Wednesday 29 July 2020

Is Darwin smiling quietly?

Balancing the ‘rights’ of different individuals and groups is rarely straightforward, as the debate over mask-wearing demonstrates. At the heart of the problem is the point at which the exercise of rights by some threatens the rights of others, which is the underlying principle behind most of the laws under which we live. In the case of mask-wearing, it’s a clash between the ‘right’ not to wear a face-covering in enclosed spaces and the ‘right’ not to be infected by someone who may not even know that he or she is carrying the virus. The conflict between these two perspectives has been fairly minor in the UK to date but much more significant in the US, where many people (encouraged at times by their president) have chosen to believe that the coronavirus is some sort of hoax perpetrated by the ‘liberal elite’. And some of them have died as a result of that mistaken belief.
There are no simple solutions but the suggestion by Ann Widdecombe that shops should set aside specific times when non mask wearers could do their shopping is a spectacularly silly one. It’s a bit like allocating specific hours of the day when road users can choose on which side of the road they should drive, with no obligation to choose the same side as anyone else. And choose whether speed limits apply to them as well. And if their name is Cummings, drive with impaired eyesight. I can understand why it might seem theoretically OK to allow those who don’t care about getting infected (or simply choose not to believe in the existence of the virus, freedom of belief being another ‘right’) to congregate as they wish, in shops or anywhere else, if it was on their own heads alone. But it isn’t – so there must surely be caveats. Protecting shop workers is an obvious one. Infecting people who have agreed that they don’t care about being infected is one thing; infecting those who do care is quite another. And then there’s the health service and those who work in it, who might be expected to deal with those who end up catching the virus as a result of their own folly.
The source of the crazy suggestion highlights an interesting observation – a Venn diagram of mask-resisters and Brexiteers would show a significant overlap in the UK, as would a similar diagram of Trump supporters and mask-resisters in the US (and we could probably throw in anti-vaxxers and creationists as well in their case). I can’t help but wonder whether Charles Darwin wouldn’t see all this as some sort of proof of the veracity of his theory. That raises another question in my mind, though: whilst we might want to protect others from the effect of the choices made by the deniers, to what extent should we protect deniers like Widdecombe from the Darwinian impact of their own choices?

Tuesday 28 July 2020

The illusion of devolution

There was a time, a decade or so ago, when I attended a number of meetings of various Communities First groups across Carmarthenshire, in case any of the attendees wanted to use Welsh during the meeting. One such meeting sticks in my mind, when one of the CF workers told the ‘clients’ (or members of the local community group as I prefer to call them) that whilst they might, one day, be able to put together a plan for some scheme or other, they hadn’t reached that point yet, so the team were there to do it for them. I’m certain that the individual concerned was well-intentioned, but it struck me as a good example of one of the things that was going badly wrong with the whole CF project. It came across as patronising and condescending; a project which was supposed to be about empowering communities seemed in this case to be actively disempowering them. I don’t doubt the short term effectiveness of employing people to ‘make things happen’ in communities faster than would otherwise be the case, but I seriously doubt that it had the desired longer term impact. Indeed, I wonder whether the approach didn’t leave some communities less well-equipped to take their own initiatives when the funding stopped than they would have been beforehand.
There’s a parallel, of sorts, with the devolution process in Wales, which came to mind when the UK government decided last week not to allow the Welsh government to dip into its own emergency reserves to deal with the current emergency. Whilst devolution was, allegedly, supposed to empower Wales, in practice it sometimes does more to highlight the limits on that power and the extent of dependence, particularly faced with a UK government keen on centralisation and uniformity and utterly unsympathetic to any alternative views. Power devolved is, and always was, power retained, and it’s a conundrum to which those who support devolution rather than independence have – and can have – no answer. Unless the powers ‘devolved’ are somehow immutably written into law (a concept alien to the UK constitution), they can always be limited or reclaimed by the centre.
Labour’s devolutionists, and the Lib Dems as well, regularly bring the federalism fairy out of its cupboard and give it a good dusting, but, like the fairies at the bottom of the garden, it’s an entirely imaginary creature. Quite apart from the imbalance between England and the other nations, a federal solution would require a formal acknowledgement that the power of the various parliaments stems from the people that they represent, not from the crown-in-parliament. In effect, in one form or another, it requires a formal written constitution. Anyone in ‘Welsh’ Labour, or in the Lib Dems, who believes that any conceivable UK government is going to concede that is, him or herself, already ‘away with the fairies’.
That leaves one – and only one – way in which the rights of the Welsh people and parliament can be enshrined and protected, namely independence. An independent Wales could always, if it wished, agree to pool and share some of its powers with our nearest neighbours, by agreeing international treaties which specify rights, obligations, and oversight of compliance. And it could always remove itself from those treaties if it wished – but, crucially, the countries with which any such treaties were agreed could not unilaterally take to themselves those powers thus shared which is what the UK government is able to do with impunity at present. Independence would allow Wales to establish that sovereignty lies with the people, whilst allowing England to continue to pursue its delusion that God vested sovereignty in the monarch who graciously agreed to share it with parliament.
Devolution can never empower anyone, because the power is always and necessarily illusory. Devolution isn’t some sort of halfway house between centralism and independence, it’s an attempt to delude people. Local management of central policy isn’t empowerment, it’s an attempt to improve administrative efficiency – and it may not even be the best way of achieving that. I accept that some sincere devolutionists really thought that devolution would empower Wales, but Johnson’s government has shown why that doesn’t and can’t work in the long term; the centre can rein in the devolved legislatures at any time of its choosing. Anything other than independence is merely a form of porcine lip decoration.

