Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Neither new nor improved


A common ploy for companies selling confectionery, foodstuffs, soap powder and so forth whose brand is looking tired or whose sales are flagging is to make some minor changes to the product and then put a big bold sticker saying “New Improved” on the packaging.  As Theresa May is finding out, it doesn’t always work, particularly if “new and improved” means that there is no discernible change to the product, and especially if it doesn’t do what it says on the tin.  Fortunately for her (?), politicians aren’t subject to the Trade Descriptions Act.
One thing of which we can be certain is that ‘the deal’ hasn’t changed at all – that would require agreement by the EU27, and no such agreement has even been sought, let alone received.  She claims that she has ‘compromised’ by extending the temporary customs union until the next General Election.  That’s as close to the truth as anything she says, but insofar as it’s a compromise, it’s being made with reality, not with her opponents.  No-one has ever believed that negotiations on a future trade arrangement could be completed within the transition period anyway.  And it’s only a partial compromise even then – no-one seriously believes that they would be completed by the next General Election either.  A convincing salesperson might just have persuaded people that this really and truly is a new product, but no company serious about a rebrand would use someone like the PM to try and sell it.
Another thing that often happens when companies try the “new improved” approach is that the customers protest and demand a return to the old recipe.  Still, that’s at least one thing which the PM doesn’t need to worry about.

Monday, 20 May 2019

Over-simplistic definitions


Last week, the leader of the Nigel Farage Party Corporation turned on the SNP, proclaiming that it was impossible for a country to be ‘independent’ whilst also being a member of the EU.  As a consequence, he also urged Scottish independentistas to vote for his own Anglo-British nationalist corporation based on the idea that ‘nationalists’ must always support full ‘independence’, and independence for Scotland is something which can be debated after the UK first secures its own ‘independence’ from the EU.  It’s not an argument which works for me, and all the evidence suggests that it’s not playing terribly well in Scotland either.
The idea that opting out of the EU is about ‘independence’ has been a consistent theme in his arguments, as with those of other Brexiteers.  Whether he’s right or not depends, of course, on how we define ‘independence’.  It’s clear, though, that his definition means that he is effectively saying that Germany, France, Ireland etc are not independent countries – his definition is doing a lot of work there.  He does tell us something about his definition of ‘independence’, though.  He said that, “You cannot be independent if you’re governed from the European court of justice. You cannot be independent if you’re in the EU’s customs union and single market. You cannot be independent if you’re governed by Monsieur Barnier and Mr Juncker”.  Like much of what he says, it’s a sweeping statement which appears to be making a simple point, but when analysed it’s full of holes.
·        If being subject under treaty to the rulings of a supra-national body means that a country cannot be independent, then how about the UN and its court?  Does membership of the UN mean that a country ceases to be independent?  If it does, then are there any ‘independent’ countries in the world? 
·        The customs union and single market are, ultimately, simply arrangements where a group of countries come together to jointly agree a set of rules and jointly negotiate trading arrangements.  But, hold on a moment, isn’t that also what his beloved WTO is all about?  There might be a difference in terms of the level of detail and complexity covered by the two bodies (a difference which works in our favour as EU members as it happens), but in principle, they’re doing the same sort of thing.
·        Are we ‘governed’ by Messieurs Barnier and Juncker?  They are influential individuals, of course, but they don’t really constitute a government which can tell the UK what to do.  All the rules which they enforce are rules which have been agreed by the governments of the member states, including the UK.  I suspect that we could all identify some aspect of the EU which we don’t like, but the blame for that lies with the UK government for signing up to it.  It is nonsense to argue that things to which the UK has agreed are being ‘imposed’ upon us by some outside foreign power.
The problem with his simplistic and absolutist definition of independence is that it fails to reflect the interconnected nature of the current world.  The major challenges facing humanity cannot be dealt with solely by individual states acting completely alone (although in the case of Farage, some of his comments about climate change suggest that he doesn’t want to face up to them at all); they can only be dealt with if states come together and agree on rules and processes to which all are then bound.  That’s not so much about ‘losing independence’ as about sharing and co-operating.  ‘Independence’ in the age in which we live simply means that countries take part in such discussions as equals, rather than submitting to the decisions of others.  The EU may not be the perfect organisation for taking on the role but getting 28 states aligned through a process of discussion and agreement is a whole lot better than what went before in the world to which Farage seems to want to return.  As a Welsh independentista, I’d readily settle for the sort of twenty-first century independence enjoyed by states like Germany or Ireland, engaging with the rest of Europe and the world rather than retreating from it.  Farage’s version of ‘independence’ is about taking a trip to the past, not offering a vision for the future.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Using semaphore


