Friday 31 January 2020

At the eleventh hour...

With a matter of hours to go before the UK formally leaves the EU, the PM has finally admitted something which most of us have known all along, but which he and his fellow Brexiteers have spent more than three years denying – leaving the single market and the customs union means border checks on goods passing between the UK and the EU.  He isn’t quite putting it in those terms (he wouldn’t be Boris if he did) but is stating rather that the UK ‘is willing to accept’ border checks, as though we ever had any choice in the matter.  His stated reason for this latest climbdown is that it’s the only way that he can deliver on the promises made about this strange thing called ‘sovereignty’.  Reuters puts it more bluntly, reporting that he will also say that ‘sovereignty is more important than frictionless trade’.
The admission that there is – and was always going to be – a trade-off between ‘sovereignty’ and ‘free trade’ is hardly a revelation.  It’s a simple fact that all trade deals between countries involve such a trade-off; the question is always about how much sovereignty a country agrees to share in order to reach joint decisions (and ‘share’ rather then ‘cede’ is the correct term, despite what the Brexiteers have consistently argued), and in return for what economic or other benefits.  Had the Brexiteers been willing to debate it in such terms at the time of the referendum and since, I would have had more respect for their position, but they have, right up until the eleventh hour (almost literally), repeated ad nauseam that we could have frictionless trade without having to agree to any joint rules or regulations.  They might still have won the referendum, of course, because trade and economics were only part of the debate.  It was probably the part, however, on which their argument was shakiest, so they chose instead to lie repeatedly.
To some extent, that is now water under the bridge; the UK will formally leave later today, and accepting that there is a cost in terms of trade attached to the sort of future relationship which the UK will have with the EU is simply a necessary precondition to any sort of negotiation on the detail.  What they have yet to admit (but it will surely come when reality can no longer be denied) is that the same issue will arise in relation to any and every other trade deal that they attempt to negotiate – the closeness of the deal and the degree of friction in terms of tariffs, checks and bureaucracy are directly related to the willingness or otherwise of the UK government to agree to share sovereignty and agree some rules and process (and their enforcement) jointly with other countries and trading blocs.
It’s an issue of which most Welsh independentistas are more aware than the Anglo-British nationalists driving Brexit and is part of the reason why so many of us preferred to avoid the term ‘independence’ for so many years.  In a modern, globally connected world, no country can really ‘stand alone’ and exercise total sovereignty over all aspects of its own affairs.  To even attempt to do so requires either great size or almost complete isolation.  The question facing any state is always ‘how much, and in what areas, and in what institutions are we prepared to share sovereignty and make joint decisions?’.  The EU was never the perfect answer to that question but attempting to pretend that there isn’t even a need to ask the question isn’t a sensible response.  I’ve long hoped that, if there were to be a positive side to Brexit it would be in helping those who run the UK to realise, at last, that the UK is, as the Irish Taoiseach put it last week, a “small country”.  It looks like being a long process though.

