Wednesday 31 July 2019

True believers

The famous Python debate about the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea was supposed to be a joke, but like many of the best jokes, it as rooted in a degree of shrewd observation about the way that schisms can and do occur between factions of extreme viewpoints.  Life imitates art more often than many imagine, and this week we had Farage claiming that the new PM’s consiglieri, Dominic Cummings (who was widely regarded as the evil mastermind behind Vote Leave) is not a ‘true believer’ after all.  He’s not terribly sure about Johnson either, apparently.
In a sense, this is actually good news, of a sort, because he has said categorically that ‘there would be no pact between his party and the Conservatives as long as the former Vote Leave head remained in charge of strategy’.  With such a pact in the now inevitable early general election, then given the shambles to which Corbyn has reduced the Labour Party and the vagaries of a First Past The Post electoral system, it is entirely possible that around 40% of the vote split between the Conservatives and Nigel Farage plc would return a landslide majority in parliament for a no deal Brexit, even if the other 60% of those voting rejected such an outcome.  Without such a deal, Johnson’s main hope of such a victory depends on crushing the Nigel Farage plc party almost out of existence, a much harder challenge as things look at present.
Whether it is, as I suggest, good news or not depends on one critical factor however: whether anything Farage says can be taken on trust.  Maybe not such good news after all.
But assuming, for the moment, that there is no electoral pact between Johnson and Farage, it is still just about possible that Johnson could achieve a narrow overall majority with around 30-35% of the vote, because of the way votes are distributed under our far from proportional system.  But whether such a majority would enable him to push through no-deal (which is the common assumption) is not quite so clear.  That would depend on him either managing to get any anti-no-dealers deselected in advance of the election to be replaced by his own variety of true believers, or else on any anti-no-deal Tories returned to parliament being willing to fall in behind his no-deal policy.  I wonder whether either of those things are as likely as is generally assumed.  Mass deselection of candidates is not a process of which the party has any experience, and those currently holding out against no deal don't seem likely to simply change their mind overnight.  An election - even if it results in a nominal narrow majority for the Tories - might not make any real change to the parliamentary arithmetic after all.

Tuesday 30 July 2019

The ties that bind us

The aim of the new future ex-Prime Minister’s quick tour of the UK this week has been billed as being to “strengthen the ties that bind us”.  I’m sure that it looked like a nice rhetorical flourish to whoever came up with it, although it may not have occurred to him or her that it could also be heard as meaning “tighten the knots”.  As with much – most – of what he says, the rhetoric replaces rather than illuminates the detail, and it’s not at all clear that he’s really thought about what the nature of those ties might be, let alone how they might be strengthened.
I’m in no doubt that there are factors which lead many in Wales and Scotland – the majority in the case of the former, but maybe not any more in the case of the latter – to believe that the union is of some value, whether economic or emotional, but I’m not at all convinced that the PM understands what they are, seeing the union, rather, from an Anglo-British nationalist perspective.  When pushed, people will generally refer to the economic factors, or at least, their own understanding of the economic factors, but I’ve long suspected that the emotional factors are actually stronger and more influential.  But the nature of the emotional attachment to the union, in both Wales and Scotland, is not the same as the nature of the emotional attachment to the same union which is common in England.  Many people in Wales are quite relaxed about considering themselves both Welsh and British (and similar feelings apply in Scotland); it’s not so much dual nationality as overlapping and complementary nationality.  In England, the distinction between being English and British is a lot less clear. 
The result is that they can end up taking a very different approach to strengthening those ties.  From an English perspective, emphasising Britishness is much the same thing as emphasising Englishness – they genuinely seem to find it hard to understand why that approach doesn’t work very well in Wales and Scotland.  Taking control of the money being spent in the devolved administrations in order to rebrand it as British spending and increasing the number and prominence of union flags around the place may, to them, look like inculcating a greater sense of Britishness and togetherness, but they look entirely different to many of us.  A leader serious about strengthening the ties would start by trying to understand the differences and then look to see how a successful union might reflect those differences, pay heed to different voices and perspectives, value the views of those with a different viewpoint.
That’s precisely what they are not doing – perhaps “tightening the knots” isn’t such a bad translation of Johnson’s policy after all.

Monday 29 July 2019

What will it take?

During the Tories’ leadership election, most people – including the party’s own members and MPs – assumed that the winning candidate was mostly lying.  Given his history, it’s an entirely reasonable assumption – far more reasonable than assuming that he was telling the truth.  The result was that many of those supporting him were discounting his continued assertions that a no-deal Brexit was a sensible course of action, taking it as a given that he would change course after he won.  But what now looks increasingly likely is that the bit that was the lie was not the bit about a no-deal Brexit being sensible, but the bit about a no deal Brexit not being his first choice as a policy.  I don’t know how else to interpret his refusal to even discuss a way forward with the EU until they first accept that the withdrawal agreement will be renegotiated from scratch.  Telling the other side that any negotiation starts by discussing the terms of their abject surrender doesn’t look like a way of avoiding no deal to me, but as a way of provoking it.
It is, of course, entirely possible that the Prime Minister will simply shrug his shoulders and back down, probably denying that he ever said what he is on the record as having said.  It seems to work for Trump and it’s not as if he doesn’t have form in that regard.  I suspect that a lot of his own party’s MPs are still assuming that that is what will happen, even if they aren’t entirely sure when, or with what excuses.  But it’s also possible that he is completely serious in what he says, in which case things look increasingly ominous.  It may be that Johnson is simply (and not for the first time) over-estimating the strength of his hand, but it seems more likely that he is deliberately seeking a no-deal outcome for which everyone but himself will be blamed.  We have gone from a “million-to-one chance” to "No deal is now a very real prospect" in less than a week.
Conventional wisdom holds that parliament will somehow find a way to obstruct him in that course of action, but I’m not so certain.  I don’t criticise Corbyn (for once!) for not seeking an immediate vote of no confidence in the new PM – the demand from the new Lib Dem leader that he should do so looked like grandstanding to me, and is an ominous sign that the application of common sense in pursuit of some sort of anti-Brexit parliamentary alliance may well founder on the rocks of naked Lib Dem short term party interest.  Why would anyone expect the nature of that party to change just because of a change of leadership?  The reason that Corbyn was right at this point is simply that there is no evidence that any Tories would break ranks to support such a motion, and without that there would have been no chance of success.
The question, though, is this: if not now, when?  What will it take for sufficient Tories to break ranks to bring down the PM (particularly if we factor in the probability that a small number of Labour MPs might also break ranks on the issue in order to see Brexit delivered, even if they go no further than abstaining)?  Their latest excuse (giving Johnson time to see what he will do) is a very poor one; it’s not as if he hasn’t signalled his intentions loudly and clearly, or as if his character and nature were a complete surprise.  If the potential rebels can’t see that now, what is the trigger that will lift the veils from their eyes?  There are now less than 100 days until the date on which no deal Brexit will happen by default, but parliament will only be sitting on 27 of those days, some of which will, doubtless, be used up by trying to play procedural games with Commons rules before resorting to the nuclear option (and if, as seems increasingly likely, an election intervenes, the number of opportunities further reduces).  How many of those days will have to pass before enough Tories are convinced that he needs to be stopped?  At the very least, they’re going to be cutting it a bit fine, and at the worst, they will simply leave it too late.  Depending on Tories has never been the most brilliant of strategies; depending on some of them to turn on their own PM within weeks of electing him looks even less so.

