Monday, 10 May 2021

Was newmath developed on the playing fields of Eton?


In principle, the announcement by Boris Johnson over the weekend that he is setting up a summit meeting with the First Ministers of the devolved administrations to compare notes and look at routes to recovery should be a welcome one, although it begs the question as to why it didn’t happen earlier in order to better handle the pandemic. There’s also an unanswered question as to whether this is a one-off stunt or the beginning of a process of better co-ordination and discussion; from experience of Johnson’s premiership so far, the former seems more likely than the latter. It remains unclear whether the intention is a discussion amongst equals (which is what the attendees are, legally, when it comes to devolved responsibilities) or something rather more akin to General Jaruzelski being summoned to Moscow to be instructed about his next steps in Poland. Reading the letter which he sent to Mark Drakeford which has been made public today, it sounds rather more like a summons to listen to the boss than an invitation to a discussion. If that’s his approach, then it’s likely to prove counter-productive, even with mild-mannered Mark Drakeford. Still, the good news for independentistas is that there are few situations which are so bad for the union that Boris Johnson cannot, effortlessly (and he does most things without exerting any effort, which is part of the problem), make them worse.

In the meantime, the PM’s acolytes are busy trying to explain to the Scots how electing a parliament with 72 members supporting independence and 57 opposing it represents a massive rejection of another independence referendum and a huge vote of confidence for the union. Attempts to redefine the bar as to what constitutes a ‘mandate’ are reaching new levels of contortion as they seek to apply different rules for the Scottish parliament than those which are considered normal everywhere else in the world, including at Westminster. Michael Gove deserves a special mention yesterday for his argument that “In 2011, the SNP under Alex Salmond got a majority, a referendum then followed. It’s important to remember that at that time every party in the Scottish parliament thought that it was appropriate to hold a referendum then”, implying that a mandate exists only if every party agrees to it. I suppose the wonder is that they’re making any effort at all to explain why 57 is greater than 72 rather than simply stating it as a fact on the side of a bus. As is blindingly obvious, 5+7=12, 7+2=9 and 12 is greater than 9. With Gavin Williamson in charge of the English curriculum, newmath, as Orwell might have called it, will probably become the norm in England very soon, with the additional advantage of being able to explain how a drop in trade with the EU is actually a stunning increase.

For most people, the first law of holes is to stop digging, but in Borisland it’s to send for more spades. I’m not as convinced as some that Scottish independence is yet entirely inevitable; I still tend to the view that a competent UK government could prevent, or at least delay, the end of the UK. But a government which can’t even cope with the simplest arithmetic is never going to attract the adjective ‘competent’, and its efforts seem almost designed to achieve the opposite of their stated intention. They are just completely unable to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and understand either the impact their words and actions are having or that not everyone shares Johnson’s view of the world. It’s often said that the Battle of Waterloo was “won on the playing fields of Eton”, i.e. it was down to the so-called ‘leadership qualities’ inculcated in that institution. To the extent that it might be true, and given that Etonians have had a disproportionate influence ever since, it would also necessarily be true that the British Empire was lost on the playing fields of Eton. It’s a simple corollary which they cannot begin to comprehend. It increasingly looks as though the UK will have been destroyed on those same playing fields. It’s a fitting epitaph.

Friday, 7 May 2021

Leading or following?


In the light of the Conservative victory in the Hartlepool by-election, Labour figures are lining up to say that Labour needs to reconnect with people, to listen to what their former electors are saying, and to change to reflect that. It’s a response which raises the whole question of whether parties exist to lead or to follow. Telling the electors that they’re wrong is, they argue, not a good place to be.

But. It doesn’t take a lot of listening or polling to understand that what electors in England are increasingly saying that they want is a government which puts up barriers to the rest of the world and a government which penalises the poorest in society. They welcome the ‘hostile environment’ and want the government to deport more people. They like macho posturing with gunboats and weapons of mass destruction and they regret the loss of empire and the unwillingness of those foreign types to agree to whatever we want. It would be unfair to tar all English voters with the same brush (or to claim that there aren’t voters in Wales with similar views), and there are certainly generational differences, but the above seems to me to be a reasonably fair reflection of where ‘middle England’ is today.

Political parties have a choice between attempting to lead public opinion and following it. Boris Johnson is choosing the latter path, as one might expect from a party whose only objective is to gain and exercise power for the benefit of themselves and their cronies. And – at present at least – playing to the gallery works; it not only wins them elections currently, but it also reinforces and entrenches the attitudes of their supporters. On the other hand, a party which believes in an alternative approach has the much harder task of persuading and convincing people to support that alternative – and that includes a willingness to disagree with the consensus of public opinion when necessary. As an example: in Wales, independence isn’t on the table because it matches the preconceptions and beliefs of the majority, it’s on the table because a minority have spent so much time and effort arguing for it.

