Friday 30 October 2020

A Covid surge wouldn't be the best Christmas present


Wales’ First Minister has supported the idea that the four administrations within the UK should develop a common set of rules governing the Christmas period. The idea seems to have started with the Lib Dems (which ought to be surprising given that they claim to be the party of federalism, both in internal party matters and for the UK as a matter of policy: federal freedom for each administration to make its own decisions as long as they all make the same decision seems more than a little odd). Whatever, in principle, the idea is sensible; but then keeping the four administrations aligned would have been sensible throughout, if only one of the four hadn’t decided that it was going to make rogue and reckless decisions and expect the others to follow.

And that brings us to the problem with the proposal – how do we decide which set of rules suits all four administrations if the position in relation to the virus is different? Minimising the premature loss of life would suggest that the common regulations should be as stringent as those set by the worst-placed administration at the time, whilst maximising opportunities for family gatherings would suggest that they should be set according to the needs of the best-placed administration at the time. In practice, though, we know that one of the four administrations – the biggest – will simply set its rules and expect the others to follow. Their idea of a negotiated agreement looks more like the dictation practice which I remember from my school days.

There’s still two months to go and a lot could change in that time, but, as things stand, falling in line with England doesn’t look like the smartest idea either Mark Drakeford or the Lib Dems have ever had. With its lackadaisical approach to taking action, England is currently suffering the worst surge anywhere in the UK. One study estimates that the number of infections has now reached 100,000 per day, and is doubling every 9 days – a rate of progress which would see a million infections per day by the end of November if more drastic action is not taken. Official figures are unlikely ever to record that sort of level – to record a million positives per day would require doing several millions of tests per day, well beyond any foreseeable capacity. Long before then, they will reach a point in England where most cases are simply going undetected.

Perhaps Johnson will come to his senses and act before England gets to that point, although his current stubbornness isn’t a good sign. It looks, rather, as though he’s resorted to a policy of herd immunity by inactivity. With a population of 56 million in England and a rate of infection of 1 million a day by the end of November, the number of people infected by Christmas would exceed the threshold (believed to be somewhere between 60 and 80%) at which herd immunity (if contracting the virus actually delivers immunity at all – currently a very large unknown) kicks in; there’d be few people left to infect. It’s no longer inconceivable that that is the deliberate policy of the English government. Any vaccine would be too late to have any impact.

There are two major problems with a policy of herd immunity. The first is that big unknown mentioned above – does contracting the virus actually deliver immunity at all, and if so, for how long? The second is that – and this is something that advocates of herd immunity aren’t very forthcoming about – pursuing such a policy in the absence of a vaccine necessarily results in a substantial number of premature deaths. That’s the way nature works; the vulnerable succumb and those that are left are those who withstood the onslaught. It’s not easy to put a precise number on it, of course, and numbers are very impersonal and abstract in any event: we're dealing with real people and real families here. Early indications were that around 1% of those contracting the virus died of it. Assuming that only 60% of 56 million are infected before the spread of the virus is checked, that would result in around 336,000 premature deaths. If the rate of 1% has been overstated because of undetected infections, and if we now know enough about treating patients to be able to reduce the death rate, then even if those two factors halved the number of premature deaths, we’d still be looking at reaching a total of 168,000 – more than an extra 100,000 from where we are today – in England over a period of a few months. And that's using the optimistic assumptions set out above  other scenarios are calculable.

I find it hard – extremely hard – to believe that even the current English government would seriously opt for such a policy, but their actions to date are not very reassuring. If they haven’t formally opted for that approach, they seem to be drifting into it almost by accident and paralysis. So, whilst I agree in principle with Drakeford about having a common approach over Christmas, Wales should be extremely wary about committing to following England (which is what it effectively means) unless and until the English government changes course. Otherwise, we’ll just be opening the gates once again and the pain of the current lockdown will have been wasted.

Thursday 29 October 2020

Using sterling would tie the hands of an independent state


Yesterday, Nation.Cymru carried a piece by John Ball on currency and budgets, in which he argued for the continued use of sterling by an independent Wales. I’ve known John for many years, and there are many things on which we agree – but the continued use of sterling after independence isn’t one of them. Much of the detail of the piece is unarguable: using sterling is an entirely practical way forward, it makes the transition easier, and the importance of the psychology of currency continuity is something which should not be underestimated. He rightly dismisses the ludicrous suggestions by unionists that Wales would or could somehow be prevented from using the pound if we chose to do so, although doing so by agreement in some sort of currency union would be preferable. My objection, though, is rather more fundamental that practicality and psychology.

In simple terms, a country with its own currency and whose debt is denominated in its own currency has more freedom over economic policy than a country without a currency of its own and/or whose debt is denominated wholly or largely in someone else’s currency. The former can never go bankrupt for one thing, whilst the latter can – and it can be forced into bankruptcy by others. There is a widespread misunderstanding about the way in which the UK government has funded its response to the pandemic, with the media and many politicians talking about a huge increase in borrowing, likely to reach £300 billion this year alone. Whilst it’s true that the deficit (the gap between income and expenditure) is likely to reach or even exceed £300 billion this year, it is not true to say that that has been funded by borrowing. In fact, as Richard Murphy points out here, whilst the deficit has increased, the debt has gone down. The UK has funded its response to the pandemic entirely by the creation of new money. That is an option which would not be open to an independent Wales using someone else’s money – we would have had no choice but to borrow any necessary funds, probably mostly from lenders outside Wales.

That’s a specific example of the problem, but my objection goes wider, to the whole objective of economic policy. The objective of the Bank of England (as set out in the remit given to it by the government, underlining that BoE ‘independence’ isn’t all it seems) is to maintain inflation at or around 2%, whilst the government has set itself a target of ‘balancing the books’. The first is highly arbitrary and the second is a policy choice, but both are based, ultimately, on protecting the value of private wealth. The ‘cost’ of those policies is seen in an acceptance of a permanent level of unemployment of around 3-5% and the use of austerity measures as and when necessary, including – in the case of the current government – to enable the otherwise unnecessary cancellation of the extra money which they have created. A different government could set an alternative goal of achieving full employment by spending whatever is necessary to achieve that end and using taxation (targeted as appropriate on the basis of the social goals of the government) to rein in any inflation which full employment might cause. In this context, my point is a very simple one – using sterling outsources that decision to the English government in London and effectively mandates the current neo-liberal approach to fiscal discipline, whereas with a new Welsh currency we can take the decision ourselves. And since, for me, setting different priorities – governing in the interests of the many rather than the few, to coin a phrase – is a significant part of the point of independence, the decision is a very straightforward one.

Currency is a very thorny issue for independentistas, that much is clear. The SNP has got itself into a very deep hole on the issue by advocating the use of sterling, although the debate is still raging within the party. There’s a good and lengthy critique of the SNP approach on Open Democracy; everything that applies to Scotland also applies to Wales. I know that, for some independentistas, having an independent Welsh state which broadly follows current economic orthodoxy with a Welsh slant would be enough, even if it looks like just a timid first step to others. For some it’s a political question – tactics, even – about whether the best way to persuade Wales to choose independence is to minimise the impact of that independence so that it looks like a soft and safe option, or to present a vision which emphasises how different things could be. I’ve always been in the latter camp; I’ve never seen independence as a dry constitutional issue but as a means to an end. Merely replicating Westminster in Cardiff just doesn’t do it for me.

