Thursday, 16 September 2021

Nothing to see here

 

The Guardian describes yesterday’s cabinet reshuffle by Johnson as being “ruthless”. The PM himself will probably be pleased with that description, but a reshuffle in which the majority of ministers remain exactly where they started, and in which one demotee, Raab, had to be bought off by bestowing on him the utterly meaningless title of Deputy Prime Minister looks, in practice, to be anything but ruthless. In any event, being ruthless requires being decisive, even if only decisively wrong, and decisive is not an adjective which many would apply to the PM.

Many years ago, Theresa May described her party as “the nasty party”. I always thought that she intended it as a criticism, a warning that the party needed to change, but Johnson, ever keen to be seen as the opposite of whatever went before him, seems to see it more as a blueprint for action. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, who enjoys a justifiably unchallenged lead as the nastiest of the bunch, retains her position with the PM heaping praise on her and egging her on to become even nastier, and both the Chancellor and the Work and Pensions Minister, determined to press ahead with their policy of further impoverishing the poorest are also retained in post. Meanwhile, one of the least offensive ministers, Robert Buckland, was removed, apparently for not being nasty enough (although it may just have been, as John Crace suggests, that Johnson either confused his Roberts or simply needed a convenient vacancy to which he could demote Raab).

Closer to home, there were those who expected the Secretary of State for Wales to be amongst the casualties, but he has been described as having clung on to his post. The reasons for his survival are unclear. Perhaps he is nastier than he appears to be (that’s almost a compliment of a sort). Then again, maybe Johnson was unable to find a Welsh Tory MP who he considers even nastier to replace him. But the likeliest explanation is that Johnson has simply forgotten that he’s there; Wales isn’t exactly at the top of his list of priorities.

Overall, this ‘ruthless’ reshuffle looks more like a case of ‘no change’ than ‘all change’. The one possible exception is that the new Foreign Secretary might try and use her position to cut down on cheese imports, although whether the Brexit Secretary needs anyone else's help to cut off the flow of food to the UK is an open question.

Tuesday, 14 September 2021

The teacher can only do half the job

 

One of the interesting quirks of the Welsh language for learners is that we use the same word – dysgu – to mean both teaching and learning. Knowing which would be the correct translation depends entirely on sentence construction and context. I remember my Welsh teacher in secondary school explaining it in terms something along the lines of Welsh seeing it as a single process of two equal parts performed jointly rather than the English view of two separate processes performed by two different parties. I was never entirely sure of that ‘explanation’; the way languages use and adopt words is rarely, if ever, as thought-out and planned as that suggests; it just happens.

Anyway, what brought it to mind today was this story about the death of the PM’s mother. It quotes the PM talking about his mother in a conference speech in 2019 in which Johnson said his mother had taught him “the equal importance, the equal dignity, the equal worth of every human being on the planet”. I’m certain that she tried and played her part in the one half of the process, the teaching. But I can see nothing in the subsequent life of her child which shows any evidence that the second half of the process, the learning, ever occurred. Quite the opposite – he gives every impression of believing that no-one else, whether family, acquaintance, or complete stranger can ever be the equal of himself, that no foreigner can ever be the equal of a white Brit and that no-one can ever be as important as he. I’m sure that his mother did her best with him, but perhaps my old Welsh teacher had it right all along – teaching without learning is only half of what’s needed.

Monday, 13 September 2021

It's not a care plan at all

 

According to one analysis of the so-called ‘Social Care Plan’ unveiled by Boris Johnson last week, around 70,000 people will die waiting for social care before the lifetime cap on costs of £86,000 comes into force. It’s a headline figure which the Labour Party have seized on to attack the plans, but it seems to be missing the point. It’s not at all clear how introducing the cap earlier would make any difference at all to the numbers waiting for or receiving care – if the cap were to be introduced tomorrow, for instance, instead of waiting until 2023, would any of those 70,000 somehow magically start to receive the care they need?

The real criticism of Johnson’s ‘plan’ is that it isn’t a plan for social care at all. It seems to propose no changes to the way social care is provided or to the quality of that care, merely to the way it is funded. It is a ‘plan’, in short, to raise more revenue for the government and to protect inheritances, especially of the wealthiest, but it does nothing to increase or improve the provision of care, let alone fill the huge gap in the number of carers, a gap which the government’s core policy, Brexit, has served only to widen.

The Labour Party are right to draw attention to the fact that even the financing changes are effectively postponed for years whilst the extra cash is poured into the NHS, but they seem to have allowed themselves to fall into the trap of debating primarily the financing of care rather than how provision is to be improved or increased. An opposition which was prepared for the announcement (and, after all, Johnson has been saying for two years that he had a plan ready; opposition parties have no excuse) would have been ready with some sort of response around how they would deal with the real issues which face many families seeking care for family members. For sure, making quality care affordable for all is part of that, but it’s far from being the totality of it. Treating it, first and foremost, as simply a funding issue is handling the issue on Tory terms, where everything is about money rather than people.

Friday, 10 September 2021

Enhancing his reputation

 

Some unkind souls reading this story yesterday (“Boris Johnson stakes reputation on £12bn fix for health and social care”) might have been asking themselves what reputation the PM has left to stake on the outcome of anything. That is, though, to take a very narrow view of the meaning of the word ‘reputation’. If we consider the PM’s reputation to be one of bluster, mendacity, indecision and incompetence, there can surely be little doubt that it will emerge as unscathed from what he misleading chooses to call his social care plan as it has from everything else he’s touched in life. Indeed, it will probably even be enhanced.

Thursday, 9 September 2021

Small steps and giant leaps

 

During its conference, which starts tomorrow, the SNP is due to debate the issue of Trident and the removal of nuclear weapons from Scotland within three years after independence. There is little doubt that the party will reaffirm its opposition to allowing the weapons to remain on the territory of an independent Scotland. Amongst the ‘solutions’ apparently being considered by London is that if Scotland is ‘granted’ its independence, it will be on condition that part of the country is carved out and remains part of rUK (or Greater England to give it a more appropriate title) as some sort of ‘overseas possession’. The fact that anyone could even consider for a moment that independence is theirs to ‘grant’ or that they have some right to retain any part of Scotland that they choose demonstrates that, deep down, many of those in charge in London really do see Scotland (and by extension, Wales) as a possession rather than a partner.