Sunday 28 July 2019

Give him an inch and he'll take a metre

Mocking Jacob Rees-Mogg for his style guide to staff in his new office is fun, and very easy to do, but probably only encourages him.  It’s almost as though he is inviting people to continue to refer to him as the member for the eighteenth century; for him, living in the past is a badge of honour rather than a criticism.  His insistence on the use of imperial measures, though, is more than mere eccentricity – it is potentially dangerous.
The UK formally adopted metric measures in 1965 (pre-dating, and nothing to do with, membership of the EEC/EU), which means that those of us educated during the 1950s and 1960s were initially taught in imperial and subsequently in metric.  It also means that any child receiving the majority of his or her education after 1965 – so born after around 1960, and therefore currently sixty years old or younger – would have been largely or even exclusively taught to measure distances, weights and volumes in metric units.  I don’t know what the age profile of the staff is in his new office, but given the demographic in the population and the traditional ability of civil servants to retire before state pension age, I’d bet that there are very few for whom use of imperial measures will be entirely natural.  He is effectively asking anyone writing a report for his eyes to ‘translate’ all measurements to a system which has barely been taught in schools (although perhaps Eton is an exception?) for the best part of half a century.
The potential consequences for the Leader of the House of Commons are probably not as significant as the loss of a Mars probe by NASA, but it’s almost guaranteed that the enforced translation of quantities into an antiquated system of measures with which most people are no longer familiar will lead to a misunderstanding sooner or later.  There are good reasons for standardising on a single system of measurement, and none at all for insisting on a different one.  Unless, that is, you consider that the determination of an individual to live 300 years in the past constitutes good reason for anything.

Friday 26 July 2019

Meaningless rhetoric can have consequences

According to the new Prime Minister, the UK after Brexit and under his leadership will become the greatest place on earth.  It’s the sort of rhetoric which so easily trips off his tongue, but it’s ultimately a meaningless turn of phrase.  It’s impossible to define any criteria for judging the truth of otherwise of any claim to be the ‘greatest’, and it inevitably comes down to a subjective view.  What he means by it is that he wants all the people of the UK to believe that the UK is the greatest – and, of course, that he has made it so.  The parallel with Trump is an obvious one, and the two men also share a passion for untruth in pursuit of their goal of making people believe.  And it’s in line with his apparent approach to Brexit – we only need to believe strongly enough, and we can make things work.
Now there’s nothing at all wrong with people taking a certain amount of pride in their country’s achievements, whether on the field of sport or in any other field, although it’s a good deal healthier if such pride is occasionally tempered by regret or even shame at the bad things done in our name.  And that’s the sort of country that I want to live in; one which acknowledges its past both good and bad and recognises its collective failures as well as its collective successes; one which co-operates and works with others rather than trying always to compete with them.  But I neither want nor need to believe that my country (however defined) is the ‘greatest’ or best, let alone set out to compete with anyone else for the title.  The history of people or countries who believe that they are the greatest is not exactly a happy one.
One of the main drivers for Brexit from the outset has been an Anglo-British sense of exceptionalism and superiority, so much so that what would be regarded as dangerous nationalism in the case of anyone else who believed they were special is regarded as not-nationalism-at-all by people who simply ‘know’ that they are exceptional, and that anyone else who thinks they are is just plain wrong.  Insofar as Johnson believes in anything at all other than his pre-ordained right to rule, I suspect that he really does believe that the UK – or more specifically Greater England: it’s a very English perception of what the UK is – is unique and special, and deserves to be treated as such.  He certainly seems to suffer from a certain nostalgia for Empire (he once wrote, referring to Africa, that "the problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore"), like many of his background.  At one level, that is nothing to worry too much about – contact with the reality of the modern world will soon enough demonstrate the fallacy of such a belief.  At another level, however, it is much more worrying.  He is deliberately encouraging a belief in a unique greatness, and in the idea that the UK is in some way entitled to special treatment from the EU27.  There aren’t clear dividing lines between national pride, blind patriotism, and a belief in superiority; these are just labels we give to points on a spectrum.  What probably looks to him like simply another piece of political rhetoric carries the danger of being interpreted as, or even inciting, something much worse.

