Wednesday 28 February 2018

The race to the bottom

It is right that the government and opposition parties should be competing with each other to offer alternative views of the future.  But that doesn’t make it sensible for them to compete to see who can come up with the most inane ideas about borders and customs union.  In a tight race this week to see who could say the silliest thing on the issue, Corbyn’s claim that we could be part of a customs union in which the UK could set its own external tariffs was narrowly pipped by Johnson’s claim that the whole border issue is as simple as recording the registration numbers of vehicles crossing it.  Neither show much understanding of the question.
What the Government has failed to explain to the satisfaction of just about anyone so far is why it is so important that the UK should be able to negotiate its own trade deals rather than relying on the 60 or so trade deals which the EU already has in place and the new deals which it is already pursuing.  Why duplicate or compete with that, just to put a different flag on the agreement?  In fairness to Corbyn and Labour, as I understood what Corbyn and his supporters to be saying this week, the reason that they want to be able to do that is because they feel that the EU has been discriminatory against poorer countries in its current tariff structures.  If true, that’s a fair point, and a reasonable basis for seeking change.  The problem with Labour’s position is that they seem to believe that they can both stay within a single tariff regime with the rest of the EU and at the same time adjust the UK’s tariffs with the countries concerned.
If we use a few simple figures to illustrate the point, what they are arguing in essence is that their (new, improved, bespoke) customs union can impose a common external tariff of, say 20%, and that the UK can then negotiate separate deals to reduce that tariff to say 10% (or even 0%) for those poorer countries to help them to improve their economies.  In principle, that’s simple enough – provided that those imported goods then stay inside the UK and are not transported elsewhere with the customs union.  But the point of the customs union is that goods from one member state can flow freely to all the others.  How would one prevent goods from being imported to, say, Belfast with no tariff and then transported by lorry to Dublin where the common external tariff of 20% applies, without introducing the sort of hard border which Labour say their proposal is designed to obviate? 
The whole point of a customs union is that it allows goods to flow across the ‘internal’ borders of that union without requiring any tariffs; Labour’s proposal would seem to undermine that completely.  Their fraternal support for the poor whose goods are being shut out of the EU is well-intentioned but, assuming the truth of the claim, what is the best way of seeking change?  Is it by changing the EU’s trade policies to allow those poorer countries better trade access to the whole EU market of 500 million, or is it by negotiating UK specific deals which only allow access to the UK market of 60 million? 
Noting the registration details of vehicles crossing the border with no clue as to who or what is inside them was the even sillier response from the Foreign Secretary who seems not to comprehend the difference between a county border and an international one.  His proposal would certainly provide an electronic list of which vehicles are in the UK at any time and which are not.  But it would tell us nothing at all about who or what was in the vehicles.  Obviously ‘taking control of our borders’ is rather less important to him than he said it was.

Tuesday 27 February 2018

How long is the horn?

Based on his speech yesterday, Jeremy Corbyn has clearly been taking lessons from Theresa May.  And fair play to him, why should it be the exclusive preserve of the Tories to make speeches in which they say very little but which the media portray as some sort of pivotal moment?  For make no mistake about it – despite the media hype, the detail of what Corbyn actually said (full text available here) was essentially the same as what he and the Prime Minister have both been saying for months. 
It’s true that he said that Labour would seek to remain in ‘a’ customs union, something which May has ruled out.  That certainly looks like a difference, but the devil is in the detail.  The Government have ruled out remaining in any sort of customs union on the solid and entirely accurate basis that any such union necessarily precludes individual trade agreements with third party countries.  They are demanding a bespoke agreement instead which provides the benefits of the customs union whilst also allowing the UK to negotiate other trade deals.  What Corbyn said was that he was quite happy for the UK to remain in a new bespoke customs union, but that such an arrangement “would depend on Britain being able to negotiate agreement of new trade deals in our national interest.”  That doesn’t look like a whole lot of difference to me; it’s just semantics.
It is, of course, in the interests of the Tories to pretend that Labour are saying something radically different so that they can portray them as betraying the will of the people.  It is in the interest of the Labour Party to pretend that they are saying something radically different so that they can persuade Remainers to vote for them in the general election which is looking increasingly likely.  And it is in the interests of the media to pretend that Labour are saying something radically different so that they have something to report.  However, none of this actually makes it any different in reality.  Using different terminology to describe a beast of fantasy doesn’t make it any less of a fantasy.
In the epic session at Chequers last week, the Tories managed to unite around the proposition that they want the EU to provide a unicorn.  I’m not sure that they’ve entirely resolved the enormously important theological questions about how long or what colour the horn should be, but they’re absolutely certain that any type of horse would be completely unacceptable, and a betrayal of the will of the people who, whether they knew it or not, demanded a unicorn in the referendum.  And, let me be clear (as the PM might say), the government is getting on with the work of delivering that unicorn in the negotiations with the EU27.  Corbyn and Labour, on the other hand, are now entirely in agreement that they are not going to demand a unicorn at all, oh no.  For them, a horse will be perfectly acceptable, just as long as it has a large single horn growing out of its forehead.  I don’t know whether they’ve got round to discussing the size and colour of the horn yet, but I’m sure that they will in due course.
Meanwhile, the EU27are doing a lot of collective head-scratching, wondering what sort of people can devote so much time and energy to debating the finer points of the appearance of a mythical beast.  For those who follow the true faith of Brexit, this insistence on ascribing the status of myth to their beloved unicorn (or one-horned horse if you prefer that term) is yet another example of the way in which those evil Europeans are determined to punish the UK for leaving the EU.
Now, let’s get down to basics.  Should the horn be smooth or spiralled?