Labour have spent decades conflicted between the two approaches to politics. Very occasionally the more visionary approach wins out in the internal battle, but since such an approach can never be expected to bring instant electoral success (it is, necessarily, a longer-term project), it always gets ditched again after a bad result. They may gloss over it by saying that it’s better to be in power and mitigate some of the worst effects of the Tories, but ultimately, given a choice between being in power in the short term and fighting for real change in the long term, they invariably choose the former. That’s what ‘listening to the voters’ is really about. The sooner ‘Welsh Labour’ realise that the English Labour Party isn’t going to appear over the hill like the 7th Cavalry to save Wales, the sooner they can start participating in a real debate about what sort of Wales we want to build.

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Ducking the question


Last week, the Institute for Government published a ‘helpful’ paper setting out the difficulties which independence would bring for Scotland or Wales. Well, ‘helpful’ to unionists who were just looking for a headline figure with which to attack the independence cause. In fairness, the detail of the report does accept that after independence Wales and Scotland might choose different patterns of spending which would affect the calculations and thus the headline figure. And there is some useful analysis of the different pattern of revenues raised by different taxes in the constituent parts of the UK. But the headline figure on which the unionists have seized is very clearly drawn from a number of key assumptions:

·        That the independent administrations continue with the same patterns of taxation and expenditure as at present

·        That the estimates of tax raised and expenditure undertaken are largely correct

·        That fiscal deficits are generally a bad thing and that having a higher budget deficit as a proportion of GDP than the UK currently operates is ‘unsustainable’

·        That independence brings no other economic benefits

·        That the newly ‘independent’ countries continue to use sterling rather than establish their own currencies (not stated, but implied)

It’s easy to see why anyone would use those assumptions as a starting point, because there are at least some known or almost-known figures to use as a basis, but whether precisely aping the current UK’s priorities and approaches really counts as a meaningful form of ‘independence’ is a question which doesn’t really get asked. And starting from those assumptions predetermines the outcome: if the assumptions are all valid it’s hard to argue with the headline conclusion. The question, though, is whether (or to what extent) those assumptions are a valid basis for drawing conclusions about an independent Wales as opposed to a devolved Wales.

There are plenty of examples of English / UK priorities which an independent Wales might choose not to copy. Nuclear weaponry is one of the most obvious examples: the headline conclusion that Wales is unviable without tax increases or spending cuts includes the implicit assumption that an independent Wales would continue to pay for England’s Trident replacement programme. Those who claim Wales is unviable without receiving fiscal transfers from England are, in effect, telling us that an independent Wales couldn’t afford to pay 5% of the cost of England’s nuclear weapons unless England ‘generously’ gave us the money first. “Why on earth would we want to?” is a much more appropriate response than “This proves we need English money”. To generalise the point: we are being told that we can’t afford to pay England for things we neither want nor need unless England gives us the money first. It’s impossible to disagree with that, but it doesn’t do much to advance the state of human knowledge.

It is impossible for anyone to produce an accurate analysis of the fiscal position of an independent Wales, not least because that depends more on the policies adopted by the newly-independent state than on the fact of independence itself. A Labour-run Wales would not be the same as a Tory-run Wales, or a Plaid-run Wales – and the fiscal impact of those different perspectives would only increase over time. (It’s worth noting that the same applies to the UK – no government has shown that it can even accurately predict the fiscal impact of its own policies, let alone those of other parties.) It follows that anyone who claims, with absolute certainty, that Wales would be a basket-case economy – or, alternatively, that it would immediately soar to the top of the world’s rich league – is talking nonsense. They simply cannot know. What we can analyse, with the benefit of hindsight, is the experience of other countries which have become independent and followed their own paths. Unsurprisingly, it’s an overwhelmingly positive picture. What the unionists need to tell us (but can’t) is why they believe that Wales and Scotland are somehow uniquely unable to follow so many other countries of similar size which have become so successful. Using a set of obviously invalid assumptions to predict the future is a woefully inadequate response.

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Have Lib Dems accidentally stumbled onto a good idea?


