Tuesday 30 June 2020

A brave policy

It would be hard to argue that the Welsh government’s performance during the coronavirus pandemic has been brilliant. Errors have been made and they’ve been slow to act at times. Part of this may be the result of an over-willingness to seek consensus with an English government which has shown itself to have not the slightest interest in working with anyone else. Part of it may be down to a lack of power to vary some aspects of the response to the pandemic. And part of it may be down to the porous nature of the long eastern border of Wales, which makes divergence more difficult. None of that is enough to excuse the Welsh government for all its failures – a government which truly put Wales first and foremost would have diverged sooner and faster from the increasingly shambolic approach being taken by England rather then held back because of the largely political fear of being seen as ‘too nationalist’. Scotland’s response has not been perfect either, although the less equivocal political leadership and greater willingness to diverge there has helped.
Despite the imperfect response in Wales, the polls suggest that the Welsh government, like its Scottish counterpart, is significantly more trusted than the English government. The more cautious approach is in tune with public opinion, and the willingness to at least attempt to answer questions rather than bluster and lie has been notable. That some people are frustrated with the slower pace of release is unarguable; we still have less freedom than is being enjoyed across the border, and that seems set to continue for a while at least. However, public support for that position seems to be holding up. Whether that continues probably depends on what happens in England. If the release of lockdown leads to an upsurge in cases in England, the First Minister can probably count on becoming even more trusted, but if it doesn’t, then the frustration will grow. The evidence to date is that the former is rather more likely than the latter and like most I broadly support the Welsh approach even if I’d quibble with some of the details. Only time will tell.
The utter incompetence of the English PM and his disastrous handling of the pandemic has left the Conservative Party in Wales in a particularly difficult position – they had to decide whether to hang on to Johnson’s coat-tails or to strike a more independent position. They have chosen to ‘resolve’ that conflict by making repeated demands that Wales should follow England more closely. Being as kind as I can, I assume that they sincerely believe that Johnson has got it right and Drakeford has got it wrong, despite all the current evidence suggesting precisely the opposite. Because if I didn’t make that assumption, I’d be obliged to assume that their demands for copying England amount to a demand that we should increase the Welsh infection and death rates to match the English ones. They’re taking a huge gamble on Johnson’s competence in the face of all the evidence to the contrary. If they’re wrong, then effectively demanding that Wales should ‘level up’ the death rate rather than act differently would be a highly original election strategy. Sir Humphrey, in his customarily understated way, would probably call it ‘brave’.

Monday 29 June 2020

Taking liberties

On Friday, the Prime Minister of England warned people not to “take too many liberties” with the coronavirus guidance which his government has issued. He presumably thought that the official guidance wasn’t sufficiently vague or meaningless, and there is little so vague in life which Johnson cannot, with a few ill-chosen words, make vaguer or more meaningless.
Taken literally, his words mean that people should consider themselves free to take ‘some’ liberties with the advice – which I take to mean free to ignore it – as long as they don’t take ‘too many’, but the definition of how many is too many is a matter which he will leave to that good old British common sense which led thousands of people to congregate on beaches last week. And although the outcome didn’t look exactly like the mass application of common sense, the individual decisions of those people heading to the coast were entirely rational within the context of the PM’s words. Anyone who believed that everyone else was going to follow the government guidance could legitimately set out for the beach (aka taking a few liberties) safe in the ‘knowledge’ that the beach would be otherwise empty. And that leads us to a rather different interpretation of the PM’s words.
He doesn’t really mean that ‘all’ people are free to take ‘some’ liberties at all – what he really means is that a small minority can take as many liberties as they want as long as the vast majority follow the rules. It’s another variation on the ‘one rule for us, another for everyone else’ philosophy which underpins his whole approach. There is nothing particularly risky about any individual taking a trip to the beach (or, for that matter, and choosing a destination not entirely at random, driving to County Durham); the risk arises when thousands individually apply the same ‘common sense’ assumptions to their own decisions. The actions of any one individual may be considered excusable, but the problem with excusing the actions of one is that it becomes difficult to condemn the actions of others for doing the same thing. Or at least, it would be difficult for anyone who applied rationality or a sense of justice and fair play to the question: for those who start out with a perception that some people are privileged and have more rights than others, it’s very easy to do.
What the PM was really telling us on Friday is that the many need to know their place and stay there so that the world is relatively safe for the few.

Friday 26 June 2020

The matter is closed

This week, the media have been reporting that the PM is “under pressure” to sack Robert Jenrick following revelations about the minister’s role in granting a planning application in order to save a Tory donor millions of pounds. A few weeks ago, the same media claimed that he was “under pressure” to sack his chief aid following the infamous mobile eye test and breach of lockdown rules. But expecting Johnson to feel in any way pressured over the dishonesty of those around him is wholly unrealistic. This is a man who harbours a deep sense of resentment over the fact that he was himself sacked from two jobs for dishonesty, and that’s not indicative of a man who thinks that dishonesty should be in any way punished.
Someone who has lived his whole life believing that normal rules are for other people and that he is entitled to do whatever he wants is hardly likely to sack someone else for a similar offence. Applying the ‘normal’ expectations of what a PM should do in such circumstances is to misunderstand the man. When the world king declares a matter closed, it is closed. For those wondering just how badly a minister in Johnson’s administration has to behave to get sacked, the answer is obvious: act honestly, stand by your principles and say what you think. There are no signs of any minister being likely to qualify in the near future, not least because anyone meeting that description would never have been appointed in the first place.