Thursday 30 January 2020

Exporting a problem isn't the same as 'solving' it

One of the problems with referendums is that, in reducing complex questions to very simple ones, they can lead to a situation where there may well be a majority for a particular proposition, but the reasons why that majority voted as they did are many and varied (and, of course, the same applies to the other side).  I don’t doubt that immigration and xenophobia were factors in the EU referendum, but even if most of those opposed to immigration voted to leave, it doesn’t follow that all of those who voted for leave are opposed to immigration.  The government, though, has chosen to behave as though they were, and instead of promoting a reasoned debate around immigration and the reasons for it, has opted to try and implement schemes which appear to be aimed at cutting the numbers.  I say ‘appear’; for all their bluster, I don’t think that people like Johnson are actually convinced that immigration is a problem, nor do I entirely believe that the proposed schemes themselves will reduce numbers – they just want to look as though they are doing something to appeal to that particular group of voters. 
It’s not an enormous surprise to be told this week not only that the EU has never prevented the UK from operating a ‘points-based’ system but also that the UK has actually been operating such a system for years.  Saying it out loud got the chair of the Migration Advisory Committee sacked, but hey, ‘taking back control’.  It’s possible, however, that simply making potential migrants think twice before seeking to come to the UK by increasing the number of bureaucratic hoops which need to be jumped through and tanking the economy will act as deterrents, but that isn’t quite the way that the policy is allegedly intended to work – and those things are likely to deter precisely those that the government says that it wants to attract.  Little will deter those who are simply desperate from trying all means.
I start from the position that, in principle, people should be free to travel, live and work wherever they wish and that it’s for governments to justify why that should exceptionally not be allowed.  (However, it’s clear that many others start from the principle that no-one should be allowed that freedom, and that it is for the individuals themselves to justify why they should be excepted.  The result is that many of those who supported Brexit are not just supporting, but actively demanding, the removal of their own rights.)   But support for the principle isn’t the same thing as arguing either for mass migration or for actively going out and seeking inward migrants.  If, given the freedom, people seek to migrate en masse, we should be looking at why that is the case, and the most usual causes are war, famine, persecution, and economic inequality.  It’s strange, but not really surprising, that most of those opposing mass migration also oppose doing anything about those causes.  Real freedom of movement depends on real equality of opportunity, and there is quite a large overlap between opponents of freedom of movement and opponents of equality.
I’m opposed to the way in which the government is seeking to recruit immigrants selectively to come to the UK, which they do for two reasons.  The first is that we need certain skills in larger numbers than we possess them – doctors, nurses, engineers, and so forth.  And the second is that, with an ageing population, we need more young workers to be paying taxes to support the older members of society.  But both of these point to failures of the economic system under which we live, and my real objection to filling the gap by recruiting migrants is nothing to do with the migrants themselves, it is that we are simply exporting the problem, often to countries which are already poorer than ourselves.  Taking the best-educated, the highest-paid, and the most productive in terms of their working age may solve some of our problems – in the short term at least – but it simply makes other countries’ problems worse.  And that is not good world citizenship.  It is, as Simon Jenkins argued this week, not ethical.
A rich economy which cannot develop the skills it needs amongst its own citizens, and which cannot support its own citizens without continued population growth (either from organic growth or from immigration) is an economy built on sand.  It is not sustainable in the long term, and we need to rethink the way we do things rather than seek to move the problem around.  It was disappointing this week to see the Scottish Government arguing for its own visa system, not on the basis of wanting to be fairer and to implement a different approach, but on the basis of addressing the perceived ‘problem’ of the falling Scottish birth rate.  That’s a ‘problem’ that we need more of, not one to be ‘solved’.  In a world where over-population is a serious and growing problem, a country with a low population density and a falling birth rate has major potential advantages – the question is how to adjust the economy to exploit that opportunity, not see it as a 'problem' to be fixed by moving it somewhere else.

Wednesday 29 January 2020

It's really very simple, isn't it?

Many people might think that building peace between implacable enemies is a long and difficult task, but as Trump showed yesterday, it’s incredibly easy for a ‘stable genius’.  All you need to do is sit down with one side to the dispute, ask them what they want, write it all down, call it a peace plan, present it to the other side, and tell them that they must agree to it or else.  What could possibly go wrong?  It’s so simple that I simply can’t imagine why no-one has thought of it before...

