Monday, 23 May 2022

Playing to his strengths


According to Andrew RT Davies, who manages to be the previous ex-leader, current leader, and future ex-leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party in the Senedd, he and his party will be bold enough to break from the policy pursued by the UK party on issues where they think that the Welsh perspective is different. He seems to have struggled to find meaningful examples, though. It is, perhaps, convenient that, on the two issues he did manage to mention (a public holiday on St David’s Day and Barnett consequentials for HS2), the Senedd has no power to act, even in the unlikely event of a Tory Senedd victory. And both have already been dismissed out of hand by his Westminster masters. He won’t be called on to do anything more than get angry, shout a bit, and sloganize. At least he’ll be playing to his strengths, then.

He doesn’t seem to be asking for the transfer of more powers, for instance so that the Senedd could itself declare a Bank Holiday. On all the things where the Senedd actually can change policy, he remains fully aligned to doing whatever his masters in London tell him. It’s a bonus, for him, that he is only the leader of the Senedd group, not of the whole party in Wales. It means that no policy his group of ‘Welsh’ Conservatives in the Senedd adopts will apply to the people in his party who might possibly have some influence in London, namely Welsh Tory MPs. It’s easy to see how the UK party can tolerate this sort of low-level verbal difference of opinion without losing any sleep. It’s less easy to see why Davies would believe that anyone in Wales would be taken in by it.

Saturday, 21 May 2022

Hammers and nails


They say that when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The Bank of England is demonstrating the consequences of that. It’s easy enough for the UK Government to repeat ad infinitum that the BoE has sole responsibility for controlling inflation, but the only tool that they’ve allowed the Bank to have is the very blunt instrument of interest rate rises, a tool which the Bank is using with abandon despite the fact that the problem with which they are dealing bears little more than a passing resemblance to a nail.

The theory behind interest rate rises is simple enough: if the cost of money increases, people will borrow less and spend less, and if less money is chasing goods and services, the price of the latter will stabilise. Like most theories in economics, however, it’s only as valid as the assumptions underpinning it, and in this case, the assumption is that inflation is caused by too much money chasing too small a supply of goods and services, the classic cause of inflation. If that assumption were true, making money more expensive might well work, albeit at a cost. However, in this case, the problem isn’t an excess of money in the UK economy, it is a price shock caused by events – some of them, such as Brexit, caused directly by inept government actions, and others, such as war and the pandemic, completely outside the control of the government, let alone the Bank. The Bank’s governor has himself admitted to feeling “helpless” in this situation, although that hasn’t stopped him wielding the hammer with gusto against the imaginary nail.

In response to an external price shock, interest rate increases don’t stop the poorest needing to buy essentials, they simply pile more financial pressure onto people. Continuing to hit the non-nail with the hammer can only make things worse, potentially leading a government which claims to be promoting growth to preside over a recession instead. In response to the level of price shock that we are experiencing, only government can take action; blaming the Bank, as some Tories have done, is simply abrogating responsibility. And even the government, with all the resources at its command, cannot prevent the sort of price shocks we are seeing; but what it can do (and is refusing to do) is to mitigate the effect on the most vulnerable in our society. If there’s one clear lesson from the pandemic, it is that the government is not, in practice, constrained by a lack of money, a point which they are demonstrating yet again with the huge costs of supporting Ukraine in its defence against the Russian attack. They could equally deploy sufficient resources to help people through the current crisis, but have taken a conscious decision not to do so. They are, instead, fiddling around the edges of the problem, leaving those who can’t cope to their own devices. They’ve probably assumed (and its not an assumption which I’d challenge) that the people bearing the brunt of the crisis aren’t, and never will be, Tory voters. It’s just another demonstration of a complete lack of care for any citizen who isn’t one of them.