One party which has so far failed to send any election literature to this household is the Lib Dems (but don’t bother to rush out and do it now, we’ve already voted). It’s a pity, because there is one aspect of their policy for this election which strikes me as really interesting and different, namely their promise of debt cancellation. The suggestion that this would be a funded by a ‘specific and limited pot of funding’ detracts from the proposal, with its implicit assumption that it is the funding which determines how much debt is written off rather than the need, and there is a question in my mind as to whether the Senedd actually has the power or resources to do this, but the idea deserves to be more widely debated and explored.

The Tories continually tell us that we are facing a debt crisis as a result of the pandemic. They’re right, but they’re referring to the wrong debt crisis, because they’re referring to government debt. Government debt really is not a problem, but their ‘solution’ to this non-problem, namely austerity (although Johnson will insist on calling it something different given his oft-stated aversion to austerity) will not only not solve the non-problem, but will worsen the real debt crisis, which is the extent of private debt burdening lower paid families. Apart from austerity, the second part of the government’s post Covid recovery strategy assumes that, as a result of lockdown, people have been spending less and that spending will be released in a splurge when people can start going to restaurants and hotels and taking holidays again. From the perspective of the social circles in which the Tories move, that may well look to be realistic, but for many families, reduced income as a result of furlough, and the fear of job insecurity as furlough ends and some companies find themselves no longer viable means that many have fallen further into debt, and even amongst those who have seen an opportunity to reduce their debts – or even save – it doesn’t follow that they will be ready to risk their financial security immediately.

Debt cancellation is not a particularly new idea; it’s been done in various economies in the past, sometimes in the form of a general amnesty, other times in the form of write-off of specific types or elements of debt. Amongst the earliest examples was the ancient civilisation of Mesopotamia, which went through a series of cyclical cancellations of debt, aimed at freeing debt slaves and maintaining social peace and stability. Whilst people are not, these days, forced into slavery as a result of debt, they often find themselves forced into taking multiple jobs, depending on friends and family, or sinking deeper into debt. And the driver of debt cancellation for King Hammurabi – social peace and stability – is as valid and relevant today as it was 3000 years ago.

The idea goes against current economic orthodoxy, of course, to say nothing of the idea that the poor deserve to be poor and that people who get into unmanageable levels of debt deserve their fate. But these are shibboleths of capitalist ideology which need to be challenged, and selfishness needs to be replaced by a greater sense of social solidarity. The Lib Dems, albeit in a typically timid and limited Lib Dem fashion, are actually onto something important and radical here (although any of them reading this might now start to have second thoughts). It’s a proposal which deserves to be more widely considered, and taken up by others who are more likely to be in a position to do something about it than a fringe party struggling to retain a foothold in the Senedd.

Monday, 3 May 2021

Evoking the past


Scanning through the various election leaflets delivered over the past couple of weeks, the slogan on the front of the one from Abolish (which seems to be seeking to abolish an institution which no longer exists) caught my eye. “One Education System, One Health Service, One Government” is catchy and has a certain resonance to it. It’s also evocative of a slogan which was used a great deal in the 1930s and 1940s in a certain country on the European mainland. But from what I remember of history, “One People, One Realm, One Leader” (or “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer” in the original) didn’t exactly turn out well. Could they really be so unaware of history as to not have spotted the analogy? Or is it actually deliberate?

Friday, 30 April 2021

Nothing to see here


The traditional context for using the phrase “Nothing to see here. Move along now.” is the policeman given the responsibility of keeping bystanders away from some incident or other. It never means that there is actually nothing to see, merely that (s)he and those who stationed him or her there don’t want people stopping to see it. When the perpetrator of the incident uses the phrase, (s)he is either trying to hide what has happened, or else merely extracting the urine. And as Boris Johnson demonstrated yesterday, the two are not mutually exclusive.

His demand that people stop asking him awkward questions to which there is no truthful answer which does not expose his failure to follow rules, and no lie which can be made to fit the known facts (not that that is something which overly worries him), is based on his assertion that people at large are either not interested in establishing whether he’s followed the rules or not, or else simply don’t care. It amounts to saying that if electors don’t care how venal, dishonest, or corrupt he is, then opposition politicians and the media should just shut up and accept it as well. It plays to the popular trope that all politicians are only in it for themselves anyway, and has the added advantage – for him – of enabling him to tar others with his own used brush.