Monday 27 July 2020

Transport Minister bans himself

The natural cynic in me can’t help but suspect that those opposition politicians criticising the UK government for imposing a sudden self-isolation requirement on people returning from Spain would have been equally critical had the government given 14 days’ notice of its intention to do so. They certainly seem to be the same people who complained about the government being so tardy in implementing any form of quarantine previously. It seems to me that the swiftness of the action on this occasion is just about the first time that the government have got something right (although it will doubtlessly be inconvenient, to say the least, for those affected by the decision). The bigger problem, in terms of public health, is the weak, half-hearted and poorly enforced nature of the restrictions being imposed, which allow those coming from areas of high infection to travel home from the airport by public transport as long as they ‘promise’ to stay at home for a fortnight, coupled with the absence of any support for employers who then potentially lose employees for a fortnight.
The even bigger cynic in me wondered why the government was able to act so quickly and effectively on this occasion, having failed to do so in the past. Could his own department really be that anxious to keep the Transport Secretary out of the way for an extra two weeks? I can’t say that I’d blame them, mind…

Friday 24 July 2020

Falling for the Big Lie

Opponents of independence delight in regularly pointing out that an independent Wales would have a budget deficit. This, in their eyes, makes the country unviable. The first part is true – we would undoubtedly have a budget deficit, although there’s considerable scope for debate about the size of that deficit. They certainly (and entirely deliberately) inflate the figure to support their argument by adding in costs which an independent Wales would not have to pay; but the existence of a deficit isn’t really open to debate. The question is, though, so what? Most countries run a deficit most of the time; most countries have a national debt. Many think that that debt is owed to other countries but it isn’t – most of it is owed to countries’ own citizens.
On the criteria which the unionists demand that Wales should meet to be considered viable, the UK as a whole is not viable as an independent state. The UK should, on their criteria, immediately renounce its independence and throw its lot in with a country which is viable. The problem would be finding one, because most other states (including the USA and Japan) aren’t viable either on the same criteria. Most states borrow money (largely from their own citizens, but in times of crisis also from themselves by simply creating extra money). The idea that Wales would be uniquely unable to do likewise is a lie, pure and simple. It’s an attempt to apply one rule to us and another rule to them. Measured by GDP per head, Wales is closer to the top of the world league table than the bottom; if Wales were really an economic basket case, the same would be true of the majority of countries in the world. It’s only the Anglo-centric exceptionalist tradition which declines to consider that Wales could be an entirely normal country.
The UK Government is currently spending a great deal of money, albeit inadequately and half-heartedly, in order to overcome the current crisis (and, as we saw from Johnson in Scotland yesterday, attempting to claim that only the UK could do this). Some of that money is being borrowed by the UK government, mostly from UK citizens; but a lot of it is simply being created by the government and placed into its own account, effectively treated in the books as a ‘loan’ from itself. But miraculously, this newly-created UK money suddenly becomes ‘English’ money (and a ‘subsidy’) when some of it is passed to the Welsh government to spend. It's as though they regard it as their own private piggybank which they are ‘generously’ sharing with us.
The ability to amass public debt is not unlimited, of course, but public debt is a normal part of the financing of any state. When the implications are spelled out, few people would actually want to live in a state which completely eschewed public debt. The claim that Wales’ public debt would make an independent Wales unviable is not the killer debating point as which it’s presented at all, it’s a dishonest way of trying to shut down a debate which unionists find uncomfortable. Why are they so afraid of revealing their real reasons for opposing independence that they need to hide behind such an obvious and blatant lie? Worse – why do so many in Wales fall for the lie?

Thursday 23 July 2020

Extending the tour

There might, conceivably, be a parallel universe somewhere out there in which Boris Johnson touring a series of venues in Scotland, presumably meeting the invited few in his usual manner and spouting his usual mixture of bluster, lies and impractical bridges will convince Scots to abandon any thoughts of independence. His cheerleaders seem to think not only that there is such a universe, but that this universe is the one. To the more grounded amongst us, it seems unlikely to say the least; far more likely an outcome is that his tour will deal the final blow to his party north of the border whose very existence he denies.
It could, of course, be a bluff. Perhaps he has already decided that England would be better off without those troublesome Scots, and just in case his promise to deny them any chance to determine their own future through a referendum (even if they vote overwhelmingly in favour of holding one) isn’t enough, he’ll seal the deal with a few incoherent speeches in which he can continue to deny reality. The flaw in that theory is that it presupposes a degree of self-awareness on his part which has been conspicuously absent to date. It is far more likely that he, and those around him, really do believe that all they need to do to turn the tide of public opinion in Scotland is to send an Old Etonian who knows little and understands even less to tell a few bad jokes to selected audiences, make some promises he has no intention of keeping, and have union flags plastered everywhere. Thus, in their view, will the ‘precious union’ be saved. It’s an attitude tells us more about them than about anything else.
In truth, I don’t believe that the union is doomed, much as I’d like to believe that it were so. But the problem that defenders of the union have is that they don’t understand – are psychologically incapable of understanding – why anyone would want to end an arrangement which they ‘know’ to be the bestest and most perfectest ever devised. They still struggle to understand why all those countries which were formerly part of the British Empire couldn’t see how much better it would have been to remain subservient to the ‘mother country’, but instead went off and chose to misgovern themselves. And that, ultimately, is why they will fail. Not because there is no argument for the union, but because they are unable to see or understand any argument against it, or even see any need to do so. One of the keys to winning a debate is to be able to understand the thinking of the opposition; not agree with it, merely understand it enough to respond to the other viewpoint. Brow-beating people into submission isn’t winning an argument, and in any event it’s now too late for that. Boris Johnson is one of the best recruiting sergeants the SNP has ever had; they must be absolutely delighted that he’s throwing himself into the campaign against independence. They’re probably even hoping that he’ll spend three weeks on tour rather than just the one.

