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.

Wednesday 24 October 2018

Depending on dodgy figures

I’m not an expert on predicting traffic flows, and I won’t pretend for a moment to understand the detail of the modelling which has been used by the civil servants in Whitehall to arrive at its estimates of the likely increase in traffic over the Severn Bridges after the abolition of tolls.  So, it’s not expertise which makes me sceptical about their conclusions, it is, rather, the application of a simple test to the outcome of the calculations – ‘does this result look reasonable?’.  It’s an approach which mathematicians often use, and if the result does not look ‘reasonable’ then it’s often a sign that there’s something wrong – either with the initial data, or with the methodology applied to it.  Treating the model as an unchallengeable ‘black box’ isn’t enough; the fact that ‘the computer says’ something doesn’t make it right.
As I understand the numbers set out here, the conclusion is that in 2022, 24 million vehicles would use the bridges every year without tolls, but only 18 million with tolls, or, put another way, without tolls, traffic will increase by 42% but if tolls only slightly lower than today are retained, it will increase by only 4%.  One corollary of that is that 6 million journeys each year – or 1 in 4 of all potential journeys – will simply not take place at all if they cost a few pounds more than they might otherwise cost.  Now of course it is true that according to classical economics an increase in price results in a decrease in demand, and I don’t doubt that some people or businesses will be deterred from using any stretch of road by a toll.  But it just doesn’t feel at all reasonable to me that such a small (in relative terms) toll makes such a huge difference – I just don’t believe the figures and suspect the validity of the model being applied.  A marginal variation in cost ought to lead only to a marginal variation in traffic flows; and the assumption that cost is what drives the volume of traffic flows is itself somewhat dubious.
There’s another corollary as well.  If tolls of a few pounds are really so effective at deterring people from making journeys, then there is perhaps an easier solution to the problem of the Brynglas tunnels than building another motorway – we can deter a quarter of the potential journeys by imposing an extra toll.  In reality, that doesn’t feel reasonable to me either – I don’t believe that it would have that effect in practice.
Llanelli AM, Lee Waters sees these figures as a way in which the UK Government is trying to dictate transport policy in Wales, by forcing the Welsh Government to build extra capacity – the new M4 link – in order to cope with all the extra traffic.  I’m not sure that they are quite that devious, but I have a lot of sympathy with the underlying assumption that the government’s figures are produced in a way which supports its policy objectives – by which I mean that the assumptions built into the modelling are those likely to produce the preferred outcome.  I disagree with Lee’s suggestion, however, that the solution is to retain tolls, albeit at a lower level, in order to obviate the necessity for the new M4 link.  Not believing that the removal of tolls will directly lead to a given increase means that, logically, I also don’t believe that retaining them would prevent that level of increase.
If the problem is that dodgy figures are being used to justify a particular policy, the solution is not to use those same dodgy figures to justify an unpalatable alternative – it is to challenge the dodgy figures themselves and the basis on which they have been prepared.

Monday 22 October 2018

But what are they measuring?

There’s an old management adage that says you can’t manage what you can’t measure.  It’s superficially attractive; turning progress into numbers can help make managers feel that they’re achieving something.  Only superficially, though; it tends to engender an attitude towards managing an organisation which concentrates on those things which can easily be measured in numerical terms, and a target-based organisation can lose focus on what it’s really trying to achieve.  In an attempt to make things manageable, people try and put numbers on things which aren’t amenable to such a simplification; things like using staff surveys to ‘measure’ morale or job satisfaction as though such essentially subjective things are capable of being objectively measured.
It’s with such a sceptical approach that I find myself wondering exactly how anyone can put a percentage figure on the progress in the Brexit negotiations.  In July, Michel Barnier told us that the deal was 80% completed, and last week, he updated that to 90%.  According to Theresa May, in just two days over the weekend, that has gone up to 95%, and the finishing line is in sight.  But what, precisely, are these figures measuring?  Are they simply telling us that in a document of 100 pages, the content of 95 of them has been agreed?  That would certainly be a means of measuring something, but I’m not at all sure that what is being measured is the extent of agreement between the two parties, given that there is still a complete failure to agree on the basic fundamental principle which has been outstanding since the very beginning.
Perhaps it’s a measure of elapsed time: when Article 50 was triggered in March 2017, we were told that agreement had to be reached by the end of October 2018.  They’ve certainly expended in excess of 90% of the elapsed time, but that isn’t really a measure of the extent of any agreement either.
Managers who think that a 90% satisfaction rating on an internal staff survey means they’re doing well can easily be lulled into a false sense of security; negotiators who think that they’ve agreed 95% of all the issues are probably suffering the same fate.  The methodology of the measurement is more relevant than the numbers it throws out.

