Wednesday 30 September 2020

What is it with Liz Truss and cheese?


Let me start with a full and frank disclosure: I like cheese, and I eat more cheese than is good for me. I am not, however, obsessed with cheese in the way that the International Trade Secretary seems to be. One of her early forays into the comedy circuit world of international trade was her infamous speech at a Tory Party conference in 2016, which (because it’s always worth another watch) is available here. As she makes clear, “That. Is. A. Dis-grace.” Although the disgrace in this speech isn’t really much to do with cheese imports.

Last month, she hailed the new trade deal with Japan, which more or less replicates the deal we previously had as part of the EU. The deal nearly foundered, however, on the vexed question of the Japanese desire for Stilton. Or rather, the lack of such a desire - their desire to eat it didn’t entirely match Truss’ desire to sell it to them. However, an eventual concession by the Japanese now allows the UK to sell them as much Stilton as the Japanese want, although there is, of course, no known mechanism in any trade deal to ensure that people want a product which they regard as being rather odd.

And earlier this month, Truss has dismissed all concerns about a trade deal with the US allowing in hormone-fed cattle or chlorinated chicken by arguing that the deal actually has more to do with shipping ‘artisan cheeses’ across the Atlantic. It’s a statement that demonstrates that her understanding of the dairy industry (to the extent that she has one) far outstrips her understanding of US trade priorities.

Now I don’t want to underestimate the importance of the dairy industry to those who work in it; and its importance is obviously greater here in Wales than it is in the UK as a whole. But cheese accounts for around a third of all dairy produce, which amounts to about 16.9% of agricultural GDP in the UK, which in turn amounts to around 0.61% of UK GDP. Simple mathematics shows us that cheese therefore accounts for around 0.03% of UK GDP. Anyone who believes that a marginal increase in exports in such a small element of such a small sector is going to make up for a Brexit-led slump in trade is either mathematically challenged, or else has been eating too much of the wrong cheeses. Trying to spot the silver lining, at least it's a step forward from one of her predecessors who apparently thought that the UK’s trade would be saved by ‘innovative jam’.

Tuesday 29 September 2020

With 'friends' like these...


I’d really like to believe that the gist of this story isn’t true. The problem is that the idea that the PM would implement measures to control the pandemic which are wholly inadequate, which he knows to be wholly inadequate, and which go against the scientific advice he’s received purely in order to avoid losing his Chancellor is completely credible. Given that his sole motivation in most things is what’s good for Boris Johnson, and that he can read as well as anyone else the stories that his own stock with his party is going down whilst Sunak’s is rising, letting the Chancellor loose on the backbenches is one of the last things that he wants. Tying the Chancellor in to his own sinking ship is a much better strategy – from his perspective at least.

The source of the story seems to be one of those ‘anonymous senior Tories’, in this case, a supporter of Sunak who is trying to present the message that Sunak has saved the economy whereas Johnson would otherwise have sunk it.  The irony is that the next few months are likely to show just how big a disaster Sunak’s handling of the Exchequer has been. Jobless totals are going to rise as the furlough scheme comes to an end and the replacement scheme effectively incentivises employers to sack half their staff rather than carry on in the hope the jobs will still exist post-pandemic. With hundreds, probably thousands, of companies likely to be tipped over the edge as an intentional result of government policies, and the pending Brexit chaos still to hit, a large number of chickens are going to be returning to their roosts. The irony is that Sunak’s chances of succeeding Johnson would probably be better if he found some great issue of principle which would enable him to return to the backbenches before all this happens. With ‘friends’ like the Tory briefing on his behalf, he hardly needs enemies.

Monday 28 September 2020

Will they be coming for the socialists next?


The guidance for schools which the UK government published last week applies only to England, but that doesn’t mean that it should be of no concern to us here in Wales. Whilst the specific issue (relating to the curriculum) is a devolved matter, the current government has amply demonstrated recently that it is no respecter of such boundaries; but the even bigger concern for us should be that the attitude behind their move leaks across into other areas of policy and legislation. The inclusion of the word ‘capitalism’ when they label any “… publicly stated desire to abolish or overthrow democracy, capitalism, or to end free and fair elections” as an ‘extreme political stance’ is another dangerous step towards authoritarianism. It is hard to see how any teaching of modern history, politics, or economics can exclude any mention of any alternatives to the capitalist economic model; the desire to produce students who only know about one particular ideology, and one particular type of economy, is the sort of thing we generally associate with states such as North Korea rather than a European democracy. Arguing, in the same paragraph, for the protection of free speech is also the sort of nonsense we would expect from such a regime; what they mean is that we have the freedom to say whatever we are permitted to say, a rather limited definition of the word ‘freedom’.

