Friday, 22 October 2021

Another huge boost for world's most successful union

 

The UK’s world-leading science sector is very fortunate indeed to be blessed with scientists of the quality of Jacob Rees-Mogg. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that so many scientific advances were made in the past without his input. His revelation this week that Tory MPs don’t need to wear face masks because they all know each other will unquestionably have a huge impact on the UK’s reputation in the hitherto unknown field of viral intelligence. The implications are very far-reaching indeed. He has demonstrated, to his own satisfaction at least (although the detailed analysis has yet to be peer-reviewed or published as far as I have been able to establish), that the virus is sentient (well, more so than Jake, anyway) and that it can only pass from one human host to another if those two humans are strangers to each other. Uniquely in the UK, the virus has also been encouraged to mutate to the point where it has developed a remarkable ability to tap into human brain cells in order to ascertain whether its next potential host is known to its current host or not before deciding whether to attempt a new infection. How it will behave in the case of human hosts with an obvious deficiency in the brain cell department (Jake, we might just be talking about you again) is the subject of an ongoing experiment amongst MPs, in which the Tories have decided to be the guinea pigs whilst the opposition benches constitute the control group.

These astounding discoveries have undoubtedly come as a profound shock to virologists the world over, all of whom have been working to date on the rather naïve assumption that a virus consisting of a mere few strands of RNA could not possibly be sentient enough to determine the pattern of its own spread. At this very moment, top teams of experts in epidemiology around the globe are preparing to descend on the UK to examine this strange new variant, and study the processes which the UK followed in order to channel viral mutations in the direction of sentience. Brexit, of course, has been absolutely key to the success of the government’s management of the viral mutation programme. Freed of the demands of unelected Eurocrats that scientific conclusions should be based on evidence or data, the UK is the only state which was in a position to make this particular discovery, and freed of a requirement that scientists should possess any particular qualifications or experience, Rees-Mogg was uniquely placed to lead the work.

Anyone who chooses not to believe the word of the great Jake is clearly being unpatriotic, and foreigners caught sniggering are just trying to hide their jealousy and embarrassment at being left so far behind. So, crack open the bubbly, raise the bunting, and celebrate another huge success for the most successful union the world has even known. But only with people you know, obviously.

Thursday, 21 October 2021

Predictable Commission outcomes

 

The Welsh Labour and Unionist Party must be truly delighted with the way that the two Welsh opposition parties, Plaid and the Tories, have responded to the setting up of a constitutional commission in Wales. They could hardly have hoped for more. Whilst we don’t yet know who all the members of the commission will be, we can be absolutely certain that it will not contain a majority of supporters of independence, whatever the more swivel-eyed faction of the Tory Party might say. A unionist government is simply not, ever, going to appoint a commission full of independentistas to advise it on the best constitutional future for Wales. However, the statement that it will be allowed to ‘consider’ independence as an option seems to have been enough to gain the support of Plaid as well as the entirely predictable condemnation of the Tories. Perfect. For Labour.

For some independentistas, the arguments for independence are so overwhelming that they have a tendency to believe that all they need to do is to present those arguments to impartial observers drawn from those whom the Labour and Unionist Party believe to be the great and the good of Wales, and the argument will have been won. Naïve is an inadequate word to describe that belief, not least because the panel will not be one of impartial observers who have no preconceived notions of the ‘correct’ answer. Whilst including a sprinkling of people who may* be independentistas as members of the panel lends its work a degree of credibility amongst independentistas, there is a danger in transferring that credibility to the entire membership of a panel whose collective conclusions could probably be written in advance, especially considering their remit to consult widely and ascertain Welsh opinion on the matter.

I predict that they will conclude that:

a)   There is only minority support for independence in Wales,

b)   Wales is, in any event, not strong enough economically to be an independent country,

c)    Most people in Wales want devolution to succeed,

d)   The devolution settlement should be tidied up with a few extra powers devolved,

e)   Existing powers should somehow be set into concrete so that they can’t be withdrawn by London on a whim,

f)     Federalism would be a really good way forward, and

g)   All Tories are evil.

