Thursday, 12 September 2019

Heads the SNP win, tails the SNP win


In terms of exposing the holes, gaps and inconsistencies in the UK’s unwritten constitution, Brexit is the gift that just keeps giving.  It is, of course, an entirely natural concomitant of having two or more different legal systems in operation that something which is lawful in one can be unlawful in another.  It is perfectly possible that the Scottish court which ruled prorogation unlawful and the English court which ruled it lawful are both entirely correct in terms of their own respective legal systems.  The problem arises in that the same action – prorogation – has effect in both jurisdictions, and it cannot remain both lawful and unlawful for long.
The Supreme Court will make a legal ruling, of course, rather than a political one, but the real impact of their decision will be political.  They could rule that it is lawful, but however such a ruling is presented it will inevitably look like a statement that English law trumps Scottish law.  Telling Scotland that their law is inferior isn’t the best way of promoting the idea of a union of equals.  On the other hand, they could rule that the decision cannot be lawful overall unless it is lawful in all relevant jurisdictions.  That would be an entirely reasonable legal outcome, reminding the UK government that it needs to consider the law in all parts of the UK before acting, but it would inevitably cue a hostile response from Brexiteers towards those ‘uppity Jocks’ who dare to have a legal system which stands in the way of the English majority.  Another good way of making the Scots feel like valued partners.
The words of that famous Scot who talked about weaving a tangled web will surely be ringing loudly in the PM’s ears.

Monday, 9 September 2019

Genius or simply lucky fool?


There is a natural human tendency to believe in ‘agency’; that when things happen, it’s a result of actions taken by people.  It isn’t always true, though; sometimes things happen as a result of a whole host of interacting causes and actions, and there’s often a large element of sheer luck involved.  Being in the right place at the right time is under-rated; but still we tend to prefer the simple explanation that attributes success to an individual.  One classic example is the oft-repeated claim that knife crime in London reduced when Boris Johnson was mayor.  In factual terms, it isn’t quite as clear-cut as that, but even if we accept that the statement is true, it doesn’t follow that the relationship between the two was a causal one, even if the chief protagonist regularly asserts it to be so.
We see the same phenomenon in the boardroom of public companies, where performance in one company is demonstrably not a particularly good indicator of performance elsewhere*.  But perhaps the most common example is that seen in the world of the round ball – football managers are regularly hired and sacked on the basis of the results achieved by their teams.  When a manager achieves very good results with one team and very poor results with the next, the logical response would be to consider what other factors might be in play.  But the actual response is to blame the manager and sack him.  Whether he was just lucky the first time, whether he just happened to be a better ‘fit’ with the style and ethos of the team, whether he just had a better bunch of players – all these are disregarded, and the manager carries the can.
As a result of the success of the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum, Dominic Cummings has been credited with a mystical set of superpowers and has come to be regarded as some sort of strategic and tactical genius.  On the basis of that success, he has been given unprecedented power in Downing Street to exert his control over other departments and to patronise and upbraid MPs and ministers, often, apparently, in colourful language.  This seems to be tolerated and even encouraged by the PM.  It appears that the ‘masterstrokes’ of the government so far – proroguing parliament, expelling 21 Tory MPs, backing the PM into a corner from which there seems at the moment to be no obvious escape route, threatening that the PM will disregard the law – all emanate from the ‘mastermind’ behind the PM.  But what if he’s not the mastermind as which he has been painted?  What if, in 2016, he was just lucky – he just happened to be in the right place at the right time to take advantage of factors which were moving in a particular direction anyway?  Is it even possible that the leave majority would have been greater but for his involvement?  The problem with these questions is twofold – firstly that we don’t have the data to answer them, and secondly that too many people aren’t even asking them.
The assumption that appointing a magic manager will turn around the fortunes of a poor-performing football club is not an assumption which is generally verified by the facts.  There’s no obvious reason to suppose that politics, in this regard, is much different.  Cummings is turning out to be about as helpful to Johnson as Rasputin was to Tsar Nicholas.  He just hasn’t been found out yet.
*There are, of course, exceptions to every rule.  It turns out, for example, that Boris Johnson’s performance as Foreign Secretary was an incredibly good indicator of his likely performance as Prime Minister.

