Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Hanging together

There are, and always have been, only three possible states in which the UK could find itself in relation to the EU, and in two years, the Prime Minister has argued that each, in turn, is the ‘best’ outcome for the UK whilst at the same time demanding that we accept that she has maintained an entirely consistent position.  The three are: full membership, with all the benefits and obligations that entails, some sort of associate membership which gives some of the benefits in return for some of the obligations, and third-party status which gives none of the benefits in return for meeting none of the obligations.
Prior to the referendum, the Prime Minister was ‘quite clear’ that membership was far and away the best option; since the referendum, she has repeated many times that no deal was better than a bad deal where we didn’t get to choose which benefits and obligations we have, and yesterday her position became one of saying that a bad deal, even a very bad deal, is better than no deal at all.  She has been ‘quite clear’ about each position in turn, although the words ‘quite clear’ when uttered by Theresa May don’t have the same meaning as when uttered by the rest of us, usually meaning that she does not, in fact, have a clue.
The surprising thing in the last 24 hours is that the cabinet is still hanging together, although that might be just because of their fear that if they don’t, they will, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, assuredly hang separately.  Things might change, of course; but at present it looks extremely unlikely that the deal being presented to the cabinet today will get through parliament even if they keep hanging together in support of it.  Having worked her way through supporting all three of the potential options as the ‘best’ for the UK, where can the Prime Minister turn next?

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

It's not the end game yet

Putting on the strongest and stablest face she can muster, whilst at the same time looking sufficiently serious and determined, the Prime Minister has told us we’re now entering the end game of the Brexit talks with the rest of the EU.  The detail of what she is about to agree with Brussels seems not to have been fully shared with the rest of the Cabinet so far, let alone the rest of us, but one ex-member of the Cabinet has already declared that what she is going to propose amounts to ‘total surrender’.  I assume that he means surrender to ‘Brussels’ rather than the truth, which is that it is, at last, a surrender to reality.  The situation today is, in effect, no different to that which existed when Article 50 was triggered – the promise of the ‘exact same benefits’ without the obligations of membership is simply not on the table and could never have been.
If a deal is done at all, it will inevitably mean tying the UK into the EU’s rules for longer and more completely than the Prime Minister has admitted to date, despite her continuing denials.  Finding a way out of the situation into which her own red lines have painted her will be neither quick nor easy, even if she manages to get her ministers and parliament to sign up to it.  If this is indeed the end game, it is such only for the Prime Minister herself.  In relation to Brexit, the words of one of her own predecessors come to mind – it’s not so much the beginning of the end as the end of the beginning.  If Brexit itself isn’t halted, then it is going to remain more of a process than an event, probably taking at least a decade before it finally happens.  And that’s a truth which neither the government nor the main opposition party is yet willing to face.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Sinking ships

Apparently, the idea that rats can sense when a house is about to fall down, or a ship about to sink, and therefore get out before the disaster, goes back at least four centuries.  I don’t know whether rodents can really sense a forthcoming disaster or not; anecdotal evidence isn’t the same thing as scientific proof.  What we do know is that, in the earliest days of the use of the analogy, the context was very often political. 
And that brings me to today’s report from the BBC that the now infamous agreement made by the Cabinet in Chequers in July may have been stretching the meaning of the word ‘agreement’ rather further than was thought at the time.  Perhaps they weren’t all as convinced then as they are now that this particular ship is doomed, but the fact that they are now leaking their concerns is evidence that many of them are pretty well-convinced by now and are retrospectively making it clear that this was never their idea of a good plan.
The only surprising thing is that so many of them are still on board at all.  It's not the behaviour that the adage would suggest that we should expect.