OK, the last one won’t appear in the printed report; it will merely be an unstated sub-text. And maybe there will be a minority report distancing itself from the formal conclusions, although I would expect that, in appointing members, the government will be looking for people who will be able to come to a consensus. After its publication, the report will be ignored in London by both the Conservative and Unionist Party and the British Labour and Unionist Party, but the Welsh Labour and Unionist Party will use it to justify continuing to flog its dead federalist horse, and other unionists will join them in emphasising that part of the report’s conclusions which sets out why independence any time soon is a very bad idea.

The point is not that setting up a commission is an inherently bad idea, but that any ‘official’ commission will inevitably be set up by those in power at the time – and the membership will reflect that. A consultant, it is said, is a person you call in to borrow your watch to tell you the time, and that is what this commission will do. What independentistas need to remember is that there are no short-cuts to independence; the only route is by winning the support of the people of Wales. Weighty evidence given to commissions might help them to clarify things in their own minds but it does little in itself to win the support of the mass of the people. A pro-independence government could set up a similar commission composed of different members who would come to a very different set of conclusions, but that government does not yet exist, and more importantly neither does the majority opinion in Wales which would allow such a government to be formed. Until it does, independentistas should be very wary about placing their faith in a process designed from the outset to provide credibility and support for the unionist position, let alone one recommending an impractical and unimplementable form of federalism devised solely to sustain the position of the Labour Party.

*Or may not – whilst I know Laura McAllister, one of the co-chairs, and respect her academic knowledge and experience, it’s a few years since I last bumped into her, and I have no idea of her current stance on the issue of independence; having been a Plaid candidate in the fairly distant past by no means makes someone automatically a supporter of independence today.

Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Protecting MPs involves more than sentry duty for one hour a fortnight

 

There’s a story about a man living in a remote house who spots two burglars entering his shed. He immediately phones the police, telling them that, if they’re quick, they can catch the two burglars red-handed. This being austerity Britain, he gets the inevitable response that there are no police officers available to respond. He waits ten minutes, then calls again. This time he tells them that he saw two burglars entering his shed so took his shotgun out and that, after shooting one of them, the other is now cowering in the shed. Within minutes, three police cars full of armed officers pull up outside his house and a police helicopter is circling overhead. “You told us you’d shot someone”, said the senior police officer on the scene, after failing to find any evidence of a corpse. The householder replied, “And you told me that there was no-one available”.

The point, of course, is that any under-resourced police force is always going to have to prioritise which calls it answers – and the result is that the police simply no long respond to a growing number of crimes, as many victims of burglary or car theft palmed off with a crime number for insurance purposes will readily attest.

It is, of course, right that MPs going about their business meeting constituents should be properly protected (although I can’t help but observe that some of the politicians shouting the loudest about the need for protection following a single fatality are the same people who tell us that between 800 and 1000 preventable premature Covid deaths each week for the last two months, and for the currently foreseeable future, is an ‘acceptable’ price to pay: all lives matter, but some, it seems, matter more than others). The question, though, is what the police will not do to enable them to divert resources to protecting MPs. It isn’t as simple as having a policeman on duty at a fortnightly hour-long constituency surgery, which is the way it has been largely presented. Surgeries may be one of the easiest ways of gaining access to an MP, but if someone is determined to murder an MP there are plenty of other opportunities.  Considering only surgeries looks like a tokenistic response. Providing sufficient coverage of all possible attack opportunities for 650 MPs (and then, what about MSs, MSPs, and MLAs, the inclusion of which would add significantly to the requirement?) would probably need a couple of thousand full time officers, allowing for 7 day working, holidays, sickness etc.

I wouldn’t argue that MPs should not receive a suitable level of protection, but it is entirely reasonable to ask two questions: firstly whether the resources required would be additional to those currently available, and secondly, if not, which other policing activities will be deprioritised as a result. Pretending that a significant additional responsibility can be loaded onto already overstretched police resources is just dishonest. I don’t believe that most people would begrudge the provision of appropriate protection to elected public servants, but withdrawing from even more police activities supporting local communities might be a good way of changing that. The response needs to be rather more nuanced than the knee-jerk reaction we’ve seen to date.

Monday, 18 October 2021

It's not just innocent and ignorant nostalgia

 

Last week, a former Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith, was widely mocked for asking “what has happened to us as a nation” because people are working from home rather than going to the office as he claimed (even that claim is subject to caveats – many civil service jobs were moved out of London, along with those performing them) that they did throughout the war years. As his many detractors have pointed out, there were no computers or internet, and few people even had telephone lines; working from home would have been impractical even if the government of the day had thought it desirable.