Wednesday 28 October 2020

Giving us some of our own money isn't generosity


The ‘Welsh’ Conservatives have this week issued a little digital poster claiming that “Wales has received more than £4 billion from the UK Government to tackle COVID-19”, and labelled it in large letters as “FACT”. When is a fact not a fact? One answer to that is ‘when Boris Johnson says it’ of course, but another is ‘when it’s a distortion of the truth’. And distortion is being kind in this case.

What they actually mean is that the UK Treasury (a treasury which, as its name suggests, is supposed to serve the whole UK) has magicked large sums of new money into existence through its wholly-owned subsidiary, the Bank of England, and has spent that money across the UK. In the case of Wales, it has passed part of Wales’ share of that money across to the Welsh Government to spend. Nothing particularly remarkable or generous about that, nothing that Wales couldn’t have done itself with the financial powers of an independent country. A more accurate message would be “UK Government passes part of Wales’ share of UK’s new money to Welsh Government”, but it doesn’t have quite the same ring of supplicant and master to it.

It’s interesting, not to say revealing, that they see the UK Government as something outside of and apart from Wales which voluntarily opts to give Wales something which we wouldn’t otherwise get. It’s an attitude which demonstrates why the union is, ultimately, doomed.

Tuesday 27 October 2020

Saving the precious union


It was reported yesterday that the UK government is setting up a dedicated ‘union unit’, headed by Michael Gove, to battle Scottish independence and promote the union. Leaving aside the obvious point that if the answer is Michael Gove then someone is asking the wrong question, it seems that the main functions of this new unit will be to ‘explain the advantages’ of the union and brand everything with the union flag. The first will be a struggle, given that the only advantage that they can usually come up with is that the union has made Scotland so poor that they can’t imagine how it could possibly afford to be independent, and the second is likely to be counterproductive.

The idea that the union could be saved is not an entirely lost cause however; Wales’ First Minister has today talked about the sort of changes that could save the union. Whilst I’m not convinced that saving the union is a worthwhile objective in any event, I can see how turning the existing union into what Drakeford describes as “… authentically a voluntary association of nations where sovereignty is held by each nation and then pooled for common purposes” could work if it could be brought into existence. I just don’t see how, in practical terms, it could come about. It implies that the central Westminster government formally acknowledges, once and for all, the sovereignty of the people of Wales and Scotland, and renounces any right to legislate in any area where those countries have not formally agreed to share sovereignty. Technically, I don’t see how that can be achieved without a formal written constitution because any other arrangement falls foul of the absolute principle underpinning Westminster government that nothing any parliament does can ever bind its successors. But more important than the technical issue, I don’t see any possibility that a Conservative government would ever renounce Westminster’s sovereignty in such a fashion, and nor do I see any likelihood that Drakeford will be able to persuade either the current or any other foreseeable leader of his own party to renounce Westminster’s sovereignty either. The most practical route to implement Drakeford’s suggestion is for Wales and Scotland to become independent one day and then immediately agree to share and pool in specified areas, and Drakeford looks unlikely to follow through the logic of his position to that point.

The bigger question with which I struggle is why the union is so precious in the first place. Why are politicians so attached to a structure which was created over 300 years ago to meet the perceived exigencies of the day, as though what was felt to be ‘right’ at that point in time is necessarily and forever ‘right’ in all succeeding circumstances? For those in Wales who have fallen for the myth of ‘too small, too poor, too stupid’, I can understand why they might fear any alternative, but what’s in it for England? After all, if it’s true that Wales and Scotland are a huge financial burden on England, why go to so much effort to frustrate the independence movements? Let’s not forget that ‘sending £350 million a week to Brussels’ (even if it wasn’t true) was one of the motivations for Brexit; it ought to be a surprise that politicians who plugged that line are arguing that they should continue to ‘send £millions a week to Cardiff and Edinburgh’ (even though that isn’t true either) rather than supporting the national movements.

It’s hardly about votes either. We know that English voters are largely ambivalent at best about maintaining the union, and that amongst Brexiteer supporters of the current government there’s a clear majority in favour of getting rid of Wales and Scotland if it makes their purist Brexit easier. I’ve heard unionists waxing lyrical about ‘shared history’ (to say nothing of ‘the war’) and ‘cross-border families’ as though the first means that the past must necessarily determine the future and as though the second will somehow disappear just because a decision is taken to govern these islands in a different way. I’ve also heard (loud and clear!) the nonsense about ‘you can’t survive without us’, but I’ve never heard a cogent, reasoned argument as to why the union is or should be so precious.

It could just be that innate form of conservatism shared by both the Tories and the Labour Party, that inability to conceive of doing some things differently. It could be a fear that the UK (or, rather, England in this context) would be diminished in the world, although it’s hard to believe that architects of Brexit could seriously be worried about that. Maybe it just threatens their own sense of identity in some way. One thing about which we can be certain is that it isn’t about altruism or concern for the people of Wales and Scotland. One has only to glance very briefly at people like Gove and Johnson to know that.

Monday 26 October 2020

How can we be so ungrateful?


The fact that GDP per head is lower in some parts of the UK than in others is not inevitable. It is not an accident, nor is it the consequence of mysterious uncontrollable forces, it is the result of a seriously unbalanced economic system which sucks talent and economic activity to the ‘centre’ and concentrates administrative and government activity there as well, impoverishing the periphery in relative terms as it does so. London and the South East of England haven’t become richer than the rest of the UK solely on the basis of their own abilities and actions, they have done so as a result of London-centric government, and it isn’t just Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland which have paid the price, it is also large swathes of northern England. The fact that it isn’t a result of the special economic talents of the residents of one small corner hasn’t stopped them from claiming that it is, and that the rest of us are relatively poorer due to our own failings. Far too many have believed them, but the biggest problem is that they’ve also convinced themselves that the wealth which they’ve accumulated at our expense belongs to them and them alone.

Toby Young may be an extreme case (as he is on most things), but his complaint that the Welsh and Scottish people are showing a lack of gratitude for what he sees as the ‘subsidies’ which the South East provide is an open expression of an attitude which lies behind the words and actions of the current UK government from the PM down. It’s true that there is a degree of fiscal transfer from the centre back to the periphery, but whether this is generosity personified or a grudging return of just part of that which was sucked out by an unbalanced economy in the first place is entirely a matter of interpretation. It’s a big gulf in perspectives; what he sees as ingratitude can also be seen as a complaint that those outside the centre haven’t all gone full Stockholm Syndrome.

