2019

Opening boxes


Perhaps Boris Johnson really believes that the only reason that the EU27 are not willing to move yet is that they are waiting to see whether parliament will block a no-deal Brexit, although given his past record it seems unlikely.  I tend to suspect that the only thing that he really believes is that if he says the same thing often enough, then enough people will believe him to vote for a government led by him in the forthcoming election.  Whether what he says is true or not, or whether he himself believes it to be true is, ultimately, irrelevant.  Sadly, there is evidence enough that that one true belief of his might actually be valid – there are indeed large numbers of people who do believe what he says to be true.  For all his talk about ‘uniting the country’, all he really wants to do is to ‘unite’ enough voters to give him a clear parliamentary majority and, with the vote being split in more directions than in the past in a seriously unrepresentative first-past-the-post electoral system, the number of votes he needs to do that is lower than has traditionally been the case.  Getting around 30-35% of the country to believe that what he says is true (or else to knowingly vote for a liar on the basis of him being less bad than the alternatives) is all he needs or wants.
Whether it’s a necessary or inevitable concomitant of such a narrow tribalistic view is open to debate, but part of the result of this divisive approach is to split people into two main camps – the ‘true believers’ and the rest, who he is increasingly labelling as ‘collaborators’.  He did it this week in his ‘uncensored’ session answering questions from the public which had been vetted and selected in advance, referring to “a terrible collaboration […] between people who think they can block Brexit in parliament and our European friends”.  I can’t have been the only one who read the word ‘friends’ in that context in the Orwellian sense of meaning ‘enemies’.  The same turn of phrase was used more bluntly by the Tory grass roots campaign, StandUp4Brexit, in referring to the brave statement by Guto Bebb that he would be willing to countenance a limited term Corbyn premiership as an alternative to the long term damage of no deal, when they accused him of “collaborating with the EU”. 
This use of language is no accident.  Accusations of ‘collaboration’ are an unpleasant echo of the past, especially from the 1940s in Europe; I can’t imagine how they must sound to French ears in particular.  Harking back to ‘the war’ is a standard part of the Brexiteer play book, even if what they’re harking back to isn’t even real memories but second or third-hand folk memories distorted through the lens of a bowdlerised version of history.  But that same period in history should make us very wary of any politician seeking to gain power on around 30-35% of the popular vote in a rigged system by branding anyone who doesn’t agree with him as a collaborator.  The distance between branding supporters of membership of the EU as ‘collaborators’ and demanding that such people be tried for treason isn’t as great as many of us might hope.  In his pursuit of power ‘by any means necessary’, Johnson is opening some very unpleasant boxes.