It’s a short step from labelling anticapitalism as an extreme view to banning those arguing for an alternative to capitalism from participating in debate or political activity. It’s another short step from banning mention of alternatives in schools to banning it in universities, or to devising programmes such as Prevent to ‘re-educate’ those who do not conform. We have already seen attempts to label supporters of Extinction Rebellion as terrorists; it’s all too easy to see how socialists might be added to the list. It is increasingly clear that those at the heart of the current government have a strong authoritarian streak, view the masses as people to be instructed and controlled rather than citizens, and want to impose their view of the world on society as a whole. One of the lessons of history is that freedoms do not usually disappear all at once, and authoritarianism doesn’t appear overnight – both things happen in a series of small steps; by the time people realise where that series of small steps has taken them, it’s already become a big leap and is too late to reverse. I’m not sure that the current PM knows or understands any of this – he seems to be ideology-free, have no patience with or interest in the details, and be a generally lazy and incompetent individual whose core belief revolves around only himself and his desire to be PM. He’s little more than a bumbling and occasionally funny (although that’s wearing very thin) front man for the real ideologues, not all of them holding elected office. But being a willing tool just makes him more, rather than less, dangerous.

Friday 25 September 2020

Doing the math


The government’s cunning plan to stop lorries at the Kent border after January 1st is clearly an effective way of preventing an ever-growing queue in Kent. The government’s own estimates suggest that the queue could contain 7,000 lorries, and at around 50+ feet long (and in single file) that would easily lead to a 60+ mile long queue. Given that the M20 along which most of them would be travelling is only about 50 miles long, even the most mathematically challenged minister (and that’s a tough competition) could understand why action needed to be taken. I can’t help wondering, though, how long it will be before any of them realise that swapping a 60 mile queue in Kent for two 30 mile queues at the Kent border (one in Surrey, the other in Essex) might not be as comprehensive a solution as they seem to be assuming? I suppose that the 117-mile-long M25 could turn out to be a cheaper lorry park than some of those being proposed.

Thursday 24 September 2020

Drawing lines on maps

A very, very long time ago, as far back as July 2020, a certain Jacob Rees-Mogg took great delight in mocking the suggestion from an SNP MP that there might be circumstances in which diverging pandemic policy led to a wish to close the Scottish border. Oh, how droll he was in his suggestion that the SNP wanted to demand documentation from people crossing what he saw as a wholly imaginary border between two districts or areas of the same country. And how the Tory MPs behind him laughed, or would have done had they not been banned from the chamber by social distancing rules. Virtual laughter counts, I suppose. “A border,” he said, “is something that you may stop people crossing”. “Even I,” he added, “am not suggesting that we make people from Gloucestershire present their passports before coming into Somerset.”

Not for the first time, events have made a fool of him. (Not that he needs events to do that; he generally manages to accomplish the same end rather well without them.) It turns out that governments can create borders anywhere they want to, even around what they see as ‘districts’ or ‘areas’. Who’d have thought it? The government of which he has somehow accidentally become a part has been forced to admit this week that it will be implementing border controls for entry into that well-known foreign country, Kent, and demanding that some people present proper documentation before being allowed to cross. In fairness, the Tory party has some form on the distinctiveness of Kent – I seem to remember a certain E. Heath stating that he fully understood Welsh and Scottish aspirations, speaking as “a man of Kent”. (Although, apparently, for true Kentish folk, there is a clear distinction between being a Man of Kent and a Kentish Man; perhaps there’s scope for a further border across the county as well?) I do hope that the SNP won’t attempt to make fun of Jake like he did of them. Revenge is a bad look; besides, he doesn’t really need their help at all.

Wednesday 23 September 2020

Employing the definite article


Given his lawyerly background, and his careful use of language in his increasingly pointless weekly attempts to ask questions of a PM who deliberately avoids answering any of them, it is reasonable to suppose that when Keir Starmer chooses a particular word or phrase, he does so with care and thought. So, when his speech to the Labour Party’s conference was widely billed as him wrapping himself in the flag, it’s reasonable to suppose that the use of the definite article before the word flag is entirely deliberate. It’s also revealing.

‘The’ flag to which he refers and which was prominently displayed behind him as he spoke is, of course, the union flag, but it’s a flag whose power to unite is far from universal. In Northern Ireland, it’s deeply divisive. Revered as a totemic symbol by the half of the population which will never support Labour, and hated by the half more likely to vote for Labour’s partner party, the SDLP, wrapping himself in it seems hardly likely to attract much support there. But then, Northern Ireland’s voters are unimportant to Labour which chooses not to stand there. The situation in Scotland is rapidly heading in the same direction; the die-hard unionists unlikely ever to vote Labour may applaud his ‘patriotism’, but for the rest of the population – including, according to some polls, many traditional Labour supporters – it seems unlikely to do more than confirm Labour’s downward slide. But then, Scotland’s voters are increasingly a lost cause for Labour; perhaps they’ve been written off too. In Wales, the situation is more complex. There are some firm unionists, of course – but they’re more likely to vote Tory than Labour. And there are some of us who regard Y Ddraig Goch as the only flag of Wales, but we are still in a minority. My own assessment (and I’ll admit this is based on experience and anecdote rather than hard numbers, but I’m pretty confident in its accuracy) is that the majority here are more ambivalent, regarding both flags as having some salience as an expression of their nationality. If that's so, then demanding loyalty to only one of those doesn’t immediately strike me as the best way to enhance Labour’s standing in Wales. Perhaps they are simply taking Wales for granted – as usual. But all this means that it is, effectively, only in England where there is anything approaching unanimity over the question of whether the union flag represents them, and even there, there is a growing movement towards using the cross of St George. In essence, therefore, Labour’s appeal is pitched predominantly at English, or Anglo-British, nationalist feeling, without really taking account of the consequences elsewhere. It’s strangely at odds with his stated aim that, “we must once again be the party of the whole United Kingdom. The party of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland” (a statement which, in itself, skates over the fact that the party has never even attempted to represent Northern Ireland). It’s English exceptionalism and superiority at its best. Or worst, depending on your viewpoint.

