Saturday 29 April 2017

Failing the Turing Test

For almost 70 years, the touchstone of researchers in the field of artificial intelligence has been the Turing Test.  Devised by Alan Turing in 1950, the essence of the idea is that if a human can’t tell whether a particular conversation is with a human or a machine, then the machine passes the test and can be considered intelligent.  It strikes me, though, that there’s a problem with this approach – what happens if an entity which in most other respects appears to be human fails the test?  Should we conclude that we are not dealing with a human at all, but with a machine?
This question came to the fore a few days ago, during an interview which Theresa May did on Radio Derby.  When asked whether she knew what a mugwump was – trust Boris to have put her on the spot again – her response was “What I recognise is that what we need in this country is strong and stable leadership”.  Now had any competent AI researcher been holding this conversation with an unknown entity, that entity would have been immediately identified as a computer; the researcher would have to record a ‘fail’ and note that no intelligence had been detected.  Even the most basic of AI programmes would have come up with a better answer than that.
So is she human or a machine?  And how can we ever be certain?

Friday 28 April 2017

Winning by accident?

It’s getting harder to know what exactly the Tories can do to lose the election.  So far they’ve tried:
·         Threatening to increase taxes,
·         Taking away the pensions guarantee, against the perceived interests of one of their most loyal groups of voters,
·         Refusing to debate with Jeremy Corbyn, despite the popular demand for such debates,
·         Transparently refusing to answer any question other than by repeating a mantra including the words strong and stable,
·         Resorting to personal insult rather than debating policy,
·         Threatening military action against Syria in defiance of a specific House of Commons vote not to do so, and
·         Keeping open the option of starting World War 3 by resorting to first use of nuclear weapons
It’s a context in which even May’s talk of leading the world in preventing tourism starts to look like a genuine promise rather than a slip of the tongue.  Why not take people’s holidays away as well? 
I’m beginning to wonder whether they actually want to lose, and have a back room full of people trying to come up with the most outrageous policy suggestions in the hope that one of them will, eventually, turn people against the Tories and get them off the Brexit petard on which they’ve managed to hoist themselves.  So far, none of it seems to be working.  Perhaps they’ll really start eating babies next – or perhaps I shouldn’t start giving them ideas.
It says something about the state of politics in the UK that a party can do all of the above and still be so far ahead in the polls.  There is, of course, a core vote for all parties; people who will vote for ‘their’ party come hell or high water.  For that group, it really doesn’t matter what they say or do – maybe even eating babies.  And the polls suggest that Labour might, just about, be down to the level of their core vote.  But the polls also suggest that the Tories are running well ahead of their core vote; they are continuing to attract support in large measure from people who are not ‘natural’ or ‘perpetual’ Tories.
In theory, this latter group can be swayed between parties on the basis of promises, policies, and perceptions.  Yet faced with a choice between a Prime Minister who is unable or unwilling to debate or answer a single question and presenting that as being somehow ‘strong’, and a main opponent who is able to give what are often popular and common sense answers to complex questions and issues, that group are, currently at least, stubbornly standing by their woman.  So, what exactly does it take for the Tories to lose?

