Wednesday 30 November 2016

Freedom for whom?

They say that a lie can travel halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on, and the speed of media in the twenty first century is only adding to the truth of that.  The fake story about Nigel Farage moving to the US is still being shared and passed on, despite having been repudiated almost immediately.  It’s just too delicious a story; something that many of us would like to believe because of what it would say about his honesty and consistency.  And it helped that this particular untruth started in the Times, usually regarded as being rather more reliable than the tabloids where many of expect to read untruths - and are rarely disappointed.
It made me think a little bit, though, about the idea of ‘freedom of movement’ and what people mean by it.  The Brexit referendum was won, in part, on the rejection of the idea by the Leave side, but for the suggestion that someone like Farage could, if he wanted, up sticks and move to the USA to have any credibility one has to assume that he would see himself as being free to do so.  And I suspect that he would so see himself.  They’re not quite so opposed to freedom of movement when it comes to themselves.
And that in turn made me wonder what the reaction would be if a lot of American citizens decided that they didn’t like the idea of a Trump presidency and would rather like to emigrate to the UK.  Would they be welcome?  After all, an immigrant is an immigrant wherever he comes from, isn’t he?  And I couldn’t help but conclude that the extent of any welcome might depend on a range of factors.  The most obvious is wealth – wealthy immigrants are always welcomed more than poor ones.  And I rather suspect that ethnic origin and language might play a factor as well.
And that brings me back to what people mean when they refer to freedom of movement and restricting it.  It seems to me that they are, ultimately, in favour of freedom of movement for some but not for others.  Rich, white, English-speaking immigrants are more acceptable than poor, black, non-English speakers.  Freedom of movement is seen as a privilege for the few, not a right for the many.  In the case of the parties which traditionally stand for the privileged few, that shouldn’t surprise us – but Labour’s position has essentially become the same, quibbling only about a few details. 

But what if we ask ourselves who are the people with the greatest need to be able to move elsewhere in order to escape a “nasty, brutish and short” existence?  That would be a rather different demographic.

Tuesday 29 November 2016

Highlighting the article

UK Prime Ministers, of whatever colour, bang on about ‘the special relationship’ with the US.  In fairness, all US Presidents refer, in return, to ‘a special relationship’ with the UK.  The difference between the two positions is small; so small that some don’t even notice the difference when people speak, but the use of the indefinite article highlights a huge gulf in what the phrase means.
For the US, the relationship with the UK is one of a number of ‘special relationships’; it’s not unique.  The degree of ‘specialness’, as well as the number of such relationships varies over time, depending on the perceived interests of the US at any given point.  That difference was highlighted by the fact that the UK Prime Minister was apparently around eighth on the list to receive a call from the President-elect.  For the UK, there is one and only one such relationship.  That alone underlines that this is not as reciprocal as it is generally painted.  It also tells us something about the attitude of successive UK governments; whilst they are always extremely keen to avoid upsetting the US, it doesn’t work the same way in the other direction.
The question which interests me is why UK governments are so keen on this particular relationship that they are prepared to prostrate themselves before whoever the US citizens elect to lead their country.  There’s surely more to it than the parody in ‘Yes, Minister’ when Hacker gets so excited about the photos of him on the White House lawn appearing in the UK press.
It may stem partly from the linguistic connection.  Churchill described the US and UK as “two countries divided by a common language”, but we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of direct communication unmediated by translation in the way people relate to each other.  That language issue in turn isn’t unrelated to the imperial past; one of the glories of empire is, apparently, bequeathing the English language to the world, even if that language is increasingly, and with considerable justification, being referred to as American.
And that imperial past is relevant in another way as well: there are those who seem still to regard the US as some sort of wayward child, for which the ‘mother country’ still has a fond (if not always entirely deserved) regard.  It’s yet another example of the way in which the UK establishment appear to be so attached to the past that they are determined to continue living there.
But, tempting as it is to regard all this as touching, not to say a little touched, it has at least two major problems for the citizens at large.  In the first place, it means that much of what passes for UK foreign policy is decided in Washington rather than in London (it’s called ‘getting our country back’, apparently), even if those who benefit from that policy are also on the other side of the Atlantic; and the second is that it has been part of the reason, for decades, that the UK has failed to engage properly or enthusiastically with our more natural partners in Europe.
One of the reasons for de Gaulle’s vetoes on UK membership of the EEC was that he feared a US Trojan horse in the top councils of Europe.  And I suspect that, on the one issue where a popular referendum has gone against the US’s wishes (for the UK to stay in the EU), the US policy was driven by exactly that which de Gaulle feared – a desire to have a tame voice in those councils.
Even with a Trump government for which trade deals are about the US getting what it wants at everyone else’s expense, the siren voices of the US puppets are still telling us that the wayward child will make an exception for us, because we’re so ‘special’, despite all the hard evidence to the contrary.  Just what will it take for the UK to wake up to reality and accept that it’s a middling size state in a global economy rather than a superpower ruling the waves in a two-country alliance?  I suspect that the only thing that will achieve that is the end of the UK as a single state.  And given where they’re now taking us, that can’t come soon enough.

