Wednesday 30 December 2020

Labour to embrace Tory alternative reality


According to Labour’s leader Keir Starmer, voting for Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal will bring closure to the whole EU debate in the UK, marking the end of divisions both within the Labour Party and in the population at large. It’s straight out of the Johnson / Trump playbook, but stating as fact something that is plainly not true doesn’t make it fact for them, and it won’t work for Starmer either. As noted yesterday, there isn’t an easily identified and objectively ‘right’ way to vote on the deal being presented to parliament today (although there are plenty of wrong, or at least misleading, ways of justifying the decision taken), but even if there were, the issue would be far from closed.

It is entirely understandable that Starmer would seek to avoid the question of the UK’s relationship with the EU being a major issue in the 2024 election, but equally impossible that he can control that. In the first place, the deal that has been agreed is, at best, half-baked – there are many loose ends around which negotiations will continue for the rest of this decade. Then there is the five-and-a-half-year deal on fisheries which will require substantial renegotiation in the coming years, and where failure to agree could undermine the whole deal. Then there are the inevitable and pre-announced attempts by the current UK government to backtrack on regulatory alignment which are likely to lead to running battles over the terms of trade. Johnson needs a villain, and the idea that the EU will cease filling that role for his government in order to allow Labour to move away from the issue is fantasy. There is also the impact of Brexit on the future cohesion of the UK – that isn’t going away any time soon. And finally, for any party which claims that its aim is to improve the lives of the people of the UK (and I think Labour still makes that claim, although it’s sometimes hard to be certain), there are a whole host of ways in which the future relationship with the EU could and should be improved – is Labour really planning to offer no view on any of that?

Above all, there is the obvious and looming reality that an isolated UK on the fringes of the world’s largest and most successful trading block will perform less well in the decades to come than it could as a member. Going back to the 1960s, this was, ultimately, the reason for the UK’s accession to the Common Market in the first place. The biggest differences between now and then are that the EU now is bigger, more successful, and more integrated as a market than it was then, and that the alternative model (strengthening EFTA) which many of us supported at that time is no longer available. The idea that the ongoing relationship with that market can be set in stone today, for a decade or more, by a thin and inadequate deal which closes off future debate is a fantasy – and a dangerous one at that.

The Brexit myth was and still is that a small offshore country can deregulate business and individuals and still be allowed to compete on equal terms, with trade determined solely on price in accordance with a simplistic textbook view of economics. It’s almost understandable why a bunch of people who know more about financial manipulation and speculation than real industry and business might think that can work, but it’s a lot harder to see why the Labour Party are so keen to embrace the same alternative reality. Starmer is about to set the terms of his own failure.

Tuesday 29 December 2020

Playing games


One of the favourite games played by opposition parties in the House of Commons is to attack other opposition parties by accusing them of voting against something they’ve previously claimed to support or voting ‘with the Tories’. Labour’s apparent policy of abstaining on any opposition motion not proposed by themselves makes them an easy target for accusations of being unwilling to vote for what they claim to support. It’s a simple way for another opposition party to generate a tweet or two, repeated and amplified by supporters on social media, but whether it has much impact on voter opinion is another question entirely. It’s probably more confirmatory than an influential agent of change.

It’s underpinned by a parliamentary system which is unfit for purpose in the contemporary world, whose business is largely set and constrained by the executive arm of government, and which reduces everything to a simple question of ‘ayes’ and ‘noes’ (the word ‘yes’ being a tad too modern for the honourable members to cope with). We will have a classic example of this tomorrow when parliament is due to vote on the government’s comprehensive plan to erect new trade barriers with the EU. The issue is a complex one, but will be presented (and voted on) as a simple matter of ‘this deal or no deal’. There are, though, many opposition members who believe that the best answer is ‘neither’ (Tory MPs who share that view having largely been purged by Johnson last year). Abstention is an option, but there is no way of distinguishing between an abstention as a way of saying neither and abstention as a way of expressing apathy or indifference. And abstention will always be presented by others as being a cop-out.

I don’t envy the MPs who have to make a call on this tomorrow. The Johnson deal is clearly better (for which read ‘less bad’) than no deal, but voting for the deal means aiding and abetting the biggest assault on freedom of movement, freedom of trade and international co-operation which has been seen in generations. Labour’s opposition to a no deal seems likely to drive them to support what will become, as a result, a Labour-Tory Brexit, something of which others will no doubt constantly remind them as the consequences become clearer in coming months and years. The SNP seem determined to vote against, given that Scotland clearly voted against any sort of Brexit. It’s a brave stance, which others will no doubt use to accuse them of supporting a no deal exit. Those who decide to abstain will, for years to come, be accused of not being able to take a clear position on one of the most important votes in decades. The detail and the principles involved will rapidly be lost in the fog of propaganda.

