Monday, 20 March 2023

Stupid or mad?


Reading some of the stories about Boris Johnson’s planned ‘bombshell’ defence to the charge of misleading parliament, it appears that there are two main elements to his response. The first is that Sue Gray is going to work for Keir Starmer, so everything she said and all the evidence she collected are tainted and invalid and can be ignored, and there is no other evidence that the parties actually took place at all. And the second is that whilst Boris Johnson was on the television night after night telling us all that we must not meet with other people indoors unless strictly necessary for work purposes and even then we must maintain social distancing, there is no written evidence that anyone told Boris Johnson that attending an event not strictly necessary for work purposes and not maintaining social distancing was against the rules. This is a man who claims that he didn’t even know he was at a party because no-one emailed him to tell him so. The defence will, of course, be delivered with the customary bluster, distraction, and outright mendacity for which he is famous, but stripped down to its basics it sounds a lot like pleading either stupidity or insanity. Too stupid to understand his own rules, or mad enough to believe that anyone else will believe that what he says is in any sense true.

That doesn’t mean he won’t get away with it, of course. There are those in his party who seem to believe that a majority of the seven members of the investigating committee who painstakingly and unanimously put together their interim report will be bowled over by his (alleged) charm, wit, intelligence, erudition and occasional classical allusion, and will agree that Boris Johnson couldn’t possibly be expected to know what the rules set out by Boris Johnson were. It doesn’t seem the likeliest outcome, and would be the death knell for any claim that the House of Commons has any standards at all when it comes to the truthfulness of ministers. It’s more likely that the majority – under increasing pressure from Johnson’s allies – will agree some minor slap across the wrist, which Johnson will take as seriously as he took the police fine which he received, whilst claiming it as a complete exoneration. However, attempting to browbeat and undermine the independence and integrity of the four Tory members of the Committee doesn’t look like the smartest move for someone who wants them to let him off, and going in with guns blazing – which is what he seems to be preparing to do – isn’t likely to help them find a way of reversing the conclusions of the interim report.

And then we have what in any rational world would be the likeliest outcome based on any examination of the facts – guilty as charged. With that guilt exacerbated by his own attempts at denial and continued refusal to accept the validity of the process, never mind any conclusions it reaches, any self-respecting parliamentary committee could only see his response as requiring a more severe penalty than might otherwise be the case, an outcome which neither he nor dozens – perhaps 100 – Tory MPs are likely to accept. And then what? Is he really prepared to blow up the Tory Party and the government in pursuit of his own selfish interests and insistence that he is right and every one else is wrong? All the past evidence says yes to that. Pass the popcorn.

Saturday, 18 March 2023

Bring back Norman Wisdom


The story about Llangollen International Eisteddfod deciding to change its motto because Google Translate can’t translate it correctly is a sad sign of the times. The expert advice obtained by the Eisteddfod authorities (“Their unanimous advice was that the motto is beautiful when read with an understanding of the nuances of the Welsh language, but that for non-Welsh speakers and new generations of audiences and indeed Welsh speakers, the intended meaning is not clear enough.") seems reasonable enough (although the idea that new generations of Welsh speakers can’t understand the phrase “byd gwyn” should raise some concerns about the education system). It’s not a bad argument for having a different but parallel motto in English; the idea that the one has to be a direct translation of the other is a strange one. It’s not much of an argument for changing the original Welsh, though.

Where do we end if we start expunging phrases from Welsh because Google Translate can’t handle them? As an experiment, I tried asking Mr Google to translate “bwrw hen wragedd a ffyn”, a phrase which I don't think any Welsh speaker would have much difficulty understanding. The answer I got was “cast old women and sticks”, an ageist phrase which is obviously offensive to elderly humans of the female gender with its suggestion that it’s acceptable to throw them around the place. And I don’t doubt that there are many other idioms which we all use daily which will not always translate literally into English. Are we to strip them all out of the Welsh language because of the inadequacies of an automated translation software package?

And does the argument apply to all languages compared to all other languages (there are probably few phrases in any language which wouldn’t cause a problem sooner or later if literally translated into every other language)? Incidentally, it isn’t only Google that can struggle with idiom: there is a story about a meeting in the European Parliament where “Nous avons besoin de la sagesse normande” (la sagesse Normande being a French idiom for common sense) was translated by the interpreter as “We need Norman Wisdom”. A beautiful and entirely accurate literal translation, but utterly destroying the meaning of the speaker’s words. As it happens, Mr Google has the same problem with the phrase; it also gives Norman wisdom (albeit with a small w) as the translation of sagesse Normande.

