Friday 30 August 2019

Just pretending

An old joke from the Soviet era was that “the bosses pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work”.  It had a decent element of truth in it – the economic system worked, after a fashion, as long as everyone continued to pretend that everything was just fine.  But like any structure based on pretence and make-believe (and at the danger of wholly oversimplifying a complex series of processes) it all fell down when enough people stopped pretending.  Perhaps if the workers had truly believed, rather than just pretended to believe, that they were being paid they’d have truly worked, rather than merely pretended to do so.  And the system might not then have collapsed.  It’s conjecture, of course, but I tend to the view that ‘true belief’ can sustain the unsustainable for longer than would otherwise be the case.  Pretence by the few can be sustained if the many believe.
It was brought to mind by yesterday’s news reports which included comments by both Ruth Davidson of the Scottish Tories and Stephen Crabb of the Tories-in-Wales.  Both said that they had directly asked the Prime Minister whether he was serious about seeking a deal rather than a no-deal Brexit, both said that he had given them clear, or even ‘categorical’ assurances that he was, and both claimed to have believed him.  It was a case of the PM pretending to give assurances, and those to whom he gave them pretending to believe him.  (I could be unfairly impugning Davidson and Crabb here – perhaps they really did believe a proven serial liar who scatters categorical assurances around him like confetti before doing the opposite.  But suggesting that they’re stupid enough to believe the PM would be a greater insult to them than suggesting that they’re only pretending to believe him.)
It goes wider than that, though.  Currently, the PM is pretending that he is negotiating with the EU and that, if only he threatens to do enough damage to the UK, they will cave in – and large swathes of the media pretend to believe him, as they solemnly report on the subtleties of the different ways in which the EU are managing to phrase the word ‘no’.  (The same caveat applies – accusing the media of only pretending to believe him is the lesser of the accusations which could be laid at their door.)
Ultimately, however, the problem in all this lies not with those who are only pretending to believe, but with those who really do believe.  Pretence can and usually does collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, but true belief can withstand even the strongest application of fact.  To achieve the aim of getting people to support Brexit, the Brexiteers pretended that the UK had fallen under the control of a foreign power, pretended that that foreign power was in some way holding us back, pretended that immigration was responsible for problems in the fields of housing, education, and health, and pretended that immigration was the fault of the EU.  They knew all along that it was untrue, just a ruse to persuade enough people that their own future depended on them agreeing to voluntarily surrender their rights – or more accurately, the rights of other people.
Pretence by the few is being sustained by belief by the many, and it’s no accident that one of the key elements of the Brexit planning is a major propaganda onslaught designed to sustain that belief in those who already have it, and build it in those who don’t.  It might even work, for a while at least; the economy of the USSR bumped along for quite some time with everyone just pretending that it was working.  But the USSR also had the benefits of a totalitarian system controlling what people could read or say and spying on their every movement.  Whether a project so blatantly based on pretence can survive for long in today’s world of open and rapid communication is doubtful – the availability of alternative news sources and the inability of those driving the process to control them is at least part of the reason for the past three years of lack of progress.  Pretence eventually collapses; the question is about how long that will take.

Thursday 29 August 2019

The arcane and the bizarre

Responding to the move to prorogue parliament yesterday, the Speaker denounced it as a “constitutional outrage”.  The Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg responded on BBC Breakfast this morning by saying that, “It is not constitutional for the speaker to express his opinion without direction of the house”.  It’s like a game of constitutional trumps.  They’re both right – and they’re both wrong.  Both are highlighting instances of actions which are, in one way or another, outside the norms of UK parliamentary process, but in a country whose constitution is unwritten and depends totally on precedent, nothing can ever, in strict terms, be ‘unconstitutional’.
The idea of ‘precedent’ assumes that little can ever change, and that the action to be taken in any given set of circumstances must be exactly the same as taken the last time those circumstances arose.  If the circumstances are unique (as, in reality, they always are), then the action to be taken must mirror as closely as possible the action taken in the most closely similar circumstances in the past.  It’s a recipe for superficial ossification, and in the absence of any real objective basis for deciding which is the closest historical parallel, for making things up as we go along.  And I’m really not sure which is worse – the de jure constitutional position that we always do whatever we did in the past, or the de facto constitutional position that we simply make up the rules as we go.  Neither seems compatible with a modern ‘democracy’, let alone one which its fans consider to be a model for the rest of the world to follow.
It’s not the only thing which is incompatible with a modern democracy, and if Brexit has served any purpose at all, it has been in exposing the inadequacies (or lunacies, more like) of the current system.  We’ve had two other examples this week alone.
The first was the suggestion that the solution to a situation where the PM of the day disagrees with majority opinion in a parliamentary chamber which is already hopelessly over-populated with unelected appointees, hereditaries and bishops is to simply find a lot more people who agree with him and appoint them as additional parliamentarians so that he can get his way.  Is there any other country in the world, with serious aspirations to call itself a democracy, in which the membership of one of its two chambers of parliament is completely unelected and where the government of the day can ‘adjust’ the membership so as to give itself a majority?
The second was yesterday’s news that the Privy Council had met with the monarch and advised her to prorogue parliament, advice which she then accepted.  It’s true that 3 members of the Privy Council flew up to Balmoral to impart their advice, and that, under the unwritten constitution of the UK, that amounts to a ‘meeting of the Privy Council’.  There are, though, around 700 members of the Privy Council, and we can safely assume that at least 650 of those didn’t even know that there was going to be a meeting yesterday.  And under the rules under which the Council operates, they didn’t need to know.  A ‘meeting’ of the Council need not consist of more than a few members, hand-picked by the PM of the day, sent to convey his views to the monarch.  It’s a complete anachronism, like so much else about the UK’s system of ‘democracy’.
The more Brexit teaches us about the UK’s definition of ‘democracy’, the more I find myself wondering whether the UK has ever really complied with the spirit of the EU’s charter on the rule of law, which is supposedly a fundamental requirement of membership (and which may now be used against the UK).  I’d like to think that current events might provoke more people into recognising that we need a proper written constitution which lays down processes and procedures to be followed, but I’m not going to hold my breath.  Regularising the arcane and bizarre is, though, a clear advantage to Welsh independence.  It is inconceivable that a new Welsh state would be so stupid as to follow the processes of the so-called ‘mother of parliaments’, isn’t it?

