Friday, 20 April 2018

A simple choice - alignment or borders

The Irish border issue is at heart a very simple one, albeit often clouded and complicated by the recent past.  That’s not to say that the Good Friday agreement and the long period of violence before it aren’t important, nor that they do not make the situation in Ireland unique; it’s more about saying that they can obscure what is at base a very simple and straightforward question of more general application.  And that is this: where there is a border between two countries, there are only two options – the first is that the two are part of a single customs/regulatory regime, and the other is that there are border controls.  It’s possible, of course, to be part of the same customs/regulatory regime and still maintain border controls, and some countries within the EU choose to do that.  But what is not possible is to have different customs/regulatory regimes and no controls, because in such a scenario it becomes impossible to maintain the integrity of either of the customs/regulatory regimes.  And all of this is as true for a sea border as a land border; land borders are just naturally more ‘porous’.
From that point of view, there is nothing particularly unique about the situation in Ireland; the unique part is the strength of the drivers for seeking to avoid a border with controls.  The Brexiteers know all this, and know that their demand for a different customs/regulatory regime has the inevitable consequence of creating a border with controls.  All the talk about ‘smart’ systems to facilitate border crossings is about minimising the impact of those controls, not about avoiding them.  Their preferred solution, albeit one that only a few of them are prepared to advocate openly, is that the Republic accompanies the UK to the exit door; it’s the only way in which they can both maintain their red lines about regulatory divergence and at the same time avoid border controls completely.  After all, the two countries entered the EU together, and it was that simple fact which enabled the ‘Common Travel Area’ to continue after accession, even if it took the Good Friday agreement to abolish the physical controls at the border.
This is relevant in the context of yesterday’s post about the future of the UK after Brexit.  What is true for the border between the two parts of Ireland is also true for the border between Wales and England.  Ultimately, Wales can either be part of the same customs/regulatory regime as England, or we can have border controls along the Dyke.  As long as both countries are part of the EU’s Customs/regulatory regime, it’s not an issue.  Outside the EU, as long as both countries remain locked in alignment, again, it’s not an issue.  But if Wales were to become ‘independent’, our ability to choose to seek membership of either the EU or the closely-aligned EFTA/EEA would be effectively ruled out by the need to remain in alignment with England - unless we were willing to implement border controls between the two countries.  I can’t foresee a situation in which border controls make any sense for Wales, and given the relative size of England in any conceivable reconfiguration of the UK, that means that we will be ‘rule-takers’ most of the time.
It isn’t that which concerns me most, however; after all, as an advocate of continuing membership of the EU I have to accept that rules are made collectively and that there are some that we might not like (although we’d at least have an input before they were made, unlike at present).  The bigger concern is that if England decides to increasingly cut itself off from mainstream Europe, and try and pretend that the UK is still a great power ruling the waves, then we are going to be part of that, regardless of any nominal ‘independence’, or the precise way in which the UK is reconfigured.  That isn't the sort of 'independence' which I want for Wales.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Making the best of it?

