Tuesday 31 January 2017

Does democracy have limits?

Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Wales claimed that the UK Prime Minister is more in tune with the mood of Welsh electors than the First Minister of Wales.  This, apparently, is a good thing.  I think he's right on the first point, but wrong on the second.  It seems to have become axiomatic in mainstream politics that politicians have a duty to reflect the views of the public, but we need to challenge that view.

May and Cairns alike are effectively arguing that the Brexit vote gave them a democratic mandate to limit freedom of movement.  Given that that question wasn't even asked, their argument is at the very least open to question.  It's interesting to note that some of those who take the same position about freedom of movement in the post-Brexit context feel entirely free to criticise Trump for his edicts on admitting people from selected countries. But it seems to me that he has, if anything, a better democratic mandate for what he's doing than the UK Government has for its position on controlling EU migration.  It raises a question about how we determine 'how good' a mandate is; but there's also a wider question about whether, and to what extent, politicians are bound to follow public opinion.

Does Trump have a democratic mandate for rounding up certain categories of immigrant and then deporting them en masse?  I think that he probably does.  Some aspects of what he wants to do might be contrary to international law, but he's shown himself willing to simply withdraw from any treaty which constrains him.  How far can the 'democratic mandate' argument go?  Flogging, hanging, public executions in town centres?  What about eliminating sections of the population - if it's what the majority wants, why shouldn't the government do it?

I'm using extreme and provocative examples, of course.  But once we agree that the electorate do not have an absolute right to demand any policies that take their fancy, once we agree that politicians do not have to follow public opinion on all issues, then where and how do we draw the line?  And who draws and enforces it?  

I think that Trump has crossed a line, and it's clear that many people agree.  But I'm finding it very hard to identify where the line actually lies. And it's precisely because of that difficulty that societies can fall, gradually, one small step at a time, into undemocratic regimes.  Of course there's a problem when the much-maligned 'elite' decides that it knows better than the people, and I understand the feelings that that has aroused over the last year or so in particular.  But merely following the 'will of the people' brings its own problems - it's far from being the 'solution' as which it's proposed.

I don't really know what the answer is.  I think that a written constitution would help - the written constitution of the USA has provided a basis for legal challenge to some of Trump's actions - but it's not a cure-all.  Having a political class with enough courage to lead, rather then meekly follow, public opinion is the best starting point that I can think of, but we're moving away from, rather than towards, that position.  The prospects are not looking good.

Saturday 28 January 2017

Brexit realities - summary

In drawing the threads of this week’s posts together, let me just restate briefly the premises on which my argument is based:
1.    Brexit was never about controlling immigration – but it is now.
2.    The real drivers for Brexit were ideology and British exceptionalism.
3.    There is no such thing as a ‘soft’ Brexit.
4.    Welsh independence becomes less attractive and less likely in a post Brexit scenario.
5.    Democracy isn’t a once-and-for-ever event.
Where does that leave Welsh nationalists?  To date, most ‘nationalist’ politicians have restricted themselves to agreeing with Welsh Labour and demanding a non-existent ‘soft’ Brexit and an opportunity for the National Assembly to ‘scrutinise’ (but not veto) the final terms of any deal.  To me, this looks like playing the British/Brexit game, and arguing about the detail rather than the principle of a change which kicks the core aim of nationalists into the far-distant future.  And arguing for something which it has already been decided is not available is dishonest and misleading.  Ultimately it’s an approach which supports the core aim and narrative of the Brexiteers and assists them to achieve it.
There is no possibility of evidence-based argument with those who are now driving events.  They are absolutely convinced of the rightness of their cause, see only supporting evidence, and ignore any evidence which in any way undermines their case.  They're not really very far away from the Trump approach of presenting 'alternative facts'; they demand that people believe them, and brand them as traitors or worse if they don't.  Mitigating or influencing what they are doing is probably impossible, and even attempting to do so, rather than opposing them, concedes their core position, which is that Brexit is going to happen.
The alternative is to express honestly to the people of Wales the opinion that the decision which a narrow majority of those who voted made was a mistake.  It’s a mistake which works against our best interests in terms of short term economics and against our best interests in terms of the long term prospects for Wales as a nation.  But it’s not an irreversible mistake – yet.
Putting that argument demands a context, and for any nationalist that context can only be a vision of Wales as an independent member state of the EU, given the point from which we start.  It’s a vision which people have been afraid of expressing for too long.  Perhaps it’s already too late, but anything else looks to me, at this point, to be a (possibly final) surrender of our nationhood.  Faced with a choice between making that nationhood central to our politics in Wales, and largely abandoning it, which are we going to choose?

Friday 27 January 2017

Brexit realities - 5

Democracy isn’t a once-and-for-ever event.
There’s no rule in democracy which says that people have one and only one chance to make a choice and can never change their minds.  And contrary to what Jeremy Corbyn seems to think in trying to whip his party’s MPs into voting for Brexit, there’s no rule in democracy which says that a 52-48 vote amongst the public has to be followed by a 100-0 vote in parliament.  Despite what the Daily Mail might say, the 48% are entitled to expect their views to be represented too, and MPs who do so are neither traitors nor enemies of democracy.
Even in the UK, there’s a history of allowing people to change their minds after a referendum.  The now-abolished seven yearly vote on whether pubs should open on a Sunday in Wales (the most frequent example of a referendum in the UK) is an example where the right to re-take the vote periodically was enshrined in the legislation.  The devolution vote in 1979 was re-run in 1997 (albeit on a slightly different set of proposals), and even the EU vote itself was an opportunity to reverse the decision taken in 1975.  Decisions taken in one referendum can be – and regularly have been – reversed in subsequent referendums.
The devolution referendums were held a second time because people who didn’t like the result in 1979 continued to campaign for what they thought was right; and the second EU referendum was held because some people never really accepted the idea that the UK belonged in Europe.  One thing of which I’m certain is that had the vote on 23rd June been to remain, UKIP would not have simply packed up and gone away – they would have continued to campaign.  And, in a democracy, they would have had every right to do so.
Respecting the result of a democratic vote does not require those opposed to that result to accept the arguments of those who won and assist them to implement the decision.  If it did, opposition MPs would consider themselves democratically mandated to assist the governing party in implementing its programme.  Respecting the result of a democratic vote means nothing more than accepting that a decision taken in one vote can only be reversed by another vote.  The people always have the right to change their minds, and those who would lead them always have the right to seek to persuade them to do so.
In the context of all of the above, why is it assumed that those who think a bad decision has been taken should stop arguing their case, and start working to ensure that what they fought against actually happens?  It’s a perverse suggestion.  Even worse, why are so many politicians throwing in the towel and doing exactly that?  Have they changed their minds?  Did they really not believe what they were saying?  Did they see it all as just some sort of political game?
Anyone seeking to provide leadership to the nation should be telling us what they really believe is the right future for the nation, and working to persuade the people of that, not facilitating the implementation of what they claim to believe is a bad decision.  And if they believe that staying in the EU is the best future, they should say so, and argue for that position.  It’s not as if there’s no support for that view – after all, 47.5% of the electorate voted for that, and that’s not a bad position from which to start to build a majority.  It’s certainly better than the starting point for building a majority for independence, for example.

