Saturday 27 February 2021

With enemies like these, who needs friends?


Yesterday, former PM Gordon Brown told us that during the pandemic, “At times Britain has looked like a dysfunctional state”. It’s not exactly a penetrating analysis, especially for those of us who tend to the view that something which looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck probably is a duck. The idea that something which looks dysfunctional might actually be dysfunctional doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind. The suggestion that the problem is merely one of appearances is just another indication of the difficulty unionists have with taking any actions likely to advance their cause – they simply don’t see the need for anything beyond a bit of spin and propaganda.

Meanwhile the third occupant of the post since he departed it has been having a little local difficulty with staffing the unit which he created to promote the union, having seen the departure of two heads within a fortnight. There was speculation that the unit had been scrapped completely, to be replaced by a small cabinet committee consisting of the PM himself, the Secretaries of State for Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland and a few other randomly selected cabinet ministers. However, reports of the unit’s death have, it seems, been exaggerated, and the new cabinet committee will instead oversee and guide the unit’s work. The fact that the PM is taking such a deep personal interest in the issue is good news for independentistas, and not just because of his own extreme unpopularity in Scotland. No, it’s more that we can expect Johnson to apply his usual degree of diligence to the question, which means that we can be confident that the committee is unlikely to meet. Ever. We know how much he dislikes attending meetings even if there’s a national emergency in progress and if through some unhappy accident it does happen to meet, he’ll probably have more pressing business elsewhere anyway. Like overseeing the important government task of taking photographs of dogs. Or giving Covid a sporting chance of spreading more widely across the UK.

With Brown and Johnson in charge of the case for the union, we hardly need an independence movement at all.

Friday 26 February 2021

Self-identifying as progressive isn't enough


Last week, the idea of a so-called ‘progressive alliance’ to defeat the Tories made one of its regular outings in the pages of the Guardian. One of the reasons why the argument won’t go away is that it makes obvious mathematical sense: more people voted against the Tories than voted for them. There is, though, more to politics than mathematics, and being united against the Tories isn’t the same as being united in favour of a particular alternative. From the comfort of an armchair, there is an obvious attraction in the idea of a ‘once-off’ alliance committed to introducing a form of proportional representation which would ensure than all views were better represented and that one party could not end up with an absolute majority of seats on the basis of a minority of votes.

In fairness, the article does identify one major problem with the plan, which is “Labour’s self-perceived monopoly status [with] a mindset in which it is the one and only tent on the centre-left”. That’s a big hurdle to clear. Much of Labour’s messaging for decades has been that they are not the Tories and the only way to get a non-Tory government is to vote Labour, in a deliberate attempt to ‘squeeze’ the vote for smaller parties. If they once admit that, actually, there is a route to getting rid of the Tories which does not depend on voting Labour, what are they left with? It’s hard to see them ever doing that so, for Labour, the only sort of ‘alliance’ which they are ever likely to contemplate is one which calls on everyone else to vote Labour. History shows that they can, occasionally, win enough votes in England to gain a majority of seats and form a government, and the simple truth is that they’d prefer to have absolute power occasionally than to share power more regularly.

There is, though, an even bigger problem which the article doesn’t even consider. Can one really consider Labour to be a ‘progressive’ party at all? The word seems to mean different things to different people, but the fact that Labour chooses to self-identify as progressive doesn’t necessarily make it true.

There is a report today that Labour’s shadow defence secretary is making a speech in which he will declare that “Labour’s support for the UK’s nuclear deterrent is non-negotiable”. (He is apparently also going to declare that “Labour’s commitment to international law and the UN … is total”, a statement which seems rather to ignore the fact that it was a UN treaty which made the production, use and stockpiling of nuclear weapons illegal from 1 January this year. Labour’s ‘commitment’ to international law looks awfully similar in practice to the Tories’ ‘commitment’ to international law.) His argument for this stance is firstly that nuclear weapons provide jobs, and secondly that being seen to prevaricate over the possession of nuclear weapons has damaged the party’s reputation amongst certain groups of voters.

In rather blunter terms, in order to win elections, Labour thinks it needs the votes of those who think it morally and legally acceptable to use weapons of mass destruction to wipe out entire cities and their populations. And it would prefer to seek those votes than to form any sort of alliance with other parties to challenge and defeat that barbaric and inhumane viewpoint. It’s hard to see what is ‘progressive’ about that. And that’s the really big problem with the idea of a ‘progressive alliance’ – it assumes that people would be willing to vote tactically for policies indistinguishable from those of the Tories in order to get rid of the Tories. It needs more than that to work.

Thursday 25 February 2021

Honesty and good faith are seen as optional extras


One of the almost semi-coherent ideas emerging from the fog of the unionists’ desperate attempts to prevent Scottish independence is the suggestion that a second referendum should only be held once the full details of what independence means are clear. Leaving aside the obvious question as to whether this is a serious suggestion or merely an attempt to tilt the scales against independentistas, it’s an idea which is not without merit. And had the same approach been applied to Brexit, things might now be rather different. However, for those applying the argument to Scotland, being consistent in their approach comes second to getting their own way. There are at least two major problems, though.

The nature of any independence settlement would require detailed negotiation – it’s not a matter of one side dictating what the outcome should be. And a negotiated settlement requires that both parties approach the discussions in good faith. And that brings us to the first problem – Boris Johnson is incapable of doing anything in good faith. Whatever he says or agrees is subject to change – sometimes in the next sentence, never mind the next day. It is inconceivable that any Johnson government will put the time and effort required into negotiating a detailed settlement (which they would then campaign to urge the Scots to reject); they will instead attempt to dictate the terms and, at best, bully Scotland into accepting them or, more likely, simply present them as though they had been agreed. It is, after all, the approach which worked so spectacularly well for Brexit. (And that’s not an attempt at sarcasm – it really did work well in the only sense that mattered to them, which was all about politics. Businesses and individuals whose futures were destroyed were just an acceptable level of collateral damage in an essentially political act.)

The second problem is that after independence, Scotland will set its own direction. Whilst the nature of an independent Scotland on Day 1 could, theoretically, be clarified by the terms of any agreement with England, the whole point of independence is to allow Scotland to do things differently. How different, and in what ways, depends not on the fact of independence, but on the policies put forward and implemented by whichever party or parties win Scottish elections in the years which follow. Whilst one party to the negotiations might attempt to constrain Scotland’s future options, the extent to which they can do so is necessarily limited.

