Monday 31 August 2020

Following instructions

For some strange reason, it seems that some Tory MPs are finding it increasingly difficult to support their government’s policy because that policy keeps changing at short notice. Apparently, they are not over-keen on defending a policy strongly one day, only to find out the next that it has changed. I can almost sympathise – it must be very hard to wake up in the morning not knowing what it is which they sincerely believe, but being aware that it’s probably the opposite of that which they sincerely believed the previous day. Even worse, they know that they’ll probably sincerely believe something different again by mid-afternoon. I’d always thought that 1984 and Animal Farm were a sort of warning, but the current government seems to be treating them more as instruction manuals.

Friday 28 August 2020

Is Boris Johnson a secret Luddite?

One of the consequences of the pandemic has been that businesses have come to realise that, with modern technology and a degree of trust, many people can work from home at least as effectively – and often more effectively – as they can in a city centre office. It’s not universal, of course; some staff still need to attend offices at least some of the time, but overall, there are benefits for both staff and businesses in a more flexible approach. It seems likely that a new pattern has been established which will only be partly reversed as the pandemic eases. There are, though, some other side-effects of the switch. Retail and hospitality businesses in town centres saw a drastic reduction in custom during the lockdown, and a long term reduction in the numbers of staff working in city centres on any one day is likely to be terminal for some of those businesses.
Government ministers have been increasingly pleading with people to return to offices, and with businesses to insist that their staff should do so, with hints being dropped that businesses could sack staff who don’t return to their normal place of work, a hint which the CBI has quite rightly been quick to reject. As part of the government campaign, one former minister, Damien Green, has said that more jobs are at risk if people do not return to work, adding that a lot of businesses and jobs "that depend on big city activity... will just die." I can’t deny the truth of that, but the question which we need to ask is whether people should continue commuting to and from offices when that has become an outdated mode of working simply to support businesses which have become otherwise unviable as a result of changes in technology and working practices.
I seem to remember the Tories giving very short shrift to the idea that industries such as mining should continue even if coal could be sourced more cheaply from abroad because of all the people and businesses which depended on those industries, but I suppose that mines were a long way away from the everyday experience of any London-based minister. It is, though, a central tenet of capitalism that innovation leads to change, and that change means that some businesses fail whilst others are formed doing new things to take their place. Whilst I’m not personally a big fan of allowing that process to be governed entirely by the market rather than managed in the interests of working people, it’s rather strange to see a Conservative government arguing against the principle itself, and demanding that people continue unnecessary commuting in order to prevent innovation from impacting jobs. It’s almost as though a Johnson premiership has revealed a long-hidden Luddite streak in the Conservative Party.

Thursday 27 August 2020

Fiddling the rules

Last week, the Times reported (paywall) that Michael Gove had been ‘enlisting old enemies’ in an attempt to ‘save the union’. The thought of Gove working with George Galloway, former Lib Dem Minister Danny Alexander, and former Labour Scottish First Minister Jack McConnell manages to be both bizarre and entirely credible at one and the same time. That these people all think both that ‘saving the union’ is vital and that they are the people to do it is also entirely credible and more than a little bizarre. On the other hand, to many independentistas it is more likely to look like the dream team they would choose to go up against for the next referendum. Perhaps the unionists actually want to lose. If only they could also persuade Boris to personally lead the crusade against independence, Scottish independence could be more or less guaranteed.
With the polling figures increasingly turning against them, it appears that at least some of them want to try and amend the rules about who can vote. Instead of only those registered to vote in Scotland, Galloway has suggested that the franchise should be extended to Scots living elsewhere in the UK, a suggestion which Gove described as ‘interesting’. The assumption, obviously, is that those Scots who’ve left Scotland to live elsewhere in the UK will be more inclined to vote ‘no’, (although I’m not as certain as they seem to be about the validity of that assumption – ‘Gorau Cymro, Cymro oddi cartref’ as the saying goes) on which basis, the surprising thing is that they’re thinking of restricting it to the UK. Scots living outside the UK might be even more opposed. Leaving aside the ‘minor’ practical difficulty of devising an electoral register across the whole UK which identifies who is Scottish and who is not (have they even thought about how to define that, let alone identify the relevant people?), there is another obstacle as well. If it is to be a vote based on whether a voter is Scottish or not (however that may be defined), on what basis should people who are not Scottish but who choose to live in Scotland be allowed to vote?
Of course, logic and consistency are not words which deserve to be used in the same sentence as Galloway and Gove (unless properly and definitively negated), but the application of that little piece of logic shows that a proposal to base the franchise on the nationality of the voter is a double-edged sword. The only reasonable and fair basis on which to decide whether a territory is to become independent is for the people who are registered as living there to take the decision – whatever their origins. Trying to adjust the electorate to include others on the basis of their nationality is a blatant attempt both to gerrymander the outcome and to turn the debate into one about origins and roots. It’s also likely to be very divisive – so exactly what its proponents want, and something for which they could and would then blame independentistas. The idea is unlikely to disappear as long as the unionists are staring defeat in the face.

