Friday 29 May 2020

Gradual easing needs more detailed advice

It appears that most people in Wales are still backing the more cautious approach of the Welsh government rather than the more reckless approach being taken in England. That seems to me completely appropriate – even if we could believe a word that the English PM utters, his approach seems to be ignoring the best scientific advice. Wales’ moves are driven by minimising the death toll, England’s only by ensuring that the number of people hospitalised doesn’t exceed capacity.
In his statement today, the First Minister seemed to be rowing back a little at least from the widely briefed ‘five mile rule’ for contact between households. That’s sensible in principle – the rule as originally rumoured looked like a very Cardiff-centric approach. A five-mile radius circle around the Senedd would be around 50% uninhabited sea, but the landward half would still include around 300-350,000 people. That’s potentially a lot of social mixing. On the other hand, a five-mile radius circle around my home would be entirely on dry land but include no more than 6-7,000 people. It’s more rural than most admittedly, but not untypical of much of Wales. The difference between the two highlights the difficulty in applying a single standard rule to the whole of a country where such a high proportion of the population are concentrated in a small area.
I can understand why the former Tory leader in the Senedd calls it an ‘arbitrary’ distance, and he’s right to do so. And the First Minister is right to refer to it as a ‘general rule’ rather than an absolute one. But that doesn’t help the police in deciding how and when to enforce the rule, and it doesn’t help those who live in more rural areas to decide, in a responsible fashion, what is or is not ‘reasonable’ in the circumstances. Absolute rules are much easier to enforce but will be less appropriate as lockdown is gradually eased, as this one instance already highlights. The less absolute the rules, the more guidance on interpretation will be required, by the police as well as the public. The First Minister’s caution has rightly been well-supported across Wales to date, but if he wants to maintain that support (and he certainly needs to), then his government will need to put more time and effort into fleshing out the guidance.

Wednesday 27 May 2020

Tory MPs are just grandstanding

There are those who struggle to understand why someone who has spent his whole life aiming to take on the top job should be so willing to risk his hold on it for the sake of retaining one member of his team. But I think that misreads the nature of Boris Johnson’s ambition and the nature of the job that he thinks he’s doing. He never really wanted to be PM at all – the job he wanted was world king. And the sort of monarch he wanted and still wants to be is the absolute variety – none of this ‘constitutional monarchy’ nonsense for him. Being merely the Prime Minister of a small part of the world is a long way short of achieving his lifetime ambition, but in settling for something which isn’t even second-best, he’s trying to do the job as though it were the one he wanted. In his world, if the king says something is so, then it is so – anyone who says otherwise is a traitor.
We know from his time in school that he has always believed that normal rules and constraints don’t apply to him, and he has lived his life accordingly – brushing off and brazening out any and every situation or problem which would have brought down lesser mortals. To highlight just one incident from many years ago, the way he treated his participation in a conversation about having a journalist beaten up as though it was a huge joke should have ended any hopes he had of ever achieving high office. Being sacked for lying – twice – ought to have exposed the nature of the man as well but he has simply carried on regardless. The one thing that he has learned from all this is that the technique works; nothing embarrasses him, nothing makes him feel any shame or regret, nothing dents or damages his enormous ego and self-esteem.
So, faced with an apparent crisis with his chief advisor having been caught out cheating and lying, with his own daily lies being exposed every more clearly, why wouldn’t he believe that he can simply bluster his way through the bad patch until people’s attention turns to something else? What if he is losing support amongst his own MPs – this is a man who turned a majority government into a minority government just a few short months ago by expelling anyone who disagreed with him. He then proceeded to win a huge majority of seats in the general election which followed. Why wouldn’t he believe that he can do it again? “With one bound he was free” was the leitmotif of Dick Barton, but it could equally be the phrase which encapsulates the charmed life of the chancer who currently holds the position of Prime Minister of the UK.
Whilst observers speculate on how long he can hang on to his right-hand man, seen from his position the problem is merely one of riding out the storm until people find something else to talk about. As king, he has the sovereign right to appoint who he wants when he wants; he and his immediate courtiers have the absolute right to do as they please when they please; having to answer questions from subjects is all a bit of a bore and a waste of his valuable time. Mere disagreement from those he regards as lesser people doesn’t and won’t phase him, just as it never has in the past. Some Tory MPs are breaking ranks to express a contrary view but experience has taught him that he can safely ignore them. The Tory party has traditionally been ruthless in removing its leaders but he’s purged the party to such an extent that I wonder whether it is any longer capable of such action. Unless the rebels are prepared to commit regicide, verbal criticism in response to constituent pressure is just grandstanding.

Tuesday 26 May 2020

Lining up his next career move

Most people are aware of the first law of holes: when you’re in one, stop digging. This is another of those rules for ordinary people to which the PM does not feel beholden, as we saw yesterday. Not only did they not take away Cummings’ spade, they seem to have given him a mechanical digger with which to make the hole many times deeper. Given the well-known generosity of the owner of JCB to the Tory party, perhaps it was a subliminal reciprocal advert, highlighting the efficacy of the machines. During the election campaign, the PM famously used a real JCB to demolish what looked like a polystyrene wall to emphasise his ‘Get Brexit Done’ message; in a display of poetic justice, his chief advisor used his imaginary one yesterday to demolish the wall of lies which the PM had erected on his behalf only 24 hours previously. Not only did he directly contradict some of what had been said in his defence just a day earlier, he proceeded to ‘explain’ himself in a way which has attracted widespread ridicule. Still, if push comes to shove, he’s made himself a hot prospect for a new role as the front man for a prominent chain of opticians. “Should’ve gone to Specsavers” will surely trip naturally from his tongue.

