Friday, 11 June 2021

Understanding numbers

 

Following the opening salvos in the Great Sausage War of 2021, as it will surely come to be known, the PM told us yesterday, in relation to his belief that it should be possible to avoid barriers to trade either in the Irish Sea or on the island of Ireland, that he’s “very very optimistic about this” and that he thinks that it is “easily doable”. He’s right, of course. Conceptually, it’s extremely simple, just like crossbreeding a narwhal with a horse to produce a unicorn is conceptually very simple. The devil is in the detail of how to make it happen in practice. In fairness, he is at least being unusually consistent: what he’s calling for is what he’s always believed that the UK is entitled to – completely free trade with the EU whilst not following any of the EU’s rules. The problem, from the outset, has been that Europeans simply don’t understand how special and unique the UK is, and are making things unnecessarily difficult.

Achieving what he says he wants simply requires one of two things to happen. Either the UK agrees to align its controls on food quality with those in operation at the EU border, or the EU abandons its regulations and allows sausages to flow freely from anywhere in the world. Of the two, it is entirely obvious to everyone (well, everyone of any importance in the eyes of English exceptionalists) why it is the EU which should surrender. Not only are British Sausages inherently superior to all others (you can tell by the union flag on the packet), but more importantly the UK market of 66 million is bigger than the EU market of a mere 450 million, giving the UK the upper hand at all times.

Purist mathematicians may quibble slightly at that, but they need to get with the programme and understand the NewMath which is now the dominant strain within the government party. It’s far from the only example, and nor is it anything new. We were also told yesterday by a Welsh Conservative that 16 is bigger than 43, and the current Welsh Secretary is on record as believing that 1 is bigger than 7. And in relation to a comparison of votes received, they believe that winning 365 seats out of 650 in 2019 gives them an absolute right to rule, whereas the 71 seats out of 129 won by pro-Indy parties in Scotland in 2020 shows that independence has been resoundingly rejected.

One of the problems with NewMath is that, faced with two numbers, none of us can ever be certain which is the larger, or how to interpret them, until the Tories have explained it to us. Then the truth becomes obvious and inarguable. As obvious as the fact that there was never a time when the UK did not exist and that we have always been at war with the rest of Europe over sausages. What Orwell thought was a dystopian novel has become an instruction manual.

Thursday, 10 June 2021

Jaws 5 - The Cornish Connection

At the last meeting of G7 leaders, in 2019, the UK’s Prime Minister swam out into the Atlantic and around a rocky outcrop in some sort of bizarre Brexit analogy. Whether he’ll repeat the gesture during this week’s summit which he is hosting in another Atlantic shoreline town, this time in Cornwall, has not yet been announced, but given his predilection for contorted stunts, it must surely be at least a possibility. Perhaps this time he’ll look for a Covid analogy. He has said, after all, that he wanted to be remembered as the mayor who kept the beaches open. Although, in the version of Jaws that I watched, I was sure that the mayor was the villain, not the hero – not the most obvious choice of role for a known narcissist.

By way of handy coincidence, there was a report less than two months ago that a great white shark called Nukumi was crossing the Atlantic and, according to CornwallLive, could even be making a beeline for Cornwall. There have never been any fully authenticated reports, as far as I am aware, of great whites off the shores of Cornwall, but it’s not an impossibility according to the experts and this has the potential to be a screenwriter’s dream come true. The outcome of the battle between BoJo and Nukumi would be tense, but inevitable; not even Disney could write a script in which the PM could defeat a 253 stone 17foot long shark. The mayor who kept the beaches open finds himself in an epic battle with the beast about which the hero of the piece had been warning him for months – that’s certainly a good Covid analogy – and is ultimately consumed by his very own Nemesis Nukumi. Only after the PM’s empty beanie hat is pictured floating tragically on the surface of the sea do the scientists come along and deal with Nukumi in the way that they had always said would be needed, so that the beaches can once again become safe.

It’s a fantasy, of course, but with just that necessary element of credibility. To whom should I offer the script?


Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Fire, aim, ready

 

Over the past couple of decades, a whole new management approach has been built around the idea that businesses have traditionally spent too much time preparing and targeting rather than acting, and the slogan which sums it up is “Ready, Fire, Aim”, the assumption being that doing something is the most important part and that any errors or problems can be corrected later. As a mantra for business, it’s a little over-simplistic, but it has some merit in discouraging over-analysis and delay. As a mantra for governments, its value is rather less clear, but that hasn’t stopped the current UK government, which even seems to have taken it a bit further – the slogan is more like “Fire, Aim, Ready”. Act first, think about what you were trying to achieve next, and only then ‘prepare’ (or in this case seek to overcome the problems caused by taking the first step without even thinking about the second).

Brexit had to be ‘done’, even if they didn’t know what they were trying to achieve and were obviously unprepared either for the negotiations or the consequences. They signed up to a deal, over Northern Ireland in particular, the consequences of which they appear to have completely failed to understand or consider. And when the other party to the deal, the EU, seeks to implement – and demand that the UK implement – the deal that they have signed rather than agree to a complete renegotiation, this is portrayed as being utterly unreasonable.

Today it appears that, in his haste to sign up to a deal on tax in advance of the G7 meeting, the ex-banker in 11 Downing Street appears not to have noticed that the deal he has struck will hit banking profits. He, too, wants everyone else who is party to the agreement to agree to renegotiate the detail.

And then there was yesterday’s story in the FT about Britain’s new Boris Boat which is, according to the government, going to be built entirely in the UK to show the prowess and success of UK industry and skills. Except that the government signed an agreement with the WTO last year under which shipbuilding for non-military purposes (unless by promoting trade they mean something akin to the opium wars) is very clearly not excluded from the requirement to open up bidding to companies in other countries.

All this could just be down to utter incompetence or the adoption of a misunderstood and inappropriate management slogan. But the FT story may have hit the nail on the head, albeit unintentionally, with this quote from Dmitry Grozoubinski, a trade expert who is visiting professor at the University of Strathclyde: “The government can’t simultaneously present itself as a champion of the rules-based trading system and retain the freedom to ignore those rules whenever politically expedient.” With all due respect to the expert concerned, I rather suspect that that is exactly what the government thinks it can do – and is doing. Nobody can say that we weren’t warned. Johnson and others have said often enough that they want the UK to be ‘buccaneering’, and a key aspect of piracy (as it is otherwise known) is precisely a disregard of the rules which apply to everyone else. As the infamous letter from a teacher at Eton about Johnson makes clear, disregard for any obligations to others is, and always has been, a central character trait. Coupled with an unshakable belief in the truly exceptional nature of the English ruling class, it’s an infallible recipe for turning the UK into the rogue state which it is rapidly becoming. Time to depart.