Only three parties (the Nigel Farage Party, Labour, and Change UK) managed to get leaflets to this part of the world before I posted back my vote yesterday, although another two (UKIP and Plaid) dropped through the door after I returned from the Post Office.  For this election at least, though, it was an easy choice to make, with or without leaflets – Jill Evans has been an excellent voice for Wales in the EU, and Plaid are clearly the best-placed pro second vote party.
All the leaflets received to date have been less than inspirational, however.  Neither UKIP nor the Nigel Farage party made any effort at all to explain why Brexit is a good idea, both preferring to play on the betrayal narrative.  And neither made any effort to pretend that the election has anything at all to do with Wales – neither naming the candidates nor using a word of Welsh.  Change UK’s solitary concession to the fact that the leaflet was being distributed in Wales was to use 11 words of Welsh – and spell three of those incorrectly.  For all of those parties, Wales is merely part of the electoral battleground where English differences are played out.  Labour’s leaflet was bilingual, chwarae teg (although after this week’s news, I was half expecting that it might have been in Gaelic), and asked me to “back Labour’s plan to bring people back together”, without really telling me what that plan was.
It also told me that the election was a chance to “tell the Tories you are fed up with their divisive austerity policies and incompetent UK government”.  It’s the tired, worn-out, old ‘send a message’ argument, which was also the burden of the headline on Plaid’s leaflet, urging me to “send a message to Westminster that Carmarthenshire has had enough of this Brexit shambles”.  It’s a line of argument that I have long considered counter-productive, not least because it’s asking me to vote for candidates from one party because they’re not members of another party rather than because of what they stand for themselves.  Telling me that my vote for party A will be considered as a rebuff for party B is essentially negative rather than positive. 
It’s also meaningless.  As we saw from the analysis of the English local elections earlier this month, the votes of millions of people cast for a variety of reasons do not easily distil into a single clear message, and pretending that they do is failing to understand – or even attempt to understand – the motivations of the electors.  Theresa May has been lampooned for claiming that the message of the local elections, when people turned massively against the two main pro-Brexit parties, was that MPs should get on with delivering Brexit.  Jeremy Corbyn’s initial response was very similar.  In May’s case, and considering only those who might otherwise have turned out to vote Conservative, she might just be right.  In Corbyn’s case, it is at least possible that frustration with Labour’s lack of clarity over Brexit might have played at least as big a role.  Nor is it clear to me that people swinging towards the traditional ‘third party’, the Lib Dems, as has happened so often in the past, is a ringing endorsement of that party’s position on Brexit, as that party’s leaders have claimed.
People vote for all sorts of reasons, not all of which necessarily have anything to do with either the parties or their policies, and trying to interpret the aggregate actions of millions as a clear ‘message’ that ‘the people’ want X is a fool’s errand.  I remember in one council election which I won, one elderly couple told me that they were going to vote for me because ‘Labour and the Tories gave away the Empire’.  Were they typical of the mass, or outliers?  I strongly suspect the latter – I certainly didn’t take away the ‘message’ from that election that Plaid should support the reconquest of Africa – but on a sample of one, who can be certain?  What I did learn from that is that it would have been a mistake to interpret the election victory as a clear message that the electorate of the ward wanted independence, because there was a much more complex interplay of forces at work.
When I vote, I don’t want to send anybody a message, particularly one which most of them are either not going to understand or else will wilfully misinterpret.  Just tell me what you’re for.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Least worst options