An important feature of that particular type of English nationalist who denies being a nationalist at all is the idea of superiority. They don’t simply believe themselves superior, they ‘know’ it to be true, and the refusal of others to accept their superiority merely confirms the truth of it. It’s a belief which, it seems, nothing can dent. The loss of Empire was down to the folly of lesser people believing that they could ever govern themselves; the failure of the EU to give the UK everything it asked for just shows that the Europeans don’t know what’s good for them; and demands for independence from Wales and Scotland simply prove that the people making those demands are fundamentally stupid. But the real stupidity for Wales and Scotland is the degree to which we readily accept that view of ourselves.

Saturday 24 October 2020

Taking the right decisions


On the whole, Mark Drakeford has come out rather well for his handling of the pandemic in Wales, with his clear, open, and honest attempts to do what’s right to protect public health and to explain what he’s doing and why. That’s not to say he’s got everything right or that he should be immune from criticism for some of the details, but compared with the bumble and bluster of our next door neighbour he has, quite rightly, enjoyed a large degree of popular support. And I’m sure that, looking at what’s happening over the border, moving to a second lockdown before things get completely out of control is better than the English approach of doing too little, too late. I’m not alone in suspecting that Johnson will be forced to follow suit eventually, but will preside over many more hospitalisations and deaths before that happens. Until that happens, Drakeford may be facing a bit of a bumpy ride from some quarters, asking why something is OK on one side of the border but not on the other. But the ‘Welsh’ Conservatives should be a bit more careful about criticising Drakeford – their words may well come back to haunt them.

The logic of making a distinction between essential and non-essential goods is clear enough. He’s not saying that buying food is safe whilst buying electrical goods, for instance, is not; it’s more a question of trying to ensure that as few people as possible make as few shopping trips as possible, and keep those visits as short as possible – it’s that reduction in contact which will have the required effect, not what people buy when they go into a shop. It might have been better had he explained it simply in those terms. His point about trying to be fair to the smaller shops which can’t open at all by not allowing the supermarkets to hoover up all their custom is also fair and logical, although it rather overlooks the fact that companies like Amazon fill the gap and that both the smaller shops and the supermarkets lose as a result. On-line purchases are better from a disease control point of view than shop purchases, but he may not be doing as much to protect those smaller retailers as he might wish to believe. Another problem is that the definition of ‘essential’ is not at all as straightforward as it appears. Different people in different circumstances will have different needs, and a blanket categorisation doesn’t allow for that.

Sometimes logic isn’t enough or, rather, a different kind of logic needs to be applied. Allowing supermarkets to sell anything and everything that they currently sell would, no doubt, carry a higher level of risk of the disease spreading than curtailing the range of goods sold. But there might be a benefit overall in controlling the spread if it maintained a greater buy-in from the public at large – losing that support carries a real danger as well. It’s a tough call, and somebody has to make it. I’m not entirely convinced that Drakeford has got this one right, but it’s easy for those of us not faced with the decision to criticise it. The thought that up to an extra 1,000 people could die between now and the end of the year if he gets it wrong is clearly weighing heavily on his mind. We should be grateful for that, given the insouciance with which the UK’s PM seems to regard the lives of the old and vulnerable.

Friday 23 October 2020

World-beating at what?


The first time that I came across Vilfredo Pareto and his eponymous principle was some 40 years ago in the context of a computer system managing the stocks of spare parts for repairing appliances. In this application, the 80/20 rule tells us that by holding the right 20% of all possible spare parts close to the point of use, 80% of faults could be repaired without having to order parts in. The savings in stock holding costs are significant – the hardest part is identifying which 20% need to be stocked, and that’s where the computer came in. In some ways, the principle can be thought of as a mathematical representation of the law of diminishing returns.

The 80/20 rule isn’t a precise law, but it’s a pretty accurate and highly useful rule of thumb which applies in many other spheres as well – like contact tracing, for example. Whether it was part of the thinking behind the 80% target set for the outsourced track and trace service in England is unclear, but its benefits to the outsourcer are very, very clear: the costs of achieving an 80% target are likely to be around 20% of the costs of achieving a 100% target. The graph between cost and target isn’t linear, but it rises only slowly up to about the 80% mark after which it rises sharply. I worked in outsourcing for a while, and experience suggests that anyone who wanted to maximise the profit margin on any service would choose an achievement target of around 80%; it’s a ‘sweet spot’ for the balance between cost and reward. If I could get away with no penalties for under-achievement as well, I’d think I was in outsourcers’ heaven. Fair play, the test, track and trace system may be an operational disaster having only a marginal impact on control of the pandemic, but no-one can criticise the outsourcers’ negotiation skills.

As for the government’s negotiation skills, on the other hand … the words generally attributed to PT Barnum spring to mind. As far as we know, Chris Grayling had no hand in this contract, but his spirit certainly lives on in government. They have an ideological commitment (and if ideology isn’t enough, an occasional political donation tends to help) to the idea that the private sector will always do better than the public sector, where ‘better’ is taken to mean ‘lower cost’ or, as they would prefer to phrase it ‘better value for money’. Sometimes it’s even true; the profit motive can indeed encourage a focus on costs and waste which an annual budget-setting approach does not. But often it isn’t true – apparent savings are just a mirage, a pretty picture hiding an approach based on corner-cutting and under-achievement with an approach to charging for change management which quickly devours those apparent savings in the initial price. One thing that the private sector is undoubtedly better at than the public sector is writing and negotiating contracts. It helps when those with whom they are negotiating are predisposed to believe whatever the outsourcers say. When the government refers to the service as world-beating, they are not lying completely, they are just referring to the profit margins rather than the service delivery.

Thursday 22 October 2020

Cutting pensions to repay imaginary debt?


The media have been busy this week pointing to what they describe in terms such as ‘record levels of borrowing’, following the announcement that the UK Treasury deficit hit £36bn for the month of September, and is now estimated to be around £300bn for the year. The figures for the deficit (£36bn and £300bn) are right enough, but the straight line from those to an increase in borrowing is utter tosh. In fact, the UK has borrowed precisely nothing extra this year, not a single penny. It’s even more stark than that – the total UK debt so far this year has actually reduced by £50bn, as Prof Richard Murphy points out here. All the additional expenditure has been financed not by borrowing but by the creation of new money, otherwise known as Quantitative Easing. The idea that this money – created by the Bank of England, a wholly owned subsidiary of the government, and acting on government instruction – is somehow ‘owed’ by the government to the BoE is a convenient book-keeping fiction. This part of the debt is wholly notional because the government, in effect, owes it to itself.

It follows that the stories of doom about needing huge tax rises going forward to ‘pay for’ the response to the pandemic are also nonsense. The government has already ‘paid for’ that response; any decision that tax rises will be necessary (tax adjustments for other purposes such as incentivising some actions and deterring others are a separate matter) at some future date depends not on the costs of the pandemic but primarily on whether the government needs to act to control any inflation which might result – an outcome which looks to be several years in the future at present. So why are these think tanks and pressure groups calling for action to cut spending and/or increase taxation, including once again the old perennial about abolishing the triple lock on pensions?