Friday, 20 May 2022

Trying people in secret


It would be an understatement to suggest that many people are mystified by the conclusions of the Met investigation into events at Downing Street. Various explanations have been suggested as to how this might have happened, ranging from some people being penalised for answering the infamous questionnaire honestly, or the police looking for only ‘slam dunk’ cases where the evidence is absolutely incontrovertible, to strange loopholes involving the fact that Downing Street is both a home and an office. Whatever the reason, it does seem as though junior and middle-ranking staff have taken the brunt of the punishments whilst those at the top setting the tone and culture have largely escaped. Whilst the detail about who has been fined and for what remains officially secret, the chances of further information being made public by disgruntled staff look to be high. As Keir Starmer has discovered, the Tories are enthusiastically in favour of demanding that the police re-open investigations where the rationale for the police conclusion is inexplicable and happy to use ‘new evidence’, however flimsy, to boost their case. In the interests of consistency, they will surely demand a re-investigation of Johnson when new evidence does come to light. And porcine aviation is established fact.

The question which the outcome does – or should – raise is whether fixed penalty notices are an appropriate way of dealing with such matters. It’s not like a parking fine, for instance, where it’s usually simply a matter of fact as to whether a vehicle was parked in a particular location for a particular period of time. And whilst it’s true that those fined could decline to pay and demand a court hearing, it’s easy to see why many might decide not to for reasons of hassle and cost, especially when their real gripe isn’t that they’ve been fined but that someone else has not. Use of FPNs looks to be more about saving cost in the justice system than about ensuring that justice is not only done but is also seen to be done. But in cases where evidence has to be sifted and weighed and will never be officially revealed, and where complex and changing regulations have to be assessed and interpreted, is it really appropriate to allow the police to act as judge, jury and executioner – and to do so in secret?

Thursday, 19 May 2022

The problem with the 'I' word


Whilst ‘independence’ is the best word to describe the status of free nations, the word is not without its problems. One of the reasons why Plaid avoided using the word for many years is because there are reasonable grounds for arguing that no nation is truly ‘independent’ in the modern world; in one way or another all countries are interdependent in a global economy. There’s another problem, though, and in a roundabout way it was flagged up by Peter Hitchens in his call for England to declare its independence from the UK. This one is more of an etymological problem than a practical one, and it stems from the fact that in English, as well as in other languages, when considered in the abstract the opposite of independence is dependence. It’s a feature of language which provokes the unconscious conclusion that any country which is not independent must therefore be dependent.

It is, however, a nonsense. If we consider the host of countries which have achieved their independence from colonial powers, they were not generally ‘dependent’ on the colonial power. Indeed, if anything, the colonial powers which stripped out natural resources and enslaved populations were actually dependent on their colonies. It is certainly the case that much of the accumulated wealth of the former colonial powers is the direct result of this exploitation of those countries over which they ruled. And almost all of those newly independent countries have become significantly richer as a result of shedding their alleged ‘dependence’ on their ex-colonialists, even if past asset-stripping and residual unbalanced power relationships mean that many haven’t yet been able to catch up.

As part of his call for English independence, Hitchens said that “England had never been dependent on the rest of the UK”, implicitly repeating the assumption that, conversely, the rest of the UK is dependent on England. It’s an assertion which ignores the history of unequal economic relationships in which wealth and talent have been sucked from the periphery into the centre (and not overlooking the fact that much of England is in that periphery along with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). The fact that England is, on average, better off than the rest of the UK is not down to any special ability or talent uniquely possessed by people considering themselves English, it is as a result of flows of wealth over decades and centuries. And averages hide many sins; even within England there are huge regional disparities as a result of the same process. Claiming that ‘England’ is richer than Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, is a distortion; it would be more accurate to say that a part of England (largely the south east) is richer than Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and most of England. And that wealth has been acquired as a result of a process of transferring it from elsewhere.