Wednesday 22 July 2020

Do as I say, not as I do

The Foreign Secretary stood up in the House of Commons this week and very sombrely announced sanctions against China. His argument was that it is completely unacceptable that a country should breach an international treaty to which it had signed up. But hold on a moment: the EU Withdrawal Agreement is an international treaty on which the UK Government is attempting to renege daily. And government MPs are amongst the authors of a new report advocating that the UK should unilaterally repudiate that agreement and present the EU with a new one, on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis, to replace it. For English exceptionalists, it seems that the grand and important principle that states should abide by agreements they make only applies to other, lesser countries. Such are, apparently, the ‘great British values’ to which we are all supposed to subscribe.

Tuesday 21 July 2020

Secrecy isn't always in our best interests

Later today we will finally get to see the much-delayed report on Russian interference in UK elections. That there was such interference and that it was designed to promote Russian interests, including weakening the EU by promoting Brexit, is beyond doubt. That the Conservative Party received significant sums of money from people with strong Russian connections and interests is also not open to question. I’m less convinced that there will be any sort of ‘smoking gun’ proving incontrovertibly that the Tory Party acted on Russian bidding as a result of such funding or that hacking was enough to swing an election – or a referendum. I don’t doubt for a moment that the Russian state uses all means at its disposal to influence events in its favour, including cyber warfare and hacking. But neither do I doubt that the UK state does exactly the same thing; they’re just not keen on telling us about that, preferring to provoke outrage at the actions of others rather than admit that it’s simply the way in which competing states behave. I could be wrong, of course, but the fact that the committee contained four Johnson loyalists and voted unanimously to release the report suggests that it might not be quite as damning as it could be. Perhaps the juiciest bits will be in the unpublished annex.
In any event, the UK government has been busy over recent days, in what looks like a diversionary tactic, expressing its outrage at the way Russia has been trying to hack into and steal the data on potential vaccines for the coronavirus. But instead of meekly reporting the outrage at this attempt to steal data, perhaps the media should be asking why the data is secret in the first place. It isn’t government data, of course, it’s data belonging to researchers and private companies, but it’s data which would be useful to anyone trying to deal with the worst pandemic to hit the world for a century. We should be asking ourselves why that data would be so secret and why, in fighting a common disease affecting every country in the world, countries and companies are keeping data to themselves rather than sharing it openly in a common and united effort.
The standard answer would be that the pharma companies want to protect their investment in research so that they can recover it in subsequent sales, but that just provokes a further question – why is this research and development work so heavily in the private domain rather than the public domain? Why is the effort to find a vaccine to respond to a global problem causing hundreds of thousands of deaths a competitive one rather than a co-operative one? There is no obvious or necessary reason why research into fighting disease should be conducted primarily by private companies in secret for profit rather than by public bodies in the open for the good of all. The Government’s attacks on Russia for hacking in this case owe more to the protection of capitalist enterprises than to promotion of public health.

Monday 20 July 2020

'Over by Christmas'

Given the latest statement by the PM that it will all be over by Christmas, this report on 19th March (a mere 17 weeks ago) claiming that he had said that the virus would be “sent packing” in 12 weeks must obviously have been fake news. Either that, or it took place in an alternative reality (perhaps the same one which Matt Hancock inhabits in which the lockdown started on 16th March rather than the 23rd). But given his predilection for history, especially of the war variety, perhaps the PM has accidentally been almost semi-honest. The last time something was all going to be ‘over by Christmas’ it actually lasted another 4 years and cost 20 million lives, almost a million of them from the UK. With his, at best, passing relationship with the truth anyway, the allusion to the phrase ‘over by Christmas’ might just be an inadvertent revelation of a rather more ominous expectation.

Saturday 18 July 2020

The world's worst interview?

As a general rule, and assuming that they’re serious, people applying for jobs tend to try and demonstrate why they’re the right person for the job. Most people’s experience would confirm that demonstrating that one understands the requirements and highlighting how one’s talents and experience match those requirements is not a bad strategy if one wants to convince the interviewers. In what must surely be a contender for one of the worst interview pitches in history, Liam Fox, the UK’s candidate for head of the WTO, tried, instead, the novel approach of highlighting precisely the requirements which make him a singularly inappropriate candidate for the job.
Apparently, according to the Guardian, “Fox said the organisation needed a scarred political heavyweight capable of talking directly to major countries about the value of a rules based free trade order.” Scarred, maybe, but for a lightweight who has been sacked from his last two jobs and who has been a significant part of a campaign to destroy the idea of a rules-based order, it looks very much like an appeal to appoint someone else. And just in case they weren’t entirely convinced by that, he added that he hoped the EU “would back the candidate most in line with their values and aspirations for global free trade that the EU has”. I think we can be confident that the EU will do precisely as he wishes rather than back a candidate who has spent years trying to undermine everything the EU does. His only chance is if the other candidates are even better at talking the interviewers out of appointing them.