Monday, 7 June 2021

Narrowing the gap

 

Yesterday’s Sunday Times reported that the English royal family is worried that actions by politicians are going to lose Scotland from their realm, and is consequently deploying William and Kate to visit Scotland more often in an attempt to woo the Scots away from independence. The first part of that seems to be an eminently sensible conclusion to draw. Whilst the PM has announced that ‘the union’ is to be at the heart of everything the government does, the interpretation placed on that by some, which is that Johnson is looking for ways to persuade the Scots and the Welsh that they are better off in the union, is way off beam. In practice it just seems to mean looking at every policy to determine whether it offers another opportunity for undoing the devolution settlement and/or for plastering union flags around the place. Scottish and Welsh sentiments are not to be accommodated or assuaged, but overridden and rejected. The conclusion reached by the royals – that this is likely to be counter-productive – is an obvious one to just about everybody except the PM and his coterie.

The second part of their plan, however, is much more problematic. “I used to support independence because of the way the government treats Scotland, but now that our kids have been given more opportunities to wave little plastic union flags at some younger members of a posh English family” is a thought voiced by no-one, ever. And the mindset behind believing that more royal visits would have such an effect whilst the government continues to trash the devolution settlement is a very strange one indeed. Given that it is perfectly possible (and is the policy of Scottish independentistas for the initial phase of independence at least) to retain the union of crowns whilst ending the union of parliaments, the royal family associating itself with the overtly political aim of maintaining both unions is more akin to lashing themselves to the mast to make sure that they go down with the ship than avoiding the shipwreck.

Whilst opinion polls tell us that the Windsors are considerably more popular in Scotland than Johnson, that is a very low bar to set. It’s entirely possible that a royal charm offensive (which may or may not be an oxymoron) in support of the union will indeed reduce the popularity gap between the Windsors and the Tory leader. Just not necessarily in the way they expect.

Friday, 4 June 2021

Are Welsh Tories demanding that more of us should die?

 

It’s a stark question, but a valid one, given yesterday’s call by the party for the whole of Wales to be moved into Alert Level 1 immediately. It’s in contrast with the continued caution being shown by Mark Drakeford, who is slowing down the unlocking process so that more people can be vaccinated, given the potential impact of the new variant. None of us knows with certainty what the impact of either strategy will be, but experience to date – and all the scientific evidence – indicates that the risk of hospitalisations and deaths will be lower the more people have been vaccinated before the lockdown restrictions are removed.

The underlying question is about how many hospitalisations, deaths, and instances of long Covid are considered ‘acceptable’. Very few people would argue that the whole economy should be shut down for a year to avoid a single death, but equally few would argue against a short shutdown if it would prevent millions of deaths. Neither of those extremes is realistic in the current scenario, but we don’t know exactly where we are in between the two. The best probability, according to the experts, is that an unchecked third wave involving a more infectious and more serious variant could result in a number of deaths in the thousands or tens of thousands, and the more restrictions in place and the greater the number of people who have been vaccinated when it happens, the lower the death toll will be. Governments and opposition politicians are faced with a very simple question – what number is considered ‘acceptable’ when balanced against the costs of maintaining restrictions.

There is no ‘right’ answer to that question, it’s all about making a judgement call. And I don’t envy those who have been placed in the position of having to make it. What’s missing, though is a degree of honesty about the fact that they are making such a call. Governments are taking decisions which literally mean the difference between life and death for thousands, even if they can’t identify who will die and who will live. Underlying those decisions is an opinion about how many deaths they are prepared to tolerate. It’s a number which they don’t actually know themselves, although they have a reasonable idea of the likely ranges associated with different courses of action and different scenarios. It follows that any politicians arguing for faster removal of restrictions are effectively stating that they are prepared to see a higher number of deaths than those arguing that restrictions should be eased more slowly.

So, to answer the headline question – yes, the Tories are indeed calling for more Welsh people to die of Covid. We don’t know how many more (it could be a handful, it could be thousands); we merely know that the number would be higher if the government implemented the Tory proposal. That doesn’t necessarily make the Tories ‘wrong’, however. If the difference in outcome between the policy being followed by Drakeford and that advocated by the Tories were to be provably small, the public (with the probable exception of those who end up dead or in hospital as a result) might even support their position. But presenting it as a case of giving people back their ‘freedom’ without spelling out the health consequences is simply dishonest. The public at large – i.e. those with whose lives they wish to take chances – surely deserve to be told the likely consequences with greater clarity. We deserve an adult conversation rather than populism.

Wednesday, 2 June 2021

Offering impossible options

Nation.Cymru reported on two related stories a few days apart, from different parts of the political spectrum: an interview by Mark Drakeford from Saturday, and an article penned by David Melding from yesterday. They make some very similar points. Mark Drakeford claims that “…the Labour Party’s message of a strong Wales in a United Kingdom still represents where people in Wales want to be”, whilst David Melding says, “… we can have the best of both worlds – a confident Wales in a strong UK”. Much as a long term independentista such as myself might prefer to believe otherwise, I suspect that they’re both right – the sentiment that they both express probably does represent current majority opinion in Wales. And I’m happy to accept that they both believe that a strong Wales in a strong UK is an outcome worth striving for, and that both of them are sincere in trying to promote that outcome.

The problem is, though, that they’re both hopelessly out of step with their own parties on the issue. Whilst Drakeford may be expressing the opinion of a majority of his party’s MSs, and possibly even grass roots members, Welsh Labour MPs are a different kettle of fish. And as for English Labour MPs – well, Lisa Nandy and her views on dealing with independence movements are probably closer to the majority Labour view than Drakeford. As for Melding, he doesn’t even have any significant elements of the Welsh branch of the English Conservative and Unionist Party on board with his views, let alone the central party leadership.

The consequence is that both are offering and promoting something in Wales which they know they cannot deliver. In the case of Labour, delivering Drakeford’s vision depends on firstly convincing the leadership of English Labour that it needs to embrace the concept, and then that Labour needs to win a majority in England to implement it. It’s a tough call as to which of those is the most improbable. As for the Tories, there’s simply no conceivable route towards anything remotely resembling Melding’s vision. Johnson’s response – which is clearly backed throughout his party, in Wales as in England – is to stamp union flags on everything, overrule Welsh and Scottish opinion as democratically expressed by elections, and tell the Welsh and Scots to shut up. Drakeford and Melding are both trying to swim against the tide in their own parties.

The fact that they are probably expressing majority opinion in Wales is neither here nor there: that opinion simply doesn’t count where it matters. As we saw with Brexit, voting for unicorns doesn’t magic them into existence. No matter how sincere this particular pair of unionists might be, and no matter how accurately they might be representing current opinion, they are offering an utterly false prospectus. As a result of the intransigence of their fellow unionists much more than the campaigning of independentistas, the reality is that there are only two choices actually open to Wales to day: independence or subsummation. Trying to tell the people of Wales that they don’t have to make that choice is doing us no favours.