Wednesday 24 June 2020

Coining new words

Apparently, millimate isn’t a word, largely because no-one's considered it to be particularly useful to date. However, the word’s non-existence doesn’t mean it’s not an accurate description of the outcome of the pandemic in the UK to date – with around 65,000 excess deaths out of 66,000,000 people, the UK’s population has been roughly millimated. According to the PM, this is some sort of great achievement of which we should all be proud, presumably in the sense that it’s better than being centimated (also not a word), let alone decimated. And thus far, no other government has succeeded in millimating its population, so the UK is achieving the world leadership status which the PM craves.
That there will be an increase in the rate of infection after yesterday’s series of announcements is surely beyond dispute; the only area for debate is by how much. The problem with changing so many things at once is that it will be difficult to know which changes are the ones which are leading to the increase, as the scientists have been quick to point out, and that will make it difficult to re-impose the right controls, even supposing that the PM has any intention of so doing. His haste to get back to ‘normal’ and end the daily on-the-record lie fests (despite the death rate being higher now than it was when they started) suggest that his real intention is to return to the herd immunity strategy which he seems to have favoured all along. Perhaps he even believes, in best Trumpian fashion, that not having a government minister announcing the numbers of deaths and infections every day means that they haven’t actually happened. The utter inadequacy of the test-and-trace strategy which has been put in place inevitably means that many infections will go undetected until the numbers are significant.
I can understand the political motivation for his government seeking to agree air corridors to a range of countries and allow people to holiday abroad. Allowing people to return to the UK without facing 14 days’ quarantine makes it likelier that they will want to travel. And given the better performance of those target countries in getting the virus under control, I can see why we might all think that we’d be safer abroad than we are here (although I don’t expect the government to use that particular sales pitch in support of its approach). I can’t, for the life of me though, see why those other countries would be in such a rush to allow people in from a country like the UK which clearly doesn’t have the pandemic under control and which has such an inadequate system for checking people.
Whilst the Welsh government’s approach has been better on the whole (and in relation to yesterday’s announcements shows signs of having been more prepared to listen to the experts), it’s been far from perfect. I can’t honestly say that the Welsh system for testing and tracing looks much better than the English one at present. That makes it right to be more cautious about lifting restrictions until the system is properly up and running, but it’s no excuse at all for a proper system not being in place already – they’ve had three months to sort it. The bigger problem we have in Wales is that, for a variety of reasons including porous borders, a media which doesn’t adequately explain the distinctions, and economic control over furlough and other schemes remaining in Westminster, observance of the Welsh rules is likely to decay rapidly as well. The weaknesses of devolution compared to independence will become increasingly obvious.
Perhaps most worrying of all yesterday was the PM’s reliance on people applying what he called common sense. Common sense isn’t as common or consensual as he seems to think. After all, he is a man who thought that Dominic Cummings was applying common sense by driving on a 60-mile round trip to test his eyesight. If that sort of common sense is what we’re now all depending on, then the word centimate is likely to fall into common usage sooner than we might wish.

Tuesday 23 June 2020

Simple strategies to deceive

There are two unifying strategies underlying the PM’s approach to everything. The underlying goal is always to protect the interests of the most well-off, and the aim is to do that in a way which a sufficient number of electors in the key seats will support.
Strategy 1 is a very simple one – when in doubt, lie. Even better, when not in doubt, lie. Even when the truth would be more helpful, and even when the lies are so blatantly obvious that he can’t possibly expect anyone to believe him, the approach is still the same: lie. He knows he’s lying, we know he’s lying, and he knows that we know he’s lying, but he still does it anyway. When the lies are exposed, repeat them. It doesn’t matter – the media will broadcast even demonstrably untrue government statements as though they were true, and few will pay much attention to the timid, half-hearted, and occasional fact checks.
Strategy 2 is also amazingly simple: find a scapegoat. Nothing is better at diverting attention from your own failures than having someone else to blame. Foreigners are always a useful starting point, especially European ones who simply don’t understand how special and exceptional the UK is. And if it’s not foreigners, it’s the poor. Getting younger people to feel resentment about paying a decent pension to the old is just another example. The only people not to blame are those who own and control the wealth, and they maintain their position by ensuring that the population at large remains divided, blaming each other for their lack of wealth rather than blaming those who have hoarded it all.
Whilst it’s true that there is an anomaly in the calculation of the triple lock for pension increases as a result of the drop in wages because of the furlough schemes, the attack on the triple lock isn’t a new one. They’ve been looking for an excuse to weasel their way out of it for a while now, and I somehow doubt that they will settle for a ‘temporary’ adjustment. For those who respond that Boris Johnson has ruled out scrapping the lock, I’d refer them to strategy 1 above.
The interesting thing is that, in fact, the main beneficiaries from the triple lock aren’t current pensioners at all. Those of us receiving pensions do of course gain a little from a 2.5% increase even if there’s no inflation, but due to the power of compound interest (which Einstein apparently did not describe as the most powerful force in the universe), the main beneficiaries over the long term are the young people who will see their future pension entitlement growing as a proportion of their income over the next 30-40 years, as Chris Dillow has pointed out here. But then, convincing people to act against their own self-interest is precisely the aim of the lie and scapegoat strategy. It’s why so many blame those on benefits for their own difficulties and support the loss of their own freedoms so that those freedoms can be removed from foreigners. It was at the very heart of Brexit. It’s a strategy which works – and it will continue to work as long as a sufficient number of people are taken in by it.

Saturday 20 June 2020

They can't even recognise a petard when they see one

In principle, there’s nothing at all wrong with the idea that the government should launch an advertising campaign to encourage people to prepare for Brexit. The plan does suffer more than a little from the absence of any certainty about what we should all be doing to prepare for an event when they can’t tell us what’s going to happen, but that level of incompetence is only to be expected. What struck me, however, was that they see a particular problem in getting Brexit supporters to prepare.
On first thoughts, one might reasonably expect that Brexiteers would be the most clued-up and enthusiastic about the changes – it is, after all, something that they’ve long been yearning for. But the problem, in a nutshell, is that those who thought they were going to have the penny and the bun simply don’t see any need to prepare. As the tender document puts it, Brexit voters are “less likely to prepare as they don’t believe in any potential negative consequences of leaving”. They’re deluded, of course; but what this means in practice is that the people who did the deluding now want to spend large sums of money on persuading those who they successfully deluded into believing that Brexit would be painless to start preparing for the changes that they told them wouldn’t happen.
Those who lied, lied and lied again by telling people that the UK was so special that the EU27 would give us all our current benefits with no downside are now using public money to tell people to prepare for an unspecified set of changes whilst continuing to assert that the EU will back down and let us have whatever we want, and continuing to deny that they ever misled anyone in the first place. If they had any sense of shame or integrity, they’d be squirming. In the absence of that, they’ll just keep lying.