Friday 17 July 2020

Compromise is for everyone else

One of the advantages of achieving Welsh independence within a wider grouping of sovereign states, such as the EU, is that it provides a context within which the political change occurs whilst leaving the external economic relationships largely untouched. That is precisely the reason why some argue that it isn’t ‘proper’ independence, because Wales would not have the same degree of freedom to determine economic policies as it would have outside such a grouping. It’s true, but more in theory than in fact. As the UK is finding out – and this would be even more true for an independent Wales outside the EU – even one of the world’s major economies is going to have to compromise significantly with the rules set by one or other of he world’s major trading states or blocs if it wants the best trading terms. The freedom to ‘set our own rules’ is largely illusory in practice.
The determination of the UK government to protect the UK’s internal single market demonstrates very clearly that they understand in principle why having a common set of rules is generally a good idea when it comes to promoting frictionless trade. But the way they are setting about it also demonstrates very clearly why they see the EU internal market and the UK internal market in two very different ways. Any single market necessarily involves the pooling and sharing of a degree of sovereignty, an agreement, in effect, to make rules jointly rather than unilaterally. But ‘jointly’ means two quite different things in their minds. In the case of the EU, all those involved have to discuss and compromise; in the case of the UK internal market, the ‘smaller’ partners must simply fall into line. No discussion, no agreement, no compromise, just do as you’re told, even if, under statute, those partners have the right to set policy in the affected areas.
It’s perfectly possible – maybe even probable – that in most cases a discussion would lead to consensus anyway. It is, after all, in the interests of all concerned to keep the internal borders frictionless. And in any imaginable approach, the sheer size of England in relation to the three devolved administrations gives them more clout than the other parts of the state (which is precisely the problem with any proposal for a ‘federal’ UK). But the English nationalists running the UK cannot conceive of the possibility that they should ever need to discuss or agree their rules with anyone. That would be to cede some of the absolute sovereignty that they foolishly thought Brexit was going to give them. If only those Europeans had allowed the UK to dictate unilaterally the terms of the Single Market rather than discuss them, things might have been different. The Single Market would still look much the same, of course – much of the impetus behind it came from the UK in the first place. But it’s not the outcome which matters, it’s the principle – England is special and different. They entirely accept that sometimes compromise is needed; they just start from the position that compromise is what everyone else must do, not them. The problem with the rude awakening which lies ahead of us at the end of this year is that it won’t affect those driving the process; they and their backers will profit either way. The price will be paid by the rest of us.

Tuesday 14 July 2020

Dangling on the hook

It was announced at the weekend that the UK government is to launch a major campaign to promote weight loss given the propensity of Covid-19 to be worse in people who are obese. Pro-active promotion of healthy living is always a good idea, although I could have sworn that it was anathema to the Tories, who traditionally dismiss such initiatives as being typical of the ‘nanny state’ which should leave people to make their own decisions. Perhaps that was a different Conservative Party or maybe my memory is failing me.
What the initiative tells us though is that the English government has no intention of ‘defeating’ the coronavirus, despite all Johnson’s bold rhetoric about ‘sending it packing’ just a few short weeks ago. Coupled with the reckless approach to easing restrictions, it is clear that they are actively planning to allow another peak during the autumn/ winter and are merely trying to get the population match-fit to reduce the death toll. Their sole objective is to ensure that the number of people hospitalised is within the capacity of the NHS to treat them, and in adopting that policy they are effectively accepting that there will be thousands more deaths in the coming months.
It’s a huge contrast with the approach in Scotland, where the goal is the virtual elimination of the virus, a goal which now appears to be in reach. And Scotland is not an exception; similar approaches are being adopted in most European countries. The Scottish First Minister has been careful not to propose any sort of restrictions on people travelling from England, although she’s been equally careful not to rule it out. If we get to the stage – which looks increasingly inevitable – where new cases in Scotland relate entirely, or almost entirely, to people entering the country whilst the virus is in wide circulation in England, it’s hard to see how the Scottish government can continue to pursue its policy without imposing some restrictions.
Where that leaves us in Wales is an open question. Whilst his words suggest that the First Minister has the same goal as Nicola Sturgeon, (and I do believe that his natural instinct is to pursue that goal) he is also much keener on avoiding divergence from England. The situation is, of course, different; the border is more porous, more people get their news and information from London-based sources, there is less history of difference in law and policy. Yet, sooner or later, he will have to face up to one simple fact: following the same goal as Scotland using the same methods and approach as England is doomed to fail. He will have to choose between his instinctive wish to preserve the lives of the people for whom he is responsible and his instinctive wish to preserve and strengthen the union between Wales and England. I don’t know which way he’ll jump, but I’m certain that he will put off having to make that choice for as long as he possibly can. Hoping that something will turn up to let him off the hook isn’t good government.