Wednesday 26 August 2020

Saving the rainforests

In principle, the idea that legislation should be introduced to ensure that goods on sale in the UK have been produced in a way which does not encourage or promote deforestation is a sound one. The particular approach being proposed by the UK has a number of major flaws however, not least that it depends on the production of raw materials to be ‘in accordance with local legislation’. In states where ‘local legislation’ is either non-existent, badly defective, or hopelessly unenforced as a result of them exercising their own sovereignty, it creates a massive loophole which makes it look more like a gesture than a serious attempt to protect the rainforests. I’m sure that a desirable outcome could be assisted by UK legislation, but it would involve a willingness not only to have an independent international arbiter rather than depend on ‘local legislation’ to determine whether the rainforests are being damaged by producing the relevant products, but also to demand, effectively, that companies operating elsewhere which are selling into the UK market would have to abide by the same rules. It’s a clear instance where legislation in one country will never be enough to prevent environmental damage happening on the other side of the world – countries need to co-operate and work to common rules to ensure change. The UK could lead on this - if it really wanted to do more than make gestures.

In completely unrelated news, it seems that the negotiations over a trade deal with the EU are foundering largely because the UK government considers it utterly unacceptable that the EU should expect third parties (such as the UK) to abide by its rules in relation to issues such as environmental protection, rather than recognise that, as a sovereign state, the UK has the right to set its own rules independently of anyone else, and equally unacceptable that whether it is complying with rules should be determined by anyone other than itself.

Friday 21 August 2020

Lining up the next U-turn

It has emerged that beneficiaries of the government’s scheme to pay a lump sum of £60,000 to the families of health care staff killed by the coronavirus pandemic will automatically lose the right to claim any other benefits, including universal credit, because of the rule that ‘savings’ cannot amount to more than £16,000. There is no doubt that this is a ‘correct’ interpretation of the benefit rules, nor that there is a certain logic behind the rule about savings (even if I don’t entirely accept that logic). At an entirely ‘logical’ level, one could even make out a decent case that the source of those ‘savings’ is, and should be, irrelevant and that no exceptions should be allowed. But the payments are more to do with a populist political gesture than with a thought-through attempt to deal with the financial consequences of the sacrifice that so many health care workers have made, and the political consequences of then stopping, or refusing to pay, other benefits are obvious.
The report makes it clear that the DWP, HM Treasury and the Department for Health and Social Care all agreed that these payments should not be disregarded for benefit purposes. What that tells us is that civil servants in three separate ministries sat around a (virtual, presumably) table and agreed that the benefit rules should not be waived. That in turn requires us to believe one of two things: either none of them even considered the potential political backlash when their interpretation became public so that none of them thought to inform their respective ministers, or else that one or more of them did inform the relevant minister and the minister(s) signed off on the decision without challenging it. There are ways, of course (and ‘Yes, Minister’ was good at highlighting them) in which ministers can be ‘informed’ of something without realising what they’ve been told. Given the traditional caution of the career civil service, that seems more likely to me than the suggestion that none of the civil servants involved realised the implications of what they were doing. It’s in their nature to ensure that they have political cover for anything likely to be controversial, and they’re paid to know what will be controversial. Ministers, on the other hand, are paid to take the responsibility. In the current ‘never explain, never apologise’ government, it’s not a responsibility which I expect any of them to fulfil.

