Monday, 30 November 2020

Half of the Tory backbenchers might not be insane


It is widely known that Dennis Skinner once said in the House of Commons that “Half the Tories opposite are crooks”, and when told by the Speaker to retract, replied that “OK, half the Tories opposite aren’t crooks”. Widely known, but completely false, like many of the most well-known and oft-quoted sayings. Another example is the definition of insanity which Einstein never used, which is that insanity is repeating the same things and expecting different results.

The response amongst Tory MPs to the introduction of the revised tier system in England has varied, but to say that backbenchers are getting restless would be an understatement. When even the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, Graham Brady, is threatening outright revolt, we can be certain that the PM is in a spot of bother, to say the least. (Although Brady’s argument about government restrictions being “a very serious infringement of fundamental human rights” seems to assume that the right of the healthiest in society to infect the most vulnerable at will is more important than the right of the vulnerable to continued life. For most of us, people’s ‘rights’ are in practice contingent on the rights of others.)

Faced with a large-scale revolt, the PM’s response is to make further solemn promises about when restrictions will end, rather similar to the ones he’s consistently broken to date. It’s unclear as yet whether ‘Trust Me’ will be enough to quell the rebellion, but it currently appears unlikely that it will be entirely successful. They do, after all, have direct and repeated experience of his proclivity for sending them out to defend positions which he then reverses – sometimes even while they’re speaking. No doubt, some will decide that loyalty (to say nothing of future career prospects) demands that they fall in line anyway, but given the scale of the revolt, could we be about to see evidence that half the Tory backbenchers are, on the definition which is not Einstein’s, not insane? There are, however, other definitions available, and those who disqualify themselves from one by not repeating the mistake of believing what the PM tells them could still qualify under one of those. The belief that financiers, bankers and lawyers – which many of them are – understand epidemiology better than scientists and doctors is potentially one such definition. Half of them could be insane after all.

Friday, 27 November 2020

Abject drivel is too kind a description


In the light of the Chancellor’s statement earlier this week, there has been a lot of coverage of the scale of the UK’s national debt, with speculation about how and when it is to be repaid. The media have aided and abetted the government’s ideological nonsense about ‘unsustainable’ levels of debt, and the BBC have unquestioningly parroted the same line. Chris Dillow takes the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg to task for her claim that the UK’s credit card is “absolutely maxxed out”, describing it, entirely reasonably, as “the most abject drivel”, before wondering “how can any sentient being utter something so stupid”, and going on to explain why it is so wrong. And Professor Richard Murphy also has a useful short video explaining why government debt is not like a mortgage or credit card.

The BBC compounds its error in this article which purports to ‘explain’ the debt and its consequences, which includes the statement that “This year the Bank [of England] is buying £450bn worth of bonds, which makes it much easier for the government to borrow money”. The problem with that statement is not that it is inaccurate, but that it is only half the story, and it’s the missing half which is important. Anyone who really wanted to understand and explain what was happening here would go on to ask the obvious supplementary question – ‘so where does the BoE get the money to buy those bonds?’. The answer is that it simply creates that money, magicking it into existence by pressing a few keys on a computer at the behest of the government. I understand that it’s counterintuitive to believe that money can just be created at the press of a button, but it is the reality of a fiat currency like sterling. As the Bank is a wholly owned subsidiary of the government, money owed by the government to the BoE is effectively money owed to itself.

As a result of the programme of QE which started with the financial crash in 2008 and has been stepped up during the pandemic, the government now ‘owes’ some £875 billion – or 40% of the total national debt – to itself. It’s nothing more than a book-keeping nicety to describe this as being, in any meaningful sense, ‘debt’. Yet the allure of the comparison with a household’s credit card is so strong, so all-pervasive, that people are willing to swallow it hook, line, and sinker – and tolerate the pain which the government plans to impose on the least well-off in society to repay the debt to itself. ‘Abject drivel’ is far too kind a description for the BBC’s coverage. It would also be an utterly inappropriate label for the claim by politicians that the debt is ‘unsustainable’. Whilst the journalists might merely be suffering from ignorance or a lack of awareness, the politicians are guilty of deliberately misleading in order to promote their own view of the role of the state and the interests of the wealthiest. They must not be allowed to get away with it.