It wasn’t the only use of the definite article which struck me, though. He also said that he wanted the UK to be “the best country to grow up in and the best country to grow old in”. Note again the use of the definite article. For any country to be ‘the’ best necessarily requires that every other country be worse. Socialism, this is not. Internationalists not only want their own country to do well, they want to help others to reach the same level. It’s only a nationalist who want his or her own country to be regarded as ‘the’ best. He may not have gone quite as far in his jingoism as the current PM, who demands that everyone agrees that the UK actually is ‘the best’ when it patently is not, but the difference between someone who wants to make it so and someone who merely wants everyone to believe that it is so is one of detail and delivery, not of political philosophy. What Starmer has shown us is that the difference between Labour and Tory, when it comes to English nationalism and exceptionalism, is minor. Perhaps we should be grateful for that demonstration.

I won’t lay this next one directly on Starmer himself; it’s not something which his speech actually referred to, but it’s of a piece with his message. In response to the speech Baroness Chakrabati suggested that, amongst the things in which British patriots should take pride was the English language. It is again an Anglo-centric view of the world (and in this case, even of the UK itself). It’s true, of course, that English has become the lingua franca of the world, but taking pride in that fact without recognising the reality of how it happened displays a certain blindness to history. The language wasn’t something generously shared with the world community, it reached its dominance through a process of imposition and dominance; it involved cultural genocide enforced by waves of colonialism and at the point of a gun. The clock cannot be turned back, and the cultural dominance of one language is certainly beneficial to those of us able to speak it fluently, but pride in the process of imperialism which achieved that position doesn’t seem wholly appropriate to me. It is, though, the position to which ‘patriotism’ of the not-nationalist-at-all Anglo-British variety so often leads.

Tuesday 22 September 2020

Coping with the truth


This week’s story about Boris Johnson’s alleged weekend trip to Italy turns out to be fake news. It seems that a PR person at the airport simply got a bit confused between Boris Johnson and Tony Blair. Easily done, I suppose, although not exactly something which is likely to make either of them feel flattered. The story rapidly gained currency, partly because it came from what appeared to be a reputable source, namely the airport’s PR office. It was also entirely believable that Johnson would just go off for a weekend in the middle of a crisis, and that he would lie about it afterwards.  After months of non-stop lies, Downing Street’s immediate denial probably did more to boost the story’s credibility than to undermine it. I suspect that an awful lot of people in some sense wanted to believe it, anyway – as a sort of confirmation of their view of the man’s character, unreliability, and dishonesty.

Today’s shock headlines should really read “Downing Street caught out telling the truth”; that’s surely the most newsworthy part of the story. How will he ever live it down?

Monday 21 September 2020

Which is the worst form of oppression?


Last week, Nation.Cymru published an opinion piece discussing the need for the Welsh Independence Movement to understand and reflect the realities of historical racism in its words and actions. There is much in the article with which I agree, particularly the implicit idea that it is difficult for those of us who have not experienced – either personally or in our own family histories – direct discrimination and oppression based on the colour of our skin. And although the people and resources of Wales have historically been exploited for the benefit of others, and the native language has been subjected to a sustained attempt at cultural genocide, we have not been enslaved or traded; the Welsh experience of colonialism has not been the same as that of non-Europeans. It’s far too easy for us when discussing Welsh history to concentrate on what was done to us, and ignore the role that some Welsh people played in the imperial project – and, yes, in the slave trade as well. I think that I can understand how people from different perspectives and histories can look at the same events and attitudes and interpret them differently, and, of course, I accept that drawing an equivalence between the oppression of a language and the enslavement of people is a very poor one; the two things are of a different nature and on a different scale.

And yet… after reading the article, I was unconvinced about some of the assumptions and conclusions.

The idea that the ‘independence movement’ is somehow a single entity which needs as a whole to accept the criticism and change before being acceptable struck me as a strange one. The reality is more complex than that. Whilst I might wish that every independentista agreed with my view on everything, I know it isn’t going to happen any time soon. There are people who are part of the broad ‘movement’ who are members of different organisations and parties with some very divergent views – is the whole really invalidated by the very existence of some of the parts? I think not. There is – and should be – a debate between different perspectives, and that debate (which I hope will bring people around to a healthier consensus over time) is an inherent and essential part of the process of seeking independence and building a different kind of nation. It cannot and should not be a precondition for moving the process forward.