Notwithstanding that the ‘problem’ demonstrably also affects other languages, I suspect that I know the answer to that question about the more general applicability of the proposed approach to other languages, sadly. As a nation, we have a more than unfortunate tendency to compare everything we do with our larger neighbour; for some, it seems that even the words we use can only be judged by comparison with any potential translation into English. It’s a sad reflection on us that the proposal for change has got as far as it has.

Friday, 17 March 2023

What are the odds?


The old joke is that you can tell when a politician is lying because his or her lips are moving. There is another rule as well, though, which is of less universal application, which is that denying things three times turns them into certainties. I think it was devised after Nixon had denied three times that he was going to resign – and then did. A variant of this applies to Boris Johnson – the more firmly and frequently he commits to doing (or not doing) something, the more certain it becomes that he will do the opposite of what he says he is or is not going to do.

The Guardian is reporting today that he has been reselected to stand in his current constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. It’s not the first time he has committed to standing there again, but being formally nominated and accepting the nomination surely increases the odds that he will, in fact, do something completely different. The Guardian’s sub-headline claims that this is “...quashing speculation that he might seek safer seat”. Au contraire; according to the Nixon rule, giving such a firm promise to the members of his party in that constituency merely increases the probability that he will indeed seek a safer seat. He has, after all, something of a reputation for firming up on promises before breaking them. And letting down people who depended on him is second nature. Time will tell, but today is probably a good day for those who enjoy a little flutter to visit their local bookie and lay a bet against him standing again in Uxbridge.

Thursday, 16 March 2023

Drifting apart


The main driver for the establishment of the European Convention of Human Rights in 1950, on which the European Court of Human Rights was based, was a certain Mr Churchill, and most of the drafting was done by British lawyers. It was heavily based on the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and was intended to provide a framework to prevent the sort of inhuman treatment of some groups which had bedevilled the European continent over the previous two decades. The values underpinning it were at that time generally (outside the UK at least) believed to be close to universal, with only rogue states declining to ratify the convention and join the court. It was one of the earliest and best achievements of pan-European co-operation and understanding.

It is strange that the state which did so much to ensure that it was written and implemented should now be the one most critical of its very existence. Even stranger is some of the language being used to justify that scepticism. A few days ago, the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman (and it continues to astound me that those four words can be used in conjunction), declared that "… it's a court which is politicised, …” and “I think sometimes the jurisprudence from the Strasbourg court is at odds with … British values more generally." For a court largely based on British values and the British interpretation of human rights to have strayed so far from its original mission would be quite a change. But wait – we need to allow for that strange Anglo-centric view of the world which has infected the Tory Party here. Because what’s changed isn’t the values – those ‘universal’ values – which were at the heart of the establishment of the court, but the values and beliefs of the English Government. Only a perverse Anglo-centric view of the world could conclude that it's everybody else who is out of step with ‘us’. And her suggestion that the court is politicised seems to be code for failing to do what the greatest nation on earth, as they see it, requires of it, which is to allow it to erode, step by step, those rights which the court is bound to uphold.

It might have been the British government and British lawyers who led the process of establishing the convention and the court, and the supremacists and exceptionalists amongst them (of which there were many) may well have believed that they were imposing British values on the rest of the continent in order to save it from itself, but they were not and are not exclusively British values. And they’re no longer even commonly-held in the UK. In the 1950s, it would probably have been fair to assume both that those values were commonly held across the UK and that many in the UK really did believe them to be uniquely British. Today, it is obvious that they are wrong on both counts. Not only is the English government increasingly an outlier within Europe, it is also becoming an outlier within the UK itself. The gulf between the values being expressed by the English government and those being expressed by the governments in Wales and Scotland is increasingly wide, and it’s hard to see how they can be reconciled in the long term. Whilst much of the debate around independence centres on economics, the question of shared values and a shared ethos is equally important. When those things no longer exist, what is the glue which makes people feel like part of a single whole? Just as England is drifting away from its continental neighbours, so it is also drifting away from those who share these islands with it.

