Tuesday 30 March 2021

Refurbishing on the cheap


Downing Street’s shiny new media briefing room made its first operational appearance yesterday, and it left me wondering how on earth they could have spent £2.6 million on doing it up. Not “how could they?” in the sense of moral and fiscal outrage, but “how could they?” in practical, down to earth reality. The average price of a home in Wales is now a little over £200,000, so that sum of money expended on one room could have purchased 12 whole houses – what do you have to do to spend that on refurbishing a single room?

There are certainly some nice new chairs for absent journalists not to sit on. I don’t know how many – but let’s say there were 200 of them. £100 each would be expensive, but let’s imagine they purchased them from a Tory donor at an inflated price of £500 each – that’s the first £100,000 gone. Those podiums look expensive – perhaps they are hand-carved solid oak, at a very pricy £20,000 each: that brings us to a running total of £160,000. That nice blue screen can surely not have cost more than £100,000, and if we allow £5,000 each for two flags of the very best quality, that brings us up to £270,000. I couldn’t see the carpet, but it’s a large room, so perhaps another £100,000? And then there’s the IT and audio-visual equipment. They clearly didn’t go overboard on that, given that Chris Whitty still had to ask someone else to change the slides for him and remote clickers are no more than about £20 each, but let’s allow another generous £200,000 for the technical gubbins. Throw in an expensive repaint at £20,000, and that gives us a running total of £590,000. They probably needed a design consultant. Given the government’s willingness to overpay for dubious advice, let’s assume that they employed one at £5,000 per day for four weeks to design and oversee the installation. That adds another £100,000 to the cost. There were no obvious signs of gold plating à la Trump, or Middle Eastern potentate style marble, so what happened to the remaining almost £2 million? And why does nobody seem even to be asking?

Perhaps they outsourced the whole job to one of their friends who took a 300% profit margin; perhaps there were some dubious ‘commissions’ paid. Who knows, but in the world inhabited by the majority of us, spending £2.6 million on one room would not only be difficult to justify, but it would also be almost impossible to achieve. I suppose we should count ourselves lucky that the government believes that the public finances are strapped at present, and that they had to operate on such a tight budget.

Monday 29 March 2021

Gaming the system


One of the myths on which British semi-democracy is built is that voters elect individuals, not parties. Most of us know that it isn’t true, as old stories about donkeys wearing the right colour rosette suggest, but the myth stems from the distant past when MPs formed or joined parties only after being elected. Myths have consequences though, and one of the consequences of this particular myth is that we have two votes in elections for the Senedd. The d’Hondt system of proportional representation, which is intended to use list members as a means of partly correcting the inevitably unrepresentative outcome of using first-past-the-post in the constituency section, doesn’t actually require that we all vote a second time for list members. It would work equally well (and in some respects, rather better) if the votes by party in the constituency section were simply tallied up and used to allocate the list members. The fact that it isn’t used that way is largely because the constituency votes are regarded as having been cast primarily for individuals and only in a secondary sense for parties.

One of the results of basing the list membership on casting a second vote is that it allows – or even encourages – people and parties to try and game the system. Parties can win list seats without even contesting constituencies, something which can hardly be considered to be a ‘correction’ to their under-representation under FPTP. It can also encourage parties to talk about ‘wasted’ second votes, because a dominant party (such as the SNP currently in Scotland, or the Labour Party historically in Wales) in the constituency section is unlikely to win many seats in the list section. In practice, it’s an extremely difficult calculation for an individual elector to make; it’s impossible to be certain about the results of the constituency vote, whatever the polls might say. And tactical use of the second vote can work both ways – it can never be limited to supporters of only one side in a debate. Results of elections to date do show differences in voting patterns between the two votes, but the degree to which the net figures are different is limited. Some of the difference will be accounted for by people voting for their first-choice party on the list in constituencies where that party doesn’t stand a candidate – and some tactical votes will simply cancel each other out.

The announcement by Alex Salmond that he has formed a new party with the express intention of only standing candidates in the list section, whilst encouraging voters to support the SNP in the constituency section, is an attempt to win what he calls a ‘supermajority’ for independence in the next Scottish parliament. Whether it works or not depends on a range of factors, including his own personal popularity (which some polls suggest may not be as high as it has been at times in the past). It’s a gamble (but then he’s always liked a bit of a flutter on the horses). At one extreme, he might just pull it off, but at the other, splitting the pro-independence vote in the list section might result in fewer pro-independence MSPs overall, and end up sabotaging, or at the least delaying, the independence project by denying seats to the pro-Indy Green Party. In the one case it would look like a triumph for a master strategist, at the other like nothing more than a failed vanity project.

Let us assume, for a moment, that it works – i.e. that the SNP pick up most, or even all, of the constituency seats on around 50-53% of the vote, and that all or most of those voters switch to Alba for the second vote, giving that party most of the list seats. Independentistas might well be delighted – but would such an outcome be fair? Winning a supermajority of 80 – 90% of the seats in the parliament on the basis of 50-53% of the vote in each of the two sections merely ends up replicating the problem that d’Hondt was supposed to solve, and disenfranchises many of the 47 – 50% who do not vote for pro-independence parties. It’s perhaps a little unfair to criticise politicians for using the rules as they stand to their advantage, and there’s a rather delightful irony about independentistas using rules imposed by Westminster against continued Westminster rule, but that doesn’t make it fair or reasonable.

Let’s put it another way. It’s an unlikely scenario, but suppose for a moment that the Tories and Lib Dems decided not to contest constituencies, encouraged their supporters to vote for Labour instead, and then carved up the regional lists between them. A movement of just a few percentage points in the polls could then turn a supermajority for independence into a supermajority against. How would independentistas feel about that, equally unrepresentative, result? As I said, it’s a highly unlikely scenario and depends on an assumption that the Tories and Lib Dems would elevate the desire to maintain the union above all else (although it doesn’t even require the complicity of Labour). The circumstances in which parties can effectively game the system to produce an unrepresentative result are rare, but they arguably now exist in Scotland, if not currently in Wales. The whole Alba Party strategy depends on that.

I certainly want to see a large pro-independence majority in the Scottish parliament – and in the Senedd – but I want that to be a reflection of a large pro-independence majority amongst the electorate, not a reflection of a flawed electoral system. Winning independence is about winning people over to the concept, not about tactical manoeuvres with election rules. If the rules can produce a flawed result, it’s time to review the rules, and either make the allocation of list seats directly reflective of the constituency votes or else, even better, replace the list with a proper system of proportional representation, such as STV. Either way, freeing the political process from the silly myths of the past is long overdue.