The mocking, though, might be missing an important point about the mindset of IDS and those who think like him. Johnson almost certainly agrees with the point IDS was making, and has said similar things himself. He is invariably trying to imagine himself in the shoes of his great hero, Winston Churchill, from the way he carries himself to the views he expresses, even if he falls a long way short when it comes to serious oratory. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that, had the technology existed to support home working at that time, the wartime PM would still have insisted that everyone turned up for work at the office. He was notoriously unconcerned with the number of civilian deaths in pursuit of his goal of total victory, and would probably have seen protecting the business of Lyons Corner Shops and Tea Rooms (the forerunners of Prêt, whose business is threatened today) to say nothing of the interests of the office landlords, as being a far more important consideration. Besides, bomb-dodging is character-building, and encourages people to think of themselves as being in solidarity with soldiers on the front line.

There’s another aspect of the Blitz years which those who glorify them tend to gloss over. In an eery parallel with the response to Covid, crime, and especially economic crime, was rife. The unscrupulous exploited shortages, and contractors defrauded the government on a grand scale. Conmen had a field day, and gangs ruled over territories with an iron fist. They were less genteel about it than their corporate equivalents today, but they were almost as effective at transferring the wealth of the many into their own pockets. Crises create opportunities for the ruthless, and the more the rest of us behave normally, the greater those opportunities. It’s not that people like IDS are simply being selective about the blitz – only evoking what they regard as the ‘best’ bits – it’s more that they only want ordinary people to remember those aspects which create some sort of warm glow. Glossing over deaths, poverty, hunger, crime – this is, after all, one of the eternal values of his party. His attempt at misdirection through misplaced nostalgia is not as harmless as the mockery might suggest.

Friday, 15 October 2021

Is 'cheating foreigners' really UK foreign policy?

 

There was plenty of evidence that Boris Johnson never intended to implement the agreement that he signed with the EU even before the agreement was signed, and the evidence is piling up even higher now. The EU must take its share of the blame here – given the very public history of mendacity and duplicity throughout Johnson’s career, they really have no excuse for believing that they could trust him. Believing that he really, really wouldn’t sign an agreement which he had no intention of honouring showed a high degree of stupidity and gullibility.

Johnson’s former bestie, Dominic Cummings, has ‘excused’ Johnson’s behaviour by arguing firstly that he wasn’t lying – he just doesn’t know what truth is, and was clueless about what he was signing up to – secondly that it is part of the PM’s job to cheat foreigners, and thirdly that the EU, China and the US regularly break the rules in agreements to which they have signed up, so it’s nothing unusual. It’s not exactly helpful to be defended against a charge of lying by being called stupid and ignorant, but it’s unlikely that Cummings was trying to be helpful anyway.

He may have a point, though, about others breaking rules at times. It’s disingenuous to suggest that there’s some sort of moral or legal equivalence between ignoring a few parts of an agreement if they’re found not to work and making an agreement which you have no intention of keeping – negotiating in bad faith from the outset is on a rather different scale – but it’s true to say that not all countries adhere to all parts of agreements which they’ve signed. It’s notable, though, that the trading blocs he specifically named (China, the EU, and the US) just happen to be the three largest and most important in the world. The biggest fish in the pond have more freedom to do as they like, however much many of us might dislike that fact. The UK, however, has chosen to opt out of being part of a big fish in order to become a small fish; the idea that it can behave with the same degree of impunity as the school yard bullies goes to the heart of the delusion which underpins Brexit. If the little kid wants to behave like one of the big bullies, he’d better make sure that at least one of the big kids is going to protect him. Alienating all three, aka ‘cheating foreigners’ as Cummings puts it, is unlikely to end well. As we’re all about to find out, unless there is some rapid backpedalling.

Wednesday, 13 October 2021

Who could possibly predict anything with their ears covered?