Friday 19 June 2020

Donkeys led by donkeys

There are surely times when even Tory MPs must find themselves wondering how they ended up where they are. Well, those with half a brain cell, at least. Earlier this week, they were all issued with ‘lines to take’ explaining why extending free school meals vouchers throughout the school summer holidays was a really bad idea, and many of them loyally took to the airwaves to defend their government. They were enthusiastically at it on Tuesday morning, only to discover by mid-afternoon that they’d somehow misunderstood that when their leader said ‘very bad’ what he actually meant was ‘very good’. Brilliant even; so brilliant that they all now believed passionately the exact opposite of what they said they believed passionately just a few hours earlier.
It’s not exactly the first time it’s happened either – there are a group of Tory MPs who are serial suckers. Perhaps it’s a form of masochism (which is, after all, a practice not entirely unknown on the Tory benches). Whatever the reason, the PM is probably enjoying testing the limits of how silly he can make his own people look. It may continue for some time though, given that there doesn't appear to be any obvious limit on their gullibility. It was only a couple of weeks ago that MPs and ministers were all over the media one morning explaining why it was absolutely impossible and completely unaffordable to scrap the NHS surcharge for immigrant workers in the NHS, only to find out in the afternoon that it was not only not impossible, it was both a sensible and obvious thing to do, and something that they’d all fully intended to do all along. Money? No problem. And then there was the fiasco over voting in the House of Commons when some of them managed to vote for a proposal which they themselves described as utter farce, only to discover that the government largely agreed with them by the end of the week.
Not all Tory MPs took the same position, of course. One of the reasons for the U-turns, in each case, was the growing number of Tory MPs who could see that there might just be a slight problemette with the government’s position and who made it clear, either publicly or privately, that they could not support the government. A cynic might suggest that this, rather than campaigns (especially the one of which he was apparently completely unaware until the day after his spokesperson told us that he would respond to it the following day) by people outside parliament, might have weighed rather more heavily on the PM’s mind. But there were plenty who were more than willing to say one thing at 9am and the opposite a few hours later.
I could almost feel sorry for them in the way that their misplaced loyalty forced them into such contortions. Only almost, mind – if they weren’t so utterly unprincipled in the first place, they wouldn’t have dug their own holes with such enthusiasm. And I’d lay odds that, even as I write, most of them are busily polishing their spades ready for the next time the PM tells them something can’t be done.

Thursday 18 June 2020

Who's doing the painting?

The revelation that it is going to cost £900,000 to have an RAF aeroplane repainted in red, white and blue to boost the image of the PM when he travels abroad has raised more than a few eyebrows. There is a minor (?) question about how the PM is going to fly anywhere without having to go into quarantine for a fortnight when he returns (he surely wouldn’t want to be caught out breaking his own rules), although the story seems to suggest that the repainting job is going to take a while, so perhaps it won’t be finished until after the quarantine rules have been scrapped. It’s an expensive ego trip.
It made me wonder, though, about this story from late April about the emergency flight collecting PPE from China (picture from BBC story at the time). It was all arranged in a huge rush, allegedly, yet somehow the company managed to fit in the time and money to have the plane repainted in NHS livery before sending it out to China. Did that little PR exercise really cost them £900.000? Somehow, I doubt it. And I also doubt that it took very long to get the job done.

So, what’s the difference? I find myself wondering if this isn’t one of those very profitable outsourcing contracts which the MoD has negotiated under which the painting of aircraft is undertaken by a private company which charges an extortionate amount, completely legitimately under the terms of a poorly negotiated contract, all in the name of converting public cost into private profit. A bit like the £5,500 sink or the £884 chair, maybe. At £900,000, someone, somewhere must be making a lot of money.

Wednesday 17 June 2020

It shouldn't be about nationalism

The study by a team of scientists at Oxford University which led to the discovery that a cheap and commonly available drug can significantly reduce the risk of death in patients suffering a serious case of Covid-19 is good news. Not as good as discovering a cure or a vaccine, but nevertheless a major step forward in reducing the mortality rate from the virus. Whether it’s entirely accurate for the PM to describe it as a “great British scientific achievement” is a slightly different question; the team which organised the trials might be based in the UK, but like all such teams, the members of the team at the Nuffield Department of Population Health come from a range of nationalities, and had the current government’s approach to immigration been in force for some years it’s more than a possibility that some of the team wouldn’t even be here. And whilst I don’t want to take anything away from the success of the team, which will have done a great deal of desk-based research before deciding which existing drugs were worth trialling, there is inevitably at least an element of luck involved in finding that one of those worked as early as this in the trial process.
Continuing the nationalistic drum-beating theme, the English Health Secretary claimed, on the basis of little more than assertion, that “… the UK is leading the way in the global fight against coronavirus – with the best clinical trials, the best vaccine development and the best immunology research in the world”. The demand that we all accept that anything the UK does is ‘world-leading’ or ‘the best’ tells us more about the mindset of the politicians making such statements than about the true state of British science, which is facing a loss of talent, funding and collaborative opportunities as a direct result of decisions taken by those same politicians. And to make it worse, whilst one of the leading investigators is proudly and correctly noting that “…it is fantastic that the first treatment demonstrated to reduce mortality is one that is instantly available and affordable worldwide”, the UK Government, as of yesterday, quietly added the drug to the list of those which are banned for export from the UK. Given that the drug is, apparently, already widely available, that decision looks not just petty but unnecessary – but imagine the outrage which government ministers (to say nothing of the tabloids) would express if any other country banned the export of a drug which could save lives here.
There’s nothing wrong with taking pride in the success of talented people in tackling global problems but finding solutions to the pandemic isn’t some sort of international competition with winners and losers, especially if the ‘losers’ are then potentially denied access to the drugs or treatments discovered. Scientific advance depends more on co-operation and collaboration, both of which seem to be alien concepts to the Anglo-British nationalists now running the UK.