Friday 19 October 2018

Defining freedom

The actor, Michael Caine, came in for some criticism yesterday for saying, in relation to the EU, that he would prefer to be poor and free than rich and enslaved.  As plenty of others were quick to point out, it’s fairly easy for a multimillionaire to say that when the real pain of impoverishment will be borne by someone else.  That is, though, a bit of an ad hominem attack; it seems to me that his basic point, namely that there is sometimes a trade-off between freedom and wealth is a valid one.  The point might be better made by someone with a few more financial worries, but the idea is a sound one.
Not everyone will draw the line in the same place; our individual personal circumstances inevitably affect our choices.  A well-fed slave might look at a free but hungry beggar and decide that he’s better off where he is, for instance, although that doesn’t necessarily mean that he supports slavery as a sound basis for an economy.  ‘Enslavement’ is also relative; a Marxist might argue that the relationship between capital and labour is such that all workers are, in effect, slaves, even if they haven’t yet realised the fact.
And it’s that question of defining what ‘freedom’ and ‘slavery’ mean that is my real issue with what Caine said.  For any state in the modern world, what does ‘freedom’ actually mean?  Clearly, when one country or state uses military power to over-run another and govern that second country in the interests of the first, that second country has lost its freedom in a very real sense.  But if those same two countries negotiate as equals to take certain decisions jointly, they remain independent sovereign countries.  Part of the problem with Brexit from the outset has been that some have been unable to distinguish between those two scenarios, whilst others have been deliberately unwilling to do so.
The result of that inability or unwillingness is that ‘taking back control’ has become a slogan of those who believe that the state in which they happen to reside should have the absolute right to make all its own laws in all fields; and such unthinking absolutism has taken hold in a substantial part of public opinion.  One of the aspects of this is the assumption that a particular state which exists today is the natural, God-given, order of things.  The fact that that state only exists as a direct result of historic military conquest which did indeed directly extinguish the freedom of other countries or states (even the unification of England is down to this process, let alone the addition of Wales, Scotland and part of Ireland) is conveniently ignored.  It’s as though the passage of an unspecified and undefinable period of time validates conquest, and only joint decision-making through agreement is inimical to ‘national freedom’. 
I can agree in principle that freedom is something for which it is worth paying a price (although each of us will draw our own lines about how much freedom and how big a price), but for me there is more ‘freedom’ to be had by Wales having the right to join as an equal with other European nations in taking some decisions jointly than there will ever be in being subsumed in a larger state which insists on the absolute right to take all decisions in the centre and share sovereignty with no-one.

Thursday 18 October 2018

Some things are beyond parody

Perhaps we’ve all misjudged the Prime Minister, the Government and the Brexiteers over the past two years by assuming that there was ever a serious objective of negotiating a Brexit agreement.  I’m wondering if the real objective all along has been to try and parody as many as possible of the most well-known comedy shows of the past 50 years.  Some sort of dare, maybe – after all, at least one minister has form on that score.
We’ve had more cunning plans than Baldrick, and Basil Fawlty’s ‘not mentioning the war’ has been taken to new heights by bringing the subject up at every possible opportunity.  Earlier this week we had the PM’s very best impression of Corporal Jones with her call for us all not to panic.  Yesterday, we moved on to Monty Python, with her insistence that her plan is not dead at all, although she didn’t go as far as to tell us whether it was stunned, asleep, or just resting.  Definitely not nailed to the perch though.  Meanwhile, the negotations have displayed the bargaining skills of Del Trotter.
Perhaps we were never meant to take any of it seriously, just do our best to enjoy the poorly-written attempts to remind us all of the comedy greats of the past.  I have a horrible feeling, though, that it will all end with some sort of parallel to the final episode of Blackadder – and that was not at all funny.

