Monday 31 December 2018

For services to music and light entertainment

The knighthood is definitely a joke, right?

Friday 28 December 2018

Mistaken messages

The UK has a long and far from honourable tradition of ‘gunboat diplomacy’; sending warships to other countries as a visible demonstration of military power and the willingness to use it.  For ‘visible demonstration’ one can also read ‘sending a message’, which was the wording used by UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson to describe the despatch of HMS Echo to Ukraine.  The big problem with ‘sending messages’ however is that the message received may not be quite the one intended.  Whilst in theory sending a heavily-armed military vessel to a trouble spot might be intended to tell Putin not to further provoke Ukraine or else the UK might be willing to take action against him, sending a hydrographic survey vessel is more likely to be interpreted as ‘we haven’t actually got a proper military ship available at the moment’.  The effect on Putin is more likely to be laughing his socks off than quaking in his boots.

“…and then he said ‘any more nonsense from you and I’ll order the Royal Navy to undertake a hydrographic survey in the Black Sea’”

Friday 21 December 2018

Being assertive

Wales’ new First Minister came in for some criticism yesterday, with the headline saying that he had ‘turned down a one-to-one meeting with the Prime Minister to attend a Labour Party event’.  Fair enough criticism, some might say, but the detail is a little more complex than that.
The First Minister had two pre-arranged meetings.  The first was the Joint Ministerial Committee, with the Prime Minister, the Scottish First Minister and officials from Northern Ireland in the morning, and the second was scheduled for 2pm as a one-to-one meeting with the Prime Minister.  Our First Minister travelled from Cardiff to London, ready and willing to attend both, only to be told that the Prime Minister had subsequently arranged something else at that time, and that he would have to sit around kicking his heels for four hours or so until she could find the time to see him.  He said that he had a prior engagement and declined to wait.
Does it matter here what the nature of that prior engagement was (the criticism has been largely based on the fact that it was a Labour Party event)?  It wasn’t him that unilaterally cancelled a pre-arranged meeting at short notice.  Why haven’t more questions been asked about why the Prime Minister decided that ‘something else’ was more important than a pre-arranged meeting with the First Minister of Wales?  It seems to me that the discourtesy here isn’t a First Minister who honoured an engagement, but a Prime Minister who did not.
Mark Drakeford has been attacked for missing an opportunity to put the case for Wales to a Prime Minister who has made herself notorious for not listening to a word anyone says unless they are agreeing with her.  From the perspective of many in her party, the Welsh (like the Irish) should know their place.  This was never going to be a meeting between equals; there is a power relationship at play here as well.  It seems to me strange that those arguing that the First Minister should have taken the opportunity to stand up for Wales and put our case to the PM are effectively arguing that he should meekly accept his (and, by inference, our) inferior status and sit around waiting at her convenience.  It’s an odd sort of assertiveness for which they are calling.

Thursday 20 December 2018

Maybe Corbyn's right

No, not about whether he did or did not say that the Prime Minister is a stupid woman – I think that he probably didn’t.  Nor about whether she actually is stupid or not (delusional seems a better description to me).  It’s rather about whether now is or is not the time to move a vote of no confidence in the government.  Moving a meaningless vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister herself, which is unlikely to even get discussed let alone passed, and which even if it were both discussed and passed would have no impact on anything is something of a copout, of course – but is it really any more meaningless than moving a motion of no confidence which would certainly be defeated?
I can understand why the other opposition parties are so angry; it can’t be easy to sit there and observe on a daily basis the lies, duplicity, obstinacy and sheer incompetence of the governing party.  The desire to do ‘something’ must be overwhelming.  And the temptation to hope that at least one of the 117 Tory MPs who have clearly indicated their lack of confidence in their leader in a secret ballot might be willing to do the same in a public vote must be a strong one.  But, in all seriousness, would the demanded vote of confidence, with all its associated huffing, puffing and expressions of outrage, really do much more than add to the sense that the so-called (albeit badly misnamed) ‘mother of parliaments’ has chosen the lead-up to the pantomime season to degenerate into utter and impotent farce?
The one lesson that I draw from the events of recent months in respect of our ‘democracy’ is about how little power parliament actually has.  They can’t even discuss Corbyn’s cop-out motion unless the government allows them to, and they can’t vote on anything connected with Brexit unless the government first puts down a motion, and the government seem to have an awful lot of control over what they can vote on even then.  Given that, for many, Brexit was about ‘democracy’ and ‘taking back control’, there’s a certain irony in the way that it has succeeded in highlighting the flaws in the UK’s system of democracy and underlining how little control parliament has over anything. 
I’m not convinced that creating a situation where all those Tory MPs who voted to say that have no confidence whatsoever in the PM would be lining up to say that they’re backing her to the hilt is a particularly constructive way of using the time and energy of MPs.  Nor am I convinced that the consequences of success, however improbable that would be, in such a vote have been thought through.  Even if it resulted in a General Election, and even if the Labour Party were to win, swapping a blue unicorn believer for a bearded pink one doesn’t look to me like a huge gain.  Corbyn is probably right that a no confidence vote is unwinnable at present, but he’s accidentally right for another reason as well – it wouldn’t change anything.  The only thing that seems likely to bring about a change in direction would be for the Labour Party to swing behind a second referendum, and he's still resisting that.

