Saturday, 30 March 2019

The evolution of Moggthink

(paraphrasing the piffle)
Monday:  I’m a committed unionist and the DUP are the staunchest of all unionists.  If they continue to oppose the deal, I shall be obliged to stand with them and do the same.
Wednesday: The DUP are staunch unionists, and I shall listen very carefully to what they have to say before deciding how to vote, but if they abstain, that will be enough for me to be able to support the deal.
Friday:  Who gives a *%#* what the DUP think, anyway?

Friday, 29 March 2019

Sticking with the most obvious


Whether or not we believe that there is some deep and clever underlying strategy behind the Prime Minister’s latest attempt to get the House of Commons to agree to her deal probably depends on whether we subscribe to the conspiracy theory of history or the cock-up theory.  I instinctively lean towards the latter; Occam’s Razor has always seemed sensible to me.  There are others, though, who do detect some hint of a strategy, and they are alighting on the possibility that she knows she will lose but is setting out her stall for a snap election in which she can present herself and her party as the supporters of the ‘will of the people’ in trying to implement Brexit, whilst everyone else is merely obstructing her. 
There are a number of obstacles in her way, to say the least.  Firstly, courtesy of her predecessor, calling a general election is no longer in the gift of the PM, and there is absolutely no guarantee that her party will support her in calling such an election while she remains leader.  And even if they did, there is no guarantee that they would win it, particularly if fought by a leader who’s already half pledged to be gone within months (although we know by now that a Theresa-pledge doesn’t necessarily have any strong relationship with the actualit√©).  No matter how hard Labour try to lose such an election (and to date, they have been making herculean efforts in that direction), there is no guarantee that their own cunning plan would succeed.  And finally, even if the Tories under the leadership of a lame duck PM were to win, with a clear commitment to passing her deal included in the manifesto, there is no guarantee that Conservative MPs elected on such a manifesto would actually vote for it once elected.  They do, as it were, have form on that.  An election would be an interesting diversion but would probably end up changing nothing.
On balance, believing that the PM has a strategy is flying in the face of all the available evidence.  I think I’ll stick with Occam and incompetence as the best explanation.

Thursday, 28 March 2019

A new age of politics dawns


There was, until Brexit, a long-standing tradition that Prime Ministers who could not get their key policies through parliament felt obliged to resign, usually – but not invariably – to call a general election.  That tradition was shattered when parliament rejected the current government’s key policy by a massive majority – twice.  It now seems that, not content with smashing the old tradition, the current PM is trying to establish a wholly new one, which is that the Prime Minister should only feel obliged to resign if parliament supports her key policy.
It’s a novel concept, but where will it end?  Will any future PM who wishes to stay in office for a long time be forced only to put proposals before parliament if he or she can be certain that they will be defeated?  What should be the protocol if a PM wins a vote by accident – does the vote need to be re-run (with the permission of the Speaker, obviously)?  What if, despite successfully losing every vote during a complete term of office, a PM wins the next election?  Is that also to be a resignation issue in future?
On the plus side, new style politics might become a bit more fun that the old-style variety.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Following not leading


The Labour Party has always been a coalition of diverse views, even if the range within which those views diverge has changed over times.  Whilst it’s true that many of the intellectuals involved in its founding had a strong commitment to building a very different type of society based on socialism, others were more interested in simply providing representation to a class which was not represented by the existing parliamentary parties: not for nothing was one of the early precursors called the Labour Representation Committee.  The theoretical underpinning ranged from Marxists to Social Democrats, and even if – with the benefit of hindsight – the tensions were always present, they haven’t always been so obvious.  And in the Blair years, it even looked as though one of the various factions had finally won the internal debate.  It was – as she famously claimed at the time – Margaret Thatcher’s greatest achievement.
Even during the worst of the Blair years, however, it was still the case that most Labour members and their parliamentary representatives had, as some sort of core belief, the idea that they could and should make the lives or ordinary people (they had long since given up on calling them ‘workers’) a little bit better than they would be under the rule of a party dedicated (according to their tribal view of history and politics) to protecting the interests of the elite (they had also given up on calling them capitalists).  ‘Let’s spend a bit more on the NHS’ is a long way from demanding ‘socialism now’, but it was still about putting forward an alternative of sorts, even if it wasn’t as alternative as it could be.
Earlier today, one of Labour’s Shadow Ministers, Barry Gardiner, opposed the holding of any sort of confirmatory vote on any deal on which parliament can agree, on the basis that it makes Labour look like a Remain party.  Whilst it was a Remain party going into the referendum, it is now a party of leave, according to him, because the party “has accepted the result of the referendum”.  In his view, a party which set out to lead people to a better future, to argue for what was in people’s best interests, is now a party which seeks only to follow public opinion – even if to do so is to damage the interests of those they claim to be representing.  It is almost the complete opposite of their starting point.
There are, of course, those in the Labour Party who genuinely believe that Brexit is in the best interests of those ‘ordinary people’.  They are a minority, and I think they’re wrong, but it is an entirely honest and honourable position to argue.  But arguing that the result must be respected and implemented because it was what people voted for, even when it is clear people have been persuaded to vote against their own interests and those of people around them, is a very long way from the principles of the party’s founders.
It turns out that the Marxists remain stronger than many had thought within the modern Labour Party after all.  I mean Groucho rather than Karl, of course, “Those are my principles, and if you don't like them...well I have others”.