Monday 28 November 2016

The IDS petard

Over the weekend, one ex-Tory leader (Iain Duncan Smith) laid into another (John Major) after the latter suggested that a second referendum could be held on Brexit once the details are clear.  IDS’ argument, as I understand it, is that a vote has been taken and that should be final.
The problem for IDS in taking that line is that there was a previous vote on membership of the EU back in 1975, but rather than accepting the result of that vote he has himself spent many years arguing that the decision should be reversed.  Votes are only ‘final’, it seems, when they produce the ‘right’ answer.
Now it might be argued that that isn’t a fair comparison, either because (a) it was a long time ago, or (b) things have changed since then.  And I would consider that the second of those, at least, is an entirely fair argument and a reasonable justification for seeking a new vote on the question.  I’m a lot less convinced that the mere passage of time justifies a new vote.  But even accepting only the second still opens up two more questions, on neither of which did IDS shed much light.  The first is ‘how much has to change before the situation is considered to be a new one?’ and the second is ‘who decides that anyway?’.
Clearly, the position he has taken over many years shows that he accepts that change in circumstances is a reasonable ground for re-opening a question, so the only argument he has left to deny a further opportunity is that the outcome of Brexit in reality will be little or no different from that which the electorate thought would be the case on 23rd June.  Until the final terms are known, it is at least theoretically possible that he could be proven right on that, but it looks extremely unlikely at this point.  And a major part of that unlikelihood is the direct result of the untruths he and others told about the outcome of a leave vote…

Friday 25 November 2016

Stamping his little feet

Today’s statement by the First Minister to the effect that Welsh ministers will not be puppets over Brexit somehow inexplicably reminded me of some lines from a poem by the late Harri Webb:
“…but if you ignore him he’ll squawk and squawk
and fly into a fearful rage
and rattle the bars of his pretty cage
but he won’t get out, he’ll never try it,
and a cloth on the cage will keep him quiet…”

Other than squawking, just what does the First Minister propose to do? From 1959, when Harri wrote the poem, until 2016, little seems to have changed for Welsh Labour.

I agree with Nige...