Thursday 26 January 2017

Brexit realities - 4

Welsh independence becomes less attractive and less likely in the most probable post-Brexit scenario.
I’ve posted on this one before.  Under what currently seems to be the likeliest post-Brexit scenario (the EU continuing as a group of 27, the UK outside both the single market and the customs union), and with Wales a decade or two behind Scotland in the independence stakes, Welsh independence will look very unattractive to many.  Changes to UK legislation and regulation mean that a move directly from being part of the UK to being a member state of the EU is no longer an option (as it currently could be for Scotland, for example).  Our economy would have become even more integrated with that of the only single market of which we would remain a part (i.e. whatever is left of the UK) and our regulatory framework different from that of the EU.  That means a post-independence negotiation to re-join, and an inevitable period outside both unions.
Whilst the debate about independence (like the debate about the EU) has never been for me primarily an economic one, economic factors will inevitably be a factor in gaining a majority for independence.  It's not so much that there is a killer economic argument for independence; more that economic uncertainty will be the main argument against, and Brexit strengthens that argument. Whilst a logical analysis might suggest that there is no more certainty about our future as part of the UK than there is as an independent nation, human assessments do not work in that way.  'What is' always feels more certain than 'what could be'.  Independence will ‘feel’ less secure for a Wales seeking independence under this scenario, with no obvious exemplars to follow.  Within the EU, we would, hopefully, have at least two examples (Scotland and Catalunya) of countries which have made the break and are thriving.  Outside, we would have none.  The task of persuading people to follow the path to independence becomes many times more difficult – perhaps even impossible.
In short, whilst nothing is entirely impossible in political terms, I see Welsh independence as being off the agenda for the foreseeable future if Brexit actually happens.

Wednesday 25 January 2017

Brexit realities - 3

There is no such thing as a ‘soft’ Brexit.
It was Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, who said back in October “The only real alternative to a hard Brexit is no Brexit”.  Events are proving him right.  For all the talk and hot air, the decision to interpret the referendum result as being, first and foremost, a demand for an end to freedom of movement means that leaving the single market is inevitable; and the desire to negotiate separate trade deals means that full membership of the customs union is also a non-starter.  It is possible that there might be partial membership of the Customs Union and a transitional period, but that’s realistically the best that can be hoped for.
Welsh politicians who continue to argue that some form of membership of the single market can continue are not only wasting their energy, they are misleading the people of Wales and serving us badly as a result.  Since May laid out her 'plan', there is only Brexit or no Brexit. That’s the binary choice open to us.  Whatever words they use, all those who choose to say that they ‘accept the result – we’re leaving’ are now effectively supporting and facilitating a complete break.
When the Tories in Wales talk about getting the ‘best deal for Wales’ they are being considerably less than entirely honest.  The best deal is to stay in the EU – but they’ve taken that off the table.  The second best deal is to stay in the Single Market even whilst being outside the EU – but they’ve taken that off the table as well.  Anything else is, at best, the third best deal for Wales, and it would be better if they were to say openly and honestly that all they’re aiming for is to get the third best deal for Wales, because that’s all there is left to hope for.  And actually, they've already said that they will reject even that and walk away with an even worse option if they don’t get what they want, like a spoilt child taking his ball home.  

It’s important that people understand in Wales that ‘third-best’ is all that our politicians can now aim for, even if that’s something they would rather not admit.  Clarity on that point is not being helped by Labour and Plaid, who are promoting the idea that they can somehow use logic to persuade people who have their own 'alternative facts' to put the second best option back on the table. Whilst I don't disagree that that would be a desirable outcome, it's a position which is more likely to see them complaining from the side-lines than achieving anything very much.  Labour will huff and puff and table amendments; when those amendments are rejected by the Tory majority, they'll huff and they'll puff a bit more; and then they'll vote in favour of exiting the EU and blame the baby-eaters for everything.  It's more about political pantomime and playing the Westminster game than standing up for the best interests of Wales.  And, while the government put the case for the third-best option and the opposition put the case for reconsidering the second-best option, who exactly is arguing for the first-best option?
Now, it may be right, as the Brexiteers say, that in economic terms we’ll thank them in a few decades time.  I tend to agree with them that the UK economy will over time adapt to the new circumstances.  There will be winners and losers from the change, and we will all have our opinions as to which people will be in which group.  Whether, twenty years from now, the overall economy will be better or worse than it would have been had we remained in the EU is a matter of conjecture.  Conjecture is always interesting, but it’s not fact, and the truth is that none of us can know with any degree of certainty at this stage; we can only project forward based on our own assessment of probabilities. 
I’ve repeatedly made the point that I don’t see the issue in primarily economic terms anyway.  But those who do see it in economic terms and genuinely believe that the economy will improve over time, are absolutely right to pursue their aim doggedly (although I’d trust them more if they were to openly admit that they are treating it as short term pain for long term gain, and I’d give them even more credibility if they owned up to who exactly will take the short term pain and who will get the long term gain).  But equally, those who see it in economic terms and genuinely believe that the economy will be in a worse position over the long term have a duty to oppose that aim in principle, not just indulge in woolly-minded and ineffectual talk of doing no more than mitigating some of the worst effects, let alone resorting to parliamentary games.