It would be comforting to think that all this might propel at least some of them to start thinking about parliamentary reform, not least in finding ways to record the nuances of different positions in the final decisions taken. If ‘taking back control’ meant anything at all, it would surely mean strengthening parliamentary democracy, yet the whole Brexit process has shown how weak and ineffective a legislature which is subordinate to the executive can be. It can’t even set its own agenda. There is little cause for optimism, however. The honourable members are too comfortable playing their games within the constraints set for them, and besides, the main opposition party clings to the belief that it will be their turn to govern eventually, and the last thing they would want to deal with is a powerful and effective legislature. They fully deserve their share of the blame for what is about to happen.

Monday 28 December 2020

Brexit negotiations extended indefinitely


Brexiteers have made some striking claims for the deal negotiated by Boris Johnson in recent days.

·        They have claimed that ‘people said he couldn’t get a Canada-style deal, but he has’. The reality is that no-one ever said that he couldn’t get a Canada style deal at all. What they said was that he wouldn’t get one without making significant concessions in his negotiating position, and that such a deal would be a bad one. Both have been proved right.

·        They have claimed that ‘people said that a comprehensive deal couldn’t be done in 11 months, but it has’ – the reality is that the deal is by no means as comprehensive as they claim, and excludes large parts (services) of the UK economy, as was always going to be the case in a rushed deal. And it’s unlikely that seed potatoes will be the only detail overlooked in a deal done in a hurry.

·        Perhaps the biggest lie of all is Boris Johnson’s claim that the deal delivers everything that the British people were promised, when that is patently untrue. “Exact same benefits”, anyone?

The 11 months since the UK formally left the EU has been regularly described as a transition period, but that’s a complete misnomer. It has actually been a negotiation period during which nothing significant changed for most people and businesses. Transition doesn’t end on 31 December; it starts on 1 January. And it will last for very many years, probably decades.

·        On fisheries, we already know that all that has been agreed is a five-and-a-half-year transition period during which negotiations will continue on the arrangements to be implemented after transition and the trading terms consequences of those arrangements.

·        On the level playing field, we know that there will need to be new negotiations every time that either the EU or the UK changes any rules affecting trade to determine whether the trade agreement can continue on current terms or whether those terms need to change to reflect a new degree of divergence. Far from giving ‘certainty’ to businesses, the deal introduces a new element of uncertainty every time the UK decides to exercise its ‘sovereignty’ by changing, or failing to change, regulations in areas covered by the agreement.

Johnson claims that the EU will no longer constrain the UK’s right to make its own laws and regulations. It’s an ‘interesting’ claim to make having just signed a treaty agreeing not to change UK laws or regulations in a whole host of areas, which is what the agreement on the level playing field amounts to. The question is whether he intends to abide by the agreement that he has signed, or whether – as happened with the Withdrawal Agreement – he’s planning to simply ignore any parts of the treaty that he and his extremist supporters don’t like. The omens are not good. We already know that the government is seeking to change the terms of the agreement on Northern Ireland which they signed just a couple of weeks ago. And on the same day that he agreed to a treaty which sets out to maintain a minimum level of common regulation in relation to trade, Johnson also announced that the same treaty opens the way to “regulatory competition” between the EU and the UK. It’s not immediately obvious how the two things are compatible, and it is doubtful that his interpretation will be shared by the EU27. It sounds more like a recipe for conflict than cooperation, and adds to the conclusion that the serious negotiations aren’t the ones which have just been completed; they’re the ones which will start on 1 January. To adapt the words of Johnson’s hero, New Year’s Day looks more like the end of the beginning than the beginning of the end. Far from being done and dusted, Brexit will be a major item on the government’s agenda for many years to come.

There is some good news, though. In the event of a ‘no deal’ outcome, the position of an independent Wales or Scotland looking to re-join the EU looked more than a little difficult. Swapping tariff-free trade with England for tariff-free trade with the EU, and imposing full EU border controls between Wales and Scotland on the one hand and England on the other, didn’t look like the brightest idea anyone had ever come up with. But regaining full access to the EU’s Single Market – either through immediate EU membership or via interim membership of the EEA – in exchange for the sort of paperwork and bureaucracy which will now govern trade between the north of Ireland and the rest of the UK is a much more attractive prospect. No wonder Gove has called it the “best of both worlds”. Johnson claims he has negotiated the best route for the UK out of the EU – he may also, albeit inadvertently, have negotiated the best route back in for Wales and Scotland.