Tuesday 16 June 2020

Forced divergence

It looks increasingly as though the English government is going to reduce the physical distancing rule from 2 metres to 1, and the various reviews and discussions taking place are more about trying to either keep the current scientific advisors on board or else find some different advisors who will agree with the proposal. ‘Following the science’ has increasingly become more about fitting the science to the policy than adjusting the policy in the light of the science. The science in this case isn’t entirely clear to begin with. Two metres isn’t risk free anyway; setting a distance is about calculating the level of risk. About the only thing we know for certain is that the risk of transmission is higher at 1 metre than it is at 2 metres – the precise extent of that increase in risk is subject to debate. In principle, it is entirely reasonable to be weighing up that difference in risk against the economic costs – there are many businesses which could be viable at 1 metre but not at 2. The problem about reducing it to mathematics and economics, however, is that it isn’t just money that we’re playing with – it’s people’s lives. And, of course, it’s always worth remembering that the people deciding that the risk is worth taking aren’t the ones who will be taking that risk.
The probability at this stage is that Wales and Scotland will, for the time being at least, stick to the current rule. Whether that reflects a difference in the weighting given to the two main factors, public health and economics, as some would like to believe, or whether it’s just taking a more holistic and long-term view about the economics (an extended lockdown might be better than a stop-start approach) isn’t entirely clear as yet. That applying different rules across such porous borders will cause difficulties is not in doubt, as we’ve already seen with the reckless rush to end the lockdown in England. Some of the implications could be interesting to watch – if a train can carry twice as many people with a 1 metre rule as it can with a 2 metre rule, will half the passengers on a London-Swansea train have to get out at Bristol Parkway before the train enters the Severn Tunnel, for instance? Having such differences isn’t unmanageable – they manage perfectly well on the European mainland – but it runs counter to the ‘British’ (and especially Tory) mindset, which still lives in the pre-devolution era of a single state with a single government and a single set of rules.
Increasing divergence between England on the one hand and the other governments in the UK on the other in relation to the pandemic wasn’t inevitable. Scotland maybe was always most likely to diverge, but the instinctive position of ‘Welsh’ Labour has throughout been to seek a ‘four nations’ approach, working through consensus. It is the English government which has made that difficult, by a lack of discussion or consultation and a conviction that it is uniquely ‘right’ about everything. Whether Johnson simply expected the devolved governments to fall into line or whether he simply didn’t (and still doesn’t) understand the reality of devolution is another open question. Neither paying attention to constitutional detail nor listening to other opinions are obvious character traits of the current PM. And taking decisions in direct contradiction of the expert advice provides further evidence of his determination to follow a particular path regardless of the consequences. The result is that he has pushed the First Minister of Wales, an apparently mild-mannered man who clearly would eminently prefer that EnglandandWales followed a common set of rules, into a position where he sees little choice but to ally himself with the SNP leader in Scotland and follow an increasingly divergent line. The alternative is tearing up a strategy which was prepared on the basis of the best expert advice available to him and following instead the capricious whims of Johnson. He seems to have rather more integrity than that.
When the United Kingdom ends –Scotland’s departure is now surely inevitable, and Welsh independence is rising up the agenda too – it will owe as much to the incompetence of the unionists in their approach to maintaining it as it will to the persuasiveness of the independentistas.

Monday 15 June 2020

Avoiding oversimplification

The current debate about statues and symbols is in some ways superficial; it’s not the statues and symbols themselves which cause the problem but the things being symbolised and commemorated. It’s a debate about what constitutes our history, and that doesn’t only apply to the current controversy about slave traders and the pros and cons of the British Empire. The issue about the teaching of Welsh history in schools has some parallels. It isn’t about teaching ‘Welsh’ history at all – it’s about the clash between different understandings of what ‘Welsh’ history is. There isn’t a single, correct version of Welsh history any more than there is a single, correct version of British history – all history is written from a viewpoint.
Whether our national story is one of joining with our neighbours to create an entity whose sum is bigger than the parts or one of a small nation subjugated and exploited by a larger nation is more to do with perspective than with fact. At a factual level, both contain a degree of ‘truth’. There’s no doubt at all that the incorporation of Wales into England was a result of a bloody military conquest rather than a voluntary union, but neither is there any doubt that many Welsh people became enthusiastic supporters of, and participants in, British imperialism the world over. Some Welsh people chose to protect and promote the native language and culture whilst others enthusiastically seized opportunities for self-progression in the English court and parliament and actively promoted the project of ‘Britain’. At different times and in different circumstances different people have followed different paths – all those paths are part of our history, part of what makes us what we are today, whether we like it or not; we can’t pretend that the Empire was somehow nothing to do with us. The facts are the same, but the stories we tell ourselves are inevitably partial and biased – as they are for all other nations. The relationship between identity and history is complex and circular; our sense of identity shapes our understanding of history and our understanding of history shapes our identity.
Our understanding of history should always be changing, not least because values and perspectives change. It often seems as though the defining event in history, from an English perspective, is what they usually refer to as ‘the last war’ (ignoring all those other wars in which they’ve taken part since), but it strikes me that the fall of the British Empire (itself in part a consequence of that same war) has much more long term significance (although it may be another century or two before they fully realise that). People tend to forget that it was the British Empire, not the UK, which declared war on Germany in 1939, and whilst the immediate reasons for the conflict are generally simplified, it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of the desire to preserve that empire. England is still struggling to come to terms with the end of its empire and what that means for its understanding of itself (which is one of the major causes of Brexit). It should be no surprise that we in Wales also struggle to reach a common understanding of our own history. My problem with the calls to teach more Welsh history in schools isn’t that I disagree with it. I completely agree, I’m just not entirely sure that there is sufficient agreement about what it means in practice. I want a nuanced version of Welsh history taught – one that also explains what history is and why there are different interpretations rather than merely covering what will inevitably be a selection (selected by whom?) of historical facts and events.
History can’t simply be decided by a majority at a point in time, let alone by governments and politicians. Yet it often seems – in Wales as in England – that the latter group are demanding that ‘their’ version of history be the sole orthodox version. Aping England by simply swapping an orthodox ‘British’ history for an orthodox ‘Welsh’ history is not enough. A mature and confident nation should be able to look at the totality of its history, warts and all. The long-term failure of the British educational system to facilitate that sort of understanding displays both arrogance and exceptionalism on the one hand and a surprising lack of confidence on the other. It has a lot to answer for, and not just in the way it fosters a bizarre attachment to symbols and statues. Whatever they say, that attachment isn’t about learning history, it’s about avoiding much of that history. Wales can and should do better than replicating that approach.