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

A majority isn't enough


One of last week’s posts talked about the problems of equating ‘democracy’ with simple ‘majority rule’, and argued that there has to be more to democracy than that, particularly in relation to securing and ensuring the rights and freedoms of all citizens.  Brexit has highlighted one aspect of the problem: whilst (according to the rules under which referendums are held) a majority of 50%+1 is considered sufficient to determine the question, making a major change on the basis of such a narrow majority – especially a change which has major implications for the lives of all citizens, including those opposed to it – leaves a country in a situation where 50%-1 of the population are potentially unhappy with the decision.  There’s a serious question to be asked about whether securing the narrowest of all margins in a public vote is really a good way of determining the ‘will of the people’; in the narrowest conceivable scenario, it’s really only the will of half the people.  There is a lesson here for independentistas as well.
Some have suggested that there should be a requirement for some sort of ‘super majority’, such as 60% support, before a change can be implemented following a referendum.  The main problem that I see with that approach is that it creates a built-in bias in favour of the status quo, even if the status quo enjoys only minority support.  As an example, if the two options on a ballot paper are a) remain part of the UK, and b) become independent, and if the electorate were to vote 40%+1:60%-1 in favour of independence, on what ‘democratic’ basis can the 40%+1 be declared ‘winners’?  Any rule other than 50%+1 means, effectively, that the ‘losing’ side can end up winning, which is as unsatisfactory to me as the idea that a simple majority can always impose its will on the minority.
I see the UK’s ‘winner takes all’ approach to elections as being a significant part of the problem.  In the case of the Brexit referendum, it meant that a party which secured only 36.9% of the vote in the 2015 election was rewarded with an absolute majority of seats in parliament, and then called a referendum (for which it was the only party to have campaigned) in order to placate the even smaller minority of anti-EU individuals amongst its members.  Had they been given only the 37% of seats which their vote earned them, then the referendum would never have been called and the subsequent shambles would have been avoided.  There is a very real sense in which a properly proportional electoral system creates a potential lock on reckless referendums, since it effectively requires a majority to vote for a party or parties supporting a referendum before one can be held.  In such a circumstance, a referendum is closer to being a confirmation of what people have already voted for rather than the prime method of taking the decision.
It does not, though, overcome my other reservation about a potential referendum on independence for Wales, a reservation which has grown considerably in the light of the outcome of the 2014 independence referendum in Scotland and the 2016 EU referendum across the UK.  If a referendum posing a binary question between two propositions can only fairly be decided by a simple majority (for the reasons outlined above), then the narrower that majority the greater the extent to which the referendum exposes a split amongst the population.   (And ‘expose’ a division is all it does; contrary to what many have argued, the two referendums to which I referred did not create the difference of opinion).  Imposing such a major decision made by barely half the population on an unwilling minority (on whichever side it is found) is, as we have seen with Brexit, a deeply unattractive proposition. 
On some questions there is a possibility of a ‘middle way’ if those involved are willing to look for it (in the case of Brexit, for example, a closer relationship with the EU than the PM has been willing to countenance).  But sometimes there is no middle way.  Certainly, powers can be gradually transferred to Wales under a devolution model, but at some point, there is an inevitable binary question – does sovereignty lie with the crown in parliament or does it lie with the people of Wales?  ‘Devolution’ avoids that question (and can continue to ignore it as considerable additional powers are devolved), but the price of avoiding it is that devolution is always unilaterally reversible by Westminster; independence is not.
For independence to be the ‘will of the people’ therefore requires, in my view, more than winning a simple majority in a referendum; it requires that the people as a whole are ready and willing to accept it, even if it’s not their preferred option.  That has been a central problem with Brexit – the Brexiteers campaigned with the sole objective of winning the vote (by any means at all, as it turns out), and not with the aim of persuading people that it was a good (or at least reasonable) idea.  Even now, the Brexit ultras are clinging to the idea that the referendum vote gives them the absolute right to impose their view of what it meant on the population as a whole; they are still making little or no effort to persuade.  Majoritarianism is a deeply-rooted concept in a ‘winner-takes-all’ style democracy.
The lesson for independentistas is clear; our job is not simply to press for a referendum and then seek to win a majority by whatever means are available – it is to create the desire for independence and to persuade even those not willing to vote for it that it is a reasonable and acceptable way forward for Wales.  Most of the nations that have gained independence over the years did not do so as a result of a majority vote, they did so because it was the obvious and natural step for them to take.  We need to make it the obvious and natural step for Wales to take.
Too much of the independence movement in Wales is over-focussed on the electoral aspect rather than on developing that desire and creating the environment in which independence becomes entirely natural.  It is perhaps inevitable; the winner-tales-all approach is the familiar territory in which politics in Wales plays out – it’s just another of those instances where we need to start thinking differently before independence.  Insofar as the case is being made at all, it is often made on a ‘transactional’ basis, such as being a means of avoiding Tory austerity.  But building a general consensus around a willingness to accept responsibility for shaping our own futures is much more important – and difficult, of course – than merely calling for a referendum and then looking for a simple narrow majority in a one-off vote in a nation where that ground work hasn’t been done.  Calling for an independence referendum in the immediate future isn’t the same as a campaign to persuade people that independence is the best way forward for Wales.  Advancing Welsh democracy and achieving a consensus around independence requires more than applying traditional Westminster majoritarianism in Wales.

Monday, 25 March 2019

A very Brexity coup


There was much speculation over the weekend that the PM’s time is up.  According to the reports, based on off-the-record briefings by numerous members of the cabinet, she would be faced by a clear demand to stand aside at this morning’s meeting of the cabinet.  Later in the day, those rumoured to be the beneficiaries of the putative coup came forward to dismiss the rumours, arguing that now is not the time to change.  Whether there will or won’t be a show-down this morning remains to be seen, but the briefings certainly look like an attempt to bounce the PM into announcing her resignation in advance, so that none of the plotters had to get their hands dirty by actually confronting her this morning.
I thought, though, that there was something deliciously ‘Brexity’ about the whole coup attempt.  Judging from the numbers of cabinet members who seem to have loose tongues in private – from all factions of the Brexit debate – it appears that the cabinet is united in wanting rid of the old, but utterly at a loss when it comes to deciding what the new looks like or how to get there.  To coin a phrase - 'Nothing has changed'.