Thursday, 26 November 2020

Maintaining the fiction


Discerning any sense of strategy behind the Chancellor’s increasingly bizarre policy choices is at times a difficult task. Imposing salary constraints on public sector workers in the midst of a pandemic which has shown the value and popularity of those workers is a strangely unpopular thing for a supposedly ‘populist’ government to be doing. It doesn’t even save significant amounts of money  – with inflation likely to be below the 2% target for at least the next 4 years (according to the OBR figures released yesterday), increasing those salaries in line with inflation would cost very little and be much easier to sell as a policy. It would also help to maintain the confidence of some consumers, and hence demand in the economy.

It’s true that spending on the most popular service, the NHS, is to increase, but whether it will increase by enough is another question. It’s almost as though they believe that bandying very large numbers around will impress people and deter them from asking about the detail. Indeed, it’s noticeable that most government announcements start with how much money is being spent as their headline, and tell us little about what we will be getting for the money. For former hedge fund managers, large sums of money may indeed be impressive; for most of us, anything with more than a few zeroes on the end is just a number. The difference between 6 zeroes and 9 is probably meaningless to most voters.

The announcement of a boost to schemes to help people find jobs is one of the most revealing of the policies announced – it underlines the ideological belief that the problem is that people are unwilling or unable to find jobs, rather than that there are no jobs available. Simply investing that same money in retaining existing jobs, or creating new ones, would give a much better and earlier return on investment than training people how to find jobs which don’t currently exist and the supply of which is being deliberately reduced  by government policy.

Perhaps there is, after all, a discernible strategy here. It is about ideology, not economics. In particular it's about maintaining the fiction that governments must balance the books and that ‘someone’ must suffer to achieve that. Not the hedge fund managers or the bankers, of course, however popular that might be. Public sector workers and people dependent on benefits (to say nothing of people living in the poorest countries of the world as a result of cuts to overseas aid) – these are the ones who will have to pay. And they will be paying largely in order to sustain the fiction that there is no alternative. It’s quite a neat trick when you think about it – they will be paying so that the government can convince them that there is no alternative to them paying. Many of them will indeed be convinced as a result, and will continue to vote for those who are making them pay. The government being blessed with an ‘opposition’ whose main disagreement is over the timescale over which the books must be balanced is just a bonus. Maintaining the budgetary fiction means that the long-term trend for wealth to accumulate in greater and greater sums in fewer and fewer hands will continue; and that, ultimately, is the objective of government policy.

Tuesday, 24 November 2020

Fighting the last war?


Generals, so they say, are always preparing to refight the last war. It’s not entirely true, but there is an element of truth to the idea that military attitudes are always shaped to an extent by the last conflict in which they participated. One thing that does seem to hold true, however, is that they always believe that ‘the enemy’ is planning to attack and invade, a belief which justifies their persistent demands for more money and hardware. The current UK government is content to play along with this, at least partly in the mistaken belief that the Scots and the Welsh will understand that they can only be ‘protected’ by remaining part of a state which diverts huge sums into armaments, sums on a scale which Scotland or Wales could never afford.

The nature of this threat to UK territory is rarely elaborated, but generally attributed to Russia or China. Quite why Russia would want to invade the UK (even if the UK’s government wasn’t in the process of turning the country into a basket case) is never spelled out. Russia’s oligarchs find it easier and considerably cheaper to get what they want from the UK by bunging large sums of money at the Conservative Party, and China has no discernible interest in taking over a country more than 4,000 miles away. And if there’s no obvious reason or them to be interested in invading the UK, there is even less reason why they would somehow want to seize on the opportunity provided by independence to invade Scotland or Wales. It’s a form of madness to suggest that they would – and the madness of those in charge of the UK frightens me more than the fantasy of a Chinese invasion of Fishguard.

That’s not to say that there aren’t people (not necessarily states) in the world who want to harm the UK; it’s more about recognising that traditional warfare, whether by air, land or sea isn’t their chosen method, which means that tanks, guns and aircraft won’t help. The ‘inexhaustible’ energy beams which the PM was promoting last week won’t help either (although if they’ve really found an inexhaustible energy supply to power them, there are much better peaceful uses waiting, not to mention a Nobel prize or two and the complete rewriting of physics). Cyber security is more important for our future security than warships or planes, although why we need the predominately offensive capability proposed rather than a merely defensive one is another unanswered question.

But the real question which an increase in military spending doesn’t even attempt to answer is why there are people who want to destroy our society, and whether there are other things that we could do to make ourselves more secure. Not attacking other countries, and not building up an offensive capability to attack other countries might be a good place to start. A rules-based international order in which states agree rules and stick to them is another. Increasing rather than cutting economic aid to poorer countries is a third. It would be naïve to think that there won’t always be alternative world views which seek to impose their views on others, and we will always need a level of protection against that. We’d need rather less protection, though, if the UK wasn’t apparently doing its best at times to recruit more people to their cause.