Saturday 13 June 2020

Rewriting history

Those who have complained about attempts to ‘erase’ or ‘rewrite’ history, in relation to the campaign to remove outdated symbols from their locations across the UK, are in effect saying only that they prefer the version of history which is familiar to them. The PM himself yesterday said that we should not attempt to ‘edit’ or ‘censor’ our history – what does that mean, if it isn’t about freezing one (i.e. his) interpretation of what happened in history for all time, and dismissing other interpretations as ‘wrong’? It’s a deliberate attempt to mislead and distract from the underlying question in order to maintain a version of history which suits a particular world view. And although the issue has been brought to the fore as a result of a specific problem it’s a much more general question than one about slavery or race – there are other examples much closer to home of the way in which history has long been interpreted to serve a particular viewpoint.
The PM claims that statues and symbols teach us about ‘our’ history. That is just about the last thing that they do. Without interpretation or nuance, and often carrying only limited information about the individuals represented, they tell us next to nothing about those thus commemorated or those who chose to erect the statue in the first place. His statement that “…those statues teach us about our past, with all its faults. To tear them down would be to lie about our history and impoverish the education of generations to come” is a classic piece of Johnsonian nonsense. I doubt that anyone has ever learned very much about anything from looking at statues (most of us find  books rather more useful), and simplistic labels of the sort found on monuments (often just a word or two such as ‘philanthropist’) are more misleading than educational. Take the now infamous Colston statue as an example. The inscription read "Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city." The first part isn’t entirely accurate (the statue was erected at the behest of a tiny group of people, and appeals to the public failed to raise enough money to pay for it leaving the main instigator to pay most of the cost himself) and the second part, for anyone who knows anything about the man’s background, effectively declares that slave-trading was a ‘virtuous and wise’ calling. That isn’t ‘history’, it’s propaganda. I don’t think that anyone is asking people to ‘lie’ about our history – the lie is in presenting only a partial view in the first place.
There is, of course, scope for debate about whether the best form of action is to
·        remove such statues completely,
·        cart them off to a museum where they can be accompanied by a much fuller explanation of who the memorialised individuals were, what they did, and why the statues were erected, in a nuanced way which reflects changing mores,
·        or simply add interpretative material at the sites which provides context and a fuller and more rounded description.
But simply leaving things as they are – which seems to be the PM’s desired course of action – isn’t about respecting history at all, it’s about perpetuating existing myth and half-truth in support of a particular perspective.
In reality, ‘rewriting history’ is precisely what historians do, as one of their number explains here. It’s their job; it’s what they’re for, and if history were something immutable and inarguable, we wouldn’t need any more historians. Whilst the facts of the past don’t change, the importance ascribed to them does, along with the way in which those facts are interpreted and contextualised. Opponents of changing interpretations often argue that we need to accept that ‘values were different then’. It’s true, of course it is – but that’s precisely one of the main reasons why ‘history’ changes; as values and perspectives change, so too does the interpretation of facts and events. It isn’t just what some call historical revisionism, it’s more that the passage of time allows a considered re-evaluation. But the real question is this: if different people – and even different historians – can legitimately interpret the past in different ways, how do we decide between those histories? Even debating that question will help us all to a better understanding of our own history than we’ll ever get from looking at any statue and have much more impact than any insistence on the past remaining unchanging for ever. That’s probably why people like Johnson want to close down any debate. They are attached to their own view of ‘our great history’ and would prefer that the rest of us took the same view. We should be asking ourselves whose interests that might serve.