Wednesday 23 December 2020

The fading of the myth


Statistics tell us that around 8% of the UK’s population are 75 or over, meaning that the remaining 92% were all born in or after 1945. Unless my understanding of the age profile of users of social media is seriously wrong, it is reasonable to conclude that the proportion of those users who have direct experience or memory of the second world war is a number which approximates very closely to zero. This apparently makes a proportion very much higher than zero particularly well-qualified to assert that ‘we’ not only survived the war, but ‘we’ single-handedly won it, either sorting out or liberating (depending on which nationality they are referring to at the time) all those pesky Europeans, who now owe us a whole bunch of favours, but whose favours we can easily survive without if they insist on pursuing their own interests rather than recognising ‘our’ sacrifices on their behalf.

The Anglo-British emphasis on ‘the war’ is understandable. In many ways, it is reasonable to argue that what we know as the UK was ‘born’ out of the Second World War. It was the British Empire, not the UK, which declared war on Germany in 1939, but it was a much-diminished UK which emerged from the war and its aftermath. What looked very much like a victory to those who were there at the time turns out to have been merely the beginning of the end, as another of the world’s historic empires disintegrated and declined, as they all do eventually. What lives on in the collective memory is more myth than fact. The UK is not alone in clinging to myth; many countries have a creation myth about how they came into existence as a way of promoting unity and shared beliefs. Myth, however, is absolutely the right word to use. Some countries’ creation myths are more believable than others, but they are all, ultimately, more about myth than fact. The strongest are those which everyone knows to be myth; fantasies based on tales of dragons, giants or gods are more powerful than creation myths which turn around actual events, because events can (and always will be) re-interpreted, misremembered, or even forgotten as time passes.

In the case of the UK, the misremembering takes many forms. Where historical fact shows black marketeers and spivs enriching themselves at the expense of the many, the myth tells us about social solidarity and stoicism. Where fact talks of food shortages and rationing for the many whilst the few had access to all they needed, myth tells of a great levelling, in which all had their basic needs met. Fact talks of hunger; myth reports a lack of any obesity problem. Historical fact tells of the huge military contribution of the US and the USSR, the latter suffering horrific numbers of deaths during the conflict, but the myth talks of brave and exceptional little Blighty, standing all alone against the menace of Hitler.

Dragons and giants can survive historical revisionism in a way that the UK’s creation myth could never do; sooner or later, the myth was going to come up against reality. If it weren’t Brexit, it would be something else. Ultimately, there can only be one winner of the contest: the myth is dying. It’s a long-drawn-out death, and the death throes are marked by ever more extreme protestations, but the conclusion is inevitable. Just as the UK was born out of the myth, so it will also die with the myth. It falls to the current generation to ensure that the new states which emerge from the ashes are founded on more solid grounds – new creation myths? – than a belief in exceptionalism and superiority.

Tuesday 22 December 2020

He's behind you (and behind everyone else as well)


This time of the year is traditionally panto season. The theatres may be closed, and the professional actors furloughed, ‘resting’, or looking for alternative employment, but as the saying goes, ‘the show must go on’. We just need to look elsewhere for it. One of the more well-known pantomime characters is Wishee-Washee, although many know him less affectionately as Keir Starmer, a knight of the realm and scourge of the Scots. Fresh from his triumphant demand for “strong, clear and decisive leadership” during the pandemic (why he would lay down criteria which so definitively exclude himself as well as Boris Johnson is beyond the scope of this post), he’s ventured into the Neverland of federalism which has seen so many of his Scottish colleagues join the brigade of lost boys.

In evolutionary terms, a dinosaur on auto-repeat in hot pursuit of the federal fairy (aka Tinkerbell) is almost as useful as (or, to use the corollary, marginally less useful than) a crocodile which has swallowed a clock, so step forward Gordon Brown. He has apparently been closely advising Wishee-Washee on what to say, and that advice – given how effective and useful it’s been over the last ten years – has inexplicably been taken by Wishee. The result is that his grand plan to save the union, which Wishee passionately desires for reasons which he can’t adequately explain (but which don’t matter anyway in the magic of Neverland), amounts to a proposal not to have a strong, clear, or decisive policy himself but to set up a commission under the tutelage of the crocodile to tour the realm and find out what other people think before deciding what he may or may not think.