Thursday 25 July 2019

Emulating his hero

It’s well-known that Churchill is a hero to Boris Johnson, and that he tries to model himself on his hero.  He even wrote a book about him.  But given his notorious lack of attention to detail, I wonder what exactly he learnt from studying his hero.  There are certainly some similarities – casual racism and an instinctive feeling of a natural superiority are two of the obvious ones, along with a certain facility with language.  Churchill painted landscapes; Johnson paints model buses (allegedly - I'm still not sure about that one).  But all those things are largely superficial qualities.  It’s true that both came to power without an election and at a time of crisis; but the differences thereafter strike me as being more significant than the similarities.
Churchill took up the post at a time when the House of Commons was united in the face of what was agreed to be a common enemy and reached out to political opponents to form a coalition government which enjoyed a majority of 604 seats in a House of Commons of 615 in pursuit of an objective which enjoyed overwhelming public and parliamentary support.  Johnson, faced with a divided parliament and a bare majority of 2 has instead chosen to select a government drawn almost entirely from a minority faction within a minority party in pursuit of an objective which is probably no longer supported (in the form promised, let alone the form likely to be delivered) by even the narrow majority which voted for it in 2016.  Churchill’s rhetoric was designed to appeal to the widest possible audience in order to stiffen resolve and unity; Johnson’s seems designed to appeal only to those already committed to a cause.  The majority for that cause in his own party might be growing, but the minority supporting it outside is diminishing, and for those who are not Brexit zealots it does more to stiffen opposition to him than support.  It’s as though he believes that Churchill’s rhetoric, determination, and strength of character were what won the war rather than the sacrifice of the millions who suffered – oh, and the little matter of US and Soviet military power.
There’s another interesting comparison though, stemming from the fact that Churchill also took power without first winning an election.  It didn’t end so well – for all his fine words and efforts, rhetoric wasn't enough.  As soon as the electorate were given an opportunity to vote they threw him out in a landslide victory for Clem Attlee’s Labour Party.  Because of the slight issue of an ongoing world war, he was able to postpone that election for five years, a luxury not available to Johnson, whose actions to date seem to make an early election more, rather than less, likely.  However, getting thrown out by the electors at the earliest opportunity is one Churchill ‘achievement’ which I would welcome Johnson emulating.

Wednesday 24 July 2019

Failure wasn't always inevitable

When a project – of whatever type – fails, there is usually a ‘post-mortem’ of some sort to establish why and learn the lessons for the future.  That’s the theory, anyway, but the continued failure of projects suggests that learning the lessons isn’t as easy as it sounds.  Part of the explanation for that is the casual assumption that a ‘project’ is simply a series of tasks which merely require proper management and planning in order to get from initiation to completion.  There are indeed some projects which broadly fit that description; the danger arises in believing that it’s true of all projects.
The moon landings is one which did.  Those involved knew what they had to do and set out to engineer their way to success.  They certainly hit problems and challenges, but these were, by and large, engineering problems – the sort of ‘problem’ to which there is always a ‘solution’, even if it takes time, energy, and money to find that solution.  And the moon landings have become an idiomatic point of reference for anything large and complex – “If we can put a man on the moon, surely we can ….” (fill in the gap with whatever takes your fancy).  It is an easy way to dismiss challenges, and portray something as (comparatively) easy, and it was behind what the new future ex-Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was talking about when he compared Brexit to the Apollo project.
It’s an easy and lazy comparison to make, but it’s also fundamentally wrong-headed.  The fact that ‘problems’ in the world of engineering or mathematics have ‘solutions’ doesn’t mean that the same is true in other fields, and the assumption that it is lies behind the failure of many projects.  In the case of Brexit alone, there are many examples to be found, all of which form part of the reason why Brexit hasn’t been the simple and straightforward process which its proponents claimed it would be.
The Irish border question is one of the obvious ones.  Listening to Johnson and the other Brexiteers talking, once could be forgiven for believing that this is ‘just a question of engineering’; we simply need to find and apply the right technology to manage the border, and the problem is solved.  What this overlooks is the human aspects of the problem; a border isn’t just a physical construct, it’s also an emotional and political one.  Managing the border isn’t simply about physical flows to and fro, it’s about the attitudes engendered by the existence or non-existence of that border.  Those attitudes are, in reality, rather more significant than lorry transits, and in concentrating on trying to find fancy ways of managing those lorry transits the Brexiteers completely fail to understand, let alone address, that issue.
One of Johnson’s three priorities as outlined in his words yesterday was about ‘uniting the country’.  Whilst he’s right to identify Brexit as having been a divisive issue, his apparent assumption that bringing the process of leaving the EU to a conclusion by forcing through an approach which not only ignores the almost 50% of the population who voted against Brexit, but also the significant proportion who supported Brexit-but-only-with-a-deal will achieve that makes the same mistake; it assumes that ‘engineering’ a way through is enough.
At the outset, in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, it was not inevitable that the Brexit project would fail; adopting an approach which took account of the subtleties of emotions and perceptions and which recognised that both the objective and the process needed a lot more discussion and definition might well have succeeded.  What made failure inevitable was treating it as an ‘engineering’ issue which simply required the application of ‘solutions’ by people who aren’t even engineers in order to achieve an objective which was never defined.  Replacing one non-engineer by another with an even more cavalier approach (albeit in possession of a better joke book) doesn’t immediately strike me as being likely to change very much.

Tuesday 23 July 2019

It all depends on where you are standing...

I’m not a big fan of using words like ‘left’ ‘right’, ‘centre’ or ‘extreme’ to describe political positions; they’re far too often used as a term of abuse rather than a serious contribution to debate.  But setting aside my reluctance to use such terms for a moment, there can be few better examples of the way in which what is generally called the ‘centre’ has shifted than the statement last Friday by Sajid Javid praising Nigel Farage for not being an extremist, because he walked away from UKIP and called his former party a bunch of ‘thugs and extremists’.
Farage has never said anything to make one believe that he’s changed his mind about his previous use of anti-immigrant rhetoric, such as his statement that he’d feel uncomfortable if Romanians moved in next door, or that he feels awkward hearing people on a train speaking anything other than English, "because I don't understand them" (although why he feels it necessary to understand a conversation between strangers on a train was left unexplained).  It’s the sort of casual anti-foreigner sentiment which seems to come naturally to the Anglo-British not-nationalists-at-all behind the Brexit project, and Javid has effectively declared that he considers it normal and acceptable.
‘Extremist’ is not an easy term to define, because it’s a relative rather than an absolute term.  Whether someone is an extremist or not depends largely on where you are standing in relation to him or her.  In effect, the closer you are standing to someone, the less extreme that person will appear to be.  Javid’s claim that Farage is not an extremist tells us more about the position in which he and the Conservative Party find themselves than it does about Farage himself.