Monday, 31 May 2021

Flags, boats and status symbols

 

There are some circumstances when doing something unique which no-one has done before can be a stroke of brilliance, but it’s much more commonly the case that there are good reasons why no-one has done it before. Certainly, taking a brief pause between that flash of inspiration and moving forward with the implementation provides an opportunity to at least ask, before committing resources to a project, exactly why no-one else has tried it before. That is generally a sensible question to which there are likely to be some very sensible answers. So when Boris Johnson referred to the proposed replacement for the royal yacht with the words “This new national flagship will be the first vessel of its kind in the world, reflecting the UK’s burgeoning status as a great, independent maritime trading nation”, my first thought was to wonder why it would be the first of its kind (closely followed by wondering how the word ‘burgeoning’ could be realistically applied to the trade of a state busily downgrading its most important trade links).

Although being presented as a replacement for the former royal yacht, it’s actually a government boat, which would only be made available to royals when they’re on government business, and the royals themselves already seem to be trying to distance themselves from Johnson’s latest flight of fantasy. The claim is that the new boat (the price of which has already doubled from £100 million to £200 million since Johnson first started promoting the idea) would be “…used to host trade fairs, ministerial summits and diplomatic talks as the UK seeks to build links and boost exports following Brexit.” Whilst it’s easy to see how it might appeal to those who regret the end of British gunboat diplomacy, it’s harder to see what it actually means in practice. If the UK wants to persuade another country to offer it preferential trading terms, why would it believe that asking that other country’s negotiators to meet on UK territory in the form of a boat in one of their ports is more likely to be successful than actually meeting on that other country’s territory in its seat of government? It sounds like just another expression of that strange English exceptionalism, which assumes that lesser countries (i.e. everybody else) look up to the UK and will be suitably impressed by a big boat with lots of flags on it. Are ministers visiting those other countries really going to spend a week or so sailing there, or are they actually going to send the boat along first and then fly out to join a floating palace which may well be berthed some distance away from the capital (New Delhi, for example, is well over 1000 km from the sea)?

Like most of Johnson’s grand schemes, it looks to have been poorly thought through, and to be more about flying union flags semi-aggressively in the ports of other countries than about twenty-first century trade or diplomacy. It’s a status symbol rather than a practical approach to building links, but any state which needs an expensive status symbol to boost the ego and self-image of its rulers is a state which is already failing.

Friday, 28 May 2021

Usurping Plaid's role?

 

There was a Conservative candidate in the Rhondda in the 1970s who complained that he got fewer votes than there were members of the local Con clubs (that’s Con for Constitutional, the brand that they used to use a lot in areas where the word ‘Conservative’ was regarded as an expletive). It had to be pointed out to him that possession of snooker tables was a bigger drive of membership numbers than any association with a political viewpoint. In fairness to him, though, he did at least recognise that putting his political views into action depended on fighting elections and winning votes.

As this story indicates, that’s by no means something that can be taken for granted amongst the current day crop of Conservatives in Wales. Adrian Mason correctly identifies that, as things stand, the probability of his party gaining power in the Senedd in the foreseeable future is as close to zero as makes no difference. His solution is that the UK government should simply ignore the Senedd and/or work around it, and implement Tory policies in devolved areas in Wales anyway. His dislike of permanent Labour government might well be something that I share, even if we would probably disagree about who should replace Labour, but my starting point is that, if a Labour government is what people vote for, a Labour government – for all its failings – is what they should get. It’s an outcome which could and should be mitigated by a move to full STV, which would make it unlikely that any single party could gain a majority in the Senedd and therefore encourage more searching for consensus and agreement, but getting the representatives you vote for is a fundamental aspect of any democracy. It’s still unlikely to help the Tories much though; even with recent changes to electoral patterns, Conservatism is still very much a minority pursuit in Wales (as a driver of voting behaviour anyway – I suspect that many Conservative attitudes are rather more widely-held than the party’s electoral support suggests).

The idea that a party which accepts that it can win neither a Welsh election nor a majority of Welsh seats in Westminster goes on to claim that it has the right to implement its policies in Wales anyway on the basis of winning a majority of seats in England goes to the very heart of the problem with devolution. As a statement of the legal position, it is absolutely correct – all Welsh government powers are held by dint of the ‘permission’ of Westminster, and that permission can be withdrawn or over-ridden at will. But treating Westminster as the only legitimate source of power, and the majority of the Welsh electorate as a voice which can therefore be ignored (no matter how well that fits with the constitutional position), is a direct incentive to people to consider the alternative, which is independence. There has long been a view amongst some that Plaid Cymru’s role in Wales wasn’t to lead Wales to independence so much as to push Labour into doing that. Is it possible that that role has now been usurped by the Conservative Party, some of whose members seem set on a course, by accident rather than design, which will provoke Labour in Wales into ever more pro-independence positions?

Thursday, 27 May 2021

Time to escape the nightmare

 

In days gone by, no Prime Minister would have been able to continue in post if even a small proportion of yesterday’s accusations by Johnson’s former chief adviser were true. But Boris Johnson is a man to whom feelings of shame or embarrassment, to say nothing of honesty or integrity, are totally alien. He has spent the whole of his life ignoring the rules and norms by which others live, and his experience merely serves to confirm that it is an approach which is rewarded rather than punished. The chances of him changing now are slim; unless and until the men in grey suits from his own party come knocking at his door, he is probably safe. And as long as he keeps them in power, there seems little prospect that Tory MPs are going to develop enough of a conscience to challenge him. It seems unlikely, therefore, that anything short of being escorted out of Downing Street in handcuffs by the boys in blue, accused of one or more serious crimes, will remove the main problem from office in the short term.

The chief accuser is hardly a paragon of virtue either, no matter how hard he tried to present himself as such yesterday. The man who accused others of lying as though that was a mortal sin is the same man who thought it entirely reasonable to paint large lies on the sides of buses just a few years ago. Lies in pursuit of his own objectives are acceptable, apparently – it’s only lies which don’t support his aims which are wrong. Nevertheless, no matter how tainted the witness, there was much in what he said which had a ring of truth to it. The Tory strategy of dismissing every accusation because of the known and obvious flaws of an accuser whose integrity they were so busily defending just a few short months ago looks like a desperate act. It might even work as a temporary fix, but any truly independent enquiry will make it look more like continuing to dig when they’re in a hole. Time will tell.

There is one point on which I find myself in complete agreement with what Cummings said yesterday. A system of government which somehow promotes people like Johnson and Cummings into positions of influence and authority is broken, and very badly so. Cummings himself seemed to be admitting that neither man was ever fit to hold the jobs into which they were somehow appointed. The danger is that attention will now be concentrated on the details of who said what, when and to whom. That is understandable; such matters are non-trivial, to say the least, particularly for the families of the tens of thousands of people who suffered an unnecessarily early death as a result of government incompetence. But saying sorry and replacing personnel are a wholly inadequate substitute for reforming and modernising the UK’s archaic and anachronistic system of government which allowed it to happen. There is certainly no appetite for that type of reform in the governing party, and there seems to be little in the main opposition party either. However broken the system might be, it suits both of them to retain it.