Tuesday 24 January 2017

Brexit realities - 2

The real drivers for Brexit were ideology and British exceptionalism.
If those arguing for Brexit weren’t primarily driven by their own views on immigration, what was driving them?  It’s a curious mixture of two different but overlapping world views.  There are exceptions to every generalisation, of course, but the hard core of Brexiteers is to be found in the right wing of the Tory Party, and their soulmates in UKIP.  Their mindset is one in which ‘the market’ should determine everything, and any regulation or control which prevents companies from making money is inherently bad.  They really do believe in an economic free-for-all to the greatest extent possible, and accept that there will be winners and losers as a result (although, coincidentally I'm sure, they and their circles will mostly be winners).
It’s a short term and essentially local view of what’s ‘best’, and not conducive to global action on issues such as climate change, but then, many of them don’t accept the science of that anyway.  They have an instinctive hostility to rules and regulations on what capital can or can’t do, blame the EU for much of that (overlooking the tiny little fact that it is common regulation which makes the single market operate at all), and believe passionately that freed from all controls, capitalism will deliver ever-increasing wealth from continued exponential growth.
The second driver is British (or perhaps it might be more accurate to say ‘English’ in this context) exceptionalism.  It is axiomatic to them that:
·         Westminster is the ‘mother of parliaments’ (although the term doesn’t actually mean quite what they think it means),
·         the BBC is the ‘best broadcaster in the world’ (a statement for which they have no evidence other than their own opinion),
·         the UK isn’t really part of Europe (as in ‘we’ve always had a global perspective rather than a European one, even if we’ve had to intervene to sort the Europeans out a few times’),
·         we ‘punch above our weight’ (which they see as a good thing, even if others see it as wanting to be the school bully),
·         we’ve given the world our language and culture (and what a bunch of ingrates they are), and
·         we really are unique and very special.

The key thing that we have to recognise about this twin-pronged mindset is that it’s all axiomatic to them; mere evidence-based arguments are never going to shift people who have their own 'alternative facts' from the course on which they have set themselves and us.  Yet trying to use evidence to persuade them to change direction is the approach which most are adopting in response.  It’s an approach doomed to failure.  

Monday 23 January 2017

Brexit realities - 1

Brexit was never about controlling immigration – but it is now.
I don’t simply mean that immigration wasn’t the subject on the ballot paper (although it wasn’t), I mean that it wasn’t the driving force of those arguing for Brexit (in most cases anyway).  It might well have been the main argument they used to win the referendum, but that’s a different question.
Looking back at the statements of some of the leading Brexiteers, they started out being quite positive about the economic benefits of migration, almost seeing it as a peripheral issue.  But it became clear that they were losing the economic argument, so they fell back on the argument that had most leverage with the target electorate.  It was a cynical ploy, of course; but it worked.  There was a large undercurrent of opposition to immigration, and that was effectively marshalled to support an entirely different objective.
It matters little that many of those opposed to immigration were more opposed to non-EU immigration than EU migration (there’s an obvious racist element involved in that), or that leaving the EU could have no impact on that non-EU immigration.  The Brexiteers successfully conflated two very different issues and ended up winning a majority on the back of that tactic.
It’s then that the problems really started.  Most of them never expected to win, and some of them, at least, seemed not really to have wanted to win.  The UKIP brigade did, of course, along with the more extreme elements of the Tory Party; but for many in the Tory Party it was more about resolving the internal politics of their party than about the future of the UK. 
However, win they did, albeit narrowly, and in the process of pulling that off they created a wholly unrealistic expectation that the UK could retain the economic benefits of membership whilst ending freedom of movement.  And having encouraged the genie of immigration control out of the bottle, they now find themselves in a position where they are afraid not to deliver on the promises made (even if those expected to do the delivering weren’t the ones who made the promises).
So, although controlling immigration really wasn’t the central driver for most of these seeking the exit door, fear of voter reaction to any failure to meet the expectations raised has now become the prime driver for those tasked with delivery.  That sets a context for everything else.

Friday 20 January 2017

Preparing for change

Benjamin Franklin claimed that the only two certainties are death and taxes, but I think there’s a third certainty as well, and that’s change.  The nature of that change is far from predictable, of course; and even those changes which are planned and controlled tend to have unforeseeable effects.  Those effects mean, in turn, that we can have quite different perspectives even on changes which are entirely foreseeable in themselves.
Yesterday, there was an item on the BBC news previewing the new presidency in the US, and asking which of his promises Trump could or could not implement quickly.  Specifically, there was a reference to his promises to return jobs to the ‘rust belt’ of America.  The reporter pointed out that one of the problems he faces is that these jobs haven’t been moved overseas, and native workers haven’t been replaced by immigrants; in large measure the workers have been replaced by robots.
Last month, I blogged on the probability that machines and computers are going to replace humans in many spheres as technology continues to develop.  That such a change will happen appears to be certain to me – the questions about how we react to it and what the effects will be are far more open.  Our response to the threat hinges on whether we believe that the change will create a myriad of new opportunities for businesses and work, or whether we believe that it will mark a permanent shift away from the idea that anything resembling full employment is possible.
The default position for most of those leading our society at the present is to adopt the former position – to assume, in effect, that there will be plenty of new opportunities (albeit ones which we can’t fully define or envisage at present) and do our best to position ourselves to take advantage of them.  The new AM for Llanelli, Lee Waters, wrote a piece along those lines for ClickonWales just before Christmas.  I understand – as I noted above – that the precise nature of any opportunities which will arise is inherently unpredictable, but I still found this piece by Lee to be disappointing.  It read to me more like a series of sound bites and slogans rather than an acknowledgement of the scale of the challenge facing us. 
In fairness, perhaps that’s the best we can hope for from politicians, stuck as they are in the current paradigm and having no real influence on what is going to happen, whilst trying to pretend that they are managing events.  But I tend to the alternative position; the one that expects this shift away from a requirement for human labour in a huge range of fields to be a permanent one.  I wouldn’t argue that there will be no new opportunities; but the numbers are likely to be much smaller than the numbers of jobs lost, and the work highly specialised – and there’s a whole world out there competing for them.  Even if some countries (possibly even Wales) are successful in attracting those new jobs, that’s at best a local solution; the global problem would still exist.
We tend to forget that the idea of work as the definition of what we are as individuals and the central purpose of our lives is, in human terms, a relatively recent one, and a direct result of the move to a capitalist system of production.  Certainly, that paradigm has increased the material well-being of the developed world’s population, but there is no necessary reason why it should be any more permanent than those paradigms which went before.  What if the logic of increasing automation does indeed permanently replace the need for much human labour?  Where does that leave our whole sense of identity and purpose?
The idea that automation would ultimately replace human labour is hardly a new suggestion; Marx was talking about it 150 years ago.  But the fact that previous predictions about the demise of human labour have proven premature doesn’t mean that it won’t happen at some point, and it may be nearer than many are assuming.  Perhaps I’m being unduly pessimistic (or optimistic – it depends on how we see the change and respond to it; Marx certainly saw it as a liberating possibility); perhaps it won’t happen this time either.  But little or no thought has been given to this by most people – and especially by those who need to take the decisions if we are to adapt. 
We can’t simply blame ‘immigrants’ (although no doubt some will try) for a change in the mode of production which the economic system itself has driven.  What would a society with enough work only for a minority look like?  Is it even possible to share that work out – can everybody be trained for the increasingly specialist roles?  How would we share the product of such an economy?  There are choices; we can share the available wealth more equitably or simply accept the growth of an increasingly large underclass of unemployed people, and there are degrees of sharing between those extremes.
If we don’t start to imagine a different type of economy and shape its development, it will happen anyway – but not necessarily in a controlled way which reflects the needs and wishes of the majority.

