Friday 29 January 2021

Day trips to Scotland


The PM took himself off to Scotland yesterday, for a series of carefully staged photo opportunities visits to see what’s happening on the ground in England’s northern possession. Part of his objective was to highlight all the wonderful things that ‘the union’ does for Scotland. As most expected, what shone through was that special sense of English exceptionalism and superiority which comes so naturally to people like him that they don’t even realise that they’re doing it. The words might have said ‘look what we’re doing together’, but it came across as ‘look what we are doing for you’.

One of the reasons for this dissonance is that he and his ilk start from an assumption that anything and everything done by the UK government is automatically a ‘benefit of the union’, because it is done by the government in London rather than by the government in Scotland. The fact that some things can only be done by Westminster as a result of a constitutional settlement which reserves the relevant powers to London seems to escape them. Looked at objectively, something is a ‘benefit of the union’ if, and only if, it is something which an independent Scotland could not do itself. That presents a real problem to unionists because there is, literally, nothing that an independent Scotland might wish to do that fits in that category.

Apparently, “[Tory] Insiders talk about a focus on showing the tangible benefits of the Union”, but all the ‘tangible benefits’ that they come up with are things which the Westminster parliament has simply reserved to itself in the first place. They refer to the way in which UK armed forces have been used in Scotland to help with the vaccination rollout, as though those armed forces are nothing to do with Scotland and as though an independent Scotland wouldn’t be able to call on its own armed forces. They talk about the money ‘given’ to the Scottish government to help in the Covid response, as though an independent Scotland would, uniquely amongst independent states, have no money of its own, and as if Scotland owns no part of the UK’s money. The one tangible benefit which a union could deliver is a pooling and sharing of resources between its constituent parts (whether nations such as Wales and Scotland or regions of England) on the basis of need, but that’s the one thing that unionists (whether Tory or Labour) have consistently failed to do. ‘Levelling up’ is just a slogan; it’s not a policy, let alone a plan.

Yesterday, former First Minister, Carwyn Jones, referring to Boris Johnson’s Scottish day trip, said, “…I’m sure this visit will be a success. Just not for him”.  The good news for independentistas in general is that the inability of the Tory English nationalists and Labour Anglo-British nationalists to understand how their own Westminster-centric mindset works against them, let alone change it, means that their efforts to win over the Scots will indeed bring about a great success. Just not for them.

Thursday 28 January 2021

Read his words carefully - they may accidentally reveal the truth


As part of his very unapologetic use of the word ‘sorry’ earlier this week, after the UK hit a ‘world-beating’ death toll in the pandemic, Boris Johnson said, “We did everything we could have done and we will carry on doing everything we can”. There are plenty of people who have helpfully provided lists of all the things which could have been done differently, and there is absolutely no doubt that, under more competent leadership, the UK’s death toll due to the pandemic could have been considerably lower than it is.

That doesn’t make Johnson’s statement untrue, though – merely incomplete. There are two meanings to the words ‘can’ and ‘could’ in this context: one is about that which is possible and the other relates to the capability of the doer. Note that he didn’t claim that they did everything that could have been done, merely everything that they could have done. Superficially, the two things sound similar, but the meaning is completely different. If we add the implicit words: “… within the limits of our ability, imagination, and ideology” to his statement, we get a much clearer statement of the problem. It is not that there were other things which could have been done, but that the current government was utterly incapable of doing them. And the worst of it is that those three constraints – lack of ability, lack of imagination, and ideology – aren’t going away anytime soon.

Wednesday 27 January 2021

Flightless pigs


A couple of weeks ago, I posted about the report on ‘radical federalism’ from a fringe group of Labour Party members. It appeared to me then (and re-reading the report hasn’t changed that view) that the proposal had more to do with finding a way of preserving the union than with addressing the needs of the people of Wales, not least because its assumptions about which powers ‘cannot’ be exercised at a Welsh level were axiomatic – pulled out of thin air with no attempt at explanation or justification.

This week, Nation.Cymru published an article by one of the report’s sponsors, Mick Antoniw MS, which ‘clarified’ his own view on the matter – and which seemed to move considerably further towards a position of acknowledging that ‘independence’ is an option. OK, he’s a member of the Labour Party, and had to get in the statutory dismissive jibe about independence being “a separatist model”. He does make some valid points, though – not least when he says that “…our understanding of independence must be more expansive and inclusive and go beyond mere structural concepts”. It has been a regular theme of this blog that the word ‘independence’ can mean different things in different contexts: for most independentistas, there is nothing at all contradictory about an ‘independent’ country deciding to share sovereignty with other countries on a voluntary basis which recognises the rights of each country. So, when he writes that, “Radical federalism and independence are not mutually exclusive concepts. What radical federalism proposes is an option which guarantees Welsh sovereignty but recognises that in the modern world in which we must share sovereignty where there is common benefit and mutual interest.” (sic), I find it hard to disagree. The devil, though, is in the detail.

Needing to share sovereignty doesn’t predetermine with whom we might decide to share it, yet the assumption that it means ‘with those other nations of these islands which happen to be part of the current UK’ seems to be taken as read. And defining “common benefit and mutual interest” is not at all the same thing as deciding from the outset – as the original paper seemed to do – that certain matters are automatically reserved to Westminster. Nor is it the same thing as saying that even on matters which allegedly lie wholly in the remit of the Senedd, Westminster would set the standards under which the Senedd must operate. Whist federalism and independence may indeed not necessarily be mutually exclusive, such a proposal is neither federalism nor independence. It is simply another form of devolution, where real power remains at the centre, rather than with the people of Wales. And it fails the test which Antoniw himself sets, i.e., “…guarantees Welsh sovereignty”. It does no such thing.

The big unanswered question to which the federalists are unable or unwilling to offer any sort of answer is how any federation can work when one part of it accounts for 85% of the population and votes. I cannot disagree with Antoniw’s statement that “The choices for England are for England and cannot be allowed to determine the choices we must consider in Wales.” However, the viability of any federation which includes both Wales and England depends completely on how – or, rather, on whether – that imbalance can be managed. I’d have a lot more time for the federalists if they came up with some workable and practical solutions which would be acceptable to any of the political parties which has any chance of governing England. Unless and until they can do that, federalism will remain a wingless beast of the porcine species.