Perhaps Scottish and Welsh independence will be the stimulus which finally forces England to take a long hard look at itself and the way it operates. If it does, then the two newly independent nations will be doing England an enormous favour. I somehow doubt it, though. English exceptionalism is so deeply engrained that everything gets interpreted through that prism rather than shattering it. Being unable to help them doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t save ourselves, though. The sooner we escape from this broken semi-democracy the better.

Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Turning minima into maxima

 

One of the few good decisions made by the Cameron government was to set a target that the UK would devote at least 0.7% of GDP to overseas aid. There are always going to be arguments about the appropriateness of individual items within that expenditure – as with any other budget line – but the idea that wealthy countries like the UK should set a minimum target for aid to poorer countries was a sound one. By linking it to GDP, the target level of expenditure will inevitably fluctuate: as GDP increases, so too will the amount of aid increase. Conversely, if GDP falls, so too will the target minimum expenditure for aid decrease. That means, in effect, that after an economic shock such as Covid, the amount of expenditure required to meet the target automatically falls, although given that it is a minimum target it doesn’t necessarily follow that the government has to make real terms cuts. Imposing an additional cut, as the current government has done, to 0.5% was an additional and mean-spirited act.

It gets worse though: as this report indicates, what was a minimum target has been turned into a maximum cap. Thus, the Treasury delayed offering surplus PPE to India – some of which has apparently been binned instead after the delay resulted in expiry dates being passed – because the cost of it would have to be accounted for under the aid budget, leading to cuts elsewhere to remain within the limit which the Chancellor has imposed. What sort of country has the UK become when useable PPE for which we have no need can be allowed to go out of date and be destroyed rather than donated to countries in desperate straits because of an accounting requirement? According to the Independent’s version of the story, “Many Tories proclaim that slashing billions from aid is popular with the British public”. I wish that I could deny the truth of that, but I can only ask how on earth we have been ‘led’ to a position where so many consider it reasonable for one of the richest countries to cut aid to the poorest because it is ‘popular’. The sooner that any state acting thus is dismantled and consigned to history the better.

Friday, 21 May 2021

Large scale job creation?

 

There was a story, some years ago, about a British company which ordered a large quantity of computer chips from a company in Japan. The order specified a fault rate of 2%, meaning that they expected that 98% of the chips delivered would be perfect. When the order arrived, there was a small package containing some of the chips along with a note which advised the customer that the faulty chips had been packed separately so it would be obvious which ones they were. The point of the story, of course, is that the traditional ‘British’ approach to quality control was to put expensive processes in place to identify faulty products, whilst the Japanese approach was to build quality in so that there were no faulty products to identify.

It’s stereotyping (and almost certainly apocryphal), but it resonates. Worse, it seems to underpin some aspects of the current government’s approach to handling the pandemic, and in particular the issue of quarantine. Moving from a ban on all holiday travel to a gradual relaxation could have been a very simple process: all that was required was to keep all existing rules, and publish a list of excepted countries where travel was once more permitted. Those booking holidays would know exactly where they stood, and travel companies could bring enough staff off furlough and enough planes out of their parking zones to run flights to a small number of countries. But why do anything so simple when there is a more complicated approach available? By removing the ban on travel and placing all countries into one of three lists, the government has managed to turn simplicity into absolute confusion. Travel companies believed (reasonably enough) that they had been given the legal go-ahead to run flights to amber list countries and consequently lined up more planes and staff than would otherwise have been the case, and would-be holiday-makers believed that they were being told that they could go as long as they followed the quarantine rules on return. The government has spent much of the time since their announcement trying to explain that that which is legal isn’t really allowed after all.

Not only that, but they’ve been busy expanding the numbers of people employed to check that people are properly quarantining – the Home Secretary told us yesterday that “Significant resources have been put in place – millions of pounds – in terms of the follow-up checking of people around their testing and making sure they stay at home. It has been stepped up”. As job creation projects go, getting more people working to provide travel arrangements which then require the government to employ more people to check up on those who travel is a pretty large scale scheme but, just like the example of those computer chips, it’s about dealing with the consequences of things going wrong rather than preventing them from going wrong in the first place.

The government would probably counter by arguing that trusting people to use their own good sense and do the right thing is better than banning them from doing the wrong thing. In principle, they’re right – social solidarity is a much more cohesive approach than using rigid rules. But social solidarity is based on people identifying with the common good and wanting to work collectively, not on a system of shaming, pursuing, and fining transgressors. And a party which has spent decades preaching – and is still doing so – that greed is good, and that selfishness is the motive which should drive us all is singularly ill-placed to fall back on any sort of appeal to people’s altruism.

Thursday, 20 May 2021

Gunboats and free trade

 

The reference in yesterday’s post to the uncertain position of the PM in relation to the proposed trade agreement with Australia may or may not have been slightly superseded by Johnson’s robust defence of free trade in the House of Commons later in the day. Whilst his words have been widely interpreted as leaning towards favouring a deal which would undermine the UK’s farming industry, with particularly deleterious effects in Wales and Scotland, the position he took yesterday in order to support an attempted put-down of Ian Blackford will not necessarily be the same as the position he takes when discussing the matter with others. He’ll probably need to write two articles, one for and the other against, before working out which one gives the most benefit to himself.

Part of what he said in defence of free trade, though, shows a very selective understanding of history. Whilst “This is a country that grew successful and prosperous on free trade on exporting around the world” is basically true, it isn’t the whole truth. It conveniently overlooks at least two very important facts: firstly that the UK was at the time at the forefront of the Industrial revolution and a world-leader in manufactured goods, and secondly that other countries were forced to accept ‘free’ trade with the UK at the point of a gun. The second, in particular, doesn’t quite fit the image of romantic imperialists who prefer to believe that the UK became rich because it was special and unique. But obliging others to accept British imports by despatching gunboats didn’t necessarily look quite so attractive to those who were being bullied into taking those goods. To take India as an example, the country’s economy went from being the world’s richest country with 27% of global GDP in 1700 to one of the poorest with 3% of global GDP by 1947, and the country was deindustrialized to suit the needs of an imperial power which wanted to import only raw materials and to sell its manufactured goods. ‘Free trade’, that romantic vision of the Brexiteers, did indeed make Britain rich, but it impoverished others in the process. It was as much about wealth transfer as wealth creation.

Things have changed since then, of course, but Johnson’s words suggest that, at the back of their minds, the Brexiteers are deluded enough to believe that negotiating between equal partners is somehow going to produce the same results as imposing free trade with gunboats did, whilst they also fail to recognise that the UK is no longer the manufacturing colossus which it was in the past. They seem to see things only from their own, hopelessly outdated, point of view, and not understand that the main attraction of a trade deal from an Australian point of view is not importing manufactured goods that the UK no longer produces and which can be more easily obtained from China anyway, but opening UK markets to food imports in a way likely to destroy large swathes of British farming. In their rush for a completely unattainable repeat of past historical glory, the government are blinding themselves to the downsides. Forty years of inexperience of negotiating trade deals doesn’t help either.