Saturday 27 March 2021

Not playing the game


A Conservative candidate for the Senedd elections identified a serious problem with the way the Senedd works this week. Apparently, some of the people elected to the Senedd on a pro-independence platform have been using their elected position to promote the idea of independence. It’s easy to understand why this might be a strange concept for a Tory; decades of experience have made them entirely comfortable with the idea that Labour campaign as socialists and then fall into line with Conservative policy, with a few minor embellishments, once elected. This is the way UK politics is supposed to work – it’s not about choosing whether the country is run along Conservative lines, but about choosing which bunch of Conservatives should hold the reins at any particular time. Promoting manifesto policies after being elected, as some independentistas are doing, simply isn’t playing the game.

This particular Tory candidate has said that it hasn’t led him to demand the abolition of the Senedd, but whether that’s because he believes what he says or because he is simply afraid to say what he does believe (abolition doesn’t exactly sound like a vote-winning policy in Dwyfor Meirionnydd) is something only he knows. It is, though, part of the logic which leads many in his party – including the current PM – to wish that devolution had never happened.

The idea that ‘democracy’ can be tolerated only for as long as electors elect the ‘right’ people was taken a bit further by another Tory back in January, when he argued that the Senedd should be abolished because the Tories could never win a majority. That they think that way is no surprise, but it ought to be astonishing that anyone could argue so openly for the abolition of any element of democracy which might deprive them of power. It should serve to remind us that the ‘conservatives’ (in the widest sense of the term) have only ever allowed us to vote in elections in the UK’s semi-democracy on the assumption that ‘they’ would remain in power whatever the outcome. It’s one of the reasons for their keen support of an electoral system which gifts an absolute majority to a party on the basis of a minority of the votes. Devolution (particularly in Scotland) and any system of proportional representation threaten that assumption.

But a system of democracy which is only allowed to produce minor variations on a single outcome isn’t democracy at all, it’s a sham. And any system of devolution is part of the same charade. We can choose who we like but our choice will be over-ridden if we make the ‘wrong’ one, as Scotland is finding over the question of a second referendum. Ultimately, only independence gives us the right to choose the future for Wales. It would be naïve, though, to think – in the light of experience to date – that obtaining independence is as simple as electing a majority of independentistas to the Senedd and then holding a referendum. That involves an implicit and wholly erroneous assumption about the commitment of any currently conceivable UK government to honouring the democratic wishes of the voters. The shock of that one Tory candidate at the idea that independentistas might actually want independence is more of a warning than I suspect even he realised.

Friday 26 March 2021

Job creation for flag attendants?


The attempts by the UK Government to explain and justify the permanent flying of the union flag from all UK government buildings display that particular lack of joined-up thinking which has become the norm for a government led by a man who seems almost proud of his lack of attention to detail or truth. To say nothing of that sense of exceptionalism which is typical of English nationalism.

In what looks like a blatant attempt to rewrite history (but may simply be complete ignorance – I tend to prefer the cock-up theory of history over conspiracy as a rule), the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said, “The Union flag is the National Flag of the United Kingdom, and it is so called because it embodies the emblems of the constituent nations united under one Sovereign – the Kingdoms of England and Wales, of Scotland, and of Northern Ireland”. Whether there was ever a “Kingdom of England and Wales” is an interesting point for debate, but it certainly glosses over the way that England and Wales became united; and the implicit claim that being a single kingdom makes it a single nation is, shall we say, somewhat provocative. The act of union which combined Wales and England did not unite two kingdoms in the same way that the union with Scotland did but rather, in the words of the Act itself, “henceforth and forever annexed and incorporated”, Wales into England. But if the idea of a “Kingdom of England and Wales” looks to be a fanciful interpretation of history, the “Kingdom of Northern Ireland” is simply an outright invention on the part of the Culture Secretary (an oxymoron of a title if ever there was one) to try and place that bit of Ireland which the UK held on to after Irish independence on to some sort of equal footing with Scotland on the one hand and EnglandandWales on the other.

However, whether Northern Ireland enjoys the same status as the other two ‘kingdoms’ or not is irrelevant in this case because the new rule about flying flags doesn’t apply in that particular ‘kingdom’. The union between it and the other two ‘kingdoms’ is to be stressed and reinforced (“a proud reminder of our history and the ties that bind us”, as the Culture Secretary put it) by excluding it from the rule. Given the potency of flags and symbols in the north of Ireland, it’s a sound pragmatic decision, but exempting one of the three ‘kingdoms’ from a rule intended to bind and unify looks like a government going out of its way to emphasise difference rather than similarity. And it is a strange irony that the staunchest unionists in the whole of the UK, those living in Northern Ireland, are going to be the people most upset by the approach. Upsetting the staunchest unionists even more than independentistas whilst promoting the union is quite an achievement to pull off.

The potency of flags in one part of the UK also underlines the problem that the UK government is busily creating for itself in Scotland and Wales. If the imposition of the union flag as a permanent feature on all government buildings in one part of the UK arouses such strong feelings in that large section of the population which doesn’t identify with the UK that the government doesn’t dare even to do it, what makes them think that those in Wales and Scotland who also increasingly no longer identify with the UK will react in completely the opposite way and feel a sudden surge of pride in the union flag? It’s a very curious assumption to make. Perhaps it’s just a job creation scheme for flagpole security guards.

Thursday 25 March 2021

Slogan and substance


The very essence of a truly great political slogan is that it should resonate with as many people as possible whilst being essentially meaningless or, at the very least, sufficiently vague so as not to commit its authors to actually taking any particular action. The current government’s mantra of ‘levelling up’ is a masterpiece of the genre. What’s not to like about the idea of boosting the economy in areas which feel as if they’ve been left behind? In practice, however, it’s selective; it only applies to areas which voted for the Tories.

The concept of ‘levelling’ has a long tradition in English history – as does the idea of that levelling being selective. The Levellers of the Civil War period almost four centuries ago were also in favour of equality for all, although their definition of ‘all’ only extended to males (excluding servants and wage-earners of course), and some wanted it only to apply to heads of households or property owners. If Johnson had a political philosophy, he might almost have stolen the gist of it from that movement (although obviously he would have more than a little difficulty with their opposition to corruption or nepotism).

Its selective application isn’t the only way in which the practice differs from the slogan. It also has little to do with ‘levelling’ – there is absolutely no intention, and never has been, to bring all areas up to the level of the richest. It is, from the outset, a means of using public money to attempt to ensure the continued electoral success of the Conservative Party. The funds are being consciously and deliberately directed to those constituencies which the Tories need to retain or win in order to maintain a majority. The rest will remain as forgotten and left behind as they have been for decades, because Johnson simply doesn’t need their votes. That which is presented as egalitarian and unifying is implemented so as to divide and discriminate.