Wednesday 17 October 2018

Panic and doom

There was something very Corporal Jones-like about the Prime Minister appearing before the House of Commons on Monday.  The difference between ‘Don’t Panic’ and ‘This is a time for cool, calm heads’ is more about the tone in which the words are uttered than in the meaning which they convey.  And, for once she’s right; that’s exactly what is required.  But surveying the people around her, where does she think that she will find such a commodity?  Her cabinet is hopelessly divided, with around a third of the members actively and very ostentatiously plotting to undermine her; her party is split into at least three different factions, and the main opposition party is united only in demanding a better unicorn that the one she can never deliver.  The two cabinet ministers who actually got around to resigning because they don’t agree with her plans can’t even agree with each other – David Davis has magical spectacles which seem to see the EU in a state of panic which would allow the UK to press home its imaginary advantage, whilst Boris Johnson has an entirely different pair of spectacles which see a domineering EU forcing the UK into separation or submission.  Just as well they’re not on the same side, eh?  If the future really does depend on finding a few ‘cool, calm heads’ amongst this lot, then perhaps it’s Private Frazer to whom we should be listening, not Corporal Jones, because it means that ‘we’re doomed’.

Friday 12 October 2018

Hiding the fiscal facts

Nation.Cymru carried a piece yesterday about the response by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling to a claim by Plaid that Wales isn’t getting its fair share of infrastructure spending. 
The claim that Wales doesn’t get its fair share is a long-standing one, and I suspect that it’s true although it isn’t quite as black-and-white an issue as its sometimes presented.  It appears to many of us in the west and north of the country that the allocation of capital spending within Wales is as unfair as the allocation of capital spending between Wales and England; there seems to be the same concentration on the south east, in and around the capital city.  But merely looking at share of capital expenditure in relation to percentage of population is an over-simplistic way of doing the calculation.  As an example, we know that the cost of building a mile of road will depend significantly on where that mile of road is built – it will cost more in the centre of Cardiff than in the middle of Powys, for instance.  But the difference in ‘cost per head’ of population living in the area will not be in the same ratio as the difference in absolute cost; and neither will the calculated economic benefit.  In addition, the timescale for many infrastructure projects is lengthy; what looks like an unfair share in one year can potentially end up looking very different over many years.  Fairness is an elusive concept when it comes to sharing out infrastructure investment.
But there was another point in the Minister’s response which caught my attention.  He said “I do not think that the Welsh can ever claim that their money is siphoned off to pay for the rest of the country, given the amount of support from taxpayers elsewhere in the UK that goes into Wales...”.  This is, of course, the standard unionist line about taxpayers in England subsidising Wales out of the goodness of their hearts.  It is, though, as over-simplistic as the idea that fairness in infrastructure investment is as easy to work out as spend per head.  The problem is that we simply do not have figures which are accurate and comprehensive enough to determine whether there is a fiscal transfer between England and Wales let alone the size of that transfer; such figures as we do have are inevitably based on estimates and often arbitrary assumptions about the way expenditure should be split.
The GERW figures published two years ago were a useful attempt to analyse income and expenditure for Wales as part of the UK, despite the fact that they were misused by some who attempted to present them as being in some way relevant to the concept of an independent Wales.  There are, though, always going to be problems with such figures.  To take one example, any analysis of expenditure in or on behalf of Wales will assume that Wales needs to pay a percentage of the costs of central administration of government activities.  This is not unreasonable in itself; clearly where the UK Government provides services from which Wales benefits then, under the current constitutional arrangements, it is entirely sensible to apportion part of that cost to Wales.  But it’s worth asking what then happens to that money – assuming that it’s spent once and gone isn’t the whole story.  The reality is that that expenditure largely goes on salaries, and the people receiving those salaries mostly live in England.  The personal tax those individuals pay on their income and on their expenditure (VAT, fuel duty etc.) is then all counted as English revenue based on residence.  Given that probably around 30-35% of all private income (on average) ends up going straight back to the Treasury in tax, every £million spent ‘on behalf of Wales’ but not actually in Wales only costs the Treasury a net figure of around £650,000 - £700,000.  And that’s without the multiplier effect as the people providing the goods and services purchased by those individuals then pay their taxes and buy goods and services themselves…
Now, within a unitary state, none of that really matters.  It’s just a question of book-keeping because there is ultimately one Exchequer and one big cheque book.  But it does matter when people start talking about ‘siphoning off’ and ‘subsidies’, because the truth is hopelessly obscured.  There’s another aspect to what Grayling said as well – every time unionists like him talk about subsidising Wales they effectively undermine their own case for the union, which is that we pool and share.  Still, I suppose that I shouldn’t complain too much about that.