Yesterday’s Western Mail carried a report based on an interview of Cynog Dafis by Martin Shipton.  I haven’t been able to find the report on-line, but the podcast is available here.  One of the key points which Cynog made was that independentistas need to think more about how the UK is reformed rather than scrapped, in the context of Brexit.  Whilst I might wish it were otherwise, I see no real alternative to that as an approach, and it’s something about which I’ve blogged on more than one occasion previously. 
Within the EU, I see no obstacle in principle to Wales becoming a full member state in its own right (there are practical and political obstacles, but no fundamental reason why they can’t be overcome).  That wouldn’t quite give us equality of status with England – larger EU members have more influence than smaller ones – but it would move us into a context in which there are a number of other nation states of similar size, and no one state has complete dominance.  It's closer to equal status with England than anything imaginable within a continuing UK.  We would have a voice directly in the decision-making process.  And in such a scenario, the links between Wales and England would remain strong, with complete freedom of travel and trade between the two, and no real need to ‘institutionalize’ that relationship in the formality which the UK level of government represents.
Outside the EU, and given that I can see no scenario in which it makes any sense at all to implement border controls along Offa’s Dyke, we will inevitably be bound more tightly to England, not least in economic terms, and that constrains the degree of independence to which we can aspire; the meaning of the word ‘independence’ changes significantly.  In such a scenario, the approach outlined by Cynog – effectively a move to a more federal UK, with measures to try and lessen the dominance of the largest member state – is probably the best we can realistically hope for.  The problem is that, whilst sharing the aspiration, I find it hard to share Cynog’s apparent optimism about the willingness of England to accept such constraints upon its dominance.
Cynog refers to “the English at their best” as being likely to respond to the idea.  Maybe; I doubt, though, that we’ll be dealing with “the English at their best” in either the short or medium term.  We will, rather, have to deal with the political representatives of those who still believe that Britannia can and should rule the waves and stand alone against the rest of the world.  I hope that, if Brexit happens, it will be the shock that traditionalists in the UK need to shake them out of their delusions about the UK’s place in the world, but at the moment, it seems likelier to me that they will choose to interpret the situation as one in which the rest of the world is trying to punish them and will simply double down on their delusional rhetoric, demanding unity and conformity 'at home'.
So, reforming the UK is a realistic assessment of the best we can hope for, and something for which we will have no alternative but to work – but I don’t find it particularly attractive or inspiring.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Changing the culture, not just the policy

I noted yesterday that the current and previous incumbents at the Home Office (Amber Rudd and Theresa May) are those who should first and foremost be held responsible for the way in which members of the Windrush generation have been treated.  They, after all, set the rules and oversaw their implementation.  Creating a “hostile environment” in which the starting point was that individuals had to go through an onerous process to prove their right of residence, with little or no help from the state, was a deliberate act of policy. 
The state presumably has access to the tax and national insurance records of those who have lived and worked here all their lives, but instead of seeing those as evidence of legitimate and continuous residency, the Home Office chose to withdraw people’s right to work at all if they could not independently prove their residence rights.  And it wasn’t only their right to work that was withdrawn – it was also their right to hold a driving licence, their right to proper healthcare, and even their right to liberty, with some being held in detention centres.
Attempts by the ministers concerned trying to shift the blame onto officials and civil servants rather than accepting the responsibility themselves are as shameful as the Prime Minister’s mealy-mouthed apology for the effects, but not for the policy.  Having said that, we cannot, and should not, overlook the actions of the officials either.  I touched on that yesterday, referring to the fact that ‘simply following orders’ is not an adequate defence.  Should we not expect better from officials tasked with implementing a policy which, it must have been obvious to them, was trampling on the rights of people who’ve lived in the UK for all, or nearly all, their lives?
I find the inflexibility and obvious lack of empathy of the officials who were ‘processing’ the affected individuals more than a little chilling.  There they were, demanding that people produce reams of documentation which either never existed or else had long since been destroyed, and ordering the detention and/or deportation of those who failed to comply.  There seems to have been no intelligent thought or consideration given to the individuals impacted by their decisions, just a mechanistic implementation of rules and procedures.
We know from history how easy it is for a mindless bureaucracy to become inured to the impact on people of what they do, and to embark on a spiral in which they increasingly block out any idea that the subjects of their processes are people with lives and aspirations rather than simply numbers and files.  It’s the road to an unpleasant type of authoritarianism.  A government and bureaucracy which can reduce one group of people to numbers and statistics can do the same with other groups as well.  The "hostile environment" already did that in the case of illegal immigrants; what the Windrush issue has shown is that it has been extended to a group of citizens who never fell into that category at all. 
What I’m not seeing in the government’s belated attempt to respond to a situation which has been developing over some time is any sense of a need to change that culture and approach.  Instead, it seems to be about attempting to define and distinguish more clearly between different groups of people.  What history tells us is that the time to stand up against this is when they come for the first group, not the last.  There is a dehumanising culture at work at the UK level, and we need to resist that.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