It should have been obvious from the outset that this would always be the result, although it seems not to have been for many. For any party wedded to the erroneous household budget analogy it is impossible to put more resources into one area without taking them from another. For those of us who understand that ‘money’ is not limited other than by the capacity of the economy, that isn’t a problem; but for fiscal conservatives like the Tories it is always the case that additional money spent in one place has to have come from somewhere else. Levelling up can only be a one-way process for those who accept that there are additional resources available, a category which excludes the current government. Fortunately for the government, it’s a category which also excludes the main opposition party, as evidenced by a report today that a Labour MP is demanding that no resources should be transferred from the wealthiest part of the UK to the poorer areas. That’s right – the party which tells us that ‘the union’ is all about pooling and sharing is at the same time demanding that there should be no transfer of wealth from the richest to the poorest. It’s an odd kind of ‘pooling and sharing’.

There is a reason why one part of the UK is richer than the rest; regional inequality is not an accident. It’s not being ‘anti-London’ to highlight the facts. At its simplest, we have an economic system which drains talent and resources from the periphery and concentrates them in the centre; London’s wealth has grown by transferring that wealth from the rest of the UK (and from overseas colonies before that). It is not an accidental result of some impersonal process; it is the inevitable result of an economic system set up to work that way. It means that ‘levelling up’ can only happen in one of two ways: by identifying and directing additional resources to the poorest areas, or by redistributing those resources which currently exist. Which of those you choose depends on your view of economics, but what is certain is that neither the current governing party nor the official opposition have any intention of doing either.

Levelling up is an utterly meaningless slogan, but it works. The compliant media are still attaching the label to everything that the government tells them is part of the plan. People fell for it in 2019, and are still falling for it now.

Wednesday 24 March 2021

The values that unite us


Those ‘great British values’ which apparently unite all of us who live on this island and distinguish us from the rest of the world have been on display again in recent days.

Yesterday, the PM praised ‘greed’ as a motivating factor before realising that he might have gone a bit too far and desperately asking people to allow him to unsay it. It was a rare moment of honesty from an inveterate liar (the saying of it, that is, not the attempt to unsay it) and an insight into the way the Tory mind works. It isn’t actually true, of course – not everyone, and not even every capitalist, is motivated solely by personal greed; if it were true, then capitalism would have collapsed a long time ago. And in the specific context of the vaccination programme, whilst Johnson may see their role as secondary to that of the pharmaceutical companies developing the vaccines, the role of volunteers and underpaid and dedicated NHS staff has been crucial. If greed were their only motive, there wouldn’t have been much of a programme. It is, though, part of the mindset of people like Johnson that the ‘little people’ don’t really count and contribute little – ‘success’ is measured by the ability of the ‘winners’ to extract great personal wealth from the economy at the expense of the rest of us, who are seen as ‘losers’.

Also yesterday, the Home Secretary made further announcements on the proposed new regime for handling asylum-seekers. Fresh from the news that she was planning to ship them elsewhere (it doesn’t matter where and neither does it matter whether the places to which they are to be shipped are happy to take them or not), she is proposing that even some of those granted asylum will remain liable to deportation indefinitely. This is the same Home Secretary who is behind the plans to outlaw many expressions of dissent.

Meanwhile, a few days ago, we had a Tory MP suggesting that anyone who does not love the hereditary monarch and the union flag should be encouraged to go and live elsewhere, and another Tory MP decided to use a parliamentary examination of the BBC to complain about the lack of union flags in the BBC’s annual report and demand that there should be more next year.

Veneration of greed, contempt for any display of altruism, inhumane treatment of refugees, outlawing dissent, unconditional support for heredity as a means of choosing the head of state, and a demand that a cloth symbol hanging from a pole be the object of love and admiration if we want to stay in the country of our birth – these are the ‘great British values’ on display this week. These are the values which they claim as unifying factors. They really are their own worst enemies.

Monday 22 March 2021

They really are serious about flags

Another week bring us another hare-brained scheme to protect the union. This week’s is all about flags, or, more specifically about enforcing the display of one flag and subordinating all others to it. Apparently, the government has briefed the Mail on Sunday that enhancing the visibility of the union flag would help mitigate against the break-up of the UK, so they are planning to issue new guidance that the flag must be shown on all government buildings all year round. And, so as not to offend the Welsh or the Scots, they propose to allow the Dragon and the Saltire to be flown from the same flagpoles in a subordinate position below the union flag.

The words which immediately spring to mind are those of the tennis player, John McEnroe, but apparently they are indeed completely serious. It seems not even to have crossed their minds that giving the Dragon and the Saltire an obviously inferior status might be more likely to reinforce a sense of resentment and be a reminder of historical subjugation rather than joyful unity, nor that the union flag is often seen (incorrectly, I know, but flags and logic don’t always go together) as a representation of England rather than of the UK. Trying to impose a sense of unity by using a symbol which is increasingly seen as belonging to ‘them’ rather than ‘us’ instead of addressing the substance and the need for change turns their ‘precious union’ into something which manages to look superficial in the extreme.

Still, we should be grateful. It’s good of them to go out of their way, on such a regular basis, to remind us that the single most fundamental problem with the union is the unionists. Their lack of understanding and empathy does more to destroy that which they claim to hold most dear than anything which independentistas are capable of doing.


Friday 19 March 2021

Morality in trade


There’s nothing particularly new about the idea that morality, standards, and values have a role to play in deciding whether, and with whom, to negotiate international trade deals. Whilst trade usually promotes greater prosperity, the impact of that on the way a country is governed is a lot less obvious. On the one hand, increasing prosperity may help to legitimise a regime and encourage people to be less critical of their own government; on the other, people who aren’t spending their whole lives scratching a bare living can find they have more time for involvement in debate and politics, and greater international links can help them to understand better the freedoms which they don’t have. So, whether increasing trade helps to suppress or encourage opposition to unpleasant regimes is far from being clear-cut – both sides in the argument can draw on some evidence for their point of view.

The question has come to the fore over recent weeks as the UK attempts the hopeless task of replacing what were, until this year, extremely close trading links with near neighbours with necessarily looser links with countries much further away. And there are some pretty unsavoury regimes involved. Some MPs in all parties have been questioning whether the UK should continue to seek trade deals with countries run by authoritarian regimes, countries which outlaw dissent, and countries which don’t respect human rights or international law. The concerns are valid; not all countries can be depended upon to uphold the same standards, and the issue, at its simplest, is to what extent any country should be signing deals with countries which adopt lower standards than itself.