Thursday 20 August 2020

Revealing words

Choosing the right words is important, and given that Jeremy Miles is a lawyer as well as a politician, I can’t believe that he didn’t understand exactly what he was saying yesterday, when he expressed the Welsh Government’s concern that the Westminster power grab will “… accelerate the break-up of the Union”. ‘Accelerate’ conveys a clear suggestion that he understands that the only thing which is still within the power of unionist politicians is the rate at which the union disintegrates, not whether or not it does so. Whether he consciously intended to betray that belief is an open question, but an appeal not to accelerate a process is not at all the same thing as an appeal to halt it.
I don’t expect him, or any other member of the Welsh government, to suddenly become a full-on independentista, but clearly there is a growing recognition in their ranks not only that Scottish independence is being made increasingly likely by the actions of the English nationalist government in Westminster, but also that the tone-deaf response of Westminster, with its apparent belief that the antidote is ‘more Boris’ and more union flags, is exacerbating the problem. Neither do I imminently expect him or any other member of the Welsh government to start talking about what Wales should do in what is now the probable scenario. But, given the words Miles used yesterday, I cannot believe that they aren’t, in increasing numbers, at least thinking about what it would mean if the UK were reduced to a rump Englandandwales. There aren’t a whole load of steps between realising the consequences of that and supporting the only logical alternative.

Wednesday 19 August 2020

Escalating incompetence doesn't make it go away.

There is only one thing that surprises me about the suggestion that teachers and parents in England have lost confidence in the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, and that is the implicit presumption that they ever had any in the first place. I suffer from the rather old-fashioned prejudice that it’s impossible for anyone to lose anything that they didn’t first possess. What’s much more surprising than the lack of confidence in Williamson is the government’s proposed solution, which is that Boris Johnson should “…take the reins alongside Williamson…”. I cannot conceive of any rational conversation which concluded that the way to deal with the proven incompetence of the Education Secretary is to keep him in post and let another proven incompetent take the decisions for him. Apparently, according to a ‘source’ at Number 10, “There is barely an issue [the PM] has been more personally associated with…”. The implication that he has been less personally involved with other minor issues such as a pandemic and Brexit might tell us rather more than the ‘source’ intended. But anyone who concludes that the answer to a government foul-up is Boris Johnson should surely be wondering whether they’re asking the right question.

Monday 17 August 2020

Locking disadvantage into the system

Last week’s ‘A’ Level results fiasco reminded me of my own experience of ‘O’ Level results back in 1967. Shortly after we got the results, my French teacher stood in front of the whole class and said that she really didn’t understand how I’d managed to get a grade 3 in French whilst a fellow pupil (whom she also named) only got a grade 6 pass. “I’d have understood it better if the results had been the other way round”, she told us. Being charitable, she was probably trying to boost the confidence of my disappointed peer (and it may well have been fair comment anyway!) but my gratitude for her faith in my ability wasn’t exactly unbounded. Perhaps my fellow student had a bad day and I had a good one; perhaps the questions on the day were simply a better match for what I’d remembered than what he’d remembered; perhaps I was just better at sitting exams – I’ll never know how it happened, only that had my grade been based on teacher assessment rather than examination it would have been lower. (And, had that been repeated in other subjects, life could have turned out very differently.) The point is that teacher assessment is no more perfect a method of assessing ability in a subject than an examination. Both can create anomalies and the two methods will always produce different results for at least some of the pupils. Which result is the fairest is an open question, and our faith in the reliability and accuracy of the system as it impacts individuals is seriously misplaced even in a normal year.
We know for certain that examination performance varies between schools, and if results based on teacher assessment reduce or eliminate those differences, then they are not reflecting accurately what would have happened had the exams been held. (I should note, in passing, the implicit assumption in that statement that the exam results are the accurate ones, itself an assumption open to serious question.) That, in effect, is the justification for making ‘adjustments’ to teacher assessments. They are an attempt to reflect historic differences in performance between schools and, in fairness, they may well have more-or-less achieved that at an overall level. But, by being based on a statistical approach, we can be absolutely certain that the individual pupils whose scores were thus ‘adjusted’ from teacher assessments would not always be the same pupils whose scores would have differed from those same assessments had the exams been held. Reducing it to a mathematical exercise might produce the ‘right’ averages, but it can never produce the ‘right’ results for individuals. It’s an approach which is fundamentally flawed.
We also know the main reason that some schools regularly see lower results on average: they serve poorer communities. We have known for decades that there is a very strong correlation between academic performance as measured by examinations on the one hand and parental income on the other, and none of the actions taken to try and address that have been particularly successful. (I suspect that is primarily because they all set out to address the symptoms rather than the cause in an attempt at some sort of short-term fix, but that’s a subject for another time.) That difference in performance may be well-known and well-established but it isn’t, and never has been, fair. There is something particularly grotesque about a Labour government here in Wales trying to ensure that historical disadvantage based on relative affluence is properly reflected in this year’s results. They are effectively locking in that household income based disadvantage for another whole cohort of young people based on historical results for the schools they attend without the individual members of that cohort having even the limited opportunity to buck the trend which the examination system provides, and from which at least some would have benefited had the exams gone ahead.
There is no perfect solution to this year’s issues (and even less is there an easy fix for the real underlying long-term problem), but applying an algorithm specifically designed to perpetuate the injustices of the past is about the worst solution which anyone could devise. The (eventual and belated) Scottish decision to simply accept the teacher assessments isn’t a perfect one either (the idea that hundreds of teachers in hundreds of schools could ever be grading students precisely and consistently is laughable), but, coupled with a robust appeals process, it’s probably the least worst option in the circumstances. I really don’t understand why ‘Welsh’ Labour prefers to follow an only slightly adapted version of the approach of the English Tories instead.