We need more than words

Yesterday’s climb-down by the Home Secretary over the Windrush generation was sudden and dramatic.  It is a welcome change of direction, as is the agreement by the Prime Minister to meet representatives of the Caribbean countries to discuss the issue, given that, as recently as last week, she was absolutely refusing to do so.  A lot of credit is due to the Guardian, in particular, for exposing details of some of the worst cases.
If it weren’t so tragic, and hadn’t had so much impact on the lives of ordinary citizens who had every right to be in the UK, some of the revelations would be comic.  The Home Office advice produced during the current Prime Minister’s tenancy of that office advising those being returned to Jamaica to ‘put on a Jamaican accent’; the fact that the government admit that they’ve probably deported people who had every right to be here, but can’t be certain about how many; and the way in which the government of the time failed to keep any documentation relating to those invited here - this is the material of farce.  It shows a deeply dysfunctional approach to the issue, but there’s also something more there.
During the tenure of Theresa May at the Home Office a policy was deliberately introduced of creating a “really hostile environment” for illegal immigrants, as she herself put it in 2012.  Of course, they will argue, this was aimed at ‘illegal’ immigrants rather than at those with a right to be here, but it also effectively placed the onus on anyone living in the UK to prove that they have a right to be here rather than on the authorities to prove that they do not.  It’s not quite a case of ‘guilty until proved innocent’, but it’s not far short of that (in another instance of those great British values being more about fine words than deeds). 
The implementation was then placed in the hands of officials who seem to have been told simply to implement the rules rather than question them or use any initiative, whilst ministers took a hands-off approach and let them get on with it.  It is that combination which led to a situation where officials were unsympathetic, rule-driven and inflexible; deporting – or attempting to deport – anyone who couldn’t produce the required reams of documentation, despite decades of contribution to the economy and society in which they lived.  The officials, of course, were ‘just following orders’.  Whilst that’s not a defence which they should be able to rely on – there should surely have been at least some of them understanding that what they were doing was wrong morally, as well as legally wrong in the case of those who had a right to be here but simply couldn’t prove it – the real target has to be those who gave the orders in the first place.  And guess who that brings us back to?
Yesterday’s apologies and U-turns are a welcome start, but unless they lead to a change, not only in the rules being applied, but also in the culture of those tasked with applying those rules, then the apology will be no more than a form of words, satisfying the news agenda of the day whilst leaving the basic processes in place.

Friday, 13 April 2018

How does bombing help?

I can understand why Tory MPs keen for the UK to further ramp up the pending conflict with Russia are ready to misrepresent the facts, but there is really no excuse for the media to be doing the same thing.  Suggesting that the OPCW have ‘backed the UK’ over the Salisbury poisoning is at best going beyond the available facts, and at worst a deliberate misrepresentation.  All the OPCW have actually done is to confirm that the UK had correctly identified the chemical formula of the substance used, as Craig Murray has succinctly pointed out.  And unless one chooses to believe the wilder conspiracy theories suggesting that there never was an attack, it was always close to certain that the chemical analysis would be confirmed. 
That tells us nothing, though, about who actually made it or deployed it, and it was never going to answer those questions.  The answers to those questions depend on the continuing investigations by the police and other agencies, and the government issuing both verdict and sentence in advance doesn’t change that.  Personally, I tend to the view that the most obvious explanation is likely to be the correct one; I just don’t think that ‘likeliest’ is good enough to start punishing the supposed perpetrator.  Having motive, method, and opportunity (as the Foreign Secretary has put it) isn’t the same as proving guilt - especially if you can’t demonstrate that no-one else had all three.
I have a similar position on the chemical attack in Syria, in that I suspect that the likeliest explanation is the most obvious one, but again, I don’t think that ‘likeliest’ is good enough to start dishing out the punishment, particularly when the individuals likely to be executed in the process are neither those who used the weapons nor those who ordered their use, merely those who happen to be in the vicinity of the chosen targets.  Killing a random group of military personal and/or civilians is a very odd definition of ‘holding Assad to account’.
I understand the frustration of those who feel powerless in the face of the tragedy of Syria, and I agree with those who argue that non-intervention has a price as well as intervention.  And of course it’s true that allowing people to get away with the use of chemical weapons once will encourage them to do it again.  But the argument which takes us from those statements to ‘we must bomb Syrian military forces or facilities’ is lacking in logic or reason, and simply attacking anyone who questions that as being unpatriotic and a supporter of Russia is a puerile and unworthy debating tactic.  
What those people calling for military action against Assad need to demonstrate is how such action would make the situation better not worse for the people of Syria and how it would shorten rather than prolong the war.  To date, they have not only failed to do so, they don’t even seem to be trying.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