Friday 23 February 2018

Spotting the ideology

A few days ago, the Prime Minister took herself off to Munich to give another of her speeches.  This time, she told the Europeans that future relationships should be based on practical considerations about what works and what we need rather than on what she called “deep-seated ideology”.  For once, I find myself in complete agreement; basing our relationship with other European countries entirely on an abstract ideological perspective would be against everyone’s best interests.  So how and when is she going to explain that to her own party?

Thursday 22 February 2018

The context for independence

In recent months, I’ve been asked more than once “why do you keep banging on about Brexit?”.  The answer, in a nutshell, is because it shapes the context in which we have to consider the prospects for Welsh independence.  It’s not that I consider the EU to be ideal; there is much in the critique published on Nation.Cymru a few days ago with which I could agree, even if I felt that parts of it were way over the top.  The situation we face, though, isn’t simply ‘EU – yes or no’; we have to consider what the alternatives are, something which I felt that article failed to do.
There are, it seems to me, three realistically possible outcomes from the current Brexit process.  The first is a complete hard break putting the UK outside all the EU’s structures and processes, the second is an agreement similar to that enjoyed by Norway (which is Brexit in name only, and achieves almost none of the stated objectives of leaving the EU), and the third is a change of direction and a decision to remain.  For the purposes of considering Welsh independence, the second and third are so similar that I won’t distinguish between them for the purposes of this post.
Under the first option there will inevitably be a hard border between the area subject to the EU’s rules and England.  Which side of that border Scotland sits depends on political processes there; a vote for independence would at least give them the option.  Which side of the border Northern Ireland sits is also an open question; the difference is that it won’t be decided by the people of Northern Ireland, it will be imposed upon them by the government of England.  Whether England obliges them to accept a hard border with the Republic or distances them economically from itself by creating a sea border between the island of Great Britain and the island of Ireland is uncertain at this point, but the idea that they themselves will have any real influence on the decision is illusory.
For Wales, there is no question at all; we will be on the same side of the border as England.  EnglandandWales will be the economic reality with which we are faced.  There are those who argue that Wales could, at some future point, decide to become independent and then re-join the EU.  I buy the first part of that, but not the second.  A Wales which has spent some time – probably decades – locked in an economic union in which England is the only trading partner with which completely frictionless trade is possible will inevitably become more integrated with that economy whilst the links with EU members weaken.  That in turn will make it harder and harder to envisage moving outside that border and establishing a hard border along Offa’s Dyke (which would be the inevitable consequence of joining the EU separately from the more isolationist economic position of England).  In short, the economic relationship with England constrains and defines the degree of independence which is realistically possible.
There’s a more general point there; membership of any economic union constrains and defines the degree of independence which is realistically possible.  And I understand why that leads some independentistas to support Brexit.  But their mistake, in my view, is to believe that Brexit reduces those constraints and makes it easier; to me the opposite seems much more likely.  Changing the administrative and political arrangements within a continuing economic framework whilst the ‘external’ borders stay the same will always be easier than switching between two different economic frameworks and replacing one set of external borders with another.
'Independence' is not a concept which is or can be clearly defined once and for all.  What 'independence' means changes over time, and depends entirely on context.  The question facing independentistas is about what type and degree of independence is preferable; that which is possible within a Europe of 30 or more states, or that which is possible when closely tied to England alone?  Do we want Wales to be part of an open Europe or part of a closed UK, albeit perhaps on a more federal basis?  I think the answer is clear; but Brexit as preferred by the ideologues rules out that option.  That, ultimately, is why Brexit is such a continuing theme on this blog.