Friday 12 June 2020

Looking past the headline statistics

Referring to his track and trace strategy in the press briefing yesterday, the English Health Minister said that the numbers of people and contacts being contacted and advised to self-isolate had exceeded his expectations. The only possible conclusion from that is that his expectations must have been extremely low to start with. Statistics can be spun to show different pictures, of course, and the claim that 85% of contacts had been traced certainly sounds impressive. But the obvious question to any mathematician, is ‘85% of what?’. It turns out that it means 85% of the contacts of the subset of confirmed cases which the tracers were able to contact; and the number of confirmed cases is itself a subset of the total number of infections.
To put some numbers on that: according to the government’s own figures, there were 8,117 confirmed cases during the week in question, although everyone knows that the actual number of cases is considerably higher. None of us knows the actual total, although the Office for National Statistics estimates that it is around 23,000. Of the 8,117, the government’s figures claim that 5,407 (or around 67%) were traced and asked for details of their contacts and it is 85% of those contacts which forms the basis of the headline ‘success’ rate. Assuming that all those infected had roughly the same number of contacts, and infected roughly the same number of people (both reasonable assumptions), then the proportion of people contacted out of the total number of people potentially infected was only around 20%. (85% of 5,400/23,000). Looking at it another way, if it takes 25,000 contact tracers to pursue the details of 5,400 people, that’s equivalent to almost one week's work for 5 tracers per confirmed case. If it were possible to identify all 23,000 cases (a job which would require a significant workforce and expenditure in itself), then it would need perhaps 100,000 contact tracers rather than the 25,000 currently in post to talk to them, establish a contact list, and contact just 85% of the people on that list. Improving on that figure of 85% adds more to the total.
As far as I’m aware, we don’t have comparable figures available for Wales at present – I hope that the government will make them available, although the deficiencies exposed by the English figures may create an understandable desire to avoid revealing the same failings. We do know that the number of confirmed cases is currently around 5-600 per week, or about 6-8% of the total in England. If the performance level of the two teams is roughly the same, then even matching the current extremely poor English performance would require more like 1,800-2,000 people.  Whilst the more cautious approach to lockdown should see the number of infections in Wales reducing faster, it’s still a large disparity.
In fairness, it’s early days and two things could and should happen as we move forward: the number of infections should decline further (although the rush to ease the lockdown in England may make that less likely there), and the productivity of the team should improve (5 tracers for one week per confirmed case certainly looks excessive, based solely on ‘gut feel’). However, even allowing for both of those factors, it appears that both governments have significantly underestimated the scale and complexity of the task which needs to be undertaken if they are serious about using track and trace as the main control mechanism. And they’re both about three months late in setting up a system the need for which was entirely foreseeable.

Thursday 11 June 2020

Looking past the flames

Anyone who has ever worked in a large corporate environment will probably be familiar with the way in which some organisations value crisis management over crisis prevention. In such organisations, some managers get on with the job in a quietly competent way whilst others gain a reputation for being good at firefighting or dealing with immediate emergencies. It is those who put out the fires who get the recognition and promotion whilst those who prevent fires from starting or getting out of control are frequently overlooked. Rarely does anyone ask who started the fire in the first place. The result is that some organisations end up in a more or less permanent state of crisis, because those who rise to the top need to start a continual series of fires in order to continue to display their ability to extinguish them. Unsurprisingly, overall, such organisations tend to underperform. I exaggerate, but not as much as some may think.
Perhaps the PM is trying to apply the same approach to his management of the coronavirus pandemic but without understanding that he’s actually supposed to extinguish the flames to make it work. When pressed by the leader of the Labour Party for presiding over the world’s worst death toll in the pandemic, the PM yesterday asked us all to accept that, on the contrary, the government’s response has been ‘astonishing’. Given his repeated claims that he’s ‘very proud’ of his government’s response, it’s clear that he meant that in the sense of ‘astonishingly good’ rather than ‘astonishingly bad’. He referred, specifically, to the way in which the government had organised the emergency construction of a number of hospitals in readiness to handle a much higher level of casualties. In fairness, the speed with which those hospitals were readied for action was indeed quite an achievement, but I can’t help feeling that it was not an attempt to extinguish the fire in one building so much as a case of equipping an entirely different building with fire extinguishers and sprinklers whilst allowing the first to burn on.
Of course, only a cynic would point out that it avoids the important question about who set the first building alight to begin with, or at the very least fanned the flames. Just as in the corporate environment, it’s the question no-one’s supposed to ask.

Tuesday 9 June 2020

Symbols of the past

As with many of the best quotes, a great deal of uncertainty surrounds the original authorship of the saying that “history is written by the winners”. One of its more recent outings was from the mouth of the US Attorney General, Bill Barr, in defending Trump, and in the process justifying whatever means are used. Whilst it isn’t always entirely true, it’s a maxim which holds in the general run of things, and it underlines the fact that the history that we understand isn’t just a series of facts and events, but an interpretation of those facts and events, and any interpretation is inevitably written from a particular standpoint which chooses what weight to give to which event. And history isn’t unchangeable – different generations in different times look at the same events and draw entirely different conclusions from them.
There is no doubt that Edward Colston was a generous philanthropist, but neither is there any doubt that much of the fortune which financed his philanthropy had its origins in the callous trading of fellow humans as slaves, who were forcibly torn from one continent and shipped across the ocean to another. At the time his statue was erected in Bristol, the slave trade had already been abolished for almost 90 years, but the historical interpretation of those who erected it had more to do with his philanthropy than with the source of the money. And, for context, the British Empire was still thriving – slavery might not have been legal any more but exploitation of people and resources was still the general rule, and the native inhabitants were hardly better regarded than when they had been slaves. Although there are still those who hark back to the ‘glory days’ of the British Empire (it was only a few years ago that a certain Boris Johnson said of Africa: “The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more”), it is hard to conceive of circumstances when a statue would be erected today celebrating the life of someone like Colston, and I can well understand why the statue looks to be, at the least, a glossing over of the past.
Some – including the new Labour leader – have attempted to argue that the statue should have been removed, but only by following ‘proper processes’. That would be the ‘proper processes’ which have seen debate continue for decades without any action being taken. Would they apply the same simplistic labels of ‘criminal damage’ and ‘unlawfulness’ to similar acts elsewhere? How about the toppling of statues to Lenin and Stalin after the fall of the Soviet Union? Or those of Saddam Hussein after the war in Iraq? Or how about the mob who attacked the Berlin Wall and tore it down? That was also a ‘criminal act’ of vandalism, was it not? In truth, our response towards the removal of symbols, by fair means or foul, is usually based more on our attitude to the symbols and what they represent than on the criminality or otherwise of the act of removal.
And that brings us to the real problem with statues to so-called ‘great men’. People are rarely perfect, and many of those to whom statues have been erected attract strong feelings, both for and against. It’s easy enough – in the twenty-first century at least – for most of us to agree that celebrating the life of a slave trader is wholly inappropriate, but there are other controversial figures in history as well. Statues are erected in one historical context, but continue to stand when the context, and the interpretation of past events, have changed beyond recognition. (One of the more obvious examples is Churchill. Whilst he was/is a war hero to most of my parents’ generation, there is little doubt that he was also a racist who believed in and pursued the idea that some races are superior to others. His callousness and willingness to use indiscriminate violence to pursue the maintenance of the British Empire are well-documented. At the moment, the popular interpretation of history is still on his side overall (indeed, in an echo of the idea that history is written by the winners, he once wrote that he expected history to be kind to him “…especially as I propose to write that history”). A century from now, I doubt that the same will be true – distance in time invariably changes perspectives.)
History is always changing; those who want to cling on to statues and symbols of the past are often using those symbols as mere proxies. What they are really trying to cling on to is their own version of history. The British Empire has been dead for decades in the real world, but it lives on in the memories and attitudes of too many people. Removing the artifacts which symbolise and commemorate that view of the past challenges their world view. But it’s long overdue.

