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.