 

Perhaps we should be grateful to the so-called ‘Welsh’ Conservatives for taking the time and trouble to explain to us the nature of a true unionist. Well, that isn’t quite what they did, but it’s something that we can easily extrapolate from their accusation that Mark Drakeford isn’t a true unionist at all because he’s dared to admit that a second Scottish independence referendum is probable and suggested that Wales should be giving some thought as to where that leaves us. To say that Drakeford hasn’t exactly embraced the concept of independence would be something of an understatement, but according to the Tories, merely admitting the possibility that a vote might be held in Scotland is enough to destroy Drakeford’s unionist credentials. (Drakeford is actually still hawking his federalist proposals, which according to Lee Waters are a non-starter “unless England is interested”.  So that’s totally and utterly doomed then.) The response of true unionists to possibilities they don’t like should, one can only assume from what the Tories are saying, be to insert their fingers into their ears and shout la-la-la very loudly.

It’s an interesting approach to politics, but in fairness, it’s not without its antecedents in the recent past at the top of their party. They’re simply blindly following their leader’s example. When the current PM was merely the Foreign Secretary, he earned himself a reputation for responding to civil servants bringing him news that he didn’t want to hear by covering his ears and humming “God Save The Queen”. Presumably, he wanted to save her from just about everything except incompetent and ill-informed Foreign Secretaries. For all we know, it’s a policy he and his government might still be following. That would be a better explanation than many I’ve seen for the fact that Covid deaths, lack of PPE, fuel shortages, food shortages, lorry driver shortages, fuel price explosions, food rotting in the fields, pig culls, the fall of Kabul, and the implications of the Brexit deal in the north of Ireland (to select just a few events at random) all came as a complete surprise to the government. They are all things that could obviously never have been predicted by people who were covering their ears and humming when the civil servants tried to advise them, and it’s therefore wholly unfair to suggest that they could ever have prepared for any of them.

In a rational world, Drakeford’s attempt to anticipate what might happen and prepare for it would be regarded not only as sensible, but as the bounden duty of the leader of any government (even if many of us might disagree with his proposed response). Only in twenty-first century Tory Britain is accepting the possibility that a highly probable event might happen, and trying to prepare for that event and its consequences, regarded as some dark form of treachery. Fortunately for we independentistas, Drakeford’s attempt at facing up to political reality is a localised aberration; the people really in charge are those who prefer to cover their ears and sing. We can safely predict that Scottish independence, followed by Welsh independence and the reunification of Ireland, will come as a complete surprise to them.

Friday, 8 October 2021

Giving gravity a chance

 

Last Friday, in the prelude to the Tory Conference, the Guardian’s editorial suggested that Johnson and his party were “defying gravity”. The image which leapt into my mind was of Wile E Coyote, in that moment where he’s run past the edge of the cliff and is suspended in mid air. We all know what’s going to happen next, but he still spends a few moments just hanging there, waiting for nature’s natural force to send him plunging to the bottom of the ravine. It was almost a comforting thought, but Road Runner Starmer, to say nothing of the rest of us, is unlikely to get that lucky outside of cartoon land.

Much of what passes for political analysis assumes, at some level, that voters are carefully weighing up the words and actions of the players before coming to a decision on which individuals or parties to support, and that, as the lies and incompetence become ever clearer, opinions will move. There is puzzlement, even, at how little impact the PM’s obvious character flaws are having on opinion. The underlying assumption, though, is wrong. Most votes are not cast on the basis of a rational analysis at all, and most politicians – and anyone who’s spent any time canvassing for them door-to-door – are well aware of that fact. All the analysis, fact-checking, and earnest debate is relevant only to a comparatively small number of voters. For the rest, factors such as general impressions, family history, and class or national identity count for much more.

Politicians know this, of course, but most of them feel that they need to at least pretend that it isn’t so, an enterprise in which they are aided and abetted by a media needing to justify their serious coverage of elections. Part of Johnson’s electoral strength is that he doesn’t even try and pretend it’s true, leaving him free to make outrageous claims which everyone, including himself, knows to be blatantly untrue. In a flawed electoral system under which a party only needs to win around 30-35% of the vote to be gifted a significant majority in the House of Commons, the two largest English parties can get most of the way there simply on the basis of tribal loyalty (or the ‘donkey vote’ as it is more commonly called, because those electors would vote for anyone or anything, even a donkey, if it was wearing the right colour rosette). Gravity can only do its stuff – and save us from becoming Mr Coyote’s lunch – when the coyote finally departs terra firma and starts hanging in thin air. That, in turn, depends on whether that smallish minority of swing voters (found in a minority of constituencies) are mostly amused or mostly repelled by the antics of the mendacious clown in Number Ten. Sadly, too many are still in the first category and it’s far from clear just how bad things need to get before they will move into the second.