The proposal that Scotland’s voters should have a more precise idea of what they are voting for is a wholly reasonable suggestion. However, the implicit assumptions being made by the proposers – that they can determine the terms unilaterally, and that ‘negotiation’ amounts to imposition – make it completely unworkable in practice. To make it workable requires an honest government in London, and that, to use a phrase from the infamous Scottish play, “stands not within the prospect of belief”.

Wednesday 24 February 2021

Increasing the stakes


In the lead up to his statement on the road out of lockdown, the Prime Minister of England was keen to stress that his plans would be based more on data than on dates. Given his customary and casual relationship with truth and consistency, it was no surprise to find that what he eventually produced was heavy on dates and vague on the data. Assuming that he will do the opposite of what he says he’ll do is usually a safe bet.  It would also be no surprise to find that his apparent ‘caution’ this time round was merely a spin-based shift from over-promising and under-delivering to under-promising and over-delivering, and that he actually intends to move faster than his road map suggests with more than half an eye on the English local elections in May. His repeated use of phrases such as ‘irreversible’ and ‘one-way route’ sounded ominous.

In theory, all his plans relate only to England, but as we have repeatedly seen over the past year, short of imposing and policing a hard border along Offa’s Dyke it is impossible to fully insulate Wales from the reckless decisions of an impetuous English PM, and the Welsh Government is right to be wary of the consequences. Johnson’s critics in his own party have been arguing long and hard that once the vulnerable parts of the population have been vaccinated there is no reason to continue with restrictions, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Johnson and his cult followers agree with that analysis but are only being held back by the caution of the government scientists. Such an approach would amount to allowing the virus to rip freely through the unprotected sectors of the population (as well as any of the vulnerable who have, for whatever reason, not been vaccinated). It’s a policy which depends on an assumption that those not yet vaccinated will only get a mild illness from which they will quickly recover.

That is a big assumption and a huge gamble. We know that, allowed to circulate freely amongst any sizable population, the virus can and will mutate. There’s a reasonable chance that most vaccinations will not cause any worse symptoms, and that the vaccinations will still protect against them. But it only takes one mutation that either causes worse symptoms (and more deaths) or against which the vaccinations don’t work for us to be facing another major surge later this year, in which tens of thousands more lives would be lost. None of us can know whether Johnson’s bet will pay off or not, but his record of recklessness is not exactly a sound basis for optimism. Statistically, betting on him being wrong would have shorter odds than betting on him being right.

The sight of the leader of what is euphemistically called ‘the opposition’ supporting Johnson’s insistence on irreversibility not only gives Johnson a degree of political cover, it also increases the risk. Even more worrying is that the most vocal opposition to Johnson’s approach is coming from people on his own side – and his natural supporters within his party at that – who think he’s still being too cautious and want to end restrictions even sooner. When dealing with a chancer and gambler like Johnson, the last thing we really need is people who are egging him on to up the stakes, especially when those stakes are measured in human lives. Yet that is what we have, and with a compulsive and over-optimistic gambler like Johnson at the helm, the dangers for the rest of us are obvious.

Monday 22 February 2021

National identity doesn't have to be a zero-sum game


As Bella Caledonia pointed out yesterday, last week was a busy one for the self-styled ‘saviours of the union’ as they fight their battle to prevent the break-up of the UK, although the highlight wasn’t so much the slew of articles full of grim warnings as the resignation, after just two weeks in the post, of the man Johnson had appointed to lead the government’s work on the matter. If they can’t even maintain a united approach in Downing Street, their chances of success look slim. Part of the problem is a lack of clarity about what it is that they’re trying to maintain and what the best way of doing that is.

The PM, always a lover of grandiose and impractical follies, seems to be determined to press ahead with a tunnel linking the UK mainland to Northern Ireland, with one option being a four-tunnel approach with a splendid roundabout under the Isle of Man, as though the solution is better physical links. (Apparently, some people also believe that this will 'solve' the problems of the Northern Ireland protocol, because those silly Europeans will never think to impose checks at the end of a tunnel.) Perhaps they’ve seen the pictures of another roundabout under the Faroes, although I wonder whether they’ve thought about asking the Manx whether they want to become an English-Scottish-Irish hub; it is, perhaps, an inconvenient and ironic fact that the island enjoys rather more self-government than Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, and unlike the devolved administrations, the Isle of Man would be able to say ‘no’ to such a scheme.

Others in the governing cult seem to believe that plastering the union flag on anything and everything, including vaccines, will somehow make all Scots and Welsh feel more British and patriotic. It underlines, in a way, how shallow is the idea of Britishness and British patriotism; it often seems as though that particular style of patriotism is more about symbols than substance. A truly ‘patriotic’ government would ensure that none of its people went hungry, that none were excluded or left behind, that we had functioning and properly funded services. Yet for ‘patriots’ like Johnson, it’s more about declaring loyalty to a flag, to the monarchy and to the armed forces. It’s a very narrow definition of what it means to be a patriot, and part of the reason why the union is failing is precisely because increasing numbers of people, particularly in Scotland, are coming to realise both how narrow it is, and that there are alternative and more modern views. Trying to put that genie back in the bottle by imposing a uniform definition of patriotism and national identity is likely to be counter-productive, but it seems to be all that they have.

Three months ago, Johnson said that devolution had been a disaster, and he’s been trying to row back his words ever since. Last week, he said that it hadn’t, after all, been an ‘overall disaster’, the problem, it seems is that the devolved administrations haven’t used their powers in the way he would have wished. He hasn’t – yet – gone quite as far as one of his party’s members in Wales, who argued last month that the Senedd should be abolished because there is no chance of it ever electing a Tory majority, although one can’t help but wonder if that isn’t what Johnson actually thinks. Abolishing Welsh democracy because the Welsh elect the ‘wrong’ people is not an approach which any democrat would propose, but it looks entirely natural from a perspective in which god vested all power in the English monarch.