Monday 27 January 2020

Playing the federal card

Over the weekend, Labour’s remaining leadership candidates have been competing to see who can come up with the best way of strengthening ‘our precious union’ although none of them managed to articulate what’s so precious about it or why they want to maintain it.  And, as seems inevitable when Labour’s thoughts turn to devolution, one of them has played the federal card.  In this case, it’s Starmer, who has at least recognised that a federal UK with real power for the nations and regions means breaking up England into smaller units.  He didn’t put it that way, of course – but that can only be the outcome of setting up regional parliaments with full powers over all devolved areas.  A federation which leaves England untouched can never be a federation of equals.  In truth, what sounds like a radical plan is little more than an attempt to kick the can down the road by setting up a long-term process which will lead to a written constitution at some unspecified future date after listening to people's opinions (and guess what the reaction in England will be?).  Too little, too late.
Long-Bailey took a trip into an imaginary past where the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd “were meant to be on an equal footing” with Westminster.  (Spoiler: No, they weren’t.  That was never the intention of any part of the Labour Government which set them up.)  She went on to argue that she wants “our Scottish parliament and our Welsh parliament to feel as completely autonomous and independent as they possibly can whilst having that collaborative relationship with Westminster”.  If the relationship with Westminster is collaborative rather than hierarchical, I can see nothing much wrong with that, although it sounds a lot like what I’d call independence.  I hope that an independent Wales would always be willing to collaborate with our neighbours in these islands and beyond.  I rather suspect that “as completely autonomous and independent” as possible has a rather more limited meaning for her than for me, and that her idea of "collaborative" is rather more of a straitjacket.  And the one thing that comes through very clearly is that she somehow thinks that strengthening devolution will regain Scotland for Labour; and I suspect that party political objective is the real aim for all of them.
Nandy doesn’t seem to have had much of import to say in the eyes of whoever wrote this piece, merely talking vaguely about handing power back to the nations and regions.  It’s another version of alternative history, because the regions never had the powers (whatever they are) which she says she wants to give them back.
Thornberry sounds much more like the authentic voice of Labour which we know so well, and whilst she seems to be on course to be knocked out of the contest soon, I rather suspect that her traditional approach is the one that will actually be followed by Labour, whoever wins, after a decent period has elapsed in which to bury all talk of federalism.  Bash the SNP, label them as tartan Tories, and wait for the voters to return sheepishly to the Labour fold.  It’s not exactly been a successful strategy to date, but it does at least show that she understands the problem she’s trying to solve – it’s nothing to do with devolution, independence or the best interests of Wales or Scotland, it’s all about how Labour can win the seats it needs to form a government in London.  The problem isn’t a constitutional one, it’s about those contrary Scots refusing to vote the way they’re told to vote.

Friday 24 January 2020

What does freedom look like?

According to the Brexiteers, there’s just one week left under the oppressive yoke of Brussels rule, after which the UK will, at last, be free to set its own course in the world.  We will be free to set our own standards and rules in a whole host of areas, constrained only by the minor inconvenience of trying to sell our wares into markets which insist on imposing different standards and refuse to accept anything which does not comply.  That will be their problem, though, not ours – if they don’t accept our new standards, we can refuse to sell them our goods and services.  Let’s see how they like that!
We’ll also be free to set our own external tariffs, which means we can abolish all tariffs on incoming goods if we wish.  That will give us the advantage of buying whatever we like, from wherever we like, at the cheapest prices available on the world market.  If the rest of the world doesn’t follow suit and abolish their tariffs on our goods, that too will be their problem.  We can stop making the things that they want and force them to look elsewhere.  Let’s see how they like that!
We’ll be free to control immigration, and stop foreigners coming here to take advantage of our economic strength.  We won’t even need to pay the cost of introducing a points-based system: the economic result of using our freedom to set our own standards and abolish tariffs means that they won’t even want to come here in future.  How’s that for killing two birds with one stone!
Above all, we’ll be free of the evil and iniquitous requirement of EU membership that the state must abide by the rule of law.  Our government will at last be free to trample on democracy and human rights and treat people however they want.  Brexit means Brexit; the people have spoken; the government must give them what they voted for.  That’ll show the EU that we mean business!
As Fintan O'Toole suggests, the big problem with imaginary oppression is that getting rid of it leads only to imaginary freedom.

Thursday 23 January 2020

Chancellor achieves new heights

Last week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer did his best to sabotage any hope of retaining good access to EU markets by insisting that the UK will deliberately diverge from EU standards and regulations; this week he went to Davos and came close to starting a tariff war with the USA.  It certainly honours the government’s commitment to run talks with the EU and the USA in parallel rather than in series, but I hadn’t realised that the objective of doing that was to wreck both.  But, wait a moment – what was the Chancellor even doing in Davos?  It’s only a month since the PM banned all cabinet ministers from attending the gathering saying that they were going to be far too busy at home.  It was, of course, a ‘Boris Johnson pledge’, and therefore not meant to be taken seriously, but it’s a pretty blatant U-turn even by his standards.  Perhaps the PM thought that, after attempting to sabotage the EU talks last week, the Chancellor could do less damage in Davos than he could if he stayed in London.  If he did, the PM may have, to use a Bushism, seriously misunderestimated Javid’s capacity for following his own example.