Thursday 11 October 2018

Determining where duty lies

There’s nothing at all unreasonable in the Prime Minister’s demand that MPs should ‘do their duty’ and ‘act in the national interest’ over Brexit; the problem lies in her insistence that doing both of those things necessarily involves voting for whatever she puts before them.  The logic of the leap from the first proposition to the second may be obvious to her, but it isn’t going to be so obvious to many others.
I’ve posted previously that I tend to agree with what appears to be her interpretation of the Brexit vote, namely that the electorate wants firstly to be free of all the EU rules and institutions and secondly to keep all the benefits of membership.  Trying to get as close as possible to that outcome is one thing, but I’m astounded that she can have seriously thought for one tiny moment that she could ever negotiate something akin to that.  Refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer to such a wholly unreasonable request is what has led to us being where we are.  It is clear that any agreement which she can reach is going to seriously compromise one or other or even both of those two aims.  Attempting to find a form of words which suggests that she has compromised neither is an impossible task, but the one in which she is currently engaged.
I can understand why many might think that it is the ‘duty’ of MPs, as May says, to support Brexit (even though it was clearly stated to be an ‘advisory’ referendum).  Asking the people what they think and then ignoring the outcome cannot be good for democracy.  But how open-ended can that be?  Can it really be the duty of our elected representatives to vote for something which they believe to be seriously harmful – especially if there is evidence that opinions might have changed?
I can also agree that MPs should indeed vote in the national interest, but who decides what that is?  Do we not expect MPs to decide for themselves where they think the national interest lies rather than accept that it’s whatever the PM of the day tells them it is?  ‘Doing their duty’ and acting ‘in the national interest’ are precisely the drivers leading MPs to take such a variety of positions over Brexit – that is why the PM is having such difficulty finding any solution for which a majority of MPs can vote with a clear conscience.  Demanding that they follow her blindly looks more like expecting them to seek out the last refuge of a scoundrel than to act as thoughtful representatives of the electors.  It would have been better if we hadn’t had the first referendum in an attempt to settle an internal Tory Party row.  A second one is already too late to completely undo the damage already done, but it still looks like a better way forward than anything they’ve come up with to date.

Wednesday 10 October 2018

Pre-conditions for referendums

There has been some confusion about UKIP's policy in relation to the National Assembly.  Actually, I could have written that sentence without the words "in relation to the National Assembly", and on everything except their core policy of Brexit, it would still have made sense.  Yesterday, the party's UK leader half backed the suggestion from the Welsh leader that the Assembly should be abolished, by calling for a referendum.  This is hardly a surprise; it's not so very long since UKIP were claiming that the very existence of the Assembly was all part of a vile plot by those dastardly Europeans to regionalise the UK, completely ignoring decades of agitation for a national legislature for Wales.

There is nothing at all wrong with making such a call - they have as much democratic right to call for such a referendum as I do to call for a referendum on abolishing Westminster's control over Wales (which is the effect of a referendum on independence).  The fact that we have had referendums in the past is not - and should not be - any bar to having another one if it appears that opinions have changed.  It would be nice, though, if they'd recognise that a similar rule should apply to Brexit - if one decision brought about  by referendum can be changed by a further referendum, there is no logical justification for saying that the same isn't true for another decision taken by referendum.  I don't really expect them to understand that, mind: logic and UKIP are not words generally used in the same sentence.

There is, though, a condition which they need to meet first, and it's the same condition which we independentistas also need to meet.  To hold a referendum on either proposition requires there to be a majority of AMs in the Assembly committed to that proposition by manifesto commitment.  It's a wholly reasonable bar to set as a means of determining whether opinion is moving in a particular direction.  It's not one that I see much hope of them crossing though.