In the real world, dependence is usually the wrong word to describe the opposite of independence. Subjugation, control by another country, colonisation, and exploitation are all better and more accurate alternatives. There are, though, rare exceptions to the rule, in which dependence really is the opposite of independence. And England is one of those exceptions, as a country whose wealth is historically almost entirely dependent on others. I hope that they take up Hitchens’ call to seize their independence; it’s about time that they stopped depending on extracting wealth and talent from their few remaining possessions.

Tuesday, 17 May 2022

In a sense it really is our own fault


Yesterday’s story about the government minister who suggested that people who are struggling to get by should work longer hours or get a better job tells us a lot about the underlying philosophy of the current government, and is a form of victim-blaming. If people are unable to get by on their income, this is, apparently, not because employers are underpaying them, nor is it anything to do with legislation which allows employers to pay less than a living wage, or the actions of the benefits agency in threatening to withhold benefits from people who don’t take low-paid work. No, according to the Tory gospel, it’s their own fault for staying in poorly-paid employment. Whilst there was something of a grudging admission that changing jobs or working longer hours wouldn’t work for everyone, the way the exception was phrased suggests a belief that it is indeed the answer for most.

The idea that people can and should better themselves with no need for legislation or assistance is a key fallacy of Tory ideology, but it lies behind a lot of their thinking, and deliberately conflates the idea of ‘anybody’ with ‘everybody’. As a general rule (although there are always some exceptions), it is true that ‘anyone’ can get a better job, just as ‘anyone’ can become a successful billionaire entrepreneur. And their idea of social justice is based on that idea that opportunities are equal, with its concomitant that anyone who doesn’t do either or both of those things therefore has only themselves to blame. Poverty, in their eyes, is the fault of the poor themselves; people who do not enjoy ‘success’ are just life’s losers. But here’s the point: whilst it’s true that ‘anyone’ can get a better job or become a billionaire, it doesn’t follow that ‘everyone’ can. Indeed it would be impossible for ‘everyone’ to do so. Whilst some doors might theoretically be open to ‘anyone’, we know that only a limited number can pass through them before the room becomes full. We also know that which people pass through them isn’t simply a matter of individual determination; there’s also a good amount of luck involved, to say nothing of the individual’s background.

Let us take as an example, a certain B Johnson, currently the temporary resident of number 10, Downing Street. In theory, anyone in the UK could have ended up living at his current address, but given his limited ability, his utter inconsistency, and his penchant for lies, would he be in the same place today had he been brought up on a council estate? Would he have ever gone to Eton? And without going to Eton, would he ever have got into Oxford? And without both of those things happening, would the Conservative Party ever have endorsed a man (let alone a woman) with such a cavalier disregard for the law and for truth, who is known to have conspired with another to have a journalist beaten up, and who has been fired from two jobs for lying, as a candidate for parliament, never mind for PM? Background, and more particularly parental income and wealth, to say nothing of the consequential power relationships, matter; they matter a lot.

It suits the Tories, though, to blame the poor for their own plight. It suits them even better to blame the poor for the fact that those above the poverty line are also struggling. From their perspective, it’s far better for the not-so-well-off to blame the even poorer for their situation than to encourage them to look at where the power and wealth are being increasingly concentrated. The words of the hapless minister yesterday weren’t a mistake or a slip of the tongue, they were part of a deliberate culture of victim-blaming. One thing that is entirely the fault of those of us who are not part of their priviliged elite is allowing them to get away with it.

Monday, 16 May 2022

Yet another cunning plan seems likely to fail


There are contradictory reports about what the government is or is not planning to do about the Northern Ireland Protocol this week. Some are suggesting that the PM is telling his ministers to tone down the rhetoric, and that he will vow not to scrap the protocol; whilst others are suggesting that he is imminently going to give the green light to a new parliamentary bill which will effectively nullify part of the international agreement which he signed. There might be circumstances in which ‘keeping the other side guessing’ is a valid negotiating tactic, but sending mixed messages to a party such as the DUP, which sees everything in stark black and white terms, before meeting with them isn’t one of them. Indeed, giving that party mixed messages and a succession of broken promises rather than honesty about what was going to happen and why is one of the causes of the current mess. The mixed messages look less like a negotiating tactic than a reflection of the fact that the PM can’t make up his own mind and simply veers between options depending on who he spoke to last.