To refer to a specific example discussed in the article, whilst I can understand how the fact that a member of the royal family has married a woman of mixed race can be interpreted as an acceptance, at the highest levels of British society, of people of different races (and therefore something to celebrate), is it really somehow racist for a republican independentista to oppose yet another royal wedding, and all the associated union jackery? It felt like a demand to rank two different principles which are in no meaningful sense opposed to each other at all. And that, in a way, brings me to my most fundamental concern about the piece. There are different forms and degrees of oppression and discrimination, but placing them into contention and trying to establish some sort of pecking order is unnecessarily divisive. Ultimately that plays into the hands of those who seek neither racial equality nor Welsh independence. Those of us independentistas who come from a particular racial background have much to learn and understand from those of other backgrounds. However great they may feel, our own injustices aren’t the only ones in the world, or even here in Wales. Incorporating that understanding into our own view of the world will take longer for some than for others, but doing so will strengthen us and help to build a better Wales in the end. No-one should expect that process to stall because not everyone is yet in the same position.

Thursday 17 September 2020

Upholding their principles


Is the Conservative and Unionist Party, to give it its full title, a Marxist organisation? It was, after all, Marx (albeit Groucho rather than Karl) who came up with the line “Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others”. Perhaps that’s unfair, given that it’s more likely that most of them wouldn’t recognise a principle if it bit them, an attitude personified by their current leader. Apparently the ‘principle’ about which a number of them were getting rather exercised just a few days ago (that the UK government should not break international law) wasn’t quite what it seemed to be. According to the agreement reached with a group who were entirely unjustly labelled as ‘rebels’ (a more accurate term might be ‘patsies’), it turns out that the ‘principle’ is merely that a majority of MPs should be whipped into voting to break the law before it happens rather than waiting to be whipped into approving it after the event. And in exchange for this ‘concession’ from the government (which ensures that the MPs are complicit in committing the crime rather than merely agreeing to ignore it after the event), they have agreed to change the law first to make sure that the Government’s decision can’t subsequently be challenged in domestic courts.

As ‘negotiations’ go, it reminds me rather of the trade unionist who had to tell his members that he hadn’t been able to get them a pay rise and had in fact had been forced to accept a pay cut on their behalf. The good news, though, was that he’d got it backdated. In this case, instead of preventing the government from breaking international law, the useful idiots (as Lenin might have called them) have agreed to make it easier for the government to do so without challenge, and have even agreed to accept the blame themselves. That’s a ‘principle’ the like of which has rarely been seen before.

Monday 14 September 2020

Are we there yet? How do we know?


Yesterday, Prof Richard Murphy posted an article claiming that, by any reasonable analysis, the UK now has a fascist government. He’s not the only one to have suggested something similar recently. One of the problems with the word ‘fascist’ is that is has become a term of political abuse applied to those of a general ‘right-wing’ bent which has largely stripped it of any hard meaning, such that labelling the government as such isn’t necessarily helpful. It’s very difficult to define what fascism is, as this lengthy piece demonstrates, because people who are regarded as ‘fascists’ in the past seem to have had a wide variety of different beliefs, and those beliefs weren’t fixed either.

What we can say is that there are certain common elements of states which we have historically labelled as fascist. Amongst those are a belief in the superiority of one nation or group, an authoritarian approach which seeks to subordinate law and the judiciary to the executive, over-riding parliamentary democracy, control of information, and demonisation of ‘others’. All of those are currently in evidence in the UK to an increasing extent. Another common characteristic is the ‘strong leader’ taking on the role of ‘national saviour’, but in fairness I doubt that anyone would put Boris Johnson in that category. He may harbour his own delusions here, but he isn’t an electrifying speaker and doesn’t possess any clear or consistent message to promote, even if he were capable of articulating it. He’s emerged as more of an incoherent bumbler than even his biggest enemies suspected would be the case. Perhaps the ‘strong leader’ is not such a requirement after all if the leader has the right people around him; there’s plenty of evidence that Cummings believes in the natural genetic superiority of some people (mostly himself) and that the bigger the lies, the more they’ll be believed.

It is, though, the trajectory rather than the current state which is the more important. The demonising of immigrants is nothing new, but the attacks on the judiciary and the stated objective of exempting the government from any form of accountability in the courts are new, as is the wilful contempt of international agreements. Labelling solicitors doing their jobs and protecting their clients under the laws of the land as ‘activist lawyers’ shows a disregard for the rights of individuals, as does the proposal to opt out of the human rights convention. Perhaps the most insidious of all is the way in which the public are not only increasingly inured to abrupt policy changes, usually announced outside parliament and without consultation, but also encouraged to buy in to an aggressive and punitive attitude towards those who don’t conform to whatever the latest rules are (unless those not conforming are in any way part of the government, of course).

One thing which history does teach us is that authoritarian regimes don’t always suddenly come to power overnight: there’s a process involved. And when there are a series of small changes, it becomes easier to accept each one individually and impossible to know when a point of no return has been reached. This was summed up rather well, I thought, by an unnamed Tory MP and ex-Minister who said that he has a speech resigning the Tory whip written and ready in his top drawer and that his colleagues are waiting for some sort of ‘final battle’ with Cummings adding, “But history shows there isn’t one final battle. It’s a series of capitulations.” That ‘series of capitulations’ on issues which are seemingly individually small is the biggest danger to what remains of our freedom and democracy. The only people who can halt the process at the moment are the Tory MPs in the House of Commons. It is said that there might be 20-30 Tory MPs prepared to vote against the proposal to breach international law; but with 365 Tory MP’s in the Commons, that would still mean that there are more than 320 prepared to vote in favour of international lawlessness, a fact which even traditional Conservatives now outside politics find hard to believe. Either those 320 have fully bought into the process themselves, or else they’ve already made too many capitulations to be able to stop. I’d like to believe that there are more honest and reasonable people in the Tory ranks, but – in another characteristic of an authoritarian regime – Johnson has already purged them. If a deliberate act of lawlessness isn’t enough to flush out those with reservations, it is hard to see what might be.