Tuesday, 14 March 2023

EU red tape?


When major projects go wrong, there’s rarely a single, simple cause. That is obviously true in the case of HS2. Certainly it’s been hit by inflation (although the mathematical competence of anyone who argues that spreading the expenditure out over a longer period addresses that is open to serious challenge). The way that the UK has approached such projects is another, and mirrors one of the problems which has bedevilled the electrification of the GWR main line: disbanding the team after one project and starting from scratch a few years later on the next loses expertise and experience. Treating such projects as part of a rolling programme where the team moves from one project to the next, as other European countries have done, is a much more efficient and effective way of building and retaining experience and knowledge. An approach to getting approval which relies on individual business cases for each part of the project rather than taking a wider view (which is how we lost the electrification beyond Cardiff) is another peculiarity of Treasury thinking which makes major projects hard to build. And all that is without the complicated procedure for obtaining the various required consents, largely – to hear the Brexiteers talk – imposed by the EU when the UK was a member.

The visible result of this is a slow and disjointed approach to developing mass high-speed transport in the UK, whilst France, Spain and others have been building complete and coherent networks. One of the consequences is that France is able to talk about banning short haul domestic flights whilst the UK is busily promoting an increase in internal air services by adjusting the taxation regime. Whatever the reasons, it’s clear that construction and infrastructure projects in France can be progressed more quickly and effectively than they can in the UK.

I can’t help but wonder whether that was a factor in the announcement at the end of last week that the UK will pay France to build a detention centre for migrants. Under the new Migration Bill, the UK is going to need a great deal of additional capacity to hold detainees, a policy made especially difficult when Tory MPs (and even government ministers) oppose any and every such centre in their own constituencies. Given the inability of the UK government to build anything very much, it will be cheaper and quicker to pay France to build camps instead (although, unless they’re turning a tidy profit from doing so, the attraction to the French government is rather less clear). Obviously, France is not bound by the same EU red-tape and bureaucracy which is, apparently, doing so much to hold the UK back.

Monday, 13 March 2023

Taking offence


The Home Secretary is apparently issuing instructions to police forces to the effect that upholding freedom of speech is more important than acting on behalf of people who feel offended by what someone has said. I wonder if she’s talked recently with the other Suella Braverman, the one who declared she was offended by the words used by Gary Lineker. Perhaps she’ll tell all the Tory MPs demanding action against Lineker that they, and the BBC, are supposed to be supporting free speech, not being offended by his words, and that his right to say what he likes is more important than the rights of anyone who may be offended. Or is free speech limited only to those who say the ‘right’ thing (using the word ‘right’ in both senses)?

Friday, 10 March 2023

How many points does it take to make a good plan?

Perhaps there’s been some sort of deflationary process at work or perhaps attention spans are shorter, but I’m sure the answer used to be closer to ten than five. Maybe it’s just harder to think of ten. I can remember being part of a group of Plaid members picketing a hotel in Cardiff whilst Labour’s leader was in a meeting inside – back in the days of Michael Foot, I think, although the details escape me. To say that Plaid was a rather less well-organised party in those days would be putting it kindly; although we’d been encouraged to turn up, none of us were really sure what we were there for. It was Owen John, as I recall, who said that we had to come up with a ten-point list of demands – nothing less would do – to put to Labour, and then demand a meeting. Coming up with the first half dozen or so was the easy part; it was making the full ten in a way which was relevant to the occasion which caused us the problem. On my recollection (although as the late queen of England put it, “recollections may vary”) the picket petered out before we’d reached the magic number.

Anyway, ‘five’ seems to be the number to go for these days, with Sunak’s five plans (although in truth, the lack of detail makes them look more like five slogans) and Labour’s grandly-titled five missions (although the use of the word ‘mission’ conveys a sense of purpose which seems to be sadly lacking in the detail). In the war of the fives, Sunak has criticised Labour for omitting ‘stop the boats’ as a key mission. Yesterday, Labour revealed its plans for childcare (although ‘plan’ in this context looks more like a plan to develop a plan rather than a thought-out policy), an area which, in turn, seems to be missing from Sunak’s list of slogans. Whilst it’s true that ‘the boats’ is dominating the xenophobic tabloids and the news reports, I somehow suspect that the lack of affordable child care might be directly and personally impacting rather more people than a few arrivals along the south coast of England. So, half a cheer for Labour for choosing a rather better ditch to falsely promise to die in than Sunak.