In the event of there being a further referendum on the EU – the probability of which does seem to be slowly increasing by the day – two issues which will inevitably arise are ‘how many, and which, options should be on the ballot paper?’, and, in the event that the answer to the first question is more than two, ‘what system of voting should be used?’.  Neither are as straightforward as they might appear.
At first sight, the ‘obvious’ options are remain, Theresa May’s deal, and no deal, but there are entirely valid arguments against including any of those.  The argument against including remain – already being used by Brexiteers, naturally enough – is that that decision has already been taken; the question facing us is solely about how it should be implemented.  I disagree with that, not least because opinions can and do change over time, but I can see the validity of the point.  The argument against including no deal is that the current parliament has already made it clear that it will not support that outcome – and, of course, the same goes for Theresa May’s deal.  Then there is a question about whether additional options should be included, such as Labour’s own particular version of a unicorn, EEA membership, Norway + etc.
That question about what parliament will or will not support is a key one.  For any referendum to be meaningful, parliament will have to commit in advance to implementing it (something which parliament explicitly did not do at the time of the last referendum, whatever personal reassurances to that effect might have been given by the then PM and others during the campaign).  That means that any MP voting to include, for instance, no deal on the ballot paper is effectively declaring that he or she is willing to legislate that into being if the vote goes that way.  However fair or just it might seem that an option which currently appears to attract support from at least a third of the electorate should appear on the ballot paper, if MPs are not prepared to commit to legislating for it after the event, then including it is tantamount to offering the electorate a false choice.  Whilst a General Election might (and only ‘might’) change the balance of opinion in the House of Commons, in the absence of a General Election there is no purpose whatsoever in parliament legislating for a referendum which includes options to which it is unwilling to give effect.
Then we come to the voting method.  Some have suggested using something akin to STV, although there is an obvious danger that we end up with a choice which pleases almost no-one but is the closest to a consensus view about the ‘least worst’ option.  Calling for compromise is all very well, but most of those currently calling for compromise seem to want those who disagree with them to simply give way.  A compromise between two positions, both of which are agreed that a particular version of a halfway house would be worse than the status quo doesn’t appear a very rational thing to do.
(As an aside, I don’t really see, either, how STV would work in parliament itself as some have suggested.  Coming to a consensus about the least worst option in a binding referendum at least gives parliament a clear steer about what to do next.  On the other hand, coming to a least worst consensus in parliament merely tells the government what it should propose in a parliamentary bill; it does not prevent MPs dissatisfied with the result (probably most of them!) from tabling amendments which effectively re-open the whole issue on a clause-by-clause basis when the bill is discussed.  There seems to be no way in which it can tie MPs hands to give the government a sustainable majority to get the legislation through – even if the government itself were willing to accept a solution which runs counter to much of what it has said to date.)
I favour a further referendum, of course; and with the current composition of parliament, the only realistic options for the ballot paper are Theresa May’s deal and Remain, either of which, I believe, could obtain a parliamentary majority if backed by a majority in a referendum.  Reducing the choice to solely those two options would cause many to be justifiably angry, and I don’t pretend that overcoming that is as simple and easy as some are making out.  But as a way out of the hole we’re in, it looks like the most realistic.  Cameron has a lot to answer for.

Tuesday, 14 May 2019

Can we or can't we?