Friday 14 August 2020

No form of Brexit will satisfy the Brexiteers

The spectacle of Iain Duncan Smith complaining about the small print of the deal which he claimed only a few short months ago did not need further detailed scrutiny has inevitably led to entirely justified ridicule. There’s a danger, though, that the entertaining ridicule diverts attention from an essential truth in all this which is that, for the followers of the true Brexit faith, there is no achievable Brexit in the real world which they will not regard as a betrayal. I had thought that the rhetoric about enjoying all the advantages of the EU with none of the disadvantages was exactly that – rhetoric. And I had assumed that the rhetoric was designed as a dishonest cover for their belief that the ‘advantages’ of Brexit as they saw it, in terms of ‘independence’ and ‘sovereignty’ outweighed the obvious economic disadvantages. Stated openly, that’s an honest and defensible intellectual position to take, even if it’s not one with which I’d agree (not least because the people paying the economic cost aren’t the ones enjoying the very limited extra ‘independence’ which it would confer) – but it’s not one which would have been likely to have gained even the slim pro-Brexit majority which we saw in 2016.
It increasingly appears that I was wrong on that – I gave them far too much credit both for having a defensible position and for being simply devious. It increasingly appears that many of them genuinely believed – and still do believe – that penny-and-bun is an available option, if only everyone else wasn’t being so obstructive. It’s not that they knew there would be an economic downside but thought it a price worth paying at all – it’s more the case that they genuinely believed that the EU would give the UK whatever it wanted because the UK is so special and powerful. Indeed, part of their defence for now arguing for scrapping an agreement which they supported is that the agreement committed both sides to reaching a longer-term agreement on the terms of trade, and that such an agreement now looks increasingly unlikely. Both of those statements are ‘true’, of course, but the interpretation of that as effectively meaning that the EU therefore committed to agreeing with whatever the UK wanted is perverse to say the least. The English sense of exceptionalism is edging in slow motion towards its inevitable clash with real world reality at the end of December. Predicting that the real world will win is a safe bet, and if that outcome was likely to cause the exceptionalists to rethink it might just about be a minor plus from Brexit. But what Smith’s ramblings tell us is that they’re more likely to simply double down and shout their unrealistic demands ever more loudly.