The UK has, though, come up with a novel approach which could eliminate the question, and which is entirely in line with the Brexit way of thinking. It is that the UK should lower its own standards to match more closely those of the regimes with which it wishes to do trade deals. More authoritarianism, less democracy, clamping down on protest and dissent, opting out of human rights legislation, and breaching international treaties and laws – these are the core elements of the current government’s programme. Whilst this might remove any need for moral considerations when the UK is negotiating trade deals with similarly unsavoury regimes, that English sense of exceptionalism which characterises the current government’s approach may be preventing them from seeing the slight little problemette which may arise as a consequence, which is that other countries may simply add the UK to their own lists of countries with which signing trade deals raises some serious moral issues. Believing that morality in trade is a uniquely British value, and that morality can therefore be defined as being whatever the UK does, might just turn out to be as silly in practice as it sounds in theory.

Thursday 18 March 2021

Johnson gives green light for nuclear attack on UK


The announcement by the PM this week that the cap on the UK’s stock of nuclear warheads is to be increased from 180 to 260 was in direct breach of international treaties committing the UK to work to eliminate such weapons. With each warhead estimated to be around 8 times as destructive as that used on Hiroshima, each is capable of destroying a sizeable city and killing hundreds of thousands of people in the process. How much extra ‘deterrence’ is provided by being able to obliterate 260 cities instead of ‘only’ 180 is the sort of question that only a psychopath would consider worthy of asking, but it assumes that a state which is not ‘deterred’ by a threat to kill some 30-40 million of its citizens would think twice if the threat was to kill more like 40-60 million. As if someone who doesn’t care about the first 40 million is going to baulk at an extra 10-20 million deaths.

Even worse than the increase in killing capacity is the announcement of a new range of conditions under which the weapons might be used. It has long been at least implicit in the UK’s policy that such weapons would only be used to respond to a nuclear attack on the UK, the theory being that knowing that such a retaliation would follow would deter such an attack. The theory always depended on two contradictory assumptions: the first being that potential enemies are mad enough to want to launch a nuclear attack, and the second that they are sane enough to decide not to if the counter-threat to them is great enough. Seen from the other side, ‘deterrence’ depends on the enemy believing that the UK’s government in its turn would be mad enough to launch a nuclear strike. Assuming that only your own self-proclaimed madness makes other mad people behave in a sane fashion is not the soundest of principles on which to run an international order.

What the PM also announced this week was that the circumstances in which the UK would consider the use of such weapons would be widened considerably. Firstly, page 77 of the document makes it clear that the assurance that “The UK will not use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear weapon state party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons 1968” will “…no longer apply to any state in material breach of those non-proliferation obligations”. Secondly, the UK reserves “the right to review this assurance if the future threat of weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological capabilities, or emerging technologies that could have a comparable impact, makes it necessary”. These are major shifts in policy, making it clear that the UK government now considers it both reasonable and proportional to respond, in circumstances which it will not and cannot define in advance, to a cyberattack with a nuclear strike, and to launch a first strike against a country which it considers to be in breach of the relevant treaties.

Making unilateral decisions in such an arena is seriously problematic. In the first place, effectively threatening non-nuclear states with a nuclear strike provides a direct incentive to those states to acquire nuclear weapons of their own – after all, if renouncing nuclear weapons no longer protects them against a nuclear strike, why wouldn’t they also want the protection of this ‘deterrence’ which the UK claims is so effective? And in the second place, the UK is both in breach of its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the author of cyberattacks on others; if either of those is justification for a nuclear strike by the UK, on what basis can it be argued that they are not a justification for an attack on the UK? Assuming that other countries will share the UK's opinion about its own exceptional status is both foolish and dangerous. Johnson and his government are making the world a much more dangerous place, wholly unnecessarily, in pursuit of a flawed dream of past glories and power.

Wednesday 17 March 2021

Abandoning voodoo economics


According to legend, the infamous Laffer Curve was first drawn by its author on a napkin at a lunch time meeting with some of America’s most notorious conservatives. It was completely devoid of any numbers along the x-axis, making it easy enough to draw. Almost 50 years later, the graph (and the underlying theory) is still an abstract theory with no numerical underpinning.  The concept of the Laffer curve is well-known, and the principle has every appearance of being rational and logical: it is “there is a tax rate between 0% and 100% that maximizes government tax revenue”. There are a number of reasons why this might, theoretically, be true but the theory is not necessarily reflected in reality. A rate of zero for any given tax will self-evidently produce no tax revenue, but the theory also argues that an income tax rate of 100% will also produce no income, because people will have no incentive to work. Whether that second conclusion is true or not is rather more arguable: it depends, at least in part, on the nature and values of the society and on what people get in exchange for their tax. It is not, however, a wholly unreasonable starting point for a theory. Since, as far as I’m aware, no modern economy has ever tried a 100% tax rate (although some economies have come close to a 100% marginal rate, which isn’t quite the same thing), there is no obvious empirical data on which to judge. But if we accept the ‘truth’ of the statement, then one can draw a curve between 0 and 100 showing how, in theory, tax initially increases as one increases tax rates before starting to fall off and return to zero as tax rates approach 100%. And that is all the Laffer curve is. Neither the curve itself, nor the underlying theory, require any hard numbers to support them – but to be of any use in practice, provable numbers are required, and they are notable only by their absence.

The flaw in using a graph which appears reasonable in theory but has no supporting evidence as a basis for a policy of low taxes should be obvious, but that hasn’t stopped proponents of low taxation from basing their whole argument on an unproven hypothesis. Even worse, they have generalised the argument to the point where they argue that lower taxes always increase government revenue. But the lack of hard data means that, even if the theory were true, no-one can accurately say when we are at or near the peak, nor what the shape of the curve should be. There is simply no empirical data to justify using any particular figures. Any attempt to derive figures is complicated by the tax systems in use in different economies – systems of tax reliefs and deductions mean that actual tax rates being paid by taxpayers are rarely the same as published headline rates. The result is that the circumstances in which direct lines can be drawn between tax rates and tax revenues are non-existent. That makes it easier for quack economists (and Tory politicians) to argue their case that lower taxes increase rather than reduce total tax revenues by providing incentives for compliance, investment, and effort. They can’t prove any of this – but they have the advantage that no-one can disprove it either.

Actually, that very last bit isn’t entirely true; there is some evidence of the impact of tax cuts on tax revenues from the US. And that evidence is that, on the whole, cutting taxes reduces taxation revenue. It’s a conclusion which most ordinary mortals, not armed with high-faluting theories and graphs like the Laffer curve, would instinctively expect. It doesn’t actually disprove the theory; it merely confirms that no-one actually has a clue about what the practical (as opposed to theoretical) optimum level of tax might be. Empirical evidence of revenue loss after the event only confirms that the level of taxes before the cuts wasn’t – as the proponents of tax cuts claimed – already above the optimum (if one exists), but was actually at or below it.