Still, when they come to sign on the dotted line, I’m sure that there will be a suitable number of large union flags in the background. That will put those pesky Welsh and Scottish independentistas in their place. They probably believe that it will.


Wednesday, 19 May 2021

A tale of two halves

 

There were two stories yesterday which go to the very heart of the position of the UK government in relation to the future of the UK. The first was this one, in which the UK Cabinet Secretary is reported as saying that the government has put preventing the breakup of the UK “at the forefront of policy making in Whitehall”. And the second was this one, covering the problems with the trade deal with Australia, in which the International Trade Secretary is determined to push through terms which could seriously damage agriculture, and which would at the same time, other ministers fear, boost the cause of Welsh and Scottish independence. She obviously didn’t get the Cabinet Secretary's memo, because joined-up thinking this is most definitely not. The disregard for Wales and Scotland in relation to the trade deal serves only to demonstrate why a government determined to preserve the union would indeed need to put the issue at the very heart of its thinking. It also demonstrates that claiming to have done so is just another bit of meaningless verbiage from the UK’s liar-in-chief.

And talking of Johnson, it seems that nobody involved in the trade deal yet knows which way he will jump. That unsurprising fact (how could they know when the man himself almost certainly doesn’t) does have the advantage of proving that the claim of the Cabinet Secretary that Boris Johnson will be “front and centre” in trying to save the union is accurate; but in typical civil service fashion, it’s incomplete. What he really meant to say is that Johnson will be front, centre, back, left, right, up and down all at the same time. All over the place, in fact, in accordance with his usual approach.

 

Monday, 17 May 2021

Monkeys, typewriters and Boris Johnson

 

Given an infinite number of monkeys, an infinite number of typewriters, and an infinite period of time, it is said that one of the monkeys will at some point type out the complete works of Shakespeare, in the same order as the bard himself wrote them, and using the bard’s own spelling quirks. The usefulness of that knowledge is limited, but it can help to understand the nature and scale of infinity.

We can, though, extrapolate the argument and state, with a high degree of confidence, that given an infinite number of waves of Covid and an infinite period of time, Boris Johnson would, at some point, take the right decision at the right time in order to save lives and avoid massive numbers of hospitalisations. In practice, we don’t have an infinite period of time, or an infinite number of waves (and if we did, they’d kill an infinite number of people anyway). We’ve had two waves so far, and it’s clear that a third is coming: but just as one would not expect even a solitary sonnet from three monkeys with three typewriters in two years, the probability of three iterations in two years being sufficient for Johnson to get the approach right is also diminishingly small.

That helps to explain why experts in the field and those who understand probabilities are advising people to ignore what Johnson says about relaxing the lockdown rules and carry on as though the rules weren’t changing today. It’s sound advice. Like the example of the monkeys, it’s also capable of being extrapolated: based on his record to date, assuming that everything Johnson says is either untrue or unwise is likely to lead to better outcomes than taking his words seriously. The scientists are onto something here.

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Memory lapse is a terrible thing

 

Lord Frost, the minister in charge of Brexit, has said today that the way the Northern Ireland protocol is operating is unsustainable in its current form, and is causing huge difficulties for businesses. If only he could remember the name of the guy who negotiated it, I’m sure that he’d be very angry with him.

Monday, 10 May 2021

Was newmath developed on the playing fields of Eton?

 

In principle, the announcement by Boris Johnson over the weekend that he is setting up a summit meeting with the First Ministers of the devolved administrations to compare notes and look at routes to recovery should be a welcome one, although it begs the question as to why it didn’t happen earlier in order to better handle the pandemic. There’s also an unanswered question as to whether this is a one-off stunt or the beginning of a process of better co-ordination and discussion; from experience of Johnson’s premiership so far, the former seems more likely than the latter. It remains unclear whether the intention is a discussion amongst equals (which is what the attendees are, legally, when it comes to devolved responsibilities) or something rather more akin to General Jaruzelski being summoned to Moscow to be instructed about his next steps in Poland. Reading the letter which he sent to Mark Drakeford which has been made public today, it sounds rather more like a summons to listen to the boss than an invitation to a discussion. If that’s his approach, then it’s likely to prove counter-productive, even with mild-mannered Mark Drakeford. Still, the good news for independentistas is that there are few situations which are so bad for the union that Boris Johnson cannot, effortlessly (and he does most things without exerting any effort, which is part of the problem), make them worse.

In the meantime, the PM’s acolytes are busy trying to explain to the Scots how electing a parliament with 72 members supporting independence and 57 opposing it represents a massive rejection of another independence referendum and a huge vote of confidence for the union. Attempts to redefine the bar as to what constitutes a ‘mandate’ are reaching new levels of contortion as they seek to apply different rules for the Scottish parliament than those which are considered normal everywhere else in the world, including at Westminster. Michael Gove deserves a special mention yesterday for his argument that “In 2011, the SNP under Alex Salmond got a majority, a referendum then followed. It’s important to remember that at that time every party in the Scottish parliament thought that it was appropriate to hold a referendum then”, implying that a mandate exists only if every party agrees to it. I suppose the wonder is that they’re making any effort at all to explain why 57 is greater than 72 rather than simply stating it as a fact on the side of a bus. As is blindingly obvious, 5+7=12, 7+2=9 and 12 is greater than 9. With Gavin Williamson in charge of the English curriculum, newmath, as Orwell might have called it, will probably become the norm in England very soon, with the additional advantage of being able to explain how a drop in trade with the EU is actually a stunning increase.

For most people, the first law of holes is to stop digging, but in Borisland it’s to send for more spades. I’m not as convinced as some that Scottish independence is yet entirely inevitable; I still tend to the view that a competent UK government could prevent, or at least delay, the end of the UK. But a government which can’t even cope with the simplest arithmetic is never going to attract the adjective ‘competent’, and its efforts seem almost designed to achieve the opposite of their stated intention. They are just completely unable to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and understand either the impact their words and actions are having or that not everyone shares Johnson’s view of the world. It’s often said that the Battle of Waterloo was “won on the playing fields of Eton”, i.e. it was down to the so-called ‘leadership qualities’ inculcated in that institution. To the extent that it might be true, and given that Etonians have had a disproportionate influence ever since, it would also necessarily be true that the British Empire was lost on the playing fields of Eton. It’s a simple corollary which they cannot begin to comprehend. It increasingly looks as though the UK will have been destroyed on those same playing fields. It’s a fitting epitaph.

Friday, 7 May 2021

Leading or following?

 

In the light of the Conservative victory in the Hartlepool by-election, Labour figures are lining up to say that Labour needs to reconnect with people, to listen to what their former electors are saying, and to change to reflect that. It’s a response which raises the whole question of whether parties exist to lead or to follow. Telling the electors that they’re wrong is, they argue, not a good place to be.