Monday 8 June 2020

Worrying about the wrong things

Whilst they obviously differ in the fine detail and the timing, the plans by the four governments within the UK to ease the lockdown restrictions all nominally start from a common principle, which is that the rate of easing of restrictions, and which restrictions can be eased when, are determined by the prevalence and rate of spread of the virus at any one time. It’s a sensible approach and tailoring it around the margins for differing needs and priorities in the different areas is also eminently sensible. The big difference in approach, though, is that while three of the governments are working to the plans which they produced, the fourth – England – is not. Moving between levels when the conditions have not been met and releasing restrictions at level 4 which they previously said could only be removed at level 1 is not what the plan said. And whilst setting indicative dates based on current knowledge at any point in time is sensible, turning them into firm target dates which must be achieved regardless is reckless folly. Yet that is exactly what the English government is doing.
Why the PM is behaving in such an arbitrary fashion is an interesting question. Some of it, no doubt, stems from his belief that the state should not be restricting liberties in the first place, a principle which he has been reluctant to breach from the outset, even if breaching it is in the greater public interest. Some of it stems from his assessment of what might be popular even if that popularity might turn out to be short-lived if the result is an increasing death rate. Some of it probably results from his well-known lack of attention to detail, and apparent belief that events can be bent to his will, even if his will changes more or less daily. But a lot of it seems to be coming from his – or rather the Treasury’s – assessment of the economic impact.
That certainly was the burden of this article in the Times yesterday (paywall). The Treasury seem to be still clinging to the outdated and fundamentally flawed view of the national finances as being like a household where ‘debts’ have to be repaid, as well as a very isolationist view of the world in which borrowing by the UK government will somehow uniquely ‘spook the markets’ here, even whilst other governments the world over are doing exactly the same thing. They worry that the extra money being created by the government will somehow spark inflation, despite the fact that the bigger danger at present is deflation.
They are right, though, to worry about the level of unemployment which is about to hit us. Many of the jobs which have been furloughed are likely not to exist at all after the lockdown ends, and many other companies are likely to fail as they fail to adapt to the new post-pandemic environment. Some of the decisions being taken by government, however, are making that worse not better. Expecting companies which have barely been trading (or even not been trading at all) for months to be able to start paying wages and NI at a higher level in August will force many over the edge. And setting an arbitrary and universal date for that change without any certainty that the companies will be able to restart trading will add many more to the list of casualties. Unemployment is likely to rise to at least 5 million as a result, and some are predicting an even higher figure. In that context, one of the findings in the recent YouGov/ITV Welsh opinion poll (analysed here by Dafydd Trystan) really surprised me – apparently, 67% of people in Wales are not worried about their job as a result of the crisis and 60% are not worried about their finances. I wonder if they understand the direction in which the London government is taking us. And if we have mass unemployment, with huge numbers of people reduced to the income levels associated with Universal Credit, inflation is the last thing we should be worried about.
Earlier on in the crisis, whilst announcing some of his half-baked measures to ease the economic impact on companies and families (I can’t remember which of his budgets it was – there have been so many of them by now), the Chancellor said that this was not a time for ideology. Yet ideology is exactly what is driving the government – an ideology based on the utterly wrong-headed idea that the government ‘cannot afford’ to run a deficit on the scale required to tackle the problem, and an ideology which puts the interests of capital ahead of those of ordinary people. Because of the limited fiscal and economic powers of the Welsh government, the opportunity to do something different amounts to little more than tinkering around the edges, even if we had a government with sufficient determination to want to take a different approach. If we want to put people first in Wales, we first need to break free of the crazy ideologues running the UK.

Friday 5 June 2020

Blaming Boris isn't enough

One might think that Welsh Tory MPs would be embarrassed by the way that the UK Government has handled the pandemic, but it seems that most of them are only too happy to sign up to a letter demanding that the Welsh Government (which is, of course, in no sense answerable to members of the Westminster parliament in any event) explain why it has dared to act differently. But then anyone supporting the farce to which the UK Government has reduced the workings of the House of Commons is probably too thick-skinned to understand what embarrassment is. They're also ignoring the potential political danger in that the latest polls suggest that the increasing levels of incompetence in London are also leading to more people listening to, and supporting the actions of, the Welsh Government in Cardiff. And in Scotland, the Sottish Government is enjoying amazing levels of support. It’s almost as though listening to the questions and attempting to give straight answers is proving more effective than bluster and lies. Who’d have thought it?
In practice, the differences between the responses of the governments (apart from the approach to displaying a bit of honesty) aren’t as great as some have painted them – they’re more questions of timing and emphasis than of substance. And ultimately, London has the whip hand – as the Chancellor has made very clear, he will change the rules around financial support to individuals and companies in step with the changes in England, and will not vary that if Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland decide to work at a different pace. That exposes the weakness at the heart of devolution – (s)he who controls the purse strings can oblige compliance even in areas where responsibility is formally and legally devolved.
Inevitably, many independentistas are looking at what has happened elsewhere in the world and asking whether an independent Wales could not have done better. Given the unenviable position of the UK at the top of the league for deaths per million, and its world-leading record of recklessness and stupidity, an independent Welsh government would have had to try very hard indeed to do worse. There are conditions and caveats though. It’s easy to look at the performance of, say, New Zealand and ask why we couldn’t have emulated that, but being a group of islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean does confer a certain advantage when it comes to imposing a travel lockdown to control the level of infection entering the country. Whilst an independent Wales could have simply closed the border (which many EU countries did), closing a long land border with very many crossing points is on a different scale to imposing controls at ports and airports. A better comparison would be with the Republic of Ireland – an independent state which also has an uncontrolled land border with the calamitously-run UK. The Republic hasn’t managed to replicate the performance of New Zealand (which one wouldn't expect), but it has undoubtedly done better than the UK in managing the pandemic. They could probably have done even better in controlling the pandemic if they’d been able and willing to take the politically unacceptable step of closing the border with the UK, but the economic cost of doing that would likely have been far higher.
As in so many things, independence is not a panacea; in itself it would not have prevented Wales suffering from the pandemic. It could, though, under a leadership focussed on protecting people rather than capital, have ensured a lower level of infection and death than we have suffered to date. The exceptionalism of the English government has a lot to answer for in the course of the pandemic, but those in Wales who continue to argue that we’re too stupid to take control of our own affairs (and they’re still at it, even after watching the performance of Boris Johnson) also have to take some responsibility.