Monday 13 July 2020

Extracting the uric acid?

Perhaps Liam Fox was (is?) a good GP. Most people are good at something, although his recent political career has only taught us what he’s bad at. Assuming that his forte is indeed the practice of medicine, it isn’t exactly a solid basis for running the World Trade Organisation, the job for which he has been nominated by Boris Johnson. The man who gave us that phrase about “the easiest deal in history” will not immediately convince many that he has the knowledge and experience to oversee trade deals around the globe. It leaves me wondering why on earth the PM has put his name forward at all.
It could be that he genuinely believes Fox to have all the necessary attributes for the job and to be such an obvious candidate that the rest of the world will fall at his feet thanking him for his perspicacious nomination (as opposed to merely falling about laughing). It’s entirely possible that he hasn’t bothered even to read the man’s cv, given his known lack of attention to detail. It might be that he wants to destroy the WTO; destruction of the established order seems to be the PM's goal in life (or at least, the goal of his puppet master). Maybe he even thinks that the Peter Principle should apply – one of the corollaries as I recall is that for every job there is someone somewhere who is incompetent to do it, and sooner or later the two will meet. It’s also possible that he's made the worst nomination he could think of, in order to be rebuffed so that he has another opportunity to tells us all how nasty those foreigners are in the way they treat “this great country of ours”.
Or he could just be taking the p*ss. Occam’s Razor suggests that might be the most likely reason.

Friday 10 July 2020

Time to stop believing the lies

The latest (was it the eighth since November?) budget from the Chancellor was a tame and inadequate effort – like many others, I suspect he’ll be back for his ninth, tenth and eleventh efforts within the month when it becomes clear just how much of an unemployment disaster is facing us. The tame and inadequate nature hasn’t stopped the fans of austerity – who believe, in essence, that the poorest should be the ones to pay for everything, by cutting services, pensions and benefits – who are at it already, saying that all this money will have to be paid back at some point. The IFS were at it yesterday saying that the debt will take decades to repay, and the warnings about pensions and services were delivered in sombre tones by the chief spokespersons for the government, otherwise known as BBC reporters.
I actually think that ‘decades’ is exceedingly optimistic – centuries would be closer to the mark. But here’s the thing – it really doesn’t matter. It’s true that the government has ‘borrowed’ a lot of extra cash as a result of the pandemic, but it’s ‘borrowed’ that money from itself. The Bank of England has simply magicked the money into existence (under the instructions of the Treasury which owns 100% of the Bank), placed it into the government’s accounts with a few deft keystrokes, and set up a loan account which nominally needs repayment at some future date. The Bank can continue to magic money into existence as long as, to simplify somewhat, one basic condition is met: there are sufficient spare resources in the economy such that inflation does not result. With potentially 6-9 million likely to be unemployed within a few months, resource shortage is the least of the worries.
Those who demand a timescale for repayment of the deficit argue that it’s currently at ‘too high’ a proportion of GDP – but there is no agreed definition of how high is too high. And there can’t be, because that limit is not an absolute one, it depends on a whole range of factors, all of which are variable. As far as I’m aware, no-one argues that the Japanese deficit is unsustainably high. It’s certainly higher than many would like, but it’s been above 100% of GDP for the last 20 years and is currently approaching 200%. No-one is panicking about that. The UK reaching 100% may also be higher than many would like (although it’s actually a lot lower if we don’t count the magic money which the government ‘owes’ itself) but there’s nothing especially sinister about 100%, other than being a nice round number. It’s ideology, not economics, which demands that the least well-off suffer to reduce the debt as a proportion of GDP – ideology based on protecting the interests of the owners of capital first and foremost.
There’s been another lie associated with the deficit in recent days too, when the PM said that it was “the might of the UK treasury” which set up the furlough scheme and distributed cash to all parts of the UK economy. It was intended as a rebuke to the Scots, implying that they could not have afforded it themselves, and as though the money that they have created belongs exclusively to the government which is generously sharing it with other parts of the UK. (Well, some of it, at least – those parts which aren’t simply being doled out to cronies.) It’s utter nonsense, as one might expect in relation to anything issuing forth from the Johnson word mincing machine.
It’s true, of course, that a larger economy can generate more financial resources at a time of crisis than can a smaller economy; but it’s also true that a smaller economy needs fewer resources as well. Asking whether an independent Scotland (and the same applies to Wales) could afford to create enough money to meet its own needs is a silly question – asserting that it can’t is assuming that Scotland would somehow be unique amongst all other states in the world. In fairness, however, I don’t think that’s the assumption that Johnson and his gang are making – they are actually making a rather different one, which is that England is uniquely able to do things which no-one else can do. In that exceptionalist mindset, evidence to the contrary doesn’t count, and since we can learn nothing by looking at what anyone else does, we can simply assert that they can’t do it. It’s a message which works only so long as the Scots (and the Welsh) are stupid enough to fall for it. Like austerity, which also only works because people have fallen for the ‘household budget’ analogy.
They want us to believe that they are maxing out the credit card so we don’t spot that they are actually maxing out their own credibility. It’s proving less and less effective in Scotland – it’s about time that we started to catch up.

Thursday 9 July 2020

Johnson testing the limits?