There was an article on Nation.Cymru last week by Hefin David, the Labour AM for Caerffili, which started off talking about the ‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’ memorial and ended up giving us his thoughts on independence.  I have some sympathy with his views on ‘graffiti’; but from a rather different perspective, which is about the failure of some to recognise that other opinions exist.  One person’s ‘graffiti’ is another person’s expression of a deeply held sense of injustice, and whilst in this case, I’m on the side of the latter, I recognise that not everyone shares my view of the important moments in Welsh history.  There’s no such thing as ‘objective’ history, free of priors, and the important battle is to win hearts and minds.  Whether painting slogans on walls helps that process is a legitimate question for debate, not a cause for name-calling.
However, his comments on Welsh independence are the real issue for me.  David says that “the evidence to support an economic case for independence at this time is thin on the ground” and that “I’m still to be convinced that a Wales standing alone will result in our people quickly becoming better off, more secure and healthier”, and I tend to agree with both those statements.  What he doesn’t seem to recognise, though, is that they are double-edged swords.  I could equally write that ‘the evidence to support an economic case for continued union is thin on the ground’, and that ‘I’m still to be convinced that remaining in the UK will result in our people quickly becoming better off, more secure and healthier’.  The point is that we are comparing a ‘known’ current state with a hypothetical future state, and the act of imagining that hypothetical future requires the making of a whole series of assumptions about what might happen in that scenario.  I don’t doubt that David and I would make rather different assumptions, which would in turn lead to very different predictions about the likely economic outcomes, but each set of assumptions would be based on our own priors.  Arguing about economics avoids the debate about those priors, which is where the real question lies.
Expecting there to be a ‘killer economic argument’ for one view or the other is simply unrealistic (although one of the few things we know for certain is that countries which become independent don’t end up regretting it).  An argument against independence ‘because we can’t be certain it will be economically better’ is an argument for continuing with the status quo, in which we also can’t be certain it will be economically better, but can be reasonably certain (based on experience) that Wales will continue to be a relatively poor periphery, with economic policy concentrating on the needs of the ‘centre’. 
Ultimately, setting the expectation that independence should not be considered unless those of us supporting it can clearly demonstrate economic advantage is a one-sided trap which absolves those opposing independence from having even to attempt to demonstrate a clear economic advantage for the status quo.  It’s an essentially small-c conservatism in which the status quo is given the benefit of any doubt.  For me, the argument is more to do with accepting the responsibility for improving things ourselves rather than expecting someone else to do it for us (or even to us).  In terms of the economics of independence, I start from the belief that we can probably do things better ourselves; opponents, like David, are effectively starting from the assumption that we probably can’t.  It is that difference, rather than ‘economics’, which marks the real distinction between the two sides of the debate.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Humming ever louder

There was a story about two years ago which suggested that when Boris Johnson was Foreign Secretary his response when given what he considered to be bad news – usually about Brexit – was to cover his ears and hum the national anthem loudly until those giving him the news went away.  I’d like to think that it isn’t true – having ministers simply ignoring the facts doesn’t exactly promote faith in government – but in his case it’s all too believable.
And he’s still at it.  Last week, he said that anyone calling for a second referendum on Brexit is “doing the work of the Scottish National party” by making it more likely that there would also be a second referendum on Scottish independence, leading to the end of the UK as we currently know it.  I’m not so sure that that’s true, in reality – a second EU referendum which led to a ‘remain’ outcome might actually make it less likely either that a second independence referendum would be held soon or that the majority would vote ‘yes’.  The point, however, is that he seems to believe that independence can be prevented by simply not allowing a vote; as though preventing anyone from delivering the bad news means that the bad news doesn’t exist.  It’s true, of course, that in terms of political reality, even if not in strict constitutional terms, independence cannot come about without a public vote of some sort but trying to prevent people from expressing their opinion is not the same as preventing them holding that opinion.  Ultimately, if the people of Scotland want independence, in any sort of functioning democracy (a not entirely irrelevant caveat these days), then that outcome can only be delayed, not prevented, no matter how loudly Boris hums the anthem.
It isn’t only Boris, either.  One of the arguments used by those opposing a second EU referendum is that we cannot simply ignore the 17.4 million who voted to leave.  It’s true, of course, that asking people to say what they want and then ignoring the answer is a dangerous thing for a democracy.  But given the increasingly strong evidence that, if another vote were to be held, it’s more than possible that the result would be very different, what definition of democracy says that is it better to ignore the probable majority now in favour of the actual majority three years ago?  It’s another example of fingers-in-ears; people’s opinions don’t count unless they express them through the ballot box, and if they are not allowed to do that then they can be ignored.
In truth, there isn’t a simple non-damaging way out of the situation which we’ve reached.  Whatever is decided, some people are going to feel that they’ve been cheated and deceived, and with considerable justification.  But testing the state of opinion again is always going to be a better option than simply humming ‘God Save the Queen’ ever louder.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Challenging assumptions