Monday 22 July 2019

Vanity headlines

If there’s one thing that the Tories in the Assembly really like, it’s grabbing a dramatic headline about an alleged waste of money by the Labour Government.  And if there’s one thing that they avoid like the plague, it’s proposing constructive and helpful alternatives.  Their criticism last week of the expenditure by the Welsh Government on Cardiff Airport was a case in point.  Demanding that it be sold off unless it makes a profit (and if it ever did, I have no doubt that they’d demand that it also be sold off in order for that profit to end up in private rather than state hands) would take us back to where we were before the government bought the airport in the first place – it was failing, not least because it was suffering a serious lack of investment.  What they have not told us is what sort of future they see for the airport, although they leave the clear impression that they’d rather see it return to decline and failure in private hands than stand a chance of success following a reversal of the lack of private investment by the state.
The realities of geography don’t favour some of the wilder dreams of supporters of expanding the airport.  The catchment area for which Cardiff is the best and closest airport isn’t as large as that of its competitors – basically, it’s limited to Glamorgan and most of Dyfed.  Outside that area, Bristol, Birmingham and Liverpool are all potential – and in most cases, closer or more accessible – alternatives.  The idea that it can ever truly become an international airport serving the whole of Wales is a fantasy.  Expecting to be able to run a commercially-viable full range of international scheduled flights is unrealistic unless either the total number of passengers can be increased significantly (which would surely be contrary to environmental policy) or else passengers can be diverted from other airports which are currently more easily accessible to them.  If Cardiff airport did not exist, would anyone seriously suggest trying to establish a full international airport at that location as a commercial enterprise?  I doubt it.
At the other extreme, there are those who would argue that air travel is so damaging that we should be deliberately restricting flying, and that far from increasing capacity and competition we should be seeking to reduce capacity.  I find it difficult to imagine such a scenario gaining popular support at present, but under such conditions it would hard to see a future for Cardiff Airport at all. 
In between those options, the likeliest – almost by default – future for the airport is one based on slow organic growth, where the extent of that growth depends more on population changes and increasing affluence and is matched with appropriate investment in increased capacity, than on proactive government measures to promote and expand the airport at the expense of its competitors.  I find it hard to believe that the Tories actually want to see the airport fail and close (they certainly are never going to come out and say that), and maybe they even see its future in much the same way that I do.  What they fail to explain, however, is why private ownership would make that more likely to succeed than state ownership, when actual past experience demonstrates precisely the opposite.  Still, why let mere facts spoil a good headline?

Friday 19 July 2019

The redness of the herring is irrelevant

It’s just a guess, of course – I have no firm evidence to back this up – but I strongly suspect that the vast majority of people would be utterly mortified if we made a very public statement which turned out to be as utterly untrue as Boris Johnson’s reference yesterday to a kipper.  It would embarrass most of us to be exposed for having taken something on trust without having bothered to check its accuracy.  Johnson, however, is not (and never has been) part of any known definition of ‘most of us’, and lives by an entirely different set of rules.  He is more likely to be pleased at the coverage his kipper-waving garnered and to feel secure in the knowledge that corrections never achieve the same coverage as the initial outrageous statement.  Not for nothing is it said that a lie will be half-way round the world before the truth has got its boots on.
It’s a technique which the growth of social media has done much to promote: once a story is ‘out there’ it will be copied and shared – and, sadly, believed – much more often than any boring old correction.  Johnson isn’t the first or only politician to employ such a tactic, of course.  Who remembers the correction to the nonsense spouted by the former Home Secretary (and soon to be former Prime Minister) back in 2011 when she claimed that the human rights act prevented the deportation of a man because he owned a cat?  It was telling that she opened her narration of that particular piece of fiction with the words “We all know the stories about the Human Rights Act…”, a phrase which is invariably followed by a story which we only ‘know’ because it’s been repeated so often, despite being complete bunkum.
When apparently intelligent people come out with this stuff, it isn’t because they don’t know better, or because they can’t be bothered to check (checking might only allow the facts to intervene), or even because they believe it themselves; it’s because they know that it will be believed by a substantial number of people.  Playing to and confirming the prejudices of those people isn’t just an unintentional accident – it’s the whole purpose of telling the lie in the first place.  In Johnson’s case his casual bumbling and bluster is simply a poor attempt at disguising a cynical disregard for any truth or facts which might undermine his own ambitions.  And the saddest part is that even such a poor attempt as this one does actually work with the target audience.