One of last week’s flurry of articles was one from a former senior adviser to David Cameron in the Financial Times. It’s behind a paywall, but there’s a summary here on Nation.Cymru. It calls for a revised devolution settlement which recognises that all sovereignty belongs to Westminster and cuts back on the extent to which the devolved administrations can follow different paths. But above all, it highlights the question of identity and demands the reassertion of a British identity, without, apparently, really defining what that is. It is that question of identity – or more precisely, the extent to which different identities should be ‘permitted’ political expression – which is at the heart of the question. There is no doubt that people who self-identify as British see their identity as being in some way threatened by way in which growing numbers of people in Wales and Scotland see their identity as being Welsh or Scottish. And that seems to be a major part of the momentum behind the anti-Senedd forces: they seem to genuinely fear that the Senedd is going to somehow impose a Welsh identity upon them, a fear which often emerges in their views on the Welsh language. Given that imposing identity, culture, and language is exactly the way in which Britishness was established in the first place, it’s easy enough to see why British nationalists would assume that everyone else would operate the same way.

It doesn’t need to be that way, though. It’s true that there are independentistas who attempt to insist that people choose between being Welsh or being British. It’s impossible, they argue, to be both. Given that large numbers of people in Wales do consider themselves to be a bit of both, telling them that they can’t has always seemed an unproductive approach to me. On the other side, it seems that British nationalists are insisting that we must all fit their definition of national identity, and that the extent to which we can be ‘different’ should be tightly limited, and mostly expressed in the field of culture rather than politics. The problem with this approach to politics is that it treats identity as a zero-sum game; we must all make a firm choice, not a vague one, and one side must emerge as the winner. In trying to eliminate the possibility that nationality (other than in the strict legal definition for purposes such as passports issued by a state) can be much more subtle than that, the approach is inherently divisive. Had British nationalism been more accommodating both of difference and of political expression of that difference over the past three decades, they might have had a better chance of saving their precious union. It is a common refrain from the unionist side that independence is all about identity politics, but they don’t even seem to realise that identity politics is even more at the heart of their own project. The result is that they are doubling down on their demand for conformity even at this late stage. It will prove to be their undoing.

Friday 19 February 2021

Road maps, plans and targets


For anyone wanting to get from A to B, a roadmap is a useful thing to have. It tells you where to turn and will usually identify some of the milestones along the route. If you want to know what time you’ll get to B, knowing where the roadworks and obstacles are likely to be is also useful (although you can never anticipate where there might be an accident or an exceptional load leading to delays or diversions). Deciding what time you want to arrive and working back from there can also give you a target timetable, although it’s not necessarily going to be realistic. I’ve noted before that one guy with whom I used to work was always late for meetings, and told us once that it was impossible for him to arrive on time because he already had 9 points in his licence, and couldn’t therefore get from A to B in the time he’d allowed. He never really got to grips with the inherent flaw in his argument.

Both the Welsh and the UK governments are continually being pressed to provide a roadmap out of the lockdown. In itself, this is not an unreasonable request – identifying the stages and conditions which need to be met to progress. In reality, however, it often seems that what many of the anti-lockdown politicians (particularly on the Tory side) are really asking for is a series of targets, against which they can measure progress and which will give them a big stick with which to beat the governments for any failures. They have already decided that the lockdown is unnecessary, and really don’t care whether the necessary conditions have been met or not – they just want to re-open the economy and are demanding a tight and short timetable for doing so.

Unusually, Boris Johnson seems, at the moment, to be erring on the side of caution (in some respects at least), although I wonder how long it will last. His instinct is to take a more reckless approach, as he has done at all stages so far, and his desire to appease his own extremists – the very people who put him into power – is something he’s unlikely to be able to contain for long. Every date he’s come up with to date has proved to be both wrong and a hostage to fortune, and his claim that he wants any changes he makes to be ‘irreversible’ sounds more like painting himself into a corner, from which he will once again prevaricate rather than taking early action, than a realistic assessment of probability given the extent of the unknowns.

Mark Drakeford is being cautious about putting dates on anything. Whilst this will be frustrating for those anxious to re-open their businesses, such caution is eminently sensible. We don’t know whether, when, or where the next variant will arise, let alone whether a variant which can evade the effects of vaccination will appear; all we know is that the more the virus is allowed to spread, the greater the probability will be. For the anti-lockdown brigade, that really doesn’t matter. In fairness, it isn’t that none of them care, it’s more that most of them don’t understand and can’t be bothered to understand the impact of their proposals, and assume that it will, in any event, be other people affected. The response of the two main opposition parties is vastly different. The Tories, following the lead of their party’s lockdown sceptics are demanding dates, even if very rough ones, as a basis for planning; Plaid are demanding that it is the data rather than the dates which should drive any relaxation. The Welsh Tories have called things wrong at just about every stage of the pandemic, seemingly being more concerned about consistency with England than about controlling the pandemic. Hopefully, knowing that the other main opposition party is likely to be broadly supportive (even if critical of some details) will give Drakeford the confidence he needs to remain cautious in the face of shameless Tory attempts at populism. In current circulstances a road map is much more useful than an arbitrary target.

Wednesday 17 February 2021

Tory morality stops at the border

According to reports, the Foreign Secretary is today urging the UN Security Council to seek temporary ceasefires in war zones across the world in order to allow the citizens to be vaccinated against Covid-19. In principle, calling for ceasefires is always a worthy thing to do, and it’s impossible to be critical of the call itself. However, it’s hard to interpret a call for ‘temporary’ ceasefires as not suggesting a rather relaxed attitude to death by bomb or bullet once the population have all been properly vaccinated against one specific disease. Perhaps he has it in mind that any temporary ceasefire creates a basis for extension and a longer-term solution, although if that is what he is thinking, he hasn’t said it.

What he has said is “Global vaccination coverage is essential to beating coronavirus … We have a moral duty to act, and a strategic necessity to come together to defeat this virus”. That to many will sound more like pursuit of the interests of the UK than those of the war-torn countries themselves. Indeed, the report suggested that he would warn that 'allowing Covid-19 to spread in areas without a vaccination roll-out will increase the risk of new variants taking hold', confirming the impression that he’s more worried about uncontained outbreaks generating new variants which will spread back to the UK than he is about protecting the people in the war zones themselves. His words about moral duty might sound very idealistic, but his idea of a moral duty to protect people seems to stop at the UK’s border. It shouldn’t really surprise us; it has always been evident that the UK’s current governing cult was going to be a selfish rather than altruistic actor on the world stage. The only surprising thing is that they’re being so blatant about it.