Thereafter, and always providing that the commission comes up with the right answer – the responsibility for ensuring said answer has been devolved to the crocodile, but can be withdrawn at any time as befits a devolved power – he will promise that, in the unlikely event that he wins the next election, he will implement further devolution of powers to Scotland. Wales is largely considered irrelevant because it’s in a different pantomime; and anyway Nobby the Panda Drakeford (a non-speaking role) has managed to ensure that the peasantry still vote for the ‘right’ party here. The probability that any commission advised by either a crocodile or a dinosaur will come up with concrete answers to the key questions about how devolution can be made irreversible whilst characters such as Abanazar Johnson stalk the land, and how any federal or quasi-federal system can deal with the fact that one of the member states has 85% of the population, power, and wealth is low. But it is a fairy-tale, remember. And it’s a fairy tale with a purpose – the prime objective is to provide an apparently rational basis for Wishee to agree with Abanazar that the Scots should be denied a vote on their own future whilst the commission take a few years to come up with a non-answer to the wrong question.

In a good pantomime, the villain always loses in the end, and the hero wins. It’s interesting to note that one of the best-known pantomime heroes, Peter Pan, is usually played by a petite adult woman. I’m sure the Scots can think of someone suitable for the role. And as long as life imitates art (and it usually does), the outcome is assured.

Friday 18 December 2020

Forget morality and economics - austerity is just politics


The Chancellor declared this week that continuing to ‘borrow’ money for extra public spending would be wrong “morally, economically and politically”. Leaving aside the small matter that the government isn’t really ‘borrowing’ money at all, it’s creating new money, and insofar as it owes the extra money to anyone, it owes it to itself, it’s a curious statement to make. He doesn’t seem to have made much effort to elucidate why he thinks it’s immoral, which is probably just as well. Explaining why keeping businesses and households afloat (which is why he has ‘borrowed’ so much money in the first place) is somehow immoral doesn’t look at all straightforward, not least because the corollary is that it is more ‘moral’ to simply allow people to lose their jobs, homes, and lives.

He’s not on much stronger ground when he turns to the economics of the question. His argument that it is economically wrong hinges on the possibility that inflation might rise and that central banks might raise their interest rates in response. Whilst this is a theoretical possibility, it’s completely removed from current economic reality. Introducing a new period of austerity because of a theoretical risk is just about the last thing that the UK economy needs, but it seems that that is where he wants to take us.

But the core of his argument appears to be the political one. He actually said that “I do think that’s important between now and 2024 we’ve got to have a view on what we think the right economic dividing line between us and the opposition”, and “If we think … that debt rising is fine, then there’s not much difference between us and the Labour party. I worry about what that means for us politically down the line.” It amounts to saying that the prime reason for a return to austerity is simply to highlight the distinction between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party; it’s about trying to paint the Labour Party as irresponsible for the Tories’ own electoral ends rather than trying to meet the needs of ordinary people. And the very worst aspect of all of this is that he may even be right. The ‘household analogy’, promoted so vigorously and dishonestly by the Tories and the media, has such a powerful hold that many electors will actually vote for austerity, believing that there is no alternative. It is a fallacy, but it’s a fallacy which even the opposition parties seem reluctant to expose, and which persuades millions to vote directly against their own interests.

Thursday 17 December 2020

Is the silliness deliberate?


Yesterday, both the main opposition parties in the Senedd, Plaid Cymru and the Conservatives, criticised Mark Drakeford for being too timid and too slow in tightening restrictions to control the pandemic. It’s fair criticism. Drakeford is in serious danger of being infected with the procrastination virus which is now rampant in Downing Street, although he is, rather, between a rock and a hard place in trying to both protect the population of Wales and maintain a ‘four countries’ approach. There’s no real surprise in Plaid wanting to see him being more independent of Johnson and England’s lackadaisical decision-making, but there’s something more than a little odd about the Tories apparently seeking the same thing.

It was Harold Wilson who said that a week is a long time in politics, so a fortnight is a very, very long time for a politician. It’s not so long for most of us though, and it really is only a fortnight since both Plaid and the Tories were criticising Drakeford for applying what they saw as excessive restrictions on the hospitality sector. It’s a criticism which hasn’t exactly aged well. Adding a charge of giving out mixed messages to yesterday’s criticism of Drakeford is not a good look in the circumstances.

The Conservatives possibly have an excuse, of sorts, if the guidance issued to party activists in Northamptonshire has been more widely shared than has been reported to date. According to the advice, activists should simply “…say the first thing that comes into your head … It’ll probably be nonsense, but it knocks your opponent out of his stride and takes away his headline. You may get a bad headline saying that you spoke something silly, but you can live that down. Meanwhile your opponent is knocked off the news-feed”. I don’t know whether similar guidance has been issued to the party’s members in Wales. I can only judge by what they do and say, and on that basis it looks at least plausible. But we are not in a good place in the middle of a pandemic if one of the main political parties believes that saying things which are both silly and untrue is a sensible and valid strategy.