Monday 25 May 2020

Making the rules unenforceable

Laws are rarely perfect, and laws made in haste even less so. They can never cover every eventuality or exception; almost by definition they have to be general in their application. Most laws are open to differing interpretations – that fact alone keeps thousands of lawyers in gainful employment. The interpretation, though, is something that happens definitively only in a court of law – it is not for ordinary citizens to ‘interpret’ the law for themselves, however ‘reasonable’ their interpretation may appear. At a governmental level, it is the judiciary, not the executive, which decides what the law actually says and whether, and to what extent, that law is compatible with the freedoms and rights of individuals.
In his defence of his chief advisor yesterday, that was another line which the Prime Minister crossed. Having promoted the passing of a set of rules and regulations which were stark in their clarity, and allowed for very few exceptions, he effectively announced that there were other exceptions which were not contained in any of the rules and regulations his government promoted, and that people were at liberty to ‘interpret’ those rules as they wish, as long as they were ‘reasonable’. I can well imagine a series of future court cases as people appeal against the fines that they were given for breaking lockdown rules, arguing that they were ‘interpreting’ the law and that their actions were entirely ‘reasonable’. Even if there are no appeals, I don’t doubt that that will be the defence used whenever the police try to enforce the rules from here on – to all practical intents and purposes, the PM announced yesterday that the enforcement of the lockdown in England is over. Even if the police would still be acting legally by imposing fines, every instance is likely to be publicly compared with what the PM said yesterday – the police’s job has been made near impossible as they try to avoid attracting unwelcome attention to the inconsistencies.
One can argue, of course, that the lockdown rules are unnecessary or excessive: that’s a valid (albeit misguided) political argument. But the rules have been laid down under what passes for democracy in the UK, and those rules apply unless and until they are changed by the same process. Government ministers – even the PM – don’t have the right to exempt individual people or specific actions without changing the rules for everyone. They apparently have the power to do so, however, in practice if not in theory. It’s not clear at present whether he’ll get away with it. His natural instinct will be to believe that he can – this is, after all, a man who has lived his entire life believing that rules don’t apply to him. The press and the opposition will huff and puff, but as long as his own party’s MPs do as they are told he is almost untouchable. His credibility wasn’t great to start with, and it’s now dissolving further in front of our eyes, but the only people who can change anything are Tory MPs. Unless more than 40 of them get to the point – whether driven by angry constituents or their own fear of losing their seats (which may amount to the same thing) – where they are prepared to act against him, the elected dictatorship (as the late Quintin Hogg called it) in the UK can do more or less as it likes. As things stand, there are few signs that sufficient Tory MPs will suddenly develop backbones. In the meantime, people will continue to be infected and to die on a scale which could and should have been avoided.

Sunday 24 May 2020

Bridges to nowhere

This last week, some government ministers have been floating the idea of establishing ‘air bridges’ with other countries to enable air travel to restart without quarantine requirements. It’s an interesting idea, based on the assumption that there is a lower risk of transmission by people travelling between any two countries which have the pandemic under control than between two countries which do not have it under control. But the problem with bridges is that they have to have two ends; the idea depends on the countries at the other end of the bridge accepting that the people they admit are coming from a country where the pandemic is controlled. That raises one simple and obvious question – which other countries in their right minds would consider the UK government to have the pandemic under control? This is another classic example of English exceptionalism at its best – assuming that the problem is with other countries, not here in the UK.

Saturday 23 May 2020

Spotting the flaws

There is a certain logic in the government’s position, in an attempt to justify its prevarication, that quarantining people makes more sense when people travel from an area with a high incidence of infection to an area with a low incidence than the other way round. It means, of course, that it would make more sense to quarantine British people travelling to almost any other country in the world than people travelling to Britain. I can just imagine the tabloid outrage at ‘Brits’ being so 'unfairly' treated.
The UK’s proposals for ‘quarantining’ people on arrival look like too little too late – and even now it will be another two weeks before they come into effect. It is one of life’s curious anomalies that the one country which absolutely had to leave the EU in order to control its borders was the outstanding example of not bothering to do so, whilst all those countries which, according to the Brexiteers, had no control of their borders because they’re part of the EU acted swiftly to close their own. It also looks like more of a belated political reaction to the clamour for closing the borders than a response driven by concern about the spread of the virus.
But it isn’t even a proper system of quarantine. If I understand the proposal correctly (and it’s always possible that the government will issue further ‘clarification’ as they invariably do with their half-baked proposals), people (well, some of them – the list of exceptions is growing) arriving in the UK will be obliged to give border officials an address where they will solemnly promise to stay for 14 days in self-isolation. After giving the address to the officials concerned, new arrivals – who may or may not have an adequate command of English or Welsh to understand the instructions they’ve been given – will then be free to leave the airport, railway station or port and travel by car, train, bus or taxi to the duly notified destination, mixing freely with the population at large en route. They will then be trusted to stay in isolation at that destination for two weeks. This will be ‘enforced’ by random spot checks which may or may not be undertaken by understaffed services which are already struggling with their current workload. No, they don't seem to have spotted the potential flaws yet for some reason.

Thursday 21 May 2020

Is it incompetence or subterfuge?