Wednesday 28 August 2019

Confusing government and country

When Johnson (Samuel, not Boris) referred to patriotism as being “the last refuge of a scoundrel”, he wasn’t referring to patriotism of all kinds at all times; he was referring, rather, to what he saw as the ‘false patriotism’ of Pitt the Elder.  Defining ‘false patriotism’ isn’t quite so easy, but when Johnson (Boris, not Samuel) demands that everyone ‘gets behind’ the government over Brexit, he is most certainly guilty of it.  Supporting the country isn’t at all the same things as supporting the government, a distinction which Johnson’s government is not unique in failing to draw.  Mark Twain suggested that “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it”, which makes a very clear distinction between the two things.
Of course, what “supporting your country” means isn’t exactly amenable to clear and objective definition either.  Ultimately, it comes down to supporting what you individually believe to be best for your country, and there will inevitably be some very different views about that.  The point is that opposing a government can be every bit as patriotic as supporting it.  Those who feel that the current direction of government policy is wrong for Wales (or the UK) can be every bit as patriotic as those who support it.  Deliberately conflating the two things is indeed the action of a scoundrel.
For many Brexiteers, their version of ‘patriotism’ is at the heart of their rationale for Brexit and seems to be based around notions of absolute sovereignty.  For others of us, what is best for our country considers the wider interests of humanity as a whole, placing the ‘country’ in a global context on the basis that individual survival depends on collective survival.  From that latter perspective, a willingness to share sovereignty through organisations and structures which take decisions collectively through discussion and agreement is an entirely natural outcome; the debate then centres on the nature of those partnerships.  Tying to reduce the issue to one of patriotism is trying to avoid real debate about where our best interests lie, for the long term as well as the short term.  And pleas for ‘unity’ around some idealised notion of ‘Great’ Britain (the “greatest place on earth”) are an attempt to move beyond patriotism into a jingoistic version of nationalism.
That Johnson is a practised and habitual liar is established fact; but on his namesake’s definition, he’s also a scoundrel.

Tuesday 27 August 2019

Boris' brilliant idea

It might, of course, just have been some sort of strange Old Etonian dare that the PM was set by his old school chums.  Getting someone to tell porkie pies about real, actual pork pies sounds like the sort of jolly prank that I can imagine them playing on each other for their own amusement.  Whether much else of what he said in his criticism of US rules which keep UK products out of the American market was true or false is unclear, but given the source, it’s probably safer to assume that it was mostly invented.
He did make one interesting point though, when referring to the ‘fact’ (in quotes because I simply don’t know whether it is true or not, but let’s run with it for the moment) that a UK company wanting to sell insurance into the US has to deal with 50 different regulators rather than just one or two.  In essence, he may have hit on a brilliant idea here – rather than a group of states each having their own sets of rules and regulations, they could band together and agree a common set of rules which would make trade between groups of states potentially much easier.  Perhaps the countries of Europe could take up the idea as well.  We could call it, oh, I don’t know, how about something along the lines of a single European market?  Then, with a large and homogeneous ‘home’ market, it would become easier to sell our wares into other large homogeneous markets with fewer regulatory bodies needing to be involved.  I can’t imagine why no-one has thought of this before.

Thursday 22 August 2019

Motes and beams

When I first saw the story that Trump wanted to buy Greenland, my immediate reaction was to check the date of the story.  There are far too many ‘old’ stories reshared on the internet – this one surely was from April 1st, wasn’t it?  But no, it was genuine.  The fact that the detail went on to say this wasn’t a priority for his administration, just some sort of vague suggestion was a little reassuring – until he cancelled his visit to Denmark and it became clear that he thought the whole purpose of his visit was to agree the details.  He also, it seems, took umbrage at the description of the Danish Prime Minister of the idea as ‘absurd’, claiming it was a ‘nasty’ comment.  It struck me as a rather restrained comment; countries buying and selling other countries over the heads of the inhabitants may have been done in the colonial past, but it isn’t acceptable now.
Closer to home, it seems that one of the proposals put forward by the PM to overcome the problem of the Irish border is that Ireland should leave the EU’s single market and follow the rules laid down by the UK instead.  The word used was ‘temporarily’, until such time as some other fix enables two countries in different regulatory regimes to maintain the integrity of their respective markets with no border controls, but since no such fix exists and there is no prospect of one  being developed, this would inevitably become a permanent arrangement.  And rather than try and agree this directly with the Republic of Ireland, the suggestion is that it should be negotiated with the EU who would then tell the Republic what they need to do.  What was that about buying and selling countries over the heads of their inhabitants?
How we all laughed at Trump’s ‘absurd’ suggestion!  But what, in essence, is the difference?  Playground bullies seeking to dispose of smaller countries over the heads of their inhabitants, not even beginning to understand what is wrong with their proposals – Trump and Johnson are increasingly two of a kind.  We often look at the US and wonder how anyone – let alone a significant section of the media – can treat Trump with any degree of seriousness, but looking at the way Johnson is treated here, it becomes a lot easier to see how it can happen.  The world, including the UK but excluding a large chunk of America laughs at Trump; the world excluding a large chunk of the UK is laughing at Johnson.  It’s just harder to see from the inside.