Wednesday 21 February 2018

Two speeches and a confession

There are two types of obstacles to ‘frictionless trade’, which is the stated goal of the UK Government in the negotiations with the EU.  The first type is tariffs, and although it can take months and years of negotiations, abolishing or reducing tariffs is the easy part.  If by ‘free trade’ the government actually means ‘tariff-free trade’ (which is the way things look at times), then an agreement ought to be perfectly possible, even if the desired timescale is more than a little optimistic.  The second type of barrier is about rules, regulations and standards.  Ensuring that goods and services from one jurisdiction are being produced on a ‘level playing field’ before allowing them to be freely sold in another jurisdiction is one of the issues which leads to the creation of a so-called ‘hard’ border.  And it isn’t just about things like quality of the finished goods, it also includes things like whether different countries have different standards for environmental protection or health and safety – lower standards can reduce costs and therefore provide a potentially unfair advantage.  Regulatory alignment is much harder than tariff alignment, and takes longer to achieve - the best way of avoiding such problems is to adopt a common set of rules and regulations, arrived at by agreement.  (We could, perhaps, call it something like a ‘single market’.)
But given two different sets of regulations, does it necessarily follow that there need to be controls and checks on goods and services crossing from one to the other?  The UK Government’s position appears to be that it does not, and that if the EU imposes such checks it is the EU erecting new barriers to trade.  This seems to be the general gist of Liam Fox’s speech this week.  He explicitly referred to the possibility of ‘Europe’ “erecting barriers to trade where none yet exists”.  It chimes with one of the regular themes of the Brexiteers that we don’t need border checks and controls, and if we end up having them, it’s not the UK’s fault, it’s all the faulty of those nasty vindictive Europeans.  There is a sense in which the core message there – leaving out the name-calling – has an element of truth about it.  If you have two countries or groups of countries with different regulatory regimes covering goods and services, and if one of those regimes sets high standards whilst the other sets out to abolish as many standards as it can, which of the two is the one that it going to want to impose controls over goods entering its territory?  Not the one with low standards, naturally – if someone else wants to send them goods produced to higher standards, why wouldn’t they let them in?  But seen from the other perspective, why on earth would the more highly regulated country want to allow in goods produced to lower standards which can undercut the prices of its own manufacturers?  So there’s a sense in which it’s true that it could be the EU that will end up insisting on border controls.
And that brings us to David Davis’s little contribution yesterday.  Despite all the hype from the outset about ‘freeing UK businesses from unnecessary EU rules and regulations’, he seemed to be saying, in effect, that far from reducing standards, the UK will in fact set higher standards.  There will be no race to the bottom in terms of regulations and standards.  It’s a U-turn that, if he’s really serious about it (and I have my doubts), many consumers will surely welcome.  And if UK standards really are better and higher than the EU equivalents, there should be a lot less difficulty in allowing UK goods and services into the EU, which was the thrust of his argument as I understand it.  Hold on a minute, though.  If in this wonderful new world that he now seems to envisage, UK companies are committed to more regulation and higher standards than their competitors in the EU, doesn’t that give those EU companies an unfair advantage, allowing them to undercut UK prices?  In those circumstances, isn’t it the UK which needs hard borders to protect itself from unfair competition?  
Two speeches, but not really a lot more clarity or honesty.  And the confession?  That came from David Davis when he referred to an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ race to the bottom.  What is that, if not an admission that Brexit is really all about England?

Tuesday 20 February 2018

The will of the people

The argument that ‘the people have spoken’ and that the government has a responsibility to deliver on what the people have asked for is, in principle, a sound one.  But if what the people have asked for is a fantasy, at what point does the government have a bigger responsibility to tell them that, actually, what they’re asking for is undeliverable?  If they know that something simply can’t be done, for how long should they continue pretending that it can?
If the people voted for free unicorns, for example, because some irresponsible politicians told them that they could have them, would the government really feel obliged to say “Let me clear about this.  The people have spoken, and we are getting on with the business of delivering what they voted for.  But it isn’t just an issue for me – the rest of the world also has a responsibility to come up with innovative ways of delivering unicorns”.  When I started to write that sentence, I thought it was just plain silly; sadly, having re-read the sentence, I can almost hear Theresa May saying it, in her usual robotic tone.
Brexit – as in the hard-line, no compromise, complete break version favoured by the ideologues – is perfectly doable, albeit requiring a degree of preparation which is currently completely absent.  There are consequences which flow from it.  None of us can be entirely certain what those will be, but there is a strong consensus suggesting that they won’t be good in the short term.  BINO (Brexit in name only), a la Norway, is also perfectly doable, and if the Government were in a position where its own supporters would allow it to do a deal along those lines, I suspect that all the negotiations could have been largely done and dusted by now.  What is not doable is the provision of free unicorns – a deal under which the UK gets all the benefits of frictionless trade with the rest of the EU without following the same rules as everyone else.
It might be official government policy; it might even be what people thought that they were voting for, but ‘the will of the people’ can’t make it happen, any more than it can conjure up unicorns.  The ideologues know this, but don’t care; continuing to demand the impossible only makes it more likely that they’ll get what they want.  The rest of the government knows it as well, but its continuation depends on pretending that it doesn’t.  And rather than coming to grips with reality, the one thing on which they can easily unite is a demand that the rest of us join them in their unreality, and then blame those who refuse for undermining what they bizarrely call their ‘negotiating position’. 
The most obvious route back to the real world would be for the main opposition party to start explaining why the options are rather more limited than people have been led to believe, but half of them, including their leader, seem to be trapped in another version of unreality, in which a UK freed from the regulatory controls of ‘Brussels’ will somehow turn into a socialist paradise rather than the low wage, low regulation, offshore tax haven which is the ultimate objective of the Brexiteers.
It’s a strange world that we inhabit.