One of Labour’s senior MSPs at Holyrood has attacked the SNP’s proposals, pointing out that moving weapons from Scotland to England (Wales, thankfully, having now been ruled out) does nothing for nuclear disarmament; the same number of weapons would still exist, just in a different location. She has a point, although it would be reasonable also to point out that her party’s position – leaving the weapons where they are – isn’t exactly a major step towards disarmament either. A more valid criticism of the SNP would be that, having reversed its previous policy on NATO a few years ago and decided that an SNP-led Scotland would join NATO after all, there is a degree of hypocrisy in being part of a nuclear-armed alliance with a collective policy of being ready to use nuclear weapons whilst refusing to have them stationed on its soil. That wouldn’t make Scotland unique, of course; there are plenty of other NATO members who neither possess nuclear weapons nor are willing to host them.

There are some serious questions to be asked about whether NATO really is a nuclear-armed alliance or not. Whilst three member states possess nuclear weapons, the French arsenal is excluded from the NATO command structure, and there have long been doubts as to whether the UK missiles (which are only leased from the US) could ever be launched without US agreement. In theory, ‘NATO’ could launch a nuclear strike, but in practice, any decision would be taken in Washington, not at NATO HQ. And NATO’s whole pretence of being a nuclear-armed alliance, as well as the concept of deterrence in mainland Europe, depends on an assumption that the US would be prepared to engage in all-out nuclear war in the event of an otherwise unstoppable incursion into another NATO member state. That is no more credible under Biden than it was under Trump. Whether such a debunking of NATO’s status as a nuclear alliance is enough ‘cover’ to excuse the SNP’s decision to join NATO is a matter of opinion. I don’t find it so, and remain deeply disappointed by the SNP’s move away from the sort of defence posture followed by the Republic of Ireland, which looks to me a far better model for an independent Scotland (or Wales).

Does that mean that the SNP’s stance on closure of the base at Faslane is little more than gesture politics, at the expense of Scottish jobs, as Labour’s Baillie suggests? I think not. Whilst I’d like to believe that being forced to build a new base in Greater England might encourage a future Greater England government to think again about whether and why it should retain nuclear weapons, I suspect that’s just a pipe dream on my part. There seems little prospect that they will ever abandon their delusions of power and greatness, and the need to wave their missiles around is fundamental to that. But there is nevertheless a sense in which Baillie is wrong. Whilst it’s true that a single decision by one small country like Scotland has little effect overall, disarmament is necessarily a step by step process, and some of those steps will be very small. Labour’s argument that Scotland should do nothing is tantamount to arguing that no country should do anything; it’s a recipe for making no progress at all. And to misquote Neil Armstrong, even if it’s a tiny step for the world, it’s a giant leap for Scotland; it’s the biggest single thing that they can do to promote the idea of ridding the world of the scourge of nuclear weapons. I’m sure that the SNP will get this one right this weekend.

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Which 'crisis' are they really trying to solve?

 

In the light of yesterday’s announcement of a hike in National Insurance contributions, some have claimed that this is an example of what they call ‘intergenerational unfairness’, since it means that those in work are paying for the care of retirees. Indeed, even some Labour figures are echoing the same line. This is, though, to misunderstand the way NI works. It has always been the case that people in work pay in during their working years to support today’s retirees, on the understanding that tomorrow’s workers would support them in the same way. That’s the deal, the contract; it’s why people say with legitimacy that they’ve ‘paid in all their lives’ and are now entitled to the benefits which were promised to them. That’s the way NI has always worked. It’s not a bug, nor a problem; it’s a feature. It’s the way it was designed to work. It only becomes a matter of ‘intergenerational unfairness’ if someone suggests that the contract will be broken, and that those paying in today will not receive the benefits when their turn comes.

Whether it’s the right way or the best way of doing things is another matter entirely. It’s always been actuarially unsound in that the money paid in has never been put aside to pay future benefits, but is instead simply added to the general tax take and spent as the government wishes. But that doesn’t matter: as long as the government stands by the promise to pay, the scheme remains sustainable. The problem arises when a government wants to renege on the promises made by its predecessors (or in the case of Boris Johnson, even those it made itself) and avoid providing the promised benefits for which people were led to believe that they had spent up to 50 years contributing. Whether honouring that promise, that contract between the state and its citizens, depends on tax rises or not depends on a number of factors, and those factors vary over time. They also vary according to ideology. But let us accept, for the sake of argument, that increasing longevity coupled with increasing needs for care means that the government needs to raise taxes in some form to meet the costs: what is the best and fairest way to do that?

One of the problems with NI is that it is not a progressive tax; higher earners pay proportionately less than lower earners. Adding a levy to income tax would be a far more progressive way of achieving the same thing. (A tax on wealth would be another.) The government seems to have shied away from that option for two reasons. The first is that their focus groups and opinion polls have told them that it will be easier to ‘sell’ a hike in NI than an income tax hike, particularly if people can be persuaded that the money is going to a specific purpose of which they approve. (It isn’t, of course: it’s just going to be added to general government revenue, and after the first year, any relationship between the size of the levy and the spend in the relevant area will be entirely arbitrary.) The second is that, because employers’ NI is also being increased, the amount of the increase appearing on payslips as an additional deduction will look lower for NI than it would for income tax. This does, of course, assume that people will not understand the relationship between increased employers’ NI on the one hand and price increases and reduced wage increases on the other; any increase in taxation on businesses will eventually come out of the pockets of the employees and customers. Sadly, it’s probably an accurate assumption on the part of the government.