Friday 11 September 2020

The start of hostilities?


It is, and always has been, true that any signatory to an international treaty or agreement can decide unilaterally to repudiate that treaty and walk away from any responsibility it has under such a treaty. In that sense, it is entirely lawful for the UK parliament to rip up the Withdrawal Agreement which was signed just a few short months ago. But what is not true is that one party to an agreement can unilaterally repudiate parts of such a treaty and expect other signatories to abide by what remains. It’s a corollary of the EU mantra, ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’: once one part is disagreed, everything is disagreed. Claiming, as the UK government has done, that the UK parliament has the sovereign right to reject part of an agreement after signing it may be ‘true’ in terms of domestic law, but that sovereignty does not extend to obliging the other parties to continue to abide by their side of the bargain. Under the doctrine now being promulgated by Downing Street, no international treaty would be worth the paper it was written on if any country could unilaterally opt out of any bits it doesn’t like whenever the whim takes it. Unless, of course (and I don’t rule this out in the case of the current occupant of Number 10) one believes that the UK is so special that it has rights which don’t extend to other countries. After all, constitutionally, the sovereign power of Westminster comes from the monarch, to whom it was granted by god, not by the people.

The obvious retaliatory move by the EU27 would be to impose a hard border on the Republic’s side on the isle of Ireland. Indeed, if they want to preserve the integrity of the Single Market, it’s hard to see how they can avoid doing so. The UK can – and presumably will – decide not to have border posts on its side, and allow all goods straight in. (Although, under WTO rules relating to ‘most favoured nation’, doing that in the absence of a trade agreement means that they have to allow the same access for goods from all other countries in the world, unless they intend that their first act as a member of the WTO is to breach those rules as well. I suppose that’s something else that can’t be ruled out.) Perhaps forcing the EU to create a hard border is part of the game plan – I can already hear them saying “We never wanted this – it’s those wicked Europeans doing this”. It’s just possible that, in the circumstances, such a border might not provoke a return to violence: the extreme unionists on the one hand will be pleased that their status as an integral part of the union is being protected, and the extreme republicans on the other may be less willing to attack Irish/EU border infrastructure than they would be if the border posts were British. It’s a gamble, though – and not just in terms of potential violent responses: it might also push more people towards supporting reunification in Ireland.

Failure to establish controls at the border in the absence of controls between the two islands inevitably risks the integrity of the Single Market, and I don’t rule out the possibility that, insofar as there is a cunning plan here, it is precisely that. The Brexiteers have long believed that Brexit would bring down the whole EU edifice (indeed, Farage has often said – including, according to a recent report, in a meeting with Barnier - that “the EU will not exist after Brexit”). The ‘logic’ of Brexit was always the destruction of the EU – being just outside a large bloc like the EU never made sense. They expected that Brexit would start a stampede, but to date it’s had the opposite effect as other countries gaze on in stunned amazement. From that perspective, the proposed repudiation of parts of the Withdrawal Agreement makes eminent sense. But the EU would be entirely correct in interpreting it as a hostile act by an aggressive neighbour. Things look set to get a great deal worse.

Thursday 10 September 2020

Understanding risk


One of the reasons why ruling classes remain in power – at almost all times and in almost all places – is that they are good at deflecting blame. One of the most obvious recent examples is the way in which so many have fallen for the lie that housing shortages or NHS waiting lists are the fault of immigrants rather than being indicative of a systemic failure by successive governments to properly provide for the population of the country. Another is the idea that the poorest – those on benefits, especially – are somehow to blame for their own misfortune, rather than a system which prioritises the protection and accumulation of the wealth of the minority.

I fear that we’re seeing another example in the way that some groups are being scapegoated for the rise in coronavirus cases. That’s not to deny that some people are thinking only of themselves, or being reckless in ignoring guidelines, but the desire of so many to stigmatise others and demand ever greater punishments for transgressions is a very effective way of diverting attention from the incompetence of those who’ve got us into such a mess in the first place. And, without seeking to excuse the transgressors (who must, of course, take some responsibility for their own actions), concentrating on them is letting the decision-takers off the hook.

It’s understandable that people look at guidance from government and see inconsistencies and illogicalities. Why, for instance, is it considered ‘safe’ for a year group of 30 to interact in school, but ‘unsafe’ for 10 of that same group to hold a party in a house? The truth, of course, is that neither is ‘safe’, and governments (both in Wales and in London) have been misleading us when they claim that one of them is. There are risks in both cases, but increasing the level of social contact increases the level of risk, and those who do both are thus more likely to help spread the virus. Governments have prioritised work and education (whether that’s right or wrong is another question), and the policies are effectively based on a judgement that allowing both of those adds enough (probably more than enough) risk of spread, so that other types of social mixing still need to be controlled. But instead of treating the population like adults, they have simply issued dictats wrongly claiming that some activities are ‘safer’ than others. The result is that what people hear is ‘because I say so’ rather than a reasoned argument. Couple that with a government which both takes a cavalier approach to obeying the law itself and overlooks obvious and repeated transgressions by its own members, and why wouldn’t some people start to believe that the rules are ‘open to interpretation’ in ways that suit themselves? It’s a rational response.