Friday, 6 September 2019

Johnson, Johnson and principles


It struck me at the time that there was something strange about someone who resigned from Theresa May’s government because he was pro-EU and wanted a second referendum then joining an even more hard-line anti-EU government of which membership was restricted to those prepared to support a no-deal exit.  I put it down to blood being thicker than water.  One of the stories that I saw yesterday about the resignation of Johnson Minor suggested that before agreeing to serve he had asked for, and received, a specific assurance from Johnson Major that he was seriously seeking a deal.  And he believed it, presumably on the basis that an inveterate and habitual liar wouldn’t lie to his own brother.
There’s a pattern there, though.  When the leader of the Scottish Conservatives resigned, she also said that she had looked Johnson Major in the eye and demanded and received a similar assurance.  She also believed it, and again, presumably believed that ‘he wouldn’t lie to me’.  And there are members of the Cabinet who are known to be opponents of no-deal who seem to be loyally serving him.  I don’t know for certain, but it would be a shrewd guess that they had also sought, received, and believed similar assurances, because ‘he wouldn’t lie to us’.  All this tells us much more about those who have received and accepted those assurances than it tells us about Johnson Major.  For whatever reason, they have all been convinced that they are special; that a man whom they all know to be a devious, dishonest, and habitual liar would for some reason be honest with them even as he blatantly lies to everyone else.
I’m not sure that Johnson Major himself would see it as lying, mind.  This is a man who has gone through life saying whatever will advance his own ends at every juncture whether it bears a passing acquaintance with truth or not.  Fact and fiction are mixed and entwined in a way where he probably no longer knows the difference.  From time to time he’s been caught out, even sacked, but he always lands on his feet – his approach to the distinction between truth and untruth has served him well, so why would anyone expect that to change?  Those who thought they were in some sense special enough not to be lied to have only demonstrated their own gullibility and naivete.
So, at the least, Johnson Minor showed himself to be gullible and na├»ve, but it’s worse than that.  He has managed to get himself portrayed as having ultimately followed his principles rather than remaining loyal to his brother, but in what sense is someone who spends a day – never mind six weeks – agonising over the conflict between family loyalty and the interests of the country ‘principled’?  To have considered, even for a moment, that loyalty to his brother might be on, or close to, an equal footing with doing what he believes to be right for his constituents and the wider populace tells us all we need to know about his ‘principles’.  Minor manages to look good in comparison to Major only because we are comparing within a very narrow part of the spectrum.

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

How will the cards fall?