Tuesday 18 December 2018

Policy and process

After being appointed as Transport Minister last week, Llanelli AM Lee Waters said that he had agreed that it would be ‘inappropriate’ for him to have any say over the decision on the M4 relief road because he had taken such a strong position on the proposal in the past.  This is the second time that I have heard a Welsh Transport Minister referring to the decision on the M4 as being some sort of quasi-judicial process in which having a strong opinion one way of the other disqualified the individual from taking a decision.  This time, having an opinion means that the minister can’t take the decision; last time – under the One Wales government – the minister argued that as he was responsible ultimately for taking the decision, he couldn’t have an opinion at all.  It was nonsense then, and it’s nonsense now – it’s a case of confusing policy with process.
What is true is that if a government has a policy of building a large infrastructure project such as the M4 then there is a formal legal process which must be followed in which all the relevant parties have an opportunity to present their case and an expectation that all their evidence will be considered carefully and impartially before a final decision on the precise location or route and on any conditions or caveats is taken.  That part of the process is certainly quasi-judicial and being seen to have pre-judged the issue will potentially be prejudicial to due process.  But the policy – whether to build or not – is independent of that process; the process concerns only the proper and lawful implementation of policy.  Policy – to build or not – is quite properly the prerogative of the politicians, not the judges or planning inspectors.  And policy can be changed by political decision at any time.
So, what we have here is, in effect, a politician who is responsible for making policy, and who clearly believes that the policy currently being pursued by his government is the wrong one, excusing himself from having any input into what is probably the most important single policy decision in his portfolio and hiding behind a legal process in order to do so.  It could be, of course, that the First Minister takes a different view on the policy (as far as I’m aware, he has yet to express a view), and the real reason for the Transport Minister being excluded from this policy decision is that the First Minister doesn’t want the policy changed.  It’s a legitimate position to take but hiding behind public enquiries and planning inspectors in the hope that they will provide some sort of cover for politicians to avoid accepting their responsibilities is just a cop out.

Friday 14 December 2018

Clarity is in the ear of the beholder

If there's one thing that the Prime Minister is very good at - exceptionally good, in fact - it's remembering to start every sentence by reminding us how clear she has been, is being, or is about to be.  If it were an Olympic sport, she'd win gold.  The problem is that what follows that statement is invariably either not at all clear at best, and completely meaningless at worst.  Worse still, having given what she (presumably, giving her the benefit of at least a little doubt) believes to be a very clear statement, she takes the bemused and incredulous faces of her listeners as agreement and consent.  The reports today that the EU leaders are unable to offer her much by way of assistance because they don't know what she wants, and feel that she has been far from clear, demonstrate the vital element of clarity which she utterly fails to understand: if those listening don't understand you, that's your problem not theirs.  'Clarity' is defined by the listener, not the speaker.

Thursday 13 December 2018

Being syncretic

There was a review last week on Nation.Cymru of a book telling the story of the foundation of the new political party, Ein Gwlad.  In principle, having more than one political party in Wales advocating independence is to be welcomed; independence isn’t a concept owned by one particular part of the political spectrum, and having a range of parties arguing for different visions of what an independent Wales might be like would be considered entirely normal in most of the other European nations where there is an independence movement.  The reason why it hasn’t happened here is, first and foremost, an electoral system which favours unity rather than disunity, and I suspect that will be the rock on which Ein Gwlad eventually founders.  Electoral reform is long overdue and would probably be a game-changer for political debate in Wales, but things are as they are.
Having said that, I’m highly sceptical of any party which claims to be ‘syncretic’, not occupying any particular place on the political spectrum but able to pick policies, a la carte, from all parts of that spectrum, selecting whatever is best for Wales.  There are, as I see it, two main problems with that approach.
The first is that it assumes that the ‘spectrum’ is actually quite narrow.  If it is possible to mix and match policies from, say, Labour, Tory, Lib Dems and Plaid, then that is because, in essence (and perhaps excluding the constitutional question), the policy differences between them are, by and large, much smaller than any of them would have us believe.  It’s true that the degree of consensus which seemed to be growing in the post-war years has reduced, but broadly the mainstream politicians of all those parties differ mostly in emphasis and degree rather than in principle.  There are people with rather more radical views in all parties, but mainstream debate in UK politics revolves around a fairly narrow axis.
The second problem is how and who decides what is ‘best for Wales’.  The idea that anyone can make such a judgement independently of their own priors is simply not credible, even if the role of those priors is restricted to determining the criteria to be used in making the decision.  What is really ‘best for Wales’ is not something which is either self-evident nor objectively determinable, it is open to a range of differing opinions based on different criteria.  I suspect that syncretism is generally more of a euphemism for populism than a viable political philosophy and amounts to selecting those policies which are most popular amongst the electorate.  But it can never be as easy as that – low taxes and high-quality public services would both be popular, but they don’t combine terribly well.  Oh, and independence isn’t terribly ‘popular’ either.
I believe that it would be ‘better for Wales’ to have multiple parties arguing for independence from different political perspectives (entirely accepting that that belief is based on my own priors rather than on demonstrable proof), but I’m not at all convinced that pretending not to have a political perspective is the way of achieving that.

Wednesday 12 December 2018

Squaring the circle

I think that I've just about got this right:

The Prime Minister accepts unreservedly that any withdrawal agreement with the EU27 must include a legally binding commitment to a 'backstop' which prevents a hard border across Ireland.

In order to get this through her own party, she is asking the EU27 to give her a legally binding commitment that they won't hold her to her own legally binding commitment.

Thus far, at least, she hasn't spotted the flaw in this plan, and is busy trying to implement it.  At least she'll have something else to occupy her for the next few days...

Tuesday 11 December 2018

"No-one voted to make themselves poorer"