Yesterday, the English PM told us that his government was recruiting 25,000 contact tracers, who would be able to deal with 10,000 cases per day. Now he could, of course, have been lying, either about the number being recruited (the original target was only 18,000) or about how many cases per day they would deal with. He’s not exactly famous for his honesty. Or, more charitably, he was merely demonstrating his own lack of mathematical capacity. Again, he’s not exactly famous for his grasp of detailed fact. But let us suppose, just for one moment, that he was accidentally telling us the truth for once – what does that mean in terms of strategy?
We know that the rate of new infections has been coming down and is now around 2500 per day. We also know that if there is more testing, then the number of new mild or asymptomatic cases will increase without increasing either the hospitalisation rate or the death rate. And we know that it would be prudent – in the light of the incompetent approach to testing and PPE to date – to ensure that the capacity is higher than the anticipated need (although I don’t really have much faith that the government has learned that lesson yet). We also know that the strategy – insofar as there is one – is not to try and emulate the most successful countries in the world by more or less eliminating the virus, it is simply to keep the number of infections at a level which does not overwhelm the NHS. All that probably tells us that, for the foreseeable future, the government is planning for somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 new cases per day.
It’s a compromise, of course. It’s a question of balancing the extra short term cost and effort involved in a more aggressive elimination strategy (likely to be large, having allowed the pandemic to reach current levels) against a lower longer term cost of simply managing the levels. And if a vaccine emerges fairly soon and if being infected / vaccinated confers a degree of protection (both of which are currently rather large ‘if’s) then it’s a reasonable approach to follow, provided that the limitations and calculations are properly explained. It’s a gamble, though – if neither of those things comes to pass, then merely managing the rate of infection rather than trying to eliminate the virus means that eventually at least 50 million are likely to be infected across the UK. Although they claim to have abandoned the ‘herd immunity’ strategy, their actions speak louder than their words, and it still appears to be the default policy.
Simple mathematics tells us that at that level of infection, it will take at least 5000 (50,000,000/10,000) days (or more than 13 years) before that number of people have been infected. Even if the death rate (given a higher number of detected mild/ asymptomatic infections) reduces to around 0.5% of those infected (another big ‘if’), that amounts to some 250,000 deaths. Because they are spread out over a lengthy period, they may not have the same impact, but that’s little comfort to the deceased or their families. It looks, most of the time, as though the government aren’t taking decisions on the basis of any strategy at all – merely reacting to events and pressures as they occur, bending this way and that in an attempt to escape blame or responsibility. I wonder at times, though, whether all the bluster and apparent incompetence isn’t a cover for the fact that they have taken some big decisions, but just don’t want to share those decisions with us. And I’m not sure which of those two options worries me most.

Wednesday 20 May 2020

Ignoring the problem isn't impartiality

In the days since Boris Johnson’s car-crash speech to ‘the nation’ just over a week ago, it seems that the BBC’s reporting has gone from one extreme to the other in one sense. Having spent weeks failing to distinguish between the constituent parts of the UK, leaving most people with the misleading impression that the English ministers were acting and talking on behalf of the UK rather than simply England, they now frequently go out of their way to emphasise when rules apply across the board and when they are more specific. Sadly, sometimes they use those differences to make mischief – the report by BBC Scotland correspondent Sarah Smith a few days ago was a classic example. It looked more like English reporting about Scotland delivered with a Scottish accent than a report from Scotland for the interest of the UK as a whole, underlining the way in which the first ‘B’ in BBC is still the most important to the Corporation.
In theory, the differences between the approaches of the four governments aren’t actually as different as they seem. All four have attempted to produce some sort of roadmap indicating the conditions which need to be met and the sort of relaxations which can follow the meeting of those conditions. There are differences of emphasis between them, and some things might happen in a different order, but the theoretical position is that progress is determined by conditions on the ground. The differences are much less than those between the different regional governments in places like Germany for instance, although the reluctance of the English nationalists running the central government here to learn anything from mere Europeans means, apparently, that such differences are uniquely unacceptable in the UK.
But the real difference between England and the rest of the UK (or apparently, from an English government perspective, the difference between Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland on the one hand and the ‘rest of the UK’ on the other, in another hard-to-believe example of their own exceptionalism) isn’t in the theory, it’s in the practice. Having set out a strategy which makes it clear that the progress cannot be driven by arbitrary dates, England uniquely has gone on to produce an action plan which sets arbitrary dates and is attempting to drive everyone else into working to those dates. Of course it’s true that people want to have an idea about indicative dates, and I can understand the frustration felt by some that Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have been so reluctant to do that, but if the plan is seriously based around events not entirely under the control of governments, setting dates, even indicative ones, is potentially dangerous. Turning them into targets is not only utter folly, it also undermines the strategy itself. And even leaving aside the doubts in the other three governments, the plan is falling apart in England itself in the face of opposition from local authorities across England.
The BBC may have gone some way, albeit haltingly and with an occasional lapse into deliberate mischief-making, but they haven’t yet gone far enough in exposing the truth. The problem is England and the English government; failing to make that clear to viewers and listeners isn’t impartial or unbiased reporting, it’s acting as a propaganda tool for just one of the four governments.

Tuesday 19 May 2020

Punishment or deterrence?

All human societies need a system of rules and need to enforce those rules. But approaches to setting and enforcing rules differ. One approach is to maximise social solidarity – to ensure buy-in from all members and work largely through persuasion. An alternative is authoritarianism, where transgressors are harshly punished and where those punishments are intended to deter others from transgressing in future. In practice, the differences are not so clear-cut – real human societies operate somewhere in between those extremes and invariably contain advocates of both approaches.
The coronavirus pandemic seems to have brought out an authoritarian streak in Wales as in the rest of the UK, with even those politicians whom I would instinctively have expected to support an approach based primarily on persuasion and social solidarity apparently baying for police crackdowns and harsher penalties. In the face of hard reality, the differences between those who claim to be on the political ‘right’ and those who claim to be on the political ‘left’ turn out to be less significant than I would have expected. It’s not clear to me what the purpose of higher fines would be – acting as a deterrent is the obvious motive but the rhetoric sounds much more like a desire to punish those who don’t comply. Whether higher fines would act as a deterrent is a moot point anyway; for the scale of the punishment to discourage a particular act depends on an assumption that the person considering committing such an act carefully weighs up the pros and cons first – and to the extent that he or she does that, the calculation of the probability of getting caught is likely to be at least as significant as the amount of any potential fine. For all the publicity given to a few exceptional cases, I suspect that the probability of getting caught is quite low, and that those ignoring the rules know that.
There are those who doubt that we need the restrictions on movement at all but I am not among them. I accept that the best route to controlling the pandemic lies in placing restrictions on our lives for the short term, and I accept the concomitant necessity for some form of enforcement. But where are the traditional advocates of persuasion and social solidarity in all this? It feels as though many have simply given up and joined the lynch mobs.