Friday, 22 March 2019

Reality and delusion


Philosophers have spent centuries debating the nature of reality without ever coming to a single clear definition of what it is.  All we do know is that, whatever it is, our understanding of it is mediated by our five senses and then reconstructed in our own individual brains.  That means that we all have our own personal understanding of what reality is; and in common parlance, ‘delusional’ is simply a short-hand way of describing someone whose understanding of the objective reality around him or her is at some distance from the understanding of the rest of us.  There is another, much simpler, explanation of reality which I once saw written on the wall of the gents in a public house – ‘reality is an illusion caused by lack of alcohol’.
Whatever the cause, it is increasingly clear that the Prime Minister’s understanding of the reality surrounding her is significantly at odds with the understanding of most other people.  In her case, I’m not at all certain that plying her with a few glasses of her favourite tipple – even if distilled here in Wales – would do anything to resolve the problem.  Alcohol is generally more likely to render the coherent incoherent than to correct any pre-existing incoherence, although I’d have to accept that it doesn’t always seem that way to the individual partaking.  The possibility that she is, in fact, more or less permanently inebriated cannot be entirely discounted – it’s not without precedent – but it seems unlikely to me.
Her sensory malfunctions appear to be at the extreme end of the range.  When anyone says ‘no’, her brain processes that as a ‘yes’, and if they say ‘maybe’ she hears ‘definitely’.  Throwing away a narrow parliamentary majority was a massive success which gave her unrestricted power to govern as she sees fit, and a lost vote in parliament is merely an illusion which can be ignored.  And the UK is absolutely full of electors who genuinely believe that she is on their side, supporting their unanimous wishes against the evil intentions of the parliament that those same citizens so foolishly elected.  Part of the Brexit legislation is about giving the government so-called ‘Henry VIII powers’, but her comments about parliament on Wednesday sounded rather more like the words of an earlier predecessor, Henry II.  ‘Turbulent’ parliamentarians have some historical justification for being wary of any ruler who sees his or her power as absolute, as do ‘turbulent’ Speakers of the House of Commons.
Another aspect of her serious problems in interpreting events in the world around her is an inability to comprehend or process the words of those calling for her to go.  It’s impossible to know how these messages are being processed, but it would be no surprise if they were being interpreted as a vote of confidence.  And she seriously believed that walking into a meeting with 27 other European leaders with nothing new to say, no guarantee that the House of Commons could be persuaded to back her deal, and no plan for what happens if they didn’t was going to win her the support she requested.  There is no hope of any progress whilst she remains in charge; the only real question now is how long that will be.

Thursday, 21 March 2019

A Greek tragedy


Just occasionally, the fates act in a way which brings about a perfect conjunction of people or events.  ‘Perfect’ doesn’t necessarily mean good, of course; something can be perfectly bad as well as perfectly good.  In the context in which I’m using the word here, what I mean is that things are perfectly complementary, like yin and yang.
In years to come, historians will marvel (although conspiracy theorists may well develop their own explanations) at how the paths taken by Jeremy (born 26 May 1949) and Theresa (born 1 October 1956) followed such apparently completely divergent routes before bringing them to precisely the right point, at precisely the right time, to create such a perfect conjunction, such a deadly duet, such a danse macabre.  So different yet so similar: the survival of each now depends on the other as they are locked in a ritual to which there appears to be no end, no obvious denouement; they can only play the roles assigned to them by the fates until the fates decide that they’ve had enough.
There is a clear consensus between them on one thing and one thing only – they are both absolutely convinced that ‘consensus’ requires everybody else to agree with them.  Theresa summoned the leaders of other parties to hector them into forming a consensus with her to back her deal, whilst Jeremy invited MPs from across the House of Commons to listen to his plans for forming a consensus around his alternative.  Both seem to have listened only with their mouths, leaving their hearing organs unsullied by any contrary opinions.  And thus the tragedy plays out, with its unexpected twists and turns all scripted centuries ago by the all-seeing fates, with the end as yet unknowable.  We have reached the point where our best hope may be that the tragedy truly is a Greek one; at least they had a deus ex machina to resolve the apparently irresolvable.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Majoritarianism isn't enough