The bigger problem with yesterday’s announcement is that the crisis that it is intended to solve isn’t the one that the government says it is. One has only to consider who the real beneficiaries are to realise that. By and large, those who will benefit from steps taken to avoid the need for the elderly moving into care to sell their home to pay for it aren’t those elderly people themselves, but those who stand to inherit those homes on the deaths of the owners. (There are, of course, exceptions to that, such as situations where one or more of those caring for an individual live in the same home and have no other, but that isn’t the most usual situation.) What that means is that the main beneficiaries from any policy designed to avoid having to sell houses to pay for care tend to be middle-aged; and the wealthier their parents are, the more they stand to gain. The crisis being solved here isn’t the crisis of paying for care, it is the ‘crisis’ of largely Tory voters (not to say donors) facing the loss (or attrition in the value) of the inheritance which they see as being rightly theirs. Professor Richard Murphy put that in stark terms this morning: Yesterday’s tax plans were all about capturing tax revenues for private gain to the wealthy at cost to working people”.

We do face a care crisis; quality care in later life is increasingly out of reach for far too many people. The causes of that are many and varied, but they are certainly not helped by a government which has deliberately reduced the availability of carers, and a succession of governments which have attempted to privatise and cut spending. The economic story of recent decades has been about the increasing transfer of wealth from the many to the few; paying properly for care depends on reversing that process, not promoting it. The UK, as one of the world’s richest countries, has the resources to provide proper quality care for all those who need it, but has chosen not to. Nothing in yesterday’s announcement comes near to the fundamental change of approach which is needed. It might, though, benefit the Tories financially and electorally, despite the crocodile tears of some of their MPs.

Monday, 6 September 2021

Falling bridges

 

It is not entirely unreasonable for someone to be making plans for the death of a 95 year old woman, particularly if that woman just happens to be the head of state. And whatever one might think about the way in which the UK’s head of state is chosen, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that the various parliaments within the UK might decide, when the death is announced, that they will suspend their deliberations for a period as a mark of respect. It seems, though, according to the plans leaked last week, that it will not be up to them; it has already been decided by someone in London that that will happen without waiting for those parliaments to decide for themselves. The exquisitely Ruritanian exception, apparently, is that in the event that the UK Parliament finds itself in recess at the time, it will be recalled in order to adjourn itself. It has also already been decided that on the seventh day after the death, the Senedd will pass a motion of condolence and the new king will travel to Cardiff to receive it. Whether any of the elected members have any say on any of this is a question answered only by the fact that no other possibility seems to have been considered. However reasonable the proposed actions might be in themselves, there seems to be a certain detachment from the idea of democracy here.

In order that no-one eavesdropping on any Prime Ministerial conversations understands what has happened in the few minutes before an official newsflash makes the actual public announcement, the PM will be given the message in code, being told merely that “London Bridge is down”. Presumably, now that this particular code has been broadcast to the world, the civil servants will have to come up with a new code phrase instead. How can they choose a suitable phrase allowing the secret to be maintained for a whole ten minutes - and, more relevantly, why on earth does anyone think that it needs to be?

My favourite bit of all, though, came in the Guardian’s report on the same story which tells us that one of the big concerns of those writing the plans is the “potential for public anger if Downing Street cannot lower its flags to half-mast within 10 minutes of the announcement since there is no ‘flag officer’”. Perhaps I’m underestimating the degree to which the reality at the time will match the pre-scripted outpouring of official grief, but I’m struggling to believe that people will take to the streets (or even just write cross letters to the newspapers) protesting at the absence of a designated flag-lowering person in Downing Street if it means that a whole eleven minutes passes between the announcement and the lowering of the flag. Or could it just possibly be that those drawing up the plans have ever-so-slightly lost the plot?


Thursday, 26 August 2021

Unaffordability is a myth

 

One of the standard objections to allowing refugees access to the UK is that the UK is unable to look after ‘its own people’. It’s usually expressed in terms of questioning why refugees should have priority over homeless people / unemployed people / poor people / military veterans* (*select disfavoured group according to preference). Superficially, it’s not a wholly unreasonable question to ask. It is, though, completely the wrong question, and is based on a series of invalid premises. The invalid premises are that the UK is unable to support those living here who currently need support; that that inability is due to a lack of resources; and that using limited resources to help one group therefore necessarily means that other groups cannot be helped. Take away those premises, and the right question to ask is why, in one of the world’s richest countries, there is so much poverty and homelessness, whether amongst long-standing residents or new arrivals.

In global terms, the UK is a rich – very rich – country. Domestic poverty and hunger aren’t a result of any lack of resources, they’re a result of the way those resources are distributed. And that distribution is a result of a deliberate political choice – which means that it could be changed by making a different political choice. It does, though, suit the ruling classes in the UK to pretend that eliminating poverty, hunger, and homelessness are ‘unaffordable’, and it suits them even more to allow justifiable anger about those issues to be directed at immigrants and refugees rather than at themselves. ‘Divide and rule’ has long been the preferred approach of ruling classes everywhere, and the UK is no exception. Persuading the less well-off that the ‘problem’ is caused by those even poorer than themselves is just the current manifestation of that approach. The saddest part is seeing so many swept along by the big lie that ‘we can’t afford’ to help refugees fleeing a situation that our own government did so much to create.

Friday, 20 August 2021

It's almost certainly not the zeal of the converted.

 

Wales’s ‘go-to’ politician, when the media want a silly quote delivered by a man whose only moving part seems to be his mouth, is the man who manages to be both the ex-leader and the future ex-leader of the Conservative group in the Senedd, Andrew RT Davies. And as a bonus, sometimes he doesn’t even wait to be asked; his incoherence can also be entirely spontaneous and unprompted, as in today’s demand for an independent Welsh inquiry into the handling of Covid.