One of the lesser-commented aspects of the recent budget was that it represented at least a partial abandonment by the Conservative Party of Laffer-curve economics. The Cameron-Osborne plan for reducing Corporation Tax over a period was based on an assumption that allowing companies to retain more of their profits would result in more investment and thus more jobs and more tax revenue overall, but it didn’t happen in practice. There are a number of reasons for that (and of course, the pandemic and Brexit have further complicated things over the last year). But in promising to reverse the cuts over coming years, the Chancellor is very clearly stating that he doesn’t accept that the argument applies at anywhere near current rates of Corporation Tax and accepts – in line with most mortals – that, as a general rule, increasing tax rates generates more income for the government. Who’d have thought it? The significance of this U-turn looks to have been underestimated by many – although it’s only a start. There still seem to be Tories around trying to apply the Laffer curve to other taxes, as though there is only one tax for which their over-generalisation of the rule doesn’t work in practice. But a law of economics which only applies to some taxes some of the time and which has no means of telling us when it does or does not apply isn’t much of a law at all. It’s just a way of making voodoo economics sound like it has a valid academic basis in order to progress the interests of the richest in society.

Tuesday 16 March 2021

Can Wales and Scotland choose the rule of law if England does not?


The expected announcement later today that the UK will build on its reputation as a rogue state by increasing the number of nuclear warheads it holds highlights one of the problems with all the various proposals for ‘reforming’ the UK as an alternative to Scottish or Welsh independence. Both increasing the number of warheads and developing new types of warheads are directly contrary to international treaty obligations, but we live in a state which regards international treaties as being things which bind other countries, not this one. And all the proposals for reform or federalism start off by assuming that certain issues, always including ‘defence’, are UK-wide issues, not ones for the member states of the ‘federation’.

It means that none of the proposed alternatives would enable Wales and Scotland to sign up to, and comply with, existing international treaties unless England also renounces nuclear weapons. But with both the Tories and Labour committed to the retention and replacement of Trident, there is no realistic prospect of England doing that. Unless defence also becomes a matter for the individual member states of the union, Wales and Scotland are condemned to remain part of a nuclear-armed state and, in Scotland’s case, to host the submarines, missiles, and warheads. On the other hand, if defence were to be a matter for the individual nations, then there is very little left to justify the continuation of the union from the perspective of the authors of the various ‘federation’ type proposals.

Independence is the only way forward which allows the people of Wales and Scotland to choose to opt in to the international community and the rule of law – rejecting independence is a choice to continue as part of a rogue state, with its exceptionalist attitude that only ‘other’ people are bound by any rules. The federalists never spell that out – but that’s because they mostly share both that sense of exceptionalism and a commitment to the continued possession of nuclear weapons.

Monday 15 March 2021

Saturday was not just a one-off 'mistake'


Throughout the pandemic, there have been regular calls from some for the police to be more pro-active against those breaking the coronavirus rules, demanding a crackdown with more fines and arrests. On Saturday, the Metropolitan Police gave us a clear demonstration of what a crackdown looks like. Suddenly, it seems that some of those previously egging the police on to do more to enforce the rules aren’t quite so sure – or, rather, they want to apply different rules to different groups and causes. Clearly the police could and should have adopted a different approach to the proposed vigil and worked with the organisers to ensure that the event could take place in as safe a way as possible; the flat refusal to do so underlines a degree of incompetence and lack of empathy which is hard to understand. But on what basis do we expect the police to distinguish between, say, a beach party and a vigil, both of which involve an assembly of a greater number of people than is permitted under current legislation? That is not to argue that there is some sort of equivalence there; clearly there is not. But distinguishing between the two involves the application of values and judgement, and there is a real question as to whether the police are the best people to make that call, particularly if their role is defined simply as ‘upholding the law’.

Differential application of the law is, of course, one of those traditional British values of which politicians are so fond, although that isn’t the way they usually describe it. In practice, Lady Justice has never been as unseeing as the blindfold she traditionally wears might lead us to believe. Being part of the ruling elite has long bestowed a degree of indemnity – the Covid rules applied to Cummings were clearly not the same rules being applied to others, to quote just one recent example, and there was never the same expectation that someone like him should abide by the rules. It hasn’t always been as blatant or rampant as it has become since England elected a fundamentally dishonest man as its Prime Minister. Previous regimes haven’t always been as confident about what they could get away with, but the current regime seems to be pushing at an open door. The new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill currently wending its way through parliament actively seeks to extend police powers to decide what is or is not ‘acceptable’ behaviour, including criminalising any assembly of people which causes “serious annoyance”, effectively giving the police on the spot the power to decide the meaning of both ‘serious’ and ‘annoyance’. They are targeting dissent and opposition.

For many of us, Saturday’s events underline the need for policing in a democracy to be based first and foremost on consent and a sense of social solidarity; but the current government is taking us in a completely different direction, where policing is seen as enforcement of rules by whatever means are necessary. To them, Saturday will look simply like a one-off mistake, rather than a problem with the approach. If they come under enough pressure, a sacrificial head might roll to protect other more culpable heads, but they won’t see it as a reason to change their approach. The question is whether, and to what extent, people at large go along with that view. The way in which so many have been calling for the police to be more heavy-handed in other circumstances is not exactly a cause for optimism. Wales doesn’t have to follow England on this, but following England towards becoming an authoritarian state is precisely what will happen if we don’t take control of our own future.

Friday 12 March 2021

Sardines and independence


There was a story yesterday which neatly illustrated the gap between the  scale of reform which is required if the unionists want to stand any chance at all of the UK surviving as a state and the reform which the English nationalists currently running the country are intellectually, ideologically, and emotionally capable of considering. According to the Telegraph, Jacob Rees-Mogg is proposing that, for two weeks every three years, the entire House of Commons (all 650 members) should cram itself into the debating chamber of the Senedd (designed for 60 members) to hold its debates. Although Cardiff is the home of Doctor Who, it was almost disappointing to discover that Jake is not depending on the Tardis-like qualities of the Senedd, which really isn’t bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. Apparently, the lack of space is not a problem because the 650 MPs are accustomed to debating in a chamber which can only hold around 427 people – they just remain standing during debates. Some might argue that there’s a difference between fitting 650 people into a space for two-thirds that number and fitting the same number into a space holding less than one-tenth of that number, but fortunately Jake’s school never taught him about this new-fangled concept called fractions. They probably hadn’t invented fire regulations either.

The master plan behind this scheme, it seems, is that holding two weeks’ worth of debates in Cardiff will bring parliament closer to the people, and demonstrate a commitment to the Union. Since the period proposed for this spectacle is the two weeks after the summer recess and before the break for party conferences, a period during which parliament traditionally debates little of great importance, the probability is that at least half of them wouldn’t turn up, which might go some way to solving the capacity problem. I struggle, though, to think of anything less likely to convince me of the value of the Union than only half the membership of the House of Commons bothering to travel to Cardiff to stand like sardines in a small room holding a debate about something inconsequential. I’m obviously not gifted with Jake’s immense perspicacity on that. Sadly for Jake, I suspect that I’m far from alone in that respect.