Thursday 18 July 2019

Checking the assumptions

Yesterday, there was an exchange of views in the media between the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, and the member of parliament for the eighteenth century, Jacob Rees-Mogg about the impact of a no-deal Brexit on the economy.  The former stated a negative impact of £90 billion, whilst the latter claimed a positive impact of £80 billion.  Clearly, both of those things can’t be true, but that doesn’t mean that either of them is ‘right’ either.  The problem with making projections is that they’re always going to be based on mathematical models, and those models are always going to be based on a series of assumptions; the difference between the two positions is based on the differences in the assumptions that they make.  The fact that the consensus of economists is closer to the position of Hammond than Rees-Mogg doesn’t make the consensus right; there could be an element of groupthink at work.  But the obvious reality that the Brexiteer position is an outlier should give some cause for detailed scrutiny to say the least.
At the heart of the difference in positions is the question of the value of new vs existing trade deals.  One thing both sides appear to be agreed on is that ‘free trade’ is a good thing which generates economic prosperity, although there is a question in my mind about whether it is always the good thing that it’s presented as being; that’s a question for another day.  If we start from a position of accepting that free trade can and does boost economies, then the difference between the two positions comes down to an assessment of which route offers the greatest amount of free trade.  Part of the Brexiteer argument has always been that the freedom to strike trade deals with a much wider market than that offered by the EU will lead to more free trade than the restrictions placed on us by membership.  And if some free trade is good, and a lot of free trade is better, then the logical conclusion is that completely free and open trade globally is best of all.  At a superficial level, that is the ‘attraction’ of Brexit.  There are two not insignificant problems with it, though.
The first is about what is the best route to opening up more trading freedom between countries.  Is it by taking the large trading blocs which currently exist and negotiating comprehensive deals between them, such as that recently signed by the EU and Mercosur, or is it by doing away with trading blocs like the EU and Mercosur and starting again at the level of individual states?  Asking the question is almost enough to answer it; a negotiation involving only two parties acting on behalf of 28 and 4 member states respectively is almost invariably going to be easier than having 32 countries each trying to negotiate individual agreements with the other 31.
And the second is about depth rather than breadth; ‘free trade’ is about more than tariffs and quotas; it’s also about standards, rules and regulations.  The ‘depth’ of the free trade arrangement between the 28 EU member states is much greater than that between the EU and, say, Canada (which increasingly seems to be the model put forward by the Brexiteers), but increasing depth necessarily requires increasing alignment in a whole range of areas.  Rules end up being made jointly rather than unilaterally, and it is precisely that to which Brexiteers object.
In the light of those two factors, the claim by Rees-Mogg that no-deal produces more economic benefits than continued membership depends on an assumption that increased breadth with countries further away more than compensates for reduced depth with countries on our doorstep.  One of the things that I learned in Maths many years ago is that any result which fails the ‘reasonableness’ test (never mind what the numbers say, does it look or feel credible?) probably contains an error in the workings somewhere.  The Rees-Mogg claim seriously fails the reasonableness test, making it look like a number generated to try and ‘prove’ a point rather than one which owes anything to the normal rules of mathematics.
For all their talk about the glorious benefits of the trade deals which the UK will be able to negotiate in the future, I’m not convinced that free trade is actually of much importance to the Brexiteers at all.  If it really was the driving force that they claim, they would be pushing for more deals like the EU-Mercosur deal, and for those deals to be deeper, rather than seeking to walk away from them and start again with a clean sheet (which is more or less what WTO terms means).  Prioritising breadth globally over depth regionally is a characteristic more associated with wanting to secure an advantage by working to looser rules than those binding other countries than with wanting to increase trade.  It makes eminent sense to a country which is – or believes that it is – in a position to impose its will and its trading terms on weaker countries.  That is, of course, exactly the trade model on which the British Empire was built (and the one which Trump is attempting to pursue using America’s might).  That’s at the heart of the Anglo-British not-nationalists-at-all Brexit fantasy – a yearning for the past ‘glories’ of empire, and an unwillingness to accept the realities of the twenty-first century.  But believing really hard doesn’t create a power and influence which no longer exist and producing numbers which are simply unbelievable doesn’t turn fantasy into reality.

Wednesday 17 July 2019

Travelling away from their roots

According to this report yesterday, there are up to 10 Labour MPs willing to follow Boris Johnson into supporting a no-deal Brexit if the only alternative to that is to remain in the EU.  And we already know that there’s a whole host of other Labour MPs regretting that they didn’t vote for the only deal that was ever on the table while they had the chance. 
It’s a position that I could understand if they seriously believed that Brexit would actually benefit the people that they represent, but I’m not sure they do.  There are, of course, some people in the Labour Party who genuinely believe (no matter how many times the idea has been debunked) that the EU is an obstacle to creating the sort of economy that they want to see, or that, freed of the EU’s economic rules (and equally blatantly running contrary to all the available evidence), the UK electorate would vote to pursue socialism in one country (not an idea with the most encouraging historical precedents) with a vengeance.  I might disagree with their conclusions, but the objectives are at least honourable in principle, and based on the idea that such an approach might serve the best interests of the people they represent.
I’m not convinced that they all share such motivations, however.  Some are clearly motivated by the idea that, having asked the opinion of the electorate on the issue at a specific point in time, and with a majority having voted to leave (and accepting all the problems of definition involved in such a simplistic statement), ‘democracy’ demands that the ‘will of the people’ be implemented.  Whilst I can understand why they might draw that conclusion, or even believe that having promised to honour the result of the referendum they are duty-bound to do so, I do not understand how members of a party founded to pursue the interests of working people can feel in any way duty-bound to trash those interests and make those people worse off just because some of those people were misled into believing that the opposite would happen.  The Labour Party was founded to lead, not to follow; to set out a vision of a better future and work to bring it about, not to blindly follow where public opinion might lead at a point in time.  It would be bad enough if the ‘majority’ opinion that they were following was a majority of the people who voted Labour, but it isn’t; all the research suggests that the majority of those who voted Labour voted to remain.  In insisting on following the ‘majority’ those Labour MPs taking this stance are giving more weight to Tory and UKIP voters than they are to Labour Party voters.  It’s a very curious stance for a party founded to represent working people to be arguing that it is more important to represent the opinions of every other sector of the population instead.
But even that stance of supporting ‘democracy’ doesn’t explain the stance of some of those Labour MPs minded to support Johnson’s rush to the cliff edge.  As one of those taking this stance put it, “if it comes down to no Brexit or no-deal then I would go with no-deal because the consequences mean that Labour will not be in government in the future and we will lose seats. For me that is a far worse scenario than any Brexit outcome would be”.  In short, following the opinions of people who have never voted Labour, and wrecking the economic prospects of many of those who have, is a preferable outcome to the possibility of losing that minority of Labour voters who supported Brexit by being honest about the consequences.  They would, in short, prefer to have a Labour government struggling (and probably failing – why would anyone believe that they could be more successful than the Tories in this endeavour?) to deal with the effects of Brexit on the livelihoods of the people they represent than act to avoid those effects in the first place.  They’ve travelled a long way since their party was founded – and not in a good way.