Friday, 9 November 2018

We're having the farce first

It was Marx (Karl, not Groucho, although in this case it could equally have been either) who said that history always repeats itself twice; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.  It seems increasingly as though the UK Government has taken this on board in relation to Brexit but decided to reverse the order, by doing the farce first and the tragedy later.  Two years into the process, we have one of the key ministers in the whole process admitting that he hadn’t really understood the significance of the UK’s most important trading route, whilst the Prime Minister seems to have convinced herself that the only way she can get her own cabinet to agree with her plans is to demand that they vote on them without seeing the advice underpinning them.
The underlying problem remains, as the Guardian put it, that the Prime Minister “has never had the courage to choose between irreconcilable propositions”, preferring to pretend that there is no inconsistency between the two in a doomed attempt to unite her party around a form of words which can only be meaningless in the final analysis.  The latest example is the idea that it perfectly possible to agree a deal which guarantees that there will ‘never’ be a hard border across Ireland, but which also gives the UK an inalienable right to withdraw, selectively, from that part of the deal any time it chooses.
It’s true, of course, that a country can withdraw from any multinational deal at any point – Trump has demonstrated that in spades.  But I’m sure that the EU27 realise by now that they are dealing with a negotiating partner who they cannot and should not trust for a moment, which is why they will insist on a form of words which enables them to enforce the whole of any agreement reached.  What no country can do is to decide which parts of a legally-binding treaty it will honour and which it will not – and at the same time demand that any or every other party to the agreement continues to honour all their obligations.
The farce part seems destined to continue for some time yet, leaving the rest of the world looking on at the UK’s foolishness with amazement.  But whilst it’s OK for us all to laugh at the daily farce emerging from Downing Street, we need to remember that unless we end it while we can the tragedy is still to come.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Time to smash the delusions

Yesterday’s news that a German company is closing its factory in Llanelli, citing Brexit uncertainty as a factor, *should* make people locally think about whether Brexit is such a good idea after all.  I doubt that it will, though.  We all see events through the prism of our own priors, and for those who think that multinational companies are trying to bully them into changing their minds, the news will merely reinforce that belief.  There have been plenty already willing to say that the company is hiding behind Brexit as a soft excuse for something it would probably have done anyway.  And they might even be at least partly right to believe that; although Brexit was cited as ‘a factor’, it was almost certainly not the only one.  Being the last straw isn’t the same as being the initial or prime cause.
But this business of seeing things through the perspective of our own beliefs goes much wider than that.  Writing in the Irish Times yesterday, Robert Shrimsley said that Brexit is ‘teaching Britain its true place in the world’.  I really wish that were true, but as any teacher will know and understand, there are two sides to education.  Delivering the lesson is one part; understanding and learning from it is something completely different.  And often the lesson learned isn’t the same one as was being taught.  As far as much of the UK is concerned, it seems that when the rest of the world tries to show the UK what it’s real place in the world is, the response is not understanding and enlightenment, but resentment and rejection of both the message and the messenger.  For Anglo-British not-nationalists-at-all who ‘know’, with absolute certainty, that the UK is superior to everyone else and entitled to behave accordingly, the message received isn’t the same as the one sent.
Also in yesterday’s Irish Time, Fintan O’Toole suggested that the Prime Minister should be allowed to present what is likely to be a humiliating climb-down as a great victory, because saving face is something that the rest of the UK can afford to grant the UK.  Logic says that he has a point; but there’s more to all this than mere logic, which is why I choose to disagree.  Getting the UK to understand its true status in the world is about the only good thing that might yet come out of Brexit, despite my growing pessimism about even that.  Letting the UK Government off the hook by allowing them to pretend that they’ve won a great victory over those horrid Europeans seems to me a means of perpetuating the illusions which they harbour.  Those illusions really need to be shattered, once and for all.  And it seems to me that it has to be done the hard way - the rest of the world needs to be prepared to be cruel in the short term in order to be kind in the long term.