With a new virus circulating to which there is, as yet, no vaccine or cure, and to which some people show no symptoms despite being infectious, then ALL social contact is potentially a risk of spread. But it’s also true (as the deniers point out) that ALL human activity inherently carries a level of risk, whether there is a pandemic or not. The question which arises is a simple one to ask but an extremely difficult one to answer: what level of risk are we willing to run, individually and collectively? That is the question facing ministers and, every time that they decide which activities to allow or disallow, they are taking a risk with an unknown number of lives. Instead of being honest with the population and having a sensible conversation about risks and consequences, they resort to wild and inaccurate claims that everything they are doing is ‘safe’. It isn’t. It’s a difficult conversation to hold, but to put it bluntly just how much disruption to everyday lives of the many is one life worth? It’s a utilitarian question, but I suspect that the answer which many would give in the abstract would be rather different if they knew that the one life was their own, or that of someone close to them.

Telling young people not to kill their granny, as the English Health Minister did this week, is a complete cop-out. What we need is not more scapegoating and evasion but a more honest conversation about risk. Expecting an honest conversation didn’t ought to be a risible proposition.

Wednesday 9 September 2020

The power has always been theirs not ours

It’s hard to understand why devolutionists are getting so upset about proposed Westminster legislation ‘undermining’ the devolution settlement by taking back powers from the Senedd and exercising them in London. This is, after all, the nature of devolution. Powers were only ever loaned to Wales; the whole existence of the elected legislature in Cardiff depends not on the will of the people of Wales but on the whim of the parliament in Westminster. This is what supporters of devolution sold us, even if it doesn’t match the label that they placed on the tin. Power devolved is, always was, and always will be power retained. There is one and only one practical way of entrenching the power of the Senedd and that is through independence. An independent Wales could (and should, although that’s an argument for another time) discuss with its neighbours both on this and nearby islands and on the European mainland how and when to pool some of its powers, but the only way of legislating for them not to be simply taken away by someone else is through securing the full formal title to them in the first place. Devolution has never been a legal stepping-stone to independence, it has always been merely a means of securing some rights to divergence and self-rule within the greater whole, and the centre has always had the power to undo it.
Whether that which is legally and constitutionally acceptable is also politically acceptable is ultimately down to the people of Wales. Whilst de jure sovereignty may reside elsewhere, we can make de facto sovereignty reside here any time we want by voting for politicians committed to bringing that about. Spoiler: they won’t be devolutionists.
On the substance of the power grab, it is entirely true, of course, that having a common set of rules is key to the working of the UK’s internal market; the issue is whether the way to ensure that commonality is via discussion or imposition. It is clear that the UK Government is starting from the viewpoint that it is unwilling to discuss anything with the devolved administrations and wishes to simply impose its own view. I really liked the comment by our not-so-beloved Secretary of State, Simon Hart, who said “Our trade takes place overwhelmingly with the rest of the UK and it is vital that it continues to be seamless, safeguarding thousands of Welsh jobs. For all parts of the UK to grow and thrive, products, ideas and investment must continue to flow unhindered”. Well yes, indeed. Substitute the UK for Wales and the EU for the UK and you have the classic argument in favour of the EU single market and customs union. In fairness, though, there is a common thread here, and it’s about that business of seeking agreement. The UK is leaving the EU because the English nationalists in charge are unwilling to be in any way constrained by having to agree common trading rules with other EU states, and it is centralising powers over internal trading rules because the same people are unwilling to be in any way constrained by having to seek agreement with the other nations in the UK. It leaves them having to argue both that the internal UK market cannot work without a common set of rules and that the EU are being unreasonable in not allowing the UK full access to the Single Market whilst reserving the right to set its own rules unilaterally. It’s neither logical not consistent but is the result of an exceptionalist view of the world which assumes the compliance of ‘others’ – a compliance which is simply not going to be forthcoming.

Tuesday 8 September 2020

Can the state choose winners anyway?