The problem of borders

The proposal by Michael Gove to ban the export of live animals for slaughter has provoked a range of reactions, but none of them seem to have touched on what is, to me, the most curious part in political terms.  It’s presented as being in the interests of animal welfare, and I can certainly see that it is better to slaughter animals for food as close as possible to the point of production rather than to transport them across large distances.  I don’t, though, understand why it makes a difference whether the animals are being transported for slaughter rather than for other purposes.  I can’t believe that the animals are aware of the difference between the two – it’s the transportation which causes any distress, not the purpose of that transportation.
But above all, it’s the distinction between ‘export’ and ‘internal’ transportation that I don’t understand.  Under his proposals, transporting animals from Kent to Pas-de-Calais would be unacceptable, but transporting the same animals from Aberdeen to Exeter would not.  In truth, the sheep really don’t know the difference – crossing an international border is to them a meaningless concept.  And that, rather than animal welfare, is the real point of this post.
International borders are an artificial, entirely human, construct.  For sure, they are important in terms of marking the difference between different regulatory regimes, and between the territories administered by different human authorities, but considering their impact on the degree of additional stress experienced by farmed animals when crossing them (i.e. zero) should help us to understand just how artificial these lines on maps are – and in the process, help us to understand the innate silliness of the ‘control our own borders’ nonsense of the Brexiteers.
It is a backward-looking form of nationalism which insists on the importance of these lines on a map and in controlling what crosses them; as an independentista, I don’t believe that policing lines on maps contributes anything to the degree of independence a country has.  What it does do is contribute to a sense of exceptionalism and apartness, a sense of ‘us’ and ‘others’.  Sheep don’t need that – why should humans?

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Mirror, mirror...

…on the wall, who’s the stupidest of them all?
The Foreign Secretary seems to be spending much of his time and effort criticising the leader of the Labour Party for not immediately condemning unequivocally those whom Johnson holds responsible for both the Salisbury poisoning and the use of chemical weapons in Syria.  Johnson claims that Corbyn is the ‘Kremlin’s useful idiot’ in response to which Labour have in turn called Johnson an idiot for undermining the UK Government’s position by lying about what the man from Porton Down did or did not tell him.  If Johnson is right, than at least being useful to someone puts Corbyn a step ahead of Johnson, who has never been demonstrably useful to anyone.
We can all swap insults, but it isn’t the most helpful or enlightening approach to grown-up politics, and given Johnson’s reputation for lying, time and again (having been sacked from jobs twice for doing so, without even starting on the £350 million a week for the NHS), he’s not in a good position in the credibility stakes.  Bluster and diversion are his standard recourse when challenged, but surely people are seeing through that by now.
As I’ve posted before, it may well be that he and the government are party to some secret intelligence not shared with the leader of the opposition, let alone with the rest of us, which enables him to be as certain as he is.  But given his record, his demand that people fall into line and agree with him is unrealistic and unreasonable.  It’s true that there is something very British about supporting ‘my country, right or wrong’, but it’s an approach which hasn’t always exactly worked out well.   Not for nothing is patriotism regarded as the last refuge of a scoundrel, although scoundrel seems a bit mild as an epithet to apply to Johnson. 
There’s something very un-British, however, about demanding that people be found guilty and punished without due process and proper examination of all the evidence.  I always thought that the adage that ‘justice must not only be done, it must also be seen to be done’ was one of the core values that we’re all supposed to share.  It isn’t the first time, though, that I’ve discovered that my understanding of ‘British’ values is different from that of those demanding that we all sign up to them.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Don't just do something