Tuesday 9 October 2018

Brexit and independence

The clarity with which Plaid’s new leader has expressed his opposition to Brexit is to be welcomed.  Whether it will win or lose votes for his party is an open question; I suspect that there will be some movement in both directions.  But if a political party is serious about seeking those changes which it believes to be in the best interests of its country, then it has a responsibility to lead, rather than follow, public opinion; to set out what it thinks and seek to win support for that view rather than merely regurgitate whatever the latest focus group tells it.
I don’t disagree either with Adam’s suggestion that a messy and damaging Brexit might well fuel the demand for independence for Wales, and I don’t see any inconsistency in the two positions.  Peter Black’s claim that this in some way suggests that Adam’s opposition to Brexit is insincere and that, deep down, Adam wants a bad Brexit in order to promote the independence agenda is more than just mischievous party politicking, it’s an attempt to distort the meaning of a very clear statement of opposition to Brexit, presumably in an attempt to claim that only the Lib Dems are really sincere in their opposition to Brexit.  But isn’t using Brexit to try and further the aims and interests of one political party exactly the sin of which Peter accuses Adam?
I’ve argued previously that there is a problem with the idea that Brexit will fuel the demand for independence, though, because Brexit will inevitably redefine what independence means – and probably not in a good way.  To completely misquote the porter in Macbeth, Brexit risks provoking the desire but taking away the performance.  Assuming that the Brexiteers get their wish and that we end up with what they are choosing to call a ‘clean break’ in order to avoid discussing the detailed implications, then the idea that Wales can break free of the UK (i.e. England) regulatory regime and re-join the EU is attractive but full of practical difficulty, with the inevitable requirement for a border along Offa’s Dyke.  The natural and sensible desire to avoid that border because of the close integration of the Welsh and English economies rules out EU membership and implies close adherence to the English regulatory regime.  It’s considerably easier to see Wales making the transition to independent EU member state whilst the UK remains part of the EU than some years after a complete break.  My view remains that the easiest route to independence is still via ‘internal enlargement’ of the EU, however difficult a process that might be in practice. 

Friday 5 October 2018

It's our freedom too

Perhaps the previous incumbent did something to the water in the Foreign Office which means that all future occupants of the post are doomed to suffer from some strange inability to understand the rest of the world, but Hunt’s comments comparing the EU to the Soviet Union were deeply insensitive to say the least.  For people who lived much of their lives under Soviet domination (a list which includes both the German Chancellor and the current president of the European Council), it was a comparison which betrayed an ignorant and arrogant attitude to their reality.  For most of the former Eastern Europe, the EU has been a force which has promoted liberalisation, democracy and freedom.  That’s not to say that all of the countries have perfect democracies yet; there are troubling events occurring in some of them.  But then politicians from a state where over half the legislators are appointees, bishops, or hereditaries are hardly in a position to lecture anyone else on democracy.
Back in 1970, I travelled to what was then Czechoslovakia with a group of other members of youth clubs from Glamorgan, and we stayed in a youth camp along with young people from a whole range of Eastern European countries.  One theme was common; they all complained about their lack of freedom to travel.  In many cases, even travel within their own countries was restricted; travel outside the Soviet bloc was a near impossibility.  They understood – better than Hunt ever will – what lack of freedom meant.  For the young people of those countries today, membership of the EU has brought them unprecedented freedom to travel, live and work across the continent.  Here in the UK, we have also benefitted enormously from the freedom of movement which membership of the EU has given us, as barriers have been torn down and rights harmonised, even though the UK has insisted on maintaining more barriers than other countries.  It just hasn’t always been so obvious to us because the restrictions which previously applied were not so tight in the first place (although some of us can still remember needing visas for some countries).
From the point of view of those who have enjoyed such a dramatic increase in their freedom of movement, there is something very strange indeed about the extent to which people in the UK are actually celebrating the fact that their government is planning to remove that freedom from its citizens.  I can’t help but wonder whether that sense of British exceptionalism isn’t at work here underpinning attitudes; perhaps people really do believe that it’s only other people’s freedom of movement which is being constrained, and that ‘Brits’ will still have all their existing rights protected.  From such a perspective, it’s only the freedom of ‘migrants’ which is being restricted, ‘ex-pats’ will be able to carry on as before.  But calling something by a different name doesn’t change what it is.  How long can it be before people realise that what they’ve been demanding amounts to restricting their own freedom?

Thursday 4 October 2018

Is Theresa May a Corbynite sleeper?