Only half a cheer, though, because when we come to look at why Labour is proposing to develop a policy (this year, next year, sometime …), it appears that the motivation behind it is rather more grubby than it appeared at first sight. They have, apparently, identified 100 constituencies in which they think their new policy (whatever it is and whenever they announce it) will buy them enough votes to gain a majority in the Commons. And I use the word ‘buy’ deliberately – this is transactional politics in action. Their second argument is that getting more people (largely women) back to work in jobs which otherwise don’t pay enough to cover the cost of childcare whilst leaving a worthwhile income for household spending will boost the economy overall. I’m sure that it will, but this is another indication of how Labour has bought into capitalist ideology, and sees the role of the state as to increase the supply of labour rather than promote the fulfilment of individuals. It’s a better offer than the Tories are making, but being more competent at running the system is a) not exactly difficult, and b) not really changing very much. The availability (or lack) of free or cheap childcare is unquestionably holding people back, and Labour is right to recognise it. There is a danger, though, that we lose sight of the underlying problem, which is low pay. However it’s presented, state-funded childcare is a subsidy first and foremost to employers, not to employees, and it enables the continuation of a low wage economy, particularly for women. A real ‘mission’ would be to address that problem, not to apply a coat of fresh New Labour paint.

Thursday, 9 March 2023

Echoes of the past


In purely factual terms, the allegation by Gary Lineker that the language being used by Tory ministers in relation to asylum seekers and refugees “…is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s” is demonstrably true, and it takes very little digging through the things said at the time to establish that (although it might perhaps have been fairer to refer to ‘the German government’ or ‘some German politicians’ rather than ‘Germany’ as a whole). The response by Braverman (“Equating our measures – which are lawful, necessary and fundamentally compassionate – to 1930s Germany is irresponsible and I disagree with that characterisation”) is similar to the answer that the Nazis would have given – they would have described their policies as lawful, necessary and compassionate, too. It would have been no more true in their case than it is in Braverman's. It isn’t just the words which evoke the past, it’s also the actions. Detaining tens of thousands of people – probably in urgently established camps of some sort – without trial pending their expulsion also carries echoes of the same past, even if expulsion is considerably less extreme than the historical precedent which the proposal evokes.

Unfortunately, however, Lineker has effectively proved the underlying truth of Godwin’s Law, and that endangers the argument he was making. The debate then turns around whether the comparison was fair or not, or whether he should have drawn the comparison or not, rather than the substance of the comments he made – which were that “This is beyond awful” and “This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people”. His comments need no comparison with any historical precedent; they stand on their own terms. Whilst there is a good argument that BBC newsreaders and current affairs presenters should not express an opinion on the events they are covering (although, in practice, there is always something of a pro-establishment bias in the way news is presented, whoever forms the establishment at the time) it is far from clear that that rule of political impartiality needs to apply to those presenting sports programmes. And I very much doubt that he would have received the same criticism had he supported the government’s proposals.

On the substance of the issue – the detention and expulsion of tens of thousands of people without any legal process – the usual double standards and lies continue to apply. In defending his decision not to step down whilst he is investigated for bullying, Dominic Raab came out with this gem yesterday: “We believe in innocent till proven guilty in this country”. For cabinet ministers, obviously; for desperate and vulnerable people, rather less so. It is argued that they have broken the law by the very act of traversing the channel; but according to the principle enunciated by Raab, the determination of whether the law has been broken or not in the UK is a matter for due legal process, not ministerial dictat. Instead, detention and deportation with no trial or legal process is considered entirely adequate for refugees and asylum-seekers. Like most of the ‘British values’ to which ministers are forever referring, the application of the principle to which Raab refers is limited to the chosen ones. And that's another unfortunate echo of the past.

Tuesday, 7 March 2023

Just a minor problem, not a crisis


In the scale of things, the arrival of a few tens of thousands of people a year in small boats is a minor problem to one of the world’s richest countries. It’s only as high as it is because the UK Government has spent years trying to close down other, less obviously visible, routes for refugees to reach the UK, and the numbers coming here are smaller than those going to most of our major European neighbours. Yet, to hear the government talking and to read some of the more lurid stories in the tabloids, it would be easy to see how people could come to believe that it's actually a major crisis. The main factor that turns it into a ‘crisis’ is government rhetoric, past and present, using the issue to divert attention from more pressing questions such as the rising cost of living, and to blame refugees and immigrants for the manifest failings of government.