Monday, 5 November 2018

Choosing a century

Underlying the whole Brexit process from the outset has been a current of Anglo-British not-nationalism-at-all which starts from a perspective of general arrogance towards the rest of the world underpinned by a sense of superiority and entitlement.  It’s a strong form of a toxic mixture which would be called nationalism anywhere else, but these particular not-nationalists are so special and unique that they alone are, in their view at least, entitled to deny the application of that word to themselves.  It hasn’t made for a smooth process of negotiation, yet still they persist.
We saw it at the outset with statements about ‘the easiest deal in history’; ‘they need us more than we need them’, and so on.  It’s a perspective from which the EU’s determination to treat the UK as it has asked to be treated – as a ‘third country’ – is interpreted as some sort of punishment or revenge.  It’s a point which has been well debunked many times – here’s a good summary – but every attempt to explain that it's what the electorate voted for simply leads to even louder howls of protest from those who continue to argue that the UK has a right to be treated differently.
Most recently, we’ve seen it in relation to the suggestion put forward by Nick Boles that the UK could ‘temporarily’ join EFTA and thus enjoy many of the benefits of continued membership whilst negotiating an alternative longer term relationship.  In fairness, there’s a certain logic to the idea – from a UK perspective.  It’s not without its problems, though, not least because it doesn’t resolve the problem of the British border across Ireland, and nor does it satisfy the extreme Brexiteers. 
But there’s another problem with it too – such logic as it does possess might be obvious from a UK perspective, but what about the other countries involved?  Expecting the existing EFTA members to simply change their structures and procedures to accommodate a new member whose GDP is larger than that of any existing member, and to do so on the basis of an expected membership period of just a few years, is another display of that famous non-nationalistic sense of entitlement and arrogance.  Their compliance with the requirements of a UK government which still hasn’t worked out what it’s trying to achieve as an end point is taken as a given – just like it was taken as a given that German carmakers and Italian prosecco producers would force their governments to give way so that they could continue to trade with the UK.
From the outset, the UK has apparently managed to misunderstand and misinterpret almost everything that the EU27 has said; assuming instead that the EU27 will ultimately come to see everything as the UK Government does (i.e. in simplistic terms of economic transactions) and blithely ignoring the clear and repeated messages that, for the EU27, ‘Europe’ has always been about much more than trade.  As we approach the end game, nothing in the UK’s attitude seems to be changing; the government still doesn’t really know what it wants in the long term and is still assuming that the EU will give way.  They simply can’t escape from that inherent sense of superiority and entitlement.  Despite the reports of a ‘secret’ deal about to be agreed, such details as have been leaked so far seem to suggest that it’s little more than another exercise in kicking the can down the road whilst the UK – and more particularly the Tory Party – continues to argue with itself.  The problem is that that argument is still about how to achieve a result which recognises that superiority and entitlement.  It’s an argument doomed to continue indefinitely until the political culture of the UK is able to mature enough to accept that the UK’s place in the world isn’t what they want or believe it to be, and that the world isn’t going to accept the UK on the UK’s terms.  I keep hoping that the whole Brexit shambles will have the one positive effect of dragging these non-nationalists into the twenty-first century – it certainly ought to.  So far, it seems to be having the exact opposite effect – they’re retreating into the eighteenth.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Spend and tax, not tax and spend

At first sight, it sounded on Monday as though the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister were directly contradicting each other.  The former was saying that a ‘no-deal’ Brexit could mean effectively tearing up his budget and starting again, whilst the latter said all the spending commitments in the budget would be fully protected, despite the certainty that Brexit will, overall, reduce government income, especially if it’s of the ‘no-deal’ variety.  But they’re not really in conflict at all – protecting the spending commitments in the light of changed circumstances merely means that they must be funded in different ways.  The total of the spending commitments, in itself, hardly represents a radical departure from previous policy; more fiddling at the fringes.  But the real news here, for me, was that the promise that the spending commitments will be honoured come what may is an open admission that the basis on which they’ve been telling us that public finances work is the big lie that many of us have long believed.
It is fundamental to much of what they have been saying that the government can only spend what it either raises in tax or is prepared to borrow; that the government’s income, in effect, determines what it can spend.  What the Prime Minister’s statement this week says is that the reality is exactly the opposite; the government can start by deciding what it wants to spend, and then decide later – even if circumstances change totally – how that will be financed.  Not so much ‘tax and spend’ as ‘spend and tax’.  It recognises the key fact that the government always spends money before it receives it back in taxes.  Effectively it creates money when it spends and cancels it when it collects taxes; any difference between revenue and expenditure represents either an increase in the amount of money in the economy or else is funded by ‘borrowing’ (or ‘saving’ as those of us who lend our money to the government through pensions etc prefer to call it).  If it weren’t so, where does the money to pay tax come from?
They’ve known this all along, of course, but have preferred to pretend otherwise for ideological reasons.  Pretending that they can only spend what they first collect in taxes is their excuse for not spending, justifying their desire to reduce the size of the state sector.  I think it’s good news that they’re recognising that the truth is rather different.  It would be a good thing if the opposition parties did likewise and dropped their own commitments to austerity.  The way things are going, the Labour Party is in danger of being caught out being more supportive of the ‘tax first’ mantra than the Tories, with their obsession with demonstrating how they will pay for their commitments and their demand that others do likewise.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