There have been two stories which struck me in the last week about the relationship between work and education which at one level seem to be saying something rather different, but at another level seem to be starting from a very similar perspective.
The first was this one from the BBC, saying that almost a third of graduates are ‘over-educated’ for the jobs they are doing.  In the terms in which they define the problem, I think this may be a significant under-estimate.  There are plenty of jobs around which employers have decided to market and recruit into as ‘graduate’ jobs but for which the benefit of having a degree is not obvious.  Having worked for one company which prided itself on only recruiting graduates, and been involved in the recruitment process, I have a feeling that the declaration of a job as being for graduates had more to do with a form of snobbishness than actual necessity.  And, dare I say it, it also made recruitment easier – telling 70% of young people that they need not apply avoids a laborious sift through an excess of applications.  In other cases, jobs are reserved for graduates on the basis of an assumption that possession of a degree in any subject is indicative of an ability to learn and adapt, but my own experience of recruitment suggests that the relationship between a degree and the ability to learn and adapt is, at best, approximate rather than a straight line.
The second story was this blog post on the IWA website, arguing that the workplace changes we are going to see in future years will require that we step up the number of young Welsh people with degrees to meet the challenges.
As I say, at first sight they appear to be saying two very different things; the first arguing that we have too many graduates for the opportunities available and the second arguing that we need more graduates in order to take advantage of future opportunities.  But at another level, they are saying something very similar – or, at least, are based on a similar assumption, which is that the aim of the university system should be to produce the right number of people with the right level of qualifications to suit the needs of the labour market.  Now I don’t doubt that there are some professions where that relationship is important – I wouldn’t want to be operated on by an unqualified surgeon, for instance.  But in many other walks of life what matters is ability, skill and adaptability, and those things aren’t easily measured by qualifications. 
But even more important than that is the wider question of what education is for.  Do we, as a society, not see any inherent value in individuals learning and acquiring knowledge for its own sake, or for their own fulfilment, independently of any impact on their employment and earning potential?  Is there no value to our society as a whole in having a better educated population, able to contribute to the whole outside the formal world of work?  Whilst some see the problem in terms of matching the numbers and qualifications to the demands of the workplace, I see the problem as being the assumption that they should match in the first place.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Facing the reality of choices