I’m struggling to imagine what sort of conversation could have taken place between the Prime Minister and her advisors which led anyone to think that equating ‘unskilled immigration’ with a salary of less than £50,000 a year was a brilliant election-winning strategy.  Unless, of course, her advisors – and perhaps May herself – are all Corbynite sleepers.  As a means of escaping from the interminable Tory internal wrangling, it’s a theory which makes a certain amount of sense.
Quite apart from the obvious truth that salary is, in fact, absolutely useless as an indicator of skill (others have already produced lists of occupations which are thus classified as unskilled, such as this one in the New Statesman), and leaving aside her clearly nonsensical comment that we should ‘train’ British workers to do the ‘unskilled’ jobs (who writes this stuff for her?), did no-one stop to think about the political repercussions of this?  According to the government’s own figures (available here), a total income of £50,000 per annum before tax in 2015-16 was marginally above the 88th percentile for income.  Who on earth thought that it could ever be a good idea to tell 88% of the UK population that the government considers them to be so unskilled that, if they weren’t here already, they would never be allowed into the country?

Wednesday 3 October 2018

Fairies and the Conservative Party

Sometime in the 1950s, I remember going to see Peter Pan.  It was a Christmas treat organised by the Cadoxton Conservative Club for the children and grandchildren of members (my grandfather was a staunch member).  We were taken to the theatre in a fleet of double-decker buses, and each child was given a bag of fruit – an apple, an orange, and an over-ripe banana come to mind.  (As an aside, given that Barry Docks was the port of entry for most of the UK’s bananas in those days, I never really understood why they were over-ripe, but that’s not really relevant here.  It must be a parable for something, though.)
One of the dramatic moments was when Tinkerbell’s light started to fade, and we all had to shout very loudly that we believed in fairies in order to save her life.  The shouting wasn’t loud enough at first, so we had to do it again and again until Tinkerbell recovered to full health and the show could continue.  In later years, of course, I came to realise that it didn’t matter how loudly we shouted - full recovery was pre-scripted into the show.
This week, the Prime Minister has told us how much she believes in Brexit, but to date she hasn’t shouted loudly enough to convince the members of her own party.  Somehow, however loudly she shouts it, I doubt that it will be believed by many of them.  It’s not only her own belief that matters, naturally; for Tinkerbell Brexit to recover requires all of us to proclaim our true belief from the rooftops.  Indeed, if we fail to shout loudly enough then, according to the Brexiteers, the failure of Brexit will be our fault.  Success or failure depends solely on the strength of our belief.  In Neverland, where children never grow up, it’s the way things work; only adults realise that the outcome of the story actually depends on the author, not the audience.
Birmingham this week has been like a pale copy of Neverland.  Boris Johnson did a better job of pretending to be Peter Pan than did Theresa May; he had more of the audience shouting out in support of their conviction than she is likely to get this afternoon.  She still doesn’t look like a true believer in anything much except that she should be in charge – something else which makes her pale in comparison to Boris, who is more convincing on that score as well.  But what neither of them – to say nothing of their audience – seem to understand is that the outcome will be shaped by the script, not by the devoutness of the audience.  And the script is largely being written elsewhere.
It must be comforting for them to be able to escape from the real world to a place where they can fly and where none of this is a problem at all, just as long as they can persuade us all to believe in fairies.  However, the script (over which they have absolutely no control) requires them to reconnect with reality eventually, and Michel Barnier doesn’t need to ape the crocodile by swallowing his clock for the rest of us to hear it ticking away loudly in the background.