There are many Brexiteers who are claiming on a regular basis than any decision to cancel or delay Brexit would be some sort of affront to ‘democracy’, and that people will feel cheated if Brexit is in any way delayed or watered down.  Trump Junior has added his support to the idea that democracy is “all but dead” because the “will of the people” is being ignored.  He’s expressing a view which many of those who voted for Brexit share, and which is being expressed by many.  After all, the argument goes, 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU, and only 16.1 million voted to remain, so ‘democracy’ requires that we leave.  But is that true?  One of the things I learned from my studies many years ago is that there isn’t actually a single simple agreed definition of what ‘democracy’ means.  And one thing which is certain is that there’s a huge difference between ‘democracy’ and ‘majoritarianism’.
If asked to define the word ‘democracy’, I suspect that most people would come up with some variation on Lincoln’s statement about “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, and I wouldn’t disagree with that formulation.  I would point out, though, that it talks about “the people”, not “the majority of the people”, and there’s nothing in the famous phrase which requires that the vote of the majority should outweigh the interests of any minority.  The minority in any binary choice are still part of ‘the people’, and ‘government by the people for the people’ cannot simply exclude them as a result.  It may or may not (no-one is entirely sure) have been Benjamin Franklin who said that “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch”.  It highlights the inherent problem in equating democracy and majoritarianism.  (It’s worth noting, though, that whoever did say it went on to add that “Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote”, highlighting the need to protect minorities from the absolutism of majority rule.) 
I’m not particularly in favour of arming the lambs, but it neatly illustrates the point that there has to be more to a truly democratic process than simply following the will of the majority.  No matter how large the majority, the idea that they always have the absolute right to over-ride the interests, freedom and rights of those who disagree with them is contrary to the idea of all people having rights; and positing extreme examples of what majorities might vote for highlights the problem.  Just to give one simple example – if the majority of citizens in a unitary state such as the UK voted to outlaw all languages other than English, would the government be obliged by ‘democracy’ to implement such a decision?  It’s an unlikely scenario, of course; but it demonstrates that modern concepts of rights and democracy demand that there must be limits on the rights of a mathematical majority.  (The much more difficult question is about who decides where the limits lie, but I’ll leave that one to one side for today.)
Turning back to the matter in hand, one of the problems clouding the debate about Brexit has been the UK’s traditional approach to democracy, which is based very much on the absolute and untrammelled right of the majority, even when it isn’t really a ‘majority’ at all.  Individual MPs are elected on a plurality of votes (which usually means a minority of the electorate), and whichever party can put together a simple majority in one house of parliament then expects the absolute right to pass whatever laws it chooses.  It doesn’t matter that no recent government has received the votes of a majority (meaning that in every case since 1935 more people have voted against the party which ‘won’ the election than for it); under the UK system, a government once formed expects absolute power.  That winner-takes-all expectation helps the current PM to assume that she has a right to the support of parliament for any proposal which she places before it.
It is also that adherence to majoritarianism which leads people to expect that achieving a small but clear majority in a referendum means that the result is inviolable and absolute.  The winner takes all, and the losers must go away and stop complaining, even if the ‘democratic’ result costs them their jobs, their livelihoods and (in the event of some of the more extreme projections over medicines etc) potentially even their lives.  An alternative, rather more inclusive, approach to the democratic outcome would have been to note that the majority was small, to note than an enormous number of people wanted to remain in a close relationship with the EU, and to devise an approach to Brexit which tried to honour the letter (ending formal EU membership) of the vote whilst maintaining close links.  I believe that there would have been (and probably still is) a majority in parliament for such an approach, but the ‘winning side’ has deliberately chosen not to pursue it.  The extent to which a mindset based on traditional UK absolutism has shaped the PM’s approach is open to debate, but a state more interested to trying to govern ‘for (all) the people’ and taking a more inclusive approach to defining the ‘will of (all) the people’ would not have followed the same path.
One of the things that Brexit has highlighted is that the UK’s system of ‘democracy’ is badly broken and needs repair.  It’s more than simply adopting a proportional electoral system, to ensure that the elected parliament more accurately reflects public opinion.  It’s also about developing a better understanding of what we mean by ‘democracy’; what are the limits on the rights of the ‘majority’; and how the rights and interests of minorities are protected.  If anything, Brexit to date has displayed clearly how far away we are from building a form of democracy in which no-one would ever consider that the lambs need to be well-armed.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Facilitating the abolitionists


The decision by UKIP to seek a referendum on abolishing the National Assembly, and to campaign in favour of abolition if such a referendum is held, can hardly come as a great surprise.  UKIP is, and always has been, an Anglo-British nationalist party in whose eyes the UK is a single nation.  And for many years, they argued that ‘devolution’ was all a dastardly EU plot to divide that single nation.  It’s rather more of a surprise for a politician of any party to say that he and his colleagues “...add no value to public life”, but then saying strange things is normal in the context of UKIP and expecting them to act on the logic of that assertion is wholly unrealistic.  We are talking about UKIP here.
They are, of course, perfectly entitled to campaign for the abolition of the Assembly, and for holding repeat referendums as part of that campaign.  It’s effectively an admission that a single referendum at a point in time can never amount to an absolute determination of a question for all time - but expecting them to accept the consequences of that in other contexts is also wholly unrealistic.  We are, after all, talking about UKIP here.  But, if they can ever get a majority in the Assembly for their viewpoint, then a referendum probably becomes inevitable.  It’s highly unlikely as things stand, although we need to remember that, just a few years ago, Brexit also looked highly unlikely.  Nevertheless, the prospect of a party or parties denying the existence of a distinct Welsh nation – let alone opposing any form of political expression for that nationality – winning a majority in the Assembly isn’t something which worries me unduly at present.  I’m more concerned about the current majority, which is made up of parties who seem to be forever seeking to put limits on that political expression.  Condemning UKIP for arguing for an extreme isn’t enough to cover their own complicity in the current state of affairs; and perpetuating a system in which the Assembly is open to criticism for failures some of which stem directly from its own lack of power is the breeding ground from which UKIP’s statement flows.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Brought down by a lie?