Demonstrating close-up the reality of how parliament works is the sort of revolutionary idea which might sound better coming from opponents of the Union rather than its supposed supporters, but if Jake wants to do the job for us, who am I to disagree? A parliament without enough seats for all its members is something which would embarrass most modern democracies, but for Jake and his pals, it’s a source of great pride. It does rather illustrate the point made by our own First Minister this week when he described the UK Government as a “recruiting sergeant” for Welsh and Scottish independence. It isn’t just the UK Government, though – it’s the whole of the UK structure and processes which are not fit for purpose in the twenty-first century but which are incapable of reforming themselves, because they’re proud of being hopelessly outdated and see it as a strength rather than a weakness. And despite Drakeford’s own ability to see the need for change, what he still seems unable to see or understand is that the English Labour Party is part of the problem, not the solution.

Thursday 11 March 2021

Is there a case for the union? 7: Not without change


After ruling out all the usual arguments, what is left for the unionists to deploy? If I wanted to make an argument for the continuation of the UK which might appeal to those currently inclined to support independence, on what would I try to base it? It’s not a pointless question, and it’s one to which some of the more thoughtful unionists, like David Melding AS, have given a great deal of consideration. The problem, though, which they seem to struggle to accept, is that they are fringe elements within their parties and within unionism in general, in recognising that the union must change if it is to survive. That’s simply not the way that the people actually in charge of the unionist parties and the UK as a whole see things. As Martin Kettle pointed out in this article in the Guardian this morning, people like Johnson see only one way of running the union, and that is the centre imposing its will on the rest. My own starting point would be to look at the deficiencies of the way the union operates today and at what could be done to make it work better:

·        Making a serious attempt at social solidarity is fundamental: not just vague waffle and spin about ‘levelling up’, but a serious attempt to spread wealth more evenly, starting from the basis that all citizens should benefit from a country’s economic success, rather than some having to beg for crumbs. It requires a recognition that massive inequality is incompatible with maintaining cohesion, and a recognition that the concentration of wealth in one small corner is damaging.

·        Developing a more inclusive way of regarding history and culture, one which recognises that the UK is not a homogeneous whole, but an agglomeration of parts with different histories and perspectives. There isn’t just one history of the UK and attempting to impose one to shore up the institution itself is counterproductive. Britain and England aren’t the same thing, and don’t even need to be seen as such to preserve the union.

·        Revitalising democracy, abolishing unelected lawmakers, and implementing an electoral system which enables different views and perspectives to be more accurately reflected. Gifting absolute power to a party which wins only a minority of the votes in just one of the parts of the union will always be resented by the other parts.

·        Strengthening devolution, making it more uniform across the three devolved administrations, and recognising the absolute right of those administrations to legislate in devolved areas with no interference from the centre, something which the Scottish Lib Dems amongst others have called for. It probably requires a written constitution because, under the existing constitution, any legislation to renounce the right to make laws in devolved areas can be repealed at whim.

·        Ensuring that the rule of law applies to all equally and that transgressions are dealt with, whoever commits them.

And, to add a primarily emotional rather than merely practical appeal:

·        Recognising and celebrating the inter-family links across these islands which have resulted from centuries of intermixing, and which often translate into a sense of commonality which transcends many of the more transactional arguments. As a result of internal migration within the UK, to say nothing of marriages and other relationships, there are large numbers of families in all parts of the UK which have relatives in others. That provides an emotional basis, even if it will never be enough in itself to overcome the practical failings.

There are two obvious things to note about the first five items on this list:

1.    They are not quick fixes. Trying to ‘sell’ the existing structures and processes instead of reforming them is like putting lipstick on the proverbial pig, yet that’s the unionists’ starting point. No matter how slick their campaign (and they’re having problems enough with that), they are still trying to sell a pig. A PR exercise just isn’t enough. It’s a point which Mark Drakeford at least understands – the union cannot and will not survive in its current form. The leap which he has yet to make, however, is to understand that the changes which he identifies as being necessary for the union to survive cannot and will not be delivered by either the English Conservative Party or the English Labour Party, because:

2.    The Anglo-British nationalists of both parties are ideologically and emotionally incapable of doing any of them. When you ‘know’, with absolute and unshakeable certainty, that “the United Kingdom is the most successful political and economic union the world has ever seen”, it’s difficult to see why anything might need to change. Ever. Something which is the bestest and perfectest known to mankind throughout the whole of history doesn’t need to change. It’s an astonishing, exceptionalist claim (which I’ve heard in different forms from Labour politicians as well as Tories – the words could have tripped off the tongue of Gordon Brown as easily as that of Boris Johnson) based on outright jingoism unsupported by hard facts or analysis, but one which they genuinely seem to believe, and they are unable to understand why everyone doesn’t accept it as truth.

It’s not that it has become wholly impossible to persuade people that maintaining the unity of the UK is worthwhile, it is that most of those currently in power are so blinded by their own dogma and ideology that they are incapable of doing those things which would be required to achieve their aim. The UK is doomed, not primarily by those of us who seek to dismember it, but by the failure of comprehension of most of its own ‘supporters’, who are incapable of even understanding why structures developed centuries ago are no longer suitable today.

Wednesday 10 March 2021

Is there a case for the Union? 6: Culture


The last of the usual arguments for the continuation of the union considered in this series of articles is to do with the culture of these islands. It is true that, in the widest sense of culture and human knowledge the world has gained much from the efforts of the peoples of these islands, particularly in the field of science and understanding. The problem, though, is that the nationalist proponents of this argument usually fall back on two major things (it's a bit of an oversimplification, but not that much of one) – Shakespeare and the English language. The importance of Shakespeare and his contribution to English culture should not be underestimated, but he was writing at a time before the UK existed. He was a product of England (into which Wales had already been incorporated) rather than of Britain, and the continued emphasis on him as some sort of ‘British’ icon is both historically inaccurate and dismissive of the work of Welsh, Scottish, and Irish writers. Indeed, more generally the emphasis on English language culture as ‘the’ culture of the British Isles ignores the parallel cultures of those speaking the other native languages of Britain. What they present as ‘British’ culture looks, all too often, as simply rebadged English culture. And they don’t even realise that.