Tuesday 16 February 2021

Max Hastings and the curate's egg


The article penned by Max Hastings a few days ago has come in for a lot of criticism for its dismissive and arrogant remarks about the Welsh language in particular. His ignorance shines through, but perhaps we should acknowledge that he just can’t help it. He is from a background which simply does not and cannot understand that the UK isn’t the monocultural and monolingual society in which he fondly believes himself to have been born and raised. I was reminded of the time I spent a couple of years working in Solihull, and one of the people with whom I worked was astounded at the idea that Welsh was a living language, used daily by hundreds of thousands as naturally as he used English. He had, until that point, genuinely believed that Welsh was akin to Latin, in the sense that it was only used on ceremonial occasions like the Eisteddfod (the way Latin is used in some religious and academic rites), but was otherwise a dead language, existing only in written form, a relic of the past. Now this wasn’t a particularly stupid example of an Englishman; he was otherwise intelligent, educated, and sensible. He was just completely ignorant of the fact that Wales wasn’t just like a westward extension of England with some odd (and to him, unpronounceable) place names. I have always been completely sure that he’s not untypical, and for someone like that, the idea that a few Welsh people might revert to their quaint ceremonial tongue when an Englishman walks into a pub is entirely credible. He was, in essence, simply ignorant, not in the pejorative sense in which the word is often used, but in the rather more neutral sense of simply being unknowing. Criticising people for what they don’t know, and have no reason to know, is a bit like criticising a tiger for sporting stripes.

In the case of Hastings, the situation of the Welsh language isn’t the only matter on which he’s ignorant. He also succeeded in making it quite clear that he doesn’t understand government finances, such as the way in which the finances of Wales and Scotland are tightly controlled by the centre, to say nothing of the problems with the figures he quotes or the way in which governments finance deficits. But the curate’s egg has its redeeming features, even if one has to look very hard and be very polite to find them. In his ignorance, he suggests that the Welsh and Scottish deficits are paid for by generous subsidies from England. In reality, England also runs a deficit which it covers by a combination of borrowing and (particularly recently) by creating new money, two things which neither Wales nor Scotland are currently allowed to do. But if the money raised by borrowing and Quantitative Easing is all English, and that which is passed to Wales and Scotland is a generous (albeit not appreciated in the way he might like) gift – which is clearly his implication – then all the debt accumulated in the process also belongs to England. An independent Wales and Scotland wouldn't owe a penny of it on this model. And the good news is that his view is uncritically (and ignorantly) shared by much of the English establishment. What’s not to like about that?

Monday 15 February 2021

Johnson and Thatcher aren't so different


It has often been said that Boris Johnson and Margaret Thatcher are very different, and in some of the things Johnson says (albeit not necessarily in what he does) there is certainly a difference of tone. There is, however, one important similarity, and Brexit is highlighting that. It’s not that Thatcher would have agreed with his policy over Brexit – for all her scepticism about the European political project, there is little doubt that she saw the single market as a huge achievement, and one which she pushed as much as anyone. I doubt that she would be over-impressed by the way in which her successors have thrown her baby out with the bathwater. But it isn’t that which makes them similar – it is, rather, the way in which both set out to make changes which would become ‘permanent’ (or as permanent as possible) and their willingness to sacrifice anyone and everything in the pursuit of that aim.

No objective observer can really believe that the Brexit which is being delivered is the one which the Brexiteers promised; the more time has passed since they achieved the referendum ‘victory’ the more extreme has become their interpretation of what Brexit meant. And no-one can really deny that the ‘deal’ which was delivered is having a severe impact on businesses, communities and individuals; we are seeing reports like this one and this one on a daily basis. Some Remainers seem to believe that all we need to do is reverse Brexit and all will be well again, but it won’t. Those who have invested in moving all or part of their business to the EU, those who have redesigned their supply chains, companies which have found alternative routes from Ireland to the European mainland – none of these are going to reverse their decisions just because the UK changes its mind. They are long-term decisions, not just responses to a temporary problem. So, when the Foreign Secretary declares that we need to allow ten years to see the effects, he knows exactly what he is saying. In ten years, the changes will have become so great and so well-established that anyone campaigning against re-entry to the EU will be wholly justified in arguing that it will not be a simple solution to the economic malaise which Brexit created. All they need to do is lie and bluster their way through the next ten years and the changes which they are pushing through will be as ‘permanent’ as any of Thatcher’s. They’re quite willing to ignore and deny all the negative impacts in the meantime.

The big question, of course, is whether the opportunities which they said existed outside the EU actually exist in the real world, or, rather, whether they exist to such an extent that they will make up for the economic damage caused by Brexit. There can be little doubt that there will be some opportunities, even if what they are is currently less than clear. But many of the opportunities that the Brexiteers believed would exist depend on assumptions which they have made all along about the willingness of trading partners to accept goods and services from a country which deliberately sets out to undercut them on price by undercutting them on standards such as environmental protection, workers’ rights and so on. That assumed willingness, combined with an unshakeable belief in the special and unique nature of the UK, was the basis of the wild – and now provably inaccurate – claims about the wonderful deal that the EU would give the UK. There is little evidence to date that it’s going to be any more reliable a basis for dealing with other countries than it was for dealing with the EU.

It doesn’t matter, though. Ultimately, Brexit was an ideological project for its most zealous fans; those who bought into the idea that it would bring economic advantages were merely fellow-travellers or what Lenin would have called ‘useful idiots’. Charging ahead regardless of the damage caused is what ideologues do; expecting mere facts to change their opinion is wholly unrealistic. In ten years, the economic position of the UK will be almost unrecognisable – and there will be no easy way back. It’s easy to criticise the lies and bluster, but they’re achieving their objective of making Brexit a decision which is difficult to reverse. Jobs, businesses, and communities are just so much collateral damage. Johnson’s Conservatives aren’t as different from Thatcher’s as many seem to think.

Friday 12 February 2021

Keeping government in work


It’s probably a sign of increasing age, but there are times when events bring back memories from long ago. This week, it was a song from the 1960s by Flanders and Swann, “The Gas Man Cometh”, which floated into my mind. For those too young to remember it (or for those who are old enough but would just like to be reminded), it’s available here. It was a satirical take on the great British workman, as a series of different workmen do a fine job of fixing the problem that they have been called in to fix, only to damage something else in the process, needing a call to a different workman the following day, in a circular pattern which eventually leads to the process repeating itself.