Monday, 23 November 2020

Skunkflowers and Conservatives


Since Boris Johnson’s party defeated the Conservatives in the last election, the Prime Minister has declared several times that the UK will not be returning to the austerity policies of the wicked Conservatives. He has also repeatedly insisted that there will be no significant tax increases. Meanwhile, his next-door neighbour has been equally insistent that the UK will have to return to a ‘sustainable’ level of debt (something which he is completely unable to define) and ‘repay’ the costs of dealing with the pandemic, and seems to be using that ‘requirement’ to repay debt as his excuse to launch an attack on public sector pay. He argues that this is not austerity at all, which leads to the conclusion that it’s the word that they object to rather than the policy. But a rose would still look and smell like a rose if it were called a skunkflower, as Shakespeare didn’t quite put it.

It certainly is true (and this is one of the excuses used for an attack on public sector pay) that job losses and lost income have impacted the private sector more severely than the public sector during the pandemic, but the consequent suggestion that the solution is to reduce the real income of public sector workers looks more like levelling down than the levelling up which we’re being continually promised. It’s also silly, even in simple economic terms. One of the key factors in ensuring economic recovery in the private sector is to maintain a level of demand in the economy; ensuring that all employees feel equally fearful about their future income levels is counterproductive.

It is also true that the UK’s annual deficit is large and growing, and that is working its way through to what are clearly very high levels of total debt compared to GDP (although the extent of that is somewhat exaggerated by the fall in GDP as a result of the pandemic). But to claim that that must be repaid is to look at only one side of the equation; those to whom the debt is owed are in no great hurry to be repaid and many of them don’t really want to be repaid at all. In the first place, of the approximately £2 trillion total, almost £900 billion of that (approaching half) is owed to the UK Government. Calling it a debt is just an accounting trick perpetrated for political ends. It’s simply not the case that the UK Government is demanding that the UK Government repays this debt urgently, or even at all. And the rest of the debt is what looks to those to whom it is owed like savings or investments, which carry a low level of interest but are entirely secure. If the government insisted on repaying them, what would they do with the money? They’d probably look to reinvest most or all of it, preferably in new government bonds – if not in the UK then elsewhere, hardly something which is going to help economic recovery.

There is no debt crisis, and there is no sign that there will be one any time soon. Politicians who pretend that there is – aided and abetted by the media – are peddling a lie. Controlling public sector wages is based on ideological hostility to the public sector, not on economic necessity. In some ways, Boris Johnson’s new party looks quite a lot like the Conservative Party of old which it replaced, just with more blatantly dishonest spin.

Friday, 20 November 2020

What 'prizes' does he have in mind?


One thing of which we can all often be guilty is a failure to understand a different point of view. It’s easy enough to understand why – but things which are ‘obvious’ to one person are not so to everyone else. But however normal it might be, it’s something which politicians in particular need to be careful about. The current Prime Minister is not only not careful about it, he doesn’t even seem to understand that it can be a problem.

There is no doubt that the boost to ‘defence’ spending announced yesterday will be popular amongst Anglo-British nationalists, and there is also no doubt that there are significant numbers of people in Wales (although perhaps rather less so in Scotland) who fit into that category and will be delighted. But in presenting it as an example of the strength and power of ‘the union’, Johnson seems to have completely missed the point that not everyone thinks that way. Worse, his claim that “If there is one policy that strengthens the UK in every possible sense, it is building more ships for the Royal Navy” is based on an assumption about attitudes to the UK’s grandiose notions which rather overlooks the fact that his target audience isn’t those who are already convinced about the union, but those who are not. And in his usual inept and bumbling fashion, he fails to understand that for those opposed to UK military aggrandisement and adventurism, his announcement will weaken rather than strengthen his case - independence offers a way out of excessive and outdated militarism.

Still, shooting himself in the foot by not understanding that not everyone is going to swell with pride at the announcement of further investment in technology to kill and maim is at one with his cloth-eared approach to most other issues.