Thursday 27 April 2017

Aiding and abetting

At every election the idea of a ‘progressive alliance’ raises its ugly head once more - this time, given the Tories’ headlong rush towards ever more extreme positions and the Labour Party’s total incoherence, with a little more urgency than usual.  Whilst it appears likely that this time round there may be a small number of informal local ‘understandings’ rather than pacts, as a general approach it is doomed to failure.
One of the reasons for that is that there isn’t a single simple agreed definition of ‘progressive’, nor is there agreement about to whom the adjective can legitimately be applied.  Merely being anti-Tory isn’t enough – and rightly so; if progressive means anything it’s surely more about what people are for, not what they’re against.
As we saw last week, that isn’t a problem for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party.  They have a single simple definition and they know how to apply it in order to reject co-operation with anyone else.  For them, Labour Party = Progressive, Everyone else = Not Progressive.  From that starting point, the only thing you need to know about anyone is whether they’re a member of the Labour Party; once you know that, you know whether they’re ‘progressive’ or not.  So, to choose just one example, pro-Trident, pro-Brexit members of the Labour Party are officially progressive; anti-Trident anti-Brexit members of the SNP are not.
It simply doesn’t matter what policies people support, what they think, or what they do, and it doesn’t matter about the detail of any programme for government – membership of Labour is all it takes to determine the whole question.  For those of us who prefer a more nuanced approach, it’s a pretty good reason in itself (although I can certainly add plenty of others looking at their policies) for concluding that the Labour Party should never be dignified with the label ‘progressive’.  So why do so many independentistas cling to the notion that Labour should be assisted (or ‘aided and abetted’ as I’d prefer to call it)?

Wednesday 26 April 2017

Following the money

When I read in the Sunday Times that the Brexit campaign was largely funded by the wealthiest people in the UK but that the fifth largest financial backer of the Brexit campaign was a hedge fund manager whose fund had lost half its value during 2016 following Brexit, my first reaction was that there is such a thing as karma after all.  But then I looked at the detail…
According to the story, one of the reasons that the fund lost half its value was that it took excessively gloomy positions about the immediate impact of Brexit on the UK economy.  This story from the Independent provides more details of the way in which the fund concerned bet on Brexit being a bad thing for the UK economy.  The hedge fund manager predicted that UK stocks would lose up to 80 per cent of their value amid a recession and higher inflation following Brexit, and bet heavily on that outcome. 
Had he been right in his prediction, he would have made a lot of money for his fund as the UK economy tanked.  Unfortunately for him (although, perhaps, fortunately for the rest of us), the Brexit vote itself did not have as serious an effect as he predicted (although whether actual Brexit, if or when it happens, will let us off so lightly has yet to be seen), and the result was that the fund gained heavily in the first few days when it appeared that the predictions might be right, but then went on to lose a great deal of money.
So, to summarise, a billionaire who believed that Brexit would be extremely damaging to the UK economy nevertheless donated more than £870,000 to achieving precisely that outcome; an outcome from which, had he been right, he stood to earn a very large profit.  Am I the only one who wonders whether there might just be something wrong with a political system under which this can happen?

Tuesday 25 April 2017

Beware unstable coalitions

The Prime Minister is visiting Wales today, and is delivering a stern warning about the dangers of “an unstable coalition of nationalists”.  I think she’s absolutely right on that; being governed by such a coalition is a recipe for disaster.  The difference between us is that I think that the phrase “unstable coalition of nationalists” is a near-perfect description of her Conservative Party. 
Their nationalism, of the worst kind, is becoming increasingly and stridently obvious in the tone she and other members of her party are adopting.  It’s not just the primacy of immigration policy regardless of economic consequences, although that’s bad enough.  It’s also the way in which our future over the next few years is increasingly being defined in terms of the UK standing up to the rest of Europe.  It seems designed to evoke memories of the wars of the past.  Just take this phrase from her article in the Western Mail “as 27 other European countries line up to oppose us”.  This is not the language of friendship or co-operation; it is the language of naked nationalism.  It’s hard to believe that anyone talking like this ever believed in the idea of European co-operation.
And the instability of the nationalist coalition which is the defining feature of the Conservative Party under her leadership is at the heart of the fact we are having an early election.  It isn’t, and never was, the opposition parties, whether Labour or independentistas, which threatened to derail or undermine her negotiations over Brexit – she has had no difficulty to date in getting her way in parliament with the aid of a clueless Labour Party.  No, any threat to her majority comes from dissident Tories, and the election is aimed at neutralising that threat.  With the need for rapid candidate selection, she has given herself an almost unparalleled opportunity to influence the nature of the new Tory intake which she is expecting, and ensure that they will be more loyal to her.
Particularly in the light of yesterday’s opinion polls, I hope that people in Wales will think very carefully and take note of her warning.  Helping the Prime Minister crush her internal opposition is neither the only way, nor the best way, of getting rid of the current unstable coalition of nationalists which is governing the UK.