The answer is not about economics at all; it’s about ideology. Cutting pensions, cutting benefits, and cutting spending are about putting the burden onto the neediest in society, in order to protect the personal wealth of the richest few. They’re about dividing the many against each other by focusing the debate on which services should be cut, which benefits should be cut, and whose pensions should be cut (those with large occupational or personal pensions certainly won’t be greatly affected by the abolition of the triple lock) rather than debating the level of inequality and the means by which wealth has been siphoned away from the many to the few. They’re about trying to create an intergenerational divide by arguing that the interests of the young and the old clash in order to prevent people noticing that the real clash of interests is between the few and the many.

The problem is that it works; that’s why they keep saying it. The idea that a government must balance its books is so seductively ‘obvious’ that people are easily led to believe it; the think tanks promote it, the media support it, and politicians are cowed by it. But one thing that life has taught me is that that which is ‘obvious’ isn’t always true and that which is true isn’t always obvious. In this case, the obvious is most definitely not true; most government run deficits most of the time and debt is rarely repaid. Indeed, the consequences were the government ever to repay all ‘debt’ would be economically disastrous. A widespread recognition of those simple truths would turn debate about government finances in a wholly different direction. That, of course, is something those behind these, often mysteriously funded, think tanks want to avoid at all costs. People need to ask themselves why that would be.

Wednesday 21 October 2020

Would it be the same if we knew their names?


A few years ago, I found myself sitting through a meeting of a scrutiny committee at a local authority as the members were looking for potential savings. The officer leading the discussion took them through the committee's KPIs, of which there were something like 76 (a sure sign of a lack of prioritisation and focus – no-one can seriously manage anything against a list of targets that long). Anyway, the officer pointed out that in some cases, the authority was outperforming its targets and that this had a cost. On one KPI, for instance, the Welsh Government had set a target of 80%, and the authority was achieving 95%. This, said the officer, was an opportunity to save money; by reducing the level of achievement from 95% to 80%, resources could be allocated to other activities with no penalties being imposed. It’s a classic example of how a target which is probably intended to set a minimum level of service ends up setting the maximum as well.

This rule has a more general application. Let's take, as a not-entirely-random example, an outsourced track and trace system in England which has a target of tracing 80% of contacts and telling them to self-isolate. It’s easy to see how a company providing such a service will (if you’re lucky – it really depends on whether there are any downsides to the company from failure) strive to achieve the 80%, but it has no incentive to go beyond that. Indeed, over-performing would lead to extra cost with no extra income, thereby hitting profitability. The public health requirements may well see 80% as a minimum requirement for getting things under control, which is probably why it was set at that level, but the profit motive turns it effortlessly into a maximum. It means, in effect, that England is only even attempting to catch 80% of those infected, and the other 20% (plus any margin by which they don’t even achieve the 80% target) of contacts will be allowed to spread the virus freely.

There are implications for Wales given the long and porous border with England: even if the Welsh system is doing better (and it is, albeit far from perfect), being in an open union with a country which has consciously decided to let the pandemic rip at a rate of about 20% of its potential makes it difficult to control the virus here. A short, sharp lockdown is a reasonable response, and is being widely supported, but its effect will be widely undermined unless the Welsh Government takes the opportunity to work out a longer term way of living with an irresponsible neighbour unwilling to take the necessary steps itself. That should have happened during the last lockdown, but didn’t. I can understand that Drakeford et al might truly not have realised just how irresponsible Johnson and pals would be, but they have been slow to react as that level of irresponsibility has been increasingly revealed. And they are hampered by the lack of powers, particularly financial powers to support people and businesses, a factor which does not fill me with confidence that they will be able to take all the necessary actions after the short lockdown ends, even if they wanted to.

The Tories, perhaps inevitably, have reacted by opposing the lockdown, claiming that the WHO have said that lockdowns merely delay things and are not a solution. This is a deliberate misinterpretation of a rather more nuanced stance by the WHO, and would be more credible if they were offering an alternative approach which didn’t start and end with ‘do as the chief incompetent says’. But even if they were right in saying that a lockdown only delays things, what do they really mean by that?

There has been an estimate (and yes, I know that there are always problems with the accuracy of any estimates) that around 1,000 lives would be lost in Wales between now and the end of the year without the lockdown. In a strict sense, given that human mortality is always 100% eventually, it would be accurate to argue that those deaths are not avoided by a lockdown, merely delayed. (The same is true, incidentally, for all medical interventions for all diseases. No lives are ever truly ‘saved’; they are merely extended.) Treating people as just numbers and statistics makes it easy to forget that these are real people with families and friends: we just don’t know which 1,000 people it would be. But if we did, if we could put names and faces to them, would the Tories still be willing to say to them and their families that it’s better for the economy for them to die before Christmas than after? Because that, ultimately, is what saying that a lockdown ‘only delays’ the spread of the virus actually means.

Drakeford has a weakness in his reluctance to demand sufficient autonomy for Wales to be able to take the necessary steps to protect Wales and her people, but at least he’s not completely heartless as the Tories seem to be.

Tuesday 20 October 2020

When the wind blows...


According to Bloomberg, the Tories are busy preparing a strategy to respond to the growing calls for Scottish independence if the SNP win their predicted large pro-independence majority in the Scottish election next year. However, what some might initially interpret as a long-overdue understanding that simply repeating the word ‘no’ would be counterproductive, the detail of the proposals so far considered suggests precisely the opposite: they have learned nothing and understood less. It’s said that generals always fight the last war, but I’m not sure that the Tories are even as up to date as that.

There are four main elements to their proposed ‘strategy’:

1.    Attempt to persuade the Scots that they should stay by devolving more powers to Holyrood. It sounds a lot like a watered-down version of the infamous ‘Vow’, a promise of greater devolution if the Scots voted ‘no’ on which the UK parties, led by the Tories, promptly reneged after the vote. As cunning plans go, assuming that the Scots will be stupid enough to fall for the same tactic again looks more Baldrick than Machiavelli. And that would be true even if the Scots couldn’t read, in the same article, that many Tories will oppose this route anyway, preferring to reduce rather than enhance the powers of the Scottish parliament.

2.    Get the EU to make it clear that there is no easy route to membership for an independent Scotland. The EU will, of course, play ball with this because… Well, presumably because they really want to go out of their way to provide political support to people who have spent the last four years being obstructive and objectionable and who are trying to undo the whole EU project rather than those who have bought into the European ideal and want to promote it. Yes, I can see how that looks like a sensible approach to English exceptionalists - but not to anyone else. On the cunningness scale it also runs far wide of the goalposts.

3.    To attack the perceived failings of the Scottish government, “making the [SNP] 'pay the price' for running the semi-autonomous administration since 2007”. I’m not going to pretend that the SNP record in a number of fields has been perfect; it has not. But given that at least some of the problems can be laid at the lack of powers (and especially financial powers) devolved to Scotland, and given the patent failings of the UK Government, the words which immediately jump into my mind at the thought of the UK government inviting people to compare its record with that of Scotland are ‘shoot’ and ‘foot’.