Wednesday 21 August 2019

Finland 'taking back control'

One of the reasons given for the UK’s decision to stop attending many EU meetings is that it will save time for those involved who would otherwise have to read the papers in advance.  Only those meetings where a subject will be of ‘significant national interest’ to the UK will be attended.  The first and most obvious question is how they will know whether there’s anything fitting that definition if they don’t read the papers?  But the second, and perhaps more important question is about timescale.  Clearly, for a government planning to leave on 31st October with no transition period, decisions taken now by the EU are going to be largely irrelevant.  However, for a government which was planning a lengthy transition period as part of an agreed withdrawal deal, decisions taken now will continue to affect the UK for some two years or more.  The conclusion about the government’s intentions is clear – no deal is now their sole aim.
It might only be for two months if they get their way, but there’s also something rather ironic about a government which claims to be determined to ‘take back control’ from the EU delegating its voting rights at meetings to Finland.

Tuesday 20 August 2019

Just another stunt

As I understand Boris Johnson’s somewhat belated missive to the EU27, he is arguing that a mechanism to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland be replaced by a mechanism to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.  The key difference is that the mechanism in the Withdrawal Agreement is defined, whereas his is not.  Why replacing a defined arrangement with an undefined ‘alternative’ one would be acceptable to anyone is one of the many unanswered questions, but ‘because UK’ is not much of an answer.
In his letter, he commits the UK to accepting a “legally binding commitment” to “not put in place infrastructure, checks or controls at the border” and vaguely hopes that the EU will make a similar commitment.  That makes it sound like a major and generous concession which it would be churlish not to reciprocate, but for a regulatory regime which seeks to abolish tariffs on imports and reduce the standards to which goods and services must be provided it’s very easy to remove controls with an area with higher standards and tariffs.  It’s considerably more difficult for the regime with higher standards to simply lower the gates and let anything and everything through, and the PM knows that.  It will always be those states which wish to maintain the highest standards which have the incentive – nay the requirement – to control the external borders of their market.
It’s probable, of course, that his letter wasn’t really aimed at the EU27 at all; making such a letter an open one and releasing it to the media at the same time as sending it to the EU looks more like a stunt aimed at the UK public than a serious attempt to negotiate anything, and I’m sure that that is at least a part of the truth.  At another level, though, it underlines yet again the real aim of the Brexiteers, which is to destroy the EU as an entity.  Keeping an entirely open border between a carefully constructed single market and a regulatory regime which seeks to reduce or abolish standards and controls can only end up one way – the integrity of the market would be destroyed, not least because the infamous WTO rules would require the EU27 to apply the same rules to the rest of the world as to the UK. 
Brexit, in isolation, has never made much sense, and it’s never been the sole objective of the Brexiteers.  As the first step towards destroying the EU and reducing the extent of regulation on employee rights, environmental standards etc it is a great deal more coherent as an objective.  They have always claimed that it was never the economic aspects of the EU which they didn’t like, only the political ones, such as the reference to ‘ever closer union’.  In truth, what they don’t like is that the EU has been a force for controlling capitalism (even if not to the extent that some of us would like) rather than allowing it to operate entirely unfettered, and that’s more about the rules of the single market than about political union.  It’s a curious irony for those of us who originally opposed membership of the EEC because it looked like a capitalist club that it has actually done more to control the worst excesses of capitalism than the UK would ever have done alone, and that the real promoters of unfettered capitalism have proven to be the domestic variety.
I don’t think Johnson’s letter has anything to do with negotiation; it has everything to do with justifying his position, blaming other people, and getting on with the job of dismantling the regulatory structure that the EU has jointly developed.  Those who accuse the EU of using the situation in Ireland as a means of keeping the UK under the EU’s regime are themselves trying to use the situation in Ireland to undermine the EU itself.

Monday 19 August 2019

A strange form of 'social justice'