Whether chemical weapons were or were not used in Syria, and who was responsible if they were, are questions to which the answers, at present, are far from being as certain as the Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister are asserting.  They, of course, believe that they are uniquely placed to judge guilt or innocence without needing firm evidence, as we've seen on other issues recently.  But one doesn’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder why the Syrian regime would choose to risk international outrage and potential further military action against itself by using such weapons in a battle which it is on the point of winning in any event, even if the war still seems to be far from over.  I can accept as a fact that dictators are not necessarily bound by any considerations of logic, but that, like much of what the UK and US governments are saying, is not enough to pronounce Assad guilty.   
But let us suppose that the simplest explanation of the facts that are known is also the correct one, and that Assad did order the use of some sort of chemical weapons against civilians in a rebel-held area, what should the response be?  The outrage against the use of banned weapons is justifiable, although I note in passing that I struggle to understand why the method of inflicting death and injury is considered more important that the fact of inflicting them.  My support for banning certain types of weapons has always been based on such bans being a step along the road to ending war, not as a means of legitimising non-banned forms of warfare, which is how governments seem to interpret it.  Civilians killed by high explosives are no less dead than those killed by gas, and the tragedy of what is happening in Syria is by no means contingent on the methods being used.
It seems likely that the madman in the White House will respond by launching a further military strike against some target or other in Syria, and apparently the UK government is seriously considering taking part in any such action.  But what exactly would adding further to the toll of death and destruction in Syria (which is the inevitable outcome) actually achieve?  The Prime Minister said that her aim is “…to ensure those responsible are held to account”, which sounds strong and resolute, but it's just a meaningless form of words.  The likely target of any strike is an airfield or military base somewhere in Syria (preferably where there are no Russians who might become victims of such a strike), but that is more to do with killing a few government soldiers or airmen selected at random than with holding anyone to account.  It assumes, seen from the perspective of those claiming that Assad has authorised the use of banned weapons, that killing a few random members of his armed forces will punish a ruthless dictator to such an extent that he will mend his ways and never do it again.  That seems unlikely to me, to say the least.
I understand and share the frustration of the leaders of countries across the world at their apparent inability to bring the war in Syria to a negotiated end.  But negotiated end there will have to be, eventually.  In the meantime, the very least we should be doing is avoiding making a bad situation worse.  Dropping more bombs on a country which is already being bombed by half a dozen air forces from around the world because we ‘have to do something’ and that’s all we can think of doesn’t look to me like the best way of helping the Syrian people, even if it didn’t run a serious risk of escalating the conflict.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

A rock and a hard place

The anger of many over the re-naming of the Severn Crossing is understandable, and was entirely predictable.  And the disappointment with the First Minister in ‘raising no objections’ is equally unsurprising.  I do though, almost feel a little sorry for him – he was caught between a rock and a hard place.  If he raised no objections, then he was obviously going to get the criticism now being hurled at him by some politicians and through social media.  But, had he raised an objection, I think we can be certain that the Secretary of State would not simply have forgotten the idea and gone away; royal sycophancy is his natural state.  And any objection raised by Carwyn Jones would certainly have become known to the media (anyone really see Cairns missing an open goal like that?), as a result of which he would have been pilloried by the tabloids for a snub to His Royal Charliness and family.  So, weighing up the options – a storm of protest from the usual suspects on social media or a front page tirade in the most widely-read newspapers in Wales - which would you choose?
But that brings me back to the ‘almost’ a few sentences ago.  He either weighed it up in the calculated fashion I’ve suggested above and opted for the quiet(er) life, or he gave it no real thought and went for Labour’s traditional deferential approach to the monarchy.  In neither case does he actually deserve much sympathy; but the latter case looks the likelier, and getting off (comparatively) lightly is just a bonus for him.  The biggest mistake is being made by anyone who ever thought that his response would be made on the basis of any thought about what’s best for Wales.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Responding to the threat of redundancy?

At long last, I understand why the Foreign Secretary is so angry with the Russians.  When he said, “Russia has had one goal in mind since the attempted murders on UK soil through the use of a military-grade chemical weapon – to obscure the truth and confuse the public”, all became clear to me – he’s really worried about his own future.  After all, if the Russians should succeed in obscuring the truth and confusing the public, what role is left for Boris?