It’s a statement often made by those opposing Brexit, and it has a nice ring to it, but it simply isn’t true.  Some people certainly did vote, consciously and deliberately, to make us all poorer.  And that is far from being as irrational as it sounds; there’s nothing at all wrong with doing exactly that if one is convinced that there’s a greater good involved.
Much of the debate surrounding Brexit has been based on the economic consequences rather than any perceived non-economic costs and benefits.  That is part of the reason for the huge gulf in understanding of what the EU is about between the two sides in the negotiations – for most of the other EU states, economics has always been only part of the argument.  The EU is, and always has been, at heart more a political project than an economic one, and the failure of the UK side to recognise that, assuming instead that economics would eventually bring the EU round to the UK position, has been a major factor in the time taken to reach any sort of deal.
We all place a value on things which cannot be priced in strictly financial terms, and there is always a trade-off between those things which can be priced and those which cannot.  Democracy and sovereignty, for instance, have a value, and at least some of those who voted for Brexit will have valued those more highly than any anticipated economic disadvantage.  People in that group really did consciously vote to make us all poorer.  (There were also a larger number who unconsciously voted to make us all poorer – this would be those who placed a similarly high value on democracy and sovereignty, but simply didn’t believe those who told them that these things come at a price.  And I can’t blame them when many of those leading the Brexit campaign knew full well that there would be a price but simply lied - and are still lying today).
That underlying trade-off – between sovereignty and democracy on the one hand, and economic benefit on the other – is one we all make; it’s just that we don’t all assess the trade-off in the same way.  I remember one independentista (no longer with us, sadly) telling me that he’d eat grass if that was the cost of independence for Wales.  It’s not a position with which I could ever agree, but it illustrates the point.  And it works in the other direction as well.  Given a choice of being poor in a democracy or rich under a dictatorship, which would we choose?  For some – at either end of the spectrum – it’s a black-and-white issue.  For most though, it’s more nuanced than that; it requires asking a few more questions, such as ‘how poor?’ and ‘what sort of dictatorship / what sort of democracy?’  It’s an oversimplification, but faced with a choice of grinding poverty in a democracy or having adequate food and shelter in a dictatorship, I can see why many of the poorest might prefer the latter, whilst it is those who can afford to lose a little who might be more willing to take the more principled position.  And it is that question of nuance, balance and trade-off between the economic issues and the non-economic issues which is where the debate should have been from the outset, instead of which we’ve had something closer to absolutism on both sides; one demanding that economics takes precedence and the other insisting that sovereignty and democracy are more important.
That helps to explain why it isn’t enough to simply ‘prove’ that the economic consequences are bad.  We also need to talk about the other side of the equation.  And here’s the thing – membership of the EU does, unquestionably, reduce the absolute sovereignty of the member states.  (The democracy question is rather less straightforward: I’m not at all sure that the EU can really be considered less democratic than a state in whose parliament the majority of members are appointees, hereditaries or bishops.  It is, however, true that the electorate of a single member state cannot by themselves dismiss those running the EU, and from a perspective which believes that absolute sovereignty should sit at the level of the member state, that can be, and has been, too easily presented as ‘undemocratic’.)
Part of the reason for the current mess is that proponents of greater European integration have generally been unwilling to even discuss this issue of sharing or pooling sovereignty, and why that isn’t at all the same thing as ceding sovereignty to someone else.  Anglo-British exceptionalism has made them afraid even to attempt to explain the difference.  The result has been that a narrative developed, over decades, that the UK was no longer a sovereign state.  It brings us to a strange situation in which it is those who have given most thought to the question of what constitutes independence and sovereignty, the independentistas of Wales and Scotland, who argue most strongly for a twenty-first century definition which involves nations coming together as equals with a degree of sharing and pooling for the common good, whilst the Anglo-British not-nationalists-at-all, who have given a lot less thought to the question, are stuck in an eighteenth century mindset in which things were much more absolute – and where they and their ilk were in charge and the rest of the world simply did as they were told.  My fear is that, if it comes to a second referendum – an eventuality which is now looking increasingly like the only way out of the current deadlock – that that argument about the nature and extent of ‘sovereignty’ in a highly-connected twenty-first century world will be lost by default again.

Monday 10 December 2018

30 Little Ministers

30 Gov’ment ministers sent far and wide
Told to get the people on Theresa’s side
For 40 million voters they were given 2 days each –
A target unattainable; completely out of reach
The spectacle of 30 government ministers being sent scuttling around the UK over the weekend to drum up support for Theresa May’s Brexit deal is just the latest twist in the long-running farce which Brexit has become.  The stated reason is, of course, as disingenuous as everything else that the Prime Minister says.  Even if it were possible for 30 people in 2 days to win over the millions – Leavers and Remainers alike – who think that the deal is a bad one, she has no intention of allowing them to vote anyway. 
I saw a snatch of an interview with Michael Heseltine in which he said that sending them around the country was a good idea – not because they would actually persuade anyone, but because it would get them out of London and away from the London media, the plotters and the leakers.  It would, he said, get them out of No 10’s hair.  It’s a rather cynical view.
Perhaps the PM really believes that people in their masses will be motivated to contact their MPs to demand that they vote for the deal.  But if she gave the matter a moment’s thought and considered perhaps how many of her own constituents ever contacted her about a political issue while she was a back-bencher, she would realise that it would only ever be a tiny proportion – what might be called the ‘usual suspects’. 
It seems to me that the only credible target of this onslaught of ministers (have I just invented a new collective noun there?) would be members of the Conservative Party.  It is, just, conceivable that at least some of those members might be motivated to demand that their MP show a little more loyalty to their elected government.  In such a scenario, having to hear the message on news programmes is just collateral damage for the rest of us in what is really yet another internal party discussion.  I doubt, though, that even that would be successful.  The indications are that Tory members out in the constituencies are much more likely to support ‘no deal’ than the agreement that she has negotiated.
Maybe Heseltine really has hit the nail on the head, and it’s all just a glorified form of displacement activity.

Wednesday 5 December 2018

Carts and horses

There’s a lengthy piece by Labour AM, Mick Antoniw in today’s Western Mail (although I can’t find it online) arguing that a General Election is a better way forward than holding a second referendum, the so-called ‘People’s Vote’.  When it comes to the practical issues surrounding the arrangements for such a vote, I have a great deal of sympathy with his arguments; there are many details which are not as straightforward as many suggest.  I don’t believe them to be insoluble, though; and a second vote seems to me a better way forward than either Brexit based on the last vote regardless of any change in opinion, or parliament simply overturning the result of the referendum, despite the fact that it has every right, constitutionally speaking, to do so.
However, where I really part company with him is his closing argument that “a general election will increasingly become accepted as the only way to give the people a real choice”.  As long as the Labour Party’s leader clings to the notion that “Brexit cannot be stopped” and the delusion that, if only he were in charge, a better deal could be negotiated, there is no way in which a general election to choose between a Tory Brexit and a Labour Brexit is any real choice at all.  Even worse, and although I don’t always trust opinion polls, the polls currently suggest that it is unlikely that Labour would win such an election standing on its current policy.  Despite the complete disarray and incompetence of the Tories, they appear likely to out-poll Labour again.  And another narrow victory for the Tories will change nothing.
In fairness to Antoniw, he does also say that Labour would have to fight such an election on the basis of seeking a new deal and adds that “Labour’s manifesto would have to offer the promise of a ratification of any deal and an extension to the franchise to 16-year-olds”, i.e. a commitment to holding a second referendum after the attempted renegotiation.  It’s a face-saving formula; whilst Labour remains committed to red lines which include no membership of the single market and no freedom of movement, any ‘renegotiation’ is going to be as superficial as that undertaken by David Cameron, as well as further alienating our European partners in the attempt.  Still, the very fact that most Remainers will understand that limitation will not detract from the fact that they have a potential electoral home, even if for only one election, which will facilitate the outcome which they want to see.  And that could be an electoral game-changer for Labour.  The problem is that I don’t currently see the Labour leadership being ready to embrace such a line, even though it’s clearly their best chance of gaining a majority.  An election without that prior change of policy seems likely to do more harm than good – Labour need to sort out their position first.  And that probably requires a change of leader…