It was no real surprise that the official guidance stating that if employers pay for Covid-19 tests for their staff, that will be treated as a benefit in kind on which the employees will be required to pay income tax. The surprise was that it got to the stage that it did before being reversed. When I first read about the policy, I thought it must be a spoof – fake news – but no, it was there, in black and white, in HMRC’s official guidance. I know that not all ‘minor’ details of the implementation of policy go before ministers for decision, but something like this will have gone through several levels of review and discussion before being released, and I can’t imagine a discussion amongst a group of civil servants which concluded that raising a tax charge on employees in such circumstances did not require ministerial sign off. Which means that it was most probably signed off by a minister – was the individual concerned asleep on the job?
The same applies to the decisions to reinstate parking charges for NHS staff and to make the £500 bonus for Welsh care staff taxable. The first has already been reversed but the second not yet, as far as I’m aware. The public reaction to all of these decisions was entirely predictable, but the government took them all, leading to wholly avoidable U-turns. Donald Trump famously said during his election campaign that he could stand in 5th Avenue in New York and shoot someone and it wouldn’t affect his level of support. Perhaps Johnson is just testing the theory here: with 60,000 dead as a result of his handling of the pandemic, turning on the staff who’ve worked so hard to help the sick ought to be political suicide but support for his party remains inexplicably high. Just how bad does he have to get before it has an impact on his core supporters?

Wednesday 8 July 2020

The folly of reciprocity

The nature of travel controls in dealing with a pandemic is that the logical priority is to stop travel from higher risk areas into low risk areas. Why anyone would want to travel from a low risk area into a high risk area is one of life’s little mysteries, but there is no obvious reason for preventing them from doing so as long as they expect to be quarantined on their return. It should, therefore, be no surprise to anyone (although it does seem to have come as a surprise to some) that any list of countries from which a high-risk country like England will accept travellers will be longer than the list of countries prepared to accept travellers from that high risk country itself. And indeed, of the 59 or more (a number which keeps changing) countries considered ‘safe’ by the English government, 32 are still imposing some sort of restrictions on travellers from England. The only surprise in that, for me, is that 27 are not – I wonder who’s doing their risk assessments.
There is a problem for Wales and Scotland in this, of course – although the guidance on who may enter the country legally without a period of self-isolation applies only to England, the countries named in the English guidance are inevitably applying their rules to the whole of the UK. I can’t blame them given the lack of control over movement between those parts of the UK committed to eliminating the virus on the one hand and England on the other which is committed only to keeping infections at a level with which they believe that NHS can cope. That situation has been unnecessarily confused by the English government’s lack of discussion and consultation with the devolved administrations. The leader of the very best (but entirely non-nationalistic, of course) country in the world in every respect simply doesn’t see any need to consult anybody. Even, or perhaps especially, his own toadies cabinet. Discussion is for wimps, not world kings.
The English government has also added to the confusion with its unwillingness to spell out the  unavoidably one-sided nature of its advice (presumably for fear that doing so would reveal the true extent to which England’s handling of the pandemic has been so poor compared to other states), almost encouraging people to think that the problem isn’t with England’s handling of the virus, but with those pesky foreigners declining to reciprocate. From an Anglo-centric perspective, if ‘they’ won’t accept ‘us’, that’s evidence of ‘their’ mean-spiritedness rather than ‘our’ utter incompetence.
But reciprocity in such circumstances is a ludicrous idea – it amounts to demanding that because ‘we’ assess your country to be low risk on the basis of the number of cases and the rate of spread, ‘you’ must state that you consider us to be equally low risk and ignore all hard numerical evidence to the contrary. It’s English exceptionalism at its very worst; a demand that the rest of the world believes the lies and spin and accepts the overall greatness of England. It doesn’t help puncture the bubble when the official opposition seem to have bought into the same exceptionalism and unreasonableness – Labour’s transport spokesperson criticised the government this week saying "Now we see a plan to let residents of 60 or more countries into England without any reciprocal arrangements". English exceptionalism knows no party boundaries.
It’s an open question whether countries signing up to any lessening of quarantine restrictions are acting too soon – only time will tell. The English government’s decision looks more like a short-term economic one (which, if they’ve got it wrong, will actually turn out to be much costlier in the end) than anything related to public health. Seeking to arrive at mutual or reciprocal arrangements is about politics and spin; it has nothing to do with disease control.

Tuesday 7 July 2020

Identifying borders

Following an outbreak of coronavirus in Melbourne, Australia’s government announced yesterday that it was closing the border between New South Wales and Victoria. They obviously need Boris Johnson out there to explain to them that what they have done is quite impossible. (I’m sure we could spare him for a year or two. Or longer. Preferably longer.) Australia is one country and there can be no borders within a single country. Only recognised international borders can be controlled - Johnson was very clear on that point last week when he said that the line separating England from Scotland is not such a border so it cannot be policed or closed. Of course, if he’s otherwise engaged making models of buses out of wine boxes, we could always send his father instead to show Australians how to render the ban ineffective by travelling between the two states via some other country. (Do they have flights to both via Bulgaria?) Alternatively we could send Boris’ fellow Etonian Jake to explain to the Australians that New South Wales and Victoria are merely districts or areas within a single country, and that means that there is simply no way to impose travel restrictions between them. It just can’t be done, as anyone with an expensive education knows. If only they hadn’t been so foolish as to leave the Empire, the Australians might understand these things too.
Perhaps it really is down to the school which they both attended. I wonder if their parents have ever regretted spending so much on an education which has taught their offspring so little about how things work in the real world that they believe that merely stating something makes it a fact. On the other hand, their parents seem to think the same way, judging by the actions of Johnson père. Perhaps suffering from delusions is an inherited trait.

