Wednesday 28 November 2018

Desperate measures

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

Monday 26 November 2018

Building the lie

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

Friday 23 November 2018

'Knowing' what we think

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

Thursday 22 November 2018

Returning to default mode

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

Tuesday 20 November 2018

How to lose friends

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

Monday 19 November 2018

The meaning of words

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”  That seems to make Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty something of a role model for the average Tory politician these days.  When Gove, Leadsom et al proclaim their loyalty to the Prime Minister, what they mean is that they will do everything in their power to undermine the agreement which she has reached with the EU.  Only a badly-weakened Prime Minister would tolerate that sort of ‘loyalty’ and ‘support’ within her own cabinet; effectively, the ‘gang of five’ have become unsackable, in the short term at least.
There is something very surreal about a Prime Minister trying so hard to sell a deal which her cabinet has ‘agreed’ (another word whose meaning is somewhat flexible) which a group of people who were party to the ‘agreement’ are busy rubbishing, and which all involved know full well stands no chance of getting through the House of Commons, even if she’s still around to promote it.  In parallel with all this is the attempt by some Tory MPs to unseat her by persuading enough of her own MPs to demand a vote of no confidence.  What better at a critical juncture than to put everything on hold for a few weeks whilst they hold an internal party election to determine who gets the ‘opportunity’ to make an even bigger hash of things?
It was only a few weeks ago that her internal critics were regularly telling the media that they already had over 40 letters delivered and just needed a few more, but we seem to have had at least 20 more in the last few days without ever getting to the magic number.  This probably simply means that Tory MPs have been lying to each other for months about whether they have or have not submitted their letters and/or subsequently withdrawn them.  But then there’s no reason why lies and duplicity should be restricted to those of cabinet rank.  Who knows what Humpty Dumpty might have meant if he said he’d submitted a letter?
At the heart of all this dissension lies the great fantasy.  Gove, Raab, Johnson, (yes, and Corbyn too) – a parcel of rogues if ever there were one – all essentially claim that if only they were doing the negotiating, the EU would immediately cave in and give them more of the benefits of membership with fewer of the obligations.  Even Humpty Dumpty might have struggled to make sense of that one.

Wednesday 14 November 2018

Hanging together

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

Tuesday 13 November 2018

It's not the end game yet

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

Monday 12 November 2018

Sinking ships

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

Friday 9 November 2018

We're having the farce first

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

Wednesday 7 November 2018

Time to smash the delusions

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

Monday 5 November 2018

Choosing a century

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