Tuesday 2 October 2018

Reading a book might not help much

There is an old story, probably apocryphal, about the Soviet historian who said, “In my country, only the future is certain.  The past is always changing.”  It was a reflection of the Soviet-era habit of rewriting the past, and even doctoring photographs of events, as and when different members of the Politburo went up – or more usually down – in favour.  It also reflects a more general truth, however: what we know as ‘history’ isn’t just a simple sequential series of events.  Facts and events are selected, importance is assigned to them, and they are interpreted, and all of those things are done from the viewpoint of the particular historian.  And yes, as part of that process, history often is re-written; the importance assigned to events, let alone their interpretation, can and does change over time.  A book on the story of the British Empire written now would not say the same as one written 70 years ago – nor as one written 70 years from now.  And for most of us, the version of ‘history’ which we carry in our heads is probably the version which was mainstream at the time we were in school.  It is hard to avoid that ‘remembered’ history colouring our judgement when we look at alternative views.
Yesterday, a spokesperson for the EU Commission reacted to some of the Foreign Secretary’s comments in his party’s conference by suggesting that Hunt could benefit “from opening a history book from time-to-time”.  My instinctive inclination to agree was tempered by the caveat that it depends which book, when it was written, and by whom.  The issue of different interpretations of history goes right to the heart of the problems which the Anglo-British not-nationalists-at-all are having in their negotiations with the EU.  The two sides have completely different views of European history; even when they agree on the basic facts, the importance which each assigns to those facts and the way in which they should be interpreted leaves them talking past each other with a complete lack of comprehension.  I doubt that getting him to read a history book would help at all – even if the book were chosen for him, he (like most of us) would be unable to read it without his judgement being coloured by his ‘remembered’ version of history.
I can’t really blame him for that; like all of us, he is a product of a particular era and culture, and it is always hard to escape that.  What it is entirely reasonable to blame him for, however, is his apparent complete lack of understanding that not everyone will share his particular historical perspective.  And not just him either – all the Brexiteers seem to be guilty of the same belief that theirs is the only valid historical perspective.  One of the keys to success in any process of negotiation is to understand the perspective of the ‘other side’, and especially to understand that what drives them may not be what drives you.  Even if you think they’re just plain wrong, you still need to understand their perspective and try and work with it.  The problem with the world view of the Anglo-British not-nationalists-at-all is that they ‘know’ that they are right and that everyone else is wrong.  As a starting point for a negotiation, it doesn’t get past first base. 

Monday 1 October 2018

The real humiliation is yet to come

The description of the Prime Minister’s plan for a Brexit Britain Festival as ‘bizarre’ was, I thought, rather too kind on her.  Given that neither she nor anyone else has the faintest clue at present as to the likely outcome of Brexit, preparing at this stage to celebrate it with a festival looks more than a little foolhardy.  On all foreseeable outcomes, from cancelling Brexit through remaining in the single market to crashing out with no deal, egg-on-face syndrome looks to be a near certainty.  I can almost hear a room full of Sir Humphreys telling her that it would be a ‘very brave decision’; but then listening to advice isn’t exactly what she’s best at.
Apparently, it isn’t even her idea – it was originally put forward by a certain Mr Rees-Mogg.  One would have thought that a provenance like that would be sufficient in itself to cause some very loud alarm bells to sound somewhere; he is, after all, not exactly well-known for having his finger on the pulse.  As if to prove the point, when he first suggested it, he said, “In the spirit of friendship of our European neighbours, upon leaving we should drink lots of champagne to say that though we may be leaving the European Union, we don’t dislike Europe”, thereby proving how far removed from the real lives of the rest of us he and his ilk are.  (Although, if he’s buying…)
If it comes off – and there has to be at least an element of doubt given the regularity with which May withdraws most of the proposals she puts forward whilst claiming that ‘nothing has changed’ – it seems clear that it will be a feast of that Anglo-British nationalism-which-isn’t-nationalism-at-all; a red, white and blue Brexit celebrated with red white and blue flags waved energetically at all and sundry, and especially at those beastly Europeans who seem to be determined to cut themselves off from the soon-to-be paradise of ‘this sceptr’d isle’ by refusing to bow down before their betters, which I think is what the latest messages coming from Raab and Hunt are effectively saying.
Last month, the former Foreign Secretary talked about May’s plan being like flying white flags from the UK’s tanks as they move into battle against the Europeans; this week, Raab talks about getting belligerent with them for failing to back down and Hunt talks about the UK being ‘held captive’ against its will.  They act and talk as though it is the EU which has decided to leave the UK rather than the other way around.  One wonders why they haven’t stopped, just for one moment, to consider whether comparing the negotiations with warfare and making threats might not be the most effective form of persuasion; I suspect, though, that conflict and failure is what they actually want. 
Nostalgia is a huge handicap, blinding them to the reality of the UK’s place in the modern world.  I keep thinking that, eventually, the Brexit process will lead to a rude awakening and will finally dislodge the sense of uniqueness and entitlement which is so characteristic of Anglo-British not-nationalism.  Thus far, they just seem to double down on the fantasy that they can recreate the alleged greatness of the past, a fantasy which gives rise to the bizarre belief that a great festival will restore ’national’ pride.  The only certainty is that when the fall comes (as surely it will) they are just giving themselves further to fall.  They claim that the Prime Minister was humiliated in Brussels a fortnight ago – I’m not sure that they even begin to realise what real humiliation looks like.  Time will show them.