Monday 6 July 2020

Where is the planning for change?

Last week, the Tory MP for Monmouth accused those expressing anger over job losses at Airbus of ‘crocodile tears’ and argued that some people have “spent the last few years decrying the airline industry and talking about the climate emergencies and the rest of it… I hope they now realise that this is what they have been calling for”. It was a typically robust performance from a man not exactly known either for his sensitivity to the difficulties of others or for thinking about the consequences of his words. And I suspect that those Tories holding seats in the north of Wales – especially those who only won them a few short months ago – won’t be rushing to thank him for his intervention. But however poorly he expressed himself and however unthinking his comments, he does actually have a point. A reduction in flying will inevitably impact some jobs.
There was another, apparently unrelated, story in the Sunday Times a week ago in which a number of politicians, including Tory Theresa Villiers and Labour’s Andy Burnham, called for staff who have been working at home to return to their offices in city centres because the shops and restaurants there depended on their custom. Never mind that they have shown that they can work effectively at home, never mind that public transport is working well below normal capacity meaning that a return to city centre offices means an increase in the use of private cars with its accompanying congestion and pollution: shops and restaurants depend on their business so people should go back to what they were doing before.
The common theme is that those of us who want to build a different type of economy, one where people travel less and one which is less environmentally damaging and more personally fulfilling cannot legitimately also argue that all existing jobs must also be protected at all costs. A move to a different type of economy, to say nothing of the changes which automation and Artificial Intelligence will bring, necessarily requires some jobs to become redundant, and it is dishonest to pretend otherwise. If we get it right, of course, then they will either be replaced by other jobs and/or we will find other means of sharing out both the work and the rewards for doing it; that is all part of the alternative thinking that is required.
The immediate problem is that some of these changes are being forced upon us at short notice by unplanned circumstances. And part of the reason that’s such a problem is that, prior to the pandemic, governments have given far too little thought to how we manage the necessary changes over a longer period. Even during the pandemic, little thought has been given to whether some of the forced changes (such as more home working) might be beneficially continued for the longer term; the emphasis has all been on ‘returning to normal’. The Welsh government prides itself on some of the legislation it has passed, such as the Future Generations Act, and so it should. However, passing laws is meaningless and pointless unless the government also acts to bring about substantial economic change in a planned fashion, and the simple truth is that there has been little evidence of that happening. Ministers have, instead, used every opportunity to support what is rather than building what should be.
The loss of jobs at Airbus is a tragedy for those involved, their families and local communities, but pretending that the downturn in the aviation industry is something that will last a few short months, and seeking to find ways of maintaining the jobs over that period, is a sticking plaster approach. The combination of Brexit and the almost complete shutdown of aviation as a result of the pandemic have made it obvious for months that there would be a problem for Airbus. Where is the thinking about how those valuable skills can best be employed for the future, where is the thinking about how individuals, families and communities can be protected and supported through a period of change? I don’t really expect to see any of that from a Tory government in London but it’s disappointing, to say the least, that we’re not seeing it from the Welsh government either. Protecting existing jobs is no substitute for planning and managing a transition to a different type of economy.

Friday 3 July 2020

More than a loophole

Many years ago, when I was a member of the Vale of Glamorgan Council, I remember that the then (Tory) leader of the council rose to his hind legs to lecture the rest of us about something or other and during the course of his oration informed the world that people don’t swim in the water off Barry Island, they merely “go through the motions”. It was a refreshingly honest assessment of the sea condition at the time, although I did wonder how he squared that assessment with his role in promoting the Island as a tourist destination. “Going through the motions” – in both senses of the phrase – strikes me as a good description of the English government’s approach to quarantine for people arriving in the UK.
Johnson senior’s scenic little trip to Greece via Bulgaria highlights one of the major problems with the approach being adopted by the UK. The PM is not, of course, responsible for the actions of his father and, fortunately for him, even the mildest form of embarrassment is not something with which he is in the least bit familiar. It would, in any event, be wholly unfair to blame him for the behaviour of his father (although it’s a good deal less unfair to place a degree of blame on the father for the behaviour of the son). The point is that the system being used by Greece to determine who’s allowed in (and by the UK to decide who should quarantine) are based on the last, rather than the original, point of departure for the individual. So, whilst people are barred from travelling to Greece from the UK, if they stop in some intermediate country like Bulgaria they can enter freely. Similarly, a person travelling from New York to London would be required to self-isolate, but if the same person changes plane in Dublin the requirement disappears. And by the time the government publishes what looks likely to be an extensive list of exceptions in addition to the Republic, what’s left looks like little more than motions. Again, in both senses. ‘Loophole’ is a wholly inadequate word to describe it.
It appears that the English Government has agreed its list of exceptions with no consultation with the devolved administrations, which are expected to immediately fall meekly into line without discussion, or be blamed for delaying the decision. In the circumstances, it is reasonable for the devolved administrations to take, or consider taking, actions to protect their people from the reckless decisions being made in London. The PM’s objection to any idea that some sort of border exists between England and Scotland is a knee-jerk reaction – he seems quite happy to draw a border around Leicester and seek to apply controls over movement there. But then being consistent lives in the same box as embarrassment (see above). He is putting Scotland and Wales in an impossible situation – probably deliberately. Even if the Welsh Government were able to stop flights from an airport which they own (and incredibly, it seems that they are not, although I fail to understand how, under current guidance, anyone can legitimately arrive at the airport to catch the flights) they have no easy way of stopping people who arrive at Bristol or Heathrow from traveling into Wales. Whilst they may have the nominal power to impose their own rules on arriving aircraft, those only apply to airports within Wales. It’s almost as though Johnson wants to turn mild-mannered Mark Drakeford into a raving independentista. But that would require an ability to plan and think ahead (see embarrassment and consistency above).