Tuesday 4 December 2018

Plus ça change...

During a recent sojourn in sunnier climes, I set out to read the first part of Don Quijote in the original version.  It was hard going at times, but what struck me was the timelessness of some themes in literature.
I mean, here is a man who is madder than a box of frogs, with his head stuffed full of a romanticised and largely fictional view of past glories and who believes that he can relive those glories in what was – to him – the ‘modern’ age.  Even when the facts are carefully spelled out to him – Sancho told him that that ‘giant’ was a windmill before he went and attacked it – he refuses to accept facts that clash with his carefully constructed concept of how things should be, and acts on the basis of his beliefs instead.  He invariably comes off worst from all his adventures but presents them all as great triumphs and/or blames his evil enemies for using trickery and magic against him.
My question is this – how did Cervantes manage to paint such a brilliant picture of the average Brexiteer politician 400 years before the EU even existed?

Wednesday 28 November 2018

Desperate measures

The Prime Minister is showing very obvious signs of increasing desperation in her demands that we all believe and ‘get behind’ her lies and obfuscation in order to make ourselves worse off.  It’s hardly surprising; even the thought of trying to do that is enough to make anyone desperate.  But how desperate does someone have to be to believe that Michael Gove is some sort of ‘secret weapon’?  She can’t even be entirely certain that he knows which side he’s supposed to be on, given his clear reservations about her dodgy deal, and his proven tendency towards backstabbing in relation to those who seek his support.  Still, it’s perhaps not quite as desperate as the idea that the solution to the problem is to bring back the man who caused it in the first place.  Now that really would be a silly thing to do - so it will probably become official policy shortly.

Monday 26 November 2018

Building the lie

There is a key similarity between Trump and May – they are both inveterate liars.  Towards the end of this piece by Ian Dunt on, he brutally and surgically lists a series of lies which she has spun on Brexit ever since taking office.  Another similarity is that the lies they tell are so obvious and blatant, so easy to expose.  And a third is that they both expect us to believe them simply because of the positions that they hold.  There is a key difference as well, however.  I don’t know whether Trump actually believes what he’s saying to be true (can he really be that stupid?), but he gives a pretty good impression of believing it.  Our poor old Prime Minister never looks like she believes a single word of what she is saying but carries on because she can see no alternative that doesn’t bring everything crashing down around her.
Her latest missive is another example.  It is riddled with lies and half-truths, as has been pointed out elsewhere.  It’s hard to find a sentence in the entire letter which meets the standard of being the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  Yet some will still believe it.  She is still repeating the nonsense that the extra money for the health service is coming from the payments we would otherwise be making to Brussels for example.
There are perhaps three factors in which people can be persuaded to believe the opposite of the truth.  The first is that the lie is convincingly told, but she has failed miserably on that score.  The second is that the lie agrees with what people want to believe.  For those who believe that Brexit will bring nothing but benefit and that anyone who says anything to the contrary is just refusing to accept the result and engaging in Project Fear, then of course there’s a Brexit dividend.  The third is to start with a small truth; some of the biggest lies of all can be built on just one or two small truths.
In the case of the boost for the NHS, there are two small truths which are indisputable.  The first is that spending on the NHS is going to increase and the second is that we will no longer be making payments to the EU budget.  The lie is in linking the two, because it assumes both that the act of Brexit will in no way reduce government revenues and that nothing which is currently being paid for out of our EU contributions needs to be paid for by another means.  I mean, it’s not as if farmers really need payments, is it, to select just one example?  In the simplistic terms in which some people see the world, if the money in a particular line of the budget is not going to be spent on the EU, then it is ‘obviously’ available for other uses.  Obviously.
To use a simple analogy, a family could one day decide to stop using a particular supermarket for all its groceries.  All the money which they currently spend there is then available for other things – perhaps erecting a tall fence around the garden to keep out the neighbours.  The flaw is obvious to most of us – the family still needs groceries.  It’s less obvious to Brexiteers though, because they can simply demand that the supermarket continues to provide the groceries without being paid – and even threaten not to pay the bill for last months’ supplies unless they agree, on the basis that they’d be getting nothing extra in return for the payment.  The supermarket would probably respond that its business model doesn’t quite work that way: ‘you’re a valued customer, but no payment = no groceries’.  That, according to the Brexiteer would be just a negotiating tactic, because ‘they need us more than we need them’, and in any event, if they haven’t gone to the supermarket by one minute before closing time, the supermarket will be begging them to go and collect their free groceries.  How else will they get the Prosecco off their shelves?  They might even try telling the supermarket that the household held a vote and agreed that it should receive free groceries so free groceries must be provided.  The family has spoken; the will of the family is clear.
A household trying this approach would probably end up starving, but at least they’d be doing so behind a good strong fence.  And they might even have blue passes to get in and out.