Monday 24 April 2017

Setting the wrong specification

It is already clear that a major part of the Tory election platform will be to compare and contrast May and Corbyn, in the belief that May will come out better.  And I suppose it’s a fair tactic, even if strictly speaking most of the electorate can’t vote directly for either of the two individuals.  Assessing which of the two best meets the perceived person specification for the top job is a fair question to be asking.  The more important question, though, is who decides what that person specification is?
The Tories and their allies in the press and media are in no doubt at all: they will set the specification, and the rest of us will be expected to make the assessment on the basis of the specification which they set.  From the interview which Corbyn did yesterday, it appears that two of the most important attributes for any Prime Minister of the UK according to the specification with which we are being presented are a willingness to annihilate millions of men women and children in a revenge attack, and an enthusiasm for extra-judicial killing of perceived enemies.  In both cases, the only acceptable answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’; anything else can and will be used to suggest weakness, and the idea that any PM should want to consider the detail of the situation at the time is to be officially regarded as risible.
I almost feel sorry for Corbyn that an intelligent and reasoned response to such a black and white question is being interpreted as unsuitability for the job; for me, a willingness to declare in advance that death and destruction will be unleashed whatever the circumstances makes a person far less suited to the job.  But only ‘almost’ feel sorry – because for decades, the Labour Party’s leaders have been part of the consensus which has narrowed the acceptable range of responses to one.  The Labour Party has collaborated in setting the person specification in such a way that their own leader is now regarded – even by most Labour MPs – as being unsuitable for the job.

Friday 21 April 2017

It's not really all about Prosecco

There are a lot of international agencies of various sorts across the world, and they all need to have their headquarters somewhere.  Not all of them are related to membership of the EU, but I’m struggling to think of a single one either in or out of the EU which ever has, or ever would, site or retain its headquarters in a country which decided that it no longer wished to be a member of the relevant organisation, use its services, or follow its rules.  And that strikes me as a perfectly reasonable approach.  But then, I’m not a deluded Brexiteer.
Faced with the UK’s imminent departure from membership, the EU is quite naturally considering where to relocate two key agencies both of which are currently based in London.  However, the UK’s delusionist-in-chief, David Davis, says he can see no reason why the agencies cannot stay in London after Brexit, a position which has, unsurprisingly, led to a degree of astonishment in the other 27 EU capitals. 
That which appears logical and straightforward to any rational observer is, for him, merely a point for negotiation – along with all the other things that he and his colleagues continue to argue, in the face of all the evidence to the contrary, are negotiable options for the future.  The basis for this belief is largely based, apparently, on exaggerated perceptions such as how much Prosecco gets drunk in the UK and how vital we are to the other economies of the EU as a result.  But the underlying rationale always seems to be implicitly based on ‘because UK’; and the question of the EU agencies is yet another example of the exceptionalism and sense of entitlement which pervades the corridors of the imperial capital.
But Davis isn’t the only one for whom logic doesn’t enter into the equation.  As this story indicates, some angry Brexit voters are seeing the removal of these agencies as ‘evidence’ that the EU is punishing the UK, and therefore confirmation that leaving the EU is the right thing to do.  It’s an example of the sort of confirmation bias from which we can all suffer at times, but it serves to underline the fact that there are some who will see any and every piece of evidence as either backing up their views or else being a lie.  It makes rational argument more than a little difficult.