There’s an old saying that if an infinite number of monkeys had an infinite number of typewriters, sooner or later one of them would type out the complete works of Shakespeare in the correct order.  It’s not quite on that scale, but if Nigel Farage says enough things, then sooner or later I’m likely to agree with something, at least in part.  Yesterday, he said that he suspected the Conservative Government "is not fit for the legacy of Brexit".  I agree.  The question which then arises, though, is whether there is any other conceivable government, composed of members of the current House of Commons, which would be more fit to deal with that legacy.  And the supplementary question is whether any new parliament which might be elected would be any better.  Given that neither the remainers nor the leavers seem to have much clue, I doubt both.
There is a sketch doing the rounds which seems to many to sum up the situation in which we find ourselves.  It’s exaggerated, of course; most of the best humour is.  But like all good humour, there is a core point which strikes home, and that is that those who argued for this situation haven’t a clue what to do next and seem to expect everyone else to solve the problems that they have created.  Their justification is that it’s ‘democracy’; the majority have chosen a course of action, and it’s up to everyone to rally round to make it work.  There are other ways of looking at the same thing, though.  If a man is about to jump over a cliff, do you assist him or try and talk him out of it?  The answer of all of those opponents of Brexit who say that we must accept the result would seem to be that we should jump with him.
Farage also said that British politics would suffer “another big seismic shock” if Brexit isn’t delivered by the next election in 2020.  I think that he’s probably right to doubt whether the UK will have left the EU by then, unless the extremists get their way and the UK simply walks out one day and worries about the consequences afterwards.  There are too many complex issues to be resolved, and the two year timescale was always entirely arbitrary.  But whether that leads to a seismic shock depends on a range of factors which are unknowable at this stage. 
Will there still be a majority for Brexit as the details become clearer?  Given UKIP’s current propensity for implosion, will there still be a viable political party able to capitalise on that?  I don’t know the answer to either of those questions.  I’m fairly confident, however, that if those who think that Brexit is the wrong thing to do keep saying that the result cannot be changed, and restrict debate solely to the terms of the exit, they make the Farage scenario more likely, not least because they do nothing to persuade people to turn away from the path on which they have set us all.

Thursday 24 November 2016

The losers will still lose

I’m sure that I have more than a vague memory that in the last two UK general elections the winning party told us that eliminating the deficit was absolutely essential and that the sky would fall in if we didn’t.  Something along those lines anyway.  After the first of those elections, they told us it would have to be done by the end of that parliament, and their then best mates the Lib Dems agreed with them, albeit whilst quibbling about some of the details.  And after the second of those elections, they told us it would have to be done by the end of this parliament, and that it would be a lot easier without needing to have those little quibbles with their now former best mates.
Yesterday, they told us that actually, that wasn’t necessary either, and it doesn’t matter if the target isn’t achieved in this parliament – indeed, it doesn’t even matter if there’s no longer any particular target date.  Inevitably, they are blaming – in part, at least – Brexit, the argument being that a change of circumstances leads to a change of policy.  The funny thing is, though, that I don’t remember them saying in either of those two elections that there was any dependency on any particular set of circumstances or events; the need was both pressing and absolute. 
Those of us who suggested that this was all much more to do with ideology than economics were dismissed as spendthrifts, and the media – particularly the BBC – did its bit to support what was then the orthodox position by hostile questioning of any politician who had no plan to eliminate the deficit.  Labour, as usual, caved in to that pressure and agreed that the deficit needed to be eliminated, arguing only about the timescale and method.
But what yesterday confirmed is what some were saying all along.  Firstly, the deficit isn’t something which exists in splendid isolation regardless of economic circumstances – its existence and size inevitably vary over time depending on the point in the economic cycle.  It was always economic madness to seek to eliminate it at a time when the economy was weak.  And secondly, the government’s finances are not like those of a household.  Within limits, it really is possible to run a deficit more or less indefinitely, depending on a range of factors including the rate of economic growth and the rate of inflation.  I can understand why that ‘feels’ wrong to so many people, but ‘feeling’ wrong doesn’t make it actually wrong.
Blaming Brexit is something of a soft option, allowing the government a fig leaf to cover a policy U-turn.  But it’s only a partial U-turn, in the sense that whilst policy towards running a deficit has changed, policy on who should benefit from government actions – and who should pay the costs – still looks remarkably consistent with that of the previous government.  On that score, only the rhetoric has changed.