Wednesday 12 August 2020

Seeing oursels as ithers see us

Confirmation bias is something from which most of us suffer to a greater or lesser extent. It means that we see and interpret things from the viewpoint of our own priors. The bigger problem that arises is not the bias in itself but the unrecognised assumption that the underlying viewpoints aren’t always necessarily shared by others. When coupled with an exceptionalist belief system like that of English nationalists, it can make people utterly blind to the very possibility of an alternative point of view.
The PM said this week that he is determined to preserve what he called ‘the magic’ of the UK, a ‘magic’ which makes England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland disappear in the eyes of foreigners, who see only the huge successes of ‘Britain’ when they look at these shores. The first problem with that is that, even if it were true, that which he sees as an advantage is precisely part of the problem from an alternative standpoint. For those English nationalists for whom England and Britain are largely synonymous, making the non-English parts of the UK invisible is a feature of success. But using that line of argument in Scotland where Scottish invisibility is seen as a vice rather than a virtue is entirely counter-productive to the cause which Johnson claims to espouse; it’s an approach which completely fails to understand the situation on the ground. Reducing Scotland to a ‘brand’ of the UK is more likely to inflame than persuade.
The second – and bigger – problem is that it isn’t even true. Yes, of course, there are many people abroad who don’t understand the more-than-subtle differences between Great Britain, the UK, and England. There can be few Welsh people who have been abroad who haven’t struggled to explain that Wales may be part of both Great Britain and the UK but it is not part of England (although in my own experience the awareness of Scotland is significantly higher); on that Johnson is broadly right. But I suspect that most Welsh people – even many of those resolutely opposed to independence – would add the word ‘sadly’ to that sentence; one does not have to be an independentista to desire a degree of recognition of the distinction between England and Wales. The ‘invisibility’ touted by Johnson is not only not desired by many but it isn’t as absolute as he claims.
His broader comments about how foreigners see, admire and envy ‘Britain’ manage to progress from wishful thinking to the utterly absurd. There is zero recognition of the fact that most countries in the world are standing by in amazement watching a country which used to have a certain reputation for probity and common sense descend into chaos as it commits an act of great self-harm by exiting the EU, let alone the sadness that a country once regarded as a reliable partner is now degenerating into a country whose word cannot be trusted and which eschews co-operation in favour of making unrealistic demands. As part of his comments, the PM said, “I think what people in this country often don’t appreciate is the way in which the UK is seen abroad”. If the phrase ‘the people in this country’ had been replaced by ‘I and my government’, he might have come dangerously close to the truth. But his own confirmation bias would never allow him to understand that.

Wednesday 5 August 2020

Knighthoods and bananas

When I saw the report a few days ago that the husband of the former PM was to be knighted, my brain initially read it as saying that he was benighted, leaving me wondering in what sense that statement could be considered newsworthy. Just as “man bites dog” is more newsworthy than “dog bites man”, so finding a Tory who isn’t benighted would surely make for a better headline. Clueless, ignorant, and uninformed are amongst the potential synonyms of benighted – if such were the criteria for getting a sword tap on the shoulder, an awful lot of benighted people could be beknighted as well.
In practice, the actual criteria for gaining a title of any sort are even less precise than that. Arbitrariness and prime ministerial whim are the main determinants, although making a large donation to the right political party has been known to influence the direction of that whim, as has a willingness to pay a large sum of money to lose a tennis match. Precisely why the whim rewarded Mr May in this instance is not wholly clear, but perhaps he did rather more than most had thought to persuade his wife to create the vacancy which the current PM went on to fill. It’s the sort of thing for which Johnson might feel almost as grateful as his predecessor. Alternatively, it could really be as simple as the citation suggests – he’s been knighted solely on the basis of choosing a particular woman as his wife 40 years ago. There is, though, a strange irony in making someone a Knight Bachelor for the way in which he ended his bachelorhood. As knighthoods go, it’s the lowest of the low, not like a proper membership of one of the orders of chivalry (although, following the same logic, perhaps they are to be reserved exclusively in future for those who aren’t particularly chivalrous).
In the monarchy of imaginary bananas which the UK is rapidly becoming (like a banana republic, only with a hereditary head of state and a distinct lack of bananas), showering titles on supporters and friends on the flimsiest of excuses is probably only to be expected. Titles help to keep those who are thus entitled (in both senses) happy. And I suppose that it’s far less harmful than some of the things in which the PM could be otherwise engaged. Such as repeating his demands that the imaginary bananas be properly bent, for instance.

Tuesday 4 August 2020

Where's the Praetorian Guard when it's needed?