There are some good reasons for having a separate Welsh inquiry, just as there are some good reasons for not holding one, although Davies seems to be having some difficulty articulating the former. That’s probably because his only real reason is his belief that a separate inquiry will do more to damage the Labour government than a UK-wide inquiry. It may or may not be true; there is surely at least an equal chance that separate inquiries will do more to expose the comparison between approaches in Wales and England, to say nothing of revealing what else could have been different if Wales had more devolved power. He should remember who will appoint the inquiry's leader (spoiler: it won't be Andrew RT Davies). In lieu of saying what he really means, and absent any ability to come up with anything better, he’s resorted to saying that Wales will be consigned “to a solitary, overlooked chapter” in any UK-wide investigation. That sounds like the story of Welsh life in general to me, but for the leader of the so-called ‘Welsh’ Conservatives to declare in such an open and forthright manner that the problem with UK-wide processes set up by the Conservative government in Westminster is that they are guaranteed to largely ignore the different circumstances of Wales is either a Damascene conversion or else shows an almost incredible lack of self-awareness. There aren’t many who’d put their money on the former.

Thursday, 19 August 2021

Beyond hope or redemption

 

In a manner which uses a rather curious definition of ‘honouring commitments made’, the UK Government has agreed to take an arbitrary number, bearing no relation to either need or the criteria on which it is claimed to be based, of refugees from the catastrophe which it has helped to create in Afghanistan. But not all at once; the numbers accepted will be spread over a five year period. To qualify for this largesse on the part of the UK, refugees need to find their own way out of their country, and travel to the UK without passing through any other country which the UK Government deems safe (because if they do, they will be regarded as having passed up on the chance to be accepted in that other country), and spend potentially 4 or 5 years in a refugee camp somewhere while the UK gets around to processing their applications. Whether by action of the new Afghan government, disease or taking risks in the process, a fair number of those who might otherwise qualify will clearly never make it.

Still, never let it be said that the UK government is unable to be imaginative or innovative in its approach: holding out the possibility of posthumous refugee status is a world first. It’s also a new low for the conscience-free regime currently running the UK. Apparently, according to the PM in his speech to parliament yesterday, instead of feeling an entirely natural degree of shame at what has been done in our name, we must all take great pride in the huge strides made for women’s rights in those parts of Afghanistan which were briefly occupied by Western forces, even while we watch those rights being stripped away as the country returns to fundamentalist misogyny. It’s delusional, of course; but the participation of the UK in the original invasion was born out of the same basic delusion, which is that the UK is some sort of great player righting the world’s wrongs across the globe rather than an increasingly insignificant offshore European island. It sometimes seems as if there is no event or circumstance sufficiently powerful to shatter the delusion. Even after the UK is split asunder, and the writ of Westminster is reduced to the English rump of the UK, I suspect that those ruling England will continue to cling to their strange notions of greatness and exceptionalism. There truly is no hope for them.

Friday, 13 August 2021

A level grades are a blunt instrument

 

The report last week that the UK Government is being ‘forced’ to fund more places in English universities to train doctors and dentists as a result of ‘grade inflation’ raises more questions than it answers. At a simplistic level, the problem is easily understood – if pupils get higher grades at A level than would have been the case had they sat exams, then more people will meet the grade-based criteria for entry onto the courses. But if those people are suitable to become doctors and dentists under one system, what is it about sitting exams which would somehow have made them unsuitable? If Pupil X gets an A* when assessed by his or her teachers but ‘only’ a B in an exam, why is the same pupil, with the same knowledge and abilities, doctor material in the first case but not in the second? How do we ‘know’ that pupils with an A* grade obtained in an examination can go on to be successful doctors and dentists, whilst those with a B cannot?

Using grades obtained by an adolescent in his or her last year at school as an absolute determinant of his or her future career prospects seems almost designed to waste a lot of potential talent. Clearly, the grades obtained by pupils at A level tell us something about how much work and effort those pupils have expended, how much knowledge they have accumulated, and how likely they are to apply themselves to their work at university, but they aren’t – and can’t be – as definitive as the way in which they seem to be being used. Exams are in some ways a blunt instrument; they are not an assessment method which suits all, and the circumstances in which a pupil finds him or herself on one particular day may not be representative of that pupil’s general character and approach. And although all of us want those providing our medical care to have the necessary knowledge and expertise, it’s not at all clear that the precise grade obtained in A level Biology is a particularly good indicator of that.

We know that there is a shortage of doctors and dentists in the UK, and that the UK is simply not training enough to meet our needs. We also know that this is a problem which cannot be resolved quickly, given the length of time it takes to train people. But neither is it a recent problem: it is a long-running problem under successive governments, whether Tory or Labour, which share an ideological commitment to competition and markets. What this so-called ‘grade inflation’ underlines is that that shortage is not a result of a lack of people wanting to become doctors and dentists, nor is it a question of their suitability for the role. It is the result of decisions by successive governments to limit the number of places, largely on financial grounds. They have made a deliberate choice to train fewer than we need and recruit people trained outside the UK instead, in the process not only rejecting many of those who want to follow careers as doctors and dentists and have the ability to do so, but also depriving other countries of the benefits of their own investment in training. Any government which was serious about providing proper health care for its citizens would start by looking at how many people it needs to train to provide that care and then provide enough places to meet that need, rather than setting a financially-driven cap on the number of places and filling those places through market-style competition. It is yet another example of a government decision driven by ideology rather than need.

Tuesday, 10 August 2021

Do the Tories understand capitalism?

 

It might appear a silly question, given that the Tories are generally regarded as being the party of capitalism, but some of the things they have said and done recently give rise to more than a vague doubt about the answer. And that’s not just a question about Brexit, legion though the examples might be in that regard.

One of the key features, allegedly, about market capitalism is that it promotes innovation. Sometimes that innovation is purely the result of intense competition, but at other times it’s a response to changing market conditions or external shock. In any event, according to the theory, the most innovative businesses will thrive as a result whereas those adhering to outdated business models will go to the wall. The idea that those working for those failing companies should be left to their fate is an uncomfortable one for many of those of us opposed to unregulated capitalism, but for the enthusiasts, it’s a necessary and indeed desirable feature.