Monday 18 May 2020

Watching the collapse in slow motion

The debate about when schools should re-open highlights yet again that the key to leadership during a crisis is honesty and transparency. Parents and teachers want to be as certain as they can be that both they and the children will be safe, and they are naturally seeking that reassurance from government. The way in which not only Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but also an increasing number of local authorities in England itself, are declining to accept assurances from a government which seems to have alighted on an entirely arbitrary date of 1st June and turned it into some sort of macho test of its own strength and determination indicates the extent to which people feel that they cannot trust the word of ministers. What started out as an aspiration to re-open schools starting on 1st June has turned – in the way in which arbitrary goals are regularly treated by this government – into a target which must be met, even if that involves taking on and traducing teachers, unions, parents and local authorities.
In terms of building the necessary trust, Gove’s performance yesterday, in which he managed both to ‘guarantee’ the safety of all concerned and also state that no-one could be certain of absolute safety didn’t help. He was right the second time, of course – there can never be any guarantee, the decision necessarily involves weighing up the risks. But the ease with which the initial lie tripped off his tongue goes to the heart of the growing lack of faith in the government – it seems that lying is invariably the first option, and that honesty has to be prised out slowly and laboriously afterwards.
Last week, we also discovered that the UK’s most senior civil servant, the Cabinet Secretary, had been ill with coronavirus, and that a deliberate decision had been taken not to tell the public because, apparently, it was regarded as being news too sensitive for the public to handle. Why they thought that we could handle the illness of the PM and several others around him but not that of the Cabinet Secretary remains a mystery. But what I really don’t understand is why no-one realised that it was bound to come out at some point, and that keeping it secret wouldn’t exactly build confidence. And also why no-one seems even to have considered the possibility that the public at large might start to wonder ‘if they are keeping something as minor as that back so as not to panic us, what else aren’t they telling us?’ The question is such an obvious one – only people with some sort of bunker mentality could seriously have failed to understand, even for a moment, that keeping this secret might just turn out to be a really bad idea. But no, they went on to compound the error by denying that he was ill and claiming that he was working normally.
I’m glad that I’m not a parent of a school age child in England, having to make the decision as to whether to keep my child home from school on the basis of information the accuracy of which is unclear and which is being delivered by proven liars, and I feel sorry for those who are in that situation. And I’m glad that the Welsh government is taking a more cautious approach. It’s no surprise that the level of confidence in the English PM and his government has plummeted since his car crash speech last weekend – we seem to be watching a government implode in slow motion under the weight of its own dissembling. The surprise is that they don’t even seem to understand what is happening or why and simply respond by doubling down on the lies. There will be, of course, a solid base of Tory supporters who will stick with their man come what may, although even some of those must surely be struggling to defend the lies with a straight face. But parents of school age children, relatives of residents of care homes, friends and family of front-line carers and health workers – these aren’t negligible sections of the electorate to be carelessly gambling with their support. I even find myself wondering whether he’s deliberately testing the validity of the Trump doctrine about shooting someone not being enough for him to lose support. The danger is that Trump might actually have been right about that.

Saturday 16 May 2020

Is Mark Drakeford "inherently right-wing"?

The First Minister’s attempt to explain why ‘nationalism’ and ‘socialism’ are incompatible serves only to highlight a lack of clarity about the meaning of either. He’s not alone in that, in fairness; it has been obvious for years that the way in which everyone ascribes their own meaning to both words obscures and frustrates debate rather than facilitating it. I could also throw ‘patriotism’ into the mix as well, given that it’s a word used recently by his own party’s leader. According to Drakeford, nationalism and socialism are complete opposites, but according to Starmer, the Labour movement and patriotism are “two sides of the same coin”. (I guess, though, that he means ‘British’ patriotism rather than the Welsh or Scottish variety.) Logically (and assuming that the two men’s political philosophies have at least a passing resemblance) that can only mean that they also see nationalism and patriotism as being polar opposites as well.
In truth, none of this debate about labels or what they mean is particularly helpful, particularly when we try to apply it to the question of how government should be organised on a territorial basis. It is perfectly possible for a patriotic – and perhaps even a nationalistic – Welsh person to believe that the Welsh nation is best served by remaining part of a larger whole, just as it’s possible for someone who isn’t Welsh, and opposes both nationalism and patriotism, to believe that Wales’ best interests are served by independence. It’s why I tend to use the term independentista – it’s not exactly elegant or commonplace, but it does explain more precisely what it is that I support. Debating the constitutional options for Wales is harder, of course, than simply dismissing anyone who disagrees by labelling them – that’s why Labour have long preferred to use labels. Why anyone would seriously expect Drakeford to be any different is the real puzzle here.
One other point struck me about what he said, however. I don’t know whether he was quoted accurately, because this sentence seems a bit convoluted to me: “In the end, I think it’s an inherently right-wing creed that operates by persuading people that they are because they are against what somebody else is”, but I think he was saying that persuading people to be one thing by contrasting that with what they are not is inherently a right-wing approach. I can’t help thinking that it is awfully similar to the traditional approach of Labour asking people to vote for them because “we’re not the Tories”, another way of avoiding debating the substance of what people stand for. Does that mean that we can safely label any Labour spokesperson who repeats that line as being “inherently right-wing”?

Friday 15 May 2020

Is Boris an organizing genius?