Tuesday 16 July 2019

A five-point plan

Politicians seem to revel in having multi-point plans, and the probable future Prime Minister is no exception, even if he hasn’t yet quite managed to formulate it in those terms.  Perhaps I can help a little by distilling his recent statements to a few short points:
1.    He will withhold payment of monies which are legally due to the EU unless they agree to break their own rules on the single market and abandon a member state, namely Ireland.
2.    He will immediately start negotiations with the US for a trade deal to come into effect by 31st October, even if starting such negotiations is a direct breach of treaty commitments to which the UK has agreed.
3.    He will unilaterally apply the rules of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs to a situation in which they can only be used where there is an agreement in place - without first coming to such an agreement.
4.    He will tell Trump that instead of the UK following US food standards, the US will have to follow UK standards.
5.    He will cut taxes whilst at the same time increasing expenditure and committing to reducing public debt.
All of the above will be achieved by a generous application of optimism and determination, by being nice to Trump, and by believing very, very hard.  What could possibly go wrong?
In other news, some of the defeated leadership candidates are apparently already gearing up their campaigns for the autumn Tory leadership election.

Wednesday 10 July 2019

The beginning of history

A day or two ago, I posted about the teaching of history in schools.  Most of us have only a rudimentary and highly selective knowledge of history, albeit one coloured by our own priors.  I’m not talking here about the formal written history found in academic books, but about that general sense of ‘history’ which we collectively think we ‘know’.  There are some common themes; most of us have some vague notion about the ‘starting point’ of our own nation’s history (even if, in many ways, a ‘starting point’ is an odd concept, because every event is preceded by, and the consequence of, what happened previously).  For the US, for instance, history only really starts with the revolutionary war (in which the rebels apparently seized the airports) and the subsequent declaration of independence.  I’d suggest that many in Wales might see the start of Welsh history as being when the Romans left in 383.  That would make us not uncommon; looking at other countries more generally, the point at which a country gained its independence, or was established in its current form, is a fairly common theme.  That is the basis of many a ‘national day’.
There’s something odd about England though.  In the panoply of dates which come to mind there are always a range of famous wars and victories, of course – war and conflict seems to be one of their major themes.  But the earliest date referred to is often 1066.  It was certainly a major turning point in English history, but in contrast to most of the rest of the world, this is the year in which England was conquered, not when it became free.  It’s not that they ignore the Anglo-Saxons who went before; it’s more that they seem to see that pre-conquest period, very often, as the history of a different people, an ‘other’ of some sort.  The conquest established a new pattern of land ownership at the expense of the former owners and a new aristocracy, both of which continue to echo in the present.  A pattern of master and servant was established in which the Anglo-Saxons were most definitely the serfs.  The conquest changed the language of the court to Norman French, a language which is still used in some parliamentary procedures, and which MPs are permitted to use in speeches if they wish (unlike the pre-existing native languages of these islands).  In factual terms, it was unquestionably a conquest rather than a liberation, but history, as I’ve noted previously, is written by the victors, and the descendants of the Normans still wield a great deal of power and influence.  The passage of time has led to more of a mingling of the culture and language of the conqueror with that of the conquered, but there was never any sort of ‘liberation’.
Many years ago, a teacher in a primary school (who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty) told me that he’d been rebuked by his headteacher for spending too much time on Welsh history.  His defence was that they were doing the Norman Conquest; he taught the children how the Normans conquered England in a few weeks and then spent 800 years trying to subdue Wales, so inevitably he spent more time on Wales.  Whether it’s an entirely accurate description of what happened is by the by; but it illustrates the way in which the same event can be interpreted from different perspectives: an event which ‘started’ history from one perspective is seen as a long, drawn-out process from another.  This difference in perspective is one element in the demand that history should be taught from a Welsh perspective in Welsh schools.
I find myself wondering whether, in some way, this different perspective might help to explain attitudes more generally as well.  Even poorly remembered and partial (or even fake) history affects our judgement and perspective.  From my perspective, Wales, like many other countries, ‘started’ when a conquering power left, whereas England, rather unusually, ‘started’ when one arrived.  From an English perspective, it’s easy to understand how their version of the history of Wales only really ‘started’ when we became part of England.  At some sub-conscious level, perhaps those who rule us just don’t – or even can’t – understand why not everybody sees being conquered and assimilated in the same positive light as themselves.

Tuesday 9 July 2019

Rooting out the unbelievers

The motivation of the individual who leaked memos written by the UK’s ambassador giving his honest and frank assessment of the Trump administration remains unclear, although it seems likely that it is linked in some way or another to the ongoing Brexit debate.  Whatever the reason, it seems unlikely that the ambassador’s continued tenure of the post will be tenable for much longer, although I suspect that his replacement will be left to the new PM after a decent period.
The reaction to the leak raises some interesting questions about the basis on which ambassadors are appointed.  The leader of the Nigel Farage plc Party said that, “From the moment Trump was elected, this man was the wrong person to be the British ambassador – a globalist in outlook, totally opposed to the Trump doctrine”.  But why should being “opposed to the Trump doctrine” be a disqualification to representing the UK’s interests in the US?  I rather suspect that ‘our man in Tehran’ may not be an avid fan of certain aspects of the Iranian regime, and I’m fairly certain that ‘our man in Pyongyang’ may have a reservation or two about the character of Kim Jong-un.  I’m sure that both of them express their views on a regular basis to their masters in London.  Whilst being able to maintain a working relationship with the relevant foreign government is a prerequisite of the job, supporting and promoting the views of that government is most definitely not part of their role.  And while replacing individual ambassadors who find themselves out of tune with their own government might be necessary from time to time, replacing those who find themselves out of tune with the government of the country where they are deployed is definitely not.  The idea that Trump should have some sort of veto, or even influence, over who is appointed to represent another country in the US would be a very dangerous precedent.  Whether Boris Johnson will see things in those terms, or lean to the Farageist viewpoint will be an early test of the man.
The journalist who broke the story in the Mail on Sunday said that she was enjoying the conspiracy stories about a possible hidden agenda behind the leak, but that the truth was much simpler – “In the absence of government, the civil service becomes politicised”.  I’m not at all convinced about the ‘no hidden agenda’ part, but the bits about ‘absence of government’ and ‘politicisation of the civil service’ are all too credible.  In reality, of course, the civil service has always been highly politicised; not so much in a party-political sense as in the sense of being drawn from a particular educational and class background and being highly small-c conservative.  That didn’t start with the absence of government though; and the absence of government isn’t the only driver of further politicisation.  There is a prevailing attitude amongst the Brexiteers that anyone senior who doesn’t share their view needs to be rooted out and replaced, and that looks to me to be part of the agenda in leaking these memos.  It’s a trend which should worry people more than it seems to.