Iain Duncan Smith and Social Justice aren’t words which naturally trip off the tongue in a single sentence (unless there’s also a negative to be found somewhere) so calling a think tank founded by him the ‘Centre for Social Justice’ has always looked like an attempt to give a warm-sounding name to an organisation likely to be aiming to do the precise opposite of what it says on the tin.  The latest report from this so-called ‘think tank’ is a case in point, recommending as it does that the state pension age be gradually increased to 75 by 2035.
It is hard to see what, exactly, that policy has to do with ‘social justice’, given that its greatest impact will be on the lowest-paid (i.e. those most dependent on the state pension in later life), whilst the higher-paid will continue to be in a position to retire a great deal earlier if they wish, since they generally have other, more generous, pension provision.  And whilst generalisation is not without its dangers, we know from other data that lower income is associated with poorer health and shorter life span, meaning that the number of years for which the pension is received by people in this group is significantly less in any event.  It’s an odd kind of ‘social justice’ indeed which suggests that the least well-off should have to work the longest, receive the lowest pensions, and enjoy them for the shortest time.  Clearly it isn’t the pensioners concerned who benefit from such a policy – the beneficiaries are the higher earners who are unaffected directly by the proposal, but who will be looking to gain from any tax reductions (or by avoiding what might otherwise be required tax increases) as a result of reducing the cost of providing pensions.
The report does actually recognise that issue, stating: “Low income households, therefore, have the greatest need to remain in work, but also face the highest barriers to working” (because, for instance, they “… have less opportunity to amass sufficient financial resources”).  Anyone serious about ‘social justice’ would be looking at why they have ‘the greatest need to remain in work’, instead of which they decided to concentrate on overcoming the barriers to them doing so.
It’s clear that the underlying basis for the proposal has little to do with social justice and everything to do with a particular ideological perspective, which for me is summed up in this sentence from the report’s summary, which reads: “Ensuring that this growing proportion of older people continue to make an essential contribution to our economy as workers, carers, taxpayers and volunteers is an important question for public policy”.  Had it been worded just a little differently, talking about how those older people who wanted to go on making a contribution in any of those ways could be enabled to do so, I wouldn’t raise any issue.  Not everybody wants to ‘retire’ and facilitating continued activity is an entirely valid objective of public policy.  (Although I don’t see how they get from a contribution as ‘carers’ or ‘volunteers’ to the conclusion that they don’t need a pension; it’s a strange juxtaposition.)  But the ideological underpinning here is the idea that people’s whole purpose in life is – or should be – to contribute as workers (either paid or voluntary) and taxpayers, and that the government should ‘ensure’ that they do so.  That is an attack on the whole concept of ‘retirement’ as it has been previously understood.  From this perspective, ‘retirement’, or rather the payment of the state pension, becomes increasingly limited to those who are physically unable to work any longer, and the objective is to pay it for as short a time as possible.
None of that is to deny that better health and an increasingly aging population don’t cause challenges for a pensions system which has always been run like a giant Ponzi scheme because the ability to pay pensions out of current revenue effectively assumes continuing population growth.  But that problem wasn’t caused by those who are about to find their working life extended significantly – it was caused by the politicians who designed and have presided over the scheme from the outset, and who have given themselves a different and better pension scheme meaning that they are unaffected by proposals such as this one.  There is a long-term challenge involved in putting the state pension onto a sound basis; deferring pension rights for the lowest-paid is avoiding the issue, not solving it.

Saturday 17 August 2019

Brexit is not their real priority

If Corbyn’s proposal that he should head a temporary government with an agreed short-term remit to deal only with avoiding a no deal Brexit was, as some have suggested, intended as a trap for the new leader of the Lib Dems, then she certainly walked straight into it.  Having said that stopping Brexit was her absolute top priority, rejecting a firm proposal to achieve that end reveals that it isn’t actually her top priority at all – preventing Corbyn from becoming PM, and/or trying to establish the Lib Dems as the ‘purist’ anti-Brexit party are both more important to her.  The Lib Dems prove to be as keen on putting their own narrow party interests first as ever – if they were serious about stopping Brexit, they’d have immediately accepted the idea of negotiating and raised their concerns or put forward alternatives in those discussions.
Having said that, for Labour to gloat over having so badly wrong-footed her isn’t so clever either.  After also claiming that their top priority is stopping no deal, their move – coupled with an apparent refusal to consider alternative possibilities – reveals that they have higher priorities as well, namely getting Corbyn into Number 10 and smashing the Lib Dem revival.  If they were serious about stopping Johnson’s no deal, they’d have put their proposal on the table and indicated that they saw it as a starting point for an adult discussion, rather than as a trap for the Lib Dems.
As to the substance, well the Lib Dem leader does actually have a point.  There must be serious doubts as to how many of the rebel Tories and newly independent MPs who want to stop no-deal would support a vote of no confidence if the result was a Corbyn-led government.  That does, in turn, though reveal that those Tories and independents who say stopping a no-deal is the most important thing are fibbing as much as Labour and Lib Dems are, because they, too, have a higher priority, namely not being seen to aid Corbyn into Downing Street.  Having spent years demonising him for being something which he is not, they are now unable to exercise the necessary flexibility.  And Swinson’s point is of only limited validity anyway – for every Tory MP who won’t countenance even a single purpose short-term government led by Corbyn, there’s going to be a Labour MP who won’t countenance a single purpose short-term government led by someone other than the leader of their party.  Their opposition to putting a veteran Tory like Ken Clarke at the head of such a government is only what one might expect; but, in typical Labour style, their opposition to putting a different Labour MP at the head is even stronger for many of them.
So, there we have it – three disparate groups, all claiming that their highest priority is stopping no-deal Brexit, all in reality placing more importance on two entirely different questions, namely who is PM and where does the best advantage for their party lie.  Unless at least one of those groups starts to behave like a group of adults and recognises that the important thing here is the remit of any temporary government, not its figurehead nor their respective positioning once the dust has settled, then the Brextremists will win by default.  They have no need to behave like adults or win any arguments; their only requirement for success is that the clear parliamentary majority against their policy remains divided over the peripheral issue of personality.  At the moment, sadly, my head tells me that the Brexiteers are more likely to win if stopping them demands adult behaviour from their opponents.