There is a view in parts of the Conservative Party that Theresa May has never really supported Brexit and that the negotiations would have gone the way that they wanted had they been led, instead, by a committed Brexiteer.  After all, she did say – in a very minimal contribution during the referendum campaign – that she believed that the UK should remain in the EU. 
But are the suspicions of the Brexiteers that she is still a closet Remainer fair or reasonable?  This analysis suggests not, arguing that she has always been a virulent Brexiteer.  It would mean, of course, that when she said she was backing remain during the referendum she was lying; but given what we now know about her propensity (or lack of) for truthfulness, that could hardly be a surprise.  Saying what she thought at the time was expedient in the light of the general expectation that Remain would win is entirely in character.  Reading the full text of her recent Grimsby speech, what we see is repetition of all the standard Brexiteer lines with no hint of any doubt about the veracity of them, even when they’re obviously untrue.
She’s not a particularly good liar; she doesn’t even manage to sound convincing on the few occasions when what she says is demonstrably true.  And whilst that one lie told during the referendum campaign when she said that she believed that remaining was the right option for the UK might be believable to fewer and fewer as time passes, it is still believed by precisely that one group in her own party whose support she now needs and isn’t getting.  There would be a certain poetic justice in it all if those with whom she has always agreed in truth bring her down because she once lied and said she didn’t.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Using different arguments

In response to the decisions by the House of Commons this week, part of the PM's response was to argue that if MPs aren't careful, there could be a second referendum, and Brexit could be lost.  I wouldn't use the word 'lost', but her point is essentially sound, and is a clear recognition by her that opinions might well have changed to the point where the result of a new referendum on a specific proposal might be different.

On the other hand, she has now twice presented what is effectively the same proposal to MPs and seems determined to present it at least once more.  The only valid reason for re-presenting the same proposal on multiple occasions can be that she believes that a sufficient number of MPs might have changed their minds to lead to a different outcome.  And she might even be right on that as well, although it currently appears unlikely.

In effect, therefore, the argument is that 'democracy' demands that:

  • The public can't have another vote, albeit on a different proposal, because they might have changed their minds
  • MPs must have another vote on the same proposal because they might have changed their minds

It's a strange world we live in.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Concentrating on the alligators


The saying goes that when you’re up to your waist in alligators, it’s difficult to remember that your original objective was to drain the swamp.  And much of the discussion around the infamous backstop shows similar signs of amnesia. 
The original objective of the backstop was to ensure that the conditions under which the Good Friday Agreement were made – where the border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland became to all intents and purposes non-existent – were retained into the indefinite future.  The chosen method of doing that (chosen more by default than design, because no-one has been able to devise a better one) was for either Northern Ireland or else the whole of the UK to remain for the time being in the Customs Union and aligned with the Single Market until such a time as a new comprehensive trade deal could be negotiated which achieved the same thing.  So far, so reasonable; but the problem with that, from the point of view of the Brexiteers, is that there is no deal on future relationships with the EU which is both acceptable to them and avoids the need for a border.  The result is that all the time and attention of those who don’t like the backstop has been focussed on finding technical means of keeping the hard border at a low level of visibility rather than on avoiding the need for a border at all, as this report from the House of Commons shows.  This has nothing to do with the original objective and is all about fighting off the alligators.  A hard border is the inevitable consequence of any sort of Brexit which allows both regulatory divergence and the negotiation of inferior trade deals, both of which are key objectives of the Brexiteers.
Before the humiliating defeat of the PM in parliament yesterday, there was some discussion around the ‘unilateral declaration’ made by the PM, which was one of the five documents considered by parliament before taking the vote.  It’s a document which the lawyers can argue over – if it’s unilateral, it has no real status say some, whilst others argue that if the EU haven’t explicitly rejected it, then they have implicitly accepted it which gives it some sort of legal status.  Let the lawyers argue – I’m more interested in the content, and after reading it, wondered how it actually changes anything.  The ‘agreed’ backstop basically says that the UK will remain part of the Customs Union until both sides agree a mutually acceptable deal; the unilateral declaration basically says that the UK reserves the right to unilaterally withdraw from the customs union “under the proviso that the UK will uphold its obligations under the 1998 Agreement in all its dimensions and under all circumstances and to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland”.  I’m not sure that there is actually a huge amount of difference between the two positions – in either case, the UK is committed to ensuring no hard border.
As the Commons report shows, however, it’s a commitment which the UK government has absolutely no intention of honouring; all discussion of alternatives has revolved around how to make a hard border not look like a hard border - by minimising the infrastructure, using clever technology, and doing the border checks away from the border.  None of this honours the spirit of either the ‘agreement’ which the PM made or the promises made repeatedly over many months.  And I doubt that it even honours the letter of the 1998 agreement, let alone the spirit.  In essence, the Anglo-British not-nationalists-at-all of the UK Government – to say nothing of its hard line Brexiteers – continue to operate on the basis of an assumption that they are in no way obliged to honour agreements made previously.  Why the EU even bothers to negotiate with people taking that view is one of life's great mysteries.
We saw a classic example of that today, with the twin announcements that, in the event of a no deal Brexit, the UK will slash tariffs on 87% of imports, and at the same time will not impose any restrictions on border crossings in Ireland. Of course, a country which opens its gates to imports from anywhere in the world doesn’t need border controls at all; if it’s happy to see its home-produced goods undercut by cheap imports it can do so.  The need for border controls arises in those countries which have higher tariffs and higher standards – an open border between a customs territory with zero tariffs and low standards and a country (or customs territory) with higher tariffs and high standards works for only one of the two territories.  The desire to have different tariffs and different regulations is precisely what leads to the requirement for a hard order in the first place.  It looked to me like a clumsy and arrogant attempt to force the EU and the Republic of Ireland to say that they will have no alternative but to introduce border controls if the UK pursues such aggressive and provocative policies.  Just another part of the blame game – the inevitable consequences of Brexit are the fault of everyone except those who demand it.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