It appears that getting Tory MPs to pass an Act of Parliament which specifically authorises ministers to over-ride the provisions of an international treaty that they negotiated and signed up to may not be a simple task. There are still a few brave souls in the traditional party of law and order who cling to the outdated belief that abiding by international law is, on the whole, rather a good thing. And then there is the House of Lords. Given that this is not a manifesto commitment by the governing party (indeed, there was a clear manifesto commitment to implement the agreement, not to change it), their lordships have the constitutional right to delay the legislation for up to a year – and it is highly likely that, with no whipped majority available to the PM, they will do precisely that.

The measure is likely to be sold to the dissenting MPs on the basis that the government has no intention of using the powers which the legislation, if and when passed, will give them; it is merely a bargaining stick to convince the EU that it must change its stance or else. Even assuming that a sufficient number of dissenting MPs are persuaded by that (it does, after all, require them to believe the word of a known serial liar), it is unlikely that their noble lordships will fall for it. But, not for the first time, it looks as though the PM and his team have either not thought through the consequences of their actions, or else are assuming that what happens in the UK is somehow invisible to those pesky foreigners in Brussels and beyond.

If they could only try and stand in the shoes of the EU Commission for just a few moments, they might start to understand that watching the UK government struggle to get unilateral changes through its own parliament doesn’t exactly come across as a huge threat requiring their immediate capitulation. What it does encourage is quite the opposite: do nothing while the UK parliamentary drama plays out, with at least an evens chance that the whole thing will blow up in the face of the UK Government, or even that there will be a change of government during that year. It also, of course, gives them twelve months to plan quietly and implement their own response to any attempt to unilaterally change the rules through act of parliament. The UK government will in the meantime make the same preparations for implementing its proposed changes as it did for the Brexit Agreement itself (i.e. do nothing). It will then come as a complete surprise when the EU, once again, seamlessly implements its own fallback plan, leaving the UK Government astounded at the inability of those Europeans to understand just how special the UK is.

Friday, 13 May 2022

Improving government efficiency


Civil servants perform no useful function, and we can simply sack 20% of them with no impact on government services or performance. That is, apparently, what the PM believes, and why he has asked every department to reduce its numbers by that arbitrary percentage, leading to an overall reduction of 90,000 jobs. It’s hardly as if there are any backlogs in, say, the Passport Office or the DVLA which might be exacerbated by an arbitrary 20% cut in staff numbers.

I suppose that, for the head of a cabinet which could easily reduce its headcount by 100% with only a net positive effect on government performance, a cut of a mere 20% might even look to be a bit on the cautious side. And I somehow doubt that, in calculating the cost savings involved by not paying 90,000 salaries, he has taken any account of the potential corresponding increase in expenditure on benefits (or pensions, for those ex-civil servants who decide that they will simply retire early rather than seek alternative employment). Then again, because there will be no one available to administer said benefits and pensions, maybe it doesn’t matter anyway. Another brilliant cost-saving ‘efficiency’.

Interestingly, one of the things he said was that he wanted civil service numbers to get back down to where they were in 2016. For all of 10 milliseconds, I found myself wondering what could possibly be significant about that date. Could there have been some strange event which subsequently required the government to employ thousands of extra civil servants to negotiate trade deals, to implement new border controls, or to replicate other functions previously performed elsewhere, such as in Brussels maybe? But luckily, now that Brexit is officially ‘done’, none of that is needed any more. Obviously. And those unicorns are still grazing happily on the sunlit uplands.