Expelling 21 Tory MPs from the Conservative group in the House of Commons solves one problem for the PM, but potentially causes several new ones.  The danger of holding a General Election at the head of a party so hopelessly divided over Brexit was always that in the two likeliest scenarios (another hung parliament or a very narrow Tory majority of seats), a party which contained 20 or more MPs implacably opposed to no deal would resolve nothing.  A majority on paper isn’t the same thing as a majority when it comes to the key votes.  Removing those rebels and replacing them with no deal Johnson loyalists gives him a chance at least of getting a majority which he can use to deliver his do-or-die 31st October exit.
Some of the 21 will go quietly – at least 5 have already said they won’t be standing again anyway – but others may resist and may well have the support of their local membership in resisting.  Philip Hammond, for instance, has already been reselected by his local association.  Johnson certainly can stop them standing as Conservative candidates.  The law was changed some years ago to require that anyone standing under the name of a political party needs formal documentation from their party’s HQ before their nomination can be accepted by the Returning Officer.  (It was a welcome change from the previous situation where anyone could claim to be standing for party X – I can remember a situation many years ago where Plaid Cymru found that it had candidates standing in local elections about whom it knew nothing and whose names were on no membership lists, and I’m pretty certain that other parties had similar issues.)  But he can’t stop them standing as ‘Independent Conservatives’ for instance, nor can he prevent local members and activists from supporting them (although he can expel them too, after the event).  He also can’t stop legal challenges to his decisions, particularly if they can be demonstrated to be arbitrary and/or contrary to the party’s own rule book (I’m not familiar with their rule book, but ‘arbitrary’, given the unpunished record of a number of current cabinet members, looks like a reasonable accusation).  Fighting what looks like being a tight election whilst simultaneously being challenged in the courts and having the vote split between official and unofficial candidates in some seats doesn’t look like the best formula for success.
If the polls are right, the Tories are on course to win around 33-35% of the vote.  It’s probably a record low point for the party but under the inexcusably undemocratic electoral system in the UK it could still be enough to win an absolute overall majority of seats, if everything falls the right way.  That’s a very big ‘if’ though.  As well as the potential losses in the seats currently held by the ‘rebels’, it seems certain that the Tories will lose most or all their seats in Scotland, also losing a number of English seats to the Lib Dems. 
And then there’s the campaign period itself.  I doubt that Corbyn will enjoy a bounce to the extent that he did in 2017, but I’d still expect there to be a degree of improvement over current polling figures not least because of the requirement for broadcast ‘balance’, especially if Labour can manage to come to some sort of agreed position on Brexit.  I doubt that Johnson’s campaign could be anywhere near as bad as that of his predecessor in 2017, but his fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants approach makes at least a minor gaffe or two near certainties.  But his biggest problem of all, despite all his efforts (and those of Labour) to focus on other issues, will be over Brexit.  If he goes full out on no deal, he loses those few remain votes still going to his party, and if he doesn’t, he probably loses leave votes to Farage plc.
It’s a huge gamble that he’s taking, and one that on balance I think he’ll probably lose, a feeling based mostly on the sheer number of cards that have to fall the right way for him to win it.  I hope that’s more than wishful thinking on my part.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Is the question valid in the first place?


An article on Nation.Cymru this morning suggests that Wales should impose a tax on water transferred from reservoirs in Wales to consumers over the border.  It’s an idea which, in one form or another, has been around for many decades, and it’s difficult to argue with the proposition that, in a market-driven economic system, a country which has a wealth of a particular resource (in this case, water) should be able to capitalise on that resource for the benefit of its citizens.  Whether ‘market forces’ are the right mechanism for determining how essentials should be shared is a wider question, but as long as it remains the case, then Wales should be able to benefit.
There are complications, of course: there are questions about the ownership of the assets and infrastructure involved; and imposing a unilateral tax on one commodity going in one direction leaves open the possibility of unilateral taxes being imposed by the other party (in this case, England) on one or more commodities going in the opposite direction.  These are details which don’t detract from the principle but which do need to be thought through and resolved before acting.
My bigger concern about the proposition is that there is a danger of falling into the conventional economic narrative about the wealth of a country being determined by its natural resources.  One of the criticisms often thrown at independentistas is that Wales cannot afford to be independent because we have no natural resources.  ‘Water’ is a partial and useful answer to that, as is the fact that Wales has become a net exporter of electricity.  The ability to generate more electricity than we use (and to do so from renewable sources if we put our minds to it) in a world increasingly dependent on the availability of energy in that form is no small matter.  I wonder, though, whether in trying to find a ready response to the question we are not legitimising a question which is based on an essentially invalid assumption that the wealth of a country depends on what natural resources it possesses.  That is not to say that possession of a resource which is in great demand (oil, for instance) doesn’t help the economic viability of a country, but it’s a big leap from saying that to creating a dependency.  (I’ve often wondered whether the way in which Scotland’s oil has been used to answer the same question might have been counter-productive overall).
Where is the evidence that possession of ‘natural resources’ determines the wealth of a country?  One of the ‘wealthiest’ countries in the world is Luxembourg – can anyone list the ‘natural resources’ which make it so?  Sometimes, we need to do more than find an answer to a question – we also need to challenge the whole basis of the question.