There was one phrase in his speech which was worrying to say the least. In talking about modernising the armed forces and giving them new weaponry, skills, and techniques, he said that in the future “…the prizes will go to the swiftest and most agile nations, not necessarily the biggest”. I struggle to assign any meaning to that, and particularly the use of the word ‘prizes’, which does not imply that he sees military power as being a route to extracting something from less powerful or less well-armed states in the world by use, or by threat of use, of force. I suppose we were warned from the outset that the Brexiteers wanted to see Britain as a ‘buccaneering’ (i.e. pirate) state, although many of us assumed that they just meant that they wanted the UK to be a state which declined to follow the rules by which others live.

It’s not mere coincidence that the amount of extra military expenditure bears a similarity to the amount which they have been briefing that they intend to cut from overseas aid. That’s another indication of an intention to switch directly from the use of ‘soft’ power to the use of ‘hard’ power; the commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on aid put the UK among the leading aid givers in the world, and it was in 2015 (under a Conservative-led government, curiously enough) that the UK became the first G7 country to enshrine that commitment in law. The Brexit project has always been about an attempt to turn back the clock, to return to an imagined golden age in which Britannia both ruled the waves and waived the rules. This latest announcement looks like another step along that path, but the assumption that the rest of the world will allow, or can be coerced into allowing, the UK to do what it wants – which was more or less the case in the days of empire - is yet another example of failure to understand that not everyone else shares their view of the world - and in this case spectacularly so.

Inconsistent and incoherent are inadequate words to describe announcing a hopelessly overhyped and underfunded ‘green revolution’ one day and a commitment to an increase in spending on armaments the next. If the government was run using logic and reason, that much would be obvious, but then a government guided by logic and reason wouldn’t have put the UK where it is today.

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Taking from the poor to give to the rich


One of the advantages of the oft-debunked household budget analogy applied to government finances is that it is easily understood by people. That in turn allows ideologically motivated governments to create and promote false dichotomies about priorities for spending. The decision, for instance, as to whether to maintain and increase pensions has nothing to do with spending on health or education. And International Aid has nothing to do with the pandemic (or with housing ex-servicemen, to refer to a common meme on social media). ‘Looking after our own first’ may be a powerful message, but there is nothing other than ideology stopping the government from looking after our own anyway, and cutting spending on aid is more likely to boost the wealth of the wealthiest than to help a single homeless person. The simpler explanation is that just as the current government believes that the rich should stay rich whilst the poor remain poor, they believe that the same should be true internationally as well.

Of course it’s true that money spent on x can’t be spent on y, but the idea that we therefore must choose between them is dependent on the assumption that money is in limited supply. The counter-intuitive truth is that we can have as much money as we want. Limits apply only to the goods, services and resources on which we can spend that money: create too much money and inflation will result unless taxes are increased. In practical terms and in current circumstances that means that any decision to cut International Aid has nothing at all to do with pressure on domestic finances. The government is simply seeking a convenient excuse for reneging on (another) international commitment. And if there is one consistent truth about the current government it is that it is always the poorest – whether at home or across the world – who will suffer the most. That is an ideological choice, not an economic necessity.

Tuesday, 17 November 2020

Disasters and blessings


Yesterday, Boris Johnson was reported as telling Tory MPs that devolution has been “a disaster north of the border”. This has been widely – and not unreasonably – interpreted (particularly given his additional comment that devolution was “Tony Blair’s biggest mistake”) as an indication that he is opposed to devolution. However, it was a form of ‘devolution’ which also gave us the post of Mayor of London, a post which as I remember gave a wholly undeserved boost to the reputation of a certain Boris Johnson. It appears that his remarks should not be interpreted as opposing that as well. It’s hard to tell what his real opinion is on the principle, largely because he is a man without an ounce of principle in his body. It would be reasonable to suspect, however, that his real objection is to any form of devolution where what he considers to be ‘the wrong people’ can be elected. The real ‘disaster’ north of the border is the elimination of his party as a significant political force: but his ‘disaster’ looks more like a blessing to most Scots.

Monday, 16 November 2020

Is England a nation?


And does it matter anyway? The questions were prompted by this report last week about the establishment of the Northern Independence Party to campaign for an independent Northumbria. It’s an interesting development, to say the least, although whether anything will come of it in the long term is another question. Certainly, if different parts of what we today call ‘England’ were to successfully dissociate themselves from Westminster and become independent states, the possibility that the federalism fairy is anything more than, well, a fairy tale, becomes a little more real, although it’s a very big ‘if’, and it would be foolish for anyone to start making plans around such an outcome.