Thursday 20 April 2017

Searching for the silver lining

It has long struck me as a strange sort of democracy which gives the incumbent Prime Minister the right to choose the timing of the next election in a way which favours his or her party interest rather than being subject to a pre-set timetable.  The act decreeing that parliaments should be for a fixed term may have been the pragmatic product of a grubby coalition deal in which the Lib Dems appeared to be gaining something in terms of their longer term constitutional agenda, but it did nevertheless appear to put an end to what would be regarded as a very dodgy practice in most of the world.
‘Appear’ turns out to be the operative word, however.  The act left a get-out clause allowing the Prime Minister to propose to parliament that it should dissolve itself.  Now it should be fairly obvious that no Prime Minister is going to use that clause unless he or she sees advantage in doing so; and that’s why the two-thirds majority required is of all MP’s, not just those voting.  So unless the government of the day has the sort of overwhelming majority which might just result from this cynical act, an opposition has only to sit on its hands for the proposal to fail.  Had the Labour Party followed the example of the SNP, there would have been no early election unless the Prime Minister decided to propose a vote of no confidence in her own government, a spectacle which many of us might rather have enjoyed.
The act was supposed to provide protection against precisely that which it has now facilitated.  It has turned out to be meaningless in practice – another much-vaunted Lib Dem ‘gain’ from coalition which is worthless in reality.  And the cause of that comes right back to the confrontational and superficial nature of UK politics.  The main opposition party is so much more afraid of being seen to be afraid than it is of being annihilated that it has voted, more or less en bloc, for getting itself culled and for handing power to the Tories for decades to come.  Yes, of course, the right wing press would have pilloried them if they had not supported calling an election; but they were going to find other issues on which to do that anyway.  And they are going to do precisely that mercilessly over the next 7 weeks.
We can be certain that the main thing we will hear from Labour over the coming weeks is that we need to protect services from the Tories.  But allowing the Tories to call an election at a time of their own choosing, when all the indications are that the result will be a much bigger majority for the Tories, is a very strange way of providing greater protection for anyone.  If the outcome is as currently appears probable, the Labour Party will have succeeded, wholly unnecessarily, in making itself irrelevant for the next decade or two.  It is not inconceivable that it could even end up with less than half the seats in Wales.
The polls could all be wrong, of course.  Corbyn could yet succeed in making his case with the public as effectively as he did with his party’s membership in two leadership elections.  And May has managed to make herself look shifty and untrustworthy by saying one thing and then reversing her position on a range of issues.  Perhaps I’m being unduly pessimistic about the probable outcome for Englandandwales - or perhaps I should just focus my mind on the probable advantage for the cause of the independentistas in Scotland.  There has to be a silver lining somewhere in all this.

Wednesday 19 April 2017

Serving whose interests?

The complexities of Brexit negotiations are enormous, and the available time tightly limited.  As plenty have already noted, the theoretical 24 months reduces to 18 when we take out the necessary time for all the relevant governments and bodies to debate and approve any package.  What better way could there be to start that narrow 18 month window by taking 2 months out to fight a general election?  The logic is impeccable to all residents of planet Zog, who obviously understand these things better than I.
The claim is that this election is necessary because all of those horrid non-Tory MPs are failing to vote in accordance with the Tory whip, and some of them are even daring to pretend to oppose the government.  I know that it’s dangerous to take anything said by any politician at face value, but just suppose for a moment that she actually believes it to be true that the people of the UK are uniting behind her vision of Brexit whilst opposition MPs are trying to undermine her (what a novel thing for an opposition to try and do, eh?).
Clearly, if every single one of those opposition MPs lines up against her Tories, they can defeat her government and maybe even influence the nature of Brexit.  Oh, wait a minute – no they can’t.  Mathematics is clearly not her strongest suit, but to the mathematically less-challenged she does actually have an absolute majority over every one else combined.  Unless of course, some of her own side decide to vote with the opposition on a particular issue, and – dare I say it – try and stick to the manifesto on which they were elected.  With, I think, one solitary exception, they haven’t actually done that yet, but some of them have muttered a bit about maybe possibly doing it as the details become clearer.
Her only fear of losing a vote in the House of Commons is if she fails to carry her own party; and that in turn means that defeating and marginalising any waverers in her own party is the only interpretation of her stated reasoning which makes any sense.  I can see why she’d want to do that; she is currently faced with two minority groupings in her own party: the Brexit-at-any-cost head-bangers and the this-is-an-act-of-self-harm remainers.  It means, however, that the election, like the referendum before it, is really all about the internal problems of one party rather than about the interests of the UK.  I can certainly understand why she would want to marginalise those groups.  And I can even agree that marginalising them might make it easier for her to negotiate (although she’s already conceded the most important points anyway).  But it’s more than a little dishonest to try and blame a largely dysfunctional opposition for problems which are a lot closer to home.