I’ve posted before on the debate about devolution of Air Passenger Duty (APD) to Wales, and the fact that many of those supporting its devolution are confusing the means and the ends.  As an independentista, I’m always going to support the devolution of more taxation powers to Wales (although I tend to the view that it’s more about claiming our right to levy taxes than having part of the power graciously devolved back to us), but that isn’t the same as supporting the immediate reduction of those taxes as soon as they are devolved, which is the real objective of many of those arguing the particular case for APD.  It is for the Welsh Government and the Assembly, once in control of taxes, to decide how to set the level of those taxes and rebalance the raising of revenue between them, and the interests of the state-owned Cardiff airport aren’t the only interests to be considered.
Given the emphasis being placed on climate change by so many Welsh politicians, one has to seriously question whether encouraging an increase in air travel (which is the deliberately planned outcome of a reduction in APD) is in any way in line with the demands for the declaration of a climate emergency.  It will be interesting to see how those making that demand respond – but I’m not going to hold my breath on that.  Interestingly, one devolved administration in the UK has already faced up to that contradiction, with the Scottish Government announcing this week that its planned cuts to APD will not now go forward.  It’s a bold move, breaking a clear pledge given in the past, but who can honestly disagree with the assessment by the Finance Minister that reducing the tax is “no longer compatible” with its climate targets.  It’s the sort of change in policy which governments need to be making, rather than simply declaring symbolic emergencies.
The decision to change tack was greeted with the inevitable criticism by those involved in the aviation industry who remain committed to growth regardless of impact, but there was one comment by the Chief Executive of AGS Airports which struck me as a good illustration of very different understandings of economics.  He said that, “Over the course of the past year alone, we have seen the withdrawal by airlines of almost 30 routes from Aberdeen and Glasgow airports because of Air Passenger Duty".  I’m not in a position to dispute whether that number of 30 is correct or not, but he’s probably in a better position than me to judge.  But whether it’s a bad thing as he claims or actually a positive thing that fewer flights are taking place is surely a matter of opinion rather than fact. 
And the idea that it’s “because of Air Passenger Duty” is a complete nonsense.  The truth is that the number of people travelling at the price at which tickets are being sold is inadequate to cover the costs of providing that service (and tax is one of those costs) and return a profit.  The abolition of APD might be enough to fix that mismatch, but that isn’t the same thing as saying that the tax causes that mismatch.  It’s ideology, not economics, which drives the idea that taxes are somehow a special sort of operating cost which ought to be dismissed from consideration in determining profitability and abolished if profitability is otherwise marginal.

Monday, 6 May 2019

A question of trust


Yesterday, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, made it clear that he can no longer trust Theresa May “after this weekend” because she had breached the confidentiality of the talks between the two Brexit-supporting parties in Westminster.  I wasn’t at all surprised that he no longer trusts her, but what really did surprise me was the implicit statement that he apparently had trusted her up until this weekend.  Given her propensity for telling outright lies and the fact that there seems to be no-one left in her own party who has any faith in her, how on earth can the Labour Party have got to a situation where any of its senior figures trusted her in the first place?

Friday, 3 May 2019

The rewards of disloyalty


I don’t know whether Gavin Williamson actually leaked the story about Huawei to the media or not – he says no, Theresa May says yes.  Selecting which to believe when neither are famous for having more than a passing acquaintance with the truth isn’t the easiest of tasks.  I’d like to believe that the real culprit was the Chancellor, not on the basis of any evidence or facts, but simply because there would be a juicy irony involved.  It can’t have been completely unhelpful for the Chancellor’s trade mission to Beijing for it to emerge the day before that the UK Government was softening its position on using a Chinese supplier – and if he could finger the man who got his last trip to China scuttled by threatening to send an aircraft carrier to the Pacific, then all the better.  Sadly, that would require a degree of cunning and planning of which no current minister seems capable.
I also don’t know whether a crime has been committed or not; leaking information from a confidential meeting doesn’t necessarily mean a breach of the Official Secrets Act has been committed if the information leaked was not, in itself, an official secret.  It is, though, surely unrealistic for anyone to think that even Theresa May is going to be daft enough to allow a police investigation into the matter when such an investigation would inevitably reveal more about the dysfunctional nature of the UK Government.
I don’t think that the process followed has been entirely fair, let alone open and transparent.  On the one hand, the PM said in her letter that she had “compelling evidence” of his guilt, but on the other she said that “No other credible version of events to explain this leak has been identified”.  That’s a standard of ‘proof’ which no court or tribunal would ever be likely to accept.  Unless of course, she put Chris Grayling in charge of Justice, in which case anything would be possible.
What I do know, however, is that there is something very unusual about the idea that a person who has been subject to instant dismissal for gross misconduct should be awarded three months’ salary as a payoff, and that a man sacked for revealing details of one of the most secret of meetings should be allowed to remain a member of the Privy Council where secrets are routinely shared.  In what other walk of life would that happen?