Tuesday 26 January 2021

Too little, too late


If the Tories really, desperately wanted to encourage the Scots to vote for independence, the best thing that they could do would be to raise Thatcher from the dead and send her on a tour of Scotland to extol the advantages of London rule. They’ve reluctantly had to accept the impossibility of that, so they’ve opted for the second-best approach – Boris Johnson is going on a fleeting visit this week instead. Apparently, he’s set to deliver an ‘impassioned plea’ to the Scots to reject something which he refers to as ‘narrow nationalism’ in the hope that they’ll enthusiastically embrace his peculiar brand of English nationalism instead. Leaving aside the tiny little problemette that Johnson has never been known to do passion – lies, bluster and poor jokes with an occasional Latin or Greek allusion may appear to be the same thing, but only in his eyes – it demonstrates a massive failure to understand how much things have changed in Scotland, and how irrelevant his London-centric views have become. And talking (as he apparently intends to do) about how the union can be reformed so that it works better, in the immediate aftermath of passing legislation to undermine the existing settlement and claw back powers, looks like an attempt to pretend that the last two decades never happened.

It isn’t just the Tories suffering this strange failure to comprehend recent history – Labour have their own problems as well. Unlike Thatcher, they didn’t even need to try and disinter their former leader: Gordon Brown still lives. And he’s made another of his increasingly frequent ‘interventions’ in politics, warning that the UK faces a choice between reform and failure. One of the great mysteries of politics in the twenty-first century is why so many Westminster politicians, to say nothing of the London commentariat, believe that Brown has huge influence in Scotland and that the Scots are hanging on his every word, despite the lack of any evidence (or indeed the presence of masses of evidence to the contrary). Maybe it’s because he at least sounds Scottish, something which the Tories’ tame Scots, such as Gove, singularly fail to achieve. Still, if Johnson can do his best to destroy what remains of the Conservative Party in Scotland, it’s only fair to allow Brown the opportunity to do the same for Labour.

There is another potential point of commonality between Johnson and Brown. Brown is calling for fundamental constitutional changes led by a “commission on democracy” that would “review the way the whole United Kingdom is governed”, whilst Johnson is apparently toying with a similar idea – as Martin Kettle of the Guardian puts it: “One minister tells me the plan is for Johnson to announce that he considers the UK’s existing constitutional architecture is not working. Whether these issues are to be remitted to a constitutional commission of some kind … will soon be made clear”. There have been similar calls here in Wales – just a few days ago, Senedd member Mick Antoniw repeated his call for some sort of “Welsh constitutional convention”. There’s nothing wrong with a constitutional convention per se, but there are three big caveats.

The first is about timing and how long it will take. Waiting until the end (of the union) is literally nigh and then demanding a process likely to take some years to come to fruition looks like exactly what it is – an attempt to kick the can down the road. Delaying the inevitable for as long as possible in the hope that something will turn up, or that the Scots in particular will decide that they can’t be bothered any more simply isn’t a viable strategy – it’s about denying their democratic rights, not honouring them.

The second is that none of those individuals or parties have a clue what to do about the huge and inevitable built-in imbalance which England, with 85% of the population, will represent in any conceivable alternative structure. Setting up conventions in the vague hope that either someone will come up with a solution or else that everyone else will come to a consensus view that they have to lump it is a substitute for addressing the issue. And an extremely poor substitute at that. Political parties could and should, instead, just put forward their own ideas – the problem is that they don’t have any.

The third, and most important of all, is about the terms of reference and who sets them. Terms of reference which start from the premise that the UK can and should be reformed (which seems to be what is being proposed) are terms of reference which set out, from the outset, to close off rather than openly discuss all possible options.

Still, the good news in all this is that it doesn’t matter. By the time Johnson has finished selling the advantages of the union to the Scots, everything else will be just a question of the belated locking of doors on equine residences.

Monday 25 January 2021

Government rocked by new scandal

It was revealed over the weekend that, in a break from normal practice for the current government, officials in the Department for International Trade had been caught out giving honest and accurate advice to businesses hit by the new rules on trade following Brexit. It seems that firms reeling under the impact of additional customs and border control red tape which asked the Department for assistance to get round the rules were told that there was no way of doing so, that the rules aren’t going to be changed any time soon, and the best thing for those businesses to do was to close the relevant parts of their businesses in the UK and set up new operations inside the EU.

The affair raises serious questions over the future of International Trade Secretary, Liz Truss. Whilst incompetence is regarded as standard operating practice, and the ability of ministers to lie repeatedly direct to camera is highly valued by the PM, there is considerable doubt as to how long he will tolerate any minister who is found to be in charge of a department giving out honest information. Some are even wondering whether the government itself can survive a bout of honesty without imploding. However, those expecting swift action to deal with this breach of protocol are likely to be disappointed. There are currently no signs that the PM is going to break his long-standing habit of prevarication just because one minister has been caught out defying his expectations.

Saturday 23 January 2021

Dogma kills


Despite various suggestions floated or leaked to the media, the UK Government is strongly resisting any further tightening of restrictions in order to fight the pandemic, clinging instead to the early signs of a slight reduction in infections and the hope that vaccinations will start to make a difference before too long. Instead, they say, they are concentrating on ‘enforcing’ the existing set of restrictions. The problem is that they seem to have a very narrow view of what ‘enforcement’ means.

There is no doubt that failure to comply with the rules which have been set is a major problem in fighting the virus; non-compliance gives the virus the opportunity to infect and ultimately kill more people. There is also no doubt that the more flagrant breaches of the rules which get reported – house parties and the like – annoy many of those who are doing their best to follow the rules. But an approach to ‘enforcement’ which concentrates on identifying and punishing those who engage in such activities largely misses the point. Punishment as a deterrent is an article of faith to Tories, despite limited evidence that it works. It depends on an assumption that people carefully weigh up both the chances of getting caught and the likely penalty before engaging in the activity, an assumption which is highly dubious. More importantly in this context, punishing people after the event doesn’t prevent the potential damage done by the events, which is what the real objective should be. Worse still, those flagrant breaches which they are targeting are not the biggest problem.