We can't avoid the ideology


Last Friday’s Western Mail carried an article by Professor Martin Johnes of Swansea University, in which he said that we should start a more serious discussion of the question of Welsh independence in the light of the unusual times in which we find ourselves.  As he made very clear at the outset, this is not an article by a committed supporter of the concept of Welsh independence, rather an article by someone who, as he put it, has no problem with the principle but is unsure of the practicalities and can’t see any real point to it “unless it made Wales a wealthier and happier place”.  It’s a good starting point for debate, and I agree with him that “independence for independence’s sake” would be rather pointless.  I’ve argued the same thing myself in the past.  What matters is what we do with it.  And he’s absolutely right to be arguing that there need to be positive reasons for moving to independence rather than solely negative ones, let alone some sort of victim pleading.
I’m not sure that I agree, however, that ‘wealth and happiness’ are the only two criteria for assessment of the pluses and minuses, although the extent of my disagreement may well turn, to a significant extent, on what we mean by ‘wealth’ and ‘happiness’ and how we measure them.  Take ‘wealth’, for example: if an independent Wales were to end up with the same total wealth but distributed more equally, would that pass or fail the test for being ‘wealthier’?  Or, to put it another way, could building a fairer and more equal economy be of even more importance than simply building a wealthier one?  It might be argued that that would fit the ‘happiness’ test even if it doesn’t fit the ‘wealth’ one, but I suspect that, even to the limited extent to which wealth brings happiness, the impact of redistribution would be mixed.  And perhaps there are some additional criteria which we should consider as well rather than concentrate only on the difference it makes to us here in Wales: for instance, would the impact of Welsh independence on England and the wider world be positive or negative overall?  I can’t consider the question of independence solely in terms of its impact on Wales and those who live here.
The international impact is necessarily an unknown, of course, in advance of independence; and we will have different opinions on it depending on our view of the world.  But that brings me back even to the simpler criteria about wealth and happiness: to what extent can we really know in advance whether an independent Wales would be wealthier or happier?  The problem is that it isn’t ‘independence’ which makes the difference; it’s what we do with it once we have it.  Sticking entirely to the economic issue for a moment: with a certain amount of time and effort, I (or any other independentista) could produce a forecast for an independent Wales which would make it look a very attractive proposition.  And in the same way I (let alone any opponent of independence) could produce a forecast which makes Wales look like a complete basket case.  Which of the two would be ‘right’?  In the mathematical sense, probably both; assuming that mathematical operations have been correctly applied to the underlying assumptions about future policy in an independent Wales and the environment in which that policy would be implemented, there is no way of faulting either answer.  It is the assumptions which govern the result not the mathematics – so which set of assumptions is correct?  Clearly both cannot be correct; but it doesn’t follow that either one is – they could both be wrong, no matter how much good faith and effort is put into pinning them down.
In the real world, those assumptions would be replaced over time with actual hard decisions on policy, and that policy would be implemented under a particular set of external circumstances which are largely out of our control.  And even the very best assumptions cannot take account of completely unexpected events.  In effect, what I’m saying here is that a set of criteria, no matter how sensible and reasonable they are, which can only be fully objectively measured after the decision is implemented cannot be used in advance as a basis for making the decision.  If we say that ‘being wealthier or happier’ is our criterion, what we are really saying is that our criterion is ‘belief in the validity (or otherwise) of a particular set of assumptions’.  It cannot be otherwise.  And that is – and always will be – the problem at the heart of any debate about the economic impact of independence, or an attempt to use that impact as a basis for decision.  I don’t dismiss the importance of debate around those assumptions, or of attempting to convince people to agree with ‘our’ assumptions; but the desire for independence is inevitably going to be based on a great deal more than that.  In my own case, it stems from a set of principles and values which underpin my own world view, and I can’t reduce that to be just about wealth and happiness, however important those factors might be.  It’s about what sort of world we want to live in, and that isn’t easily translated into something which can be measured and assessed.  And that in turn means that, faced with a demand that I prove beyond doubt that an independent Wales will be wealthier or happier, I can’t.  I strongly believe that it would be, but to convince anyone else of that I need to start by convincing them of a whole series of other things which underpin that belief.  It is, ultimately, an ideological debate with economic consequences, not a simple economic one.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Identifying the culprits


The closer we get to the latest ‘absolute deadline’ for a Brexit decision, the more desperate May and her team seem to be getting.  How productive it is to threaten those from whom you want concessions is an interesting question.  It may have worked in the ‘good old days’ of gunboat diplomacy where most of the government seem to reside (well, those who aren’t from another planet, that is), but in the world which we inhabit a small offshore island threatening a whole continent doesn’t immediately strike me as the most productive approach. 
The PM has made it as clear as she ever makes anything that the iceberg must move out of the way because the majority of the ship’s crew have voted for it to be so, whilst the Foreign Secretary has told Brussels that UK-EU links could be poisoned for many years to come unless the EU backs down.  All we need now is for the Defence Secretary to send a half-complete boat to Brussels to show the government means business.  And he probably would if he hadn’t already allocated it to threatening the Chinese.  Even the UK’s current government is likely to shy away from pretending that a complete and fully-armed boat could be in two places at once, let alone an unfinished one.
Meanwhile, the Brexit Secretary accuses the EU of rerunning old arguments, because, basically, they are still saying what they have said from the outset.  But the standard advice to anyone who doesn’t want to keep hearing the same answers is to stop asking the same questions.  Two plus two always equals four, and whether you like the answer or not, it’s still the answer; and given a question framed within the terms of the PM’s red lines, the EU’s response is almost as mathematical in its formulation as the answer to two plus two.
Hunt claims that the UK’s proposals are “reasonable” - and indeed they are, for anyone who still believes that it is entirely reasonable for an ex-member of the EU to continue to receive all the benefits of membership with none of the obligations.  So that would be most of the cabinet then, aided and abetted by the ERG and the Labour Party.  The Anglo-British not-nationalists-at-all don’t get it now, haven’t got it from day 1, and seem to have no prospect of getting it any time soon – the rest of Europe isn’t beholden to the UK, doesn’t owe us any favours, and isn’t going to dismantle the entire project to suit a bunch of jingoistic islanders whose views are two centuries behind the times. 
We are in the mess in which we find ourselves not because of any intransigence on the part of the EU, but because of a government which has chosen to interpret a marginal vote for an undefined something as a clear-cut vote for a set of red lines which weren’t on the ballot paper and can’t even command a consensus amongst supporters of Brexit.  And this, according to them, is then the fault of everybody except those allegedly driving the process.  A twenty-fifth amendment often sounds like a good idea but finding a suitably-placed group of people with enough sanity between them to implement it is quite a hurdle to overcome.
Perhaps we’re closer than I think to such an outcome, though, with the Sunday Times reporting yesterday that some members of the cabinet are getting their best grey suits ready for a difficult conversation, perhaps as early as this week (although I'm far from convinced that it's the saner ones who are involved).  But, as the sharks start to circle, I bet the PM is cursing those who have got her into this mess:
·         The fool who triggered Article 50 with no hint of a plan,
·         The idiot who took away a degree of flexibility by writing an immovable end date into the legislation
·         The nincompoop who agreed to the Irish backstop in December 2017
·         The imbecile who suggested to the EU that the way to avoid different rules for Northern Ireland was for the whole UK to stay in the Customs Union until a new trade deal would be agreed
I’m sure she’ll have very strong words for those people when she writes her inevitable memoirs - if she can ever work out who they are.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Revealing the truth