Monday 19 February 2018

A cause for laughter

According to the Sunday Times yesterday, a new group of intellectuals has been established to back Brexit. The report quotes the group as saying that seeking to reverse the result "would outrage democracy, cause dangerous and lasting dissension, and make the United Kingdom an international laughing stock".  But all of this is open to challenge.

I agree that holding a referendum and then ignoring the result would be an outrage.  But equally, ignoring any subsequent change in public opinion would also be an outrage.  There is  nothing in any definition of democracy which I can come up with which requires any democratically taken decision to be absolute and eternal.  Overruling a decision is one thing; but it isn't at all the same thing as trying to persuade people to change their minds.  Preventing the second of those things is surely an equal, if not bigger, outrage.

On the second point, it isn't the holding of a referendum or the taking or implementing of a decision which causes the dissension and division.  That already existed, and has existed for many years.  The referendum may have exposed it, but it didn't cause it.  There's no magic wand which will make that division go away, and the expectation that those who 'lost' the referendum will now simply change their minds and agree that it was the right decision after all in an attempt to paper over the cracks is a wholly unrealistic one.

But it was the third point that I 'liked' the most.  In essence, it says that we can't change our minds because people will laugh at us if we do.  It's a bit late for that; they are already laughing.  The implication is that even if we realize that the decision was a mistake, we should carry on regardless to save face.  But which is the bigger laughing stock - the one who realizes his mistake and changes his mind, or the one who realizes his  mistake and carries on regardless in case people laugh?

Friday 16 February 2018

The final fling

I remember that when I was a child growing up in the 1950s, it was common talk among those of my parents’ generation, and older, that ‘the only good German is a dead German’.  In the immediate aftermath of a horrific war during which there can have been few families which did not suffer a direct loss, the attitude was understandable.  In order to keep people onside, there had been positive encouragement by government and war time leaders to see things in simple terms of goodies and baddies, and to learn to hate the ‘enemy’.  There were also in the 1950s and 1960s a whole host of war comics in circulation.  These invariably portrayed the ‘Jerries’ and the ‘Japs’ as fanatical and ruthless (as well as often cowardly and bunglingly incompetent) whilst soldiers of the UK and US were portrayed as brave, heroic men (invariably men) of principle standing up for righteousness and justice against the foe.  It is fairly easy to see how a generation or two could have become imbued with a hopelessly over-simplistic understanding of what has always been a complex relationship between European powers.
It was a strong current, and it didn’t stop at one or two generations – the England soccer fans who chanted ‘two world wars and a world cup’ whenever their team played against Germany were of a much younger generation, but were expressing a variant on the same raw emotion, albeit at least third hand by that point.  The understanding of European history which many in the UK possess, particularly those in older generations, is largely based on that oversimplification which sees ‘the Germans’ as hell-bent on world domination by whatever means possible, whilst the UK is that plucky little island state which stood up to them and defeated them.  Twice.  It’s a poor version of history, but as a mechanism for transmitting nationalistic sentiment from one generation to another, it has been remarkably effective, even if that effectiveness has declined over time, with the majority of younger people – a generation which has had the time and the money to travel and meet people from other countries – tending to judge the situation as it is today, not as their forefathers were led to believe that it was in the past.
That difference is reflected, of course, in the generational variance in attitudes towards the EU and Brexit.  The prism through which we view ‘Europe’ is either that of a place full of shifty and untrustworthy foreigners, out to dominate us at any chance they get, or that of a continent which has tried (and largely succeeded) to put the past behind it and come together in a peaceful and co-operative fashion from which all benefit, albeit in structures which are far from perfect.  I still see, in comments on this blog and elsewhere, references to the EU as the Fourth Reich, the latest means by which those dastardly Germans are attempting to dominate us.  And even if some more educated politicians (such as the Foreign Secretary) don’t put it in such crude terms, when they talk about rules being ‘imposed’ upon us by foreign powers they are essentially trying to tap into the same sentiment.
There should be no surprise when people like Johnson say that there can be no turning back from Brexit.  They know that this is probably the final fling for a particular view of Europe and the world; demographic changes are against them.  They need to cement their ‘victory’ as solidly as possible, and inculcate a new sense of jingoism and nationalism in the younger generation before their generation loses all its influence as a result of the inevitable process of natural attrition.  Their appeal for a return to the ‘greatness’ of the past, and their demand that we should all ‘get behind’ Brexit is, in its very essence, an appeal for the sort of blind loyalty to king and country which their generation took for granted, yet which they see crumbling all around them.  In a sense, I almost feel sorry for those whose world view is so strong and immutable that they cannot understand why others don’t share it as instinctively as they do, believing instead that it’s simply a matter of repeating the same message over and over again.
What they don’t get – and probably never will – is that the world has changed irrevocably under their feet.  People, and especially younger people, are no longer willing to be told what to think, and have mechanisms for disseminating alternative views which don’t depend on the media controlled by our ‘leaders’.  Brexit is a critical juncture in the movement from one view of the world to another.  The timing of the referendum was crucial to the outcome, and the ‘winners’ know that they can’t afford to concede another chance.  Every day that passes reduces the number of Leavers and increases the number of Remainers.  The only real question is whether demographic changes will be able to redirect the political processes before too much damage is done.  The future belongs to trust and co-operation, not the division and competition of the past.