We have known for months that most of those who should be self-isolating are not fully doing so, and there is recent evidence that some people with symptoms are not even getting tests for fear that they will be positive and thus lead to a requirement to self-isolate. This means that there are thousands of individuals quietly wandering around spreading the virus in ways which are much less obvious – and more harmful – than the tiny minority who organise house parties. They’re also harder to identify, and a policy based on fining transgressors will not improve compliance amongst this group. The reasons for their non-compliance have also been well-known for many months. People who don’t qualify for the various government schemes, people who could lose income, or even their jobs, by not working – these are the ones probably doing most to spread the virus. Identifying and fining people who are already on the financial margins just makes things worse, in terms of both the financial impact on the individuals who are caught and encouraging others to do more to conceal their infection. It doesn’t have to be this way; the government could, right from the outset, have done more to help people to self-isolate by providing a proper support package. It’s not too late, even now, to put policies in place to make self-isolation easier, but another article of faith for Tories is that governments should avoid giving poor people money. It’s a rule which doesn’t apply to their millionaire backers and supporters of course, but it most definitely does apply to the most financially vulnerable.

Articles of faith, or dogma as they are otherwise known, are the last thing we need in current circumstances, but are the first tools out of the box for the current UK government. The current appalling death toll was neither inevitable nor accidental; it’s a direct result of Tory dogma.

Friday 22 January 2021

Independence is about joining the world, not returning to the 19th Century


The ‘modern’ diplomatic system dates back to the fourteenth century, when the term ambassador first started to be used. Rights, obligations, responsibilities – to say nothing of quaint but arcane processes such as presenting one’s credentials to the Court of St James – have accumulated over the centuries. Amongst those is the concept of diplomatic immunity, one of those things that makes eminent sense in theory (providing safe passage for accredited representatives and guaranteeing that they won’t be persecuted by the host nation), but has been extended in practice to prevent prosecution of even the most heinous of crimes. There is no obvious reason why the range of those covered should be extended as far as it has been, nor why diplomats should be exempt from following the laws of the country in which they serve, both issues raised by the recent case of Anne Sacoolas.

But, for all its imperfections, the system of ambassadors works reasonably effectively most of the time. It allows and facilitates communications (including the confidential variety) between governments, encourages trade, provides representation and support to citizens, and generally ‘oils the wheels’. Given the UK Government’s repeated statements that it wants to have the warmest possible relationship with the EU after Brexit, the decision not to recognise the EU’s representative as an ambassador with all that that implies appears at first sight to be perverse. I can’t imagine the EU’s ambassador to the UK being particularly put out at not having to get dressed up to travel to St James Palace to formally present his credentials to the monarch, and I hope that he and his team would not be exceptionally upset at not having the right to ignore and breach UK law at will. But when 142 other countries across the world have decided to give the EU’s representatives the same ambassadorial status as any ‘nation-state’, it would be understandable if the EU were to be a little miffed at the only state – and its nearest neighbour to boot – which refuses to do likewise. And if we ask ourselves ‘who loses as a result?’, the obvious answer is that the UK is set to lose more than the EU from what most will see as a rather petty decision.

That is, though, to ignore the Brexit mind-set, to say nothing of English exceptionalism. Brexiteers have argued throughout that the EU should not become, and therefore should not be treated as, a state. They tried (and failed) to negotiate directly with the bigger member states, particularly France and Germany. From their perspective, it is the member states which have legitimacy, not the EU as a bloc. Brexit could only ever be the beginning – being on the doorstep of a bloc like the EU without being part of it makes sense only if it’s a prelude to cracking that bloc apart. Part of that is conducting diplomacy directly with the member states, not with the EU. Post-truth politics demands that the EU not exist if we treat it as though it isn’t there. Brexit has always been a long-term project, just ask Rees-Mogg, and Brexiteers have always been clear in their own minds (although not so much in their public statements) that there would be economic losses for most of us in the short term – just the first half century or so. And we can always eat sovereignty in the meantime.

The underlying principle by which the English nationalist government works is that there is one, and only one, legitimate source of power in the world, and that is the nation-state. By that they mean not that the state is defined by the nation (which is perhaps the traditional definition), but that the nation is defined by the state. Treating the EU as some sort of lesser body with no real legitimacy is the same way that they regard the governments of Scotland and Wales, as we’ve seen in their actions to date. Over-ruling and ignoring Wales and Scotland isn’t oversight or carelessness, it’s the direct result of a world view in which only Westminster has legitimacy. They are simply applying the same rule both internally and externally. The choice we face in Wales is between joining their project, accepting their nineteenth century definitions of nation, state, and legitimacy, or joining the rest of the world in adopting twenty-first century definitions. Independence isn’t about opting out of an outdated English exceptionalist view of the world so much as opting into a modern internationalist world. The choice is ours – unless we allow it to become theirs by default.

Thursday 21 January 2021

Blackmailing Labour would be counter-productive


Before the last Senedd election, Plaid Cymru announced with great fanfare that they would hold a referendum on independence in their second term of office as the government of Wales. It was always an odd statement to come from a party which claimed to be committed to obtaining independence for Wales. The stated rationale was that that was what had happened in Scotland, but the comparison was a specious one. The only reason that the SNP didn’t call for a referendum in their first term of government was that they were a minority government; there was simply no majority in the Scottish Parliament for holding one. The determinant of whether a referendum on independence should be held is not how many times a majority has been elected on such a platform but the simple fact that such a majority exists. Plaid’s position looked more like an attempt to woo voters opposed to independence by promising not to do anything about it for the five years of a Senedd term than a means of advancing the cause. The announcement last month that Plaid would call such a referendum if it won a majority in the Senedd in the forthcoming election was a welcome correction to a strange stance.

However, the suggestion this week that Plaid would make the holding of a referendum part of any coalition discussions with Labour would be a step too soon and too far. I agree with Mark Drakeford that the route to holding a referendum is to secure a majority of members of the Senedd pledged to holding such a vote. Trying to blackmail those elected on a platform of opposing a referendum into supporting one in order to be able to form a government isn’t at all the same thing.  Drakeford’s agreement that if a majority of members of the Senedd are elected on a platform of holding a referendum then a referendum should be held strikes me as entirely reasonable.

It sometimes seems as though the aim of holding a referendum on independence is in danger of eclipsing the underlying aim of gaining that independence. I entirely accept that, whilst a referendum isn’t the only possible or legal route to independence, in the particular circumstances of Wales in the twenty-first century a legally recognised referendum is the best way of ensuring both a smooth transition and rapid international recognition for the new state. But such a referendum will work best if it is a means of expressing and legitimating an opinion already widely-held – the job of winning it has to be done before calling it, not after announcing the timetable. Holding a referendum under a coalition government, the larger party in which only allows it to be held in order to retain power and then proceeds to campaign for a ‘no’ vote, looks more like a way of setting the cause back than advancing it. If parties supporting the calling of a referendum cannot even win a majority of seats in the Senedd, then it is highly improbable that a year or so later they will find a majority of the whole electorate for the substance of independence.