One recent such external shock has been the Covid-19 pandemic. It forced many businesses to experiment with different working patterns and to employ already available technology to facilitate more flexibility. The best employers have seen the benefits of this for both themselves and their employees and are already looking to embed the new working practices in their future business models. Admittedly, it hasn’t been so easy for those employers who start from an assumption that they need to measure and rigidly control hours worked by their staff, none of whom can, apparently, be trusted further than they can be thrown, rather than consider productivity or output, but such companies are capitalism’s natural victims of innovation. However, it isn’t just the businesses adopting (or failing to adopt) new practices which have been impacted – as capitalist theory would suggest, there’s also been an impact on other companies in the wider economy. In this case, that includes businesses such as city centre shops, restaurants etc, all of which have seen a fall-off in footfall, and which are now facing the probability that they will never be able to fully recover. Market conditions have changed, and their scope for adaptation is limited.

The response from some Tories has been to demand that people must be forced to return to their offices in the city centres, as we saw from former Tory leader, Ian Duncan Smith earlier this week, in his case talking about civil servants. But to return to my opening question – does he understand the market capitalism he claims to espouse? Demanding that organisations return to working methods and practices which have been superseded by events in order to protect some old businesses which will otherwise be unable to survive in the new world seems to owe more to the thinking of Ned Ludd than modern market capitalism. The question for thinking capitalists (to say nothing of those of us who consider the system to be flawed anyway) ought to be about how we support people during the transition to a different type of economy, not how we resist changes which will benefit many as well as reducing carbon-expensive travel.

Saturday, 7 August 2021

Underestimating his contribution

 

Boris Johnson’s crass comments about Thatcher’s contribution to avoiding climate change by closing mines were not only insensitive to the affected communities, they were also, as is usual for the fact-free world he inhabits, plain wrong. Thatcher’s pit closures had nothing at all to do with reducing the use of coal; they merely outsourced its production to other countries.

But, following his strange logic for a moment, he was underestimating his own more than modest contribution to reducing the UK’s carbon footprint. After all, if it hadn’t been for the way he handled the Covid pandemic, there would be tens of thousands more old people still alive today burning fossil fuels to keep warm. If it weren’t for his Brexit deal, there’d be many more lorries on the roads ferrying wholly unnecessary food supplies around the country (and from the European mainland) to fill supermarket shelves. He’s saving millions of food miles at a stroke. And we should not forget that the planned reversal of the Universal Credit uplift will directly reduce the spending power of millions of people, in turn reducing their demand for goods and services and the carbon cost of producing them. Given the complete disregard for the consequences of government actions on people and communities displayed by his comments on pit closures, it’s surprising that he hasn’t yet claimed the credit for any of this.

Friday, 6 August 2021

Progressive isn't the same thing as anti-Tory

 

Not entirely unexpectedly, given the poor performance of the Labour Party in recent months, the idea of forming what has erroneously been called a ‘progressive alliance’ has been rearing its ugly head again. Leaving aside the obvious lack of understanding by London-based political commentators of Welsh and Scottish politics (what on earth leads them to believe, even for a moment, that parties like the SNP and Plaid would want to be part of a formal coalition government to run the UK for five years, as opposed to a looser arrangement which allows Labour to govern in return for specific concessions?), there are plenty of reasons for the Labour leadership to reject the idea outright. Whilst it’s clear that the Lib Dems might be natural bedfellows for the Labour Party, why would a party so committed to austerity economics as the Labour Party want to constrain itself by an agreement with parties such as the Green Party, the SNP and Plaid which reject austerity? Why would a party so committed to the possession and renewal of weapons of mass destruction as the Labour Party want to constrain its ability to incinerate millions by trying to reach an agreement with parties which seek to scrap nuclear weapons?

It seems, however, that it’s not for obvious policy reasons like that that the Labour leadership rejects any sort of agreement with the Greens, SNP and Plaid at all – it’s because of their fear that the Tories might use any hint of an accommodation with the SNP in an appeal to an increasingly aggressive form of English nationalism (as if Labour haven’t already lost most of the English nationalist vote already). In effect, they would prefer to leave the Tories in government indefinitely than take a principled position against what has become the core driver of the English Conservative and Unionist Party. In the meantime, the Tories are using the absolute power given to them by a distorted electoral system which is unfit for purpose to promote a series of measures, including active voter suppression, to cement their undemocratic hold on power by uniting around 35 – 40% of English electors behind them.

There are serious problems with the whole concept of a ‘progressive alliance’, not the least of which is that the biggest party in any such alliance is hardly worthy of the description ‘progressive’. What is really meant is not a ‘progressive’ alliance at all, but a non-Tory alliance, as though being ‘not-a-Tory’ is, in itself, sufficient ground to unite a disparate group of parties around a five-year plan for government. It isn’t, and it is never going to be. What might, as an outside chance, be possible would be a much looser joint commitment by all the non-Tory forces to electoral reform, with a promise that they would jointly act to introduce STV and then call a new election under the new system within two years of them being elected on that platform. Coupled with vague hints that anyone supporting such an approach should consider voting for whichever pro-STV candidate was most likely to win in any given constituency (Labour are never going to agree to stand down candidates in a general election, and people should really stop predicating their analysis on an assumption that they will), that might just open a route away from a system of politics which gives absolute power to a single party on the basis of a minority of the votes.

Whilst it’s impossible to be certain what that might mean for future governments – changing the system might also change voting behaviour – it seems probable that long periods of single party rule would be consigned to history, and we would end up with governments which were forced to pay attention to alternative views and seek accommodations with them. Even this weak version of an alliance looks unlikely currently, though. Whilst Plaid, the SNP, the Greens and the Lib Dems are all committed to electoral reform, the Labour party is another question entirely. There are certainly individuals within the party supportive of STV (former Welsh minister Alun Davies, for example, has often indicated his support), but the London-based leadership is lukewarm at best. It often appears that they are content for the Tories to be in unconstrained government for 90% of the time in exchange for having their turn for the other 10%, and that they’d sooner be out of power completely than compromise with anyone else. Unless and until that changes, not only is any sort of alliance impossible – it’s actually pointless. Starmer’s reported comments this week are not exactly a cause for optimism.