The leader of the Tory group in the Assembly seems to be quite exercised about the fact that MPs aren’t all falling in to line behind his boss to support her Brexit deal. I can understand how committed Brexiters like him are getting increasingly concerned that as time goes by, the ‘victory’ that they won in the referendum looks to be less certain than it did at the time.  He berates MPs who stood on manifestos promising to honour the result for having second thoughts about the detail as it becomes clearer, as though new facts (or, perhaps merely corrections to old ‘facts’) lead MPs to want to change the nature of the Brexit which is to be delivered.  His criticism is misplaced in two ways, though, it seems to me.
The first is that there is still, I believe, a clear majority in parliament who would willingly vote to uphold the referendum result and allow Brexit to proceed, but who want to make sure that the detail of future arrangements is clear before they commit the country to an irreversible path.  I might wish it were otherwise, but I remain convinced that there are enough MPs who would vote for Brexit – even though they don’t really think it’s the right thing to do at all – as long as they could be persuaded that the final deal was not going to do too much damage to their constituents.  The problem that’s preventing them doing that isn’t their own opposition to Brexit – it’s the abject failure and utter stubbornness of the current government even to countenance a meaningful discussion on the detail.  The PM’s insistence on her arbitrary red lines is a far bigger problem than the pro-EU sentiment of opposition MPs.
But the most intriguing thing for me about Davies’ comment was the way in which he accused MPs of putting their "personal ambitions ahead of their responsibility to voters".  I’m not quite sure in what way he thinks that voting for the opposite of what he claims that the voters want is prioritising their own careers.  It seems to me that the opposite would be more likely to be true, and indeed, some of the MPs in his own party supporting a softer Brexit have already been threatened with deselection by their party’s members.  The idea that MPs opposing Brexit could be putting their own ambitions first depends on the assumption that the electorate will favour them as a result; and that depends on an assumption that enough electors have changed their minds since the referendum to make that a realistic assumption.  Perhaps, in his desperation to see his ideological project completed before it slips from his grasp completely, he’s revealing rather more about his knowledge of the political reality than he intended.

Friday, 8 March 2019

Government on verge of keeping a promise


In what looks superficially like an extremely rare exhibition of prescience from the current government, Amber Rudd (when she was Home Secretary last April) promised that the application process for citizens of the EU27 wanting to remain in the UK would be “as easy as setting up an online account at LK Bennett”.  I’ll admit that I had never heard of LK Bennett until the news yesterday that it was going into administration, but at last it looks like the government is on the verge of honouring one of its Brexit commitments.  It is now extremely likely that the process will indeed be as easy as setting up an online account with a defunct company – and probably about as much use as well.
The big unanswered question is whether the government has deliberately engineered the company’s failure in order to honour its promise, or whether the promise is coming true entirely by accident.  No prizes for guessing which I think is the likeliest.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Pounds and pennies aren't the issue


When decimal currency was introduced in 1971, I remember my grandmother and her sister complaining that “they should have waited until we oldies had all died off” before making the change.  There was more to it, of course, than simply a reluctance to change on the part of the older members of society, although that was certainly part of it.  It was also about the effort involved in learning something new and unremembering the habits of a lifetime.  The problem with the proposition, of course, is that no sooner have one set of oldies died out than another set have taken their place.
The report this week about the looming demise of the use of cash raises a similar issue.  Whilst it’s not a clear split, it is certainly true that the older generations are more used to cash and less willing to give it up than the younger generations.  That does make it different in one key aspect, though: because of that generational split, it really is true that the passing of time will, for demographic reasons, further reduce the use of cash.  The call made was that steps should be taken to ensure that those who want to continue to use cash are able to do so, and in respect of those who grew up in a largely cash economy and still live there this makes eminent sense, although for that particular section of society it’s necessarily a time-limited requirement.
It isn’t only the elderly who prefer cash, though.  Leaving aside the advantages which cash confers for certain types of criminal activity, the combination of digital exclusion and relative poverty means that there are many other people who are unable to be part of the increasing move away from cash.  In the case of these groups, I’m not at all convinced that ensuring the ability to use cash for the indefinite future is the right approach – it looks to me like addressing the symptoms rather than the underlying causes.  It’s the exclusion issues and the relative poverty which need to be tackled, not ensuring the means by which they can be perpetuated into the future.
There was another aspect about the report that struck me as well.  It isn’t just ‘cash’ that many are wedded to, it’s the pound itself as a unit of currency.  As long as the UK remains a member of the EU, there are economic arguments both for and against ditching the pound and adopting the Euro; but popular feeling for retaining the pound owes little to those and depends much more on an identity-based attachment to a particular historic currency.  Whilst I can understand the economic arguments on both sides, I’ve always felt that the ‘attachment’ question is rather lacking in rationality, owing more to nationalism that economics.  If and when we break the link between what we spend on the one hand and coins and notes on the other, perhaps it will become more obvious that the units in which we measure money are less important than its ability to purchase the things that we need.  And, whether people are ready and able to join the cashless economy today or not, that question of spending power and how it is distributed is far more important than either the units in which it is measured or the means by which it is exchanged.  Talking about how we continue to use cash is a diversion from the real question.