It’s funny, or at least it appeals to my sense of humour. It was never intended as an instruction manual for governments in the event of a pandemic, but it appears as though Boris Johnson and his crew of what could only very loosely be described as ‘great British workmen’ have taken it that way.

·        Inadequate hospital capacity was ‘fixed’ by sending patients with Covid to care homes which had no PPE or guidance.

·        The lack of PPE for care homes and hospitals was ‘fixed’ by ordering vast quantities from companies with no experience in the field, many of which failed to supply anything or else supplied equipment which was unusable.

·        The problems of the hospitality sector were ‘fixed’ by paying people to go out and spread the virus in restaurants and bars.

·        The problem of people bringing in new strains of the virus is being ‘fixed’ by charging those travellers who own up to being in only some of the affected countries £1750 to stay in a hotel for 11 nights.

·        The problem of people being unwilling to pay £1750 and thus falsifying their travel documentation is being ‘fixed’ by threatening them with 10 years in jail, increasing the incentive to be convincing in the lies they tell.

There were, at every stage, other options which could have been taken by a government able to take a wider view, but they’ve preferred to take a short view and find a quick fix, which has invariably led to further problems. Still, as Flanders and Swann nearly said, “It all makes work for the government to do”.

Thursday 11 February 2021

Constraining England


Yesterday’s post considered the question of why people might be looking for a federal or confederal structure for the UK. Today’s returns to a consistent theme of this blog, which is that any such solution cannot overcome some fundamental problems. Let me start by saying that I believe the UK in its current form to be doomed. Not, primarily, because of the Scottish question, but because of the Irish one. A combination of demographic change in Northern Ireland (the Irish-identifying population is going to exceed the British-identifying population by a clear margin in the foreseeable future) and the fact that whilst, in pre-EU times, the Republic looked like a very socially conservative place but, post-Brexit, it is the North which looks like the more socially conservative, a factor which will affect the younger generations particularly. That’s not to say that reunification is as imminent as some believe, merely that it will not be indefinitely delayed. That means that any federal system is inevitably concerned only with England, Wales, and Scotland. How can they effectively operate as a federation or confederation?

Yesterday’s post referred to the series of articles by Glyndwr Cennydd Jones on the IWA website. It is clear that Jones has given a lot of thought to the question of how such a confederation can work without England necessarily dominating. And his starting point – that sovereignty lies in the individual nations, not in the centre, and that those individual nations delegate authority over certain shared matters to the ‘Council of the Isles’ which exercises them jointly is a reasonable one in principle (although it’s notable that all proposals for any sort of federal or confederal approach always end up suggesting that Wales and Scotland should directly exercise less control over their own futures than the Republic of Ireland, Malta, or any other member state of the EU). I’m not sure that it solves the problem though, and I’ll illustrate that with three practical and relevant examples, two relating to defence and the third to currency, all of which would be delegated to the centre in the proposed model. I assume that, based on current polling trends, there is a Conservative government in England, a Labour government in Wales and an SNP government in Scotland.

1.    Replacement of Trident. Under the scenario set out above, the governments of England definitely, and Wales probably, would wish to proceed. Does Scotland have a veto? If no, does that mean that Scotland has both to contribute to the cost and host the facility?

2.    The US wants to invade a country in the Middle East and wants the UK to join in. England says yes, Wales probably says no (after a bit of prevarication) and Scotland says no. Are Wales and Scotland bound to contribute both money and young people’s lives to the pursuit of US imperialism?

3.    There is a large deficit as a result of paying for a pandemic, and a programme of austerity is suggested. The English government is wildly enthusiastic, and both Wales and Scotland are deeply opposed, but with a single currency and single central bank, only one side can win the argument.

In all three cases, the issue comes down to the same thing: does England, with 85% of the population and wealth, get to outvote the other two, or can the other two either singly or acting in consort block what England wants? The problem is, in essence, this:

·        If the English majority gets to decide all these issues, on what basis would such a structure ever be attractive to the likely governing party in Scotland? (Wales is different – I can see ‘Welsh’ Labour going along with this in the naïve belief that Labour might one day win a majority in England and the even more naïve belief that an English Labour government would be significantly different from an English Conservative government.) Whilst the range of powers delegated to the centre is more limited than at present, it still replicates precisely one problematic element of the current situation.

·        If, on the other hand, England’s actions can be constrained either by Scotland alone exercising some sort of veto, or else by some sort of weighted voting under which combined Scottish and Welsh votes outweigh England’s voice, why would that ever be attractive to either of the parties likely to be able to form a government in England, without whose agreement such a proposal is dead in the water?

The underlying issue with any sort of confederal system proposed for the UK is that it depends on the governments and/or electorates of all three countries being ready to accept it. Once the principle of sovereignty belonging to the parts not the whole is accepted, a simple overall majority of the UK electorate to ‘delegate’ powers to the central Council is no longer enough. Whilst the proposal put forward in the five articles is a valiant effort, I really don’t see how it addresses the inherent problems. It might, conceivably, have headed off the Scottish independence movement three decades ago, but it’s now far too late.

Wednesday 10 February 2021

Why Britain?


Last week, the IWA website ran a series of five articles by Glyndwr Cennydd Jones on his proposal for a “League-Union of the Isles”, which he also describes as “A sovereign Wales in an isle-wide confederation”. The first part is available here, and it contains links onwards to the other parts. He’s obviously given the question a great deal of thought, and attempted to fill at least some of the gaps in federalist/ confederalist thinking, and he makes a number of points which independentistas should consider carefully. I can’t help but conclude, however, that the series fails to completely overcome what many of us consider to be the fundamental flaws of the federalist/ confederalist approach. This post looks at one of those, and the blog will return to another tomorrow.

The first is that federalists often seem to be starting from an assumption that there is an inherent and necessary need for something at a UK level, and much of their thinking then revolves around what that is and how it can be achieved. In the fifth and final part, Jones asks the question, “If we were offered a hypothetical opportunity to constitute Britain from ‘scratch’ once more today, would we consciously choose the model of a centralised unitary state that we have inherited?” It’s a good question, and most independentistas, at least, would reply in the negative. It doesn’t follow, though, that we would therefore look for some other model which retained a semi-unity based on the existing elements which compose the UK, complete with an international border across that big island off to the west of Wales. For independentistas, the question isn’t what sort of UK, but whether there should even be one. And if there weren’t all that wet stuff between the east of England and the European mainland, would we even think of the British Isles as being separate and apart from the rest of Europe, or would we see it as just another part of the European landmass?