Friday 23 November 2018

'Knowing' what we think

Conservative Minister, Rory Stewart, was rightly ridiculed last week for inventing a wholly bogus claim that “80 per cent of the Brexit public support this deal”.  But he isn’t the only one who makes it up as he goes along.  Within the last few days, we’ve had David Davis talking about “the Canada style free trade arrangement that almost everybody wants for the UK”, and the boss herself saying that the public just want the process to be "settled" and see the UK leave the EU on 29 March 2019.  Both of these seem to be just as evidence-free as the remark for which Stewart was roundly criticised – Davis’ ‘almost everybody’ sounds like rather more than 80% to me, and ‘the public’ sounds a lot like a claim that everyone is included in the remark.  Perhaps Stewart’s mistake was actually putting a figure on it; the moral seems to be that they can get away with even more outrageous claims if they avoid making them sound quite so precise.  But here’s the thing – if they all ‘know’ with such certainty what the public thinks, why are they so afraid of proving it?

Thursday 22 November 2018

Returning to default mode

One of the characteristics of Labour’s leadership contest in Wales is that, in an attempt to differentiate between themselves, the candidates have all been busy coming up with proposed new policies.  It’s a bit presidential in style, implying that policy is decided by the leader rather than by the party, and the differences aren’t all that enormous.  And in general, they seem to be tinkering at the edges of what the Assembly might or might not be able to do.  Still, many of the policies seem worthwhile enough.
It does, though, raise some questions in my own mind.  If they’re so full of interesting ideas for things that they could be doing, and given that Labour has been in power continuously for the whole of the Assembly’s near 20-year existence, why aren’t they already doing these things?  Why does it take the resignation of a leader before they even start to come up with their proposals? 
Labour’s ‘policy’ at Assembly elections to date has boiled down to two main items:
a)    We’re not the Tories, and
b)    Voting for anyone else will let the Tories in.
Sadly, whoever wins the leadership race, I suspect that the discussion of alternative policies will cease, and they’ll return to their default mode of depending simply on a slowly disappearing hatred of the Tories in the population at large.

Tuesday 20 November 2018

How to lose friends

Not for the first time, I found myself wondering yesterday whether the Prime Minister’s problem is the poor judgement of her advisors, or whether she simply ignores what they say.  Her comments about people from other EU countries ‘jumping the queue’ might have looked to her or her advisors like a nice sound bite, but from the perspective of people who have chosen to make their homes here and contribute to the UK’s economy and society, it was downright offensive, as these two reactions indicate.  It was a stupid and unnecessary comment to make, but perhaps it simply reveals, yet again, the casual, almost unthinking, sense of superiority which Anglo-British nationalists feel towards everyone else.  It’s also just plain wrong – there is no ‘queue’ to come to the UK.
It’s an obvious attempt to return to the anti-immigration theme which she has used before, but I doubt she’s really thought that through either.  Does she really believe that those people who voted for Brexit primarily because they thought it would halt immigration are going to jump for joy at the thought of encouraging more immigrants from India instead of Europe?  If she does believe that, then she’s not understood the true nature of the hostility which some people feel towards immigrants.  It’s a dangerous and unpleasant hostility which she should be trying to counter, not stoke up in an attempt to sell the removal of rights from UK citizens as being about controlling citizens from elsewhere.

Monday 19 November 2018

The meaning of words

“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.”  That seems to make Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty something of a role model for the average Tory politician these days.  When Gove, Leadsom et al proclaim their loyalty to the Prime Minister, what they mean is that they will do everything in their power to undermine the agreement which she has reached with the EU.  Only a badly-weakened Prime Minister would tolerate that sort of ‘loyalty’ and ‘support’ within her own cabinet; effectively, the ‘gang of five’ have become unsackable, in the short term at least.
There is something very surreal about a Prime Minister trying so hard to sell a deal which her cabinet has ‘agreed’ (another word whose meaning is somewhat flexible) which a group of people who were party to the ‘agreement’ are busy rubbishing, and which all involved know full well stands no chance of getting through the House of Commons, even if she’s still around to promote it.  In parallel with all this is the attempt by some Tory MPs to unseat her by persuading enough of her own MPs to demand a vote of no confidence.  What better at a critical juncture than to put everything on hold for a few weeks whilst they hold an internal party election to determine who gets the ‘opportunity’ to make an even bigger hash of things?
It was only a few weeks ago that her internal critics were regularly telling the media that they already had over 40 letters delivered and just needed a few more, but we seem to have had at least 20 more in the last few days without ever getting to the magic number.  This probably simply means that Tory MPs have been lying to each other for months about whether they have or have not submitted their letters and/or subsequently withdrawn them.  But then there’s no reason why lies and duplicity should be restricted to those of cabinet rank.  Who knows what Humpty Dumpty might have meant if he said he’d submitted a letter?
At the heart of all this dissension lies the great fantasy.  Gove, Raab, Johnson, (yes, and Corbyn too) – a parcel of rogues if ever there were one – all essentially claim that if only they were doing the negotiating, the EU would immediately cave in and give them more of the benefits of membership with fewer of the obligations.  Even Humpty Dumpty might have struggled to make sense of that one.

Wednesday 14 November 2018

Hanging together

There are, and always have been, only three possible states in which the UK could find itself in relation to the EU, and in two years, the Prime Minister has argued that each, in turn, is the ‘best’ outcome for the UK whilst at the same time demanding that we accept that she has maintained an entirely consistent position.  The three are: full membership, with all the benefits and obligations that entails, some sort of associate membership which gives some of the benefits in return for some of the obligations, and third-party status which gives none of the benefits in return for meeting none of the obligations.
Prior to the referendum, the Prime Minister was ‘quite clear’ that membership was far and away the best option; since the referendum, she has repeated many times that no deal was better than a bad deal where we didn’t get to choose which benefits and obligations we have, and yesterday her position became one of saying that a bad deal, even a very bad deal, is better than no deal at all.  She has been ‘quite clear’ about each position in turn, although the words ‘quite clear’ when uttered by Theresa May don’t have the same meaning as when uttered by the rest of us, usually meaning that she does not, in fact, have a clue.
The surprising thing in the last 24 hours is that the cabinet is still hanging together, although that might be just because of their fear that if they don’t, they will, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, assuredly hang separately.  Things might change, of course; but at present it looks extremely unlikely that the deal being presented to the cabinet today will get through parliament even if they keep hanging together in support of it.  Having worked her way through supporting all three of the potential options as the ‘best’ for the UK, where can the Prime Minister turn next?