One of the issues at the heart of the failing trade talks with the EU is the question of state aid to industries. It’s a long-standing myth that the EU forbids such aid; it does not, it merely insists that all member states follow a common set of rules so that no member state can give an unfair competitive advantage to companies based in its territory. And that ‘level playing field’ is a key precondition of allowing tariff and quota-free trade across borders. Despite the way in which the Brexiteers have presented the issue, the EU is not, as I understand it, insisting that the UK abide by the precise same set of rules, merely that the rules are sufficiently equivalent that they do not confer an unfair advantage. The obstacle in the talks is that the UK a) is unwilling to share its proposed new rules, and b) takes the position that allowing the EU any oversight of such rules is an infringement of absolute UK sovereignty. The second point is undoubtedly true; absolute sovereignty is necessarily restricted by any requirement to agree changes to any rules with a trading partner, but that does rather overlook the fact that the same will be true of any trade agreement with any country or bloc. All trade agreements involve some degree of common rule-setting and any party which then unilaterally changes the rules (which is what the UK is insisting it has the right to do) can expect the other party or parties to retaliate by restricting trade in affected goods or services.
The first point is the more curious one. It’s possible that the UK’s reluctance to share its proposals is simply down to the fact that the government doesn’t itself have a clue about any proposed new regime. Given the levels of incompetence shown to date on other issues, that is certainly a strong possibility. Another suggestion is that there will be no strategy other than responding to events and opportunities as and when they arise. Again, the ‘seat of the pants’ approach to government which we’ve seen to date makes it impossible to rule that out. What is certain is that no sensible trading partner is going to sign up to a tariff and quota free agreement with a state which insists that it can unilaterally start giving out subsidies on a whim. 
Tom Peck suggests that “The Brexit we appear to be gearing up to receive is one which liberates Dominic Cummings to invest vast amounts of public money in risky tech start-ups; this was always the entire point of Brexit”, and that Cummings believes that “ the future, only countries at the forefront of the fourth industrial revolution will be able to shape the future”. It’s a credible suggestion, and if that’s the aim, no-one should be surprised if the rest of Europe is unwilling to conclude a trade agreement with a country using state aid in pursuit of dominating the technologies on which they all depend. There are, however three problems with such an approach, regardless of the EU's attitude towards it.
The first is that it depends on Cummings and his ilk being better at identifying winners and losers than anyone else. The only person who believes in his omniscience is the man himself, but there is no credible evidence to back it up. And, as Richard Murphy points out here, the idea that the state is best placed to pick winners is complete anathema to traditional Conservatives in any event. It’s also contradicted by decades of experience.
The second is that, although the ‘UK’ has a very good record in science and technology, many of the scientists and technologists working in the UK are either themselves non-UK citizens or else are working in collaboration with international teams. Whilst the government ‘bigs up’ developments achieved in UK universities, for instance, it seems to overlook the underlying international nature of many of those achievements. Making it more difficult for the UK to attract EU citizens and cutting the UK off from some significant sources of collaborative funding don’t look like decisions that a country which seeks to be at the forefront of technology would take.
The third is simply one of size. China, with a population of 1.4 billion, could put 60 million people (equivalent to the entire population of the UK) to work in the same fields, and even if they were only 10% as effective, they would still achieve more. The idea that a small offshore European island can ever compete with that is a silly one; the only way that the UK can hope to compete is in co-operation with others.
And that brings us to the heart of what Brexit is about. The world’s past was all about competition and rivalry; the future, with issues such as climate change to deal with, has to be about co-operation and teamwork. The EU is a far-from-perfect vehicle, but at its heart is the idea that countries which competed with, and fought, each other in the past can build a better future by acting together. Brexit, on the other hand, is based on reviving old rivalries and conflicts, to the ultimate detriment of all.

Monday 7 September 2020

Consequences are for others

An election slogan used by the Democrats in the 1960 Presidential Election between Nixon and Kennedy is probably one of the most striking I’ve ever seen. Using a picture of Nixon looking even more devious than usual, it simply asked “Would YOU buy a used car from this man?”. It turned out that quite a few would; although Kennedy won a large majority in the electoral college, he only defeated Nixon very narrowly in the popular vote – less than 0.2%. It also turned out that Nixon was even more devious and dishonest than those devising the slogan had ever imagined, although that only became obvious after he won at his second attempt in 1968.
Today’s news that the PM is proposing legislation which will unilaterally over-ride the Withdrawal Agreement which they signed just a few short months ago must inevitably make the EU27 ask themselves whether they’d even buy a new car from this man. They’ve been incredibly patient with him – many people would not even bother to negotiate with someone whose word simply cannot be trusted. It’s not as if they weren’t warned – even before signing up to controls over the movement of goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, Johnson repeatedly asserted that his government would implement no such controls, yet the EU were still willing to sign a formal international treaty on the basis that the PM of a previously reputable country like the UK would not simply renege on it. No-one can argue that the character defects of a man who has a demonstrably distant relationship with fact and truth haven’t been entirely obvious for many years.
However, if there’s one thing that Johnson’s personal life experiences have taught him it is that dishonesty pays. He may have been sacked twice for lying and dismissed as Foreign Secretary for not being any good at the job, but somehow he’s always bounced back; not only have there been no long term consequences for him as a result of his actions, he’s actually gained from them. From his perspective, consequences are for other people. I don’t know whether Nixon had a similar mindset when he authorised unlawful activities, but he was eventually forced out. But although the current government was elected on a minority of the popular vote, a distorted and undemocratic voting system has given Johnson a safe majority. Safe, that is, until enough people in his own party develop enough of a spine to put a stop to the dishonesty. It’s not looking imminent. In the meantime, Johnson is right about one thing – consequences are, indeed, for other people. And that means most of us.