Wednesday 16 December 2020

It's not only coronavirus which is infectious


For the PM, procrastination is a way of life – this article highlights example after example. One of the 'advantages' of delaying a decision is that the longer the delay the fewer alternative options remain, making the ultimate decision easier, or even inevitable. Brexit is a classic example: the main decisions he’s taken since becoming PM have been those which close out options rather than maximising the range of choice (such as, for example, the pig-headed decision to legislate against any extension to the timetable). We are down to only two choices – no deal at all, or a very bad deal – not because that was always inevitable, but partly because other options have been closed down by inaction and delay.

It’s a bad enough approach for Brexit, where the main damage will be economic, but it’s even worse an approach to dealing with a pandemic where many families are paying the cost not just in economic terms but in terms of the lives of their loved ones. With a population of 66 million, and a death toll to date (and we’re a long way from the end) of somewhere between 64,000 and 85,000 depending on which figures one considers the most accurate, the pandemic has already seen the premature death of around 1 person in every 1,000 in the UK. No government could have avoided any premature deaths in the circumstances, but premature death on this scale was not inevitable and is a direct result of government action – or, more often, inaction.

Yet still the reluctance to act continues. Whilst the principle of having a common approach to Christmas across the four administrations of the UK was always a good one, there was no particular genius in warning that “…falling in line with England doesn’t look like the smartest idea…”, yet that is what a ’four nations’ approach was always likely to amount to. It is clear that three of the four administrations are getting serious cold feet about the proposed relaxation and that the scientists have had their reservations from the outset, only going along with the proposal for fear that people would ignore the rules anyway. Whilst discussions continue, it seems that the English PM has already decided to ignore the views of the other three First Ministers and plough ahead regardless, briefing the media that there will be no change without waiting until discussions have concluded. The reluctance of Mark Drakeford to change the pre-announced rules at this late stage is understandable, but Boris Johnson is putting him in an invidious position. If the rules need to change based on changed facts, then the sooner that is announced the better so that people have more time to make alternative plans. The danger in continuing to try and reach a common approach is that Johnson’s prevarication becomes like a virus itself, infecting the devolved administrations and their leaders with an inability to show leadership and take clear decisions.

Monday 14 December 2020

It's still all about Boris Johnson


There has never been any doubt that the Prime Minister is, like his hero, Churchill, an out-and-out racist. The superiority of some over others is one of those things which is ‘obvious’ to him, and it isn’t just restricted to race, nationality, or skin colour. His writings over many years betray a similar sense of dismissal of those whom he calls ‘oiks’, his social inferiors. It doesn’t follow, though, that he is as hostile to immigration as his government’s actions suggest. Playing to anti-immigrant feeling amongst the populace at large is more of a means to an end; it’s more to do with attracting votes than with immigration itself. It’s not about immigrants, it’s about Boris Johnson.

In the same way, I doubt that he really cares very much about the fishing industry, despite all the hoo-hah and bluster over its place in the Brexit talks. Its role in the economy is tiny, and a man who is willing to preside over an 8% decline in the economy over all is hardly likely to worry unduly about the demise of an industry which only accounts for 0.1% of that economy. It is, rather, another means to an end – the aim of his rage isn’t to change opinions in the EU but to appeal to that part of the electorate which feels jingoistic about protecting the sovereignty of British waters and British fish. It’s not about fish, it’s about Boris Johnson.

The other big sticking point at the moment seems to be about managing future divergence in regulations, and what such divergence means for the terms of trade. It’s presented as being all about ‘sovereignty’ and the right to ‘make our own rules’, but I doubt that he really cares much about any of that either. The idea of ‘sovereignty’ again appeals to a section of the electorate, and that’s what drives him. It is, again, all about Boris Johnson.

The same insouciance doesn’t apply, though, for some of those egging him on. One of the things which is becoming increasingly clear is that the ideological Brexiteers have a much narrower definition of ‘free trade’ than the one being used by the EU. They see free trade as being about simply abolishing tariffs and quotas, and given that there are no tariffs or quotas between the UK and the EU at present, it follows that a deal which continues that situation ought, in their view, to have been easy. The problem is – and has been from the outset – that the EU has another dimension to the definition of free trade, which is that trade should be fair. That, ultimately, is at the heart of the debate about level playing fields and is the underlying reason for much EU regulation. But ‘fair’ trade is the last thing that the Brexiteers want, as their continued references to buccaneering make clear. Being able to undercut others on price by freeing the UK from regulations that apply to others is, and always has been, their core aim. In their view, ‘the market’ should determine standards, not governments. Rolling back what they see as ‘government interference’ in the market (but which others might see as protecting the environment and the interests of working people) is an article of faith for them.