Thursday 15 February 2018

Boris and the Giant Damp Squib

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the Foreign Secretary sincerely believes that it is possible to combine his obvious pitch for the leadership of his party with a genuine attempt to appeal to those who still think Brexit a terrible mistake, I wonder if he even begins to understand why his attempt at the latter yesterday was such a dismal failure.  The belief that doubling down on the misleading, inaccurate and incomplete picture presented during the referendum, coupled with an appeal for blind faith based largely on some nineteenth century sense of British (for which read English) nationalism served only to underline the gulf between two very different world views.
He majored on things which he clearly thinks that ‘everyone’ believes deep down, and tried to tie them into Brexit, but it seemed to me like a student drawing a conclusion from premises without showing the workings in between – largely because there is no logical process involved.  Two examples in particular struck me.
The first was his assertion that the UK should be global and outward-looking.  He may be right in saying that we all want that (although it needs a bit more definition, rather than rhetoric, before I’d sign up to it).  But what he does not explain is why that is incompatible with membership of the EU.  Are the other member states not outward-looking?  Does the EU not seek to play a part in the wider global community?  To reply that being outward-looking and global means that we need to negotiate our own separate trade terms is to answer an entirely different question.  Indeed, I’d go so far  as to argue that any country which wants to negotiate its own unique bespoke trade deals with the rest of the world rather than work in concert with partners in the interests of all is being inherently selfish rather than outward-looking.
The second was his statement about “for the people, of the people, and by the people”.  It’s a noble sentiment, almost the textbook definition of democracy, and as a Welsh independentista, I’m hardly going to disagree.  But what is so special about the UK that this rule should apply only to the UK, and cannot be applied to, say, Wales or Scotland, let alone to the EU as a whole?  There’s nothing about the phrase that mandates a particular size or set of borders, yet Johnson speaks as though it does and as though that set of borders is self-evident.  And how can anyone, in all seriousness, square that definition of democracy with having a hereditary head of state, or an unelected legislature which contains people who are there by right of inheritance, by dint of being senior clergy in one particular religious denomination, or as appointees?  And finally on this point, what is there about that definition of democracy which explicitly precludes us from deciding voluntarily to share part of our sovereignty with others for the greater good of all?
For people like Johnson, these are questions that do not even need to be asked, because the unique and special nature of the UK is a given.  The speech was revealing, not for its clarity, logic, or reasoning, but for its insight, once again, into a mind-set which places the UK at the centre of the universe, as an inevitable part of the natural order of things.  There are those who argue that Johnson’s equivocation at the time of the referendum – he famously wrote two articles, one in favour and the other against, before making his own mind up – shows that he is not a natural Leaver, and therefore well-placed to woo over Remainers.  I disagree; I don’t think that he was ever torn between two world views, only between two different approaches to implementing his own (to say nothing of pursuing his own career ambitions).  I believe that he really doesn’t understand how an alternative world view can even exist, which is why, even if yesterday's speech was a genuine attempt to do more than stake his claim on the leadership, it was always doomed to fail.