If there’s one thing for which the English Prime Minister cannot be blamed it is the fact that there has been an outbreak of coronavirus in the UK. It is becoming increasingly clear that the virus was already circulating well outside China much earlier than people thought, and the UK isn’t the only country where community transmission was already happening before the need to take any measures was identified. However, turning a drama into a crisis (as an insurance company once said) only happened as a direct result of government action (or rather inaction). With the advantage of having seen what was happening in places like Italy, and the luxury of having a week or two to avoid a repetition, it took a special kind of skill to ensure that not only could the UK repeat the experience of Italy, it could go one better and show that the UK doesn’t have to be bound to any mortality limits set by a member of the EU. And having the highest mortality rate (on a population basis) of any country in the world just goes to show how brilliant the UK can be under the right leadership, and once freed of the shackles of the Brussels bureaucracy.
Avoiding the economic impact of a minor outbreak would have been hard to avoid as well. Obviously, allowing the outbreak to get out of control before taking any action made that impact worse, but it took further government action to make it as bad as it has become, and only a world-leading government could have responded to the economic impact in such a way as to make it even worse than it needed to be.
Having presided over a health crisis, and then compounding that with an economic crisis, it took real effort to add a constitutional crisis into the mix by conflating England and the UK and ignoring the devolved administrations in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast. There was nothing inevitable about things like accidentally outlawing driving from England to Wales, and whilst the health crisis might have mandated an economic crisis of sorts, there was nothing about either the health crisis or the economic crisis which mandated a constitutional crisis as well. That is entirely down to the actions of government.
Now some might feel that all this just highlights the incompetence and cluelessness of Johnson and his team, but I am reminded of the words of Aneurin Bevan. He once said that “This island is made mainly of coal and surrounded by fish. Only an organizing genius could produce a shortage of coal and fish at the same time.” Could the apparent bumbling and stumbling of Johnson all be a cunning way of disguising the man’s secret genius for organization?

Wednesday 13 May 2020

Austerity and ideology haven't gone away

Yesterday’s decision by the Chancellor to extend the furlough scheme was ultimately inevitable – the only alternative was to accept that most of the 7.5 million people being supported by it are, effectively, unemployed and that the companies employing them are, effectively, insolvent. There was a statement that companies would be expected to contribute to the costs from August onwards, caveated by something along the lines of ‘when businesses are open again’, a caveat which gives him enough wiggle room to simply carry the scheme forward until the end of October if – or perhaps when – it becomes as obvious to him as it is to others that the English government’s timeline for re-opening the economy is from the same fantasy world as a pain-free Brexit, and that the companies concerned will be in no position to make any such contribution. And even a caveated, almost grudging, extension of a scheme which is still far from perfect is to be welcomed as better than the alternative.
More worrying are the rumours about his views on how the government will pay for the costs associated with the pandemic. The Telegraph this morning (paywall) is reporting ‘exclusively’ that a leaked report talks about an increase in income tax, the abolition of the pensions triple lock (something the Tories have never liked anyway), and a two year pay freeze for public sector workers (like the ones they’ve been hypocritically clapping every Thursday). There is also talk of other tax rises and cuts to public spending – the Tories may avoid the word ‘austerity’, but it seems that they just can’t abandon the ideology behind it. When Sunak talked a few weeks ago about this ‘not being a time for ideology’, it seems that he merely wanted a postponement, not a change.
Because many people, and the media from which they get their news, adhere to the crazy notion that government finances are just like a household which can’t spend money it hasn’t got, there is a danger that this sort of talk gains traction, and that people will see it as inevitable that the money borrowed has to be repaid. But this is a complete fallacy – we need to think a bit more about who owes what to whom, and what the effect of repaying it is. It’s true, of course, that the government is borrowing vast sums of money at the moment, both on the bond market and from the Bank of England. The two need to be considered separately.
·        The Bank of England is owned by the government – all money ‘borrowed’ from the BoE is money that the government is actually borrowing from itself. Where does it come from? At it’s simplest, it comes from a computer – the governor of the bank (acting on the instructions of the bank’s owners) deposits a few hundred billions in the government’s account and then creates a matching asset in its own accounts. The money is, in short, created out of thin air, into which it will disappear again if it is ever ‘repaid’. Any ‘interest’ paid becomes a ‘profit’ of the BoE which gets paid to its owners – the government. The government is paying the interest to itself in effect. It can borrow as much as it wants or needs in this way, limited only by any inflationary effect if there is ever ‘too much’ money in circulation, although nobody knows how much is ‘too much’.
·        Money borrowed on the bond markets is mostly borrowed from the UK financial sector – much of it from pension funds. From their perspective, what the government sees as a ‘debt’ to be repaid looks like a valuable (and extremely safe) ‘asset’, which is why they are so willing to ‘invest’ the money which they manage. Their ‘investment’ is government ‘borrowing’. Nominally, all those debts need to be repaid at some point, but those to whom they are repaid are likely to want to simply re-invest (i.e. lend the money back to the government).
So, we (through the government) are borrowing money from ourselves (through our pension funds or the BoE) and in due course we will repay it to ourselves and then lend it back to ourselves in an ever-continuing circle. Does it matter? Well there’s a sting in the tail here – ‘we’ are not all equal in this process. The ‘we’ to whom the money is owed tend to be the more well-off – those with the larger pension funds, especially. But the ‘we’ who will do the repaying under the sort of proposals being considered by the Treasury are the low paid (who depend disproportionately on public sector services), the poorest pensioners (those for whom the state pension is their only or main source of income), and public sector workers. Austerity, in short, is a process by which the wealth of the wealthy is preserved by transferring resources from the least well-off. The PM may not want to use the word but that, like most of what he does and says, is about presentation not substance. Anyone who thinks that the virus has driven out Tory ideology hasn’t been paying attention.

Tuesday 12 May 2020

Applying common sense

According to the ‘clarification’ which the PM has given of his changes to the lockdown rules, a great deal seems to depend on the application of good old-fashioned British common sense. Leaving aside the question of how people in a country where sense is so common respond to a pandemic by bulk-buying packets of toilet roll or dial 999 because KFC have run out of chicken, let alone end up with Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, what is uniquely British about common sense? For an Anglo-British nationalist like Johnson, it is a question which doesn’t even need to be asked because the answer is obvious, but, to the extent that sense is indeed common, there’s no empirical evidence of which I’m aware which suggests it is the property of any particular people or state – nor that it’s actually as common as we might hope.
I understand that the PM speaks French, which means that he should be aware that the French refer to it as ‘la sagesse normande’ (the wisdom of Normandy). The sentence ‘nous avons besoin de la sagesse normande’ (what we need is common sense) was once rendered into English in the European Parliament as ‘what we need is Norman Wisdom’. I’d always seen that as an understandable translation error, but it seems that the PM regards it as sound advice, or even an instruction. Mind you, if Norman was still with us, he might do a better job - he could hardly do a worse one.