Caligula, the third emperor of Rome, never actually appointed his horse to the Senate, despite the popular myth. He certainly wanted to, and fully intended to, but he was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard before he could implement his plan. The historical record suggests that it wasn’t so much that he believed that the horse would be particularly good at the job, it was more about showing that he had the power to appoint it, and that no-one could stop him. It wasn’t his only foible – he also spent huge sums of the empire’s money on building projects, some of which were useful and others merely bizarre, like the 3 mile floating bridge which he ordered to be built from impounded merchant vessels weighted down with sand and tied together across the Bay of Bauli so that he could gallop back and forth across it. It seems that his reign started comparatively normally but after just a few months in the job he suffered a serious illness which left him unhinged and he spent the rest of his life displaying his worst tendencies, including outright cruelty to others (including members of the Senate) and a series of brazen affairs. It was during that latter period that he became famous for the phrase “Remember that I have the right to do anything to anybody”. In an empire with a lack of checks and balances, he did things simply because he could do them and get away with them.
History never precisely repeats itself, but there are often parallels. Appointing a brother and a whole batch of cronies to the House of Lords isn’t the same as appointing a horse to the Senate, for instance, although the bits about impractical bridges and brazen affairs do strike a certain chord. Suffering a serious illness after a few months in post also rings a bell, although I wouldn’t argue that Covid-19 was responsible for the PM’s unhinging, not least because the evidence for a fully hinged prior state is somewhat lacking. But the most obvious parallel is the apparently untrammelled power to appoint whoever he wishes to the legislature, whether they’re suitable or not, with little control over the process. The parallel which is so far sadly missing is the presence of a Praetorian Guard, even if, in these more enlightened times, a political rather than a literal assassination would suffice.

Monday 3 August 2020

Truth is not on the agenda

The Lib Dems seem to find it hard to keep up at the best of times, but last week’s call for the resumption of 10 Downing Street’s daily press briefings “to provide clearer guidance” about the pandemic rather spectacularly misses the point. They’re right, of course, to identify that people “have been left confused by the mixed messaging” in recent months, and also when they say that it is “crucial that the government learns from these mistakes”. But it’s a very big jump from a completely reasonable diagnosis to a proposed cure which involves a PM who has spent the last four months in a state of confusion, and who has entirely deliberately spread confusing and mixed messages, being given more air time to continue the process. We certainly do need more clarity and more precise facts but the suggestion that we’re going to get any of that from the current occupant of Number 10 displays a touching, if rather naïve, belief that a congenital liar is capable of changing, even if he wanted to do so. Daily briefings by the scientific experts unencumbered by any political presence might help, but I find it hard to believe that the government would stand back and allow their own untrammelled and fact-free optimism to be undermined by anything as banal as truth and honesty. When faced with a government which claims, albeit with the self-satisfied smirk which the PM seems unable ever to remove from his visage, that 60,000 deaths is a world-beating triumph, the chances of getting clear and unequivocal messaging approximates to zero. If the Lib Dems want to start introducing clarity into political debate, they might do better to start by looking at their own truth-bending election graphs. That’s an area where they could actually have some influence on events.

Saturday 1 August 2020

Tories and logic

Two days ago, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives resigned suddenly declaring that he wasn’t the right man for the job, just six months after being elected to it. There has been wide speculation that he was pushed by London rather than falling, presumably because he was widely seen as ineffective. The Tories seem to have read that part correctly at least. The opinion polls indicate that support for both the SNP and independence is rising and becoming more solid in Scotland, and that there is deep antipathy towards Boris Johnson amongst Conservative voters in Scotland (let alone amongst non-Conservative voters). Check, and check again – two more probably correct readings of the situation.
There’s just one part that I don’t understand, and that’s this – what was the discussion and logic that led the Scottish Conservatives to throw their elected leader overboard at the behest of said unpopular figure with a view to installing – without anything so grubby as an election – a man hand-picked for the role by the same deeply unpopular PM?  I’m obviously missing the logical connection which explains how the way to deal with the perception that Johnson’s unpopularity is leading towards electoral disaster is to be seen to be doing exactly what he wants. Panic does funny things to logic, I suppose.