Monday, 31 May 2021

Flags, boats and status symbols


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

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

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

Friday, 28 May 2021

Usurping Plaid's role?


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

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

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

Thursday, 27 May 2021

Time to escape the nightmare


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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 25 May 2021

Turning minima into maxima


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

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

Friday, 21 May 2021

Large scale job creation?


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

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

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

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

Thursday, 20 May 2021

Gunboats and free trade


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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 19 May 2021

A tale of two halves


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

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


Monday, 17 May 2021

Monkeys, typewriters and Boris Johnson


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

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

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

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Memory lapse is a terrible thing


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

Monday, 10 May 2021

Was newmath developed on the playing fields of Eton?


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

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

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

Friday, 7 May 2021

Leading or following?


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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Ducking the question


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

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

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

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

·        That independence brings no other economic benefits

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Have Lib Dems accidentally stumbled onto a good idea?


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

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

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

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

Monday, 3 May 2021

Evoking the past


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