Many will respond by arguing that Northumbria is not a nation, merely a region of England (a fairly arbitrarily-defined one at that, on the basis of the NIP’s proposals), and that the right of all nations to self-determination therefore doesn’t apply. But if we stop and think for a moment, isn’t that almost exactly what British nationalists also say about Wales, or Scotland, claiming in effect that both are part of the ‘British’ nation, and therefore already enjoy the right to national self-determination? Nationality is not an easily defined concept. I’ve never seen, nor been able to devise, an entirely satisfactory and objective definition of what constitutes a ‘nation’, not least since most of what makes people feel that they belong to nation X or nation Y is about a subjective identification with other people who happen to live in the same defined geographical area.

If the people living in Northumbria (however the area is defined on a map) come to consider themselves a nation over the coming years, there is no obvious basis on which anyone else can tell them that they’re wrong. And that applies whether they consider the new national identity to supplant or merely supplement their existing English/ British identity. Some nationalists in Wales attempt to tell people that they can’t be members of two overlapping nations, both Welsh and British, but telling what is probably a majority that they can’t be what they quite comfortably feel themselves to be has never struck me as a particularly productive approach to discourse.

Does it matter, though? One of the reasons for preferring the term independentista to nationalist is that it avoids the question of what a nation is or isn’t and simply affirms that the people living in any defined area have the right to decide collectively how they wish to be governed. That surely applies as much to ‘Northumbria’ as it does to Wales or Scotland. Ultimately the difference in viewpoint owes less to any sense of nationality or nationalism than it does to the simple belief that sovereignty starts with the people rather than the monarch (or God, to be strictly accurate in terms of the English constitution). ‘England’ as an entity came into existence in the same way as the UK – kingdoms and territories were conquered and assimilated. ‘England’ has no more of an absolute claim to be treated now and forever as a single entity than does any other state. The ultimate triumph of the ‘English’ nationalists now running the UK is that their ‘Englishness’ is increasingly being seen to be relevant to only part of ‘England’; their assumption that they can simply impose their own version of Englishness on the rest is leading many to question whether the entity known as England serves their interests. There would be a certain irony if the term ‘Little England’ came to be seen as a geographical term as well as one describing an attitude.

Friday, 13 November 2020

Knowing their place


Dominic Raab is apparently very unhappy with the Chinese government. They signed a formal treaty with the UK a mere 36 years ago and, now that it no longer suits them, they are unilaterally acting in breach of it. The UK’s response is to seek the support of all of its partners and friends to act jointly to hold China to the terms of the agreement, because it seems that that is what happens when one party to a formal international treaty deliberately acts in contravention thereof.

Some unkind people might be wondering how Raab can say any of this with a straight face given the UK’s decision to unilaterally breach the terms of an agreement which it signed a mere 8 months previously, but that is to miss the point. The situation is obviously entirely different. Firstly, the Chinese are foreigners who live a very long way away. Secondly, they just don’t understand their proper place in the world. The UK, on the other hand, is not only British, but a ‘global sovereign power’ (© Boris Johnson, 2019) to boot, and therefore uniquely entitled to do as it wishes. It is entirely proper that the UK should gather its friends* around it to enforce the terms of one treaty, but equally entirely outrageous that the EU countries should act in concert to enforce the terms of another.

How lucky we are to have government ministers who can see the distinction so clearly and can explain it in terms that even China should be able to understand. And if they don’t, well the UK can always send a gunboat or two…

*Any suggestion that this is a small and diminishing group is as unworthy as it is accurate.

Thursday, 12 November 2020

Missed opportunity


In what looks like only a minor variation on the customary song that Wales should use its devolved power any way it wishes as long as it does the same as England, the Secretary of State has been complaining that the Welsh government has axed next year’s school examinations. Apparently, he sees some sort of strange equivalence between a devolved body acting entirely within its own powers on an issue which has been completely devolved, and a UK government which ignores the devolution boundaries, in the sense that both, in his view, should be subject to what he euphemistically calls ‘consultation’. It’s another illustration, not that one were needed, of the fundamental problem with ‘devolution’: it doesn’t recognise Welsh sovereignty as being anything other than a temporary loan of power from London.

Whether the actual decision of the Welsh government is the right one or not is another question, and is a legitimate subject for debate, even if it’s a debate in which the Secretary of State has no legitimate role. The problem is that it’s an issue clouded by ideology and prejudice rather than one led by facts and evidence; the question of whether exams are the ‘right’ way to assess pupils seems to be highly correlated with political outlook. There’s no doubt that some children are well-served by an examination process, but neither is there any doubt that others are not – for a variety of reasons, exam performance doesn’t always reflect the progress and ability seen by teachers in classrooms. On the other hand, there is more scope for teacher assessments to contain a subjective element in their assessment of pupils, no matter how hard they strive to avoid that. There is no perfect system.