In practice, of course, we cannot start with a blank sheet of paper, we have to start from where we are, and our starting point is defined by a combination of history and geography. It is a truism that most European borders simply mark the points at which different armies were stationed the last time the fighting stopped, and the composition of the UK owes a great deal to the same factor. Nobody drew lines around ‘nations’, ‘countries’, or ‘states’; the entities which are most often referred to by those terms today largely evolved to fit the borders which military action defined, albeit leaving pockets of peoples within, and even across, borders who failed to identify with the emergent ‘nation-states’ and have clung to their own identities over centuries.

Wales didn’t choose to share a common history with the other parts of the British Isles, any more than the British Isles chose to share a history with the rest of Europe, but geography, rivalry and the pursuit of land, power, and wealth made it inevitable that we have ended up with shared elements of history whether we like it or not. Independence wouldn’t change the former any more than Brexit changes the latter, whatever the adherents of other proposition might wish. By the standards of today, parts of that shared history appear good, and other parts appear bad; but past generations would have different views – as will the generations to come.

History and geography, in themselves, are neither good nor bad, they just are what they are. Neither history nor geography dictate how people should choose to self-identify or to govern themselves, what the borders should be nor what we might decide to do acting in consort with others rather than independently. But that is not to say that our interpretation of history, the way we internalise and relate to those bits that we know and understand (which is both a major part of ‘identity’ and also different for every one of us) doesn’t affect our attitude towards the question of structures and borders, and I understand how an internalised folk memory of what the UK is leads many to want to perpetuate it in some form. It might even be fair to characterise that as the essence of ‘Britishness’. Whether federalists are responding to their own feelings of being ‘British’, or simply recognising that others feel that way is an open question. I suspect that there are elements of both involved. Both seem to be looking for a solution which combines greatly increased Welsh autonomy with a way of retaining that sense of Britishness. It’s an irrelevant question though. Whilst both are entirely honourable positions to hold, they still leave federalism, of any flavour, as a concept which first and foremost is attempting to address that problem of identity rather than the problem of two or three nations being dominated by a third. And it is that latter issue to which we shall return tomorrow.

Monday 8 February 2021

For Wales, see England


One thing that has been consistent throughout the pandemic is that the ‘Welsh’ Tories criticise the Welsh Government whatever they do and whenever they do it, even it if means that the Tories themselves are reversing the position that they had taken the previous week. So, when Boris Johnson was arguing for tiers and differentiation between English regions, they were demanding that Wales should go even further and have greater differentiation at an even more local level. Now that that has been shown not to work, without even blinking they argue completely the opposite – that there should be no differentiation at all, even between the administrations of the UK let alone at any lower level.

It’s tempting to say that they are just being unprincipled, but that would be unfair on two levels. The first is that most of them wouldn’t know a principle if it bit them and the second is that they have now explained what their great underlying principle is: people in Wales get their news via the same media as people in England and therefore differences in approach are confusing. There is, of course, nothing in that ‘principle’ which applies specifically to Covid or the pandemic, which makes it a really handy principle for people who oppose devolution but are afraid to say so honestly. It allows them both to support the existence of the Senedd and Welsh government and at the same time argue that the Senedd and government should take no decisions which in any way make Wales different from England. It will make a neat slogan for May’s Senedd elections: “Vote for us to implement all English government policies in Wales”. It would be foolish for anyone to assume that that won’t strike a chord with a section of the electorate in Wales, but a strategy aimed at motivating their anti-Wales base and undermining the more openly anti-devolution parties isn’t the same as one to maximise their vote.

Is the principle quite as absolute as it appears though? In the unlikely event of England electing a Labour government, and the even more unlikely event of Wales electing a Tory government which holds office concurrently, would they still be arguing that they had to follow the example of London in all things because people would be confused if they didn’t? One suspects that they haven’t thought that through, although thinking things through is an unfair and unrealistic expectation of a party which is quite happy to spend today arguing the opposite of what they argued yesterday. Still, the good news (for us as well as them) is that worrying about what they’ll do if they ever win an election in Wales is the least of their concerns.

There was one sensible point which Andrew RT Davies did make in his statement, though, when he said that, “Just because Wales can do things differently, it does not mean the Welsh government should always do so”. It’s just a pity that he spoiled such an obvious truth by making it clear that what he actually meant is that it should never do so. He also seems to have completely missed the real lesson of his basic point: if people in Wales are confused as a result of consuming the same media as people in England, might that, just possibly, be highlighting a problem with the lack of a distinctive Welsh media? He’d probably fear a Welsh media, but I have a nagging feeling that he’d be wrong to do so. Recent voting patterns suggest to me that a widely read specifically Welsh media might actually benefit a specifically Welsh Tory brand by not always associating it with Boris Johnson and the English nationalist leadership of the Tory Party. I’m far from convinced – and I say this with a degree of sadness – that the Welsh electorate in the twenty-first century is as instinctively anti-Tory as many would wish to believe.

Friday 5 February 2021

For exceptionalists, actions have no consequences. Even if they do.


Those who believe that the way in which problems have arisen in the implementation of the Brexit agreement with the EU would lead to any sort of rethink are very much mistaken. Cakeism lives, and any and every attempt to point out that the difficulties are an inherent and inevitable consequence of the choices which Brexiteers made simply leads to them doubling down on their demand that the EU must allow the UK to be a ‘third country’ but must not then treat it as such, and any failure by the EU to comply simply proves how evil and vengeful the EU is.

It is true that some of the detailed problems with the agreement might have been avoided had the agreement been more carefully negotiated rather than rushed through to meet an arbitrary timetable. That is one of the major reasons why most trade agreements take many years to bring to fruition. Lack of experience of trade negotiations on the UK side after delegating such discussions to the EU for decades didn’t help either. But the biggest problem, throughout the process, was a UK side whose attitude was coloured by that special sort of English exceptionalism and entitlement which assumed from the outset that the UK was entitled to special privileges.