Monday, 2 August 2021

Distorting the meaning of words

 

The timing of today’s announcement of a new UK coin celebrating the fantasy world invented by Lewis Carroll is very apt, coming as it does on the heels of yesterday’s announcement by the Queen of Hearts Michael Gove that Scotland can have another referendum on independence when it becomes the ‘settled will’ of the Scottish electors. In true Wonderland style, that ‘settled will’ is a matter for the exclusive determination of the UK government using criteria which they will neither explain nor justify, but which absolutely definitely excludes counting the results of any elections held to date or which might be held in the future in which supporters of holding such a referendum win a majority, and which will be found to have arbitrarily changed whenever they are in danger of being met. As Carroll put it:

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."

What appears at first sight to be a change from the UK Government’s anti-democratic position that a referendum will never be permitted turns out to be little more than a re-statement of the same answer in terms which eliminate all possibility of logical counter-argument. At least Lewis Carroll knew that he was writing fantasy; it’s doubtful that Gove understands the difference.

Friday, 30 July 2021

Competitive recklessness

 

One of the more boring but predictable aspects of pandemic politics has been the regularity with which the 'Welsh' branch of the English Conservative and Unionist Party has demanded that the Welsh Government should follow the English lead in all respects, in order to maintains ‘consistency’. Leaving aside for a moment that ‘consistency’, like honesty and integrity, is one those attributes mostly conspicuous by their absence in their English leader, there’s a certain irony that people who have spent years arguing for Brexit precisely so that the UK could follow different rules to that alien place across the water called Europe should now find themselves arguing that having different rules between neighbouring administrations is confusing, but that is not something that particularly concerns them.

When it comes to relaxing restrictions, they do seem to be making the assumption that that is what most people want, despite the fact that opinion polls regularly suggest that the majority – in England as in Wales – would prefer caution. Most people have probably been able to work out that ‘learning to live with the virus’ is actually a euphemism for ‘encouraging a higher than necessary number of premature deaths’, but then, they’re not interested in most people, only in that magic 35-40% which is enough to give them absolute power the UK on the basis of the electorate in the only part that really matters to them, namely England.

Whether Mark Drakeford’s more cautious approach has always been right is a moot point, and something that will only really be understood properly after the event. The scale and lethality of the virus has created an unprecedented situation in much of the world, and different governments have responded in different ways, all of which have positives and negatives attached to them. What has been clear throughout, however, is the differing motivations of the different players here in the UK. Drakeford has consistently erred on the side of trying to reduce the numbers of premature deaths and serious illness, whereas Johnson is conducting an unethical mass experiment on the population at large by deliberately pursuing a policy which he knows will lead to more death and sickness in the hope that the numbers will ultimately be considered ‘acceptable’ and that any new variants arising out of the experiment will not be vaccine-resistant. If it works out, he will claim to have been prescient, but, like the gambler who ‘knew’ which horse was going to win, it will owe more to luck. But then, for Johnson the stakes are low. He’s not taking the massive risk which some have claimed – the only thing he’s risking is his reputation, and in his case that’s no risk at all. The real risk is being taken by the involuntary subjects of his experiment.

In truth, the differences between the actions taken by Drakeford and Johnson aren’t as different as the politicians make out – and given the nature of the border between the two jurisdictions and the limited nature of devolution, that is hardly a surprise. Many of the differences when it comes to ending lockdowns are to do with sequencing of actions rather than the substance, which leads to Wales being later than England in some respects and earlier in others. Which of them has got the sequencing right is another unanswerable question; it’s a question of balancing the advantages and risks and forming an opinion as to what suits the differing circumstances best. Demanding that all should move at the pace of the fastest in all respects might be good politics but it’s bad epidemiology. It’s ‘disappointing’ (others might prefer a stronger word there) to see the English Labour leader joining in the same game in the hope of political advantage by demanding that Johnson should follow the Welsh lead in areas where Wales has acted earlier. Arguing that Wales has got the order right and England has got it wrong is one thing – but this was an argument for taking an increased level of risk. Starmer is in danger of finding himself as out of touch with the public desire for caution as Johnson.

Friday, 23 July 2021

The system is broken

 

Earlier this week, referring to some of the comments which Dominic Cummings alleges to have been made by the Prime Minister about coronavirus only killing the over-80s, Nicola Sturgeon said that any leader 'glib about human life' should consider whether they are fit for office. She’s right in principle, but there is a problem with her suggestion in practice, as this simple Venn diagram demonstrates.

A: People capable of considering whether they are fit for office

B: Narcissistic sociopaths

It’s not a fully scientific assessment of course, given that it’s based on such a small sample, but the lack of any overlap appears likely to hold true in general. And it also highlights a serious problem with the UK constitution. There is no provision for dealing with a PM who shows himself utterly unfit for office, even when the result of that unfitness is manifested in tens of thousands of unnecessary and avoidable premature deaths. Instead, the political system hands absolute power to the leader of the party which gains the highest number of seats, even when they are won on the basis of a minority of votes. And he or she then holds that absolute power until either a new election is called or until his or her own party’s members turn against the incumbent. The US has the twenty-fifth amendment which, although very imperfect and with serious difficulties around invoking it, shows that there has at least been some thought given to the possibility of a rogue president. Other countries fall back, ultimately, on military coups to remove failing politicians from power. The UK, on the other hand, not only has no mechanism for removing a failing PM who "lies so blatantly, so naturally, so regularly"D. Cummings), but insists that members of the legislature must always refer to him as ‘honourable', even when he is patently anything but, and that any MP who directly points out an untruth must be excluded. A system which punishes the witnesses and repeatedly exonerates the perpetrator deserves only contempt.

Trump famously said that he “…could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and [he] wouldn't lose voters”. It’s the sort of blind loyalty which is expected of Tory MPs towards their leader, no matter how egregious that leader’s behaviour becomes. And whilst they may mount an occasional minor rebellion over some detail or other of policy, it’s the sort of blind loyalty that Johnson is currently getting, to the extent that his MPs and ministers are willing to appear on the media defending something he’s said or done, only to find – just a few hours later – that he’s performed another U-turn. They learn nothing, feel no embarrassment or shame, and repeat the process over and over. A political system which depends on finding a spark of decency and a fragment of backbone amongst the current crop of Tory MPs is broken, and badly so. And the consequences are being felt by the oldest and most vulnerable citizens. Those who tell Wales and Scotland that we should stay and fight for a reformed UK rather than opt out and build better systems for ourselves need to point to a credible mechanism which can allow that to happen, because at the moment there doesn't seem to be one.