But. It doesn’t take a lot of listening or polling to understand that what electors in England are increasingly saying that they want is a government which puts up barriers to the rest of the world and a government which penalises the poorest in society. They welcome the ‘hostile environment’ and want the government to deport more people. They like macho posturing with gunboats and weapons of mass destruction and they regret the loss of empire and the unwillingness of those foreign types to agree to whatever we want. It would be unfair to tar all English voters with the same brush (or to claim that there aren’t voters in Wales with similar views), and there are certainly generational differences, but the above seems to me to be a reasonably fair reflection of where ‘middle England’ is today.

Political parties have a choice between attempting to lead public opinion and following it. Boris Johnson is choosing the latter path, as one might expect from a party whose only objective is to gain and exercise power for the benefit of themselves and their cronies. And – at present at least – playing to the gallery works; it not only wins them elections currently, but it also reinforces and entrenches the attitudes of their supporters. On the other hand, a party which believes in an alternative approach has the much harder task of persuading and convincing people to support that alternative – and that includes a willingness to disagree with the consensus of public opinion when necessary. As an example: in Wales, independence isn’t on the table because it matches the preconceptions and beliefs of the majority, it’s on the table because a minority have spent so much time and effort arguing for it.

Labour have spent decades conflicted between the two approaches to politics. Very occasionally the more visionary approach wins out in the internal battle, but since such an approach can never be expected to bring instant electoral success (it is, necessarily, a longer-term project), it always gets ditched again after a bad result. They may gloss over it by saying that it’s better to be in power and mitigate some of the worst effects of the Tories, but ultimately, given a choice between being in power in the short term and fighting for real change in the long term, they invariably choose the former. That’s what ‘listening to the voters’ is really about. The sooner ‘Welsh Labour’ realise that the English Labour Party isn’t going to appear over the hill like the 7th Cavalry to save Wales, the sooner they can start participating in a real debate about what sort of Wales we want to build.

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Ducking the question

 

Last week, the Institute for Government published a ‘helpful’ paper setting out the difficulties which independence would bring for Scotland or Wales. Well, ‘helpful’ to unionists who were just looking for a headline figure with which to attack the independence cause. In fairness, the detail of the report does accept that after independence Wales and Scotland might choose different patterns of spending which would affect the calculations and thus the headline figure. And there is some useful analysis of the different pattern of revenues raised by different taxes in the constituent parts of the UK. But the headline figure on which the unionists have seized is very clearly drawn from a number of key assumptions:

·        That the independent administrations continue with the same patterns of taxation and expenditure as at present

·        That the estimates of tax raised and expenditure undertaken are largely correct

·        That fiscal deficits are generally a bad thing and that having a higher budget deficit as a proportion of GDP than the UK currently operates is ‘unsustainable’

·        That independence brings no other economic benefits

·        That the newly ‘independent’ countries continue to use sterling rather than establish their own currencies (not stated, but implied)

It’s easy to see why anyone would use those assumptions as a starting point, because there are at least some known or almost-known figures to use as a basis, but whether precisely aping the current UK’s priorities and approaches really counts as a meaningful form of ‘independence’ is a question which doesn’t really get asked. And starting from those assumptions predetermines the outcome: if the assumptions are all valid it’s hard to argue with the headline conclusion. The question, though, is whether (or to what extent) those assumptions are a valid basis for drawing conclusions about an independent Wales as opposed to a devolved Wales.

There are plenty of examples of English / UK priorities which an independent Wales might choose not to copy. Nuclear weaponry is one of the most obvious examples: the headline conclusion that Wales is unviable without tax increases or spending cuts includes the implicit assumption that an independent Wales would continue to pay for England’s Trident replacement programme. Those who claim Wales is unviable without receiving fiscal transfers from England are, in effect, telling us that an independent Wales couldn’t afford to pay 5% of the cost of England’s nuclear weapons unless England ‘generously’ gave us the money first. “Why on earth would we want to?” is a much more appropriate response than “This proves we need English money”. To generalise the point: we are being told that we can’t afford to pay England for things we neither want nor need unless England gives us the money first. It’s impossible to disagree with that, but it doesn’t do much to advance the state of human knowledge.

It is impossible for anyone to produce an accurate analysis of the fiscal position of an independent Wales, not least because that depends more on the policies adopted by the newly-independent state than on the fact of independence itself. A Labour-run Wales would not be the same as a Tory-run Wales, or a Plaid-run Wales – and the fiscal impact of those different perspectives would only increase over time. (It’s worth noting that the same applies to the UK – no government has shown that it can even accurately predict the fiscal impact of its own policies, let alone those of other parties.) It follows that anyone who claims, with absolute certainty, that Wales would be a basket-case economy – or, alternatively, that it would immediately soar to the top of the world’s rich league – is talking nonsense. They simply cannot know. What we can analyse, with the benefit of hindsight, is the experience of other countries which have become independent and followed their own paths. Unsurprisingly, it’s an overwhelmingly positive picture. What the unionists need to tell us (but can’t) is why they believe that Wales and Scotland are somehow uniquely unable to follow so many other countries of similar size which have become so successful. Using a set of obviously invalid assumptions to predict the future is a woefully inadequate response.

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Have Lib Dems accidentally stumbled onto a good idea?

 

One party which has so far failed to send any election literature to this household is the Lib Dems (but don’t bother to rush out and do it now, we’ve already voted). It’s a pity, because there is one aspect of their policy for this election which strikes me as really interesting and different, namely their promise of debt cancellation. The suggestion that this would be a funded by a ‘specific and limited pot of funding’ detracts from the proposal, with its implicit assumption that it is the funding which determines how much debt is written off rather than the need, and there is a question in my mind as to whether the Senedd actually has the power or resources to do this, but the idea deserves to be more widely debated and explored.

The Tories continually tell us that we are facing a debt crisis as a result of the pandemic. They’re right, but they’re referring to the wrong debt crisis, because they’re referring to government debt. Government debt really is not a problem, but their ‘solution’ to this non-problem, namely austerity (although Johnson will insist on calling it something different given his oft-stated aversion to austerity) will not only not solve the non-problem, but will worsen the real debt crisis, which is the extent of private debt burdening lower paid families. Apart from austerity, the second part of the government’s post Covid recovery strategy assumes that, as a result of lockdown, people have been spending less and that spending will be released in a splurge when people can start going to restaurants and hotels and taking holidays again. From the perspective of the social circles in which the Tories move, that may well look to be realistic, but for many families, reduced income as a result of furlough, and the fear of job insecurity as furlough ends and some companies find themselves no longer viable means that many have fallen further into debt, and even amongst those who have seen an opportunity to reduce their debts – or even save – it doesn’t follow that they will be ready to risk their financial security immediately.