In the limited circumstances of the pandemic, it is probably better to do as the Welsh government have done and take the decision early, thus giving themselves plenty of time to think through a proper and robust alternative assessment process rather than the chaos we saw last year, and it’s probably reasonable to assume that the approach of the Westminster government of leaving things until the last minute to decide will lead to more chaos in England again next year, unless they get lucky in controlling the virus. (And lucky is the right word, given the obvious lack of any planned approach to anything.) The problem remains, though, that this still looks like a one-off decision to deal with a particular anticipated situation next year, rather than an opportunity for a thorough review to determine what Wales needs from a system of pupil assessment and how such a system can be made fairer for all. It’s in danger of being an opportunity missed.

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Would-be world king achieves world-beating status


Boris Johnson as a child said that he wanted to be ‘world king’ when he grew up. There is no evidence that his ambition has changed; but then, neither is there much evidence of any growing up. There is, in any event, no such post, so the nearest that he could possibly get is to be recognised as a world-beating leader in at least one field of his choice. That is where the defeat of Trump comes in. No longer does Johnson face any serious competition for the title of leader of the most disreputable, dishonest, mendacious, corrupt, and incompetent government in the developed world which makes him now, indisputably, a truly world-beating politician in five different categories. Let’s just hope that’s enough to satisfy him, and that he doesn’t seek gold medal status in any other categories.

Monday, 9 November 2020

Drawing perverse conclusions


If a good trade deal exists between two countries (or trading blocs), it should be no surprise to anyone if producers in those countries take advantage of that deal to sell their produce. Neither should it by any surprise to anyone if the result of making it easier to trade with the partners to that deal means that producers concentrate their sales in those places to which it is easier to sell. That is, after all, the purpose of having a deal in the first place. It does, though, seem to have come as a surprise to the International Trade Secretary, Liz Truss, who las week expressed her concern that, by trading so successfully with the EU, Welsh farmers had put all their eggs in one basket.

It’s perverse, to say the least, to blame Welsh agriculture for making the most of favourable terms of trade rather than putting their time and effort into selling their produce on less favourable terms elsewhere. The more logical conclusion to draw would be that the existing trading relationship needs to be protected. Someone who can argue that “My job as international trade secretary is to make sure there are plenty of other markets for Welsh producers to sell into" rather than protect successful existing markets might just possibly be in the wrong job. But just in case there was any doubt about that, she went on to argue that amongst other potential markets for Welsh lamb is New Zealand – a country which is not only on the other side of the planet, it also has even more sheep per capita than Wales and probably the highest number of sheep per capita in the world. Next on the list will presumably be a deal to sell world-class British ice to Eskimos.

Friday, 6 November 2020

It's not their money


Yesterday’s complete policy reversal by the Chancellor over furlough is good news – up to a point. It takes us back to where we were in March with a scheme which is merely inadequate, short term and poorly thought-through when they could have used the last seven months to refine and improve it. The way it was done looks to have been driven more by panic than revealing any indication of planning of forethought. And despite all of Johnson’s bluster about the SNP not being willing to take yes for an answer, it still doesn’t give a clear or categoric answer to the question that they’ve been asking, which was whether furlough will be available in Scotland (and the same question applies to Wales) if Scotland’s decisions differ from those taken in England after the end of the English lockdown rather than used as a means of ensuring conformity.

During his speech yesterday, the Chancellor told the SNP that the Scottish parliament has the power to raise taxes, and that if it considers these measures important it could raise funds for them. I’m sure that it was intended as a put-down, but it inadvertently underlined the key difference between devolution and independence. The only way that a devolved Scottish Parliament, acting under Westminster-imposed rules which limit its borrowing capacity and mandate a balanced budget, is by first increasing taxes to raise the necessary revenue. A state with monetary sovereignty, like the UK, can spend the money without having to raise it first, exactly as Sunak is doing. He is explicitly not raising taxes to pay for his program, and nor does he need to. And for all his talk of fiscal responsibility and the need to ‘repay’ the money in the future, he knows both that he won’t be doing so any time soon, and that neither does he need to, because the government has ‘borrowed’ the money from itself by increasing the total supply of money. When he talks about ‘repaying’ the money, he simply means reducing the overall supply of money in the economy. That’s a policy choice, not an economic necessity, and means either tax increases or more austerity, neither of which make any economic sense for the foreseeable future.