This gap in perceptions is not one which can be bridged by negotiation. Either the UK will gain full access to the EU market whilst being free to make its own rules and undercut EU companies, or else there will be tariff barriers to trade; there is no half-way house. And given the relative size and economic power of the two parties, there’s only going to be one winner in this debate. That doesn’t make a deal impossible; one thing that the EU is very good at is finding a form of words. What we can be certain of is this: if a deal is done, it will be a deal under which the UK has backed down on its core demand. In this context, presenting any deal as ‘win-win’ is about how that is dressed up for the UK domestic audience, not what it actually means. The difficult task left to the negotiators is how to find a form of words which Johnson believes he can present as a victory to his own extremists, yet which is tight enough to ensure the UK’s compliance. It’s still all about Boris Johnson.

Thursday 10 December 2020

Undercutting the minimum


Earlier today, the EU released its contingency proposals for a ‘no deal’ end to the transition period in three weeks’ time. When it comes to road haulage, they are effectively saying that they are willing to exempt UK hauliers from the rules which normally apply to non-EU countries for a period of six months whilst a more permanent solution is negotiated (that would be during the post December negotiations which the UK government has already tried to rule out), but one of the conditions attached to that is that there is a ‘level playing field’ for haulage operators. In essence, unless the UK is prepared to commit to give no unfair subsidies or other advantages to UK hauliers, those hauliers will be given no special access to the EU. In the Downing Street briefing this afternoon, the PM’s spokesperson seemed to be half-suggesting that the UK would be unable to accept such a condition.

It seems that, in just a few short years, the UK government has managed to take us from discussing the ‘Norway plus’ option which some Brexiteers seemed to be proposing at the time of the referendum all the way through to discussing the ‘no deal minus’ option. Taking the minimum option and talking about undercutting it is quite some achievement, but not exactly in the positive sense which the word 'achievement' normally conveys.

Wednesday 9 December 2020

Playing by the rules


The element of drama about Boris Johnson’s last-ditch flight to Brussels today is almost certainly deliberate on his part. From the EU’s perspective, it’s more about tolerating whatever it takes to get the PM to realise where the power lies and to enable him to present anything he comes back with as some sort of victory. They can live with the drama and the hyperbole as long as they get their legally-binding text. Part of the drama, of course, has to be the uncertainty – ‘will he, won’t he’ – as to the outcome; it wouldn’t be drama otherwise. The pundits are divided, and that helps as well. Not knowing what will emerge (although we already know that there will be major obstacles to free trade after January 1, whatever the result) is a necessary part of the process.

What is more worrying, though, is the undertainty about whether the lead actor himself has a clue about the likely outcome. The script is largely in his hands at this stage, and given his history, it would not be at all surprising if he’d already scripted two alternative endings: one in which he heroically pulls off a deal at the last moment and the other in which he heroically battles to the last before walking away with nothing rather than surrendering to mere foreigners. In itself, that might not be of great concern. Without knowing what ‘the other side’ might offer, it might even be prudent to have a Plan A and a Plan B. The problem in this case is that he knows more or less exactly what the other side is going to say; they’ve been round and round the same issues for months, and whilst the EU might be willing to be flexible over the wording, the substance isn’t going to change. They are not (and never were) going to dismantle the single market to suit the UK’s exceptionalists. The decision as to which script to use doesn’t depend on anything that does or does not happen in Brussels tonight. Just like the last time he prepared two scripts and didn’t decide which one to use until the last minute, it depends on which script he thinks places him in the best light, and which will be least likely to hasten the end of his premiership. It is, as ever, all about him – he’s not described as a narcissist without reason. Not for the first time, the future of the whole UK’s population hangs on what Boris Johnson thinks is best for Boris Johnson.

As part of the build up to tonight’s crunch meeting, he said that “You've got to believe there's the power of sweet reason”. He’s not wrong in principle, but there are some people for whom ‘sweet reason’ is not an operational concept – and Boris Johnson is one of them. The thought that anything depends on a combination of Boris Johnson and sweet reason merely brought the immortal words to Private Frazer to mind – “We’re all doomed”. He has also ruled out any possibility of talks continuing after 1 January in the event of no deal. It’s another lie, of course. Faced with trading on WTO terms, no sensible government would ever decline to talk with trading partners about how those terms could be improved, although such a conversation is likely to take many years, as is entirely normal for trade agreements.