The tyranny of democracy

Benjamin Franklin said that “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch”.  He went on to add that “Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!”.  I don’t find either of those images terribly appealing, although the second, I suppose, provides an explanation of sorts of US political culture, especially when it comes to gun control.  The first expresses well part of the problem with an over-simplistic approach to ‘democracy’, eliminating as it does the rights of any minorities; put together, the two concepts suggest that minorities only have rights to the extent that they’re prepared to defy the majority – using violence if necessary.  It’s not, for me, an attractive picture of the sort of society I want to live in.
It was the election of a man described as an ‘extreme right winger’ as president of Brazil this week which brought the quote to mind.  I’m never sure that labels such as ‘left’ and ‘right’ are terribly helpful other than as terms of abuse, but it is clear that the people have elected an authoritarian who wants to criminalise his political opponents.  There are also fears – based on what he himself has said – that he plans to remove the rights of indigenous peoples and open their lands to mining, will give the police carte blanche to kill, and will do away with human rights.  It could be that all of this was just campaign rhetoric, and that now he has been elected he will moderate his words and actions – but the omens for that are not good.
The problem, for those of us who believe that democracy is, in general, a good idea (or even for those who merely believe, as Churchill put it, that “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”) is that whatever Bolsonaro does, he can legitimately claim that he said he would do it, and the people have voted for him to do it.  He has a strong mandate to do what he said he was going to do.  In a not entirely unfamiliar phrase in the UK these days, ‘the people have spoken’.
The question it raises in my mind is about how to define – and enforce – the limits of democracy, and how to decide what rights minorities should have.  There isn’t a simple point at which one can draw a line between what people can decide through a vote and what they can’t – and even if there were, the world doesn’t have any mechanism for enforcing that line.  There are some limits to democracy – as we’ve discovered in relation to Brexit, voting for free unicorns doesn’t magic them into existence.  But aside from limits set by what is actually practical and achievable, where does the line go?  Is it OK for the majority to vote to eliminate the minority; for the wolves to vote to eat the lamb?  Is it acceptable for people to vote to abolish their own rights and privileges (even if they believe that it’s only ‘other people’ whose rights are being abolished)?
What the Brazilian election highlights is that there isn’t an easy answer to the question; in Brazil, as in the Philippines, when the people voluntarily, exercising their own free will, choose to elect an extremist, there is little that the rest of the world can do except watch and condemn from the sidelines.  To continue the theme from yesterday, concepts such as liberty, equality and fraternity are by no means as deeply ingrained in humanity as we like to believe.

Monday, 29 October 2018

Mere evidence isn't enough

Many years ago, I was working my way along Barry Road in Barry, canvassing door to door in a local council election.  I remember a conversation with one particular voter, who told me that he could never vote Plaid because ‘that Gwynfor Evans’ had a secret guerrilla army in the hills.  I tried to reason with him, pointing out that Gwynfor was, in fact a renowned pacifist and had always argued for a peaceful approach to politics.  The response was swift: ‘that’s just a front to hide the fact that he has an army in the hills’ was the gist of it.  It’s a classic example of the way in which, once an idea is firmly implanted in the brain, mere facts are not only never going to shift it, they are themselves interpreted in ways which actually reinforce the idea that they should be enough to dispel.  I brought the discussion to an end and moved rapidly on, marking him down as a definite ‘no’ for the election in question, and probably all future ones to boot.  It was a frustrating experience, of course – but sometimes further debate is pointless.
Confirmation bias’ is something that we all suffer from to a greater or lesser extent; evidence supporting our own priors is preferred over evidence which challenges them.  We’ve seen a great deal of the same thing in relation to Brexit, and recent work has revealed that, for instance, 42% of the UK electorate still believe that infamous message on the side of the big red bus to be true, despite all the rebuttals that have been widely publicised.  The same survey also revealed how far away from the factual truth people’s beliefs are on other issues, including the impact of migration.
For those who believe that the EU is an undemocratic front for German imperial ambitions, intent on punishing and bullying the UK for having the temerity to try and escape its clutches, imposing on us its straight bananas, expensive light bulbs, and underpowered vacuum cleaners, and demanding that we submit to its every whim, contradictory facts merely ‘prove’ how right they are.  All forecasts of problems are just bad losers refusing to accept the result, and all obstacles are just an attempt to frustrate democracy.  Whilst there is some evidence that opinions are shifting slowly, I am far from confident at this stage that a new referendum would produce a wildly different result, and I fear at times that those of us who wish to avoid the damage which Brexit will cause are only speaking to each other – and, even worse, only hearing our own voices.
It’s a common misconception that campaigners canvassing in an election are like missionaries, out to convert others to their own point of view.  It isn’t really true, though – the main aim is to identify supporters with a view to then ensuring that they vote, in the hope that achieving a favourable differential turnout will facilitate electoral victory.  In the context of that conversation in Barry all those years ago, marking the individual down as a ‘no’ was enough.  Political canvassers are not the same thing as the door-to-door callers from some religious groups – the latter truly want to save your soul, the former merely want to know how you’re going to vote.  I don’t know how many people the missionaries convert; I suspect that the answer is very, very few, but their absolute conviction that they are doing the right thing somehow keeps them going in the face of multiple and repeated rejection.  (That last part, at least, is something that they do have in common with political canvassers!)
For those of us who’d like to change the decision on Brexit, the way in which facts are dismissed as ‘fake news’ is one indication of the way in which faith in the true path of Brexit has become akin, in some ways, to a cult, and that is part of what makes it so hard to change opinions.  There’s nothing particularly new about the fact that confronting cult members with hard facts and evidence has never been a spectacularly effective way of changing their minds, but what is, perhaps, new in the past decade or two is the extent to which ‘alternative’ facts and evidence are so readily available to reinforce any beliefs when they are challenged. As the director of the policy institute at King’s College London put it in the newspaper article: “Attempting to change people’s views of Brexit solely with a more evidence-based description won’t land, because it misses a large part of the point: our allegiances affect our view of reality as much as the other way round”.  One of the problems with the anti-Brexit campaign from the outset has been the absence of any attempt to present a positive case for European unity; it has always been mostly based on presenting the negatives of Brexit.  Changing the underlying allegiance is much, much harder than merely presenting facts and evidence.
The scientific approach to analysis of evidence is by no means as deeply ingrained in the human psyche as many of us have optimistically chosen to believe, and we are seeing the consequences of that, not just in relation to political questions, but also on issues such as climate change.  None of this is an argument for ceasing to promote facts and hard evidence; after all, if some of the great minds of the past had simply given up, we would all still ‘know’, with absolute certainty, that the Earth was the centre of the universe and everything else revolved around it.  We should, though, be a bit more circumspect about the impact that we are having, and accept that, to coin a phrase, the Enlightenment is a continuing process not just a historical event.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Depending on dodgy figures