I can see why Plaid would want to mobilise all supporters of independence behind one party. After all, polls suggest that a majority of Labour supporters are at least open to the idea, and there’s no doubt that the idea is gaining ground. To succeed in that objective, though, requires that all of those who support independence will see that as their main priority and the key issue in the Senedd election, and will therefore vote with that aim uppermost in their minds. ‘Optimistic’ is one possible word to apply to that (I can think of others); there’s a lot of groundwork to be done first. To date, independentistas haven’t even succeeded in normalising debate on the subject, although Yes.Cymru have done a good job of laying the groundwork. There are, though, no short cuts: winning hearts and minds comes first.

Tuesday 19 January 2021

An ill wind


The problems which Brexit has brought to Welsh ports are extremely serious, particularly for those whose jobs and livelihoods are threatened. And there is no doubt that the reduction in trade is likely to be long-term rather than ‘teething problems’ given the way in which hauliers are bypassing the UK and using more direct ferry services between Ireland and the European mainland. That will unquestionably damage GDP and prosperity in Wales. But having said that, I can’t help wondering whether there isn’t an environmental benefit being delivered by avoiding trucking goods offloaded from a ship on one side of the UK all the way across to the other side where they’re put back onto another ship (or train) to cross the water to the mainland.

If we started with a clean sheet of paper, would we really design systems the way that they were working prior to Brexit? I’ve often asked myself why (in the case of goods which are simply transiting across the UK) we don’t simply put them on a train at one port and then take them off at the other port – or even in Calais, after going through the tunnel. It would require investment in rail infrastructure, of course (although it might avoid, or at least delay, some investment in the road infrastructure by reducing the volume of heavy freight traffic) but would probably provide a faster overall transit at lower environmental cost than a stream of lorries. Avoiding the UK ‘land bridge’ by using longer distance ferries probably achieves similar environmental benefits, at the cost of a longer transit time.

Seeing benefits in Brexit isn’t something that comes entirely naturally to me, to say the least, but could the reduction in the number of lorries travelling across the UK from one port to another be a benefit? It’s clearly not an intentional benefit – the UK government seems genuinely surprised at the consequences of the deal it signed in such a rush. The problem is that, precisely because it is an entirely unintended and unforeseen (by the UK Government at least – clearly the Irish government and the ferry companies saw this one coming a long time ago) consequence, the government has not planned for it, or given any thought to the impact on jobs, livelihoods and communities. Rather than calling for changes to the deal so that we can go back to the way things were, might it not be better to start, even now at this late stage, thinking about how we respond to that impact, rather than act as though it is only going to be for a few weeks?

Monday 18 January 2021

If I give you the vaccine, I won't have any left for someone else...


Some years ago, I worked in an office where the stationery was zealously guarded by the department’s administrator. Basically, the staff weren’t trusted to take only what they needed to do their job, and had to ask every time they needed a new pencil or biro, presenting the shortened or ink-depleted old one as evidence. On one occasion, I needed a floppy disk (yes, it really was that long ago!), and took myself off to the administrator’s desk, strategically placed in front of the locked stationery cupboard. “I’ve only got one left,” she told me. “That’s alright,” I replied, “I only need one.” “But if I give you this one, I won’t have any left if someone else wants one,” came the response, and no amount of pleading, let alone logic, would get the cupboard unlocked and the disk released into my custody.

What brought the incident to mind was yesterday’s astonishing statement from the First Minister that, because the supply of Covid-19 vaccines which has been issued to Wales has to last until the beginning of February, the government is eking it out to use it at a consistent rate over that period rather than using it all up as soon as it is available in order to vaccinate people more quickly. His argument for this is that, if we use it all at once, members of the vaccination team will then be sitting around idle until more supplies arrive. It’s not much of an argument; if the capacity to use it all in a shorter period exists, then the implication is that that capacity will be underused over the whole of the period rather than completely unused for part of it. To use the timescales quoted by the First Minister: in broad terms, the amount of resource needed to deliver the vaccines is roughly the same whether they’re done in a week or in six weeks – either way, a substantial portion of the capacity goes unused. It’s just that non-activity for five weeks is more obvious than under-activity for six.

Either way, it implies that the Welsh Government has put more capacity in place than it currently needs to deliver the vaccines available to it. Given the urgency of the programme, and the uncertainty of supplies, that’s not something for which it would be fair to criticise Drakeford. Much better to have excess capacity sitting around waiting for the supplies than to be under capacity when the supplies arrive, particularly if it is hoped and anticipated that in the fairly near future the rate of supply will increase dramatically. On the whole, Drakeford has come out of the pandemic looking more competent and compassionate than his English counterparts, even if the results haven’t always been as significantly different as we might hope; but his performance has not been perfect. Unless he has a better or more complete excuse than he’s offered in this case, he looks to have called this one wrong.

It would also be interesting to know whether the other parts of the UK have been following a similar approach. Just because the question seems only to have been asked (and therefore answered) in Wales, it doesn’t mean that a similar question elsewhere wouldn’t prompt a similar response (although in England, asking a question wouldn't necessarily lead to a response at all).

Saturday 16 January 2021

Rewording the problem isn't a solution


Yesterday’s post referred to the report produced by a fringe group of members of the Labour Party on the subject of what they called ‘radical federalism’. The post concentrated in particular on the way that the report failed to address the huge issue of England, and its built-in majority in the current UK parliament. It gets worse than that. The detail of which powers would reside where reveals that this is really a proposal to reverse some aspects of devolution and return key powers to Westminster.

As things currently stand, the Senedd has significant powers in areas such as health, education, and housing to set its own standards and priorities. Under the ‘radical’ proposals put forward in this report, whilst what they refer to as the parliaments of “the historic nations of the UK” would be “responsible for their economies, infrastructure and the health and welfare of their populations”, they could only exercise their powers in the context of minimum standards for “health, social welfare, human rights, education and housing across the UK”. Whilst the devolved parliaments would be allowed to exceed those standards, they would be acting outside their powers if they ever fell below them. This is not the recognition of the sovereignty of those historic nations which they claim it to be so much as the imposition of further constraints on what they can do. It amounts to reclaiming currently devolved powers for the centre. In effect, they are proposing that England sets the standards and the other administrations must follow.