And talking of sensible governments, one of his other statements was this: “… there are just limits beyond which no sensible, independent government or country could go and people have got to understand that". Well, as a statement of principle, he’s entirely correct. But one might, perhaps, be forgiven for asking whether he didn’t just say that the 27 member states of the EU are neither sensible nor independent? The question as to whether an EU member state is or isn’t ‘independent’ does go to the heart of the Brexit debate and the meaning of the word independent, so that might be overlooked as simply an expression of an absolutist position on sovereignty. It’s doubtful, though, whether stating that 27 other countries are not being sensible is a particularly helpful negotiating ploy. In truth, the EU have recognised from the outset that the UK can have as much sovereignty as it wants, and can set its own rules on anything and everything. The problem has been that the UK has been unwilling to accept the corollary, which is that those who want to play the game by a different set of rules to everyone else will usually find they’re no longer invited to play.

Monday 7 December 2020

Would you buy his used car?


It was four and a half years ago that the UK narrowly voted to leave the EU on the basis of a series of promises, including that one about being able to trade on the exact same terms but without following EU rules. It was nonsense then and it’s still nonsense now, but it’s that same issue which threatens to completely derail the last minute talks. From the outset, the EU has made it clear that easy access to the Single Market depends on following the rules of that market and, from the outset, the UK has demanded that it should have that access without following the rules. In essence, that’s what all the talk about ‘level playing fields’ and governance’ boils down to – the EU wants to protect the integrity of the Single Market, whilst the UK wants to destroy that integrity.

It makes sense from a UK perspective - having a large integrated market on our doorstep of which we are not part was always a silly idea - but it's a debate in which there was only ever going to be one winner. English exceptionalism led so many to foolishly believe that the EU would eventually roll over, but that exceptionalism is wholly misplaced. That doesn’t mean a deal is impossible, even at this stage – but it doesn’t depend on the EU making anything other than minor concessions on the fringes. It depends, rather, on two things. 

The first is the extent to which the EU is willing to agree to a form of words which enables the Prime Minister to claim that he has met his objectives with enough credibility to persuade the extremists in his own party to accept the inevitable major concessions which he will have to make. I don’t doubt the EU’s willingness, at the end of the day, to help the PM in that regard (however undeserving they may feel him to be of any assistance); words cost them little as long as they have a binding legal text and sufficient confidence that Johnson won’t simply renege on that the day after signing it (the latter being no small matter in itself).

The second hinges on whether a man who has gone through life believing that rules don’t apply to him and that he should always get what he wants is ready to make the biggest compromise of his life. On the one hand, it seems unlikely given his history; but on the other, we are dealing with a man who strongly believes in the power of his own rhetoric to deny truth and sell a lie (£350 million on the side of a bus, anyone?). The tragedy for the rest of us is that so much should depend so heavily on the flawed character of a single man.

Friday 4 December 2020

Why make things easy when you can complicate them?


It seems like only yesterday that we could confidently predict that the competent leadership of Boris Johnson, aided and abetted by a Brexit specifically designed to facilitate cross-border supply chains, guided by that special sense of English exceptionalism and superiority, coupled with the luxury of having many months to plan and prepare, would lead to a smooth and effective rollout of a Covid vaccination programme. With all of those advantages, who could possibly have predicted that, within 24 hours, the government would be taking emergency decisions to alter the order of priority for vaccination just days before the programme starts?

In other news, who could ever have foreseen that companies might decide to relocate facilities outside the UK in preparation for Brexit instead of building new facilities specifically to serve a state so important, and so exceptional, as the UK? That would be like expecting the Transport Secretary to know that viruses don’t understand the difference between ‘high value’ individuals and the rest of us plebs. It takes a really special kind of government – rather like the one which the UK has at the moment – to understand the importance of allowing a select few to spread the disease a little further when we are within sight of being able to get it under control. Holding the line for just a few more months would just make it too easy, wouldn’t it?

Thursday 3 December 2020

It will all be plain sailing


Yesterday’s announcement that the UK has licensed a vaccine for immediate use against Covid is welcome news. And it seems likely that one or more other vaccines will also be licensed shortly. The claim that a quick decision to license was somehow related to Brexit was rapidly debunked; if anything, the use of a vaccine developed by a German company run by a Turkish owner and manufactured in Belgium shows the benefit of a co-operative approach across borders.

Delivering a vaccine which requires storage at a very low temperature quickly and effectively would be challenging at the best of times to the best of governments, and erecting obstacles to importing it would clearly be something which any rational government would seek to avoid. With Boris providing the competence, Brexit facilitating the free movement of goods, and English exceptionalism driving us forward, what could possibly go wrong?