Tuesday 21 January 2020

Even the Tory Moon isn't really made of cheese

If an opinion poll showed that a majority believed the Moon to be made of green cheese, would that constitute ‘proof’ of the Moon’s composition?  To most of us, that might sound like a very silly question, but not apparently to one Tory AM, who said this week that “… this poll indicates that it is having no effect on child abuse rates …”, in reference to an opinion poll asking residents of New Zealand whether they thought that the smacking ban was effective or not.  For him, the poll constituted ‘proof’ that the ban doesn’t work.  But opinion polls only measure opinions (the clue is in the name, surprisingly enough), and in the universe inhabited by most of us they tell us absolutely nothing about the substance.  For that one needs facts and figures, and maybe even an expert or two to interpret them.
It’s easy to mock such an obvious example of confusion between opinion and fact, and simply put it down to individual stupidity; but what if it’s not stupid but entirely deliberate?  Over the last few years, we’ve seen an increasing tendency in politics, particularly politics of the ‘right’, to either ignore facts or else treat unevidenced opinions as being equivalent to facts, and the politicians have got away with it because much of the media play along with them.  The internet is awash with opinion presented as fact and then shared and reshared until many are convinced that it must be true.  Even in the mainstream media, in the name of ‘balance’, opinions which are very obviously disproved by any examination of the hard, objective reality are given equal validity and attention as provable and demonstrable facts.
The ancient saying has it that “those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad”; the modern equivalent seems to be that those whom some politicians wish to control, they first confuse between fact and fiction.

Monday 20 January 2020

Not a coherent policy

For an independentista like myself, the question of devolving Air Passenger Duty (APD) is a complete no-brainer: of course, it (along with all other taxes) should be the responsibility of the Senedd rather than Westminster.  Supporting the criticism of foot-dragging by the UK Government which was made last week by the Welsh Finance Minister is easy enough.  Supporting the apparent policy of reducing the tax is, however, an entirely different question.
Clearly, the Welsh Government sees a reduction in the tax as being of economic benefit to Wales and a means of incentivising greater use of Cardiff airport.  Leaving aside the implicit assumption that ‘Wales’ is equivalent only to the southern part of the country (people living in the middle and north of Wales are likely to continue to find Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham more convenient and attractive even if Cardiff does offer a small tax advantage), the issue is whether deliberately encouraging an increase in the number of flights taken is in line with the same government’s commitment to carbon reduction.  It clearly is not; increasing the volume of the most carbon-intensive form of transport is not compatible with a commitment to de-carbonising the economy.
The original purpose of APD wasn’t raising revenue at all, it was an early attempt at a ‘green’ tax on an environmentally costly mode of travel.  In practice, it’s a blunt and clumsy instrument which takes no account of the relative efficiency of different engines and aircraft and has had little effect on the continuing growth in air travel.  It’s a half-hearted attempt to address the anomaly under which no fuel duty is paid on aviation fuel (unlike other fuels), but imposing such a tax unilaterally would lead to even more environmentally damaging practices such as an increase in ‘tankering’ (where aircraft fuel tanks are filled with more fuel than required in low duty airports in order to avoid refuelling in high duty airports, and end up using more fuel in total to carry the extra weight).  Aviation taxation unquestionably needs to be reconsidered, but it’s hard to see what the Welsh Government acting alone could effectively do beyond a bit of tinkering at the edges – what’s needed is collective international action.
Merely reducing or abolishing the tax – which is what seems to be Welsh Government policy (aided and abetted apparently by opposition parties) – is encouraging a race to the bottom, in which airports in different tax jurisdictions compete to see who can do most to encourage carbon-intensive activity in pursuit of immediate economic benefit.  Joined-up thinking it is not.