Thursday 13 April 2017

What do we mean by 'defence'?

One traditional example of the sheer enormity of infinity is that given an infinite number of monkeys with typewriters and enough time, one of them will produce the complete works of Shakespeare, in the correct order.  When it comes to economists with computers making accurate predictions, we don’t even need an infinite number before one of them gets at last one thing right (although we do need a lot of them before that happens).  But when it comes to Presidents of the USA, even one of them, with a single phone and a few stubby fingers over three short months, can produce a dazzling, not to say bewildering, series of alternative policy positions on the same issue.  Who needs infinity when we have Trump?
Yesterday he told us that, regardless of what he had been saying for months, NATO is no longer obsolete.  The change is due, apparently, to the threat of terrorism, although an explanation of how the threat from terrorism suddenly changed in recent days might be something for which we will be kept waiting.  It’s a pity, though; NATO being obsolete was one of the few things on which I agreed with him.  The organisation was set up in and for a very different world than that in which we live today.
One thing on which he is – for the moment at least – remaining consistent in this context is that most members of NATO are not paying their agreed share of the costs.  I’m not convinced that he fully understands the way this works – and his apparent attempt to hand Germany a ‘bill’ for $300 billion due, in his view, to the US supports my interpretation.  The long-standing agreement between NATO states is not that anyone pays the US for anything; it is that they each devote 2% of GDP to ‘defence’.  But, forgetting for a moment at least my own opposition to NATO, I seriously wonder whether this is in any way a sensible way of judging the contribution of different states.
The question, surely, should be about how effective the contribution to common defence is, not about how much it costs.  The UK is, after all, one of the few states which generally achieve the 2%, but the UK is a classic example of how it is possible to spend money without contributing very much to anything.  After all, the country is building aircraft carriers without aircraft, has a fleet of submarines of which none is currently available for deployment, and spent £4bn on surveillance aircraft which were scrapped before ever entering service.  And there are other examples of expenditure which contributes little to military readiness, although they all help to reach the artificial 2% target.
Then there is the other question about what we mean by ‘defence’ expenditure.  The US and UK seem to see it solely in terms of military hardware and personnel, but Germany argues that at least some overseas aid expenditure should be counted, on the basis that it can help to avoid war in the first place.  On that, I’m with Germany.  Sadly, the UK Government seems to be with Trump on this one, preferring to spend more on preparing to kill people than on trying to avoid the situations which lead to the killing.  Even worse, the official ‘opposition’ in the UK, for fear of being perceived as weak on defence, is far closer to the Trump position than the German one.
Having a bigger (or at least more expensive) stick than any and every perceived or conceivable enemy isn’t the only way of avoiding future wars, and given the diversion of resources from more constructive purposes, it’s not the best either.  It isn’t being ‘weak’ to point that out, and we shouldn’t allow debate on the question to be shut down by the militarists and those who have most to gain from building weaponry.