I’m not an expert on predicting traffic flows, and I won’t pretend for a moment to understand the detail of the modelling which has been used by the civil servants in Whitehall to arrive at its estimates of the likely increase in traffic over the Severn Bridges after the abolition of tolls.  So, it’s not expertise which makes me sceptical about their conclusions, it is, rather, the application of a simple test to the outcome of the calculations – ‘does this result look reasonable?’.  It’s an approach which mathematicians often use, and if the result does not look ‘reasonable’ then it’s often a sign that there’s something wrong – either with the initial data, or with the methodology applied to it.  Treating the model as an unchallengeable ‘black box’ isn’t enough; the fact that ‘the computer says’ something doesn’t make it right.
As I understand the numbers set out here, the conclusion is that in 2022, 24 million vehicles would use the bridges every year without tolls, but only 18 million with tolls, or, put another way, without tolls, traffic will increase by 42% but if tolls only slightly lower than today are retained, it will increase by only 4%.  One corollary of that is that 6 million journeys each year – or 1 in 4 of all potential journeys – will simply not take place at all if they cost a few pounds more than they might otherwise cost.  Now of course it is true that according to classical economics an increase in price results in a decrease in demand, and I don’t doubt that some people or businesses will be deterred from using any stretch of road by a toll.  But it just doesn’t feel at all reasonable to me that such a small (in relative terms) toll makes such a huge difference – I just don’t believe the figures and suspect the validity of the model being applied.  A marginal variation in cost ought to lead only to a marginal variation in traffic flows; and the assumption that cost is what drives the volume of traffic flows is itself somewhat dubious.
There’s another corollary as well.  If tolls of a few pounds are really so effective at deterring people from making journeys, then there is perhaps an easier solution to the problem of the Brynglas tunnels than building another motorway – we can deter a quarter of the potential journeys by imposing an extra toll.  In reality, that doesn’t feel reasonable to me either – I don’t believe that it would have that effect in practice.
Llanelli AM, Lee Waters sees these figures as a way in which the UK Government is trying to dictate transport policy in Wales, by forcing the Welsh Government to build extra capacity – the new M4 link – in order to cope with all the extra traffic.  I’m not sure that they are quite that devious, but I have a lot of sympathy with the underlying assumption that the government’s figures are produced in a way which supports its policy objectives – by which I mean that the assumptions built into the modelling are those likely to produce the preferred outcome.  I disagree with Lee’s suggestion, however, that the solution is to retain tolls, albeit at a lower level, in order to obviate the necessity for the new M4 link.  Not believing that the removal of tolls will directly lead to a given increase means that, logically, I also don’t believe that retaining them would prevent that level of increase.
If the problem is that dodgy figures are being used to justify a particular policy, the solution is not to use those same dodgy figures to justify an unpalatable alternative – it is to challenge the dodgy figures themselves and the basis on which they have been prepared.