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Eventually, reality will assert itself


The significance of Sinn Fein becoming the largest party in Northern Ireland after the recent elections has received a lot of attention, although the detail of the result suggests it is more symbolic than seismic. One thing which did emerge from that election though is that it, as the BBC put it, “cemented a majority for parties which accept the protocol”, largely as a result of the growth in the number of Alliance MLAs. The Assembly now contains an even bigger majority in favour of accepting the Northern Ireland protocol and making it work than it did before the elections. The UK government, being what it is, has instead chosen to interpret the result as a resounding demand for scrapping the protocol, even if that leads to a trade war with the EU.

I’m sure that I remember ministers of the government which now wants to scrap the protocol describing it as giving Northern Ireland “the best of both worlds”, and the overall deal as being very good for the whole of the UK, but that was in a long-ago past. The problem is, as the Guardian put it, whilst “A responsible prime minister would have set about trying to reconcile unionists to the deal, while negotiating adjustment to level the controls”, what he has actually done is “stoked the DUP grievance, trying to use its intransigence as a lever to exert pressure on Brussels”. The DUPs have been used as dupes all along. Although, in fairness, anyone caught out believing anything Johnson told them deserves to end up looking foolish.

The problem which now exists – of trying to get workable power-sharing operating again at Stormont – is one entirely of the PM’s own making. It was he who promised not to put a customs barrier in the Irish Sea, he who then negotiated and agreed a customs barrier in the Irish Sea, and he who is refusing to implement the agreement which he negotiated. It is all based, as it has been from the outset, on the exceptionalist belief that the UK is so special that it can have whatever it wants, and that mere foreigners can be blustered and threatened into subservience. And the traditional intransigence of the DUP – never a party to knowingly learn from its mistakes – is being used again as a tool with which to seek to batter ‘Brussels’.

There are only three potential ultimate outcomes from this mess, even if it takes an all-out trade war with the EU before a new UK government recognises the fact:

·        The UK can implement the agreement it has signed, and somehow try to persuade or bribe the DUP into accepting the protocol with a few minor changes

·        The EU will be obliged to implement formal border controls across the island of Ireland, which would probably delight the DUP, given its inability to see beyond the short term, but infuriate the US and probably hasten Irish unity in the longer term

·        The UK could agree to align itself more closely with EU single market and customs union rules (which is what the Brexiteers actually promised back in 2016), thereby removing the need for the protocol (and incidentally hugely benefiting the UK economy as a whole).

The nearest thing to a certainty is that none of the above will happen until the current government is replaced, because they are incapable of understanding the consequences of their own actions to date, let alone the real status of the UK in the world. Trying to escape the consequences of past lies by telling even bigger ones eventually catches up with people, even those with the attributes of a greased piglet.

Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Seizing the opportunity


There is no ‘right’ answer to the question ‘how many members should a parliament have?’ For sure, constitutional experts can pore over comparisons with other countries and earnestly assess workloads and processes, but for all that, it ultimately comes down to a judgement by politicians, often based on a compromise between what they think the answer should be and what they think the populace will accept. For those who oppose the existence of a particular institution (like many Tories in relation to the Senedd), the ‘right’ answer for them is zero, compelling them to oppose any and every suggestion of an increase. Similarly, there is neither a ‘right’ size nor a ‘right’ number of constituencies; for those who want a direct relationship between electors and their representatives, the answer is a large number of small single member constituencies, whereas for those who want the most proportional outcome possible for any election, the answer will be a small number of large multi-member constituencies. For all the attempts to rationalise and justify any particular number, the reality is that it depends on the political viewpoints and priorities of those making the decisions.

The joint declaration by Plaid and Labour yesterday that there should be 96 members elected from 16 six-member constituencies is a statement of their joint judgement on those questions, as is the knee-jerk response from the Tories opposing any increase, under any circumstances, ever. It’s a bold plan, bolder than I was expecting, and in terms of overall numbers of members and constituencies, they’ve come up with a very good answer. There are two little niggles, though.