Debt cancellation is not a particularly new idea; it’s been done in various economies in the past, sometimes in the form of a general amnesty, other times in the form of write-off of specific types or elements of debt. Amongst the earliest examples was the ancient civilisation of Mesopotamia, which went through a series of cyclical cancellations of debt, aimed at freeing debt slaves and maintaining social peace and stability. Whilst people are not, these days, forced into slavery as a result of debt, they often find themselves forced into taking multiple jobs, depending on friends and family, or sinking deeper into debt. And the driver of debt cancellation for King Hammurabi – social peace and stability – is as valid and relevant today as it was 3000 years ago.

The idea goes against current economic orthodoxy, of course, to say nothing of the idea that the poor deserve to be poor and that people who get into unmanageable levels of debt deserve their fate. But these are shibboleths of capitalist ideology which need to be challenged, and selfishness needs to be replaced by a greater sense of social solidarity. The Lib Dems, albeit in a typically timid and limited Lib Dem fashion, are actually onto something important and radical here (although any of them reading this might now start to have second thoughts). It’s a proposal which deserves to be more widely considered, and taken up by others who are more likely to be in a position to do something about it than a fringe party struggling to retain a foothold in the Senedd.

Monday, 3 May 2021

Evoking the past

 

Scanning through the various election leaflets delivered over the past couple of weeks, the slogan on the front of the one from Abolish (which seems to be seeking to abolish an institution which no longer exists) caught my eye. “One Education System, One Health Service, One Government” is catchy and has a certain resonance to it. It’s also evocative of a slogan which was used a great deal in the 1930s and 1940s in a certain country on the European mainland. But from what I remember of history, “One People, One Realm, One Leader” (or “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer” in the original) didn’t exactly turn out well. Could they really be so unaware of history as to not have spotted the analogy? Or is it actually deliberate?

Friday, 30 April 2021

Nothing to see here

 

The traditional context for using the phrase “Nothing to see here. Move along now.” is the policeman given the responsibility of keeping bystanders away from some incident or other. It never means that there is actually nothing to see, merely that (s)he and those who stationed him or her there don’t want people stopping to see it. When the perpetrator of the incident uses the phrase, (s)he is either trying to hide what has happened, or else merely extracting the urine. And as Boris Johnson demonstrated yesterday, the two are not mutually exclusive.

His demand that people stop asking him awkward questions to which there is no truthful answer which does not expose his failure to follow rules, and no lie which can be made to fit the known facts (not that that is something which overly worries him), is based on his assertion that people at large are either not interested in establishing whether he’s followed the rules or not, or else simply don’t care. It amounts to saying that if electors don’t care how venal, dishonest, or corrupt he is, then opposition politicians and the media should just shut up and accept it as well. It plays to the popular trope that all politicians are only in it for themselves anyway, and has the added advantage – for him – of enabling him to tar others with his own used brush.

Sadly, his assertion that people don’t care has an element of truth to it. It is based on the results of opinion polls which show that, despite all his lies, bluster and evasion, despite presiding over one of the worst death tolls in the world due to Covid, and despite all the contracts corruptly awarded to mates and donors, if an election were held tomorrow, he would still win a clear majority of seats in England: enough to continue in government across the whole UK. He’s wrong, though, in claiming that it means that ‘people’ don’t care; what it actually means is that ‘people who vote for the Tories’ don’t care enough to change their vote as a result. To him, those two caveats might not be important – like Trump, he seems to believe that the only opinions that matter are those of people likely to vote for him. But his current majority, like any future majority in line with the polls, is based on a minority of votes which gifts him near-absolute power as a result of an electoral system which is unfit for purpose; the ‘people’ to whom he is referring constitute only a minority.

But even if he were right, even if ‘people’ in general really don’t care about how dishonest he and his government are, does that really mean that they should not be questioned or held to account? There have been major crimes in the past which many have almost admired for their audacity, but no-one seriously suggests that the criminals should not be prosecuted as a result. A democracy – even a partial democracy like the UK – in which governments are excused from breaking rules or even outright criminality because the electors don’t care is a democracy which is doomed. The opposition should care, the media should care, we all should care whether those we elect to lead us are honest or not. Whatever Johnson says, there really is something to see – and we should insist on seeing it.

Thursday, 29 April 2021

The moral compasses are still as broken as ever

 

What makes the Bullingdon Club so infamous is the members’ habit of smashing up the restaurants in which they hold their ‘events’ and then paying up on the spot for the damage caused. The act of paying for the damage, in their eyes, somehow makes it all right to go around damaging other people’s property as and when the urge takes them. In the process, it draws a clear line between the wealthy who can afford to destroy first and pay later and the rest who can only stand back and watch as years of work and investment is destroyed in front of their eyes. And it reduces everything to its monetary value. But, when the club leaves the premises, the owner is not out of pocket, and that, apparently, makes it OK.

It’s an attitude which has direct parallels in the case of the Downing Street refurbishment undertaken by a member of that infamous club. In this case, it’s not so much physical property which has been damaged (although we can’t, yet, discount the possibility that the nearly-new furniture removed from the flat has been skipped) as the rules, conventions and laws under which things are supposed to happen. But, at the end of the day, the PM has repaid the costs out of his own pocket (allegedly – it’s still not clear how the money found its way into his pocket in the first place), and that, apparently, makes it OK. It is, in his eyes, the end result which matters, not the process of getting there. I’m sure that he’d be equally forgiving of a bank robber who, when caught, repaid all the money. At that point, the bank has lost nothing, so why make a fuss?

There is another parallel as well – when they smashed up those restaurants, the money for reparations may well have come from their own pockets at the time, but it was almost invariably put into those pockets by someone else, usually the parents. And the expectation that that he can and should be absolved of all blame by using someone else’s money to pay for the consequences of his actions is another aspect of the Downing Street saga. But what is there, in his background and life experience, which would lead him to think otherwise? This is a man who has gone through his entire life without ever having had to face up to the consequences of his own actions, a man who has repeatedly found that lying brings rewards, not punishments (literally in the case of many of his made-up and paid-for articles over the years), a man who has always got away with ignoring the rules which apply to others, a man who has demonstrated to his own satisfaction that the world takes him at his own estimation of himself.

It isn’t just him, though. A whole generation of politicians, and not all of them in the Conservative Party, have outsourced any sense of morality and judgement to the people who make the rules. They don’t need a moral compass, just a rule book, and if the rule book doesn’t explicitly ban something then it’s permitted. Johnson has, admittedly, taken that a step further in arguing, effectively, that as long as the outcome meets the letter of the rules, then following the rules to get there is an unnecessary hindrance on his freedom of action. But the people who put him there and defend him daily, the members of his party, are equally culpable. Their moral compasses seem to be incapable of telling them whether something is right or wrong, merely whether the public care or not. If a sufficient proportion of the public don’t care (as measured by opinion polls and elections) whether their leaders are honest or not, if they don’t care about the integrity of their leaders, then honesty and integrity don’t matter.