Monday, 2 September 2019

'Bill' and 'Boris'


On a regular basis, I get those annoying phone calls claiming to be either from ‘BT Technical Department’ or else from the ‘Windows Support Centre’ (usually phoning from the subcontinent of India, judging by the accent, and going under an improbable name such as ‘Bill’) telling me that there’s a problem with my computer and that they’ll disconnect my internet service immediately unless it is fixed.  If I’m busy, I give them short shrift; but sometimes, I string them along for a while to see how much of their time I can waste.  A week or two ago, I let one get to the point where he wanted me to download the software which would allow him to take control of my computer before saying to him “You must think I’m an idiot”.  His response was surprisingly and unusually honest and ran something like: “Yes I do.  Everyone in Britain is an idiot.  I phone people every day and take their money”. This was followed by a string of expletives about me having wasted his time before he slammed down the phone.  It’s a scam, of course, but a well-organised one.  The calls come from what sounds like a well-populated call centre full of other people making similar calls, and their business model is based on an assumption that a sufficient proportion of those called will be gullible enough to do as the authoritative voice tells them to enable them to turn a decent profit.  By being based ‘offshore’, the wholly inadequate enforcement agencies of the UK – which seemingly can’t even act effectively in the case of UK-based scammers – are even more powerless to act.
It strikes me that the PM’s ‘business model’ for Brexit is based on a similar proposition, i.e. that enough people will be taken in for the enterprise to be successful, and that the enforcement agencies can in any event be rendered impotent.  It’s a highly complicated sting in two parts:
·        The EU are told that their backstop has been reporting problems and needs to be fixed.  If they will just permit the UK’s technical experts access to their systems, the problem is an easy one to fix, but like my ‘friends’ from the ‘BT Technical Department’, they won’t actually tell the EU what they’re really going to do.  And we all know that the ‘fix’ is anything but.
·        The populace at large is told that parliament has been compromised and needs to be fixed, starting with the traditional Microsoft-style reboot which will end the current session and start a new one, thereby bringing to an end the rogue processes which were causing the problem.
Just like the computer scam, it depends entirely on people accepting what they are told by those who speak with apparent authority.  The flaw, though, is obvious – it’s to do with numbers.  The approach works for the confident-sounding criminals in their call centres who, I’d guess, are working on the basis that something like a 0.1% success rate (or finding one gullible caller for every thousand calls made) is enough to make it all worthwhile.  But the entitled Old Etonian Oxbridge Anglo-British exceptionalists don’t have that advantage of numbers.  There aren’t 1,000 EU’s from which they only need to convince one.  The exceptionalists need a 100% success rate, not one of 0.1%.  That makes it a poorly thought-out copy of the business model, which overlooks the key success factor of the scammers.  Even my friend ‘Bill’ from the subcontinent would be able to see that flaw.
It turns out that the main difference between ‘Bill’ in his Asian call centre and ‘Boris’ in his Downing Street bunker is simply that ‘Bill’ has a better handle on numerical reality.