4.    To launch a “a hard-hitting, attack-focused” campaign against Sturgeon. Again, I can only wonder at the mindset behind a proposal that what is widely seen to be the most dishonest, corrupt and incompetent government in the modern history of the UK would be taken seriously if it launches a personal attack on the single politician in the whole of the UK who most emerges from the handling of the pandemic with hugely-enhanced credibility.

The one thing that the report showed clearly was that, despite everything, the English ruling class as represented by the English Conservative Party still has an unshakeable conviction in its own innate correctness and inalienable right to rule the whole of the UK (as well as the colonies and dominions which many of them don’t even seem to realise left a long time ago). Years ago, I thought that the rapid loss of the Empire might shift that view, and more recently, I thought that Brexit would convince them that they need to adjust their world view: the UK does not rule the waves and will struggle even to get away with waiving some of the rules. But no, they learn nothing and show no signs of being able to learn either. That’s good news for Scotland – it is, as the proverb says, an ill wind that blows nobody any good. People in Wales need to see which way the wind is blowing as well, there’s no good reason why we shouldn’t also seize the opportunity.

Monday 19 October 2020

Australia, Somalia, and acts of war


Perhaps the PM really believes, as he has said all along, that the EU will eventually back down and give ‘Global Britain’ the penny and the bun, although the idea that he ‘believes’ in anything other than himself stretches credulity somewhat. Perhaps he’s just playing a game in which the thinnest of deals miraculously conjured up at the last minute as a result of UK concessions can be presented as a huge victory, achieved by being resolute.

Back in 2018 he speculated about the idea of having Donald Trump leading the negotiations on behalf of the UK, saying that “There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere.” Note the use of the word ‘might’. Another possibility, therefore, is that, albeit very late in the day, he’s decided to follow the Trump approach after all. It’s an approach which has certainly led to a number of renegotiations of international agreements by the US, but close examination of them suggests that the general rule is that both sides lose. That doesn’t worry Trump at all: as long as the US loses less than the other side, he calls it as a victory. (And even if the US lost more than the other side, he’d lie and declare it a victory anyway.)

More likely than any of those is that Johnson himself doesn’t know what his game plan is because he hasn’t got one; ‘seat of the pants government’ is his default approach. And he’s almost certainly bored with Brexit - he has a notoriously short attention span and no interest at all in the detail. Any suggestion that he has the remotest idea of what ‘Australian terms’ (or as Gavin Esler has suggested, ‘Somalia terms’) means is not credible. There is some speculation that at least some of those around him are starting to wake up to the implications, but the fanatics in his party are almost dancing with joy about the possibility of the UK achieving Somalia status vis-à-vis the EU. And the PM is seriously in hock to the fanatics for putting him where he is; the only rational escape route is to ditch them, make some major concessions to the EU, and rely on Labour votes to get the deal through parliament. It's an approach whose probability must surely be close to zero.

In the meantime, let’s just hope that the idea that people around him will be telling the PM to “…[sink] a bunch of French fishing boats on New Year’s Day” was intended as some sort of joke, because it doesn’t seem entirely beyond the capability of people who would try and sabotage migrant boats with man-made waves, floating walls or fishing nets.

Friday 16 October 2020

Getting to the top of the class


One of the politer descriptions of yesterday’s ‘discussions’ between the UK Government and politicians in Manchester was ‘absolute sh*tshow’, as various details emerged. It seems that the government’s attempts to shift the blame for lockdown restrictions onto local politicians bully local politicians into accepting new restrictions failed mightily when those politicians – including all the city’s Tory MPs – pushed back. It was a strange type of unity with Tories opposing any restrictions on principle (apparently they’d prefer to allow more people to die of Covid than infringe the freedom of others to infect them) and Labour demanding proper financial support for businesses forced to close and their employees, but unity was had nevertheless.

It finally provoked the English Health Secretary into firm decisive action. But not to stop it being a sh*tshow, nor to prevent future sh*tshows from happening. No, instead of either of those things, he announced that he was setting up a leak inquiry, to find out who told the world about this particular sh*tshow. The problem, it seems, is not the government’s numerous and repeated failings, it’s that people are revealing them. We see the same regularly from his leader (a term which can only be applied very loosely to Boris Johnson), when he berates the opposition for drawing attention to the problems instead of wholeheartedly backing the government and taking their share of the blame for government actions. To the world king, the job of the opposition is not to scrutinise, let alone oppose, government actions and policies but to support them enthusiastically and heap world-beating praise upon him.

Meanwhile, the Secretary of State for Wales has thrown his own twopenn’orth into the debate about travel restrictions, claiming that it will cause confusion and division. He seems to be one of those Tories who fully support devolution and the right of the Welsh government to make its own decisions, subject only to the proviso that it makes the same decisions as the English government. I find it hard to see what can possibly be confusing or divisive about a simple requirement that people living in an area of high Covid prevalence subject to restrictions on what they can and can’t do should be temporarily prevented from travelling into an area of low prevalence, potentially carrying the infection with them. It’s what most of us would call ‘common sense’. Then I remembered that we are dealing with a politician who is easily confused. I seem to recall him having some difficulty understanding the difference between Al Qaeda and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. In fairness to Mark Drakeford, drawing up regulations which will not confuse even the wilfully obtuse is an impossible ask.

We do indeed have a world-class government in London at the moment, but it’s in the remedial class. It’s unrealistic to expect any government to be best at everything, so any government has to choose its specialist subject. Incompetence is a very brave choice, but it may not be as daft as it looks. It’s easier to come top if there's less competition.

Thursday 15 October 2020

Drakeford channeling Chamberlain?


There was something very 1939ish about the First Minister’s announcement yesterday that he had sent a final letter to Herr Johnson seeking an undertaking about travel from Covid hotspots, and that, as Chamberlain put it, “I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received…”. Drakeford didn’t go as far as adding that “… and consequently, this country is at war…”, although reading some of the reaction in England one might be forgiven for thinking that he had done. In essence, Drakeford was asking little more than that people in Covid hotspots in England should be subject to the same rules about travel to parts of Wales with a lower prevalence of the virus as people in Wales are. It’s an entirely reasonable and sensible request, but the English nationalists have chosen to interpret it as some sort of attack on them.

It was predictable that the ‘Welsh’ Conservatives would find something to be outraged about, and they have reverted to their customary response about the law being ‘unenforceable’. In the sense that the police don’t have the resources to prevent people from breaking this law, and can’t apprehend everyone who does, they are factually correct. But that position is rather undermined by the fact that the same could be said of burglary (many cases of which don’t even get investigated due to a lack of police resources), and, as far as I’m aware, decriminalising burglary isn’t yet part of the Conservative agenda. (Daylight robbery, on the other hand…). That’s not to gloss over the problem that when an action currently undertaken by many is suddenly criminalised, a limited number of prosecutions and punishments doesn’t immediately stop the criminal activity. The same could be said (and was) about drink driving and failure to wear a seat belt, but what we have seen over time is that criminalising both of those slowly led to a change in social attitudes, and that change in attitudes has probably been more influential over the long term than the threat of apprehension and punishment.