It’s true that the English language (or as many increasingly call it, American) has come to dominate the world for many purposes, not least trade. But that didn’t come about because ‘we’ generously ‘gave’ it to the world; it came about because it was imposed on conquered peoples in colonised territories by force. And the same goes for those parts of the UK where other languages were universally spoken before English was imposed. Whilst being a native speaker of what has become the most widely spoken commercial language certainly bestows many advantages, that doesn’t make the language in some way ‘superior’ to others. Assuming that we should take pride in the outcome whilst ignoring the process is an unrealistic ask of those within these islands who still use other native, and historically persecuted, languages, to identify just one group.

It would be possible to develop a view of ‘British’ culture which was more inclusive and less jingoistic, and which recognised that ‘British’ culture is neither homogeneous nor the same thing as English culture. But that would mean, in effect, that the Anglo-British defenders of the union would have to change their view of what the UK is rather than simply demand that we all accept and buy into their view. It’s an impossible ask. If I were looking for a strong argument for the union, I wouldn’t try and base it on the imposition of English culture.

Tuesday 9 March 2021

Statistics, damned statistics, and Lib Dem statistics


It is often suggested that 87.6% of all statistics quoted by politicians are made up on the spot. The MUF-87.6 virus, as it is known, afflicts most politicians, but some seem to catch a more severe infection than others. Boris Johnson suffers from a very serious infection but, in fairness, that’s been exacerbated by his inability to understand what a statistic is or that numbers have meaning. Amongst the worst affected are that endangered species, the Welsh Lib Dems, where the proportion has been known to go as high as 110%. Unlikely, one might think – but they have a wide range of bar charts to prove it.

Their leader illustrated the point over the weekend when she claimed that Welsh independence “…would be 10 times more complex and 10 times more painful than Brexit”. Not 9, not 11, but precisely 10. This particular figure was based not on any careful analysis or consideration of the issue (that would require time and effort to carry out, and there aren’t enough of them left to do that) but on the need for a dramatic sounding figure to include in a speech to what remains of the party faithful. Oh, and an eye to what an uncritical media would faithfully use for a headline or two as though it had some basis in fact.

The biggest problem with her plucked-out-of-the-air number is that it makes unstated assumptions; and it completely overlooks the main reason why Brexit has been so complex and painful. That the economic impact of Brexit was always going to be negative, whatever form it took, was obvious from the outset, despite the promises to the contrary. But the degree of complexity and pain is a direct result of a deliberate decision by the UK government to distance the UK as much as possible from the EU. There was a much easier and less painful option available (remaining inside the single market and customs union whilst opting out of the political union), but in pursuit of some illusory ideas about sovereignty and greatness the UK rejected them. To make independence ten times as complex and painful assumes that any Welsh government negotiating that independence would be ten times as incompetent and irrational as Boris Johnson. A government that monumentally stupid may appear to be a realistic prospect to a Lib Dem, but my problem is that, however hard I try, I really cannot conceive of Wales electing a Lib Dem government. Whatever the bar charts show.

Monday 8 March 2021

Is there a case for the Union? 5: A shared history


Next up in the pantheon of arguments for perpetuating the UK is the idea that these islands have a long, shared history. It’s an argument that has the merit of being superficially true. There can be no argument that – even before the union with Wales, let alone those with Scotland and Ireland – the history of the people of these islands was intimately intertwined. Rivalries over land, wealth and power were no respecters of borders, and neither borders nor nations had anything like the meaning that they have today. Although, in strict legal terms, the unions between England, Scotland, and Ireland were based on parliamentary consent, whilst the incorporation of Wales was more blatantly based on military conquest, the reality is that ‘consent’ was given in a context where there had long been military conflict and conquest. Even England, as a construct, is based on the outcome of wars between different kingdoms within the territory recognised as England today. Having an intertwined history isn’t the same thing as having a common history. Whilst the events surrounding any military conquest might be undisputed, the conqueror will always interpret those events in a very different way to the conquered. At its simplest, was the bringing together of the peoples of these islands a process of unification and merger, or was it a process of conquest and subjection?

That is in the distant past, of course, even if the echoes still reverberate today. Since the union, there is much more of a common history isn’t there? Well, in some ways yes, in others no. It’s true that many Welsh and Scots played their role in the collective effort which built an empire, and in the numerous wars which the rulers of that empire started or participated in across the globe. It would be a mistake to overlook the fact that many in Wales and Scotland have bought in to the myth of military glory and splendid island isolation which typifies the ‘standard’ view of ‘British’ history. And yet the basic rule – that the same events can appear very different from different perspectives – still holds true. When politicians (and this applies to Welsh and Scottish ones, as well as English or ‘British’ ones) talk about wanting to teach children their history, they usually seem to talk about making sure that children know about key events, largely ignoring the fact that what is more important is how those events are interpreted and placed into an overall narrative. It’s as if they don’t understand that the events which they select, and the importance they ascribe to those events, are neither absolute not objective; they stem from the perspective of the speaker.

The list of kings and queens of England (a classic example of the history which 'British' nationalists want children to be taught) is exactly what it says it is, and treating it as though it’s a list of kings and queens of the UK ignores the fact that many of them never ruled Wales, fewer ruled Scotland, and even fewer ruled Ireland. The way in which supporters of the union conflate English and British history is not only wrong in perception, it is wrong as a matter of fact. It might be possible to develop an interpretation of history which recognised difference, and didn’t seek to impose a single version on everyone, but that would be anathema to unionists, who would see it as weakening rather than strengthening their case. Basing their case on a common history requires everyone else to accept a particular version of history, but the days when history could be dictated are long gone. If I were looking for a strong argument for the union which would appeal to those currently inclined to support independence, I wouldn’t base it on trying to impose a narrow and Anglicised view of history.

Saturday 6 March 2021

Is there a case for the Union? 4: Shared institutions and symbols


Another argument made by unionists for the continuation of the UK is that there are UK-wide institutions which we share and which bind us together. It was a central part of the pitch made by Andrew RT Davies in an article in the National this week. It is, though, a very narrow range of institutions which they normally refer to – the armed forces usually top the list, followed by the monarchy, the flag, the NHS, and the BBC. Well, maybe not the BBC so much these days, given that the current government seem determined to control and neuter the organisation’s so-called ‘independence’. And using the NHS as a symbol of ‘unity’ whilst failing to adequately fund it or pay the staff what most people feel they deserve isn’t the brightest of ideas. Whilst people in general might well feel pride in the NHS, it's not a pride which is obviously reflected in government actions towards the institution.