Wednesday 23 November 2016

Perhaps we should stop pretending

It’s a long-standing tradition in the UK that diplomats are career civil servants, and that ambassadors are appointed from within the civil service.  The argument is that they are politically neutral, and represent the government of the day of whatever colour.  (Although some would argue that this is part of the reason why UK foreign policy changes little when governments change, whatever the ministers may wish.  ‘Real’ policy is controlled by that ‘neutral’ civil service.)  The United States, on the other hand, has a long tradition under which ambassadors are political appointments; when the government changes, the voice of that government abroad also changes.
I can see merit in both approaches; it’s not as simple as saying that one is right and the other wrong.  What I don’t see much merit in, though, is for governments to appoint as their voice overseas people who agree with, and will kow-tow to, the government of the country in which they work, which seems to be what Trump has in mind.  Can anyone imagine his response if the UK Government were to suggest that Hillary Clinton would be quite a good appointment as US ambassador to the UK?
Having said that, if the UK were to move to a political basis for appointments, then it’s clear that we have recently had a change of government, and some of the policy changes between Cameron and May look to be more significant than they would have been if Miliband had been elected last year.  It seems to me that we have what looks increasingly like a UKIP government in all but name – get out of the EU at any price, clamp down on immigration, reintroduce grammar schools, say whatever is thought might be popular, and make up policy on the hoof, just for starters – so perhaps a UKIP ambassador to the US doesn’t really look as silly as many might think.  Farage is probably closer to the views of the current government than any civil servant would be - it’s just that people pretend he isn’t.

Tuesday 22 November 2016

Revealing what?

One of the main arguments being used by the UK Government for wanting to use the royal prerogative to trigger Article 50 rather than hold a parliamentary debate is that debating the matter in parliament would reveal the government’s hand and its negotiating stance.  It’s an argument which at first sight appears to be a statement of the obvious - until one starts to question what it actually means.
In this case, what is it that the government doesn’t actually want to reveal in advance?  What mysterious cards does it have in its hand which it doesn’t want to show the other side?  And to what extent would a parliamentary debate really reveal anything at all?
I’ve been involved in commercial negotiations in the past, and I know that there are two key things that anyone entering into a commercial negotiation will never want to reveal.  They are:
·         What is our minimum acceptable end-point?, and
·         What are we prepared to concede to reach an agreement?
Now, if that was what May and her team were trying to keep quiet, I could understand it.  I’m not sure that I’d believe it – I don’t think they have a clue on either question – but I could at least understand it.  But the one thing that anyone entering a commercial negotiation has no choice but to reveal at the outset is ‘what is our initial starting point for what we want?’.  It’s impossible to negotiate anything without a starting point.  In some cases, of course, it’s reasonable to wait for the other side to say what it wants, but when the other side is entirely happy with the current situation, and you’re the one who wants to change it, that’s a hopelessly unrealistic expectation.  The initial pitch has to come from those who want change.
The problem with holding a parliamentary debate isn’t that it would reveal the government’s end-point - it is that it would force the government to reveal its starting point.  And since it doesn’t have one, I can understand why they’re putting so much legal effort into avoiding revealing the fact.