And so we are to be presented with yet another attempt at legislation to ‘stop the boats’; legislation which is as likely to be effective as anything else they’ve done so far (i.e. hardly at all), setting themselves up for another failure on the ground which can nevertheless be presented to that racist and xenophobic section of the electorate to which the Tory Party now seeks to appeal as being ‘tough’ action. Whether the new law is entirely in line with the UK’s international obligations under treaties to which the UK is a signatory is currently an unresolved question – the Telegraph (paywall) is reporting that, “…it will be stated in the Bill that the new laws may not be compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights”. The willingness of the Tory Party – which long prided itself on being the party of law and order – to break international law whenever it feels like doing so didn’t go away with the last-but-one Prime Minister.

The Bill is likely, according to the Guardian, “…to place a legal duty on the home secretary to detain and remove nearly all asylum seekers who arrive “irregularly””. Given the limited capacity of the Rwanda scheme (around 200 per year) and the fact that the UK government has very few agreements in place with other countries to return immigrants either to their own country or to the last country they were in before reaching the UK (having effectively torn up the latter as part of Brexit), this will lead to a need to detain large numbers of people, indefinitely, with no legal redress available to them. The Times reports that, “…there will be new powers to enable the mass detention of tens of thousands of people every year before their removal.” The idea that the government can give itself the power to round up and detain tens of thousands of people every year with no court process is one which should frighten all of us. The idea that there is a majority in parliament in favour of such draconian action ought to be provoking much more reaction than it is. The UK is a failing state. The belief that the new law will somehow act as a deterrent and stop people attempting the journey shows a failure to understand how desperate people are. Quite apart from anything else, the refugees and those despicable people who make money by trafficking them are as capable as anyone of seeing that the UK is simply incapable of removing such numbers of people, and that building or requisitioning places to hold tens of thousands more people every year is not going to be sustainable for long.

It's not about controlling borders or reducing immigration at all (the UK economy has a major need for the labour which could be provided with a more humane approach), it’s about seeking votes on the back of treating people inhumanely. Depressingly, it might even work to some extent. We should never forget, though, that a government which demonises and mistreats one group of people one day to serve its own narrow electoral ends is perfectly capable of picking on another group the next day. There are those who look at what the UK government is doing and say ‘this is not who we are’. In truth, if we allow it to happen, this is exactly who we are.

Saturday, 4 March 2023

Now that was a cunning plan


Once in a while, politics produces a huge surprise; the scales fall from my eyes and I realise that I’ve got something totally wrong. Take the lockdown parties in Downing Street, for example. I had foolishly followed the public narrative that these were organised by the then PM and those around him, and that they were, in consequence, guilty of repeatedly breaking the rules that they themselves had made. From statements made by Johnson and some of his acolytes yesterday and today, I now know that those parties were in fact organised by ‘Keith’ Starmer, as part of a cunning plan to bring down the government. It was Keith who arranged the delivery of that infamous wine fridge, and who visited the local supermarket in disguise to fill a suitcase with bottles of wine. His plan was so well thought-out that he even arranged for the Cabinet Secretary to be personally compromised by his attendance at one of Keith’s soirees, in full knowledge that any subsequent investigation would be delegated to the Labour Party’s mole in government, Sue Gray. But the most cunning part of all is that he managed to do all of these things without leaving a single trace of evidence to implicate himself. I can understand why Jake and Mad Nad are so angry. Indeed, it is the very thoroughness with which Keith has managed to expunge all the relevant e-mails and What’s App messages which is the strongest proof of his intimate involvement in the plan. No innocent person would have gone to such extreme lengths. I’m just waiting to hear how it was Keith who arranged for the Tory membership to elect Liz Truss to replace Johnson. It’s quite some conspiracy.

As is often the case, though, I find myself wondering whether those making these claims have really thought through the implications. I mean if Keith is so clever, competent and cunning as to be able to organise all this over many months and years, even getting his mole into position years ago, and if Boris and his gang are so stupid, gullible and incompetent that they fell into the trap so completely, doesn’t that rather suggest that Keith might be more suited to the top job than Boris?