Monday 8 July 2019

Whose history?

A while ago, in the wake of the release of the film “Darkest Hour", there was something of a debate about the nature of the leading character portrayed by the film.  Was Churchill a great wartime leader whose resolve and stirring rhetoric motivated people throughout the empire (and it was the British Empire which went to war with Germany, not the United Kingdom) to fight and win, or was he a white supremacist, a vile racist who believed other races to be inferior, and a war criminal prepared to order killing on a horrific scale in order to achieve victory?  In truth, he was all of those things; but there’s also a sense in which he was none of them, in that none of them alone paint a rounded and complete picture of a complex character.  Yet both sides in the debate demand that the other accept their assessment, that he be considered an out-and-out goodie or an out-and-out baddie.  The fact that, within the UK at least, prevailing culture regards him as a hero owes more to the fact that history is written by the victors than to a balanced assessment.  
From Churchill’s viewpoint, the Empire was unquestionably a ‘good’ thing; he came from an age in which ‘civilising the natives’ (even if they would, nevertheless, always be inferior) was part of the beneficence of European rule.  It’s an attitude which is mirrored by one of the candidates for the Tory leadership – in 2002, writing in the Spectator, Boris Johnson said of Africa, “The continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore.”  There are others who would argue that such attitudes are based on a very superficial understanding of what the Empire was about and what it did, and that understanding could be improved if a more balanced view of history were taught in schools in the UK.  In truth, the problem isn’t so much that pupils don’t learn anything about the history of the Empire, it’s more that they learn a very superficial version of that history which largely glosses over the negatives.  Again, the history we think that we ‘know’ is based on that written by the victors; changing that ‘knowledge’ is a long slow process.
The question raised by that article – about changing the history which is taught in schools – brings me to the point raised in the Assembly recently by a Plaid AM in relation to the teaching of Welsh history.  Whilst I entirely agree that pupils should learn more about the history of Wales, the real issue is about which version they learn.  To take one example: is the history of Wales over the last few centuries the story of a nation valiantly clinging to and promoting its own unique identity and language in the face of the overwhelming dominance of our neighbour, or is it the story of a nation being slowly but surely subsumed and assimilated into a greater whole?  The ‘facts’ and ‘events’ are the same, but what matters is the selection, interpretation, and emphasis placed on those facts and events.  There is no such thing as ‘objective’ history, and little point teaching students dates and facts without also teaching them how to interpret and understand those dates and facts.  (For what it’s worth, my answer to the question I asked above is similar to that attributed to Zhou Enlai in relation to the French Revolution – “It’s too soon to say”.)
I’m reasonably certain that the version of history that I’d like to see taught would be very similar to that which Siân Gwenllian wants to see taught, so I don’t disagree with the point which she is making.  Bearing in mind, though, that history is always written from the point of view of the victors, I wonder whether demanding that the version written from the point of view of the ‘losers’ be taught instead isn’t putting the cart before the horse.  The state – any state – always wants its citizens to know the version of history which most promotes the unity and continuation of that state.  There’s an element of chicken-and-egg, (or perhaps interdependency) here – changing the ‘official’ version of history depends on first creating or controlling the necessary elements of the nascent Welsh state; but one of the factors involved in creating a full Welsh state is giving people a better understanding (or, rather, a different understanding) of their own history.  Of the two, I tend to suspect that making a different version of history the ‘official’ one will follow, rather then precede, the political change.  After all, it’s the winners who decide what history is.

Friday 5 July 2019

Will it make a difference?

Whichever decision Plaid took about standing in the Brecon and Radnor by-election was always going to be divisive for the party’s members and supporters.  There have been those arguing in favour of standing and those arguing against; someone was going to be unhappy either way.
Personally, I’m not sure how much difference it will make.  Doing the mathematics of looking at how people voted in the past and adding up the votes for ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ in a way which gives a majority for a particular outcome is easy enough to do; but mathematical theory isn’t the same thing as electoral fact.  It is by no means certain that people who support a party will vote for a different party just because ‘their’ party asks them to.  And when a party has such a low vote in a constituency as Plaid does in Brecon and Radnor, the probability is that a higher proportion of those voters are committed to the party’s fundamental aim than is the case where the party enjoys much wider support.  That means that asking them to vote for a party fiercely opposed to the stated aims of ‘their’ party may turn out to be counterproductive. 
There are a wider range of policy considerations as well.  If I were an elector in the constituency, I’d have serious reservations about voting for a party which is vehemently opposed to Welsh independence and which supports the retention of nuclear weapons, to name just two policy areas – without even starting to think about how honest and trustworthy they are, having seen their approach to campaigning over many years.  (Not for nothing are they widely known as the Fib Dems.)  Whilst it’s clear what the Lib Dems might gain from the decision, the political gains for Plaid are far from clear, and assisting the party which most threatens one of their own seats to regain some of its credibility could turn out to be a colossal mistake.
And yet…  The looming threat of Brexit is an historic turning point, and I can fully understand why any party which is serious about putting Wales first would seek to act in a way which could help to change the direction of travel on such a defining issue.  And changing the way politics in Wales works necessarily requires an occasional bold decision; there’s no gain without an element of risk.  It’s a pity, though, that an outdated and unfit for purpose electoral system doesn’t do more to facilitate a switching of votes by allowing people to place parties and candidates in order of preference rather than requiring one or more different viewpoints to voluntarily remove themselves from the field of battle.
Whether it’s the ‘right’ decision or not remains to be seen – and it will be many years before that becomes clear, because the implications go well beyond the counting of the votes on 1st August.  Those claiming that it’s a massive own goal and those claiming that it’s a defining change in Welsh politics are both speaking too soon and projecting their own preconceptions onto the decision.  I rather suspect that it will turn out to be neither of those and will actually make little difference, more’s the pity.