Thursday 19 January 2017

Tradition and nostalgia

One of the important issues exercising the minds of our MPs at the moment is the little problem that the building in which they debate is in danger of falling down around their ears.  This story appeared in a number of sources this week, outlining some of the problems and issues, of which there are many.
(As an aside, one of them is that the Palace of Westminster is apparently seriously infested by rats and mice.  Who’d have thought it?)
In most walks of life, the fact that a building which is not fit for purpose is crumbling away would be seen as an opportunity to take a long hard look at the requirements and even the location, and consider a range of options.  A legislative chamber which does not contain enough seats for all its members (even after the proposed reductions) is clearly not fit for purpose, the confrontational layout with its lines on the floor to ensure that members remain at least two sword lengths away from each other is quaint but more than a little dated, and the approach to decision-taking which involves the members standing up and walking through doors to be counted is antediluvian.
In any rational world, structural problems on this scale would be seen as an opportunity to create a legislative chamber which facilitates efficiency and the making of good legislation.  But no chance; the debate about options is limited to whether the building should be evacuated whilst it is repaired, or whether they should continue operating whilst the work is carried out around them – perhaps by making those doing the repairs work around the clock.  Tradition – in this case, working in the same way as their predecessors worked in the past – is more important to them than efficiency and effectiveness.  But then, as we’ve seen on so many other issues, looking to the past is what they do best.

Wednesday 18 January 2017

There's oldspeak, newspeak, and mayspeak

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone.  "It means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."  Theresa May has clearly been reading her Lewis Carroll.
Yesterday, she declared in her speech to her assembled minions cabinet members, diplomats and reporters that the UK would be a country open to the world.  That’s ‘open’ in the mayspeak sense of ‘closed’, of course; with strict border controls preventing any foreigners from getting in.  Still, perhaps we can expect a major recruitment campaign for the UK Border Agency – see, Brexit does create jobs after all.  Or then again, perhaps not.
It wasn’t the only example in the speech of words not meaning what they appear to mean at first sight.  Take her comment that no deal is better than a bad deal, for instance.  It’s a nice sound bite, and makes her sound like a tough negotiator – but what does it actually mean?
We know by now that the worst case in any possible trade arrangement with the EU27 is that the UK falls back on WTO rules.  It’s surely obvious that even the maddest of EU negotiators wouldn’t seriously try to put anything worse than that on the table; any negotiation at all (and therefore any deal resulting from such negotiation) will, by definition, be better than that, because we're negotiating up from that point.  But what she has, in effect, said is that unless she considers it a ‘good’ deal she will reject it and walk away with the WTO option.  Unless they give her what she wants, she’ll walk away with something even worse – like all good mayspeak, it’s the exact opposite of what the words seem to mean when first heard.
Putting a gun to your head and threatening to shoot yourself unless the other side backs down is an approach which works well in a comedy film, but only because the script writers can decree that the audience are sufficiently stupid and credulous to fall for it.  Someone needs to explain to her that, in this case, she’s not writing the script.
It gets better (by which, obviously, I mean worse).  Having said for months that she couldn’t even spell out what she was aiming to get because that would betray her negotiating hand, she’s now told the other side, in very plain terms, that she’s quite happy to walk away with nothing.  It’s going from one extreme to the other.  Why even bother negotiating?
There are people arguing that a vote for Brexit didn’t necessarily imply a vote for leaving the single market, and that she’s therefore going beyond the mandate that the electorate gave.  Strictly speaking, that’s true – leaving the single market wasn’t on the ballot paper.  But once you interpret the referendum outcome as being first and foremost a vote for controlling borders (although that wasn’t actually on the ballot paper either), then the decision to leave the single market necessarily follows.  For all the talk since 23rd June, it has been clear from the outset that abolishing freedom of movement and remaining in the single market were incompatible.
I was surprised, at first, that the pound bounced back up as she spoke – until, that is, it was explained that the part of her speech that caused the bounce was the part referring to giving MPs and peers a vote on the final terms.  The currency traders believe, apparently, that that leaves open the possibility of parliament voting to reject the terms of any deal.  It’s a theoretical possibility of course; but the government will control the terms of any vote, and it’s more likely to be about the terms on which we leave rather than whether or not we leave.  And even if it were to be on the principle, does anyone believe that the parliamentary majority in favour of staying would actually vote according to their consciences?
Overall, the speech has left me upbeat and optimistic.  In mayspeak terms, anyway.