Monday 21 November 2016

More to this than pensions

I’ve noted previously that one major disadvantage of working partly from home is that I’m at home when more of the nuisance phone calls arrive.
Most are just downright annoying – why anyone would believe that I’m likely to say ‘yes’ the tenth time they call when they were told otherwise on several previous occasions (by the ninth time in rather robust terms as well) is beyond me.  Proving their own incompetence, inefficiency, and willingness to ignore both the TPS rules and a clear message from potential customers doesn’t look like the best of advertisements for their services or reliability.  And telling me (as one did recently) that they’ve deliberately put their call centre in Dublin to circumvent TPS rules doesn’t do a lot for their credibility either.
Some provide a degree of amusement, particularly if I’m bored with whatever I’m working on and looking for a break.  I’m afraid that I do have a tendency to play along with, and then wind up, the Asian callers from the “Windows Technical Centre”.  I know I really shouldn’t: but then ‘Dave’, ‘Brad’, and the rest of the improbably-named callers shouldn’t be trying to con people out of their money either.  I regard it as a minor achievement when they resort to effing and blinding whilst I calmly respond; for some strange reason, they don’t seem to appreciate my sense of humour.
But what for me is a minor irritation or amusing diversion, depending on my mood at the time, is a real nuisance for many.  And far too many vulnerable people are taken in – or even bullied – by these callers, and at best end up paying over the odds for services that they could get cheaper by shopping around, or at worst by having substantial sums fraudulently taken from their bank accounts.
So the announcement that the government is going to take action to clamp down on one particular type of nuisance call – those trying to persuade people to reinvest their pension pots – is something that I welcome in principle.  I wonder, though, why this particular sector is being targeted.  It surely can’t be that people with transferable pension pots are more likely to be Conservative voters – could it really be that cynical?
And even then there’s a lot of (missing) devils in the detail – it has been clearly stated that international callers will be excluded, despite the fact that anyone who’s being plagued by these calls will immediately identify that the worst ones come from international numbers (followed by ‘unavailable’ and then ‘withheld’).  And how are they going to identify the perpetrators?  My own experience of receiving at least half a dozen nuisance calls per week is that they never give the name or address of the company doing the calling, and invariably hang up when politely asked for such, apparently irrelevant, details.
But how difficult can it be in this day and age, if the will were there, to use technology to identify and prosecute the perpetrators?  Some might well be out of direct range of UK law – they don’t use Indian call centres for nothing.  But some of those call centres wouldn’t still be in business if there weren’t unscrupulous companies in the UK (‘entrepreneurs’, no doubt) prepared to pay them for ‘leads’ to circumvent the TPS rules.  And even where they are beyond the reach of UK law, surely it’s technically possible in this day and age to identify where they are from and simply bar all calls from those people to the UK?
I suspect that part of the reason for the inaction – and the continued suffering of the vulnerable – is the vested interest of the telecoms providers.  Presumably, telecoms companies are making money on each and every one of these nuisance calls; so why would they want to stop them?  I’m sure it’s no coincidence that I’ve been receiving more or less weekly marketing e-mails from one telecoms provider trying to sell me call-blocking equipment.  Those making money from the calls would, it seems, prefer to make more money from selling me equipment to stop them than simply take action themselves.
There can surely be few elected politicians who are not aware of people in their own areas who have suffered from this plague, though.  So why the apparent reluctance to introduce tougher legislation and control?

Tuesday 15 November 2016

Selecting the right 'facts'

A lot of analysis of who voted which way, in relation to both Brexit and Trump, has highlighted the fact that level of educational attainment is a good indicator of the way people voted.  The existence of that correlation is inarguable, but correlation isn’t the same as causality, and there’s an obvious danger that trying to explore the issue can sound like a form of intellectual snobbery.  I’m not sure, however, that educational attainment is the right factor here – it looks to me more a problem of people’s willingness to believe things which are untrue.  That’s about much more than the level of paper qualifications which people gain, and whilst there may be a correlation with education levels, it’s a problem which can also afflict apparently well-educated individuals as well.  We seem to live in a world where people are increasingly behaving as though they are not just entitled to their own opinions, they’re entitled to their own facts as well.

Michael Gove’s famous statement that people have had enough of experts seemed to be an attempt to tap into this tendency to believe in an alternative reality.  What do ‘experts’ know about anything?

Take the question of creationism, or intelligent design, for example.  I was surprised to read recently that over 40% of Americans believe that the earth was created, as it currently is, less than 10,000 years ago.  Despite all the advances in science and understanding – many of them originating in the USA – there’s a huge undercurrent that simply rejects it all.  And they have apparently serious politicians whose response is to argue that evolution is merely one theory, and that alternative theories have equal validity and should therefore be taught alongside evolution in science classes.  The UK isn’t immune to this nonsense and has taken formal steps to ban it from schools, although the problem hasn’t reached US levels.  I don’t know which way creationists voted in the US elections, but I suspect that there were rather more in the Trump camp than the Clinton camp.

Or take climate change.  Trump is clearly an out-and-out rejecter of the idea that human activity is causing climate change, and of the idea that we should do anything about it.  Climate change denial is a strong thread in UKIP as well, and there are more than a few sceptical Tories.  Again, it’s an issue where the science is strong and clear, but people choose to reject it.  Alternative views which can be extracted from a quick internet trawl are obviously as valid as those of scientists who’ve spent their entire working lives in the field, aren’t they?  Obviously not, yet plenty choose to believe that they are.