Monday 11 May 2020

The problem is in England, not in Wales

In the run-up to ‘that speech’ last night, the devolved governments were criticized in the media for ‘pre-empting’ Boris Johnson’s announcements or attempting to ‘steal a march’ over London. And in the aftermath, the media have reported that the devolved administrations have ‘rejected’ or ‘refused to accept’ what the PM said. It’s a classic example of the innate English nationalism and London-centric view of the world held by the British media. That narrow, blinkered view of events means that the wrong people are being asked the wrong questions.
All four governments were required by law to review the lockdown arrangements last Thursday, and all duly did so. The Scottish government immediately announced the results of its own review on Thursday and the Welsh government (whose cabinet met quite late in the day to discuss the matter) announced the results of its review on Friday. The English government decided to do things differently – they postponed any announcements for three days and went on to brief selected newspapers that the changes were going to be much more far-reaching than was actually the case. And they deliberately failed to tell, let alone consult with, the devolved administrations about their proposals. I don’t know why they thought it was sensible to do any of those things, although my best guess is that they seriously thought that it would build up Johnson’s speech to some great national moment – an attempt, in short, to gain some sort of political advantage. It backfired badly, largely as a result of the PM’s own failings and unsuitability for the role.
Ahead of a sunny bank holiday weekend, the English government deliberately confused the message and led people to believe that in a few days’ time there were going to be significant changes to the lockdown arrangements. It was entirely predictable that some people would conclude that a few days wasn’t going to make a huge difference, and we’ve seen the results of that on the news. Having given unattributable private briefings saying one thing, ministers were left trying to put the genie back in the bottle and failing miserably, succeeding only in sowing doubt and confusion where there had previously been clarity. Going on Sunday evening television to give people less than 24 hours’ notice that he expected them to return to work the next day with no pre-warning for employers and no usable transport system just added to the overall sense of utter incompetence.
So how come the devolved administrations are being criticised for not following suit? If three out of four governments have been straightforward and prompt in reviewing arrangements and clearly telling people their conclusions whilst the other has obfuscated, prevaricated and given out mixed messages in an attempt to secure party political advantage, why has the media criticism been aimed at the first three rather than the fourth? Instead of demanding to know why three governments have dared to act promptly and explain what they are doing clearly, shouldn’t they be asking why the fourth hasn’t? It reflects a London-centric attitude which fails to acknowledge that, on devolved matters, the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland governments have the same legal competence, and the same authority to act, as the English government. The arrogant fashion in which the English government has changed its messaging with no consultation with the other governments in the UK indicates an implicit assumption that London always knows best and everyone else will fall into line. The real question isn’t demanding why Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland aren’t being sufficiently subservient to England, it’s exploring why the English government is so utterly dishonest and incompetent. But English nationalist exceptionalism is still preventing too many from even understanding why the question needs to be asked.

Friday 8 May 2020

What are they 'celebrating'?

As the media are incessantly reminding us, today marks the anniversary of the end of the most destructive war in European history. The lack of wars between the major European nations since then is unprecedented; that second world war has instead been followed by a long period of reconciliation and peace between former enemies. The war is certainly an occasion for reflection and memory of the immense losses suffered by families and communities across the continent, and the subsequent reconciliation and co-operation is one for celebration of the way in which, in an imperfect world where conflict and disagreement still exist, the citizens and governments of a continent have managed to resolve their differences without resorting to armed conflict by building relationships and institutions to manage them through discussion and negotiation.
It seems, though, that a jingoistic English nationalist government is asking us to prioritise neither remembering the losses nor celebrating the peace – they want, rather, for us to join in a ‘celebration’ of ‘victory’, militarism, and British exceptionalism. It’s largely based on historical myth about the nature of the war and its ending and is wholly unjustified by the reality of the UK’s position in the modern world. A peace which has been maintained by co-operation and coming together is to be marked by emphasising that the UK stands apart from the rest of the continent (and indeed the rest of the world) because we’re different and special. It is not only nationalism of the worst kind, it is also now being used in an attempt by the English nationalists-who-claim-not-to-be to co-opt people into swallowing the myth of exceptionalism as a cover for the belief that neither Brexit nor a virus can damage the resolve of ‘this plucky island nation’ and that we can magically overcome both without needing to follow the same rules or conventions as others.
So, quiet contemplation of the loss and carnage on all sides – yes, that’s completely appropriate; a degree of relief, or even happiness, that most of Europe learned from the experience that co-operation is better than conflict (albeit tempered by regret at the huge cost of learning that lesson and the way in which one country in particular seems to have learned something completely different) – certainly; celebrating ‘victory’ over ‘enemies’, British exceptionalism, dwelling on perceived past greatness, and glorious isolation – count me out of that.

Thursday 7 May 2020

Are all comparisons odious?