Tuesday 17 January 2017

It's all about trust

The buffoon and his nemesis have both recently returned from their pilgrimages to the great man and his team in New York, although only the nemesis actually got to talk to him, and then only by pretending to be a reporter rather than the full-time politician as which we pay him handsomely.  Both bring similar glad tidings from the mountain, although not only is this particular message not written in tablets of stone, it doesn’t appear to be actually written on anything. 
Still, they’ve heard the message and we just have to trust them to have both understood the mind of the great man and interpreted it correctly.  And we must believe that the great man has a settled opinion, uniquely, on this one particular issue, despite having reversed or revised his opinion on almost everything else. 
He wants to do a deal on free trade with the UK, we’re told, and he wants to do it quickly.  They also want us to believe that there’s no scintilla of inconsistency between his desire to rip up the US’s existing free trade deals and his intention to negotiate a new one specifically with the UK.  In fairness to both the buffoon and his nemesis, I can see that that would make eminent sense to them.  After all, they see no inconsistency between ripping up the UK’s free trade deal with its 27 neighbours and starting again with everyone else; why should the US be any different?
The detail of the proposed new detail is conspicuous by its absence.  But again, for people who can tell us little more than that Brexit means Brexit, why would the mere absence of detail be any sort of problem?  We can trust Trump and the US more than we can trust those pesky Europeans that we’ve been trying to deal with for the last four decades, because the US is special (although not quite as special as ‘us’, obviously), and according to the Prime Minister last week they even share our values (do try and keep up – those are the uniquely British values that she was talking about the previous week).
The future is safe as long as we trust Boris, Gove and Trump.  No problem there, then.

Monday 16 January 2017

Trading freely

The UK Government’s approach to Brexit is at last slowly being spelled out.  The objective is for the UK to once again take its rightful place ruling the waves at the heart of the world’s trade network, in free trade arrangements with all countries across the whole globe and being subject only to rules made in the sovereign parliament of these islands, and not to any other jurisdiction, especially if there are any foreigners involved. 
The strategy for achieving this is firstly to remove the UK from the world’s largest and most successful free trade area sitting on our doorstep, with which we conduct around half our trade, and subsequently negotiate free trade arrangements on a bilateral basis with a host of other countries further away. 
It’s certainly an ‘interesting’ approach, but it’s being driven by an absolute determination to do something called ‘controlling our borders’ which apparently means that foreigners will not be allowed in, unless they’re doctors, nurses, bankers, plumbers, builders, fruit pickers, or in any other way essential for the UK economy.  But ‘we’ will have control.  Honest.
In other news, the minister for exiting the EU, David Davis, writing in the Sunday Times, has said that “It is absolutely in our interest that the EU succeeds”.  It turns out that the EU is a damned fine idea after all for those European chappies; just not for we British.  And we don’t want it to fail at all. 
It’s funny though – I must have imagined all those stories before and since the referendum when the Brexiteers told us that the EU was a failing project which was going to fall apart anyway, let alone those stories which had Brexiteers rubbing their hands with glee at the thought that other countries would follow the UK’s example and hold their own exit referendums.  Like this one for instance by someone called David Davis who described the EU as “a crumbling relic from a gloomy past”.  I wonder what became of him?

Friday 13 January 2017

Borrowing from Peter to pay Paul

We can’t go on borrowing indefinitely, according to the Labour-Tory austerity mantra, and we need to reduce the national debt.  One of the ways in which that is to be achieved is by getting private companies, or other countries, to fund infrastructure projects, because, of course, they have the money sitting in their piggy banks and don’t need to depend on borrowing.  Or do they?
I’m far from being a fan of the Wylfa Newydd project in any event, but I noticed recently that there’s something curious about the way in which it’s being funded, when compared with the mantra referred to above.  According to press reports, up to £12 billion of the construction cost will be funded by the Japanese government.  So where, exactly, will the Japanese government find such a sum of money?
According to this list, the country with the largest public debt as a percentage of GDP is … Japan.  (The link shows several different ways of assessing the level of debt – I’ve used the column showing the average of CIA and IMF data.  Using one of the measures, the first and second positions of Japan and Greece are reversed, but the basic point still holds.)  So a country which has a debt ratio of 90% of GDP (the UK) cannot afford to borrow more to fund its infrastructure development, but it will instead rely on another country whose ratio is 174% (Japan) to fund that development.  By borrowing the money, of course.
Borrowing is fine, apparently, as long as someone else is doing it.  It only brings about the end of civilisation as we know it when the UK borrows money.  And that brings me back to a common theme on this blog – the decision as to whether a government should borrow or not owes more to ideology than to economics.

Thursday 12 January 2017

Progressive access to privileges

I’m not sure that anyone knows any more what Labour’s position is as a party on immigration and freedom of movement.  It’s one of the few things on which Corbyn has actually been fairly clear and consistent; his argument that treating it as a numbers game is a silly approach is one with which I concur.  I also agree with him that tackling the way in which unscrupulous employers exploit migrants, and find ways of paying them less than the minimum wage would be likely to reduce immigration numbers in itself.  (Although I disagree with his apparent belief that controlling numbers of immigrants is a reason for doing that – I think ending exploitation is a sufficient justification in itself.)
But he’s regularly being undermined by Labour MPs who are so afraid of losing votes and seats that they are using UKIP language and policies themselves.  And as we’ve seen this week, some are desperately keen to ‘bounce’ him into changing his position.  In the process, of course, they strengthen the narrative that immigration ‘needs’ to be controlled.  But what has struck me is the extent to which Corbyn’s almost honourable stance on the issue has been described as vague and unclear, because he refuses to say what he will do to reduce immigration as a result of rejecting the whole premise of the question. 
It’s a classic example of the Overton window in operation, and the media – including the so-called impartial BBC – are restricting debate to a narrow band rather than accepting that there are opinions which lie outside it.  So, as far as those questioning Corbyn are concerned, immigration is a problem, it needs to be reduced and because he won’t say how or by how many he will reduce it, he’s being vague or evasive.  It isn’t that Corbyn hasn’t tried very hard to be clear and consistent; it’s rather that his views don’t fall within the narrow window in which debate is currently ‘allowed’ to take place. 
I’m sure that the UKIP/Tory/Labour mainstream/media consensus is more than happy to exclude any views which don’t fit their own preconceptions, but it doesn’t make for a debate in which the question is properly and rationally considered.  If only those who agree that immigration is a problem are to be given any credibility, no real alternatives will ever be heard.  And that, in turn, strengthens the boundaries of the window.  No surprise that immigration ends up being seen as a ‘problem’ even where in those areas where there is none.
Sticking with the Labour Party and immigration, I was well and truly gobsmacked listening to Kinnock Junior pontificating on the matter on the BBC on Tuesday.  He sat there, as a representative of the Labour Party – the self-proclaimed party of working people - arguing for a two-tier approach to the issue under which the high-paid would have complete freedom of movement whilst the lower orders would be subject to restrictions and quotas.  When Nye Bevan said that nothing was too good for the working class, he didn’t add a list of exceptions, or talk about a two-tier system of access to privileges; but his successors clearly believe that there are some things to which mere oiks should not aspire.  Still, it’s a timely reminder to those who keep banging on about a ‘progressive’ alliance of just what ‘progressive’ means to the twenty-first century Labour Party.