Tuesday, 20 July 2021

Staying popular with the horses

 

It’s easy to understand how the English government has concluded that having hundreds of young people packed together in poorly ventilated venues such as nightclubs while large numbers of people in the relevant age group are still unvaccinated is not the most brilliant idea ever, although it’s a lot harder to understand why it was not so obvious until hours after declaring that the clubs could open. How exactly did something so blindingly obvious only become so after it had happened? It’s also easy to understand how they concluded that taking steps to mitigate the problem by only allowing in those who have been fully vaccinated is better than doing nothing at all, once the original mistake has been committed. But I struggle to imagine the conversation around this which led to the conclusion that the right thing to do was postpone the implementation until after most of those concerned have been fully vaccinated. It’s a bit like a committee running a stable full of horses which takes a decision to change the lock after the first horse has bolted, but then decides to delay implementing the decision until after the last horse has escaped. It might well be more popular with the horses, but that’s rather losing sight of the original objective.

Friday, 16 July 2021

Magic sauce and ketchup

 

‘Incoherence’ and ‘bluster’ are two of the kinder descriptions which people have applied to yesterday’s speech by the UK’s Prime Minister, which majored on what he appears to think was memorable rhetoric about magic sauce and ketchup rather than on any identifiable substance. The lack of detail was palpable, and much of it was just a rehash of previous announcements, with the possible exception of an extra £50 million for football pitches. It’s almost as though he thinks that saying something is tantamount to making it happen, and that people are being unkind and unfair if they don’t fall over themselves to praise him for saying it instead of asking awkward questions about how and when he’ll actually do it.

Even some of his own MPs are starting to get restless, harbouring suspicions that there may not be any grand plan underlying the rhetoric, and that he not only doesn’t know how to deliver, but has no intention of doing so anyway. The fact that some of them are harbouring suspicions proves only that they’re marginally faster on the uptake than those who haven’t even got to the ‘harbouring suspicions’ stage, but then being slow on the uptake is the main qualification for being a Johnsonite Tory. When the brightest amongst them are those who have a vague feeling that Johnson might just possibly be a tad insincere and devoid of any plan of action, we know that we’re in rather a large pickle. And one made without magic sauce at that.

The Queen of Hearts used to spend half an hour a day practising so that she could believe six impossible things before breakfast. It’s doubtful that Johnson bothers to practice. On the other hand, he might not need to, because he almost certainly doesn’t believe what he says either. Some of his MPs, however, clearly do need a lot more practice. The purpose of yesterday’s speech, according to the advance notice briefed to the media, was to reassure Tory members and voters in the south of England that it was possible to spread prosperity across the whole of the UK without taking anything away from what are currently the most prosperous areas. Technically, it’s true (although uttering a truth of any sort was probably an accident), but only if one ceases to believe the deeply ingrained Tory mantra that the total amount of money is limited and that any government spending on one area demands a cut somewhere else. Given that the Tories have spent decades promoting and reinforcing this myth (and the Chancellor is still busily repeating it), the surprise is not that some of their members and supporters believe that ‘levelling up’ must inevitably imply a transfer of resources from the south east to the rest of the UK, but that so few of them are rebelling to date. (I was going to say ‘revolting’ there, but prefaced by the words ‘so few of them’, it seemed somehow inappropriate.)

It’s been suggested that one of the reasons for abolishing all Covid restrictions is that he’s simply become bored with the whole pandemic business. Given his obvious short attention span, that’s entirely credible. Sooner or later he’ll get bored with the whole levelling up business as well, particularly if people keep asking him difficult questions about the detail. His MPs had better start that half an hour a day practice so that they’re ready to parrot whatever he comes up with next.

Thursday, 15 July 2021

At least they didn't get it backdated

These days, it is (rightly) considered politically incorrect to refer to the nationality of the hapless trade union negotiator who, when he returned from arduous discussions with the employer, told his members, “There’s good news and there’s bad news. The bad news is that I didn’t get us a pay rise; in fact I’ve agreed a pay cut. But the good news is that I got it backdated.” Whatever his nationality, he would clearly have felt fully at home as a rebel MP in the English Conservative Party.

Earlier this week, those brave enough to rebel against the authoritarian nationalists who have taken over their party set out to reverse a wholly unnecessary and mean-spirited cut to overseas aid, a cut which owes more to the fact that it is electorally popular with the section of the electorate whose support the government seeks to retain than to any financial considerations. They ended up not only failing to overturn it, but setting the cut in concrete for the foreseeable future. When it came to the vote, they discovered that many of those who they thought were going to take a principled stand alongside them turned out to be innumerate as well as unprincipled and allowed themselves to be bought off by a promise that the cut was only ‘temporary’, and that the aid would be restored when the government’s budget on day-to-day spending returned to surplus.

Budget surpluses are a regular feature of government spending forecasts, invariably just a few years away, but they are conspicuous only by their absence in the historical records of out-turn. According to this report from the House of Commons Library, “Since 1970/71, the government has had a surplus (spent less than it received in revenues) in only six years. The last budget surplus was in 2000/01.” The prospect of a revenue surplus in the foreseeable future is negligible, which means that the ‘temporary’ cut has now become an indefinite one. If there is any good news at all here, I suppose it is that the rebels proved themselves even more hapless than that trade union negotiator: at least they didn’t manage to get the aid cuts backdated.