The first is the way in which the boundaries are to be drawn. Simply using the boundaries of the 32 Westminster constituencies and pairing them up is likely to produce a few odd constituencies which don’t entirely reflect human geography. If it is, as suggested, just a ‘quick and dirty fix’, on a one-off basis to get the changes in place for the 2026 election, then it’s a reasonable way ahead. The problem is that ‘quick fixes’ have a tendency to become established: agreeing changes is always difficult, and by the time they are up for discussion there will be elected members who are invested in those boundaries.

The second is the method of election, using the d’Hondt system, rather than full STV. The method is not without its advantages. Marking just one party with a single cross is similar to the familiar FPTP system, and was used for electing MEPs. It produces a much more proportional result overall (even based, as it effectively is, on counting only first choice votes), and coupled with the proposal that parties will have to ‘zip’ male and female candidates is likely to produce a very gender-balanced Senedd. It abolishes the distinction between ‘constituency’ and ‘list’ members, under which the latter were often perceived (wrongly) to be some sort of second-class members. It also helps to shatter the myth, fundamental to the Westminster system and much beloved by certain egotistical politicians, that the election of individuals is down to their unique talents and abilities and not to the colour of their rosette; that voters elect individuals not parties. (There has been, as far as I can see, no mention of the obvious corollary – any MS elected solely on a party ticket who ‘jumps ship’ should be disqualified and replaced with the next person on the relevant party’s list. That’s a flaw in the current system for list members and could easily be rectified as part of these new proposals.) There are some downsides, though. It is not as fully proportional as a full STV system; so-called ‘closed’ lists leave considerable power to determine which of their candidates get elected in the hands of the parties rather than the electorate; and it takes no account of the second (third, etc.) preferences of those voters whose first choice party doesn’t cross the threshold for representation.

It bears the obvious hallmarks of compromise between two parties seeking out common ground in order to get something in place whilst they have a window of opportunity to do so, but is nevertheless better and more radical than I had expected from such a process. None of us knows when – or even whether – such a window of opportunity will present itself again. We should not delude ourselves about the timescale – or even the possibility – of further change once these changes are in place, but they represent a huge leap forward from where we are today. Grabbing that opportunity whilst the Senedd majority for implementing it exists is more important than any remaining niggles.

Tuesday, 10 May 2022

Limping ever onwards


To the pleasant surprise of many, including myself, it turned out that gambling on Keir Starmer being as unprincipled as Boris Johnson was a very bad bet indeed. I’m not the only one to have underestimated Starmer on this occasion. One can nit-pick about what happens in the event of the ‘Barnard Castle’ loophole – a police investigation which concludes that there was probably a minor breach but issues no fines. And one can hypothesise that all Starmer has done is to accept, in advance, that which would have been inevitable in any event if a fine were issued; but it looks as though he has managed to seize the initiative and put himself ahead of the story. Had he waited – as apparently some of his aides wished – until a fine/no fine decision had been taken by the police, he might have missed an opportunity to draw a clear line between himself and the PM, and been beset by reporting on this issue for the whole of the next 6-8 weeks whilst a police investigation which appears to be even more painfully slow than that into the shenanigans at Downing Street takes place.

It's a gamble, of course – but, in the event, a rather better bet than the one which the Tories took in demanding that Starmer be investigated, and it turns the focus right back onto Johnson and those around him. The PM won’t resign; that would require a degree of self-awareness and a sense of shame or embarrassment, none of which he possesses. And his MPs seem determined to demonstrate their own lack of principle and the backbone which would be needed to dislodge him. He’ll simply limp on until the next crisis (more fines? Sue Gray?) in the hope that something will turn up. It isn’t quite what Macmillan meant by “Events, dear boy. Events.” Nor is it the “finest hour” to which his hero referred. It’s a good example of an utterly dysfunctional semi-democracy in inaction though.