Another fatal assumption – based on the same attitudes – has been that we could simply opt out of any part of it that we don’t like; having obtained the requisite signatures on a piece of paper, the UK could unilaterally change any bits which don’t give it what it wants. It’s an attitude which is most obvious in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol. The DUP are now campaigning to simply scrap the protocol, as though that is some sort of stand-alone action which has no impact on any other aspect of the agreement. They’re being egged on by a PM who himself is threatening to simply walk away from the protocol, as though the UK has the right to rewrite an agreement to which it has signed up. Unsurprisingly, both the Republic and the EU have said that the only option available is to look at what steps can be taken to make the protocol work more effectively. Legally, they’re right: whilst the UK can abrogate the whole treaty any time it wants (and accept the consequences), it cannot rewrite parts of an international treaty without the agreement of the other parties. Their case hasn’t been helped by the silly suggestion by the EU last week that it would activate Article 16 over vaccines. It had no right to do that without exhausting the other remediation steps set out in the agreement first, but the suggestion that they could and would didn’t help.

None of that means that it is impossible for the UK to simply scrap the protocol as the DUP are demanding. Johnson can do that at any time – but what the UK can’t then do is hold the EU to any other parts of the agreement. There would be consequences, the likeliest of which is border controls between the two parts of Ireland. Neither side might want to implement such a proposal, but it would be inevitable under international trade law covering ‘most favoured nation status’. There are other options, such as re-joining the single market, or agreeing a common regulatory regime, but all those other options have been ruled out by the UK itself. As Sherlock Holmes said, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” And given that those demanding that the protocol be scrapped have ruled out all the other options, it leaves them arguing, in effect, for border controls between the Republic and the North. The fact that they are incapable of understanding, let alone accepting, that fact attests to the influence of the cakeism fallacy.

Under this fallacy, which has large numbers of adherents amongst the population of the UK, when all the things that Remainers said would happen come to pass, that doesn’t prove that the Leavers were wrong, it underlines how right they were all along about the EU. Anyone who believes that mere facts or logic will shake that belief is not understanding the power that fallacious beliefs have over their followers. Unless and until the leaders of this cult are removed from power, things are likely to get worse rather than better.

Thursday 4 February 2021

Left hands and right hands


Whilst some in ‘Welsh’ Labour are trying to start an internal party debate on a federalist future for the UK, their leader in England is allegedly trying to rebrand Labour as an English nationalist party. Even if the leak turns out to be an exaggeration, it’s time for the ‘federalists’ to recognise a lost cause when they see one.

Last week, I found myself in agreement with one small part of federalist Antoniw’s analysis, namely that it’s not for us in Wales to dictate what England should do. That is not, however, the same as saying that what England decides to do is not a relevant factor when Wales thinks about its own future. The problem is that, whilst I may not want to tell England how it should organise its affairs, I can only envision two potential solutions to the English problem which might make a federal solution start to look attractive to Wales. The first of those involves England accepting that a federal parliament/ government gives equal weight and voice to all four partners despite England accounting for 85% of the population, and the second involves England dismembering itself into a number of regions, each of which has a sovereign parliament equivalent to those in the current devolved administrations. One has only to state that clearly to understand why it’s not going to happen (and Matthew Parris has a good take on the problems with the ‘regionalisation’ option here). Unless the federalists have some other secret solution which they’ve thus far failed to articulate, it just ain’t going to happen. Neither the English Conservative and Unionist Party nor the English Labour and Unionist Party are ever going to accept either of the two potential options – and Keir Starmer embracing the union flag and ‘patriotism’ underlines that fact.

Turning the House of Lords into an elected Senate of the Regions and Nations with ‘some’ (i.e. limited) powers to block legislation from a largely unreformed House of Commons (which is what some of Labour’s federalists seem to have in mind - the idea of Commons reform seems to be a step too far for them) just doesn’t cut it. It seems to include an implicit assumption that the elected members of each region or nation will act and vote as a bloc in the Senate, allying themselves with other states in the UK as and when necessary. They won’t. They will be elected as members of one or other political party and will vote as a bloc according to the instructions of their leaders. And if we look at the last few elections, that would mean a Conservative majority for England in the Senate as well as a Conservative majority in the Commons: far from acting as a constraint on English power to dominate the other parts of the UK, it would actually strengthen that ability by putting both houses under the control of government whips.

If we assume that Scotland is going to become independent (although at the moment that’s still a bigger ‘if’ than many are assuming), and that Ireland becomes reunited (that seems more certain because of demographics, although again, the timescale is likely to be longer than some are assuming) then Wales faces a simple choice. We either go our own way or accept final and complete incorporation into England. A ‘federation’ between Wales and England is simply inconceivable. Instead of trying to find some fantastic way of breathing life into a moribund and unworkable proposal to reinvent the UK, which goes against the prevailing flow of English nationalism in both the Conservative and Labour parties, ‘Welsh’ Labour needs to start thinking very seriously about where it will stand in that debate. At the moment, they’re mostly looking clueless.

Wednesday 3 February 2021

The weakest link


Not for the first time, the First Ministers of both Wales and Scotland have made it clear that they are unhappy with the prevarication, delay and half measures being introduced by the UK government to control borders in order to reduce the spread of Covid. Wales hasn’t yet gone as far as Scotland in introducing additional quarantine measures. But hopefully the Welsh Government will do so shortly.

The UK government is right to stress the dangers of new variants, and the need to introduce door-to-door testing in certain areas underlines the problem, but it also highlights how and why the UK is getting it so wrong. The time to introduce controls isn’t when the first cases start being identified in the UK, or even when they first start being identified in the country where the mutation arises – both of those are already too late. The time to act on a new variant is before that variant is even identified. Quarantine is as important for those countries where no new variants have yet been identified as it is for those where one has, and it is exactly that point which the Scottish government, at least, is recognising. Not all countries are doing enough testing to even know whether there are new variants. Variants have been found in South Africa and Brazil as a result of genomic testing being carried out. But how much genomic testing is being conducted in an underdeveloped country such as the US where there is no proper public health service and conducting testing means that either profit-oriented hospitals or profit-oriented health insurance companies would have to pay for what they would view as unnecessary extra testing? The chances that there are no unidentified variants in the US, given the size of the outbreak there and the lack of any serious attempt to control it by the previous administration, must be close to zero. Lack of identified variants doesn’t make visitors from countries such as the US ‘safe’, yet that seems to be the working assumption of the English government. Waiting until a variant is not only identified but has actually reached these shores before acting is a recipe for forever playing catch-up. And failing.