They claim that the UK Government is being in some way ‘generous’ to Scotland and Wales by ‘giving’ us extra money (a point dealt with in more detail by Peter Daniels on Nation.Cymru today), but they are tightly controlling the purse-strings more with a view to keeping us in our place than allowing us to make any decisions of our own. Money raised, borrowed, or simply magicked into existence by a few keystrokes doesn’t belong to England, or to London, or to the government – it belongs to all of us. Their pretence that it’s theirs merely underlines the nature of the relationship in their eyes – master and supplicant. The good news, if there is any, is that they don’t even understand that treating Wales and Scotland as supplicants will be counter-productive for them in the long term.

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

A future in comedy?


Mark Drakeford has never struck me as a potential comedian. He’s never struck me as a stupid man either. But attempting to make some sort of joke and being stupid are the two most obvious explanations I can come up with for his statement, referring to Boris Johnson, yesterday that “We take the PM at his word”. I still tend to rule out stupidity, so it must be the other. Best not to give up the day job.

Tuesday, 3 November 2020

Protecting or excluding?


Never a man to let a good opportunity for self-publicity pass him by, Farage has decided to rebrand the PLC formally known as the Brexit Party as Reform UK and concentrate his campaigning on opposing any form of lockdown. It’s easy to be dismissive, but he seems to have caught the mood of a number of Tory MPs who are currently providing the main opposition to the Tory Government’s approach on Covid-19 – and the last time he did that, he succeeded in turning the Tory party into a Brexit cult. He and they claim that their position is based on science, and Farage specifically referenced the Great Barrington Declaration as being the route to follow, but their position actually owes more to an ideological perspective than to science. In strictly scientific terms, the Declaration is very much a minority view. That doesn’t necessarily make it wrong, of course, because scientific truth depends on facts, experiments, and observations, all of which can change. It's not about which view has the most supporters. The Declaration has, though, been widely critiqued, and the big underlying assumption, which is that immunity builds up after contact with the disease, is far from proven, with some recent research suggesting that immunity may turn out to be temporary at best. The assumption behind the Declaration may ultimately be proved correct, but it hasn’t been as yet, making the approach a risky one.

Leaving aside the disputed science, the practical implication of the alternative route being suggested would be that, instead of identifying and isolating the carriers of the disease, we should attempt to identify and isolate those most at risk of dying from it whilst the carriers are free to act as normal and infect any or all of those with whom they come into contact. Whilst it superficially sounds attractive, and it might in practice be easier to identify the bulk of those most at risk than to find all carriers, the difference between the numbers involved is dramatic. We don’t actually know how many people in the UK are currently infectious given that not all show symptoms, but a reasonable guess (based on around 100,000 infections per day and an infectious period of 14 days) would be somewhere between 1 and 2 million. We do know, though, how many old people there are: around 12 million over 65 and around 5.4 million of those over 75. To that we need to add all those younger than that with other potential comorbidities – another couple of million probably. What that means is that protecting the most vulnerable involves isolating considerably more people than isolating the carriers. But it’s worse than that – whilst carriers need to be isolated for only a fortnight, the vulnerable need to be isolated for months: at least until there is a vaccine and possibly indefinitely if no vaccine is ever found to give the long term protection required. And during that period of isolation, they would need not to engage in normal activities such as shopping, going to work (many pensioners still do that), using public transport, mixing freely with younger family members – it’s a long list of prohibitions.

Ultimately, that underlines the assertion that the difference between the two approaches is more about ideology than science. There are two vastly different views here about what sort of a society we should be. What is presented as ‘protecting the vulnerable’ actually turns out to look a lot more like restricting their freedom and excluding them from society, all in the name of giving back ‘freedom’ to those less likely to suffer seriously from the virus. Even making it ‘voluntary’, and ‘allowing’ those in the vulnerable groups to ‘decide for themselves’ how much risk to take makes it clear that that large group of citizens are less valued than maintaining the economy, laying bare the economic underpinning of the policy.

Farage, of course, is a man of extreme views, but it is too easy to dismiss him as a freak or an outlier. As was alluded to above, there are plenty in the governing party who share his view and, given the obvious rifts over policy, it seems that there are many in the cabinet who also do so. The delay and dither hasn’t just been a stellar display of incompetence (although that is not to say that stellar incompetence has not been on display), it has also revealed that there is a significant body of opinion within the government that wants to let the virus rip. Insofar as there is any calculation behind Johnson’s actions, it’s probably got more to do with what he thinks he might be able to get away with than the welfare of the public.