And then there’s immigration.  All the facts show clearly that immigration makes a net positive contribution to the economy, and that immigrants are more likely to be net contributors to public services than to make disproportionate use of them.  But mere facts don’t fit the prejudices, so are ignored.  Worse, because electors ignore them, some politicians seem to think that they must do so too.  Supposing that a survey showed that large numbers of people believed the world to be flat – would a Labour politician say that ‘we must change our policies to accommodate people’s legitimate concerns about the shape of the world’?  How different is that, in principle, from their position on immigration?

This fact-free approach to politics is fed and nurtured by some sections of the tabloid press, who freely distort facts or even publish outright lies and then call them ‘news’.  It’s understandable that anyone who gets his or her ‘news’ from such sources will end up at the very least confused about reality.  What’s a lot less easy to understand is why politicians fall in with this instead of challenging it.  There is plenty of scope for policy disagreement based on real facts; we don’t need alternative ‘facts’ as well.

Thursday 10 November 2016

The danger isn't just one man

I don’t envy the choice which the US electorate faced this week.  In the end, the one who wasn’t Trump got marginally more votes, but the electoral college system delivered victory to the one who wasn’t Clinton.  Choosing between a not-Trump and a not-Clinton was not what I would see as a particularly inspiring option.  However, it can be too easy to interpret the result through the prism of our own prejudices and preconceptions; whilst neither of them inspired me at all, that doesn’t mean that all of those who voted for them did so from that negative mindset of choosing the least worst.  It’s clear that some – millions – of Americans were inspired by one or other candidate, and probably more by Trump than by Clinton.

It also seems fairly clear that the demographic which felt that way about Trump is similar to the demographic which felt that way about Brexit.  There’s a danger of over-simplifying, of course; when 130 million people each individually decide how to cast a ballot, there will probably be 130 million different sets of reasons for their decisions, so the best we can do is extract some straws of commonality. 

One of those is that both the Brexit result and the Trump result seem to show a yearning for a return to what people believe are the certainties of the past.  Things weren’t actually as certain at the time as they appear to be looking back, of course; it’s just that there will always be a difference between looking back at what has happened and looking forward to what might happen.  (Although, in saying that, I’m conscious of the Soviet historian who was reputed to have said “In my country only the future is certain – the past is always changing”).  But a warped sense of nostalgia for the past – whether it’s making America great again, or visions of becoming once again a ‘plucky island nation’ both play to a certain audience.

I’m not sure how worried we should be about a Trump presidency (I’m not even sure he’ll last four years, but I felt much the same about his opponent as well).  The famed ‘checks and balances’ of the US constitution are likely to be sorely tested while he lasts, and of course there will be losers just as there will be winners (but, again, that would also have been true for Clinton; it’s just that the winners and losers would not have been exactly the same groups).  It’s also entirely possible that electoral rhetoric will be toned down now the election is over – it would hardly be the first time a politician said one thing to get elected and then did the opposite.

What worries me more than a particular result is that underlying sentiment amongst a substantial proportion of the electorate; that yearning for past glories.  It’s impossible to fulfil, and I suspect that those who’ve raised expectations for their own purposes know that as well as I.  But what happens when, not if, those expectations are dashed?  Will people understand why, or will they simply demand more and more of the same on the basis that it’s not the idea that’s wrong, but the implementation?  I hope for the former but fear for the latter.

Tuesday 8 November 2016

Conflicting arguments

There are many things for which Baron Kinnock is well-known.  Support for devolution, of anything, to Wales is not prominent amongst them.  So it was hardly a surprise that he spoke against devolution of income tax powers to Wales without a referendum.  But it was the arguments he used which struck me.

On the one hand, he claimed that this would "very profoundly change the way in which Wales is governed", whilst on the other, he said that the additional power was being offered in the "certain and cynical knowledge" that it would not be exercised.  Whilst I tend to agree with him on the second point, am I the only one left wondering how a power which will never be exercised can make a profound difference to the way Wales is governed?

Monday 7 November 2016

Standing up to bullies

Imagine, just for one brief moment, that the outcome of the referendum on June 23rd had been the other way round – same percentages, but with Remain winning.  Does anyone believe, for one moment, that those who believe that the UK should leave the EU would have simply shrugged their shoulders, accepted defeat, and moved on?  Or that UKIP would have dissolved itself (through a formal process rather than the chaos with which they currently seem to be achieving the same end), and Euro peace would have broken out in the Conservative Party?  It’s a nice thought, but it’s well divorced from reality, isn’t it?