Friday 17 January 2020

Boris isn't the only cakeist

In principle, it seems entirely reasonable and rational for any city facing traffic gridlock to introduce a congestion charge as part of its attempts to deter cars and reduce both congestion and pollution.  It will never be popular with motorists, but there are many policies relating to climate change which are likely to prove unpopular, and the job of politicians is to explain why they are necessary and what the problems are with the alternatives rather than simply chase popularity.  In that context, this week’s proposals from Cardiff City Council are a brave start, even if the level is being set so low as to question whether it will have the impact required.  In practice, however, such policies need to be part of an overall joined-up approach, and despite their proposed investment in improved public transport in the same timescale, I’m not convinced that Cardiff’s proposals entirely meet that test.
It still seems to be the policy of both the Council and the Welsh Government to attract major office-based employers to the centre of Cardiff, rather than adopt a more dispersed approach to growth.  This is the prime driver of commuting into the City Centre, and the result is that they are, at one and the same time, seeking to attract more commuters into Cardiff and prevent them commuting by car. 
I’m sure that they would counter by saying that their improvements to public transport will make the car journeys unnecessary by providing a suitable alternative, and that a reduction in congestion should also make those public transport journeys more punctual and reliable.  Maybe, but it seems as though the public transport improvements planned within the required timescale are mostly restricted to travel within the city itself, and since residents of Cardiff are to be exempted from the charge, the result is that those who could gain the most advantage from the public transport improvements are not subject to the same disincentive to use their cars.  Those who would pay the charge are those who are resident outside the city, and they are the people most dependent on the badly failing rail network, where improvements seem to be further in the future.  In arguing that this looks like a tax on people living in the Valleys to pay for transport improvements for Cardiff residents, Blaenau Gwent AM Alun Davies makes a valid point.  Whilst it’s certainly true that improvements to the frequency, capacity and reliability of the rail network are not the responsibility of Cardiff Council, that doesn’t help the commuters who depend on them.
It looks, not for the first time, as though Cardiff City Council want to have their cake and eat it; they want the income and benefits of concentrating economic development in their area and they want the benefits of attracting workers from a wider area, but they don’t want the problems caused as a result of those policies.  Somebody needs to be taking a wider view of the issues.

Thursday 16 January 2020

A lack of Irish understanding?

I’m not sure that the Irish Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, has quite got his head around the concept of sovereignty which is so central to the English constitution and Brexiteers in particular.  He said on Sunday, referring to the PM’s determination that there shall be no extension to the negotiation period, “He has even put it into British law, but just because a British parliament decides that British laws say something doesn’t mean that that law applies to the other 27 countries of the European Union…”.  I don’t think that’s true – under the definition of sovereignty at the heart of the UK system, under which the Queen was given absolute sovereignty by God, and then graciously shares it with parliament, the UK can pass any law it likes.  God’s sovereignty isn’t limited by mere borders, and the parliament can indeed legislate for the EU to fall in with its demands, just as it can legally annexe Russia or reverse the independence of the USA.  The problem isn’t legal competence, it’s enforcing compliance.  In the good old days, the government would simply have sent a gunboat or two, but there’s something of a deficiency in the gunboat department at present, and those pesky foreigners have built more, better, and bigger gunboats than the UK.
Such practical considerations place serious constraints on the exercise of sovereignty, of course; they mean that the power is a theoretical one rather than a usable one, and no recent government has been silly enough to try and legislate in such a way.  It’s important, though, in terms of understanding the mindset of the English nationalists now running the UK.  At some level, they don’t really accept that there are any limitations on their powers and they are struggling to understand why everyone else isn’t simply complying with their wishes.  If any good at all were to come from Brexit, it would surely be a growing understanding of the UK’s real place in the world, but at the moment, it appears that they continue to prefer comfortable delusion over harsh reality.