Friday 4 September 2020

Opposition fear aids government's ideologues

Between the plans to end the furlough scheme and the proposal that banks should force into bankruptcy any company that is unable to repay its Covid-19 related loans, the estimate that there will be only 3 million unemployed in the UK by the end of the year looks like an increasingly optimistic scenario. The Chancellor is actually right to argue that the government cannot and should not protect all jobs for ever, and even right when he argues that some of the jobs where people have been furloughed no longer exist in any meaningful sense. We have zombie jobs in zombie companies, no doubt at all. What he does not know – and can’t know – is which jobs those are. Neither he nor anyone else can know with any degree of certainty which companies (and therefore jobs) will no longer be viable in a post-Covid world. What that means is that the actions he is taking (or in the case of refusing to extend furlough, not taking) will kill not only those companies which are no longer going to be viable, but many others which could potentially remain viable. Trying to force people back into work before the demand for the goods and services which they provide has recovered is another element of an overall policy which seems designed to maximise rather than minimise the numbers of jobs lost. His insistence that tax rises and/or spending cuts will be necessary because of the size of the deficit – an insistence based on dogma and ideology rather than economic necessity – will also add to the toll of jobs.
In that context, the suggestion gaining some support in Tory ranks that the pension age should be increased to 75 is the complete reverse of what is needed. What the economy needs is for demand to recover, and that means not only that the pandemic is seen to be under control, but also that people have both the confidence and the financial wherewithal to spend. Increasing the rate of bankruptcies and joblessness and delaying the pay out of pensions all have precisely the reverse effect. If, on the other hand, the state pension were to be doubled (which would bring it up from the bottom of the world’s developed economies and closer to the average) and the pension age reduced to 60 at the same time, the effects would be very different. Nobody would (or should) be forced to retire at 60, but many of those about to lose their jobs would then have the financial security to be able to make that choice if they wished. That would reduce the number of people seeking jobs (and therefore improve the chances that those looking for jobs might find them), and give more people the confidence to spend, thereby boosting demand and potentially creating more jobs.
It won’t happen, of course. Not because it can’t happen; the government could implement such a policy tomorrow if it wished to do so. One thing that the pandemic has demonstrated is that a government which enjoys a sufficient degree of monetary sovereignty can do almost anything up to the point at which its spending causes inflation. No, it won’t happen because too many politicians, from multiple parties, have invested too much effort and credibility over too long a period promoting the myth that deficits are inherently bad and that governments must balance the books, just like households. What that means is that the scale of the recession, the level of corporate bankruptcy, the numbers of unemployed people, and the level of relative poverty are all deliberate political choices being made by the UK government. Worse, they are being implicitly supported by the official opposition which lacks the courage or ability to point out the fallacy in the household analogy. Opposition politicians who are afraid to challenge because they fear the ‘how will you pay for it?’ question are almost as much to blame as those implementing the policies, because they are perpetuating a myth which serves only the wealthy and powerful.

Thursday 3 September 2020

There will be no 'new' union

A number of Unionists have been suggesting recently that the ‘Union’ should be reformed in some way, on the basis of an understanding (which I think entirely correct) that the current situation is not going to last for much longer and the choice facing the UK is reform or collapse. Amongst them this week was the ever-thoughtful David Melding MS. Unlike many others who are proposing changes, Melding does at least touch on the how as well as the what, with his reference to a referendum. I can’t help feeling that most of the others, when talking about a new Act of Union defining the relationship between the parts of the UK, are assuming that the Westminster parliament can simply pass such an Act and it would then come into force. In strict legal terms, they may be right, but any new Act of Union which does not have the consent, both individually and collectively, of the participating nations will not solve the perceived problem.
The Union with Wales is the exception: it never involved any consent, it was simply an incorporation of Wales into England. But the Union with Scotland was implemented by resolution of the parliaments of both countries acting separately. (Northern Ireland, as ever, is a rather more complicated situation.) It is entirely possible that a new Act of Union would pass though Westminster with majority support from MPs in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (the latter aided by the fact that most nationalist MPs don’t take their seats), but I can see no electoral outcome in Scotland in anything like the near term (Melding expects the union to end before the end of the decade without reform) which will lead to a majority of Scottish MPs supporting such a new Act. What then? Imposition on the basis of a majority in Westminster does nothing to resolve anything. Indeed, it would serve only to highlight the problem with the current situation.
Melding suggests that Boris Johnson should call a referendum in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland on the terms of an alternative model at the same time as the second Scottish independence referendum. It’s an interesting suggestion, but it throws up a number of potential problems. If Scotland were to vote against independence but hadn’t been part of the referendum on the new form of the union, where does that leave them? Alternatively, if Scotland votes for independence, might that not change the dynamic in both Wales and Northern Ireland, meaning that the result of a referendum held at the same time might look rather different than the result of a referendum held at a later date? After all, the 'union' would look very different in the different scenarios. And then – the really big question – what if Wales, Northern Ireland, or even both, voted in a different way to England – how is the result then decided? Is a rejection of the new alternative to be interpreted as a vote for retaining the status quo or for something different again? Any serious attempt at designing a ‘new’ union must involve the freely given consent of all the parties to it; by its very nature it thus recognises the sovereignty of the different nations to enter freely into union or not.
That, of course, is one of the reasons why it won’t happen. Outside a thoughtful few who really do understand the need for change, the prevailing view amongst unionists is that there’s nothing wrong with the current arrangements, it’s just the whingeing Celtic fringes who are unable to understand that they owe everything to generous and civilising rule from London. That’s why the biggest threat to the union comes from the unionists themselves. And, fortunately, they’re mostly beyond help.