Friday 16 August 2019

Opening boxes

Perhaps Boris Johnson really believes that the only reason that the EU27 are not willing to move yet is that they are waiting to see whether parliament will block a no-deal Brexit, although given his past record it seems unlikely.  I tend to suspect that the only thing that he really believes is that if he says the same thing often enough, then enough people will believe him to vote for a government led by him in the forthcoming election.  Whether what he says is true or not, or whether he himself believes it to be true is, ultimately, irrelevant.  Sadly, there is evidence enough that that one true belief of his might actually be valid – there are indeed large numbers of people who do believe what he says to be true.  For all his talk about ‘uniting the country’, all he really wants to do is to ‘unite’ enough voters to give him a clear parliamentary majority and, with the vote being split in more directions than in the past in a seriously unrepresentative first-past-the-post electoral system, the number of votes he needs to do that is lower than has traditionally been the case.  Getting around 30-35% of the country to believe that what he says is true (or else to knowingly vote for a liar on the basis of him being less bad than the alternatives) is all he needs or wants.
Whether it’s a necessary or inevitable concomitant of such a narrow tribalistic view is open to debate, but part of the result of this divisive approach is to split people into two main camps – the ‘true believers’ and the rest, who he is increasingly labelling as ‘collaborators’.  He did it this week in his ‘uncensored’ session answering questions from the public which had been vetted and selected in advance, referring to “a terrible collaboration […] between people who think they can block Brexit in parliament and our European friends”.  I can’t have been the only one who read the word ‘friends’ in that context in the Orwellian sense of meaning ‘enemies’.  The same turn of phrase was used more bluntly by the Tory grass roots campaign, StandUp4Brexit, in referring to the brave statement by Guto Bebb that he would be willing to countenance a limited term Corbyn premiership as an alternative to the long term damage of no deal, when they accused him of “collaborating with the EU”. 
This use of language is no accident.  Accusations of ‘collaboration’ are an unpleasant echo of the past, especially from the 1940s in Europe; I can’t imagine how they must sound to French ears in particular.  Harking back to ‘the war’ is a standard part of the Brexiteer play book, even if what they’re harking back to isn’t even real memories but second or third-hand folk memories distorted through the lens of a bowdlerised version of history.  But that same period in history should make us very wary of any politician seeking to gain power on around 30-35% of the popular vote in a rigged system by branding anyone who doesn’t agree with him as a collaborator.  The distance between branding supporters of membership of the EU as ‘collaborators’ and demanding that such people be tried for treason isn’t as great as many of us might hope.  In his pursuit of power ‘by any means necessary’, Johnson is opening some very unpleasant boxes.

Thursday 15 August 2019

Not a proper letter

In ordinary times, the letter to the future ex-Prime Minister signed by the former Chancellor and 20 other Tory MPs, including a number who were in the cabinet until very recently and others of a senior stature in his party, would be seriously bad news.  Given that he has a theoretical majority of only 1, and is leading what is already, in relation to the most pressing issue of the day, a minority government, a list of 21 from his own side making threatening noises ought to be terminal for the policy if not for the individual pursuing it.
Fortunately, Jacob Rees-Mogg has given him a ‘get-out-of-jail’ card by issuing a style guide for letters and reports.  The silly would-be rebels have forgotten to put ‘Esq.’ after the names of those male MPs who are not Privy Councillors, which means that Rees-Mogg can legitimately advise the PM that it’s not a proper letter and can safely be ignored.  That’s a better explanation than anything we’ll get from Johnson.

Tuesday 13 August 2019

Changing direction is better than mitigation

Before and after the EU referendum, the Brexiteers told us repeatedly that we held all the cards and that the EU would be beating our door down to give them a good deal so that they could continue to sell their cars, cheese and prosecco.  The German carmakers in particular, so they told us, would lobby their government to ensure that they gave the UK a really good deal.  That last part has almost turned out to be true.  The German carmakers are indeed lobbying government strongly to avoid a no-deal Brexit, and who could blame them?  The problem is that they’re rather cleverer than the Brexiteers assumed, and they’ve worked out that the problem lies not in Berlin or Brussels, but in London.  Instead of the predicted lobbying of Merkel, there’s the much more logical lobbying of Johnson.  Who’d have thought it?
Although the government still tells us how wonderful Brexit will be, with or without a deal, they are now making preparations to bail out UK companies likely to be affected, by setting aside large sums of cash.  It is, at least, a step forward from the approach taken by Jeremy Hunt during the leadership campaign, when he said that he would be willing to tell companies bankrupted by Brexit that their sacrifice was worth it.  That was a rather different way of acknowledging the problems likely to be caused.  But just how much does it have to cost before they start asking whether the problem is really with mitigating the effects of the policy or whether the policy itself might be the problem?  Has there ever been a government so convinced that the direction it is following is harmful that it has had to allocate many billions of pounds in advance to mitigate its effects?