The difficulty in the current case is that we don’t have the ‘long term’ in which that can happen; controlling the spread of the disease requires urgent action now. The most effective way of bringing that about would be through a feeling of social solidarity, a general feeling that we owe it to our fellow citizens to keep them safe rather than simply following our own selfish desires, backed up by the resources to ensure that people are financially able to do the right thing. It would be better if we didn’t need laws and fines to bring about changes in behaviour, but the problem is that the Tories, aided and abetted by New Labour, have spent the last four decades destroying that sense of social solidarity, encouraging selfishness, and purveying the myth that the resources aren’t available. A crisis like the pandemic shows why that solidarity is important – but a four-decade long process can’t be reversed in a few weeks, never mind the days that we have available to us.

It takes a very special kind of crassness and incompetence to turn a mild-mannered Clark Kent look-alike into someone who looks increasingly like an independentista. Unfortunately for Drakeford, the Conservative Party has an apparently inexhaustible stock of crass incompetents; he needs to prepare for much more of the same.

Wednesday 14 October 2020

Fungible MPs


The advert suggesting that ballerinas could retrain as cyber security experts has been widely and justifiably mocked, largely because of the belief that it reveals an underlying attitude by the current government towards the arts in general. But it also highlights two other aspects of the government’s attitude towards the labour market more generally.

The first is a dehumanising ideological belief that people are simply ‘resources’ whose main function is to serve the needs of the labour market, to which end they should be willing to learn whatever skills are required and to move to wherever those skills are required. From that perspective, people’s aspirations should be limited to what the market requires in order to serve the needs of capital (unless, of course, they are part of the capitalist class, in which case other people are there to serve them). The surprising thing is how generally accepted this assumption is, but then getting ‘buy-in’ to an ideological perspective is a highly effective method of controlling the masses by turning them on each other.

The second is the underlying high-level assumption of what economists call ‘fungibility’ – in this case, the ability of an available labour resource to fill a labour vacancy with just a bit of retraining. It’s a hopelessly oversimplistic assumption, but it’s one that many people make regularly. Another example is the assumption that eastern European fruit pickers can be easily replaced from the ranks of the UK unemployed. In the real world, things aren’t that simple; 1,000 vacancies for cyber security experts in Aberdeen can’t easily be filled by 1,000 unemployed ballerinas in Exeter. (Although, in practice, it’s probably easier to retrain ballerinas as cyber security experts than to retrain cyber security experts as ballerinas: adjusting people’s skills and knowledge to turn them into IT experts is considerably more straightforward than adjusting their body shape, gender and physical flexibility to turn them into ballerinas.)

It should be obvious why fungibility is a silly assumption to be making, but I suppose I can understand why it’s one which ministers and MPs might make. After all, there are few occupations in the UK which are more fungible than that of MP. This is a job which requires no special training, no particular skills, and no relevant experience. Anyone can get the job, and the only traditional barriers are membership of the House of Lords, bankruptcy, and insanity (although empirical evidence suggests the last of those is hard to define and impossible to enforce). And people who have been an MP (even those whom the cynical might suggest would be unemployable elsewhere) drift effortlessly into other jobs afterwards. (They assume it’s because of their skills and experience, but generally their list of contacts and assumed ability to open doors are more highly valued by their new employers.) If one’s personal experience suggests that transfer into another role is that easy, why wouldn’t they assume that it’s equally so for everyone else? After all, understanding the real world is another qualification which is not required to become an MP.

Tuesday 13 October 2020

Unshackling our thinking


There was an article published by the Independent yesterday talking about the growth in support for independence in both Wales and Scotland and the way in which the pandemic has impacted this. On the whole, it seemed a reasonable analysis, but it was undermined completely by the uncritical inclusion of this passage: “Neither Cardiff or Edinburgh would have had the finances to support the widely praised furlough scheme, which, so far, has saved hundreds of thousands of jobs”. This is not analysis or comment, it is pure and unadulterated unionist propaganda. Whilst the scheme has indeed received some praise, it has also received a lot of criticism (largely because of the arbitrary cut-offs in both percentage of salary covered and timescales), a point which the words ‘widely praised’ glosses over. But more importantly, what is the basis for stating that “Neither Cardiff nor Edinburgh would have had the finances to support the … scheme”?

It’s true, of course, that neither would have been in any position to support a UK-wide scheme; in that narrow sense, the sentence is factually correct. But they don’t need to – they only need to be able to support the schemes as they relate to Scotland or Wales. It’s also true, of course, that under current powers and budgets they would be unable even to do that; but that’s not what was being posited here. The context is clearly making the unsupported claim that an independent Wales or Scotland would be unable to run such a scheme itself, a claim which is completely without foundation. Given that the UK scheme has been funded by simply creating new money, there is no reason in principle why Scotland or Wales could not do the same on a scale which suits each country, with a couple of important caveats to which I’ll return.

In fact, there’s no reason why they could not do so without the limitation on the period for which the scheme operates or the initial limit of 80% of salary, let alone the current limitation of 67%. These limits, imposed by the Chancellor, are entirely arbitrary, based on a particular ideological view of the world. There is nothing necessary or inevitable about them. What that means is that Wales or Scotland could not only have initiated such schemes themselves, they could have done so without the arbitrary limits, making the schemes better and saving more jobs. Far from us being dependent on the UK Treasury, the Treasury is actually making things worse than they need to be and preventing both Wales and Scotland from taking more radical action.

As I mentioned above, however, there are important caveats. The first is that to be able to create money in this way, a state needs to have its own fiat currency and to be in complete control of that currency. The ‘sterlingisation’ which I understand to be the current policy of the SNP, would be a severe obstacle to this approach and leave Scotland highly dependent on decisions taken elsewhere. In a crisis like this pandemic, it would significantly constrain Scotland’s freedom to do better than London – and it could conceivably make things worse. The other caveat is that spending money into the economy on a larger scale does not cause inflation – but this is not a problem in a period of severe economic contraction where deflation is potentially a bigger danger.

The fact that anyone can repeat the claim about an independent Scotland or Wales being unable to act in the same way as any other independent country with no need to explain or justify it highlights how easily current perspectives can shackle thinking. The biggest obstacle to becoming independent is, in some ways, throwing off those mental shackles, and allowing ourselves to think as people in independent countries would. Not only could we do just as well, we could do considerably better than the ideologically hidebound incompetents currently in charge.

Friday 9 October 2020

Flavours of unionism


Treating the politics of the UK as it affects Wales and Scotland as a division into independentistas and unionists is a vey easy shorthand which too many of us – myself included – tend to fall into. The problem is not that it’s wrong as such – particularly in Scotland where politics has effectively polarised around the question of independence – but that it’s too simplistic to label all opponents of independence as ‘unionists'. In reality, unionists come in different flavours (none of them particularly palatable from my perspective), and support of ‘the union’ isn’t really as uniting a factor as it can seem. That’s one of the reasons why unionists are doing such a hopeless job of putting their case.