Wednesday 2 December 2020

Eggs, coffee, pizza, and pints


The Scotch Egg saga demonstrates how easy it is to pick holes in the detail of the English government’s guidance on the pandemic. I admit that I’m still unsure whether ordering a Scotch Egg with a pint in England and then not eating the egg is a crime or not. And if it is, how much of the egg can be left uneaten whilst still avoiding the danger of prosecution? The story about Manchester’s “f*****g massive” pizza slices is another example. Expecting precise clarity in answer to every such question is utterly unrealistic, although that won’t stop opposition politicians from pretending that they do expect such clarity in order to score a point or two.

Closer to home, we had Plaid’s leader asking yesterday “How can four people from four different households having coffee together be safer than two people from the same household having a pint?”. It looks like a sensible question, but it seems to be predicated on an assumption that in drawing the lines between what is and what is not allowed, the government has carefully considered the safety implications of both (and numerous other) scenarios and come to a conclusion about relative safety. It has done no such thing, of course – nor could it be reasonably expected to do so. I don’t know which of the two is the safer, but I’m sure it’s not the right question to ask. What we do know is that ALL social contact carries a danger of spreading infection, and the important thing is to reduce the level of such contact. Whether the government is outlawing the right things is an entirely valid question to be asking, and one on which people will have different opinions. Perhaps it really would be better to allow the beer and ban the coffee, although that might merely upset a different group of people. But setting one scenario as a baseline and then allowing everything which is considered to be as safe as, or safer than, that is a recipe for greatly extended social contact, and that is what the government is trying to avoid. Having some apparently ridiculous outcomes is probably inevitable.

The concern about the future of the hospitality sector is legitimate, and it is a point which has been made by the Tories as well as Plaid. But seeking to protect that industry by allowing it to open more widely rather than by properly compensating the industry for being forced to limit its operations or even close completely carries a risk of increased transmission. It’s the wrong solution to a correctly identified problem. Identifying and mocking some of the curious outcomes of the current restrictions is easy enough to do. It’s probably even good politics, striking a chord with the public - especially the lockdown sceptical part of the public. It isn’t good infection control though.

Tuesday 1 December 2020

The 'punishment' is deliberate


The experience of having different rules in different parts of Wales prior to the ‘fire-break’ lockdown was not good, and in the light of that, the Welsh Government has sensibly decided to try and follow a single set of restrictions across the whole of Wales rather than revert to a system which was clearly not working at all well. The English government has followed a different route: having found that the system of putting areas into tiers really didn’t work terribly well, they’ve decided to revert to it with a few tweaks, the most obvious of which is that virtually the whole of England is now to be under restrictions as of tomorrow.

In justifying why even areas of England with low incidence are being placed under greater restrictions, the Foreign Secretary said “'ve got to get the geographic size sufficiently effective that you don't find the smaller enclaves of lower level virus shooting up because they are not subject to the restrictions in the high levels around them”, one of the few sensible utterances he’s managed to make. He could also have added that having variations in rules between smaller adjacent areas makes it more likely that people will travel between those areas, taking the virus with them. Meanwhile, in Wales, the Welsh Tories are arguing for precisely the opposite – demanding that Wales be broken up into smaller and smaller areas with different degrees of restrictions imposed. It’s a sort of triumph of politics over experience and evidence.

In both Wales and England, Tory opponents of the tough level of restrictions being imposed are using similar arguments about areas being ‘punished’ despite having low levels of prevalence of the virus. It’s a perverse way of looking at things, when it is in the Tories’ hands to make sure that no-one loses out financially, and they are only prevented from doing so by their own mindset. One of the biggest problems with getting the pandemic under control from the outset has been ensuring compliance with the rules, and the biggest reason for that has been forcing people to choose between maintaining their income and doing the right thing. For all the vast sums of money being spent by the government, they have consistently failed to do the single most important thing – fully protect people’s incomes. Partly it’s about ideology – they can’t stand the idea that anyone might ‘get something for nothing’ – but it’s also partly about them living in a different world from the rest of us. For rich people (and we can certainly count the Chancellor in that category), a temporary loss of part of their income is neither here nor there, but they just don’t understand how catastrophic it can be for people at the other end of the spectrum. It’s easy for those who can afford it to talk about ‘sacrifice’ when the real sacrifice is being made by others.

It does indeed look like some sort of punishment when people who have followed the rules and live in low incidence areas have further restrictions placed upon them and see their livelihoods threatened, but it only looks like punishment because of the choices which the government has made. The Welsh Tories, like their rebel English counterparts, are complaining about the wrong part of government policy.