Sadly, his assertion that people don’t care has an element of truth to it. It is based on the results of opinion polls which show that, despite all his lies, bluster and evasion, despite presiding over one of the worst death tolls in the world due to Covid, and despite all the contracts corruptly awarded to mates and donors, if an election were held tomorrow, he would still win a clear majority of seats in England: enough to continue in government across the whole UK. He’s wrong, though, in claiming that it means that ‘people’ don’t care; what it actually means is that ‘people who vote for the Tories’ don’t care enough to change their vote as a result. To him, those two caveats might not be important – like Trump, he seems to believe that the only opinions that matter are those of people likely to vote for him. But his current majority, like any future majority in line with the polls, is based on a minority of votes which gifts him near-absolute power as a result of an electoral system which is unfit for purpose; the ‘people’ to whom he is referring constitute only a minority.

But even if he were right, even if ‘people’ in general really don’t care about how dishonest he and his government are, does that really mean that they should not be questioned or held to account? There have been major crimes in the past which many have almost admired for their audacity, but no-one seriously suggests that the criminals should not be prosecuted as a result. A democracy – even a partial democracy like the UK – in which governments are excused from breaking rules or even outright criminality because the electors don’t care is a democracy which is doomed. The opposition should care, the media should care, we all should care whether those we elect to lead us are honest or not. Whatever Johnson says, there really is something to see – and we should insist on seeing it.

Thursday, 29 April 2021

The moral compasses are still as broken as ever


What makes the Bullingdon Club so infamous is the members’ habit of smashing up the restaurants in which they hold their ‘events’ and then paying up on the spot for the damage caused. The act of paying for the damage, in their eyes, somehow makes it all right to go around damaging other people’s property as and when the urge takes them. In the process, it draws a clear line between the wealthy who can afford to destroy first and pay later and the rest who can only stand back and watch as years of work and investment is destroyed in front of their eyes. And it reduces everything to its monetary value. But, when the club leaves the premises, the owner is not out of pocket, and that, apparently, makes it OK.

It’s an attitude which has direct parallels in the case of the Downing Street refurbishment undertaken by a member of that infamous club. In this case, it’s not so much physical property which has been damaged (although we can’t, yet, discount the possibility that the nearly-new furniture removed from the flat has been skipped) as the rules, conventions and laws under which things are supposed to happen. But, at the end of the day, the PM has repaid the costs out of his own pocket (allegedly – it’s still not clear how the money found its way into his pocket in the first place), and that, apparently, makes it OK. It is, in his eyes, the end result which matters, not the process of getting there. I’m sure that he’d be equally forgiving of a bank robber who, when caught, repaid all the money. At that point, the bank has lost nothing, so why make a fuss?

There is another parallel as well – when they smashed up those restaurants, the money for reparations may well have come from their own pockets at the time, but it was almost invariably put into those pockets by someone else, usually the parents. And the expectation that that he can and should be absolved of all blame by using someone else’s money to pay for the consequences of his actions is another aspect of the Downing Street saga. But what is there, in his background and life experience, which would lead him to think otherwise? This is a man who has gone through his entire life without ever having had to face up to the consequences of his own actions, a man who has repeatedly found that lying brings rewards, not punishments (literally in the case of many of his made-up and paid-for articles over the years), a man who has always got away with ignoring the rules which apply to others, a man who has demonstrated to his own satisfaction that the world takes him at his own estimation of himself.

It isn’t just him, though. A whole generation of politicians, and not all of them in the Conservative Party, have outsourced any sense of morality and judgement to the people who make the rules. They don’t need a moral compass, just a rule book, and if the rule book doesn’t explicitly ban something then it’s permitted. Johnson has, admittedly, taken that a step further in arguing, effectively, that as long as the outcome meets the letter of the rules, then following the rules to get there is an unnecessary hindrance on his freedom of action. But the people who put him there and defend him daily, the members of his party, are equally culpable. Their moral compasses seem to be incapable of telling them whether something is right or wrong, merely whether the public care or not. If a sufficient proportion of the public don’t care (as measured by opinion polls and elections) whether their leaders are honest or not, if they don’t care about the integrity of their leaders, then honesty and integrity don’t matter.

Perhaps the palpable anger of the PM yesterday at the temerity of anyone daring to question what he does will mark a turning point. Even some of his most loyal supporters in the media seem to be turning against him. It would be nice to be able to say that they’ve all discovered a sense of morality and outrage, but I can’t help but feel that it has more to do with deciding that he looks like a loser after all. It’s not as if any aspect of his character was ever unclear in advance.

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Investigating Johnson will not be straightforward


‘Investigation’ and ‘review’ are curious words to use to describe the task which the PM has entrusted to the new Cabinet Secretary in respect of the expensive refurbishment of the PM’s flat in Downing Street. It amounts to an individual who knows (and may even be the only person who knows) exactly what happened asking someone who was not in post at the time and claims to know nothing to investigate and report the facts back to the person who already knows them anyway. One might expect that it ought to be a very quick process –the Cabinet Secretary simply needs to ask the PM what happened, write it down and then tell the PM.