Thursday, 7 October 2021

Building in resilience

 

We may never discover the full details of what went wrong at Facebook and associated sites a few days ago; companies which suffer embarrassing IT failures are generally reluctant to admit to the causes of those failures. This story, however, gives us a few clues as to why it took so long to fix – suggesting that the company ran its own internal processes, including building access control, on the same systems, meaning that the technicians charged with fixing the system couldn’t even get into their own offices let alone use their computers to fix the problem. It highlights the essential fact that, in IT, building resilient systems necessarily means incorporating a degree of redundancy into the design, and that redundancy carries a cost.

That simple rule doesn’t just apply to IT, though, and when the UK government said the other day that it wants the UK to be the “most resilient country in the world”, it raised some obvious questions about whether they understand the costs involved. The cynical response would be to say that of course they don’t; it’s just another of their many vacuous and meaningless slogans which they don’t know how to implement even if they wanted to. And the cynics would probably be right, but let’s pretend for a moment that the government are serious.

If we take energy supplies as an example, back in the days pre-privatisation, the approach of the old CEGB to running a highly resilient grid was to have a significant amount of extra generating capacity available, at a significant cost. Post-privatisation, those ‘unnecessary’ costs could be (and were) reduced by running the system closer to full capacity. Similarly, pre-privatisation, the gas boards had a huge storage capacity, meaning that any disruption to production was unlikely to impact on the consumer. Today, as a result of the pursuit of profit, the UK has one of the lowest levels of reserve stocks of gas in Europe. That move to a ‘just-in-time’ approach isn’t restricted to the energy sector. For decades, business schools and consultants have been pushing companies towards the model as a means of improving their ‘efficiency’. Not holding stock on the site of a factory means a reduced requirement for space and a reduction in the need for working capital, both leading to an improved return on investment. Profit, again, has been king.

It all worked rather well on the whole, just as long as the system operated smoothly and reliably. It was always, though, going to be more vulnerable to a shock event than the previous model and the system has suffered two major shocks recently, whilst a third looms large on the horizon. One of those two was unplanned and the other entirely intentional. That a major pandemic such as Covid would happen at some point was both foreseeable and foreseen; that Brexit would have a similarly disruptive effect on supply chains was also both foreseeable and foreseen; and that climate change will provoke another large shock to economic systems is again both foreseeable and foreseen. In the first two cases, however, neither government nor businesses considered the risk level sufficiently high to warrant the expenditure involved in building in the necessary contingency, and there’s little sign to date that they are any closer to preparing for the third. One might, perhaps, excuse businesses, to an extent at least, for not spending large amounts of money on preparing for a type of Brexit which they probably believed no rational government would pursue, but they can’t escape the blame for failing to allow for the possibility that we no longer had a rational government. And in both cases, a responsible government would have led the planning and preparation work.

The lesson we should be learning is that long global supply chains with little or no built-in redundancy are highly vulnerable to shock, and the corollary is that secure and reliable supplies of essentials are easier to guarantee with a more localised approach and a greater level of redundancy and stock-holding. If that’s what the government mean by increasing resilience, then it’s something to be welcomed. It is, though, likely to compromise both international competitiveness and productivity the way the latter is usually measured. It seems extremely doubtful, to say the least, that the current regime is really intending to put security of essential supplies ahead of the ability of their friends, cronies, and donors to make profit. The more cynical assumption expressed earlier is a much better fit with the observable facts. We should treat it as the vacuous slogan which it is.

Wednesday, 6 October 2021

Protecting Tory voters isn't levelling up

 

For the PM to talk about moving to a high wage economy on the same day that his government reverses the temporary uplift to Universal Credit would look like just another example of incompetence and inconsistency if the clash of dates hadn’t been known for months in advance. It looks instead more like an example of just rubbing people’s noses in it. 