There are certainly those who see the monarchy as something quintessentially British, a living link to a long history. It depends on a rather selective interpretation of a somewhat inglorious record of infighting, murder, and treachery, but there are three rather more important difficulties. The first is that many of those who support the monarchy are already on the unionist side: they aren’t the ones they need to convince. The second is that, from a Scottish perspective if not a Welsh one, the Scottish Crown, both legally and conceptually, isn’t the same as the English Crown. Historically, the union of the crowns and the union of the parliaments were two entirely separate events; reversing them separately is not at all the strange concept which it appears to be from the perspective of the English establishment. And thirdly, there are plenty of independent countries in the world which have, for various reasons, chosen to retain England’s monarch as Head of State. It is, therefore, perfectly possible to be a supporter of the monarchy, and even the present incumbent, and still advocate independence. The institution does not depend on the structure of the union.

When it comes to the armed forces, it is true that there is a long-standing, albeit often vague, sense of loyalty. However, in Scotland that is often to traditional Scottish regiments rather than the armed forces as a whole and those regiments have suffered cuts and mergers over decades at the hands of the London government. Scots might reasonably be excused for thinking that the bit of the armed forces to which they feel the greatest loyalty and attachment might be better protected under independence. There are also generational differences: even amongst the older generations ‘the war’ is now outside the experience of most, and whilst many unionists seem to see it as ‘the’ defining characteristic of the UK, for younger people it’s now almost ancient history.  It’s true that, partly because of its possession of nuclear weapons, the UK’s armed forces remain amongst the deadliest in the world, but whether that’s a matter for pride or not depends on perspective. The unionist argument depends on an assumption that their perspective is widely shared, which is, like many of the assumptions they make, increasingly out of kilter with the twenty-first century UK.

That leaves us with the biggest and most obvious symbol of all: the Union Flag. There really does seem to be a prevalent belief amongst the unionists that simply plastering the flag on anything and everything will somehow engender a pride in Britishness and a feeling of being together. There was a time when it might have been true – it was the union flag rather than the cross of St George which was flown for the English world cup team just 55 years ago, and it felt like a British, rather than simply English, victory at the time. But things have changed, and clocks can’t be reversed. What was entirely natural just half a century ago jars today. The one echo of 1966 which still has resonance today is the reverse of what it was in 1966, and it’s a negative one for the union. It is that the union flag represents England, rather than the whole UK. That in turn means that trying to replace saltires and dragons with union flags has, for many, precisely the opposite effect to that intended; rather than strengthening a feeling of union, it strengthens a feeling that English people conflate England and Britain. If I were looking for a strong argument for the union which would appeal to those currently inclined to support independence, I wouldn't try  and base it on a particularly English interpretation of institutions and symbols.

Friday 5 March 2021

Look out for the big warning sign


According to Benjamin Franklin, “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”, although, as is often the case with the most famous quotes, he may well have lifted the phrase from earlier writers. In politics, there is another apparent certainty: any politician who utters a phrase along the lines of “I want to be honest with you” is erecting a great big warning sign covered in flashing lights saying that (s)he is about to utter a major, galactic level, lie. In his budget on Wednesday, Rishi Sunak proved himself no exception. And what a whopper it was.

This particular big lie is, of course, the one about the need to increase taxes and/or cut spending in order to pay for the costs of the pandemic. In practice, the costs of dealing with the pandemic (and they are truly enormous, even if the money spent has been inadequate and misdirected in several respects) have been met by the creation of new money rather than by new borrowing. In accounting terms, it looks like borrowing since the government has sold more bonds to raise the money. But those bonds have been bought by the ‘independent’ Bank of England which has simply created enough new money, with a few strokes on a keyboard, to buy all those extra bonds. So, to the extent that the government owes this money, it owes it to the Bank of England. It also pays interest on that debt (albeit at a very low rate), and that interest is paid to the Bank of England as well. But who owns the Bank of England? The answer, of course, is the UK government. Whilst one part of the government owes money and pays interest on it, another part of the government is owed the money and receives the interest. The consolidated accounts of the UK government and all its subsidiaries and holdings would therefore show, in effect, that the UK government owes the money to itself and pays the interest to itself. The idea that we ‘must’ rapidly repay this ‘debt’ amounts to claiming that one arm of the government is setting the debt collectors on another arm of the government to transfer money from the left hand to the right. And because the interest on this element of the debt is paid by the government to itself, it doesn’t even matter whether the interest rate goes up or not – because interest payments would still be exactly balanced by interest receipts (although why the government would want to increase the interest rate on fixed interest bonds which it has sold to itself is another little mystery). It’s all part of the wonder of double-entry book-keeping.

The idea that ‘debt’ must be repaid is a seductive one for most of us, because it reflects the reality of the world in which we live. It doesn’t reflect reality, however, for a state which controls, and borrows mostly in, its own fiat currency. Such Governments rarely, if ever, repay their debts, and those to whom the money is owed rarely, if ever, demand repayment. Indeed, most of the time, people are queuing up to lend more by buying government bonds and savings vehicles, not asking for their money back. The UK has had a continuous national debt since 1694 and has never repaid it. Some individual elements of the debt appear to have been repaid, of course. There was something of a milestone in 2006 when the debt from the second world war was finally ‘repaid’, to give just one example. But in 2006, the UK’s total borrowing increased, rather than decreased. Effectively, the UK, as it has done historically, simply took out new loans to pay off the old ones – that isn’t the same as paying off debt. Professor Richard Murphy has calculated that for every pound which the UK has borrowed since the end of the second world war only 1.7p has actually been paid off. And it isn’t a problem.

Where is the demand for debt repayment coming from? Are pension funds demanding to cash in their bonds? Are the overseas countries with holdings in sterling to facilitate trade with the UK demanding their money back? Are holders of Premium Bonds and other NS&I savings products demanding to cash them in? The answer is ‘none of the above’. The demand that debt be repaid comes solely from an ideological standpoint which demands a small state and hates public spending even more than it hates taxes. The demand for repayment is coming from the debtor, not the creditors. If the public sector did manage to eliminate the budget deficit and run a regular surplus which was used to reduce the national debt, it would mean that the private sector had to build up a corresponding debt, because (that wondrous double-entry book-keeping system once again), a surplus in one sector must always be balanced by a deficit in another. Since ‘debt’ is simply another word for ‘money’, there are only two ways of getting rid of it – by cancelling money or by transferring the debt to someone else. Neither of those are what the economy currently needs.

That brings us to a second important lie in what the Chancellor said. He claimed that he was protecting people from the economic effects of the pandemic, yet his demand that the UK ‘repay’ the non-existent ‘debt’ arising from QE, through a combination of tax increases and spending cuts in a few years’ time, isn’t protecting people from the impact at all. It’s merely deferring the impact and spreading it over a longer period. And, as ever, the approach chosen by a Tory Chancellor is to make sure that the impact falls most heavily on those who can least afford it. Attacking the pay of popular public sector employees in the process looks tone-deaf to most of us, but 'Richi' Sunak and his ilk didn’t get to be as 'richi' as they are by promoting fairness.