There are undoubtedly some people in Wales who genuinely believe that Wales’ best interests are served by remaining part of a greater whole covering all or part of this archipelago. They usually (although not always nor exclusively) see those interests in economic terms. I think their understanding of the economics of independence is deeply flawed, but I don’t see anything unpatriotic about arguing for what they sincerely believe to be in the best interests of Wales. Others argue, equally sincerely, that class and economic relationships are more important than nationality. It’s an argument with which I have a degree of sympathy, but the idea that that solidarity ends at Dover (as at least some of them seem to believe), or that it mandates a particular kind of relationship between the nations of these islands (a belief which seems common to all of them) strikes me as having more to do with nationalism of the Anglo-British variety than with class solidarity.

The biggest problem faced by Welsh unionists, though, is that the unionists in England (and they’re the ones in charge) have an entirely different perspective on the same issue. Many English unionists may use the same language about Wales being too poor to support itself, but the idea that they are driven to maintain the union by some great altruistic wish to help and support Wales is naïve to say the least. My evidence for that statement is simple – they have presided over long term economic decline in Wales in favour of concentrating the UK economy in the South-East of England. They simply haven’t achieved, or even attempted to achieve, that which they say is their objective. So what does drive English unionism? It’s tempting to fall back on the grumbling Welsh narrative of England having land and people to exploit. It’s true, of course, which is part of what makes it so tempting; but it isn’t the whole truth.

Independence for any given geographical area does not, in itself, demand or require any question of national identity. For those of us who believe that sovereignty ultimately derives from and belongs to the people who reside in a particular area, the right of those people to govern themselves as they see fit is, ultimately, entirely for them to decide. The importance of national identity is not about whether people have a right to govern themselves, but about where they choose to draw the lines. Wales isn’t obviously a natural economic unit (and I know that that is not just about geography, it’s also about history and the way communications have developed) but what makes it a suitable unit for self-government is more about the extent to which the people living here define themselves (in a highly subjective process) as being Welsh. It doesn’t follow (as some seem to argue) that we must therefore be independent, but it inevitably forms part of the argument about why we should make that choice.

Not all independentistas see things in such terms, of course. My starting point – that sovereignty ultimately stems from the people – means that I cannot put up a single argument of principle (as opposed to practicality) against, say, a proposition that Ynys Môn should seek independence from Wales. The importance of this point is that those in Wales who raise objections of principle to the idea that Wales could ever be divided in such a way are actually seeing things through exactly the same prism as those British unionists who are so vehemently opposed to Welsh to Scottish independence: because the real driver of unionism is the idea that the UK is a natural and indivisible whole. As is becoming increasingly obvious, they don’t care about the ‘union’ at all, nor about the terms on which it was established (particularly relevant in Scotland). They don’t even see it as a ‘union’ either (although they use the term), they see the UK, rather, as a homogeneous nation-state which emerged from historical processes which are now irrelevant and in which all sovereignty belongs to the centre. There have been a series of articles and comments recently which portray the current government as being cavalier about the union and endangering it by their approach. It’s fair comment, but it fails to understand their perspective.

It’s not even the case that their perspective is wholly wrong or completely misguided – it’s merely dated. It’s a classic example of the way in which ‘institutional wisdom’ (which some might consider an oxymoron) fails to move with the times. Attitudes and beliefs change over time, but institutions struggle to acknowledge that fact. We are left with a UK run by centralist parties (Labour is as bad as the Tories on this) supported by centralist institutions which simply cannot conceive of the possibility that large swathes of opinion in the north and west of ‘their’ territory no longer share their views on what constitutes ‘the nation’, and they assume that changing the presentation and pasting union flags on everything will somehow eliminate any problem. The union is doomed by those who claim to be its supporters. Sooner or later, Welsh unionists will wake up to find that they are not only not on the same page as their leaders in England, they’re not even reading the same book.

Tuesday 6 October 2020

It's about how wealth is distributed


One of the old chestnuts trotted out by the PM in his ‘conference’ speech this morning was that it is the private sector which provides the nation’s wealth. It’s one of those ‘truths’ which many believe but which is, in reality, complete nonsense. The problem is that people who argue that are defining ‘wealth’ in a limited way.

If we define ‘wealth’ as the accumulated value owned by individuals, then there is, indeed, no doubt that that ‘wealth’ has been obtained through the profit-making activities of the private sector. But there are two important caveats to that statement. The first is that increasing private profit does not in itself lead to an increase in the total wealth of a society. In many ways, profit simply redistributes existing wealth from the poorer to the richer. An increase in private wealth, if squirreled away or taken offshore can actually have the effect of reducing the total amount of wealth in a given economy. The second is that one of the biggest customers of the private sector is the public sector itself; without public sector spend, the capacity for making ‘profit’ would be greatly reduced.

The alternative definition of ‘wealth’, and the one preferred by economists, is measured by GDP (or more usually these days GVA), which is ultimately simply a measure of how much money is in the economy and how fast it changes hands. It is a measure which is ‘blind’ to the question of whether the economic activity producing the GDP occurs in the private sector or in the public sector; it really doesn’t matter. There are sufficient historical precedents to demonstrate that GDP (and therefore overall wealth) can and does increase, even if all economic activity is carried out by state agencies and nationalised companies, enough in itself to disprove the PM’s point.

Whether the two alternatives increase wealth with equal efficiency in the use of resources is a rather different question. Whilst there is no obvious or necessary reason why state-run enterprises should be less efficient or profitable than private enterprises, we know from experience in the UK and elsewhere that, in practice, it has generally been the case that they are. There are a number of reasons for that (not least of them being the inclination of politicians and civil servants to attempt to micromanage), but that is a question for another time. The point is, though, that Johnson did not argue that case at all; he argued in black-and-white terms that the public sector does not create wealth.

Whether from ignorance or ideology, the PM clearly identifies ‘wealth’ with that which is owned by wealthy people. They would be his cronies and donors – the sort of people who have been getting contracts from the public sector without even having to go through any sort of competitive tender since his government came to power. It is an ideological position which leads directly to the transfer of assets and resources from those held in common by the state to those held by a few private individuals. It may or may not be an approach which increases the total amount of wealth in an economy, but it is definitely an approach which makes some people wealthier, by transferring such wealth as does exist from the many to the few. In that regard, he is more of a traditional Conservative than some are giving him credit for.

Monday 5 October 2020

Failing to read the Job Description


One of the more complimentary descriptions of the current Secretary of State for Wales that I’ve seen could be paraphrased as ‘affable but impotent’. From the reports this week that he only found out about the asylum-seekers being moved to Penally as a result of comments made on Facebook, he seems not even to have read the job description. The role of the Secretary of State isn’t to be consulted over decisions made by his masters, or even necessarily be informed of them, and I’m surprised that he thought that either of those in any way applied. His job is purely to defend and explain decisions when they eventually become public. To suggest that he needs to understand the decisions or be aware of the thinking behind them in order to do that is to suggest that he should be in a more knowledgeable position than the people making them. If he needs ‘facts’, he should invent them, that’s what the rest of the government do.