It’s true, of course, that the uplift was always billed as temporary but the rationale for moving from an inadequate weekly payment to a marginally less inadequate weekly payment for the duration of the pandemic was never spelled out explicitly. It clearly has little to do with any suggestion that the pandemic was somehow going to cost those receiving the benefit more, but always seemed to be associated more with the fact that more people were going to end up claiming the benefit, as a result of a furlough scheme which cut the wages of millions of employees. It’s no coincidence that the ending of the uplift comes at roughly the same time as the ending of furlough; it’s all about electoral politics.

It’s a sweeping generalisation to say that, in so-called ‘normal’ times, most of those in receipt of Universal Credit in England (and it's only England that matters to the government) will be either Labour voters or else non-voters, more concerned with managing their daily lives than with voting in an election where most votes count for little. (And who can honestly blame people struggling to make ends meet on a daily basis for being less than passionately concerned about which particular bunch of deficit fetishists are in charge of implementing an austerity programme?) But being a sweeping generalisation doesn’t necessarily make it incorrect. What the furlough scheme did was tip many more of the voting public – including a number who do, or could be persuaded to, vote Conservative – into the area where they needed to claim the benefit. The uplift was intended not so much to protect the interests of claimants as to protect the electoral interests of the Conservative Party. Now that very many fewer of their voters fall into the system, they believe that they can afford to revert to the even more inadequate level of benefit which pertained previously. People who don’t vote for them simply don’t matter to them.

The PM claims that it is better for people to be in high-wage employment than to depend on benefits. He’s right – but if his government were serious about that, they could legislate tomorrow to outlaw any employer paying a full time wage so low that staff need to claim benefits in addition. Such a proposal might give them a little difficulty with some of their own backbenchers, who seem to believe that not paying people enough to live on is a perfectly reasonable employment practice (and also effectively provides a handy public subsidy to companies who donate, or might be persuaded to donate, large sums to the Tory Party), but I’m sure that they’d get enough support from opposition parties to get the measure passed. Outside the ranks of the Tory Party, I doubt that there are many MPs who believe that paying people less than enough to live on is ever a reasonable thing to do.

There is nothing in the PM’s rhetoric about a high-skill high-wage economy which is going to help those at the economic bottom of society, doing jobs where there is little or no possibility of innovation or improved productivity. Even if it were possible for all those doing jobs on low pay to walk into higher-paid employment tomorrow, the requirement for most of those jobs would still be there; we’d just be faced with an unfulfilled – and unfulfillable – requirement. Levelling up (even if it were defined, which it has not been to date) is a not unreasonable aspiration, but the word ‘levelling’ is more important than the word ‘up’. Unless action is taken to reduce the disparity between the top and the bottom, it’s not levelling at all, and there will still be people left behind at the bottom. Ensuring that his party can win elections without ever needing the votes of any left in that group is a much more limited aspiration – but probably a better description of the overall policy aim.

Tuesday, 5 October 2021

Truth is Lies

 

It takes a special kind of intellectual dishonesty to twist the same basic facts to support two more or less opposing arguments at the same time. Step forward, Boris Johnson. On Sunday, the shortage of permanent UK-based HGV drivers was because the employers weren’t paying enough, and the conditions were poor, especially for women. This morning, it seems that the reason only 127 EU nationals have applied for the same job is nothing to do with the pay or conditions, it is solely because there is a global shortage of drivers (obviously foreigners would otherwise be queuing up to come to the UK for a temporary contract under even worse terms).

He’s not alone, though. He’s managed to surround himself with others equally capable of flexible interpretations of words, collectively, even if not always individually. On Monday, the Foreign Secretary managed to tell us that “other countries have huge trust in Britain and want to work with us”, ignoring the fact that her colleague, Lord Frost, told the same audience that unless the EU produces an ‘acceptable’ alternative to the agreement which he negotiated and signed within ten days, he will be ready to tear up the agreement unilaterally. Truss also managed to talk about building “a network of liberty around the world”; today, another of her colleagues is announcing that having stopped freedom of movement for UK citizens to the rest of Europe, she’s going to impose restrictions on freedom of movement within the UK.

Orwell thought that his fictional doublespeak was a warning; Johnson and his gang seem to see it more as an instruction manual. War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength, as Orwell put it, to which we could add Trust is Distrust, and Shortage is Plenty. In the novel, when Winston Smith completely accepted the party’s word for everything even he came to love Big Brother. It seems to be working dangerously well in real life as well.