Until such time as the vaccination programme has reached a sufficiently large percentage of the population, and there is a high level of certainty about the extent of protection it offers, we need the sort of comprehensive travel controls which the Scottish government is trying to introduce but which the English government has consistently failed to introduce. And even after announcing that partial quarantine will be introduced, nothing has yet been implemented, despite them having had months to prepare. Sadly, unless the English government changes its position (which looks unlikely, to say the least) the policies being introduced in Scotland (and any attempt to emulate them in Wales) can only ever be partially successful at best. Once again, the pandemic has revealed that the English government is the weakest link, and is directly harming the other parts of the UK by its inaction.

Tuesday 2 February 2021

Have Labour exposed the cunning plan behind membership of CPTPP?


When General de Gaulle (twice) vetoed the UK’s application to join what was then the Common Market, he suggested that the UK was not ready to join the rest of Europe, and also expressed concerns that the UK might be a wrecking member rather than a constructive one. Perhaps he was perceptive after all. The Brexit project has never been just about leaving the EU – it was always the hope of the Brexiteers that the UK’s exit would start a rush to the door as other countries realised that they too could have all the benefits with none of the costs (as they fondly imagined was going to be the case). Having a successful trading bloc like the EU on our doorstep without being a member never made economic sense; the logic of Brexit was from the outset about destroying the institution rather than merely leaving it.

Their target is not just the EU; they also seem to be determined to shatter the unity of other successful trading blocs. It recently emerged that the UK has been accused of using its size to bully Ghana into signing a trade agreement which would oblige that country to break its obligations to the other 14 members of the Economic Community of West African States. Well, they did promise to be buccaneering (aka behave like pirates) and to assert the UK’s might in the world.

At first sight, therefore, the decision to apply to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) seems to be at odds with this general aversion to anything other than bilateral deals with single states. Apparently, there’s nothing in the Pacific Partnership which actually requires any physical presence in the area (although as it happens part of the UK’s territory is actually in the Pacific in the shape of the Pitcairn Islands – 18 square miles and a population of 43 at the last count, so the UK could qualify anyway). Leaving a large trading bloc on our doorstep to join a smaller one on the other side of the world does not look like the most obvious way to proceed, but I wonder, though, whether the Labour Party have, albeit accidentally, hit the nail on the head in terms of a Brexiteer-style rationale for the move. Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry has questioned whether joining the TPP will enable the UK to veto any future application for membership from China; blocking other people from membership looks like UK exceptionalism at its ‘best’. The desire to tell others with whom they may trade seems to be deeply embedded in the UK mindset, among some members on both sides of the House of Commons.

De Gaulle was probably right about perfidious Albion.

Monday 1 February 2021

Vaccine not-nationalism-at-all


At first sight – to a non-lawyer at least – all three parties in the EU/UK/Astra-Zeneca bust-up about doses of vaccine seem to have some merit in their arguments. As far as the legal rights and wrongs are concerned, it’s unlikely that the issue will be settled outside a courtroom (and an EU court at that, much to the probable distaste of one of the three parties) unless some accommodation is reached before things get to that stage. Politically, though, the EU’s initial suggestion of invoking Article 16 of the agreed treaty between the EU and the UK was both crass and incompetent. The likely reaction should have been obvious. Backtracking was inevitable.

One thing that we do know is that it’s in the interests of everyone to ensure that vaccines are distributed fairly, and the UK’s response in condemning ‘vaccine nationalism’ where countries or groups of countries attempt to grab supplies at the expense of others was the right one, and in line with the views of the WHO. It was also utterly inconsistent and dishonest, coming from a state which has already reserved over 300 million doses of the various vaccines for a population of 66 million. I know that we all need two each, but they’ve ordered enough to give us five each, whilst poorer countries are struggling to get any. And they’ve also been treating the vaccination programme as some sort of competition, repeatedly boasting that they’re doing better than the EU member states. It gets worse: whilst they condemn the EU for trying to prevent the export of vaccines to other countries, including the UK, they have quietly added around 100 medicines which are used to help treat Covid to a list of drugs of which export from the UK is prohibited. It seems that ‘vaccine nationalism’ is wrong for any country except the UK, for which it is not only permissible but normal, because, as we know (they tell us often enough) the UK is not-nationalist-at-all – only other countries suffer from nationalism.

Weighing in with her twopenn’orth yesterday came Liz Truss – she of the cheese fixation and head of the department which advises UK businesses to move out of the UK and into the EU if they want to survive – to say that, of course, the UK would be willing to help our European neighbours, just as long as it doesn’t impact on the UK vaccination programme. The vaccination programme is one of – maybe the only one of – the things that the UK government has manged to get more or less right so far. They have not (as they keep wrongly claiming) done better than anyone else; some countries have done better. And one of the ways in which they’ve done it is by agreeing to pay more for the vaccine than the price negotiated jointly by the EU on behalf of the member states, but weighing price against urgency in order to short-circuit the negotiation process is not an unreasonable judgement call to make. But, in fairness, we are seeing an effective and rapid roll-out of vaccines in the UK, and given the scale of the programme a few glitches are to be expected, even if they’re made to look worse by setting targets which aren’t always achievable.

There is a danger, though, that a reckless government is pinning too much on the vaccination programme in the UK without looking at the wider implications (nothing new there). We know that the virus can and will mutate, and the larger the population in which it is spreading, the more danger that that will happen. Vaccinating everyone in one country against current known strains is a selfish strategy, but it’s one that can work, with one important proviso: preventing new outbreaks of different strains in an otherwise protected population requires rigid border controls of the type which the UK government has consistently refused to implement. There’s an irony in the fact that people whose rationale for Brexit revolved in significant measure around ‘controlling borders’ are utterly unable to implement that control, even when faced with a deadly pandemic. Apparently, it’s only immigrants they want to keep out, not disease. For many of us, a narrowly nationalist strategy of vaccinating our own and leaving the rest of the world to sort its own problems is the wrong strategy to be following, but half-following it is likely to turn out to be the worst of all worlds in the long term if it ends up committing us to a rolling programme of revaccination as new strains are imported to the UK. Vaccine nationalism is dangerous, but vaccine not-nationalism-at-all-because-it’s-British is potentially even more so.