Wednesday 14 February 2018

No representation without full responsibility

In introducing the proposal of the Welsh Government for to allow 16 and 17 years olds to vote in local elections, the minister, Alun Davies, said “I think everybody who pays taxes should be able to vote”.  It’s a nice line, with echoes of the ‘no taxation without representation’ slogan used by American colonists in the 18th century as part of their demand for independence.  In the context in which the minister used it, however, it’s utter nonsense.  Few, if any, 16 or 17 year olds pay council tax to the only bodies for which he proposes that they will be allowed to vote; it’s not so much abolishing taxation without representation, more a case of introducing representation without taxation.
They are, of course, also ‘consulting’ on a separate proposal to allow the same group to vote in Assembly elections, as part of a wider consultation on changes to the Assembly; but any government which really believed in the principle being propounded by Alun Davies would have taken that element out and included it in the proposal to extend the franchise.
In a move which I thought curious, in its timing at least, the same government subsequently announced that it is to ban intimate piercings for those under 18, thereby declaring them old enough to have a vote on who should represent them, but still requiring protection from themselves on an age-related basis.  It highlights the strange mish-mash of different ages at which people are considered to be ‘adults’; there is surely a case for aligning them all at one age.  Part of the problem is that people mature at different rates; some people are more mature at 15 than others are at 25.  Short of introducing a test of some sort to determine maturity, the legislation can only work by setting an arbitrary age, but that doesn’t really reflect the reality.
How could we determine, or judge, maturity?  I’m pretty certain that, had 16 and 17 year olds been allowed to vote in June 2016, the result of the referendum on EU membership would have been a lot closer.  Whether that demonstrates maturity or immaturity is entirely a matter of perspective.  One UK government minister rejected the idea of votes at 16 on the basis that young people are not sufficiently mature, but what does he mean by that?  There is no maturity test for voters; indeed, it’s hard to see how there could ever be, because such a test would be necessarily highly subjective.  And him telling an opposition spokesperson to “grow up” doesn’t exactly suggest that maturity is either a requirement for, nor a common attribute among, elected politicians, even of quite an advanced age.
At whatever age the right to vote is given to people, it’s hard then to argue that people who can vote for or against proposals, politicians, and the future of the country are not old enough to make all other decisions for themselves. On balance, I still believe that giving people the vote at 16 is the right thing to do, but proposals such as that on piercings make me wonder whether the proponents have really thought through all the logical consequences.

Tuesday 13 February 2018

Detail and headlines

Yesterday saw a report about an initiative in the Vale of Glamorgan to encourage parents to complain to the Welsh Government about the apparent low level of pupil funding in the county compared to the rest of Wales.  Leaving aside the not-exactly-subtle politics of a Tory-run council complaining about the funding they receive from a Labour government, do they actually have a point?
At a detailed level they have some valid issues, but the danger is that the point is lost in an over-simplistic comparison of totals at a headline level.  They argue, for instance, that “…the formula has not had a total review since 2001 and uses census data from as far back as 1991 to distribute some elements of funding”, and “…the formula allocates funding for pupils with additional learning needs based on factors of poverty rather than the huge amount of information available based on pupil needs”.  Both of those seem to me like reasonable points to make, but I suspect that, in the grand scheme of things, the likely difference in the overall total would be very small. 
The headline complaint is based mainly around a comparison of total allocated broken down by authority, which shows a difference of £1,360 per pupil between the authority with the highest allocation and that with the lowest, the implication being that some children are being short-changed.  However, that misses the point, rather, about the underlying objective of the funding formula being used by the Welsh Government, which isn’t simply about funding schools.  It is also about distributing funding ‘fairly’ around Wales and recognising that differences in wealth and opportunity should be reflected in differences in funding.  Merely equalising spending per pupil – which would be a very easy response to argue for - would serve to reinforce existing advantages resulting from comparative wealth, as well as ignoring the differences in costs faced by different areas based on questions such as rurality.
I’ve argued previously that comparisons between average spend per pupil in Wales and average spend per pupil in England are essentially meaningless because they ignore differences in need and circumstance; the same applies within Wales.  There isn’t a ‘right’ amount per pupil to be spending; and even if there were, the chances of that ‘right’ amount being the same across a country like Wales with wide divergences in geography and population levels would be close to zero.  None of that is intended to defend or support the detail of the existing formula in use; there is always scope for review and revision of any such mathematical calculation to ensure that the premises and assumptions are valid as circumstances change.  The point is, however, that, difficult though it might be, the discussion needs to revolve around the detail of that formula, not simply around its headline outcomes.