Wednesday, 14 July 2021

Using the word 'freedom' is a deliberate attempt to mislead

 

According to government statistics, an average of around 1800 people are killed on the roads in the UK each year. That’s around 5 people each and every day. Some of those are the result of drivers breaking the speed limits or driving under the influence, but the existence of laws prohibiting both undoubtedly means that fewer are killed as a result of speeding or drinking than would be the case of the laws didn’t exist. We don’t know exactly how many deaths have been prevented by those laws, but we do know that around 5000 fewer people are killed on the roads each year now than was the case in the 1960s. Those laws aren’t the only contributory factors in the reduction, of course: road improvements and vehicle improvements have also contributed. But the contribution of reduced speed is so strong that many are arguing for even tougher action. If we suppose, for the sake of argument, that all of the lives saved are due to the laws on things like speeding, drink driving and the use of seat belts, then simple maths tells us that the maximum numbers of premature deaths prevented is around 13-14 per day. There are very few people who would seriously argue that this number of deaths is so low that we should just ‘live with it’, and ‘restore people’s freedom’ to drive at whatever speed they choose and drink as much as they like before getting behind the wheel, depending instead on their own good judgement and sense of responsibility.

Yet that is exactly the approach being taken by the UK Government in response to Covid. It is now the official policy of the UK Government that, for the next month or three (after which they assume, with little by way of supporting evidence, that the pandemic will be over as far as the UK is concerned) up to 200 people per day should die at the peak of the third wave and up to 2,000 per day should be hospitalised in order to give us the ‘freedom’ to decide for ourselves whether or not to take some simple and inexpensive steps to protect ourselves and others from onward transmission of the virus.

It’s not as if the argument about ‘freedom’ is significantly different from that relating to driving laws. I’m old enough to remember that opponents of drink driving laws and compulsory seat belts both argued at the time that the laws were an unwarranted interference with their personal liberty, and they should have the ‘right’ to decide for themselves whether to wear a seat belt or drink before driving. And there were also the familiar arguments about banning drinking and driving having a disastrous impact on some businesses such as pubs and restaurants. The difference is that, at the time, the government of the day was convinced of the value of the laws and presented them in terms of taking necessary steps to protect lives rather than as a restriction on freedom. With consistent messaging along those lines, and the passage of time, public attitudes changed – those laws enjoy considerably more support now than they did at the time. Laws, even apparently unenforceable ones, can and do change perceptions and attitudes over time.

The current government has, from the outset of the pandemic, given the impression of acting only reluctantly if at all, and now seems to be valuing the right of some to infect others above the right of those others not to be infected. It values individual selfishness over any sense of collective solidarity to protect each other. They have deliberately chosen to frame the debate around relaxing restrictions in terms of ‘freedom’ (despite knowing full well that it will feel like anything but ‘freedom’ to the most vulnerable now being forced into some sort of self-imposed lockdown) rather than in terms of avoiding premature deaths. Worse, a weak and spineless opposition, aided and abetted by a sycophantic media which is unwilling to call out the government for its lies and spin, have allowed themselves to be bounced into debating on the same terms. The very use of the term ‘Freedom Day’ by anyone outside the government is itself a capitulation to a mindset which is prepared to sacrifice thousands of the weakest and most vulnerable members of society in order to advance the economic interests of the richest.

Friday, 9 July 2021

Dividing to conquer

 

Whilst death and taxes may be life’s only absolute certainties, there are other things which run them close. Amongst those are that the English Conservative and Unionist Party will always attempt to balance the government’s budget at the expense of the poorest, whilst encouraging those just a little better off to blame those poorer than themselves for inequality rather than blaming the richest.

The ‘pensions triple lock’ was designed to ensure that the UK state pension can never lose value over time as it often did previously. In fact, during a period of low inflation and low wage growth, it can have the effect of marginally increasing the value of pensions – for example, if inflation is 2%, the guaranteed minimum increase of 2.5% means that pensions will increase in value by 0.5%. Not a huge amount, but a small slow step towards better pension provision in a country with one of the lowest state pensions in the developed world. The fact that, as a result, state pension increases have been marginally higher than wage increases in recent years doesn’t alter the fact that the poorest pensioners – those entirely dependent on the state pension – remain amongst the poorest in society. There are increasing suggestions that the Chancellor – a man who will never find himself having to live on the basic state pension – is going to alter or suspend the triple lock in order to save money this year.

It’s true that, because of the way the calculation operates, pensioners could be in line for an increase of up to 8% this year as a result of the pandemic, but this would be a ‘one-off’ quirk, and would still leave those dependent solely on the pension as one of the poorest groups in society. Comparing percentage increases – 2% for wages and 8% for pensions – may appear to show that pensioners are getting an unfairly advantageous rise, but it’s a misleading statistic. 8% of £9,340 (current state pension) amounts to an annual increase of £747; 2% of £28,000 (average full time weekly wage) amounts to an annual increase of £560. The difference between the two is a lot smaller put in those terms, and extra purchasing power is always going to be of most benefit to those who have the least of it to start with. It’s also true that many pensioners are not wholly dependent on the state pension and receive occupational or personal pensions of some sort in addition. Those extras are not subject to the triple lock and are likely to increase only in line with wages or inflation, but policy in relation to the basic state pension should surely be set by thinking about those wholly dependent on it, not those receiving additional monies which can and should be taxed appropriately.

The very idea that spending to deal with the pandemic has created a ‘debt’ which needs to be ‘repaid’ is a nonsense anyway, as has been discussed on this blog previously, but attempting to ‘repay’ a non-existent ‘debt’ by keeping the income of the poorest groups low is also an attempt to divide us amongst ourselves. It helpfully diverts attention from the way in which the richest have benefited disproportionately from government spending on the pandemic. Presenting the situation as some sort of conflict between generations (as some seem keen to do) all adds grist to the Tory mill. It also overlooks the power of compounding (referred to earlier this week), which means that the main beneficiaries of a slow growth in pensions over a long period aren’t today’s pensioners at all. They will see only modest benefits from a half per cent or so each year. No; the power of compounding means that the real beneficiaries will be those who are decades away from retirement – precisely those being encouraged to oppose the triple lock today. We should be asking ourselves whose interests are really served most by limiting pensions increases.

I should add another certainty to the list at the start of this post: the Tories will always seek to persuade working people to oppose policies which are in their own best long term interest, and to support those which benefit the Tories and their friends. Sadly, they often succeed.