But, effectively, acceptance that a one-off decision is final and irrevocable is what the actual winners now expect of the losing side; they expect others to display an approach and attitude which they would never have displayed themselves.  ‘The people have spoken’, they declare, and everyone who disagrees must now shut up and throw themselves with enthusiasm into achieving what the majority decided. 

That would be bad enough if it were only coming from the extremists in the Leave camp; but it isn’t.  Even the UK Prime Minister is saying much the same thing, despite having claimed in advance that this outcome was the wrong one for the UK – and not just saying it, but going out of her way to try and close off any options for reversing the decision.  Even worse are the headlines in some of the tabloids; intolerance of dissent on this issue is rapidly becoming the accepted norm, even to the extent of pillorying judges for the ‘crime’ of upholding the constitutional position that domestic UK law cannot be changed other than by act of parliament, which is, in essence, all that they actually decided.

It increasingly feels as though they’re trying to take us back into some sort of ‘golden age’ where people knew their place and believed what they were told to believe; a time when Britannia ruled the waves and the sun never set.  Restoring that overseas ‘glory’ is, fortunately, well beyond their capability (even if they don’t yet all realise that), but domestically, we’re seeing what amounts to a form of bullying of anyone with an alternative view, as a means of achieving that end.  But the way to tackle bullies isn’t by giving in to them.

Thursday 3 November 2016

Maintaining the status quo

Talks in Dublin this week underline the fact that Brexit has a number of wide-ranging implications beyond the question of terms of access to the EU market.  In particular, it raises some difficult questions about the status of the border between the two parts of Ireland, and how that will be managed.  The UK Government finds itself potentially between a rock and a hard place in trying to balance its different priorities.
On the one hand, the open border and freedom of movement between the Republic and the UK has been a vital element of building a lasting peace settlement on the island.  The consequences of reverting to a hard, controlled border are essentially unknowable, but it would be a brave person who gambled that the peace process is by now so well-established that it could survive such a step.  It seems inevitable that the two governments will seek a way forward which maintains the status quo as far as the land border is concerned.
On the other hand, given that the UK Government has chosen to interpret the referendum result as a vote, first and foremost, for control over entry to the UK, an open land border with a territory which is itself open for freedom of movement from the other 26 remaining members of the EU leaves a very large back door into the UK.  It’s a roundabout route, of course; but if it becomes the easiest route…
One suggestion put forward has been that border controls should be imposed between Ireland as a whole and the UK mainland.  Essentially, that would mean establishing hard border controls in places like Holyhead and Fishguard.  Those who simply want jobs at any price might see this as an advantage, of course; but from a unionist perspective in the north of Ireland it might look like treating them as some sort of ‘semi-foreigners’ – not likely to go down well.
Another has been that the UK should simply sub-contract its border control to the Republic.  Under this scenario, people entering the Republic would be subject to UK border controls, carried out by the staff of the Republic.  Why the Republic would ever want to agree to that is beyond me; and why anyone in London would think it was ever likely to happen is even more so.  It betrays an attitude which suggests that ‘London’ has never really accepted the idea that the Republic isn’t still part of ‘Britain’ in some sense which goes beyond the geographical, and as such, they will do what ‘we’ want.
In essence, nationalists will insist on free movement between the north and the republic; unionists will insist on free movement between the north and the rest of the UK; and the Irish Government will insist that the republic is an independent state, not part of the UK, and that it is not willing to be treated as the latter and make itself semi-detached from the rest of the EU as a result.  In the meantime, the UK Government is looking for a way to change nothing whilst changing everything.
There is a potential solution to all this, of course, which maintains the status quo.  Using Orwellian newspeak, the UK Government could simply declare that “Brexit means Remain”.  If that’s a step too far at this stage, how about an interim position of stating simply that “Status quo means status quo”?  Stranger things have happened.