Friday 9 February 2018

Facts and beliefs

Yesterday’s revelation that under the UK Government’s own figures (dismissed of course as fake news by those with blind faith in the Brexit project) all parts of the UK will be worse off than under any scenario except the favoured one involving free unicorns merely confirms what many of us already felt was fairly certain.  In economic terms, for the foreseeable future, Brexit will leave us worse off than continuing membership of the EU.  Any attempt at providing a justification for Brexit has to be non-economic in nature.
For anyone interested in facts and analysis as a basis for taking decisions, the report actually ‘proves’ nothing at all, beyond the mathematical certainty that a given model fed a given set of assumptions will produce a particular result.  As noted previously, the track record of economic forecasting is not exactly brilliant, because the real world never behaves exactly as the model says it should, and assumptions are always open to challenge.  There is a danger though of throwing out the baby with the bathwater; individual models may be untrustworthy, but when a whole series of models and forecasts start to paint a similar picture, it would be folly to simply dismiss them.  That, coupled with a belief that the assumptions are not unreasonable ones to be making, rightly causes concern.
However, for those who hold to the true faith of Brexit, the report allows much firmer conclusions to be drawn.  One is that the entire civil service, the BBC, and a whole host of others are in a giant and malevolent conspiracy to pervert their ‘facts’.  And a second is that the research showing that the areas which voted leave will suffer most clearly demonstrates the existence of a deliberate policy of punishment by the EU.
There is little scope for any meeting of minds between those two positions, which probably helps to explain the comparatively small shift in opinion which has occurred since the referendum.  What was missing at the time of the referendum – and is still largely absent today – is any attempt on the part of Remainers to present the EU as anything other than an economic entity from which we gain more than we lose financially.  Most of those likely to be convinced by that argument already have been, but it will do nothing to change the minds of those who see the EU as some sort of evil empire.

Thursday 8 February 2018

Trade deals and fantasies

The reason quoted most frequently for not staying in the European Customs Union – or indeed, any customs union – is that it would prevent the UK negotiating its own trade deals.  And that much is true; what they’re not so good at explaining is why exactly the UK needs or wants to be able to negotiate its own trade deals.  They just present it as an inherently good thing and are rarely challenged for clarification.
The EU already has trade deals with many non-EU countries, and the UK benefits from those.  The plan, insofar as there is one, seems to be that the UK will negotiate with all of those countries to ‘roll over’ those trade deals, so that the UK expends a certain amount of effort to keep exactly the same terms which exist today.  It’s a sensible approach, given the amount of time available and the even greater amount of effort which would be required to do anything different.  It does, though, take us not even the tiniest step forward from today (and if any of those countries were to decline to play ball, there is the possibility of taking a step backwards).  It merely 'rebadges' existing EU deals as independent UK ones.
Then there are the countries with which the EU does not have trade agreements currently.  With some of those, the EU is already in negotiations lasting many years to achieve an agreement.  For it to be worthwhile for the UK to seek to negotiate separate deals with those countries, there has to be a belief that the UK market of 60 million can get a better or faster deal than the EU market of 500 million.  On what basis could that be?
Well, one advantage which the UK’s negotiators would have is that the EU is trying to meet the requirements of 28 states (soon to be 27), all of which potentially have different interests; ensuring that those are all met is time-consuming and complex.  Direct negotiations with only one state could conceivably be quicker and easier (although whether a state in a rush to reach a quick deal would take into account the needs of all its parts rather than just those of the south eastern corner is a danger which we in Wales might like to consider very carefully).  Of course, avoiding one part of a customs union seeking a deal which gives it a relative advantage over another part of the same union is one of the reasons for the EU rule preventing such individual trade deals by its members.  The alternative would be customs and border posts across the EU.
A second route to a quicker deal would be to concede more to the ‘other’ side in any negotiation; indeed, given the much smaller market that we’re talking about here, that might even be essential.  Whether making concessions to Trump’s America for a quick deal would turn out to be a good thing or not is rather a different question, but I can certainly see how an independent UK trade policy might lead to a series of different deals over a (still longer than the Brexiteers are willing to admit) period.  
The underlying question which remains is whether those deals make up for the inevitable loss of trade with our biggest trading partner.  In the fantasy scenario of those leading the UK, this question doesn’t even need to be asked; we’re going to keep ‘frictionless’ trade with the EU alongside the exciting new deals, so it’s not a problem.  It only becomes a problem when they have to face up to the fact that negotiating formal generic trade deals (as opposed to individual sales) and retention of that ‘frictionless’ access are mutually incompatible, for the reasons noted above.  Fox and friends are absolutely right to argue that if the UK wants to do its own separate deals, it has to be outside the customs union; the fantasy is believing that being outside the customs union does not disadvantage trade with the rest of the EU.