Thursday 4 July 2019

We're not the target audience

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), which, for reasons that are dubious to say the least, has become the ‘go-to’ organisation for the media when it comes to government economics, has been very critical this week of the two Tory leadership candidates, accusing them of misleading the public with their extravagant spending pledges.  This seems to me to be more than a little unfair, for two reasons.
Firstly, the IFS always take a very conservative (with both a small and a large ‘c’) view on government finance.  Their opinions are based on the orthodox but mistaken view that the government must, in essence, ‘balance the books’; that taxation and spending must match over an appropriate timescale.  In fairness, that has also been the position of both the major UK parties for some years; austerity (and let us not forget that Labour never really opposed austerity, just wanted a different form of it) is but the most obvious result of that.  Orthodox it might be, but it has always been a nonsense.  It was a pretext for the ideological aim on the part of the Tories of shrinking the state and Labour went along with the principle in the hope of avoiding potentially damaging criticism of their alleged financial profligacy (from organisations like the IFS, the BBC etc).  It was always an ideological choice, though, and all the wild spending pledges of Johnson and Hunt have done is to expose what has always been the reality, namely that government spending is not at all like household finances.  (None of that means, of course, that whoever wins the race will not then try and put the cat back into the bag.)
But secondly, neither Johnson nor Hunt are trying to mislead the public at this stage; they are only trying to mislead the membership of the Conservative party (along with the UKIP/Farageist entryists) who have a vote in the leadership election.  They don’t need to mislead the public yet; that can wait until the general election in the autumn.  In the meantime, they only need to convince a comparatively tiny number of people; the public are just the ‘accidental’ audience of a race which is using the media to reach that small number of people.  Whether the candidates’ increasingly wild promises will convince even those people is an open question; the electorate for this race is after all composed largely of people who have swallowed, hook, line and sinker, the household budget analogy.  I rather suspect that the promises to drastically cut taxes whilst hugely increasing spending will have little effect on that target audience.  It’s a bidding war which is not only unnecessary, but also largely futile; these aren’t the issues on which that electorate will make its choice.
Some Tory bystanders such as Patten and Hammond are becoming increasingly alarmed at the prospect that all Johnson and Hunt are succeeding in doing is legitimising the more modest spending commitments of the Labour Party.  I’m not sure that they need to be over-worried; the way things are going, the irony is that it will be the Labour Party at the next election which is arguing for financial orthodoxy, and which will take the electoral hit which is otherwise due to damage the Tories.  And if the Tories repeat such wild promises in a manifesto for a General Election and then win – well, no-one will really expect Boris Johnson to honour a promise, will they? 

Wednesday 3 July 2019

Understanding where the real difference lies

In an interview with the Western Mail’s Martin Shipton, Labour’s AM for Caerffili, Hefin David, said that there’s only an argument for independence for Wales if you could tell people that “if you leave the union of the UK you will be better off”.  It’s a statement which makes him sound almost open-minded on the issue; but in reality it demonstrates precisely the opposite and is essentially meaningless.  I could equally say that there’s only an argument for continued union if you could tell people that “if you stay in the union of the UK you will be better off” than becoming independent.  I could even sound very open-minded and fair by saying that I’d support the union in such circumstances.  It’s an easy enough statement to make.  But given two situations where one is the actual ground truth and the other is hypothetical, ‘proving’ that one will be economically superior to the other is by its nature a complete impossibility.  So, if I were to make such a statement, I’d be doing so knowing full well that no proof was possible, because any projections about the hypothetical future are inevitably based entirely on my own judgements and assumptions rather than on some objective provable truth.  If he were to be honest with himself and the rest of us, exactly the same is also true for David.
Whether an independent Wales would be wealthier or poorer depends not on the fact of independence, but on what the people of Wales, through their elected government, choose to do with that independence.  And my support for independence is based more on a belief that we should take responsibility for what happens in our small corner of the world, a belief that size isn’t everything, and a belief that a government which acted in the interests of Wales rather than those of the South-East of England could do a better job than on any certainty that we’d all be wealthier.  Those beliefs shape the assumptions that I make about the economics of the future and lead me to conclude that Wales can do better by becoming independent – but I cannot prove that it would be so.  After all, the people of an independent Wales might decide to elect a Labour or Conservative government which simply replicates current UK policy rather than choose to do things differently.  In the same way, those (like David) who believe that size is important and confers automatic advantage build a different set of assumptions into their economic model for the future and, unsurprisingly, come to a different conclusion – but they can’t prove it either.
There’s nothing wrong with either of those positions; but equally, neither of them is intrinsically ‘right’.  They simply start from a different ideological perspective.  The debate about the future of Wales would be of a higher quality and much more interesting if we could admit to those underlying ideological differences and the assumptions to which they lead rather than demanding that ‘the other side’ accept the economic projections based on ’our’ set of assumptions.  An apparent ‘open-mindedness’ which demands that someone ‘proves’ something to be true within the constraints of the questioner’s own world view isn’t open-mindedness at all; it’s simply dogmatic assertion.  For all the apparently open comments made by people like David, I don’t believe that they will ever change their minds because the real block isn’t economics at all, it’s their own view of what the world is and how it should be.