Wednesday 15 January 2020

Johnson springs the trap

To the enormous surprise of precisely no one, Boris Johnson yesterday rejected the request from Scotland’s First Minister to devolve the power to hold a further referendum on Scottish Independence. His response was utterly dishonest, of course, but then it needed to be - nobody would have believed that it had come from him otherwise.  His letter claimed that both Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond had made a ‘personal promise’ that the 2014 referendum was a ‘once-in-a-generation’ vote.  Whilst it’s true that they both said that in their opinion that would be the case, elevating personal opinions into promises is nonsensical.  It would be like saying that all personal opinions expressed by Brexit campaigners in the 2016 referendum were firm commitments or that someone who said he’d prefer to be dead in a ditch should be lying, dead, in a ditch by now, instead of sitting in Downing Street churning out more lies.
Johnson and his government are not just refusing to allow a referendum now; their statements make it clear that they intend never to allow a further referendum.  As far as they are concerned, the decision was made in 2014 and cannot be revisited, an outrageous position against which many are, quite rightly, railing.  Some voices are arguing that there is no need for a referendum at all – Scotland can and should move straight to a unilateral declaration of independence.  With one important caveat, it strikes me that the legal basis for doing so is sound, in both Scots and international law.  With the same important caveat, I suspect that international recognition would follow, albeit not as quickly as may be assumed.  It’s a major caveat though, because such a move depends on there being a demonstrable majority for such action amongst the people of Scotland, and that condition is not currently fulfilled.
The SNP will naturally be critical of the PM’s stance, but I suspect that there’s also a degree of quiet relief.  As I posted last week, the more arrogant and dismissive the UK PM was in his response, the more likely it is that support for independence will grow.  His best chance of killing the idea ‘for a generation’, to coin a phrase, would have been to allow a quick referendum before the worst effects of Brexit take effect and while he still has control of his party and the media.  He has chosen, instead, to assume that SNP success is some sort of reversible flash in the pan which can simply be ignored and over-ridden.  He’s all but guaranteeing the eventual outcome.
Constitutionally, of course, he could still deny a vote even if election results and/or opinion polls were to show a clear majority for independence.  But no nation can be held for ever in a union dominated by another against its will.  Once the will exists, the means will also exist.  Boris Johnson is showing himself to be the accidental and unintended ally of the independence movement, but given his character and background, was there ever any chance that he would do anything different?

Tuesday 14 January 2020

Is it just cowardice?

I’m not aware of a single occasion, in the whole of recorded human history, when the citizens of one country have stated en masse that they hate the citizens of another country and want to go to war with them.  That doesn’t mean that they don’t subsequently get caught up in hatred and war fever – I can well remember growing up in the 1950s and hearing adults of my parents’ generation saying things like “The only good German is a dead German”.  That sort of hatred is necessary to sustain a long war, and the elites who start the wars invariably use all the propaganda tools at their disposal to encourage it; the point, however, is that it’s the elites, not the citizens, who decide to go to war in the first place.
It’s the ordinary citizens on both sides who provide (and always have done) the cannon fodder and most of the casualties, but it’s only since some 70-80 years ago that ordinary citizens started to be deliberately targeted through mass bombing of cities, culminating, of course, in the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan.  The whole rationale for strategic nuclear weapons is that their only possible actual or threatened use is for the mass annihilation of ordinary citizens – men, women and children alike – as they go about their daily business, for the sole ‘crime’ of living within the boundaries of a state which finds itself at war with another state.  It follows that anyone who supports the possession of such weapons, let alone states that they are willing to use them, is effectively arguing that that is a legitimate way of pursuing a war started by the elites.
And that brings me to the Labour Party’s leadership election.  As I understand it, all five candidates have expressed, at one time or another, their willingness to deliberately target citizens of another country in this way, whilst arguing that class solidarity is more important than nationality.  All five are being utterly disingenuous: there is no way that anyone willing to kill millions of working people solely for being of another nationality can argue any such thing.  Their argument, I’m sure, is that any leader stating that he or she would be unwilling to press the button would be ‘unelectable’, by the standards of the media and those who control them.  But if that’s their only reason, I’m not sure which is worse – their stated willingness to use such weapons, or their cowardice in refusing to say otherwise in order to get elected.  But what does it say about the electorate at large that the majority are willing to be guided into only electing someone who professes a willingness to commit mass murder?