Monday 12 August 2019

The face seems to matter more than the substance

Whether the PM’s aide, Dominic Cummings, is right or wrong about it already being too late for MPs to prevent a no-deal Brexit remains to be seen; at the very least, they’ve left it very late to turn their talk into action.  The constitutional experts seem to think that if MPs act quickly when parliament reconvenes and pass an early vote of no confidence, and if they can then find a majority in the Commons to support the installation of an alternative PM, then there is still time to avoid a no-deal on 31st October.
Those are two very big ifs though.  The first is just about possible if enough Tories decide that allowing Johnson any more time to run down the clock on the assumption that he’s bluffing is no longer a safe option, and provided that there are not too many Labour MPs prepared to support a Tory PM in a vote of confidence.  The much bigger problem is the second 'if', because it seems that if MPs can’t agree an alternative, then Johnson can cling on and set an election date for after Brexit has already happened.
In theory, the second part ought to be quite easy; it’s simply a matter of identifying an individual who will agree to take on the job of PM for long enough to ask the EU27 for an extension during which a General Election is held and after which the new government decides on a Brexit strategy.  That’s a very short tenure in Downing Street, during which the selected individual would have to agree to take on a largely administrative / caretaker role rather than attempt to implement policies with which the disparate coalition of MPs putting him or her into office might not agree.  As long as that limited remit is agreed and adhered to, there’s no logical reason why it matters who the figurehead is.  But logic and politicians aren’t necessarily words which belong in the same sentence.
It seems that most Labour MPs won’t sign up to such a plan unless the figurehead is Jeremy Corbyn, and most of the non-Labour MPs opposed to no-deal won’t sign up unless it’s somebody – almost anybody, apparently – whose name isn’t Corbyn.  For all their talk about stopping a no-deal Brexit being the most important thing, and being willing to do anything in their power to prevent it, it turns out that whether Corbyn is or is not PM is even more important to most of them, and doing everything in their power excludes doing the one thing that would work.  They’re hung up on the personality rather than the substance in a way which will allow Johnson to do as he wishes.  And if they carry on in this vein, they’ll be as much to blame as he is for the consequences.

Thursday 8 August 2019

A small step, a giant leap, or a step in the dark?

The admission by the former First Minister that “We are not too poor to be independent” is a hugely significant shift in the debate about the future of Wales.  It’s not that there’s anything particularly new or radical in the statement itself; it’s merely a statement of the obvious plain truth.  The significance is that it marks a change from the position that the Labour Party has taken for decades which is to use the lie of being too poor as an excuse to avoid debate about the desirability or otherwise of Welsh independence.  For a significant individual in the traditionally dominant party in Wales to renounce the lie is to remove one of the biggest obstacles to holding a sensible and rational debate about our future.  Renouncing the lie also makes the rest of what he has to say more credible.
He expressed concern about the length of time which it took Ireland between gaining independence and becoming the successful economy which it is today.  It’s a valid concern, although there is always a problem in trying to work out the counterfactual: in this case, whilst we know the economic trajectory of Ireland after gaining independence, we don’t know what would have happened had Ireland remained a part of the UK.  The trajectory of Wales over the same period doesn’t give me huge confidence in any suggestion that it would have been better.  And Liz Saville Roberts also pointed out that the record of the Baltic countries (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) post-independence provides a rather different model.  Judging which is the best analogy for Wales is not straightforward, coloured as it inevitably is by our own prejudices and priors.  No two countries ever follow exactly the same path, but for what it’s worth, I rather suspect that Welsh independence inside the EU would be closer to the Baltic model and I fear that outside the EU it might well turn out to be closer to the Irish model.  Whatever, we know the difficulties with economic forecasting and the underlying assumptions which need to be made and which lead to different projected outcomes - and in all cases, the comparison we need to make is with an assumption that our current relative position continues.
Unlike some, I see nothing unpatriotic or anti-Welsh in the position now being adopted by the former First Minister in arguing that whilst independence isn’t impossible due to poverty, it is undesirable on other grounds.  The idea that every ‘nation’ must be reflected constitutionally in an entirely independent state is an idea which belongs to the eighteenth century, despite being central to the ideology of the Anglo-British not-nationalists-at-all driving Brexit.  I can and do disagree with the idea that Wales’ interests are best served inside a reformed UK, but I don’t see anything dishonourable or unpatriotic in making that argument.
The question, though, is where we go from here.  The problem with the First Minister’s position is not that there is anything inherently wrong with a ‘remain and reform’ agenda for the UK, it is about putting the flesh on the bones.  How can the nations of the UK develop a ‘more equal partnership’, as he puts it, when one of the ‘partners’ accounts for 85% of the population?  This is the rock on which all proposals for federalism founder; any arrangement which gives 15% equality with 85% in decision-making will always be regarded as undemocratic by the 85%.  And in a situation where the politics of the 85% is dominated by an Anglo-British nationalism based on a belief in their own superiority and an exceptionalism which drives them to claim that their form of nationalism is ‘not-nationalism-at-all’ because nationalism is only for lesser nations, what is the process which leads either to changing that, or else accepting that it’s time to pass through the exit door?
Carwyn Jones took a small step for a man which could turn into a giant leap for his party, but they still don’t give the impression that they have thought very deeply about where to place the next step.