Friday, 30 August 2019

Just pretending


An old joke from the Soviet era was that “the bosses pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work”.  It had a decent element of truth in it – the economic system worked, after a fashion, as long as everyone continued to pretend that everything was just fine.  But like any structure based on pretence and make-believe (and at the danger of wholly oversimplifying a complex series of processes) it all fell down when enough people stopped pretending.  Perhaps if the workers had truly believed, rather than just pretended to believe, that they were being paid they’d have truly worked, rather than merely pretended to do so.  And the system might not then have collapsed.  It’s conjecture, of course, but I tend to the view that ‘true belief’ can sustain the unsustainable for longer than would otherwise be the case.  Pretence by the few can be sustained if the many believe.
It was brought to mind by yesterday’s news reports which included comments by both Ruth Davidson of the Scottish Tories and Stephen Crabb of the Tories-in-Wales.  Both said that they had directly asked the Prime Minister whether he was serious about seeking a deal rather than a no-deal Brexit, both said that he had given them clear, or even ‘categorical’ assurances that he was, and both claimed to have believed him.  It was a case of the PM pretending to give assurances, and those to whom he gave them pretending to believe him.  (I could be unfairly impugning Davidson and Crabb here – perhaps they really did believe a proven serial liar who scatters categorical assurances around him like confetti before doing the opposite.  But suggesting that they’re stupid enough to believe the PM would be a greater insult to them than suggesting that they’re only pretending to believe him.)
It goes wider than that, though.  Currently, the PM is pretending that he is negotiating with the EU and that, if only he threatens to do enough damage to the UK, they will cave in – and large swathes of the media pretend to believe him, as they solemnly report on the subtleties of the different ways in which the EU are managing to phrase the word ‘no’.  (The same caveat applies – accusing the media of only pretending to believe him is the lesser of the accusations which could be laid at their door.)
Ultimately, however, the problem in all this lies not with those who are only pretending to believe, but with those who really do believe.  Pretence can and usually does collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, but true belief can withstand even the strongest application of fact.  To achieve the aim of getting people to support Brexit, the Brexiteers pretended that the UK had fallen under the control of a foreign power, pretended that that foreign power was in some way holding us back, pretended that immigration was responsible for problems in the fields of housing, education, and health, and pretended that immigration was the fault of the EU.  They knew all along that it was untrue, just a ruse to persuade enough people that their own future depended on them agreeing to voluntarily surrender their rights – or more accurately, the rights of other people.
Pretence by the few is being sustained by belief by the many, and it’s no accident that one of the key elements of the Brexit planning is a major propaganda onslaught designed to sustain that belief in those who already have it, and build it in those who don’t.  It might even work, for a while at least; the economy of the USSR bumped along for quite some time with everyone just pretending that it was working.  But the USSR also had the benefits of a totalitarian system controlling what people could read or say and spying on their every movement.  Whether a project so blatantly based on pretence can survive for long in today’s world of open and rapid communication is doubtful – the availability of alternative news sources and the inability of those driving the process to control them is at least part of the reason for the past three years of lack of progress.  Pretence eventually collapses; the question is about how long that will take.

Thursday, 29 August 2019

The arcane and the bizarre


Responding to the move to prorogue parliament yesterday, the Speaker denounced it as a “constitutional outrage”.  The Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg responded on BBC Breakfast this morning by saying that, “It is not constitutional for the speaker to express his opinion without direction of the house”.  It’s like a game of constitutional trumps.  They’re both right – and they’re both wrong.  Both are highlighting instances of actions which are, in one way or another, outside the norms of UK parliamentary process, but in a country whose constitution is unwritten and depends totally on precedent, nothing can ever, in strict terms, be ‘unconstitutional’.
The idea of ‘precedent’ assumes that little can ever change, and that the action to be taken in any given set of circumstances must be exactly the same as taken the last time those circumstances arose.  If the circumstances are unique (as, in reality, they always are), then the action to be taken must mirror as closely as possible the action taken in the most closely similar circumstances in the past.  It’s a recipe for superficial ossification, and in the absence of any real objective basis for deciding which is the closest historical parallel, for making things up as we go along.  And I’m really not sure which is worse – the de jure constitutional position that we always do whatever we did in the past, or the de facto constitutional position that we simply make up the rules as we go.  Neither seems compatible with a modern ‘democracy’, let alone one which its fans consider to be a model for the rest of the world to follow.
It’s not the only thing which is incompatible with a modern democracy, and if Brexit has served any purpose at all, it has been in exposing the inadequacies (or lunacies, more like) of the current system.  We’ve had two other examples this week alone.
The first was the suggestion that the solution to a situation where the PM of the day disagrees with majority opinion in a parliamentary chamber which is already hopelessly over-populated with unelected appointees, hereditaries and bishops is to simply find a lot more people who agree with him and appoint them as additional parliamentarians so that he can get his way.  Is there any other country in the world, with serious aspirations to call itself a democracy, in which the membership of one of its two chambers of parliament is completely unelected and where the government of the day can ‘adjust’ the membership so as to give itself a majority?
The second was yesterday’s news that the Privy Council had met with the monarch and advised her to prorogue parliament, advice which she then accepted.  It’s true that 3 members of the Privy Council flew up to Balmoral to impart their advice, and that, under the unwritten constitution of the UK, that amounts to a ‘meeting of the Privy Council’.  There are, though, around 700 members of the Privy Council, and we can safely assume that at least 650 of those didn’t even know that there was going to be a meeting yesterday.  And under the rules under which the Council operates, they didn’t need to know.  A ‘meeting’ of the Council need not consist of more than a few members, hand-picked by the PM of the day, sent to convey his views to the monarch.  It’s a complete anachronism, like so much else about the UK’s system of ‘democracy’.
The more Brexit teaches us about the UK’s definition of ‘democracy’, the more I find myself wondering whether the UK has ever really complied with the spirit of the EU’s charter on the rule of law, which is supposedly a fundamental requirement of membership (and which may now be used against the UK).  I’d like to think that current events might provoke more people into recognising that we need a proper written constitution which lays down processes and procedures to be followed, but I’m not going to hold my breath.  Regularising the arcane and bizarre is, though, a clear advantage to Welsh independence.  It is inconceivable that a new Welsh state would be so stupid as to follow the processes of the so-called ‘mother of parliaments’, isn’t it?