If England (through its majority in the UK Parliament) decides to change any of those standards, why should Wales be obliged to follow, even if the Welsh Government considers that its immediate priority, taking account of Welsh needs, lies elsewhere? That is, surely, a political question and, ultimately, a matter for political debate between the different parties in their campaigns for the Senedd. What they propose is, effectively, devolution of administration rather than policy.

In its introduction, the report quotes, apparently with approval, Gordon Brown saying that “…we have devolution but still a centralist mindset. We have, in theory, a decentralised constitution with supposed local powers of initiative, but a unitary state that won’t let go”. It then goes on to propose a solution which precisely replicates the problem. Calling something ‘radical’ doesn’t make it so.

Friday 15 January 2021

Chasing a phantasm


A few days ago, a group of members of the Labour Party published a report setting out the case for something which they’ve called ‘Radical Federalism’. To call it underwhelming would be to understate the degree to which it fails to provide answers to any of the real questions. One of the biggest problems is that, as a member of Labour for an Independent Wales put it, “…the premise of the report is focused not on what reforms are necessary to improve peoples’ lives, but rather what is necessary to protect and preserve the union”. The continuation of the union is axiomatically assumed to be ‘a good thing’ with no real attempt to justify using it as a premise, an approach which necessarily constrains the ability of the authors to truly consider alternatives.

Perhaps my favourite sentence in the whole report was the first bullet point describing what a transformed UK might look like, which states that “The UK state would perform only those strategic tasks which could not be performed at a more local level”. It’s hard to disagree with that – the problem is how one decides what fits into that category. Any objective comparison with other independent states the size of Wales could only conclude that there is precisely nothing which fits that description; states the size of Wales across the world happily decide all matters for themselves. How they later in the same section arrive at the conclusion that the UK Parliament would be “responsible for the key areas of defence, macro-economic, trade, fiscal and foreign policy” is nowhere explained; it’s a conclusion pulled out of thin air. It’s a conclusion which goes a long way to justify Adam Price’s response that such a federation would commit Wales to “right-wing economics and illegal wars”, although that does also depend to an extent at least on who wins elections, rather than solely on the constitutional structure. Structures, in themselves, never determine policy.

The report says that there would be a ‘UK framework’ (presumably agreed by the UK Parliament?) which would “guarantee minimum and common standards” in a range of fields, imposing immediate limits on what any of the constituent parts can decide to do (even ignoring the minor little question as to whether standards can be both ‘minimum’ and ‘common’). But how does that setting of standards work, in practice, in a union of unequals, where one ‘member’ can always outvote the others when it comes to setting or changing those standards? How does that federal parliament work? It’s a question which goes unanswered – and it’s easy to understand why!

On this issue, the report – like most proposals for a federal UK – ignores the giant elephant, otherwise known as England. How does a federation of four parts, in which one accounts for 85% of the population, work effectively without that single part dominating and outvoting the other 15% whenever it chooses? One potential approach is that the federal parliament contains an equal number of members from each of the four states – so England, with 85%, gets the same voice as Wales with 5%. Another potential approach is to break England up into 9 mini-states (based on currently recognised regions, although other configurations are possible), each with their own parliament exercising the same functions as the Welsh or Scottish parliaments, turning a very unequal union of four into a much more balanced union of 12 (or 13 if Cornwall were given separate recognition).

Just noting that there are only two potential approaches which are workable is enough to explain why that which might appear theoretically attractive turns out to be the stuff of fantasy in the real world. It requires either that English politicians accept that Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and England are equals or else that they agree to dismember England. And in both cases, they must accept that sovereignty does not reside exclusively in Westminster and that the UK parliament and government will have no control or influence over huge swathes of policy. Neither the English nationalist Tories currently in charge nor the Anglo-British nationalist Labour Party who seek to replace them (the key difference seems to be a question of how many union flags must be visible in the background when their leader speaks – Anglo-British nationalists only require one, but English nationalists always require two) are ever going to do either of those things.

A federalism which had considered these issues in detail and come up with a solution to them thirty years ago might, just, have staved off (or at least delayed) the demise of the UK. Perhaps. But coming up with a half-baked proposal which is just the vague wish list of a few fringe elements in the Labour Party but which can’t answer the key questions, despite such a proposal having been regularly floated for decades, and when the union is already on its deathbed, just doesn’t cut it. It looks like what it is – a last-minute and panicky attempt to protect a union for which they can’t even advance a half-decent argument in the first place. This ‘radical’ approach to preserving the union is almost the very definition of conservatism – protecting and preserving that which exists simply because it exists. When Scotland dissolves the union of 1707, Wales will face a choice between following Scotland or being more tightly integrated into England. The idea that ‘federalism’ offers some sort of third way is nonsense – Labour must, eventually, decide which side to support. Chasing irrelevant phantasms can be nothing more than a holding operation.

Wednesday 13 January 2021

Solidarity would be more effective than enforced obedience


The lesson that any normal empathic human would have learned from the Barnard Castle eye-test fiasco is that government messages can be seriously undermined if senior members or officials of the government are seen to be non-compliant with government guidance, even if that non-compliance can potentially be interpreted by some as ‘merely’ stretching a point rather than an outright and undeniable breach. All the evidence shows that Cummings’ jaunt had a serious negative impact on public willingness to comply, and left an unpleasant feeling that there’s one law for ‘them’ and another for everyone else. However, the lesson that Johnson appears to have actually learned is that toughing it out works. Not in terms of such minor questions as reinforcing government messages and protecting lives of course, but in the more limited but much more important – to him, anyway – sense of fending off a potential threat to his own position. To paraphrase an old saying, there are two rules concerning the world king: 1) the world king is always right, and 2) in the event of him being wrong, rule 1 above applies.

There seems to be no doubt that, in the black-and-white matter of what the letter of the law says, taking himself off for a bike ride seven miles from home was not illegal under English lockdown rules (and that’s still true, even if, as seems likely given Downing Street’s apparent reluctance to either confirm or deny it, he and his security entourage drove that seven miles rather than riding it). But there is equally no doubt that, at a time when his own government’s ministers and the health experts are saying that the law is a maximum, not an entitlement, and that people should be avoiding any travel at all unless it is absolutely essential, let alone the continual hints that he and the government believe that current rules may not be strict enough, his trip was directly contrary to most of the messaging coming from himself, let alone those around him. It might be arguable that, for his security (to say nothing of the safety of other road users), having the PM and a posse of security officers riding their bikes in wobbly fashion through the roads of the capital is not the most brilliant idea that anyone ever came up with, and that it was therefore reasonable to use the lack of precision in the law to allow him some safe exercise. With a bit more self-awareness, to say nothing of a willingness to express a degree of contrition or regret, he might have tried that line, and many might even have sympathised. But feelings like contrition are alien to Johnson’s character – and anyway, the world king is always right.