However, it will apparently take a few weeks to conduct this review, according to the Cabinet Secretary. Never let it be said that the civil service machinery acts in haste. It could simply be that the PM is too busy personally phoning newspaper editors briefing them against his own current or former staff to find time to talk to the top Civil Servant. He does have a certain difficulty with prioritising his time, and we know, for example, that at the outbreak of the pandemic he was far too busy attending to the ‘complications’ of his private life to attend Cobra meetings. And it would certainly be convenient if the outcome were not to become known until after next week’s elections.

On the other hand, Simon Case probably didn’t get to the top of the Civil Service by simply believing what ministers tell him, and there are some obvious good reasons why the review might take some time. In the first place, he’s intelligent and observant enough to know that whatever the PM tells him is unlikely to be the whole and unembellished truth. And in the second place, writing a report which exonerates the PM – which is clearly what he’s expected to do – without compromising his own integrity would challenge the report-writing skills of any would-be Sir Humphrey. A few weeks might turn out to be an optimistic assessment.

Monday, 26 April 2021

Truth and lies are not of equal value


A couple of day ago, the BBC reported that the UK and Australia had agreed “the vast majority” of the details of a new free trade agreement between the two states. Whether that was achieved by tying the Australian minister to an uncomfortable chair and having Liz Truss harangue him for nine hours was not reported, but agreeing the vast majority of the text of a trade deal is the easy part. It’s always the details which cause the problems. Time will tell – the possibility floated in the report that the final agreement will be signed in June, something of a record time for a deal, suggests either that one side has given a lot of ground, or else that the deal will turn out to be remarkably similar to an existing deal.

What I noted at the end of the report, however, was the matter-of-fact way in which the BBC report told us that “Trade can also be made simpler if countries have the same rules … The closer the rules are, the less likely that goods need to be checked”. It’s a statement of fact with which it is impossible to disagree, but it marks a major change of position for the BBC. During the EU referendum campaign, and in the interests of a specious form of ‘balance’, they regularly treated this key fact about trade as though it was merely an opinion, and treated the opposite opinion – that having different rules is no barrier to trade – as a position of equal validity. ‘Balance’ is difficult to define, and even harder to achieve, but it should never result in pretending that an obvious untruth has the same degree of validity as a provable fact. There is an old saying in journalism that “If someone says it’s raining and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. It’s your job to look out the window and find out which is true”. It’s the least we should expect from a publicly funded broadcaster, but the EU issue is far from being the only one on which the BBC seems to forget this basic tenet of news. Getting it right 5 years after allowing the lie to gain credence simply isn’t good enough.

Friday, 23 April 2021

Puppetry doesn't cover it.


Back in the days when Brezhnev ruled the Soviet Union, an acquaintance of mine went on a trip to Moscow, which included a guided tour of the Kremlin. As the guide showed them around the government part of the building, she pointed out one corridor and identified that area as being the offices of the Communist Party. One of the group then asked her what happened when the government disagreed with the party. It was not exactly an unknown problem in the UK at the time – as I recall, Harold Wilson was the PM, and to say that he occasionally had a few ‘difficulties’ with his party would be making the word ‘difficulties’ do a lot of work. The guide looked puzzled, as if she didn’t understand the question, before the questioner helped her out by suggesting that maybe that didn’t happen in her country. Her reply, delivered with a huge smile of relief, ran along the lines of “Ah yes, you are correct. In our country that never happens”.  It was a recognition of where the power lay: Brezhnev’s principal formal role, after all, was as General Secretary of the Communist Party.

The attempts by the former and future ex-leader of the Tories in Wales, Andrew RT Davies, to explain how he would respond if he felt that a decision taken by a Tory leader at the other end of the (M4) corridor was damaging to Wales reminded me of that poor tour guide. It was as if the hypothetical question had no meaning for him – how could a decision taken by a Tory PM ever be wrong? Even if Johnson says one thing one day and the opposite the next, he’s still axiomatically right on both occasions in Daviesworld. Like any good foot soldier, Davies understands that there are only two rules concerning the General:

Rule 1: The General is always right, and

Rule 2: In the event of the General being wrong, Rule 1 above applies.

The accusation by Plaid that this somehow makes him a puppet of Johnson is entirely unfair – a puppet has neither a brain nor a capacity for independent thought. Possessing both and consciously deciding to use neither is far worse than mere puppetry.