Perhaps the palpable anger of the PM yesterday at the temerity of anyone daring to question what he does will mark a turning point. Even some of his most loyal supporters in the media seem to be turning against him. It would be nice to be able to say that they’ve all discovered a sense of morality and outrage, but I can’t help but feel that it has more to do with deciding that he looks like a loser after all. It’s not as if any aspect of his character was ever unclear in advance.

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Investigating Johnson will not be straightforward

 

‘Investigation’ and ‘review’ are curious words to use to describe the task which the PM has entrusted to the new Cabinet Secretary in respect of the expensive refurbishment of the PM’s flat in Downing Street. It amounts to an individual who knows (and may even be the only person who knows) exactly what happened asking someone who was not in post at the time and claims to know nothing to investigate and report the facts back to the person who already knows them anyway. One might expect that it ought to be a very quick process –the Cabinet Secretary simply needs to ask the PM what happened, write it down and then tell the PM.

However, it will apparently take a few weeks to conduct this review, according to the Cabinet Secretary. Never let it be said that the civil service machinery acts in haste. It could simply be that the PM is too busy personally phoning newspaper editors briefing them against his own current or former staff to find time to talk to the top Civil Servant. He does have a certain difficulty with prioritising his time, and we know, for example, that at the outbreak of the pandemic he was far too busy attending to the ‘complications’ of his private life to attend Cobra meetings. And it would certainly be convenient if the outcome were not to become known until after next week’s elections.

On the other hand, Simon Case probably didn’t get to the top of the Civil Service by simply believing what ministers tell him, and there are some obvious good reasons why the review might take some time. In the first place, he’s intelligent and observant enough to know that whatever the PM tells him is unlikely to be the whole and unembellished truth. And in the second place, writing a report which exonerates the PM – which is clearly what he’s expected to do – without compromising his own integrity would challenge the report-writing skills of any would-be Sir Humphrey. A few weeks might turn out to be an optimistic assessment.

Monday, 26 April 2021

Truth and lies are not of equal value

 

A couple of day ago, the BBC reported that the UK and Australia had agreed “the vast majority” of the details of a new free trade agreement between the two states. Whether that was achieved by tying the Australian minister to an uncomfortable chair and having Liz Truss harangue him for nine hours was not reported, but agreeing the vast majority of the text of a trade deal is the easy part. It’s always the details which cause the problems. Time will tell – the possibility floated in the report that the final agreement will be signed in June, something of a record time for a deal, suggests either that one side has given a lot of ground, or else that the deal will turn out to be remarkably similar to an existing deal.

What I noted at the end of the report, however, was the matter-of-fact way in which the BBC report told us that “Trade can also be made simpler if countries have the same rules … The closer the rules are, the less likely that goods need to be checked”. It’s a statement of fact with which it is impossible to disagree, but it marks a major change of position for the BBC. During the EU referendum campaign, and in the interests of a specious form of ‘balance’, they regularly treated this key fact about trade as though it was merely an opinion, and treated the opposite opinion – that having different rules is no barrier to trade – as a position of equal validity. ‘Balance’ is difficult to define, and even harder to achieve, but it should never result in pretending that an obvious untruth has the same degree of validity as a provable fact. There is an old saying in journalism that “If someone says it’s raining and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. It’s your job to look out the window and find out which is true”. It’s the least we should expect from a publicly funded broadcaster, but the EU issue is far from being the only one on which the BBC seems to forget this basic tenet of news. Getting it right 5 years after allowing the lie to gain credence simply isn’t good enough.

Friday, 23 April 2021

Puppetry doesn't cover it.

 

Back in the days when Brezhnev ruled the Soviet Union, an acquaintance of mine went on a trip to Moscow, which included a guided tour of the Kremlin. As the guide showed them around the government part of the building, she pointed out one corridor and identified that area as being the offices of the Communist Party. One of the group then asked her what happened when the government disagreed with the party. It was not exactly an unknown problem in the UK at the time – as I recall, Harold Wilson was the PM, and to say that he occasionally had a few ‘difficulties’ with his party would be making the word ‘difficulties’ do a lot of work. The guide looked puzzled, as if she didn’t understand the question, before the questioner helped her out by suggesting that maybe that didn’t happen in her country. Her reply, delivered with a huge smile of relief, ran along the lines of “Ah yes, you are correct. In our country that never happens”.  It was a recognition of where the power lay: Brezhnev’s principal formal role, after all, was as General Secretary of the Communist Party.

The attempts by the former and future ex-leader of the Tories in Wales, Andrew RT Davies, to explain how he would respond if he felt that a decision taken by a Tory leader at the other end of the (M4) corridor was damaging to Wales reminded me of that poor tour guide. It was as if the hypothetical question had no meaning for him – how could a decision taken by a Tory PM ever be wrong? Even if Johnson says one thing one day and the opposite the next, he’s still axiomatically right on both occasions in Daviesworld. Like any good foot soldier, Davies understands that there are only two rules concerning the General:

Rule 1: The General is always right, and

Rule 2: In the event of the General being wrong, Rule 1 above applies.

The accusation by Plaid that this somehow makes him a puppet of Johnson is entirely unfair – a puppet has neither a brain nor a capacity for independent thought. Possessing both and consciously deciding to use neither is far worse than mere puppetry.


Thursday, 22 April 2021

Cheese, tea and uncomfortable chairs

 

One has only to remember her infamous speech about cheese to realise that bizarre, Liz, and Truss are words that sit together in an entirely natural way. Indeed, any mention of the UK Trade Secretary without using such an adjective would be, well, bizarre. The story which emerged this week when the media were briefed by her ‘allies’ (and ‘bizarre’ would also be a fitting description of the thought processes of anyone who thought that such a briefing was a helpful act of friendship) that she intends to pursue the UK’s trade talks with the Australians by tying the Australian Trade Minister to an uncomfortable chair and making him face her for 9 hours of talks until he agrees to her demands is wholly credible – even including my little embellishment about the use of rope and knots. I’m not sure which is supposed to be the most punishing aspect of this – the uncomfortable chair or spending 9 hours face to face with Liz Truss discussing the import and export of cheese. On balance, I suspect that the uncomfortable chair is an unnecessary extra.

In fairness, the Brexiteers did promise us a buccaneering approach. Being ‘trussed’ to an uncomfortable chair could be considered merciful compared to being made to walk the plank or being keel-hauled, those methods of persuasion favoured by the buccaneers of old (although it’s possible that those approaches are merely being held in reserve). It’s an astonishing way to approach trade talks with a supposedly friendly independent state, although whether the Brexiteers understand that Australia is independent rather than still a colony is an open question. Attempting to bully other countries into opening their borders to UK exports whilst simultaneously demanding that UK purchasers only buy British-made products suggests that they have learned little since the imperial parliament unilaterally defined the terms of tea imports to the Americas. Perhaps one of Truss’s ancestors had a hand in that, too.