Tuesday 11 April 2017

Frustration isn't justification

One of the results of the cynical manipulation of truth and fact by successive governments is that it becomes harder to trust anything they say subsequently.  So, whilst I’m inclined to believe that the deaths and injuries caused by chemical weapons in Syria last week were the result of the intentional use of those weapons by the Syrian government forces, I don’t feel able to rule out entirely the possibility that the Russians and Syrians might be telling the truth when they say that it was actually the result of an attack on a weapons store.  Perhaps those governments supporting the US missile strikes in response have more substantive evidence than they’ve released to date; perhaps not.  But two aspects of the response leave me with an uneasy feeling, even accepting that events were as they have been presented.
The first is whether the response was the right one.  I understand the frustration of external parties who see chemical weapons being used in direct breach of international treaties and agreements and want to stop it happening again.  But taking unilateral military action against another country is also contrary to international law.  And it can’t turn the clock back; it can’t change what happened.  The justification for it can only be based on an assumption that it will in some way prevent a repetition; otherwise it’s doing ‘something’ because that is all that can be done.  Will it deter Assad?  I don’t know – and neither does anyone else.  What we do now know is that it ramps up the possibility of direct military confrontation between the two most heavily-armed states in the world; and that’s never a particularly brilliant idea.
The second response is to question the underlying moralising of those involved.  Which is the more important fact in Syria today – that adults and children alike are being maimed and killed on a daily basis, or that some of them are being killed by a particularly nasty form of weaponry?  The response to the use of chemical weapons seems to be suggesting that the latter is the more important; or to put it another way, the method used to kill and injure is more important than the fact of the killing and injuring.  What is the message delivered to Assad by the missile strike – that he can carry on bombing and shooting but must not use chemicals?  That may not be the intention of the message, but it looks like the probable effect.
I don’t have a simple and ready answer to the conflict in Syria; but then that hardly makes me unique.  I’m certain, though, that there will eventually have to be a negotiated peace; there invariably is.  All those involved know that as well, but they’re carrying on with the killing in order to try and put themselves in the best position before they start talking seriously.  The question our government should be asking is not “what does Trump want us to say?” but “does adding to the killing and destruction help move us towards peace?”  Mere frustration at not being able to do anything else isn’t enough to justify adding to the destruction.  And it will never be enough.

Monday 10 April 2017

Being consistent

Only once ever has my path crossed that of Lord Tebbit; I was in one of the subterranean tunnels of the Palace of Westminster many years ago with Dafydd Wigley when Tebbit came rushing out of a side tunnel beaming with delight and telling all and sundry that their lordships had just defeated his own government on what I understood to be some obscure procedural vote about a piece of European legislation.  On that flimsy piece of direct evidence, I wouldn’t exactly have high expectations about his political priorities, but he managed to excel himself last week.
He suggested that the Prime Minister should consider inviting the leaders of the Catalan independence movement to London for talks, and even raise their demand for independence, and the way that the Spanish central government is refusing to allow a referendum, at the United Nations.  It all seems a splendid idea to me, even if I don’t entirely agree with his reasons, which seem to be a bit of tit-for-tat over the way the Spanish government is handling the question of Gibraltar.  But I wonder if anyone has told him that the same Prime Minister is currently refusing to allow the Scots a further referendum on independence.  Perhaps the SNP should ask Spain to raise their case at the UN?

Friday 7 April 2017

I agree with the Daily Mail

Now that’s not something I’ve said before, and I may never say it again.  But the fact that I agree makes me wonder whether they’ve really thought through the implications of what they’re saying.
The practice used by holiday companies of charging significantly more during the school holidays than they charge during term time does indeed make it difficult for many parents, and leads directly to the sort of case we’ve seen recently where parents find themselves before the courts for failing to send their children to school.  The practice is, however, based on what economists call the law of supply and demand.  When demand is high, prices rise, and when it’s lower, they fall.  And what the Daily Mail is calling for is, effectively, government regulation to force the companies concerned to ignore that law of supply and demand.
As it happens, that’s precisely why I agree with them.  Markets are a human construct; all markets work within sets of rules and the question is really about who should set the rules and in whose interests they should be set.  I’ve always been in favour of the idea that governments should act in the wider social interest by setting rules and constraints on how markets should operate.  Supporters of entirely ‘free’ markets believe, on the other hand, that markets are there to enable individuals to pursue their own selfish interests with no outside intervention; some will win and some will lose.  There’s a significant ideological divide there.
One of the consistent themes of papers such as the Daily Mail during the Brexit campaign was that we should abolish all that horrid EU regulation which was constraining businesses from making profits by doing what they thought was most in their own interest.  That is in direct conflict with the position which they’re taking today.  So, has the Daily Mail switched ideologies overnight?  No, of course not; they’re just taking a populist position on the basis that it will help them sell newspapers.
It neatly underlines one of the problems with populism.  Combining a series of policies which are individually popular can never create a coherent or consistent whole; quite the reverse.  For that, we have to start from principles or ideology.  On that, the gulf between me and the Daily Mail is as large as it ever was.