Monday, 2 November 2020

The height of absurdity


How quickly time flies. It was just over a week ago that I suggested that the ‘Welsh’ Conservatives needed to be careful in their criticism of Drakeford’s firebreak, because their words would come back to haunt them when, eventually Johnson was forced to follow suit. It happened sooner than expected, but given that the announcement was made on Halloween, using the word ‘haunt’ looks rather more prescient than it ought to. It’s not the first time that loyal supporters of Johnson have gone out and robustly defended a policy only to find that it’s changing as they speak – and we can confidently predict that it won’t be the last. Somehow, his ability to use them as cover and leave them looking complete fools is a lesson which they seem incapable of learning.

The man himself was describing a further national lockdown in England as “the height of absurdity” just 10 days before announcing it, although by next week he’ll probably deny ever having said such a thing. The real absurdity, though, isn’t that England finds itself in a second lockdown but that, even now, the lessons from the first have not been learned, and government action is so inadequate that a third lockdown early next year is highly probable. Unless steps are taken to make test, trace, and isolate work properly, all the lockdown will achieve is a delay. And the test and trace system is currently a complete shambles. Most attention is focussed on the numbers of people being tested and traced, but that isn’t the real objective of the system – it is to isolate those who are, or may be, infected. Even if they managed to get the number of people traced up to 100%, unless those told to isolate then do so the exercise is pointless. Isolation seems to be the forgotten part of the system, but it’s actually the most important. Testing, tracking, and tracing does not prevent a single infection – it’s the isolation which does that.

There was a report a few days ago about the outcome of police enquiries into almost 6,000 people identified by UK Border Force as needing to self-isolate after arrival in the UK. Of those, only around three-quarters were abiding by the rules. 380 were not traced because they had given false details, and another 629 could not be spoken to ‘because they were out’. New arrivals in the UK are in a different category to those identified by the tracking staff, but it’s a reasonable assumption that similar issues exist. The truth is that self-isolation is largely optional and unenforced. Trying to ‘enforce’ it by imposing large fines on those caught is missing the point. Punishing the few who are caught doesn’t stop infections. Those countries which have most successfully controlled the virus have done much more to ensure that people actually do isolate themselves, and England is failing, badly, on this element. And, despite the Welsh track and trace systems being better and more effective than the English system, the Welsh government’s performance on ensuring isolation looks no better. Unless this is addressed before the end of the lockdown period, the virus will simply start to spread again.

There are two things which could be done to ensure greater compliance with the self-isolation requirement, and neither of them involve fines. Facilitating compliance with the rules is likely to be much more effective than punishing non-compliance. The first is to ensure that no-one loses out financially by following the instruction to self-isolate. And the second is to requisition some of the temporarily closed hotels and let people move into them for the necessary period, ensuring not only that they are properly isolated but also that their needs, including medical needs, are met.

The first of those is simply a matter of money. The Chancellor, time and again, has shown a willingness to create enough money to launch headline-catching schemes, but has always stopped short of spending enough to ensure that they are effective. It’s the worst of all worlds – huge expense to underachieve rather than spending a little more to get the job done properly. Their aversion to the possibility that anyone might get something to which he or she is not ‘entitled’ prevents them from ensuring that everybody else gets enough to do the right thing. Without proper financial compensation, people who are going to lose out, particularly if they’re already among the lowest paid, will find it difficult to comply with the need to self-isolate. Fining them doesn’t help.

The second would need to be voluntary; obliging people to leave their homes and stay somewhere else (even if it’s a nice comfortable hotel paid for by government) for two weeks does not sit well with our attitude to freedom. But other countries have taken the step, some of them only for new arrivals to the country, but others for domestic cases as well. It’s been suggested by one of the advisors to the Scottish Government as a response to the finding that many, or even most, new infections are happening in people’s homes. The question we should be asking is whether there is really an effective alternative which does not leave large numbers of carriers of the virus wandering around infecting others.

We can already be reasonably certain that some 10,000 to 20,000 more COVID deaths will be recorded between now and the end of the year, just from those already infected. How much higher than that the number goes – and for how long into next year we will continue to see high numbers of excess deaths – depends directly on reducing the level of infections. If governments aren’t prepared to take the necessary steps to stop transmission more or less completely, they should stop pretending that doing so is their objective, and admit that they’re only trying to slow the virus’ progress such that the NHS can cope.