How damaging it will be in the coming weeks and months remains to be seen – the Cummings effect is still strong after many months. One of the strangest aspects of the whole affair was that apparently, in a stark display of his own lack of self-awareness, the PM was so surprised at how many other people were at the park where he went for his ride that he took that information back to the cabinet for a discussion on how the guidance could be more strongly enforced. This, in turn, may well have led to the otherwise inexplicable decision to deploy the disastrous Priti Patel at yesterday’s press conference to promise draconian police action against all those mere plebs who dare to emulate the PM’s lack of compliance with what is mostly guidance rather than law. There is little doubt that stronger enforcement will be popular amongst the overwhelming majority who are attempting to follow the ever-changing rules and guidance and don’t like seeing others ‘getting away with it’. It’s a poor substitute though for encouraging a greater sense of social solidarity where people genuinely feel that the action taken is collective rather than simply individual. Johnson’s words and actions directly undermine such solidarity as does exist rather than increasing it. But then world kings don’t require solidarity, merely obedience.

Monday 11 January 2021

To vote or not to vote


Last week, the English government declared that it fully intends to proceed with local and mayoral elections in May despite the pandemic, and categorically ruled out moving to an all-postal election. Based on the government’s record to date, the most reasonable assumption to draw from this is that the elections will be postponed and that all votes will be cast by postal ballot – whatever they rule out categorically one week usually becomes firm policy the next. There is, of course, a knock-on effect for the devolved administrations in Cardiff and Edinburgh: for either of them to go ahead if England delays, or to delay if England goes ahead will be spun against those administrations for the political ends of the English Conservative Party. That party seems to have no firm view on whether postponing is, in itself, right or wrong, only that Wales and Scotland must follow England.

In Scotland, on the other hand, the unionist parties are desperately keen to postpone if they can, given that the SNP are on course for another landslide win. In the first place, their one remaining hope of stopping the SNP’s progress seems to be the belief that, if they can only delay a while, ‘something’ might turn up. On such vague hopes their wish to preserve the union now rests. But in the second place, if they argue that it is entirely ‘safe’ to hold elections, they will struggle to argue that holding a subsequent referendum (by which time the pandemic should be even more under control) is somehow ‘unsafe’. Or at least they would struggle if consistency and honesty were traits with which they were in any way familiar.

On the substance of the question, it’s hard to assess how safe and sensible holding elections in the middle of a pandemic is in reality. Whilst there are plenty of examples of other countries which have done so, there’s no hard evidence of which I’m aware which assesses whether, and to what extent, those elections have helped to spread the virus. It would be surprising if an event which led to millions of people going out to polling stations had no impact at all, given how easily the virus spreads. But conducting the elections entirely by means of postal ballots would clearly be safer than insisting on people physically casting their ballots at a polling station, so there is an obvious way of dramatically reducing any potential impact.

The real impact which will worry the politicians more isn’t the holding of the election itself, it’s their ability to campaign, and particularly to have the direct contact with electors which is the basis of most campaigning. Whilst telephone canvassing can work up to a point, many electors have a strong aversion to it, particularly when it involves multiple calls from multiple parties. And don’t even mention robo-calls: why any party thinks they’re a good idea is one of life’s little mysteries. On the other hand, many years of direct experience of active campaigning on doorsteps has left me unsure as to the actual impact of canvassing at election times. Certainly, I’ve met many who have said that they would switch from party A to party B as a result of our doorstep encounter, but presumably, party A’s campaigners are also finding people who are switching from B to A as a result of the same process. And besides – whisper it quietly – it’s not exactly unknown for voters to lie to canvassers. Especially if they’ve been dragged away from Coronation Street to answer the doorbell and are keen to get back to it.

An election with limited campaigning is still an election, but to the extent that doorstep campaigning affects outcomes, the lack of such campaigning is likely to marginally favour incumbents and/or parties and politicians receiving favourable media coverage at the time*. That question of marginal advantage or disadvantage is, almost certainly, one of the main factors which politicians will be weighing up as they decide whether to support postponement. Currently, we don’t know how bad the pandemic will be in April/May, but we can probably have a degree of confidence that the situation will have improved by the autumn as the vaccination programme starts to have an effect, although new variants and mutations cannot be discounted. Whatever the politicians might think, I suspect that those front-line staff who are giving so much would probably prefer not to take an unnecessary risk if it can be avoided. That ought to be sufficient reason to take an early decision to postpone.

*Having said that, I’ve known candidates who would probably have benefited from not being allowed to knock too many doors! One who claimed to have been born on Venus immediately springs to mind, but there are plenty of more down-to-earth examples.

Saturday 9 January 2021

Johnson underperforms Trump


This week, both the UK and the US have reported record levels of deaths from the pandemic. The US is reporting truly horrific numbers, and this is rightly being blamed on the chaotic leadership of the outgoing president, Donald Trump, who has spent the last few months fixating on imaginary electoral fraud instead of getting to grips with the pandemic. With the daily death toll passing 4,000 for the first time yesterday, and a total of 356,000 deaths to date, the incoming president, Joe Biden, has a huge task on his hands in trying to get control of a problem which has been ignored and downplayed by his predecessor. We need to remember, though, that absolute figures can be misleading, and relative numbers are usually more informative. With a population of 330 million, one would expect that the US would have a larger death toll than smaller countries even if its leader had given the problem his full attention, although that will provide little comfort to those impacted.

The UK has had a much smaller number of deaths in total. To date, the total is somewhere between 80,000 and 95,000 (depending on whether we start with the official daily running total or the ONS analysis of excess deaths) and has this week gone above 1,000 per day for the first time since April. The UK population is 66 million, about one fifth of that in the US, so one would reasonably expect, even if the level of competence and control was no better than that of Donald Trump (and that’s a very low bar indeed), that the death toll both overall and in terms of the daily peak would be no greater than one fifth of that in the US. Simple maths, however, tells us that it is worse – and significantly so. One fifth of the US totals would amount to 800 per day and an overall total of 71,000, both of which have been comfortably exceeded by the UK’s ‘world-leading’ performance.