Thursday 6 April 2017

Believing is seeing

There is an inevitable tendency to blame Brexit for every economic bad news story that surfaces over the coming months and years.  We saw it at the end of last week in relation to job losses at the University of South Wales, and there have been a number of other examples.  I’m not in a good enough position to judge the truth of the claim in the individual instances (and nor, in truth, are most other commentators), but it does seem highly probable that Brexit will be used as a convenient excuse for some decisions which would have been made anyway.  It avoids having to explain the truth, for one thing.  But few decisions about future investment and employment really boil down to one simple explanation, so sorting out which decisions are really down to Brexit and which are not is never going to be easy. 
Whilst remainers will point to each and every such example and say ‘told you so’, Brexiteers will dismiss the excuse every time it’s given, whatever the truth may be in the specific case.  It’s a form of confirmation bias; people will give more weight to evidence which supports their priors.  The same is also true for much of the news coming out of Brussels; stories highlighting the difficulty of negotiating an agreement are either met by ‘told you so’ or else by ‘see – we need to take back control from these people’.  In the case of the EU, as in many other instances, the number of people who can be swayed by factual arguments is comparatively small.  And, as we saw in the referendum and since, that willingness to see everything as evidence for a pre-existing belief is a barrier to real debate.
Does that mean that trying to argue on the basis of evidence is a complete waste of time?  Not entirely; whilst the number who can be swayed by mere economic facts is small, we should remember that the margin was so narrow that only around 3% of the population need to be persuaded to change their minds to produce a sufficient shift in public opinion, particularly when coupled with demographic changes happening in parallel (older electors departing the lists and younger ones joining them, for instance).  But that is to reduce the whole question to one of short term winning or losing – precisely the narrow vision-free approach which got us into this situation in the first place.
If we want to change those priors which shape attitudes, we also need to do more to sell the idea of an Open Europe looking to the future rather than a Europe of closed states harking back to past military glories.  It’s a harder task (made more so by the obvious imperfections in the current European model), but it’s a better way of setting foundations for the future.  This is an approach which was largely absent at the time of the referendum, and is still lacking today.  Allowing the argument to be purely about economics was a mistake last June and would be a mistake going forward as well.  It should be about the sort of future we want, not just about pounds and pennies; and that debate has barely even started.