Friday 10 January 2020

The computer isn't always right

There is something vaguely comforting about the research carried out at Canterbury University in New Zealand which suggested that almost everyone in Wales will be able to speak Welsh in a mere 300 years from now.  It implies that everything required to ensure such a transformation is in place, and all we have to do is carry on as we are – for three centuries.  The computer says so, so it must be right.  The problem, of course, is that whilst the study is an interesting exercise in statistical modelling, and in identifying the factors which guide the outcome, it is, ultimately, based on a whole series of assumptions.  They’ve obviously put a lot of thought into those assumptions, used whatever data is available to arrive at them, and produced a model which will be pored over for many years to come.  It’s a sound basis for research and study – but none of that makes it a good basis for language policy.
The first question which struck me was about empirical validation – are there any examples, anywhere in the world, against which the predicted outcome can be validated?  If a model predicts an outcome which has never been seen before, and which runs counter to the experience of languages with similar numbers of speakers in similar circumstances, it is time to apply what my old mathematics teacher used to call the ‘reasonableness test’.  If it doesn’t look right, then it probably isn’t.  No matter how interesting the model is, and the way in which it has been constructed, a predicted outcome which is at odds with real-world experience needs to be treated with a healthy dose of salt.
The danger of the way in which this study has been reported is that it encourages complacency – an attitude that we’re doing all the right things, and just need to carry on as we are.  I am aware of only one real success story in terms of reviving a declining language, and that is Hebrew in Israel – and that revival wasn’t achieved by depending on the factors considered in this study.

Thursday 9 January 2020

The self-defeating strategy of the unionists

The logic of the SNP’s position in demanding a second independence referendum is clear and irrefutable: under the rules which govern UK elections, they won a clear – overwhelming, even – majority of Scottish seats in last month’s elections, on a platform of calling for a second referendum to be held this year.  I’m less convinced about the wisdom of an early referendum, to be honest, given that the polls suggest that opinion remains finely balanced and that a second defeat would almost certainly postpone the question for some years.  Whilst it’s possible that the campaign itself would move opinion (which clearly happened during the last referendum), it is by no means certain.  But given their previous statements, their platform for the last election, and the outcome of that election, they have little choice but to pursue the demand for a second referendum as vigorously as they can.
The position of the unionists, including both the current government and the potential new leaders of the Labour Party (who seem to be lining up to explain why the rules governing a mandate in the UK parliament don’t apply to the outcome in Scottish seats, where a majority of the votes is also required, for reasons which they are unable to explain in rational terms) is rather harder to fathom.  Accepting that a mandate exists and allowing the SNP to honour it by holding a referendum is probably their best chance of defeating the independence movement for some years to come; allowing themselves to be seen to be applying different rules in Scotland than they apply to themselves, and using a veto over whether Scotland can even ask itself the question seems almost designed to undermine their message about a ‘union of equals’.  I suspect that it’s based – in Labour’s case particularly – on a belief that support for the SNP is an aberration, and that, given the right leadership and policies, the Scots will eventually return to what the unionists see as their natural political homes. It’s not wholly inconceivable that they are correct, although after a series of successive SNP election victories it’s looking increasingly unlikely.  I suppose, though, for leaders of parties who still believe that they have some sort of right to expect Scots to support them, it’s a perception which they find it hard to escape.
Paradoxically, it means that the SNP is inevitably committed to pursuing a path which has a high risk, if it succeeds, of significantly postponing independence, whilst the unionists are committed to pursuing a path which is likely to persuade ever more Scots of the merits of independence and thus lead to the break-up of the union.  It has long been believed by many independentistas that the demise of the union would ultimately be brought about by the arrogance and intransigence of the unionists in their response to demands from Scotland and Wales, and they seem determined to prove us correct.  I almost find myself egging them on.