What this tells us, in simple terms, is that the UK under Boris Johnson has performed less well than the US under the chaotic regime of Donald Trump. That’s worth repeating: Boris Johnson has demonstrably done an even worse job of managing the pandemic than Donald Trump. Yet still the sycophantic UK media trumpet the ‘world-beating’ promises and statements of Johnson and his cronies as though they have some relationship with fact. Poor management of the pandemic isn’t the only similarity. Both men have had their attention diverted by products of their own imagination – in the US it’s imaginary voter fraud and in the UK it’s the imaginary benefits of Brexit. Both have shown an astonishing inability to empathise with others, particularly those who have lost so much. Both seem to believe that they are the real victims – Trump of a vast conspiracy to steal an election and Johnson of being made to do things he hates. Instead of learning from experience and changing their approach, both heap praise on themselves for their achievements and seem genuinely surprised or even upset when others don’t do the same. And whilst the removal of either doesn’t guarantee a more successful approach, it is in both cases an essential precondition. The difference is that Trump is going now – we could be stuck with Johnson for almost four more years.

Friday 8 January 2021

Size doesn't matter - attitude does


A couple of days ago, Boris Johnson apparently told his backbench MPs that, if the SNP had had their way, not a single vaccine would have been delivered in Scotland. He didn’t suggest that the SNP were in any way opposed to vaccinations, merely that – as one attendee reported – delivering vaccines at scale “needed the clout of a big government”. In essence, he was arguing that small countries like Scotland just can’t do things like secure supplies of vaccine and run major vaccination programmes. It’s a pity that no-one explained this to Israel (population 8.9 million) which has secured enough vaccine to inoculate all over 16s by the end of March. If only someone had told them that they’re too small to do something like that, they could have saved themselves a lot of trouble. If only they had understood the limitations imposed by their lack of size, they too could have had a death rate of 1.4 per 100,000 rather than falling behind with a mere 0.4.

It’s not the only thing that only big states like the UK can achieve, apparently. Only states the size of the UK could ensure that there was adequate PPE from the outset, only big states like the UK could build a track, trace and isolate system that works, only big states like the UK have the international clout to close their borders and prevent more spreaders from entering, and only big states like the UK can keep their death rates at a very low level compared to the rest of the world. Oh, wait; something's not quite right there. In the real world, any international comparison shows that the main determinant of success is nothing to do with size at all, and the PM was simply making things up. Who’d have thought it?

It turns out that more important factors are studying the facts, understanding the science, a willingness to act early and decisively, and an ability to learn from what happens elsewhere. Conversely, a jingoistic belief that ‘we’ know better than anyone else, and that ‘our’ approach is axiomatically the best is more of an obstacle than an asset. Again, who’d have thought it?

Thursday 7 January 2021

As good as it gets


The English Education Secretary came under attack from almost all sides yesterday, with some of the kinder descriptions including words like incompetent, ineffectual, careless, tribal, and inept. Number 10 leapt to his defence claiming that the PM had full confidence in him (although if he were a football team manager, that would normally be the prelude to an imminent departure). In a rare moment of honesty, the PM’s Press Secretary declared that Williamson is doing the job “to his utmost ability” apparently not realising that that is not so much a strong defence as an entirely accurate statement of the problem. It’s an analysis which could be extended – the whole cabinet, including the PM himself, are doing their jobs to the utmost of their ability. This really is as good as it gets from a Johnson government.

Wednesday 6 January 2021

Hoping for the best isn't good enough


There was a time when a political leader who declared one thing to be true at breakfast time and then said the opposite by tea-time was the preserve of dystopian novels, but in Johnsonian Britain it’s the new normal. And despite him having done the same thing several times already, his loyal sycophants are still gullible enough to defend his first position all morning and afternoon before defending the second all evening. They seem incapable of even realising that they’re being played. The latest iteration of this was on Monday over schools in England, when they were mostly required to open on Monday (having been threatened with legal action just a fortnight earlier if they did not do so), only to be told at the end of the day that they would then be required to shut for at least a month.

In justifying his pivot, he repeated his claim that schools are basically safe, because children are unlikely to suffer serious illness as a result of catching the virus but added what was apparently, to him at least, an entirely new factor – namely that spreading the virus amongst children, even if they showed suffered few or no symptoms, risked transmitting it to their families. Who’d have thought it? Apart, that is, from the scientific community who’d been warning him of this for weeks, and anyone who is able to apply very simple logic to the way in which the autumn uptick in cases began shortly after the September return to schools. In fairness, neither of those categories can reasonably be applied to Johnson, and expecting him to read or understand briefing papers which are not in Latin or Greek and do not heap unmitigated praise upon him is wholly unrealistic.

The question to be asked is not whether schools are ‘safe’ for learners and teachers, it is whether keeping schools open threatens the safety of the wider community. The problem is not the risk to children, which is low (although not zero) or even to teachers which is also low (albeit higher than the risk to children): it is that mixing infectious but asymptomatic children with other children can – and clearly does – spread the virus from one family to another outside the school setting. And, despite the PM’s posturing, the obvious didn’t only become so at lunch time on Monday.

It isn’t only the English Government which labours under a rather narrow definition of what is involved in making schools safe, however. Yesterday, both of Wales’ main opposition parties (Plaid and the Tories), called for the Welsh government to give priority to teachers for vaccination in order to reopen schools quickly. But if the problem is the way in which the virus spreads amongst the children, vaccinating the teachers is never going to be the solution. That’s not to argue that teachers shouldn’t be given priority – if we, as a society, expect people to continue working in a potentially hazardous environment, then it is reasonable to give them as much protection as possible. It’s simply that doing that doesn’t solve the real problem. (And whilst it’s easy enough to call for added priority for one group, it’s a lot harder to decide which group should be deprioritised as a result, despite that being the inevitable consequence of limited availability. No surprise that neither party seemed to be in any rush to go near that one.)

Given the need to be seen to be offering something, it’s understandable why politicians would seize on that which is (comparatively) easy to do, not least because addressing the real problem is far from being straightforward. If we knew that vaccinating people stopped transmission and infection as well as minimising the effects of infection, then vaccinating pupils as well as teachers would be a good starting point. But there is, as yet, no evidence to support that proposition – which means that we could vaccinate every child and every teacher in every school and have no impact whatsoever on transmission within schools. That leaves only two currently viable options. The first is to keep schools closed for as long as is necessary to ensure that the virus is at least as controlled as it was following the first lockdown (and then repeating the process as and when necessary), and the second is to assume that this is going to be a long haul and invest time, effort, and money in setting up alternative approaches to educating children, approaches which it is already clear would be required for at least a year, and possibly longer. The politicians currently in power – in Cardiff as in London – seem to be showing no appetite for either of those approaches, with all effort going instead into finding ways of returning schools to something near normal as soon as possible.