Tuesday 13 November 2018

It's not the end game yet

Putting on the strongest and stablest face she can muster, whilst at the same time looking sufficiently serious and determined, the Prime Minister has told us we’re now entering the end game of the Brexit talks with the rest of the EU.  The detail of what she is about to agree with Brussels seems not to have been fully shared with the rest of the Cabinet so far, let alone the rest of us, but one ex-member of the Cabinet has already declared that what she is going to propose amounts to ‘total surrender’.  I assume that he means surrender to ‘Brussels’ rather than the truth, which is that it is, at last, a surrender to reality.  The situation today is, in effect, no different to that which existed when Article 50 was triggered – the promise of the ‘exact same benefits’ without the obligations of membership is simply not on the table and could never have been.
If a deal is done at all, it will inevitably mean tying the UK into the EU’s rules for longer and more completely than the Prime Minister has admitted to date, despite her continuing denials.  Finding a way out of the situation into which her own red lines have painted her will be neither quick nor easy, even if she manages to get her ministers and parliament to sign up to it.  If this is indeed the end game, it is such only for the Prime Minister herself.  In relation to Brexit, the words of one of her own predecessors come to mind – it’s not so much the beginning of the end as the end of the beginning.  If Brexit itself isn’t halted, then it is going to remain more of a process than an event, probably taking at least a decade before it finally happens.  And that’s a truth which neither the government nor the main opposition party is yet willing to face.

Monday 12 November 2018

Sinking ships

Apparently, the idea that rats can sense when a house is about to fall down, or a ship about to sink, and therefore get out before the disaster, goes back at least four centuries.  I don’t know whether rodents can really sense a forthcoming disaster or not; anecdotal evidence isn’t the same thing as scientific proof.  What we do know is that, in the earliest days of the use of the analogy, the context was very often political. 
And that brings me to today’s report from the BBC that the now infamous agreement made by the Cabinet in Chequers in July may have been stretching the meaning of the word ‘agreement’ rather further than was thought at the time.  Perhaps they weren’t all as convinced then as they are now that this particular ship is doomed, but the fact that they are now leaking their concerns is evidence that many of them are pretty well-convinced by now and are retrospectively making it clear that this was never their idea of a good plan.
The only surprising thing is that so many of them are still on board at all.  It's not the behaviour that the adage would suggest that we should expect.

Friday 9 November 2018

We're having the farce first

It was Marx (Karl, not Groucho, although in this case it could equally have been either) who said that history always repeats itself twice; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.  It seems increasingly as though the UK Government has taken this on board in relation to Brexit but decided to reverse the order, by doing the farce first and the tragedy later.  Two years into the process, we have one of the key ministers in the whole process admitting that he hadn’t really understood the significance of the UK’s most important trading route, whilst the Prime Minister seems to have convinced herself that the only way she can get her own cabinet to agree with her plans is to demand that they vote on them without seeing the advice underpinning them.
The underlying problem remains, as the Guardian put it, that the Prime Minister “has never had the courage to choose between irreconcilable propositions”, preferring to pretend that there is no inconsistency between the two in a doomed attempt to unite her party around a form of words which can only be meaningless in the final analysis.  The latest example is the idea that it perfectly possible to agree a deal which guarantees that there will ‘never’ be a hard border across Ireland, but which also gives the UK an inalienable right to withdraw, selectively, from that part of the deal any time it chooses.
It’s true, of course, that a country can withdraw from any multinational deal at any point – Trump has demonstrated that in spades.  But I’m sure that the EU27 realise by now that they are dealing with a negotiating partner who they cannot and should not trust for a moment, which is why they will insist on a form of words which enables them to enforce the whole of any agreement reached.  What no country can do is to decide which parts of a legally-binding treaty it will honour and which it will not – and at the same time demand that any or every other party to the agreement continues to honour all their obligations.
The farce part seems destined to continue for some time yet, leaving the rest of the world looking on at the UK’s foolishness with amazement.  But whilst it’s OK for us all to laugh at the daily farce emerging from Downing Street, we need to remember that unless we end it while we can the tragedy is still to come.

Wednesday 7 November 2018

Time to smash the delusions

Yesterday’s news that a German company is closing its factory in Llanelli, citing Brexit uncertainty as a factor, *should* make people locally think about whether Brexit is such a good idea after all.  I doubt that it will, though.  We all see events through the prism of our own priors, and for those who think that multinational companies are trying to bully them into changing their minds, the news will merely reinforce that belief.  There have been plenty already willing to say that the company is hiding behind Brexit as a soft excuse for something it would probably have done anyway.  And they might even be at least partly right to believe that; although Brexit was cited as ‘a factor’, it was almost certainly not the only one.  Being the last straw isn’t the same as being the initial or prime cause.
But this business of seeing things through the perspective of our own beliefs goes much wider than that.  Writing in the Irish Times yesterday, Robert Shrimsley said that Brexit is ‘teaching Britain its true place in the world’.  I really wish that were true, but as any teacher will know and understand, there are two sides to education.  Delivering the lesson is one part; understanding and learning from it is something completely different.  And often the lesson learned isn’t the same one as was being taught.  As far as much of the UK is concerned, it seems that when the rest of the world tries to show the UK what it’s real place in the world is, the response is not understanding and enlightenment, but resentment and rejection of both the message and the messenger.  For Anglo-British not-nationalists-at-all who ‘know’, with absolute certainty, that the UK is superior to everyone else and entitled to behave accordingly, the message received isn’t the same as the one sent.
Also in yesterday’s Irish Time, Fintan O’Toole suggested that the Prime Minister should be allowed to present what is likely to be a humiliating climb-down as a great victory, because saving face is something that the rest of the UK can afford to grant the UK.  Logic says that he has a point; but there’s more to all this than mere logic, which is why I choose to disagree.  Getting the UK to understand its true status in the world is about the only good thing that might yet come out of Brexit, despite my growing pessimism about even that.  Letting the UK Government off the hook by allowing them to pretend that they’ve won a great victory over those horrid Europeans seems to me a means of perpetuating the illusions which they harbour.  Those illusions really need to be shattered, once and for all.  And it seems to me that it has to be done the hard way - the rest of the world needs to be prepared to be cruel in the short term in order to be kind in the long term.