Wednesday 8 January 2020

Nuking herself in the foot

There is little purpose in possessing nuclear weapons unless one is prepared to use them.  And for many of us – including some senior people in the world’s armed forces, that sentence would be equally valid without the last 7 words.  Theoretically, the only debate between the Labour Party’s supporters and opponents of the UK’s continued possession of such weapons is about the best way to get rid of them; but the word ‘theoretically’ is doing a lot of work there.  It would be more accurate to say that the party is divided between a minority who want more-or-less immediate nuclear disarmament, a majority who probably agree but are afraid to say so, and another minority who actually, genuinely believe that the UK should continue to possess such weapons.  And if that’s a fair summary, then the conclusion to be drawn from it is that the party’s policy on the issue is, in practice, decided not by those who have a clear view one way or the other, but by those who are simply too afraid of the Tory-driven reaction which would follow to express their views openly and honestly.
The result of that is to place people who have taken an honourable stance on the issue for almost the whole of their political lives – like Corbyn for instance – in a position where he cannot express his deeply-held view and is forced to pretend that he no longer agrees with everything he’s said on the issue for the past half century.  It also means that anyone aspiring to lead the party must answer the ‘button question’ and will immediately be deemed unelectable if they give the ‘wrong’ answer.  Thus it was that yesterday, Rebecca Long Bailey told us that she would indeed be willing to press the button and annihilate millions of people whilst also telling us that she’s an internationalist and supports a Green New Deal.  There’s nothing that quite says ‘workers of the world unite’ like an announcement of a willingness to use nuclear weapons against workers in another country.  And there’s nothing better for greening the economy than spending billions on turning scarce and valuable resources into weapons of mass destruction.  Apparently.
She could, of course, be lying.  I’d go further: she is certainly lying about something because there is no way that internationalism, green policies, and the use of nuclear weapons can coherently be combined, although the fact that she’s definitely lying about at least one doesn’t prove that she’s not lying about the rest.  Yet again, Labour are managing to fall into the nuclear trap from which the only escape is a series of attributes which most of them seem to be lacking – like integrity, honesty and courage.

Friday 3 January 2020

New thinking on the verge of extinction

The retiring General Secretary of the Scottish TUC, Grahame Smith, has today called on Labour to support, rather than oppose, holding a second independence referendum in Scotland.  He is just the latest in a line of Labour figures in Scotland who accept that it is impossible to argue that winning 48 seats out of 59, under the rules governing UK elections, does not give the SNP a mandate for calling such a vote.  The argument might look a little different under a fairer voting system, but as a member of a party supporting the retention of the existing system he clearly recognises the difficulty in denying the result of the election.  He doesn’t go as far as saying that he’d support a ‘yes’ vote, but there is a key part of what he says with which I find myself entirely in agreement.
He argues that “While the question on the ballot paper may remain: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’, the real question is what powers, or what elements of Scotland’s sovereignty, are Scottish voters willing to share and with whom?”, and this very neatly goes to the heart of the difference between the English/ Anglo-British nationalist version of sovereignty which has been driving Brexit and the more internationalist view of Scottish (and Welsh) independentistas.  Many Brexiteers have failed to understand why anyone could argue for being part of one union whilst wanting to leave another, but this question goes a long way towards answering that.
The nationalists behind Brexit appear to have an absolutist view of sovereignty as something belonging to and exercised solely by the people of a defined nation, in their case ‘Britain’ (or perhaps more appropriately, ‘Greater England’).  Mostly, they seem to be against both co-operation internationally and devolution internally, wanting all power to be held in one place.  Are there independentistas in Scotland and Wales who hold a similar view but simply want to draw the boundaries differently, based on a different understanding of nationality and history?  Yes, of course there are, and it would be disingenuous to argue otherwise.  In my long experience, however, they are not the mainstream majority as they seem to be in the case of Anglo-British nationalism, nor do most independentistas have a vision of their nation which implies it to be special, unique, or exceptional.  Mainstream independentistas recognise exactly the point being made by Smith; independence is merely a redefinition of the way in which the people of these two nations relate to, and share their sovereignty with, others - and on what terms.  Absolute independence, of the sort being sought by Anglo-British exceptionalists, makes no sense in a modern interconnected world in which common problems need to be faced and solved collectively.
By posing the question in the way he does, Grahame Smith is much closer to the internationalist view of Labour’s pioneers, to which I referred earlier this week.  It’s just a pity that it has taken the near-annihilation of Labour in Scotland before some of them have felt able to start such a debate, whilst their colleagues in England seem to want to lead their party down the same Anglo-British nationalist route as the Tories.