It might, to the extent that we are prepared to give people the benefit of any doubt, be forgivable that an assumption was made after the first lockdown that the situation was under control and education could be resumed in September. But there is no excuse for the time lost since the virus started to take hold again in September for the lack of planning and preparation for an extended period of school closures. And there is even less excuse for the time still being lost today as the politicians continue to seek a quick fix instead of looking for longer term alternatives. “Learning online” is a major part of the answer, but in itself is oversimplistic, since it ignores the lack of equity of access let alone facilities in the home. Jeremy Corbyn’s widely mocked election policy of superfast broadband connections for all looks even more sensible now than it did to some of us at the time, but it cannot be delivered in days or weeks and we also need equipment and facilities in the home. And how do we ensure direct interaction between teachers and pupils? Should teachers give more of their time in smaller groups to the most disadvantaged, rather than simply teaching online groups of 30 or sending out work packs? None of these are easy questions, and it would be naïve to expect instant answers. But the longer we go without asking the questions, the more we are effectively depending on a vague hope that things are going to improve as if by magic. That may be a fair summary of Johnson’s approach for England, but it should not be the approach in Wales. We can and should do better than that.

Monday 4 January 2021

A very English crisis awaits us


The Prime Minister of England put in another bumbling and incoherent performance on the Andrew Marr show yesterday, including an attempt to answer a reasonable question about a future referendum on the future of Scotland (the relevant clip is available here on Bella Caledonia). In essence, his evasion highlighted his underlying conviction that Scotland is an English possession, and has no democratic route of its own available to choose an alternative future which does not involve the consent of the English Government, which consent will never be forthcoming from him. His assertion that the 41 years between the two referendums on membership of the EU was “a good sort of gap” and is therefore some sort of precedent for determining the frequency of referendums is disingenuous to say the least. The reason that there was no further referendum between 1975 and 2016 wasn’t some great principle that referendums should be infrequent, it was simply that there was no majority in parliament to hold a further referendum. Had there been a majority for a repeat referendum in 1980, there is little doubt that one would have been held. Telling the Scots that it doesn’t matter who they vote for or what the manifestoes of the various parties say, the English Government has an absolute veto on implementing the will of the Scottish electorate is not only undemocratic, but also positively counter-productive for his own side in the debate.

That is not to argue that there are not legitimate questions to be asked about whether and when referendums (on any subject) should be held. They are often blunt instruments, reducing complex and nuanced questions to a simplistic yes/no answer, as we have discovered with the EU referendum, where what ‘leave’ actually meant was ill-defined, to put it mildly. There is surely something wrong with holding a referendum in which a majority can vote for free unicorns for all without anyone being able to say how said unicorns will be sourced. The reluctance of many politicians to get involved in holding repeated referendums on the same subject is also understandable as is their desire to declare a result to be ‘final’ so that we can all move on to other subjects. However, the idea that such arguments can ever trump the democratically expressed wish of voters is profoundly undemocratic. It’s doubtful that many would want to see a referendum on, say, EU membership becoming an annual event, but if that’s what the electorate vote for by electing a majority of MPs supporting such a proposal, by what authority can anyone tell them that they can’t have one? It’s a theoretical question and a highly improbable outcome, of course, but to ask it is to answer it: if a majority of MPs were to be elected on a manifesto pledging another referendum – or even annual referendums – on EU membership, then it would happen. It is a core element of the English constitution that parliament is both absolutely sovereign and can never bind its successors.

And it is that which exposes the underlying attitude of the English nationalists in the Conservative Party (as well as the Anglo-British nationalists of Labour): sovereignty rests indivisibly in Westminster, not with the devolved parliaments, and certainly not with the voters in Scotland (or Wales, come to that). It doesn’t matter how many times the Scots vote for parties committed to holding another independence referendum; unless and until they can gain a majority in Westminster (an impossible ask) or the support of either the English nationalist party or the Anglo-British nationalist party (both unlikely), their votes on the issue of independence count for nothing.

Those who would argue that the UK needs to think a lot more carefully about the use of referendums have a valid point, even if the demand for a lengthy and time-consuming process to do so looks suspiciously like an attempt to kick the Scottish question into the long grass for as long as possible. But if issues are not to be decided by referendums, then they can only be decided by elections or, rather, by those who are elected casting their votes in the parliaments of which they are members. The reluctance of the SNP leadership to consider options other than the ‘gold standard’ of an agreed referendum is understandable and pragmatic in terms of ensuring international recognition for Scottish independence, but if the government of England persists in trying to close off that option, the constitutional crisis which the UK will ultimately face becomes both considerably greater and significantly more likely. The fact that Boris Johnson sees this as a Scottish crisis rather than an English one governs his response - and makes the outcome increasingly inevitable.

Saturday 2 January 2021

A strange kind of freedom


The BBC reported yesterday that six lorries had been turned back at Holyhead due to incorrect or incomplete documentation following the Brexit changes. This is fake news, a deliberate attempt to suggest that there are new barriers to trade across the Irish Sea. We know that there are no such barriers, because the PM has consistently told us so, and I distinctly remember him telling businesses that anyone asked to fill in any extra forms should telephone him and he would instruct them to throw the forms in the bin. The only new procedure required at the port should have been to ensure that Johnson’s phone number was given to all lorry drivers on arrival. Have the people turning lorries away at Holyhead not properly prepared for Brexit by ensuring that they have the PM’s phone number immediately to hand? How difficult can that have been?

As of yesterday, the UK is apparently a sovereign state able to make its own rules as it wishes with no interference from Brussels. As a member of the EU, the UK could have chosen to ignore EU rules and regulations, but would then have faced fines and penalties according to a set of rules agreed by all members. However, as an independent sovereign state, the UK now has complete freedom to deviate from any EU rules that it doesn’t like, subject only to the EU’s right under the trade agreement to impose more-or-less any tariffs and quotas it chooses in response. It’s heady stuff, this freedom – only a truly sovereign state could free itself of the obligation to help decide what penalties it should face for non-adherence to agreed rules. The UK is free to set its own rules, and the EU is free to set the penalties for doing so. In the strange world of Brexiteers, this is apparently a good thing.