The idea that comparisons are odious isn’t a new one; the first use of the phrase in English appears to date from around 1440. And as an admonition against comparing things which are unalike, or judging people against each other, it has a great deal of merit. People – governments, even – should as a rule be judged on their own merits, not by comparing them to others. So, when government ministers and their apologists complain about the UK’s coronavirus statistics being compared with those of other European countries, they have a point, especially so when they underline that not everyone is counting the same thing. They are also correct in pointing out that we don’t yet know the final outcomes, and things could still change, although their faith that that change will vindicate them looks, shall we say, ‘optimistic’ at the moment. But their point would be even more valid if they hadn’t been making the international comparisons themselves until very recently in an attempt to show they weren’t doing badly, and if we didn’t know that the country most guilty of under-reporting is probably the UK itself – the FT have estimated that the true number of deaths resulting from the pandemic is more like 54,000 than the officially-admitted 30,000. Totalitarian states like China aren’t the only ones who hide the truth behind carefully massaged figures.
However odious they may be, and whatever the difficulties in ensuring that the same things are being compared, comparisons do have a valuable role in determining whether, for instance, one approach has worked better than another. And given the advantage the UK had in that the pandemic struck after we could already see what had happened in Italy, there was every reason at the outset to suppose that a well-prepared and well-organised country (which is what the UK claimed to be) could and would avoid the scale of the disaster which hit Italy by learning from their experience. As it turned out, the country was neither well-prepared nor well-organised, and instead of mobilising immediately, the country’s leaders chose to believe that British exceptionalism could and would defeat the virus. We were well-prepared and well-organised only in the sense that our leaders ‘know’ that the UK is special and exceptional and that everything the UK does is, by definition, ‘world-class’, ‘world-leading’ and ‘the very best’. When their definition starts from the assumption that no-one can ever do any better, there is never going to be any predisposition to study what happens elsewhere and learn from it – they simply assume that other people are having a torrid time because not only are they not British but they didn’t come here for advice first. When reality doesn’t match their preconceptions, they simply redefine reality by denying the validity of any comparisons, hiding the truth, and doubling down on the lies and bluster.
Those who rely on the UK media for their news will be largely unaware of the incredulity with which most of the rest of the world has looked on as the UK stumbles from mistake to mistake. Wee Ginger Dug has compiled a few links here which show just how astounded people elsewhere have been by the performance of Johnson and his pals. Things are unlikely to change, though. Perhaps they really do believe their own propaganda, in the same way that Trump genuinely believes himself to be a genius. When you ‘know’ something to be true, mere evidence and facts are not going to change that. Some of us already know that jingoism is no more a cure for the virus than is snake oil, but the snake oil marketing business is far from being as dead as it should be.

Wednesday 6 May 2020

Knowing they're exceptional

The Times has published an article this morning which makes some excellent points. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the writer laments the fact that “A polarised politics has taken hold. It views the world through a prism of winners and losers and sees compromise and co-operation as signs of weakness”. She goes on to argue that “Lost is the idea that countries do better by working together to solve common problems, even if doing so sometimes means an apparent sacrifice of short-term benefit for the greater good”. And the title of the piece is “Nationalism is no ally in this battle without borders”.
What I couldn’t understand at first is how the alleged author of this piece, a certain Theresa May, can square any of this with her membership of, and continued support for, the most dangerously nationalist party ever to hold the reins of power in the UK. A party which seeks, nay demands, that the UK stand alone and compete with everyone else, a party which does indeed see compromising with anyone else as a weakness, and sees the sacrifice of short term sovereignty for the greater good as something which unnecessarily constrains its own freedom of movement. Then I realised where I had gone wrong – English nationalism isn’t nationalism at all; the problem is that the rest of the world simply doesn’t understand how very exceptional England is. It’s everyone else who must compromise and co-operate, bowing down before the superiority of the only nation on the planet which can afford to eschew nationalism because it knows it’s the best at everything. Why, only yesterday we found out that we don’t have the worst pandemic death rate in Europe at all – it’s just that other countries don’t know how to count. The problem is never with Theresa May or the Conservative Party – it’s the inability of the rest of the world to understand their proper place.

Tuesday 5 May 2020

The Minister for Silly Statements

The cost of supporting salaries of staff furloughed is apparently higher than the government had expected; they may be surprised by that, although I and many others are not. Despite the obvious inadequacies of the scheme and the problems which the government has made for itself in introducing it, it has been a ‘success’ in the sense that most of the staff affected (almost a quarter of total UK employees) would probably have been made redundant otherwise, and any potential return to whatever will pass for normality in future would have been made very much harder. But the Chancellor is now making noises about winding the scheme down because of its steep cost.
I suppose it’s about par for the course with this government that they’d try and stop doing one of the few things which had been at least a partial success but in the course of an interview with ITV, Sunak managed to justify it with the brilliantly silly non-sequitur that “…as some scenarios have suggested we are potentially spending as much on the furlough scheme as we do on the NHS for example. Now clearly that is not a sustainable situation.” What exactly is it about expenditure on a scheme reaching the same level as the NHS which suddenly makes it ‘unsustainable’? What on earth makes him think that’s even a sensible comparison? The question to be asked is not ‘how does this expenditure compare with what we spend on other things?’ – that’s utterly irrelevant. The right questions to ask are whether it is achieving its objective and what the alternatives might be. The answer to the first is undoubtedly ‘yes’ (albeit a conditional ‘yes’ given some of the scheme’s failings). And the answer to the second is that around 23% of all employees would probably be made redundant and around 800,000 businesses would probably fold. Economic recovery would be postponed as a result.
From a purely economic point of view (ignoring the human hardships which would be caused) there is a certain type of rationality in comparing the cost of paying to keep staff and businesses afloat with the cost of allowing them to fail. Perhaps that’s the comparison that he’s actually making (it’s certainly the sort of attitude one might expect from a former banker used to monetising everything) but that has nothing to do with the cost of anything else. I can see why he might have balked at presenting it that way to the public but hiding behind vacuous statements isn’t exactly the best way to divert attention.