Wednesday 5 April 2017

Old dogs and old tricks

Leaving aside the bellicose rantings of some Tories who are, it seems, quite willing to contemplate a war against Spain over the future of Gibraltar, the public spat over the status of the territory does raise serious questions about its future.  And it’s a reminder, at the least, that the line between Northern Ireland and the Republic isn’t the only land border between the possessions of the UK and the EU.
One of the ‘advantages’ which Gibraltar enjoys (apart from having a greater degree of self-government than anything which any of the parties so keen to defend it have ever considered offering to Wales or Scotland; a population of 30,000 is apparently not too small to enjoy independence in all matters other than foreign affairs and defence, whatever they may tell us) is that it is, to all intents and purposes, a tax haven (as well as allegedly facilitating the laundering of money).  There are a huge number of companies registered there, and the main reason for that is the favourable tax regime.  Indeed, it’s one of life’s little ironies that, according to this story, the successful campaign was set up as a subsidiary of a Gibraltar-registered company.  Or actually, given the 96%-4% vote in favour of remain in Gibraltar, maybe it’s not such a small irony after all; they helped to facilitate the process which brought them to this situation.
Anyway, politicians of the main UK parties have been quick to dismiss any claim which Spain may have over the territory, including Welsh Tory MP Glyn Davies who said simply “No grounds at all”.  As ever, the truth is far less simple than the response from any politician.  And his position isn’t the one taken by the United Nations on the issue (although, for all I know, withdrawal from that body may well be next on the Brexiteers’ list).
It’s true, of course, that Spain formally ceded the territory to Britain 'in perpetuity' under the Treaty of Utrecht some 300 years ago, but there are plenty of other ‘in perpetuity’ treaties forced on losing sides in battles which have been subsequently reversed, whether through negotiation or re-conquest.  The same treaty (or more strictly, series of treaties) also ceded Menorca to Britain and granted Britain a monopoly on the slave trade to the Spanish colonies in America.  I don’t see UK politicians threatening to send a task force to enforce those provisions (although perhaps Michael Howard just hasn’t been told about them yet).
As a result of the British conquest, all but around 70 of the original 5,000 Spanish inhabitants left the territory and resettled in Spain, to be replaced by a horde of British immigrants (or 'ex-pats' as the UK prefers to see its exports of people).  The descendants of those migrants now insist on their absolute right to possession of the territory, and are being supported to the hilt by UK politicians.  It's hard to see any justification for arguing that the sins of the forefathers should be visited on their descendants, and that they should simply be expelled from the territory in order to return it to Spain.  On the other hand, I don’t have much sympathy with any argument based either in part or in whole on a treaty forced on the losing side in a war 300 years ago; a wrong doesn’t become a right purely by the passage of time.  Anyone who wants to argue that it does needs to be able to explain exactly how much time has to pass – and how many generations of people – before theft of territory turns into unquestionable ownership.  I doubt that they can.  It's a far from simple problem.  We are all the descendants of immigrants if we go back far enough – at what point do immigrants in the wake of military conquest somehow become indigenous people with territorial rights?  The only answer that I can come up with is the essentially pragmatic statement "when everyone else accepts the claim".  But that doesn't help us when the claim is contested.
Michael Howard drew a parallel between Gibraltar and the Falklands.  I think he was justified in doing so, but he drew the wrong parallel.  The parallel isn’t about sending military forces to defend the rights of settlers’ descendant.  It’s about the long-ago military occupation of a territory and the removal of the previous inhabitants; and it's about whether, when, and how the resulting territorial claims can be resolved.  I see no real value for the UK in hanging on to colonial possessions in far-flung corners of the world, and sensible long term policy would be about how to extricate the UK from them and bring a final end to imperial pretensions.  It’s a more twenty-first century approach than sending gunboats.  But therein lies the catch – it’ll never appeal to eighteenth century politicians.

Monday 3 April 2017

Understanding incentives

In dismissing the idea of allowing a second referendum on the final deal, the Brexit Secretary said that agreeing to hold a second referendum would be giving an incentive to the EU27 to negotiate a bad deal in the hope that the UK electorate would reject it.  There’s potentially a grain of truth in that statement, of course – although, strictly speaking, it’s more of an argument against announcing any such referendum in advance rather than against actually holding one. 
But I can think of an even better way of incentivising ‘the other side’ to offer only a bad deal.  In essence, it consists of telling them in advance that there is no way that we are going to change our minds about leaving, whatever they offer, and that we’ll walk away with absolutely nothing unless they give us what we want.  Faced with that sort of approach to negotiation, who wouldn’t feel incentivised to offer a bad deal? 
Fortunately, it’s not an approach that the all-wise and all-knowing UK Government would even consider adopting, is it?  Of course not; that would be almost as silly as adopting the traditional ‘British way’ of dealing with foreigners – threatening them with war if they don’t give us what we want. 
The idea of a ‘Global Britain’ didn’t work out too well for much of the world last time round on my reading of history; I’m not exactly confident that its proponents have much idea about how to make it work this time round either.