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Misreading the words


Reading the coverage of the decision by the ERG to set three tests for any amended deal that the PM manages to get from the EU, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, why so much of the media has such a problem with doing honest and thorough analysis of what it reports instead of swallowing the spin.  The ‘three tests’ have been presented as though they represent a huge change in opinion which opens the way to allowing the ERG to support the agreement.  But I didn’t have to read past the first test (“...clearly worded, legally binding, treaty-level clause which unambiguously overrides...”) to realise that these tests change absolutely nothing.  Indeed, if anything they represent a hardening of attitude, spelling out the group’s views in crystal-clear language.
Agreeing to accept and support a treaty only if there is another document over-riding its content is no agreement at all.  Agreeing that there is no need to re-open an agreed text for further discussion as long as that text is rendered inoperative by another document is playing with semantics, not changing position.  They are still asking for something which the EU27 can’t give them, even if it wanted to.  So why has the media fallen for it?
Parts of the media, of course, deliberately seek to mislead the public.  They’ve been doing it for years; I have zero expectation that they will stop any time soon.  But that doesn’t account for all parts of the media.
It could be simply laziness; much of what passes for reporting these days has become little more than printing extracts from rival press releases giving equal weight to them in the name of ‘balance’ regardless of whether there is any factual basis to what they say.  It could be that journalists don’t have the time or energy (or ability?) to critically read and analyse what they write.  I suspect both are at play to a greater or lesser extent.  But I also suspect that much of the UK media is so steeped in a UK-biased perspective on events that, like the politicians ‘negotiating’ on our behalf, they are simply unable to understand any alternative perspective and try and see things as others see them.
Time and again I have read or watched reporters talking about whether the EU is ready to budge ‘yet’, as though the whole issue of the ‘backstop’ and the integrity of the single market are just pawns on the board; things which can be sacrificed or adjusted when the political climate decrees it to be necessary.  That’s certainly the way in which most of the Brexiteers see things as they reduce everything to mere ‘transactions’ in which one thing can be traded for another.  But it completely fails to understand the importance which the rest of the EU places on the single market and the European project as a whole.
Does it matter that the reporting around this issue is so poor?  In itself, no; we can simply ignore the bias if we choose.  But what does matter is that the reporting reinforces the views of politicians who take the same viewpoint, mistakenly believing that, when they are reading their own views reported back to them, they are somehow reading an impartial and critical analysis of the situation.  And it matters more widely in that it reinforces the widespread belief that the problem is that those beastly Europeans are being horrid to the UK, leading to the demand that we ‘stand up to them’.  One of the few beneficial results of Brexit is the revelation of how poorly served we are by the media; the problem is that knowing about it isn’t the same as solving it.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Yet more not-nationalism


The former UK Ambassador to the EU has delivered a withering judgement on the UK’s approach to negotiating with the EU, in which he argues that the PM simply did not, and still does not, understand how the EU works, assuming (like Cameron before her) that the real negotiations were with the heads of government of the 27 member states, not with their appointed representatives in the EU institutions.  As a description of the mess in which we now find ourselves, it’s a helpful insight from someone who’s been there and knows how things work.  I wonder, though, whether it gets right to the bottom of the underlying problem.
There was another story over the weekend about the former Foreign Secretary’s complaint that ‘we don’t really know who’s running the EU or how to kick them out’, which, leaving aside his usual colourful and unhelpful language, struck me as being another side of the same coin.  In truth, it isn’t about not knowing who runs the EU, nor about knowing how to kick them out, it’s more about not liking the answer to those questions.  What he really seems to be hinting at is that there is no way for the UK electorate, acting alone, to change the people at the top of the EU.  For Johnson, as with May, the problem starts and ends with their own ideological perspective about what the ‘right’ way to do things is, and utter incomprehension that anyone else might take a different view.
From their perspective, the ‘right’ place – indeed, the only place – for power to lie is with what they choose to call the ‘nation state’ (although it’s actually more a question of which set of lines on the map was in place when the fighting stopped – a debate for another day).  From that point of view, it makes eminent sense that May would expect to be dealing with other nation states, just as it makes eminent sense for the nation state (well, for ‘our’ nation state at least) to be able to remove its leaders at any level.  It’s a position which has more holes in it than a colander though, when looked at from any perspective other than theirs.  They find it easy enough to dismiss the counter argument that the same rule should apply to Wales or Scotland, neither of which can change the UK Government unilaterally – after all, they’re not ‘nation states’ are they?  They’re merely regions of the only nation state which counts, with comparatively small populations.  And being able to change the people who rule over us doesn’t include the head of state (obviously – her power was given to her by God, not through any electoral process) nor the membership of the largest house of parliament (tradition and ‘the way we do things’ being more important than considerations of democracy).
It’s just as well that they keep reminding us that they’re not nationalists (apparently, only other people can be nationalists) because otherwise it would be very tempting to describe their view as being extremely nationalistic.