Thursday 4 June 2020

Being the best

One of the problems for a certain type of nationalist is that they have a deep and abiding need to believe that their country is in every way ‘better’ than any other country. English nationalists are one of the most extreme in this respect. Indeed, they believe themselves so much better than anyone else that their form of superiority must not even be referred to as nationalism at all. They’re so nationalistic that they believe themselves to be uniquely not nationalist at all.
Such nationalism is often displayed by claims that the country is in some way ‘world-leading’. It’s a phrase trotted out regularly and is so self-evident that it never needs to be justified by mere facts or evidence. The phrase ‘mother of parliaments’ is one example, even if it doesn’t actually mean what most of them seem to believe that it means. Westminster is neither the oldest parliament nor the model for most other parliaments in the world, excepting only those that had some sort of version of Westminster imposed on them by Westminster itself. And most of those have reformed significantly since then, jettisoning the most arcane rituals such as the approach to voting.
Last month, Boris Johnson claimed that the UK’s approach to testing and tracking would be ‘world-beating’ and in place from the beginning of June. It isn’t and it wasn’t. Despite both of those negative statements being patently true they haven’t stopped him repeating the claim. It is an essential part of the nationalists’ approach to Brexit that the UK will become a ‘global leader’. It won’t and it can’t. I often wonder whether they really believe – despite all the evidence to the contrary – that the UK really is the best at everything; can they be that blind to the facts?  I’d almost like to believe that they know it’s just empty rhetoric – that would demonstrate that they have at least some connection to reality – but I can’t be certain. The intriguing question is why they have such a great need to believe that ‘we’ are in some way ‘better’ than everyone else. Perhaps the apparent arrogance and superiority masks a feeling of inadequacy. That’s a question for the psychologists – but for the rest of us, what’s wrong with being a normal state rather than demanding that everything ‘we’ do is labelled as being the ‘best’ merely by dint of being British?
Whatever the underlying reason, it leads the nationalists into saying and doing things which are increasingly farcical. Yesterday, the PM insisted that he is ‘very proud’ of the UK government’s response to the pandemic. That would be the response which has taken the UK to the number one position in the league table of deaths per million of the population, most of them avoidable, and managed to combine chaos and incompetence on an almost world-leading scale, beaten to the top slot only by Trump. I suppose, though, that coming top of any table is ‘world-leading’ in a sense, it’s just not the sense that a rational person would seek.

Wednesday 3 June 2020

Searching for a rational explanation

It could, of course, be the case that reducing the self-styled ‘mother of parliaments’ to complete farce is an accidental by-product of the madness of the author of the new system of voting. Clinical insanity is certainly the simplest and most obvious explanation of the thought process which would lead anyone to conclude that the most suitable way of voting in any parliament is one which excludes many MPs completely and requires the rest to spend 45 minutes shuffling along a 1km long queue every time they hold a vote. And Rees-Mogg certainly looks less than 100% compos as well as having a history of expressing strange views. The problem with that explanation is that it doesn’t explain why a majority of those taking part in the farce concluded that it was, indeed, such a brilliant idea that it should become the new norm. There could be something in the water in Westminster – but if that were to be the explanation, the Tory MPs would need to be imbibing from a different water supply than that used by members of other parties. Some of them, of course, just do whatever they’re told, either because they’re part of the government or because they want to be, but they surely can’t all be blind to the sheer idiocy of what they’ve agreed. I know that they wanted the UK to become a ‘world leader’ but I assumed they meant in terms of respect not mockery and derision.
There is however an alternative and much more sinister possibility. Deliberately excluding some members from participation in decision-taking might suit the government rather well on the whole, particularly if it differentially affects its political opponents. Excluding those MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who choose to abide by the advice of their respective governments instead of returning to London would certainly have the not insignificant side-effect of boosting the Tory majority. At a time when the PM’s actions over Cummings are causing huge disquiet on his own side, reducing the opportunities for a combination of opposition MPs and disgruntled Tories to conspire against him could be quite handy. And the derision with which the rest of the world views the system, coupled with the reluctance of MPs to be seen participating in such a farce might help in another way as well: it could make MPs less keen to call for divisions at all. If they know not only that every vote is going to cost them valuable time, but also that they’re all going to look like complete fools every time a vote is held, that might just encourage some to call for votes less frequently. (Although that could backfire if the public blamed the government rather than those calling for votes.)
It’s certainly a negation of democracy, but whether that’s due to a serious outbreak of madness in the governing party or a deliberate action to avoid scrutiny and challenge is open to interpretation. As a rule, I always tend to favour the simpler explanation, but there is something of a pattern to the avoidance of scrutiny and debate in the case of the current PM.