Thursday 2 July 2020

The problem with foreigners

There is a mantra beloved of self-help, positive-thinking gurus to the effect that if you believe strongly enough in yourself the rest of the world will accept you on that basis and treat you accordingly. If it doesn’t work for you, it’s not because there’s anything wrong with the approach (for which you’ve already parted with your hard-earned cash), it’s just that you aren’t believing hard enough. I’ve never been convinced about that; it’s an approach which seems to me to depend on turning off any sense of social awareness and objective reality and interpreting all reactions as some sort of self-validation. At an individual level it may appear a little eccentric but it’s generally harmless to others, and if it makes people happy… However, only a crazy person would think that extreme self-belief could be applied to interstate relationships. Fortunately for the UK, there is currently a plentiful supply of such people in positions of authority. They really do believe that the power of collective positive thought is so great that the rest of the world will bend to our will.
The problem with the rest of the world is that they just don’t understand how special and unique the UK (and especially England) is. It’s not as if they haven’t been told repeatedly, but they are all too thick to understand plain English, even when it’s shouted loudly and slowly at them. When the UK government says that it wants to rediscover the buccaneering spirit (aka piracy) of the past, it means exactly what it says – rules are for other people, the UK only has rights. Recent examples of foreigners’ stupidity include:
·        Believing that the UK would implement the protocol on Northern Ireland trade just because the government signed up to it in the Withdrawal Agreement. As Gove has pointed out, the arrangement was always going to be unacceptable to Unionists; it is utterly unrealistic to expect the UK to implement it. The Withdrawal Agreement specifies only the EU’s obligations, it’s entirely optional for the UK.
·        Expecting the UK to abide by WTO rules in the event of there being no deal. The UK government has made it perfectly clear that if tariffs are introduced in Northern Ireland, the government will reimburse those tariffs Reimbursing tariffs may be illegal under the WTO agreement but the WTO rules are an à la carte arrangement for the UK; they’re only mandatory for everyone else.
·        Not understanding that the UK has rights which don’t apply to anyone else. When the UK eschewed the not brilliant but nevertheless functional track and trace app in use elsewhere in order to pursue an alternative, it assumed that Apple and Google would agree that the UK should uniquely be allowed to amend and over-ride the proprietary code of their operating systems. There was no need to discuss that in advance because the UK is a sovereign country with the absolute right to do as it wishes.
·        EU negotiators insisting that the UK can’t pick and choose which rules to follow if it wants tariff-free access to the Single Market. Their refusal to countenance the idea that the UK can have such access and then change its own rules to give its own businesses a competitive advantage is wholly unreasonable – any trade agreement applies to the EU until changes are agreed but obviously only applies to the UK at the moment it is signed.
Some unkind souls may see this as a case of misplaced self-belief running into hard reality, but they’re wrong. If self-belief doesn’t work, it’s because we’re not all believing hard enough. It’s not the government’s fault (nothing ever is) it’s ours. We just need to believe harder. Apparently. That’ll show Johnny Foreigner what’s what.

Wednesday 1 July 2020

Why were the Romans and countrymen omitted?

In a revelation surpassed only by the pending announcements about the toilet habits of bears and the religious affiliation of the Pope, Boris Johnson disclosed yesterday that he is not a communist. In a speech which largely announced that he was ‘speeding up’ existing spending commitments so that what he’d previously announced would happen over five years will now only take eight (his understanding of relative dimensions owes more to the Tardis than to Euclid) it was probably the closest thing to a fact. Although, given his well-known casual relationship with the truth, it is at least a possibility that he will have succeeded only in planting the seed of a doubt where none existed before.
In fairness, however, the statement has been taken out of context by many. The full sentence read “My friends, I am not a communist”.  The first two words are very significant; note the absence – by a classicist at that – of any reference to “Romans and countrymen”. It wasn’t addressed to all of us, merely to that circle of people whom Johnson regards as his friends. It is a very small circle (although it’s probably larger than the circle of people who regard him as being their friend as opposed to merely a useful idiot), but it’s the one he most needs to appease. And if we want to know to whom the PM might possibly think himself beholden, we have only to stop and consider for a moment one simple question: what sort of political beliefs do people hold if they might need, even for a split-second, a reassurance that Johnson is not a communist? As the old adage puts it – ‘by their friends shall ye know them’. He may have told us rather more than he intended.