Wednesday 2 November 2016

The roost beckons

Whilst the UK government continues to argue that nothing very much was promised to Nissan before they announced an increase in investment and production in Sunderland, questions are still being asked.  It’s understandable; previous strong rhetoric from car companies (and others) about the impact of being outside the single market, coupled with the government’s reluctance to release any details of what has been said to Nissan, mean that the whole situation simply doesn’t ‘feel’ right.  Put another way, it’s hard to believe that a simple statement of intent by the government that it will be seeking tariff-free access would be strong enough grounds to justify the apparent about-face, when all the indications are that the government will not get what it wants.
Perhaps it’s true that the cheque book remained firmly shut, and the government has not offered a penny to Nissan to mitigate the impact of tariffs.  If it’s not true, then they would be playing with fire; the truth will out eventually, and a not very orderly queue would start forming outside Number 10 as a whole host of other companies line up demanding the same terms.  (But there’s plenty of cash available, isn’t there?  I mean, it’s not as if anyone ever promised that the money being saved by not contributing to the EU would be earmarked for anything else, is it?)
But let’s take the government at its word, and assume that Nissan has been given nothing other than a glimpse of the negotiating strategy which is being kept so secret from the rest of us.  What happens if (or when) that strategy fails and Nissan get exactly what they’ve been promised, namely nothing?  Is this decision as long-term, or as concrete, as it’s been presented?
The truth is that none of us know, and we won’t find out unless and until details of the non-deal emerge and /or the final terms of the divorce become clear.  The government may well have succeeded in delaying this particular moment of truth.  But perhaps a temporary respite from the bad news is all the government, concerned more with short term headlines than with long term economics, really wanted at this stage.  Chickens, though, have a habit of returning at some point.

Tuesday 1 November 2016

Where's the logic?

In what must surely count as evidence of it being a slow news day, the Western Mail devotes almost an entire page to an edited version of a speech which Lord Hain has yet to deliver to the House of Lords opposing the idea of devolving income tax powers to Wales without a referendum.  

There is much in his argument with which I actually agree; devolving the power to set a proportion of the income tax levels in Wales without agreement on the Fiscal Framework does indeed create a serious danger that Wales will lose out financially in a big way.  And he is absolutely correct not to trust anything the Treasury says when it comes to funding Wales, although I suspect my distrust would go rather wider than his, since I am equally sceptical of Labour Treasury ministers.
He also makes the standard unionist argument about pooling and sharing resources.  Here, I start to part company with him; whilst I’ve long thought that to be one of the best arguments that the unionists have for maintaining the union, the problem is that it remains a theoretical argument, and unless backed up by action to ensure the “common welfare and decent standards of life for all citizens” which he lauds, then it’s not an argument which holds much weight for me.  And he loses it completely by referring to an annual subsidy of £15bn from the UK Treasury to Wales, a wilful and deliberate misinterpretation of the facts which is becoming standard unionist practice.
What I found completely missing in all of it however was any exposition of the rationale for making tax-raising powers subject to a referendum.  The question of whether the Assembly should or should not have the power to vary income tax rates, and what, if any, safeguards should be put in place to protect Wales’ financial position if it should happen, are entirely sensible subjects for debate, and, as mentioned above, I’d even agree with some of his concerns.  But how do we get from that position to a suggestion that there is a requirement for a specific referendum on that very limited question?  It’s a non-sequitur.
It’s true that at the time of the last referendum on legislative powers for the Assembly, some of those campaigning in favour stated that there would be no move to devolve income tax without a further referendum.  But that was a foolish thing to say at the time, and it was a promise which the campaigners were in no position to either make or keep.  That is not the sort of consideration which will deter a politician though.
I understand the argument for a further referendum if substantial further powers are to be transferred to Wales (although there’s a lot of scope for debate about what ‘substantial’ means’), and if a wide range of tax powers were to be included within that then I wouldn’t see a problem.  But the hang-ups that some have over devolving the power to vary a small element of one specific tax seem out of proportion, and look more like a method of blocking, or at least stalling, devolution to Wales than of arriving at a coherent position.
I suppose that’s not really new though.