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Confusing government and country


When Johnson (Samuel, not Boris) referred to patriotism as being “the last refuge of a scoundrel”, he wasn’t referring to patriotism of all kinds at all times; he was referring, rather, to what he saw as the ‘false patriotism’ of Pitt the Elder.  Defining ‘false patriotism’ isn’t quite so easy, but when Johnson (Boris, not Samuel) demands that everyone ‘gets behind’ the government over Brexit, he is most certainly guilty of it.  Supporting the country isn’t at all the same things as supporting the government, a distinction which Johnson’s government is not unique in failing to draw.  Mark Twain suggested that “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it”, which makes a very clear distinction between the two things.
Of course, what “supporting your country” means isn’t exactly amenable to clear and objective definition either.  Ultimately, it comes down to supporting what you individually believe to be best for your country, and there will inevitably be some very different views about that.  The point is that opposing a government can be every bit as patriotic as supporting it.  Those who feel that the current direction of government policy is wrong for Wales (or the UK) can be every bit as patriotic as those who support it.  Deliberately conflating the two things is indeed the action of a scoundrel.
For many Brexiteers, their version of ‘patriotism’ is at the heart of their rationale for Brexit and seems to be based around notions of absolute sovereignty.  For others of us, what is best for our country considers the wider interests of humanity as a whole, placing the ‘country’ in a global context on the basis that individual survival depends on collective survival.  From that latter perspective, a willingness to share sovereignty through organisations and structures which take decisions collectively through discussion and agreement is an entirely natural outcome; the debate then centres on the nature of those partnerships.  Tying to reduce the issue to one of patriotism is trying to avoid real debate about where our best interests lie, for the long term as well as the short term.  And pleas for ‘unity’ around some idealised notion of ‘Great’ Britain (the “greatest place on earth”) are an attempt to move beyond patriotism into a jingoistic version of nationalism.
That Johnson is a practised and habitual liar is established fact; but on his namesake’s definition, he’s also a scoundrel.

Tuesday, 27 August 2019

Boris' brilliant idea


It might, of course, just have been some sort of strange Old Etonian dare that the PM was set by his old school chums.  Getting someone to tell porkie pies about real, actual pork pies sounds like the sort of jolly prank that I can imagine them playing on each other for their own amusement.  Whether much else of what he said in his criticism of US rules which keep UK products out of the American market was true or false is unclear, but given the source, it’s probably safer to assume that it was mostly invented.
He did make one interesting point though, when referring to the ‘fact’ (in quotes because I simply don’t know whether it is true or not, but let’s run with it for the moment) that a UK company wanting to sell insurance into the US has to deal with 50 different regulators rather than just one or two.  In essence, he may have hit on a brilliant idea here – rather than a group of states each having their own sets of rules and regulations, they could band together and agree a common set of rules which would make trade between groups of states potentially much easier.  Perhaps the countries of Europe could take up the idea as well.  We could call it, oh, I don’t know, how about something along the lines of a single European market?  Then, with a large and homogeneous ‘home’ market, it would become easier to sell our wares into other large homogeneous markets with fewer regulatory bodies needing to be involved.  I can’t imagine why no-one has thought of this before.