Monday 5 November 2018

Choosing a century

Underlying the whole Brexit process from the outset has been a current of Anglo-British not-nationalism-at-all which starts from a perspective of general arrogance towards the rest of the world underpinned by a sense of superiority and entitlement.  It’s a strong form of a toxic mixture which would be called nationalism anywhere else, but these particular not-nationalists are so special and unique that they alone are, in their view at least, entitled to deny the application of that word to themselves.  It hasn’t made for a smooth process of negotiation, yet still they persist.
We saw it at the outset with statements about ‘the easiest deal in history’; ‘they need us more than we need them’, and so on.  It’s a perspective from which the EU’s determination to treat the UK as it has asked to be treated – as a ‘third country’ – is interpreted as some sort of punishment or revenge.  It’s a point which has been well debunked many times – here’s a good summary – but every attempt to explain that it's what the electorate voted for simply leads to even louder howls of protest from those who continue to argue that the UK has a right to be treated differently.
Most recently, we’ve seen it in relation to the suggestion put forward by Nick Boles that the UK could ‘temporarily’ join EFTA and thus enjoy many of the benefits of continued membership whilst negotiating an alternative longer term relationship.  In fairness, there’s a certain logic to the idea – from a UK perspective.  It’s not without its problems, though, not least because it doesn’t resolve the problem of the British border across Ireland, and nor does it satisfy the extreme Brexiteers. 
But there’s another problem with it too – such logic as it does possess might be obvious from a UK perspective, but what about the other countries involved?  Expecting the existing EFTA members to simply change their structures and procedures to accommodate a new member whose GDP is larger than that of any existing member, and to do so on the basis of an expected membership period of just a few years, is another display of that famous non-nationalistic sense of entitlement and arrogance.  Their compliance with the requirements of a UK government which still hasn’t worked out what it’s trying to achieve as an end point is taken as a given – just like it was taken as a given that German carmakers and Italian prosecco producers would force their governments to give way so that they could continue to trade with the UK.
From the outset, the UK has apparently managed to misunderstand and misinterpret almost everything that the EU27 has said; assuming instead that the EU27 will ultimately come to see everything as the UK Government does (i.e. in simplistic terms of economic transactions) and blithely ignoring the clear and repeated messages that, for the EU27, ‘Europe’ has always been about much more than trade.  As we approach the end game, nothing in the UK’s attitude seems to be changing; the government still doesn’t really know what it wants in the long term and is still assuming that the EU will give way.  They simply can’t escape from that inherent sense of superiority and entitlement.  Despite the reports of a ‘secret’ deal about to be agreed, such details as have been leaked so far seem to suggest that it’s little more than another exercise in kicking the can down the road whilst the UK – and more particularly the Tory Party – continues to argue with itself.  The problem is that that argument is still about how to achieve a result which recognises that superiority and entitlement.  It’s an argument doomed to continue indefinitely until the political culture of the UK is able to mature enough to accept that the UK’s place in the world isn’t what they want or believe it to be, and that the world isn’t going to accept the UK on the UK’s terms.  I keep hoping that the whole Brexit shambles will have the one positive effect of dragging these non-nationalists into the twenty-first century – it certainly ought to.  So far, it seems to be having the exact opposite effect – they’re retreating into the eighteenth.

Wednesday 31 October 2018

Spend and tax, not tax and spend

At first sight, it sounded on Monday as though the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister were directly contradicting each other.  The former was saying that a ‘no-deal’ Brexit could mean effectively tearing up his budget and starting again, whilst the latter said all the spending commitments in the budget would be fully protected, despite the certainty that Brexit will, overall, reduce government income, especially if it’s of the ‘no-deal’ variety.  But they’re not really in conflict at all – protecting the spending commitments in the light of changed circumstances merely means that they must be funded in different ways.  The total of the spending commitments, in itself, hardly represents a radical departure from previous policy; more fiddling at the fringes.  But the real news here, for me, was that the promise that the spending commitments will be honoured come what may is an open admission that the basis on which they’ve been telling us that public finances work is the big lie that many of us have long believed.
It is fundamental to much of what they have been saying that the government can only spend what it either raises in tax or is prepared to borrow; that the government’s income, in effect, determines what it can spend.  What the Prime Minister’s statement this week says is that the reality is exactly the opposite; the government can start by deciding what it wants to spend, and then decide later – even if circumstances change totally – how that will be financed.  Not so much ‘tax and spend’ as ‘spend and tax’.  It recognises the key fact that the government always spends money before it receives it back in taxes.  Effectively it creates money when it spends and cancels it when it collects taxes; any difference between revenue and expenditure represents either an increase in the amount of money in the economy or else is funded by ‘borrowing’ (or ‘saving’ as those of us who lend our money to the government through pensions etc prefer to call it).  If it weren’t so, where does the money to pay tax come from?
They’ve known this all along, of course, but have preferred to pretend otherwise for ideological reasons.  Pretending that they can only spend what they first collect in taxes is their excuse for not spending, justifying their desire to reduce the size of the state sector.  I think it’s good news that they’re recognising that the truth is rather different.  It would be a good thing if the opposition parties did likewise and dropped their own commitments to austerity.  The way things are going, the Labour Party is in danger of being caught out being more supportive of the ‘tax first’ mantra than the Tories, with their obsession with demonstrating how they will pay for their commitments and their demand that others do likewise.