Wednesday 7 August 2019

Re-fighting the last war

Many of the Anglo-British not-nationalists-at-all who are promoting Brexit are fond – excessively so, in some cases – of parallels between the forthcoming Brexit-induced difficulties and past military conflicts, most particularly the second world war.  They invoke the ‘blitz spirit’, as though it is the solution to all problems, overlooking the fact that none of them were born at the time, and their ‘memories’ of it are based entirely on second or third hand experiences distorted through the prism of a highly selective folk history.  They seem to see only the lipstick; the pig is invisible to them.
There is, though, one important strand of truth in their position; history shows that people faced with something seen as an external existential threat can and do come together to seek a way through.  I suspect that that is what Johnson and others mean when they talk about ‘uniting’ the ‘country’ in order to successfully deal with Brexit.  There are one or two obvious flaws in the analogy, however, the most obvious being that this is not any sort of ‘external’ threat.  This threat is entirely home-grown, generated not by an external aggressor but by domestic politicians in pursuit of their own ends.  It is, of course, a matter of conjecture whether the ‘blitz spirit’ would have been the same had half the people on whom the bombs were falling realised that they were falling because that was what the other half had voted for.  I rather doubt that the ‘unity’ which people see when they look back at that period in history would have been quite as solid in such circumstances.  Demanding that others support them in facing a threat which they themselves have created is having the sort of ‘success’ which logic might suggest it would have, but they still seem genuinely surprised when people point out to them that it might be better to simply remove the threat rather than put all our time and effort into trying to mitigate its effects.
A second key difference between then and now is the availability of information and alternative views.  To say that the content of news during the war period was tightly controlled would be an understatement, but the idea that such a level of control could be implemented in the twenty-first century is inconceivable.  But without an ability to control what information people receive, it is extremely difficult to silence dissenting views and without silencing dissenting views, the narrative that everything is the fault of those pesky foreigners is impossible to sustain.  In a sense that brings us to the question of ‘fake news’.  There’s certainly a lot of it about – much of the ‘information’ which people read and share on the internet is indeed false, although things sometimes seem to acquire a status of ‘truth’ simply by being shared and liked often enough.  Trump and the Brexiteers have a simple definition of ‘fake news’, a definition which is as fake as the news itself, which is that ‘what I say is true, anything different is fake’.  It’s a definition which Orwell would readily recognise, but because of the wide availability of alternative sources, the result is not to shut down debate but increasingly to split the readership of news into two camps, based not on the accuracy of their ‘knowledge’ but on their adherence to a particular viewpoint.
I don’t see an obvious way out of the situation which is created as a result.  For instance, to those who believe that the EU is being beastly and punishing the UK for daring to leave, that is not an opinion, it is a ‘fact’.  From that perspective, when Gove claims that the EU is ‘refusing to negotiate’, he is not telling a porky, he is supporting that ‘fact’ with another ‘fact’.  For all the sterling work being done by fact-checker sites, most of us prefer to stick with those ‘facts’ which reinforce our own prejudices and priors, rather than examine conflicting claims before drawing a conclusion.  Mere truth is no longer enough to win an argument.  (And none of this applies only to the debate about the EU – consider also the ‘fact’ of an independent Wales’ £14 billion deficit, another piece of fake news which mere truth is inadequate to dismiss.)
It seems that we are about to face a government-led propaganda onslaught on a scale unseen since the second world war, with the stated objective of preparing us for what is to come and the less publicised one of trying to unite us in the face of the self-imposed threat.  It’s doomed to fail on both counts; whilst it will be taken as gospel truth by half the recipients, the other half are more likely to lampoon it mercilessly.  The availability of alternative media makes it easier both to spread the message and to undermine it.  Like most generals throughout history the current government are setting out to fight the last war rather than the next.  Those who are so keen to use the last war as their model and analogy are completely unable to see the flaw in doing so.

Tuesday 6 August 2019

More than a simple majority

The results of the polling by Lord Ashcroft this week will obviously be encouraging to Scottish independentistas.  The poll shows that opinion in Scotland is moving, and that there is probably a majority for independence if a vote were to be taken today.  At the same time, the question of independence for Wales is being debated more widely and openly than ever before, with even Welsh Labour Ministers making vaguely threatening noises about ‘needing to consider our place in the union’ if Scotland and/or Northern Ireland decide to leave.  ‘Vaguely threatening’ isn’t going to send a shiver down many spines, but it’s a step forward of sorts for a party as staunchly unionist as Welsh Labour.  It’s a mistake to over-simplify the reasons for the apparent current shift in opinion (there are always going to be multiple underlying movements in both directions), but it does seem clear that the appointment of a neo-colonial PM coupled with the looming possibility of a no deal Brexit are important factors.
And that causes me more than a little concern, because both of those are essentially negative rather than positive drivers, and the former at least is potentially very short term.  I don’t have a better alternative for deciding on whether Wales should be independent or not than a referendum in which a majority express their support, but if the whole Brexit process teaches us anything it is that reducing a complex and long-term issue to a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ by a majority of 1 at a specific point in time is likely to cause as many problems as it resolves.  No doubt some would argue that that’s a reason for not holding a referendum at all, or for holding a referendum with some sort of a ‘threshold’ (over and above a simple majority) which supporters of change must reach before they can be considered to have ‘won’, but I find such approaches deeply unsatisfactory.  If there were to be a majority favouring change, not holding a vote to allow that to be expressed or holding a vote in which a minority for the status quo could over-rule a majority for change are hardly democratic approaches.  And whilst it’s true that a narrow vote one way for change leaves a substantial minority unhappy (as we’ve seen with Brexit), it’s a mistake to assume that a narrow vote against change doesn’t have exactly the same effect on a different group of people.
In that context, the most encouraging part of the Ashcroft poll, for me, wasn’t the 52-48 split in favour of independence but the 52-30 split in anticipation of the likely result of such a vote.  A narrow majority for independence may be enough, in constitutional and democratic terms – but having a much wider majority who anticipate and expect the result is a better basis for building consensus around acceptance of the result (the need for which seems to have been completely lost on the Brexiteer ultras).  That acceptance in Scotland seems to be there and growing, but we’re a long way from that in Wales.  It’s probably the difference between having been debating independence for decades and having brushed the matter under the carpet – the new willingness to discuss the issue in Wales is at least a starting point.