Wednesday 11 January 2017

Overseas aid isn't the problem

The UK has a relatively large budget for foreign aid compared to other countries (although still not large enough), and it should surprise no-one that not all of it is particularly well-spent.  Last week’s story about an Ethiopian girl band allegedly receiving a sum of £5.2 million for their “branded media platform” was a case in point.  I’m not sure that we’ve been given all the details here, but even taking the story at face value, it does little more than underline the fact that any detailed analysis of how money is spent would throw up apparently unjustifiable examples. 
Part of the problem with the aid budget is that those running aid programmes have a strange desire to receive proper credit for the aid given – they prefer to give the money to something on which they can then stick a Union Jack so that people know where the money has come from.  And if there’s a photo-op for a politician as well, then all the better.  A girl band ticks the right boxes.  It’s not dissimilar to the Welsh Government’s approach to projects which it funds – they have the same preference for projects which can be badged and used for ministerial PR.  The result, in both cases, can be that the visibility of the expenditure is more important to the politicians than ensuring that the money goes where it’s most needed.
But accepting that the aid is not always being spent in the best or most effective way is an argument for better control and targeting, not for a reduction in the amount being spent.  The fact that a girl band may not need £5.2 million doesn’t mean that people in Ethiopia don’t need that £5.2 million.  And it certainly isn’t any sort of excuse for the argument being put forward by some of those drawing attention to this sort of spending that we need the money more in the UK.
In this specific case, we had some Tory MPs arguing that the money should instead be spent on “funding adult social care in the UK”.  It’s an utterly false choice.  It isn’t just Tory MPs, of course – how often have we all heard the line about ‘charity starts at home’, or ‘why are we sending money abroad when there’s so much poverty at home?’.  Just scan the letters columns of any daily newspaper over a period.  But is inadequate funding for adult social care really the direct result of the way the UK spends its foreign aid budget?
At its basest, this attitude is based on an assumption that we can’t tackle poverty in the UK (or fund mental health or social care - insert here any pet project of your choice) because we’re spending our money on foreign aid instead.  And the ‘conclusion’ which is drawn from that is that the way to help the poor is by taking aid away from the even poorer.  There is a massive level of inequality in the UK but, according to this view of the world, what keeps people in their current state isn’t that the richest in our society are accumulating an ever greater share of total wealth, it is that a tiny proportion (0.7%) of UK GDP is spent on overseas aid, and an even tinier proportion of that might be being misspent.  And of course it has nothing to do with decisions to spend money on other things within the UK (such as a new laser weapon system, with a price tag of £30 million – it makes that £5.2 million look like a very wise investment).  One has only to put it in those terms to see the complete fallacy of the argument.
So how do they get away with it?  Why is it that people are so ready to believe that the problem isn’t with the richest siphoning off the country’s wealth, but with the attempt to provide a minimum of assistance to the world’s poorest?  Perhaps we should start by asking ourselves who controls the content and direction of public debate - and whose interests are served by convincing the poor that the problem is the even poorer.

Tuesday 10 January 2017

Choosing the right scenario

The headline in yesterday’s Western Mail was about a report from a think tank claiming that there is little to fear from a so-called ‘hard’ Brexit.  It reminded me of two thirds of the oath required before giving evidence in a court – it looks like the truth, and nothing but the truth, but not exactly the whole truth.
On the basis of an assessment of the likely impact of tariffs in the event of no deal on free trade, the report concludes that the Treasury will actually collect more than it will have to pay out – some £12.7 billion compared to £8.8 billion.  I haven’t gone through the detail of the calculation, but I see no obvious reason to dispute the figures.  The problem that I do see with them, though, is that they assume that we continue to buy and sell the same products and services to and from the EU27, and apply the likely tariffs to that trade.
In reality, exiting the single market is likely to change the nature of the trade between the UK and the EU27, and to do so significantly.  Whether it does so in ways which are damaging to the UK economy or in ways which benefit the UK economy is harder to judge.  I tend to suspect the former is more likely in the short to medium term, but I accept that the effects may be mitigated in the longer term by trade with other countries outside the EU if the more optimistic projections of the Brexiteers are to be believed.  (If they were honest, they could legitimately describe it as a gamble on short term pain for the possibility of long term gain; but instead they’ve been relentlessly and unrealistically optimistic and dishonest in trying to pretend that everyone will gain immediately, rather than accepting that there are going to be some losers, in the short term at least.)
There are a number of reasons why I tend to believe that the former scenario is more likely.  One of them, just as an example, is EU rules on tendering for work.  Under those rules, for contracts of a specified size, public sector purchasers are obliged to give fair and equal consideration to any tenders received from anywhere within the single market.  It’s part of what makes it a single market.  However, there is no such obligation for tenders received from a country outside the single market, with such tenders subject to additional tariffs as well.  That does not, of course, mean that UK companies cannot or would not tender for such contracts, but it does raise a question about the likelihood of success for such tenders.  And, in the same way, it might well mean that UK-based tenderers win more contracts in the UK if EU competitors’ bids are subject to tariffs.  On the basis of that, and other, factors, it is surely valid at least to question the assumption that the pattern of trade would remain unaltered.
The report also suggests other ways in which the UK could take action to mitigate the impact, once it is free of EU rules.  One of those is that: “Freed from the EU rules on state aid, the UK will be able to operate a more extensive regional aid programme.”  Again, that’s entirely true, and the argument was a regular feature of the Brexit campaign.  The problem, though, is that there is a not insignificant difference between “will be able to operate” and the much shorter “will operate”
Of course, it’s not down to the think tank to set UK policy in this area, they can only suggest.  But given the history of UK regional policy, I’m far from being alone in my scepticism as to whether any conceivable UK Government would actually implement such an approach.  And they do have, as ‘cover’ as it were, the fact that in rejecting the EU, the UK (and Welsh) electorate have implicitly rejected the concept that richer parts of the union should contribute to the development of the poorer parts.  Isn’t that a major part of that elusive £350 million per week that ‘we’ (i.e. the UK Treasury) were allegedly going to get back?
So, the report gives one view on the results of Brexit, but it is just that, one view.  As the Western Mail’s reporting demonstrated (by quoting a Welsh government spokesperson and Andrew RT Davies), its findings will be rejected by those who believe that full access to the market is the best outcome, and revered by those who are looking for some level of backing for their belief that the EU has more to lose than the UK does, who, despite Gove’s infamous comment, are quite happy to quote any ‘expert’ who will give them the answer that they want to hear.

