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.


Anonymous said...

I think you need to think again about Scotland, the days of generous Barnet formula transfers are coming to an end and there won't be any further UK/British infrastructure projects awarded to the country.

If this doesn't drive them to independence then the politicians will just have to keep upping the ante. But be in no doubt, that country is gone from the union.

Now, let's turn our attention to Wales ...

John Dixon said...

You manage to make it sound as though driving Scotland out of the union is the objective of government policy. Whilst it might sometimes seem that way, I always tend to the cock-up theory of history rather than the conspiracy theory. Conspiracy requires a great deal more competence than we’re witnessing.

As for the rest, well, you really don’t understand the way the UK finances work, do you? The Barnet formula is not about transferring money from one part of the UK to another and has nothing to do with generosity. It is, rather, about taking a shared pool of resources and distributing them. The resources being distributed belong to all of us, not just to one part of the union, and trying to argue that they don’t weakens the argument for the union rather than strengthening it. And don’t forget that those sharing out the pie are the same people who artificially and unnecessarily constrain the size of the pie in the first place. There’s nothing which prevents the UK government from simply baking a bigger pie – other than ideology. Setting the size of the pie centrally, taking a big slice to spend on ‘UK’ priorities before sharing what’s left without asking the devolved administrations whether they agree with those UK priorities, and preventing those same devolved administrations from baking their own pies is about maintaining control, not about meeting need or sharing fairly. 'Generous' it is not.

Arthur Owen,Caerdydd said...

Fair play to Boris,I don't think he has been near a playing field at Eton or anywhere else.

Anonymous said...

The will of the majority is an important driver of government policy, be it in Scotland or England and Wales. My contention is that the majority have had more than enough of Scotland, it is time the matter was brought to a close. The government will sort the matter one way or another in accordance with the wishes of the majority.

As for the Barnett formula no one is interested in using it to strengthen the argument for the union. The union either exists to quell the desire for English domination or it doesn't exist and neighbouring states will have to live accordingly. The pie belongs to the UK government, the devolved administrations rightly have no say in how large the pie is or how it is distributed.

Each devolved administration has the ability to bake their own pie, but for some reason they seem very unwilling to enter the kitchen and put the pinafore on.

Devolution has been proven to be a dead duck. It will be interesting to see what comes next.

John Dixon said...


"The will of the majority is an important driver of government policy, be it in Scotland or England and Wales." Really? That isn't the view of the current UK government, or, at least, that government believes that it can interpret the word 'majority' in whatever way suits it best at any given time.

"As for the Barnett formula no one is interested in using it to strengthen the argument for the union." You might not want to use it that way, but the underlying idea - that resources are distributed unevenly rather than simply on a per head basis - is at the heart of the argument used most often by unionists. They call it 'pooling and sharing'.

"The pie belongs to the UK government" No, it belongs to the people of the UK. The government is merely the agency controlling it, allegedly on our behalf.

"Each devolved administration has the ability to bake their own pie" That's simply untrue. The powers of the devolved administrations are constrained by Westminster, which goes to the heart of the problem with devolution. Devolved power is retained power.

"Devolution has been proven to be a dead duck." That's the statement on which I am closest to agreeing with you, albeit for different reasons. What devolution has shown us is that a failure to entrench power in the devolved administrations means that they can be over-ridden at any time. It's not dead yet, but it may well be nailed, semi-comatose, to the perch. It could be resurrected if the will to make substantial change to the UK was there, but there's little sign of that.