Tuesday 30 October 2018

The tyranny of democracy

Benjamin Franklin said that “Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch”.  He went on to add that “Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!”.  I don’t find either of those images terribly appealing, although the second, I suppose, provides an explanation of sorts of US political culture, especially when it comes to gun control.  The first expresses well part of the problem with an over-simplistic approach to ‘democracy’, eliminating as it does the rights of any minorities; put together, the two concepts suggest that minorities only have rights to the extent that they’re prepared to defy the majority – using violence if necessary.  It’s not, for me, an attractive picture of the sort of society I want to live in.
It was the election of a man described as an ‘extreme right winger’ as president of Brazil this week which brought the quote to mind.  I’m never sure that labels such as ‘left’ and ‘right’ are terribly helpful other than as terms of abuse, but it is clear that the people have elected an authoritarian who wants to criminalise his political opponents.  There are also fears – based on what he himself has said – that he plans to remove the rights of indigenous peoples and open their lands to mining, will give the police carte blanche to kill, and will do away with human rights.  It could be that all of this was just campaign rhetoric, and that now he has been elected he will moderate his words and actions – but the omens for that are not good.
The problem, for those of us who believe that democracy is, in general, a good idea (or even for those who merely believe, as Churchill put it, that “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”) is that whatever Bolsonaro does, he can legitimately claim that he said he would do it, and the people have voted for him to do it.  He has a strong mandate to do what he said he was going to do.  In a not entirely unfamiliar phrase in the UK these days, ‘the people have spoken’.
The question it raises in my mind is about how to define – and enforce – the limits of democracy, and how to decide what rights minorities should have.  There isn’t a simple point at which one can draw a line between what people can decide through a vote and what they can’t – and even if there were, the world doesn’t have any mechanism for enforcing that line.  There are some limits to democracy – as we’ve discovered in relation to Brexit, voting for free unicorns doesn’t magic them into existence.  But aside from limits set by what is actually practical and achievable, where does the line go?  Is it OK for the majority to vote to eliminate the minority; for the wolves to vote to eat the lamb?  Is it acceptable for people to vote to abolish their own rights and privileges (even if they believe that it’s only ‘other people’ whose rights are being abolished)?
What the Brazilian election highlights is that there isn’t an easy answer to the question; in Brazil, as in the Philippines, when the people voluntarily, exercising their own free will, choose to elect an extremist, there is little that the rest of the world can do except watch and condemn from the sidelines.  To continue the theme from yesterday, concepts such as liberty, equality and fraternity are by no means as deeply ingrained in humanity as we like to believe.

Monday 29 October 2018

Mere evidence isn't enough

Many years ago, I was working my way along Barry Road in Barry, canvassing door to door in a local council election.  I remember a conversation with one particular voter, who told me that he could never vote Plaid because ‘that Gwynfor Evans’ had a secret guerrilla army in the hills.  I tried to reason with him, pointing out that Gwynfor was, in fact a renowned pacifist and had always argued for a peaceful approach to politics.  The response was swift: ‘that’s just a front to hide the fact that he has an army in the hills’ was the gist of it.  It’s a classic example of the way in which, once an idea is firmly implanted in the brain, mere facts are not only never going to shift it, they are themselves interpreted in ways which actually reinforce the idea that they should be enough to dispel.  I brought the discussion to an end and moved rapidly on, marking him down as a definite ‘no’ for the election in question, and probably all future ones to boot.  It was a frustrating experience, of course – but sometimes further debate is pointless.
Confirmation bias’ is something that we all suffer from to a greater or lesser extent; evidence supporting our own priors is preferred over evidence which challenges them.  We’ve seen a great deal of the same thing in relation to Brexit, and recent work has revealed that, for instance, 42% of the UK electorate still believe that infamous message on the side of the big red bus to be true, despite all the rebuttals that have been widely publicised.  The same survey also revealed how far away from the factual truth people’s beliefs are on other issues, including the impact of migration.
For those who believe that the EU is an undemocratic front for German imperial ambitions, intent on punishing and bullying the UK for having the temerity to try and escape its clutches, imposing on us its straight bananas, expensive light bulbs, and underpowered vacuum cleaners, and demanding that we submit to its every whim, contradictory facts merely ‘prove’ how right they are.  All forecasts of problems are just bad losers refusing to accept the result, and all obstacles are just an attempt to frustrate democracy.  Whilst there is some evidence that opinions are shifting slowly, I am far from confident at this stage that a new referendum would produce a wildly different result, and I fear at times that those of us who wish to avoid the damage which Brexit will cause are only speaking to each other – and, even worse, only hearing our own voices.
It’s a common misconception that campaigners canvassing in an election are like missionaries, out to convert others to their own point of view.  It isn’t really true, though – the main aim is to identify supporters with a view to then ensuring that they vote, in the hope that achieving a favourable differential turnout will facilitate electoral victory.  In the context of that conversation in Barry all those years ago, marking the individual down as a ‘no’ was enough.  Political canvassers are not the same thing as the door-to-door callers from some religious groups – the latter truly want to save your soul, the former merely want to know how you’re going to vote.  I don’t know how many people the missionaries convert; I suspect that the answer is very, very few, but their absolute conviction that they are doing the right thing somehow keeps them going in the face of multiple and repeated rejection.  (That last part, at least, is something that they do have in common with political canvassers!)
For those of us who’d like to change the decision on Brexit, the way in which facts are dismissed as ‘fake news’ is one indication of the way in which faith in the true path of Brexit has become akin, in some ways, to a cult, and that is part of what makes it so hard to change opinions.  There’s nothing particularly new about the fact that confronting cult members with hard facts and evidence has never been a spectacularly effective way of changing their minds, but what is, perhaps, new in the past decade or two is the extent to which ‘alternative’ facts and evidence are so readily available to reinforce any beliefs when they are challenged. As the director of the policy institute at King’s College London put it in the newspaper article: “Attempting to change people’s views of Brexit solely with a more evidence-based description won’t land, because it misses a large part of the point: our allegiances affect our view of reality as much as the other way round”.  One of the problems with the anti-Brexit campaign from the outset has been the absence of any attempt to present a positive case for European unity; it has always been mostly based on presenting the negatives of Brexit.  Changing the underlying allegiance is much, much harder than merely presenting facts and evidence.
The scientific approach to analysis of evidence is by no means as deeply ingrained in the human psyche as many of us have optimistically chosen to believe, and we are seeing the consequences of that, not just in relation to political questions, but also on issues such as climate change.  None of this is an argument for ceasing to promote facts and hard evidence; after all, if some of the great minds of the past had simply given up, we would all still ‘know’, with absolute certainty, that the Earth was the centre of the universe and everything else revolved around it.  We should, though, be a bit more circumspect about the impact that we are having, and accept that, to coin a phrase, the Enlightenment is a continuing process not just a historical event.