Monday 9 January 2017

Serving whose interests?

Our First Minister seems to have had a nice little jaunt to Norway to see how they cope with being outside the EU but inside the Single Market.  A small oil-rich country on the fringes of the EU sounds almost similar to Wales – apart from the ‘oil-rich’ bit, which is pretty central to Norway’s economic success and is economically more important than any apparent similarities.  Oh, and the bulk of their exports to the EU consist of oil and gas delivered through pipelines rather than goods which need to be physically checked to ascertain their true origin.  Whatever, the basic model of being in the Single Market but outside the EU is certainly one deserving of some consideration, even if not immediately obviously relevant to Wales.
The response of the Tories’ leader in Wales was entirely predictable: Norway might be interesting, but what we need to concentrate on is a uniquely British solution, a unique relationship with the other EU countries of a type which no-one else enjoys.  The implication is clearly that it will be not only unique, but ‘better’ - after all, if an existing model was considered good enough, it would be a lot quicker and simpler to replicate that than to create an entirely new model.  It might even be achievable within the fabled two year timetable.
The other 27 will give the UK that unique and better deal, because …?  Well, because they’re all foreigners and the UK is unique and special.  Obviously.  And of course, countries such as Norway which have already negotiated deals will be more than happy for the UK to come along and get a better deal, because …?  Well, because they’re foreigners, not special and unique like the British, and they know their place.  Again, obviously.
I was disappointed, but not surprised, at the First Minister’s reference to retaining freedom of movement, but only to go to a pre-identified job.  (And sadly, Plaid has been making very similar noises.)  It’s as though they see freedom of movement as something which applies only to other people, forgetting – or more likely deliberately ignoring – the probable reciprocity of any such arrangement.  But in the real world constraints on ‘them’ coming ‘here’ also mean that the same constraints will apply to ‘us’ going ‘there’. 
So, in effect, politicians talking about limiting freedom of movement, in the case of nationals of other EU states, to those who have jobs to come to are also telling us that our own freedom of movement should be limited to that which primarily serves the interests of capital and employers rather than being considered as a right of ordinary people.  Yet still they claim to be ‘internationalists’, ‘socialists’, and ‘progressives’.  Their definitions of those words seem to owe more to Orwell than to Marx.

Friday 6 January 2017

Is it me?

President-elect Trump’s threats to Mexico and Canada – the only two countries with which the US shares a land border – that he will scrap the free trade agreements and impose heavy import duties is entirely consistent with the line he was taking throughout the election campaign.  His protectionist, America First viewpoint has been clearly stated.  Trade agreements will only be honoured – let alone negotiated – if they serve the interests of the USA at the expense of other parties.  He’s left little room for doubt over his approach. 
What I don’t understand is why so many Brexiteers are blithely assuming that he’ll be desperately keen to negotiate a free trade agreement with a country thousands of miles away when he’s planning to tear up such agreements with close neighbours.
Am I missing something?

Thursday 5 January 2017

Let's just appoint a few flat-earthers

I’m not sure that the now former UK Ambassador to the EU is as entirely blameless as some have painted him: the route by which his advice to the Government about the length of time it would take to negotiate Brexit (as well as his subsequent resignation e-mail) reached the media has yet to be fully explained.  It’s entirely proper for diplomats to provide their best and most honest advice to governments; it’s rather less normal to make that advice public.
But there is another norm here as well - it has long been accepted (perhaps it’s one of those strange ‘British values’ that they keep telling us about) that senior civil servants are appointed for their ability to represent the government of the day impartially, and not on the basis of their political views.  I’ve noted before that I can see an argument for taking a different approach to the appointment of ambassadors, where an ability to represent accurately and sincerely the views of the government of the day is an important attribute.  If the Brexiteers were to start making that argument in a general sense, then I’d have some sympathy with their viewpoint. 
They’re not doing that, though; they are selecting one particular job and demanding that the person appointed must share their simplistic world view.  I suppose that dealing with matters on a case-by-case basis rather than developing a general policy is standard UK practice, but it doesn’t make for consistency or clarity.  And given the nature of the demands being expressed by some, it doesn’t make for getting the best people into the jobs either. 
John Redwood – ah, there’s a name that brings back memories – argued yesterday (just before the new appointee was named) that the new ambassador should be someone who thinks that Brexit is ‘straightforward’.  Now, there do seem to be a lot of those to choose from, but given the complexities already identified, I wouldn’t want to put anyone with such a simplistic viewpoint anywhere near the negotiations, purely on the pragmatic basis that they’re unlikely to understand most of what’s being discussed.
The Brexiteers’ approach to negotiation seems to be falling increasingly into the traditional British way of dealing with foreigners – speak to them slowly and loudly until they do what we want.  The strange thing, to me, is that they seriously seem to believe that it will work.