Friday 2 August 2019

No victory for Remain

For those of us opposed to Brexit, replacing a pro-Brexit MP in Brecon and Radnor with an anti-Brexit one is good news of sorts, although the fact that the new MP is a member of an anti-independence and pro-nuclear weapons party means that it’s not exactly unalloyed good news from my perspective.  The impact of the electoral pact, under which Plaid and the Green Party stood aside for the Lib Dems is unclear and will remain so unless and until someone does some research on those who actually voted comparing their vote this time with their vote at the previous election.  We simply don’t know whether former Green/Plaid voters went out and cast their votes for the Lib Dems in accordance with the wishes of the leaders of those parties, voted for someone else in protest, or simply stayed at home.  I suspect that there was a mixture of all three; standing down will only have made a difference if significantly more of them voted Lib Dem than took either of the other courses of action open to them.
Of the votes cast, 43.5% went to the only unequivocal anti-Brexit candidate, whilst the three pro-Brexit parties scooped up 50.4% between them.  Even if we count Labour as anti-Brexit (a highly dubious assumption at present), the result was still 50.4: 48.8.  On a reduced turnout, it could be that Brexit supporters felt more motivated to vote, of course, and there is always a danger in drawing too many conclusions from a single by-election; but the one clear conclusion that I draw is the negative one – this result does not provide any evidence of a significant change in opinion towards Brexit since the referendum in 2016.  Had the Brexit Party not stood – or had the election been conducted under a proportional system – the pro-Brexit Tory would probably have won, despite his criminal conviction and the strong support for the recall ballot.  Anti-Brexit and anti-Johnson celebrations are more than a little premature.
The Tories and the Farageists will surely draw the obvious conclusion as well – that fighting elections against each other will potentially reduce the number of pro-Brexit MPs in the House of Commons, especially if the Remain side can cluster their support around a single candidate (something which should be much easier for them in England than in Wales or Scotland).  For the Remain side, the biggest single obstacle to reversing the referendum result continues to be the chaotic and incoherent position of the Labour Party.  The good news for Johnson (and the bad news for those of us opposed to Brexit) is that there is still no sign of the Labour Party digging itself out of the hole into which it has placed itself.

Thursday 1 August 2019

Blaming Varadkar is just a diversion

In the desperate attempts by Brexiteers to personalize the failure to come to an agreement over the UK’s departure from the EU, the Taoiseach is increasingly being demonised by politicians and pro-Brexit media alike.  It is, of course, easier to attack an individual than to get to grips with the underlying problem, but attempting to bully someone into bowing down before the might of the UK is no way to solve the issue.
People seem to have lost sight of the fact that the so-called ‘backstop’ isn’t really a ‘thing’ at all; it’s merely an agreement that, unless and until a way can be found to maintain frictionless trade across a border between two different regulatory regimes, the UK will ensure that its regulations will remain aligned to those of the EU.  The PM argues that the issue should be resolved during the trade negotiations – but that is, effectively, where it was always going to be resolved.  The ‘backstop’ is merely a statement of intent that whatever trade agreement is reached will honour the commitment to maintaining an open border.
So far, so amicable.  The problem, though, is that the Brexiteers have never had the slightest intention of negotiating any agreement which meets that precondition, not because they don’t want to but because there simply is no form of possible agreement which meets both their demands for regulatory divergence and the requirement for a completely open border.  They have no real objection to continued regulatory alignment during all – or at least part – of the period during which trade negotiations take place (although they’ll huff and puff about that) but maintaining it after the end of those negotiations is an absolute no-no for them.  In that sense, their fear that the agreed precondition will bind the UK in perpetuity is entirely justified and their desire to remove the precondition completely reasonable from their perspective.  It’s important to note, though, that the problem doesn’t stem from the mutual (EU and UK) desire for an open border (let alone from Irish intransigence) but from the determination on one side (the UK) to end regulatory alignment between the UK and the EU.  They talk about wanting an open border, but they know (they’re not stupid enough not to) that it is their desire to abolish and revise current regulations which makes some form of border control inevitable. 
For all their talk about wanting ‘free trade’, they know very well that free trade with regulatory divergence will always be less ‘free’ than free trade in a single market, and that their starting point is that, for the first time in human history, they are seeking to negotiate a free trade agreement which is more restrictive than the one which currently operates.  That is not a wholly unreasonable position to take; it’s certainly not unreasonable to believe that having total freedom to make all our own rules and regulations is worth the cost of imposing restrictions on trade and introducing border controls.  (I'd disagree, but I accept that the balance between the two is ultimately a matter of opinion.)  Their problem is that people might not have voted for that, so in order to persuade people to vote for Brexit, they claimed that there was no such trade-off and that the UK could indeed both have its cake and eat it.  And they were believed.  As PM, Johnson is now trying to say that the mess we are in is all the fault of the evil Europeans.  But it really is not – it’s the fault of those who told a lie in an attempt to sway votes never expecting that they would have to deliver, and who now prefer to double down on the lie rather than admit the truth.  The problem for the rest of us is that they might just be believed again.