Friday 2 October 2020

Finding a way back


When I first saw the story about Priti Patel having considered putting a wave machine in the English Channel to drive dinghies back to France, my instinctive reaction was to check the date, forgetting that under the present UK government April Fool’s Day has become, to coin a phrase, more of a long drawn-out process than an event. The proposal runs against international law, of course. (There are no international waters in the channel; all boats are either in French territory or in UK territory. Attacking them in the former constitutes an act of war, and once they cross into the latter, the UK is legally responsible for their safety.) But, as we have seen, mere legality is no longer an important factor for a rogue state like the UK. It’s one of a number of bizarre proposals to have been considered, including shipping asylum seekers to an island in the South Atlantic, or to Morocco, Moldova, or Papua New Guinea. Why spend a small amount of money on providing people with the basics whilst their asylum applications are processed when we can spend a vast amount of additional money building new facilities and shipping people to far distant places as well as providing those basics? Johnson has always had a bit of a penchant for grands projets (see garden bridges, Boris Island, and implausible bridges) which never come to anything. It’s more to do with image than substance; in this case being seen to be tough on immigrants.

And that brings me to the use of an old army camp at Penally to house asylum seekers. I know Penally reasonably well (during three election campaigns, I reckon to have knocked just about every door in the village), and it is not well-served with facilities able to cope with a sudden unplanned increment in the population. On the other hand, the wider area does cope with a large seasonal increase in population every summer (with the obvious exception of 2020), so it should not be as large a problem as it’s been painted as long as it is properly planned and executed (a wholly unrealistic expectation of Patel and Johnson in itself, of course). I don’t know enough about the conditions at the camp to know whether they’re suitable for the purpose, but reports suggest that they really are not. The bigger question is whether it is, in any event, appropriate to treat people like “cattle in a holding pen” as Nicola Sturgeon put it in response to a suggestion that remote Scottish Islands were also on the list of possible sites for an offshore processing facility. She thinks not, and I entirely agree. It’s dehumanising and inhumane.

Whatever, even if the conditions and facilities were entirely suitable, I suspect that many of those objecting would still do so. And lest anyone think that I’m being unkind to the good citizens of Penally here, I believe that that statement would probably apply to any and every town and village across the UK; people will object to having refugees in their patch and would find other ‘valid reasons’ to oppose it. I’d like to believe that it’s not a majority view, but I have little choice but to accept that it’s the view of a substantial minority at the least. It’s easy enough to blame the politicians who have planted the idea that we should reject refugees (and I do blame them) or the tabloids for stoking anti-immigrant feelings (and, yes, I do blame them as well), but we cannot merely shrug off the fact that a substantial number of our fellow citizens harbour some very dark views when it comes to refugees. They are content, and in some cases even enthusiastic, to see refugees go without the basics, be sent ‘back’ without due process, be separated from society, be demonised, and even, as Sturgeon characterised it, ‘treated like cattle’. That doesn’t reflect well on any of us.

Those dark views, I suspect, are what lies behind the wild proposals floated by Downing Street and the Home Office. And they certainly explain why some of the Tories’ top advisers are delighted about the leak. From their perspective, it gives the impression that the government are serious about ‘cracking down’ on immigration. For their target audience, it’s not something that makes the government look positively deranged, but something which plays to their prejudices. When the ideas are eventually rejected, it won’t be because they are downright silly, impractical, or horrendously costly, it will be because the mythical ‘metropolitan elite’ is frustrating the government’s wish to take firm action and putting obstacles in their way. I don’t know how large the substantial minority to which I referred above actually is, but given that the UK’s distorted electoral system only requires that a party receive the support of 30-35% of the electorate to obtain a clear majority in parliament, we should not underestimate the electoral value to Johnson’s Tories of appealing to that minority.

Deliberately treating a particular group as somehow less than human and undeserving of the same rights as the rest of us carries very unfortunate echoes of the past. That it is being normalised, and that so many of our fellow citizens support it enthusiastically, shows how easily a society can slip into inhumanity, just in case we’d forgotten that lesson from history. We are being led into a very dark place, and the route out is far from clear to me.

Thursday 1 October 2020

Patriotism, scoundrels, and rule-breakers


In his attempt to explain, during PMs Questions last week, why it was that other countries have both a lower death rate from Covid-19 and fewer restrictions, the PM came up with an absolute classic example of the English exceptionalism which is proving so damaging to the whole of the UK. He said, “Actually, there is an important difference between our country and many other countries around the world: our country is a freedom-loving country. If we look at the history of this country over the past 300 years, virtually every advance, from free speech to democracy, has come from this country. It is very difficult to ask the British population uniformly to obey guidelines in the way that is necessary”. I’m not sure which is worse – the possibility that he actually believes any of this, or the possibility that he knows it to be absolute guff and says it anyway.

It is one of the problems of a certain kind of nationalism that those nationalists have a desperate need to believe that their nation is in some way ‘better’ than other nations; claiming that ‘we’ invented virtually everything of value plays to that. I wouldn’t argue against the proposition that the UK has been the home of people – both native-born and immigrants – who have been responsible for a number of major advances (more than average for a country of its size, even) in a range of fields, including science, technology and political philosophy, but most advances are the result of a process of collaboration and synthesis of work done in many places. Ideas feed off each other. However, conflating the genius of particular individuals who happen to reside in one place with the characteristics of a nation is a nonsense – and a dangerous nonsense at that.

To take one specific of his claim, the idea that a state more than half of whose parliamentarians hold their position due to heredity, religious affiliation, or appointment rather than election, and where a governing party can gain an overall majority on around 30-35% of the vote, can be regarded as the ‘inventor’ of democracy is laughable. At best it requires a strange definition of democracy; at worst it’s a deliberate attempt to mislead.

To turn to the more immediately relevant specific, the idea that ‘the British’ love their freedom so much that they can’t be made to follow rules sounds like an attempt to project his own attitude onto the population at large. He certainly has some difficulty getting his own family and advisors to follow rules, but – despite such application of double standards – most of the population were willing, for an extended period, to follow the rules laid down.

He may, though, have accidentally stumbled upon a key point, even if it isn’t the one he thinks it is. There is indeed a key difference between the UK and most of the rest of Europe, and it’s about social solidarity. One of the key elements in getting a population to follow advice willingly and collectively is that they should believe that it is for the common good. That works better in much of Europe that it does here, because in the UK the Tories (aided and abetted by New Labour) have spent four decades promulgating the idea that there is no ‘common good’. People, they have argued, should put their own interests first and look after themselves rather than expecting the state to look after them. Competition, they have told us, is good – there must always be winners and losers, and the losers have only themselves to blame. The problem is not, as Johnson effectively says, that people in the UK (and he largely means England here, of course) are too fond of their freedom to follow rules, it is that they have been drip fed an ideology (by Johnson and his ilk) which encourages them always to ignore the needs of others and pursue their own selfish interests. Against that background, the surprise is not that some have not been following the rules, but that so many have done so.