Wednesday 4 January 2017

One small word

Given the extent to which the same words can be interpreted to mean entirely different things, the success with which humans communicate is often amazing.  Take the word ‘can’, for instance.  This week, the question was asked as to whether Labour ‘can’ win the next UK general election.  It produced different answers from different people, but it seems to me that they’re actually based on rather different interpretations of the question.
On the one hand, those who argue that, ‘of course Labour can win’, are responding to a very literal definition of the word ‘can’.  And based on that literal definition, I agree with them.  Given the right conditions, the right campaign, at least a display of unity, and enough Brexit chaos in Tory ranks, it is certainly a possibility that Labour 'can' win a majority in 2020.
But I don’t think that was quite the question that the Fabian Society was asking in its report.  I think that they were looking less at an outcome based on getting a whole series of hypothetical ducks in a row, and more at the probability of getting from where things are now to a particular outcome in 3 years’ time.  And, for what it’s worth, I tend to support their conclusion that the probability is close to zero.
However, that clear difference in interpretation and understanding of the question is one of the reasons why the party will do nothing to avert the result being foreseen by the Fabian Society’s report.  As long as a sufficient number of them believe that they can win, their ‘strategy’ (and I use the term loosely here) will be to carry on regardless.  It isn’t the only reason for their rejection of electoral alliances, though.
It’s easy to see the potential advantages, to any party, of an electoral alliance where opponents stand aside and give that party a clear run (although I personally remain highly sceptical of the extent to which supporters of one party can be depended upon to vote for another party just because the leadership tells them to do so).  What’s rather less clear is the advantage to the party standing aside under any such deal.
I don’t think that the maths work terribly well either.  There are some seats in which the Lib Dems might be the front-runner in any challenge to the Tories, but there are no seats, anywhere in the UK, where it would make sense for Labour to stand aside for the Green Party for instance.  And In Wales, there are no Tory-held seats where Plaid is the front-runner amongst the opposition.  So the sort of deal being discussed is one in which Labour would actually only need to stand aside in a few Tory seats where the Lib Dems are the challengers, whereas the Green Party, Plaid, and the Lib Dems would be expected to stand aside in large numbers of seats in favour of Labour. 
Not surprisingly for a report emanating from within the Labour Party, such a scenario is overwhelmingly favourable to Labour – improving their chances of taking seats from the Tories at the expense of standing aside in a few seats where they wouldn’t expect to win anyway.  And still they line up to reject it.
And that brings me back to the point here.  What is being floated is an electoral alliance which owes more to a negative view of the Tories than a positive vision for a different future.  Labour’s only currency is that they aren’t the Tories; many of their policies aren’t actually that different.  A Labour government would still renew Trident, to select just one example, even if it were elected with the support of anti-Trident parties – they know that they’d be able to rely on their true friends in the Tory party to get that through Parliament.  As a voter, I couldn’t vote for such an alliance purely to replace one party with another – I need a better reason.
There is one reason – and only one reason – that I can think of which would lead me to support a cross-party electoral alliance for one single election, and that is electoral reform.  Ending the way in which one party (currently the Tories) can exercise absolute power on the basis of minority support is a prize worth paying a price for in the short term.  I don’t think it’s going to happen, though.  As long as the two main parties continue to believe that they ‘can’ (back to that word again) win an outright majority under the present system, they will not support change.  Absolute power is their whole rationale.  And that, ultimately, is the significance of their rejection of the report from the Fabians.

Tuesday 3 January 2017

Devoid of meaning

I could understand, up to a point, that the shock of suddenly finding herself resident in 10 Downing Street led the new Prime Minister to come out with a few meaningless phrases, such as the now infamous “Brexit means Brexit”.  There was no obvious reason why she should have been any more prepared for the wholly unexpected result than anyone else, and yet she was expected to say something.  Buying time by saying nothing much was an obvious option; but vacuity can only carry someone so far - the point arrives when something a bit more substantial is required.
Perhaps the extent to which that initial three word sentence has been repeated has led her to believe that being vacuous ‘works’ in some sense, because it has been followed by equally silly statements such as the one about a “red, white and blue Brexit”.  She may even think that she’s being gnomic, but sooner or later surely she must be challenged much harder about what the words she uses actually mean – if they have any meaning at all.
I can also understand her trying to call for unity in her New Year message – but that isn’t quite what she did.  Instead, she claimed that we are all already united, in a fashion which assumes that those of us who think that a wrong decision has been taken have already accepted defeat and are becoming enthusiastic proponents of that which we previously opposed.  It’s clearly at odds with the facts – but then, people like her no longer seem to worry about mere facts.
She claimed that she will be “there to get the right deal not just for those who voted to leave, but for every single person in this country”.  That works as a sound bite, and even sounds very noble, but it’s not only meaningless in practice, it’s an impossible thing to achieve.  The very nature of the change in front of us is that there will be winners and losers – that is an inevitable consequence of change.  If she’d referred to the majority, it might just have been credible, but ‘every single person’?  No chance – it’s as meaningless a phrase as much of the rest of what she has said so far.
On the other hand, perhaps she’ll get away with it; meaninglessness seems to be the new meaning.

Monday 2 January 2017

Only dabbling

Entrepreneurship is one of those things which are generally felt to be axiomatically ‘good’, and young people in universities and even in schools are encouraged to think about establishing their own businesses.  Whilst it’s true that successful businesses are an asset to the community and provide jobs, I’ve often wondered whether it’s really such a good idea to encourage everyone to think that they can be entrepreneurs.  Part of the problem is that we tend to read and hear only about the successes, but many, many entrepreneurs fail; and even some of the most successful have been through multiple failures before hitting the jackpot.
There is also a tendency to understate the element of luck involved in the process; conventional thinking praises the acumen of the successful and assumes that failure is down to the lack thereof in others, but in reality, that ‘acumen’ thing is far from being the only factor – and may not even be the most important.  We find it hard to cope with that though in a paradigm which is based on an assumption that individuals have a great deal more control than is actually the case.
Another aspect which concerns me is that the line between ‘entrepreneurship’ and crime is sometimes a fine one.  Some entrepreneurs sail very close to the wind when it comes to obeying regulations and laws; and some even seem to think that they have no moral obligation other than to obey the letter of the law.  If the law doesn’t specifically forbid something, that makes it acceptable. 
There are plenty of examples of ‘successful’ entrepreneurs whose business practices have later been revealed to be, shall we say, ‘dodgy’?  One obvious name which springs to mind is Sir Philip Green - wasn’t he praised for years as a successful entrepreneur?
But a report in the Business section of yesterday’s Sunday Times took the biscuit in this regard (sadly it’s behind a paywall).  It referred to a plan by Arron Banks, who bankrolled Nigel Farage’s Brexit campaign, to float his business on the stock market for £250million. One paragraph read as follows:
“Banks has claimed that his first dabblings with entrepreneurship came during his school days; he was expelled after being caught selling lead stolen from the roofs of school buildings.”
Perhaps I’m just a bit old-fashioned, but the term I use for selling stolen goods isn’t ‘entrepreneurship’, it’s ‘crime’.  Still, as a “close ally of Farage” and a man who “has forged ties with Donald Trump” (a man whose own business dealings have come under a degree of 'scrutiny', to say the least), and was pictured with the president-elect the day after his election victory, his “early dabblings” don’t seem to have done him any harm.  Such is the power of the word ‘entrepreneur’.