Monday 4 May 2020

The problem of averages

Averages and aggregated data, in general, are a useful way of comparing and presenting data, but they can often hide an important level of detail which makes them dangerous as a basis for setting policy, particularly when they end up being interpreted as though all the individual items are at the ‘average’ level. One example which immediately springs to mind is the regular comparison between average spend per pupil in Welsh schools and average spend per pupil in English schools, a comparison which reflects poorly on Welsh schools, usually indicating a ‘deficit’ of around £600 per pupil per year. Now there are a variety of reasons why there might be a gap, but what such ‘averages’ hide is that there are some Welsh schools which receive more than the English average and some English schools which receive less than the Welsh average. More importantly, whilst the gap between the English and Welsh averages can be ‘solved’ by simply giving £600 per pupil per year extra to all schools in Wales (as some politicians have called for), that won’t address the differences between funding levels when comparing schools within Wales (or within England). It’s addressing the data rather than the problem, but numeracy does not seem to be a particularly strong trait amongst politicians.
We’re seeing another example of this at the moment in relation to the pandemic, with claims by English government ministers that the UK is now ‘past the peak’. It’s one of those statements which is ‘true’ but which isn’t the whole truth. The fact that the UK at an aggregate level is now seeing reducing numbers doesn’t mean that all parts of the UK are seeing reducing numbers, either geographically or in terms of sectors (such as care homes), and taking UK-wide decisions on the easing of the lockdown on the basis of an aggregated data set means that lockdown could be eased at a time which is still too early for any areas or sectors which have yet to pass the peak. It could exacerbate the rate of infection in those areas as a result. Yet that is exactly what the PM’s rhetoric suggests he wants to do. The annoyance with which more cautious statements from the First Ministers of Wales and Scotland are greeted is another indication of the way in which the overall situation is being wrongly interpreted. The First Ministers are right to make it clear that they reserve the right to act differently if the situation in their respective countries is different; I hope that they will also understand that the situation might vary within their countries as well as between them. The same distinction also applies in England – just because London’s figures are falling fairly consistently does not mean that all parts of England are past the peak yet either; they just don’t have First Ministers to stand up for their interests.
When the rate of transmission varies across a country it inevitably causes problems in taking decisions – should we wait to ease the lockdown until all parts are on a clear downward trend, accepting that that will be later than necessary for some; should we ease the lockdown as soon as the overall picture improves sufficiently, accepting that it will be too early for some; or should we vary the decision according to circumstances in different areas? None of these are ideal – all bring real problems, both economically and socially, to say nothing of the impact in terms of sickness and death. The PM’s instinct seems to be to use the aggregate figures as his guide and apply policy across the board; I just wish I could be confident that he and his government were doing that on the basis of an understanding of the compromises involved rather than simply an inability to understand what averages and aggregates are telling us.

Saturday 2 May 2020

Redefining the target

Having spent many years working on IT projects, I’m well aware of the ways in which project managers can claim to have met the objectives by the target date. They include subtle changes to the objective, reducing the scope of the project, or implementing ‘phase 1’ of a project which no-one previously understood was to be delivered in phases. And they get away with things like this because it’s generally also in the interests of the clients who’ve spent £millions to appear to have been successful rather than to admit to failure.
After leaving university, the English Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, briefly worked for his family’s software company, and that may well be where he learned some of these tricks. A target of carrying out 100,000 tests a day has morphed into a target of carrying out 100,000 tests on one particular day, and ‘carrying out’ has been redefined as ‘carrying out or putting in the post’. Hey presto, target achieved! Having counted 40,000 tests which are ‘in the post’ as being completed may leave him with a slight problem or two: he can’t (although he might well try!) count the same tests a second time when (or even if – the return rate is unlikely to be 100%) they are returned, and it is doubtful if they can continue to despatch 40,000 by post every day.
Still, credit where credit is due – the number of tests being conducted has undoubtedly increased significantly, and the figure of 100,000 per day is and always was a wholly arbitrary target, which may or may not be adequate for the task in hand, set as a rough proxy for the underlying objective for the want of anything better. Focussing on the number to such an extent means that they’ve been more concerned with saving the Minister’s skin than with using the tests in the most useful way; as ever, managing by targets invariably encourages focus on the target rather than the objective. The more important question now is not an argument about whether the means by which the number was achieved were fair or foul, let alone about the next numerical target (the PM has previously talked about 250,000 per day), but about how the increased testing capacity can best be used to achieve the objective. I suspect the government will now find itself where innumerable IT project managers have found themselves over the years: concentrating on delivering ‘phase 1’ in a huge last minute panic means that they haven’t had the time to even think about what phase 2 might look like or how it might be delivered. And that leads me to also suspect that they will therefore end up setting another meaningless and arbitrary target anyway, not least as a way of diverting attention from the fact that they really haven’t got much of a clue otherwise.

Friday 1 May 2020

The problem isn't just Gordon Brown

There’s nothing wrong with the idea that the Welsh Government should seek expert advice on how to find a path forward after the pandemic. Indeed, given the lack of expertise in the government, recognising that fact and seeking some from elsewhere is generally a positive, particularly when the UK as a whole is being run by people who think we’ve all ‘had enough of experts’. And if the best advice is to be found outside Wales, then so be it. The question, though, is how those ‘experts’ are chosen and what their ‘expertise’ is.
A lot of attention has focussed inevitably (and justifiably) on the inclusion of former UK PM Gordon Brown in the group. What ‘expertise’ he brings to bear is far from being immediately obvious, to put it mildly, especially given that his main concern seems to be not about how Wales or even the UK gets through the crisis but on how to keep the UK united. Giving primacy to an essentially political objective at a time when the main issues are economic looks like missing the point. Having been both PM and Chancellor certainly confers a degree of experience on an individual, but the relevance of that experience depends on a judgement about two things: the first is the extent to which current circumstances mirror anything that he dealt with before (spoiler: they don’t – the banking crisis was wholly different and treating the two as though they are similar is a category error which condemns us to failure before we even start), and the second is the extent to which his performance in either or both of those roles can be considered successful (and I don’t think I even need to comment on that).
It isn’t just Brown, though – one of the other names suggested concerns me every bit as much. As Richard Murphy has pointed out, Paul Johnson of the IFS is wedded to neoliberalism and the idea that government finances are like those of households, and that increased government expenditure necessarily leads to increased taxation. Whilst I can accept that within the narrow confines of the devolution settlement there is a degree of truth in the analogy – a subsidiary government which depends on being given a grant from a central exchequer does not have the same freedom of action as a sovereign government, which is part of the point of independence – that does not give me confidence that a different future will be seriously considered. If we set out to imagine that the future can only ever be the same as the past, subject to the imaginary constraints and restrictions of microeconomists like the IFS, we won’t exactly be over-taxing our collective imaginations.
One Conservative AM said that “The last thing that people in Wales need during this time of unprecedented crisis is another dose of Gordon Brown”; I think that’s more likely to be merely the last but one thing we need. The very last thing we need is another dose of Conservative neoliberal ideology, but I fear that is what ‘Welsh’ Labour are offering us. Johnson and the IFS, like Brown, are part of the problem, not the solution.