Wednesday 7 February 2018

Refighting the past

It’s an old saying that generals always want to fight the last war, meaning that their tactics and the weaponry that they want is based more on experience of the past than on anticipation of the future.  In some ways, the speech by the head of the army a week or so ago gave the lie to that statement, because he seemed quite clear that the next threat will be most unlike the last one, and will be more to do with cyber warfare than with conventional warfare.  And then he went and spoiled it by appearing to argue that the response should be to spend more on tanks and guns, in a vain attempt to match the military capability of Russia.  Certainly, all the coverage around his speech seemed to concentrate on the amount and quality of the hardware available, without explaining quite how any of that would protect us from a cyber attack.
There was another former military chief on the television a few days ago, complaining about potential cuts to the Royal Marines, and arguing that such cuts would lave them at half the strength that they had a few years ago.  He drew a comparison with hospitals and schools, arguing, essentially, that people would be up in arms if the number of hospitals or schools were to be halved, so why weren’t they doing the same about reductions to the military?  It’s a completely misleading and over-simplistic comparison, of course, because it merely considers the provision, not the demand.  If the number of children needing to be educated halved, or some miracle cures were developed which halved the need for hospital beds, then it would be madness to keep the same number of schools or hospitals, simple because that was the number we had before.  In the same way, the size of the military needs to be related to the requirement; the hard part is working out what that requirement is.
It is, I suppose, in the nature of generals to assume that somebody – perhaps everybody – is just waiting for us to drop our guard so that they can march in and enslave us; they don’t need to ask, let alone answer, the question as to why anyone would want to.  In that sense, the UK’s military posture is, after all, very much rooted in refighting the past, based on an assumption that the ‘enemy’ is hell-bent on world domination, and needs to be ‘deterred’ from acting in pursuit of that aim.  Coupled with an image of the UK as a great world power based firmly in the nineteenth century (or, at a pinch, the first half of the twentieth), it leads to a demand for military spending on a scale, and of a type, which is largely unrelated to any real threat to the UK.
The real problem is not about the size or scale of the military at all; it is about the continuing failure to recognise the place which the UK occupies in the real world, and adapt to it instead of pretending to be something which the UK is not.

Monday 5 February 2018

Agreement and reality

On Saturday, Jacob Rees-Mogg told the world, in all seriousness, that the civil servants who had prepared the document showing that all credible types of Brexit were likely to be be worse, in economic terms, than remaining in the EU, were guilty of ‘fiddling the figures’.  It’s a very serious accusation, but the only ‘evidence’ that he seems to have produced is that he disagrees with the answers.  Personally, I very much doubt whether they have fiddled any figures; but what they have done is to look at a limited range of potential scenarios.  Very specifically, they appear not to have looked at the government’s own preferred scenario – that is, of course, the one that the government have so far found it impossible to articulate.

Yesterday, the Home Secretary told us that the Cabinet was more united on Brexit than people outside understood.  They are, she claimed, completely united on ‘on the need for "frictionless trade", the ability to strike international trade deals and avoid a hard border in Ireland’.  I suspect that she’s right about the degree of unity around those simple objectives; if that’s the level of detail to which they’re working, getting agreement looks like an easy task.  I suspect that it would also be fairly easy to secure cross-party agreement and wide public support for a demand that all taxes be abolished and the NHS budget be doubled.  The question is not whether they can agree about the desirability of the objectives, but about how useful an agreement to demand the impossible is likely to be.

I’m certain that the civil servants could indeed produce a model for Brexit based on the assumption that the EU27 will allow frictionless trade on terms unavailable to members let alone to any other non-member.  And if they did produce such a model, there’s a good chance that it would show that such a scenario would be no worse than remaining a member, and maybe even better.  Even Rees-Mogg would probably be happy to brandish the figures.  But how meaningful would they be?  Making the numbers add up to a total which provides the ‘right’ answer doesn’t make those numbers useful or relevant.

The agreement which the Home Secretary is so sure can be achieved within the Cabinet is based on a convenient suspension of reality, just like her boss’ declaration this morning that we will both have a different customs regime to the EU and avoid having any sort of border with that part of the EU which happens to be to the west of us rather than the east or south.  But who needs reality, when fantasy is so much more comforting?

Friday 2 February 2018

What happened to all those EU constraints on trade?

In what will clearly be good news for some businesses in Britain and the people who work in them, around £9 billion worth of trade deals with China were signed off yesterday during the Prime Minister’s visit.  During the same visit, the International Trade Secretary suggested that deals such as this show that we shouldn’t be ‘obsessing’ with Europe, and should be looking wider afield.  Up to a point, I agree with him.
Here’s the point, though: they don’t have to be alternatives.  All the deals signed off yesterday were signed by the UK whilst still a member of the EU and within EU rules.  It’s true that the specific deals signed off yesterday aren’t the same as a generic deal covering terms; but the whole point of a generic deal is surely to enable specific individual deals.  If there is already significant scope for improving trade with China within EU rules, in what way would that wider deal ‘replace’ what is lost in terms of trade with Europe?  Only someone 'obsessed' with leaving the EU would see these as alternative, rather than complementary, approaches.