Friday 30 July 2021

Competitive recklessness


One of the more boring but predictable aspects of pandemic politics has been the regularity with which the 'Welsh' branch of the English Conservative and Unionist Party has demanded that the Welsh Government should follow the English lead in all respects, in order to maintains ‘consistency’. Leaving aside for a moment that ‘consistency’, like honesty and integrity, is one those attributes mostly conspicuous by their absence in their English leader, there’s a certain irony that people who have spent years arguing for Brexit precisely so that the UK could follow different rules to that alien place across the water called Europe should now find themselves arguing that having different rules between neighbouring administrations is confusing, but that is not something that particularly concerns them.

When it comes to relaxing restrictions, they do seem to be making the assumption that that is what most people want, despite the fact that opinion polls regularly suggest that the majority – in England as in Wales – would prefer caution. Most people have probably been able to work out that ‘learning to live with the virus’ is actually a euphemism for ‘encouraging a higher than necessary number of premature deaths’, but then, they’re not interested in most people, only in that magic 35-40% which is enough to give them absolute power the UK on the basis of the electorate in the only part that really matters to them, namely England.

Whether Mark Drakeford’s more cautious approach has always been right is a moot point, and something that will only really be understood properly after the event. The scale and lethality of the virus has created an unprecedented situation in much of the world, and different governments have responded in different ways, all of which have positives and negatives attached to them. What has been clear throughout, however, is the differing motivations of the different players here in the UK. Drakeford has consistently erred on the side of trying to reduce the numbers of premature deaths and serious illness, whereas Johnson is conducting an unethical mass experiment on the population at large by deliberately pursuing a policy which he knows will lead to more death and sickness in the hope that the numbers will ultimately be considered ‘acceptable’ and that any new variants arising out of the experiment will not be vaccine-resistant. If it works out, he will claim to have been prescient, but, like the gambler who ‘knew’ which horse was going to win, it will owe more to luck. But then, for Johnson the stakes are low. He’s not taking the massive risk which some have claimed – the only thing he’s risking is his reputation, and in his case that’s no risk at all. The real risk is being taken by the involuntary subjects of his experiment.

In truth, the differences between the actions taken by Drakeford and Johnson aren’t as different as the politicians make out – and given the nature of the border between the two jurisdictions and the limited nature of devolution, that is hardly a surprise. Many of the differences when it comes to ending lockdowns are to do with sequencing of actions rather than the substance, which leads to Wales being later than England in some respects and earlier in others. Which of them has got the sequencing right is another unanswerable question; it’s a question of balancing the advantages and risks and forming an opinion as to what suits the differing circumstances best. Demanding that all should move at the pace of the fastest in all respects might be good politics but it’s bad epidemiology. It’s ‘disappointing’ (others might prefer a stronger word there) to see the English Labour leader joining in the same game in the hope of political advantage by demanding that Johnson should follow the Welsh lead in areas where Wales has acted earlier. Arguing that Wales has got the order right and England has got it wrong is one thing – but this was an argument for taking an increased level of risk. Starmer is in danger of finding himself as out of touch with the public desire for caution as Johnson.

Friday 23 July 2021

The system is broken


Earlier this week, referring to some of the comments which Dominic Cummings alleges to have been made by the Prime Minister about coronavirus only killing the over-80s, Nicola Sturgeon said that any leader 'glib about human life' should consider whether they are fit for office. She’s right in principle, but there is a problem with her suggestion in practice, as this simple Venn diagram demonstrates.

A: People capable of considering whether they are fit for office

B: Narcissistic sociopaths

It’s not a fully scientific assessment of course, given that it’s based on such a small sample, but the lack of any overlap appears likely to hold true in general. And it also highlights a serious problem with the UK constitution. There is no provision for dealing with a PM who shows himself utterly unfit for office, even when the result of that unfitness is manifested in tens of thousands of unnecessary and avoidable premature deaths. Instead, the political system hands absolute power to the leader of the party which gains the highest number of seats, even when they are won on the basis of a minority of votes. And he or she then holds that absolute power until either a new election is called or until his or her own party’s members turn against the incumbent. The US has the twenty-fifth amendment which, although very imperfect and with serious difficulties around invoking it, shows that there has at least been some thought given to the possibility of a rogue president. Other countries fall back, ultimately, on military coups to remove failing politicians from power. The UK, on the other hand, not only has no mechanism for removing a failing PM who "lies so blatantly, so naturally, so regularly"D. Cummings), but insists that members of the legislature must always refer to him as ‘honourable', even when he is patently anything but, and that any MP who directly points out an untruth must be excluded. A system which punishes the witnesses and repeatedly exonerates the perpetrator deserves only contempt.

Trump famously said that he “…could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and [he] wouldn't lose voters”. It’s the sort of blind loyalty which is expected of Tory MPs towards their leader, no matter how egregious that leader’s behaviour becomes. And whilst they may mount an occasional minor rebellion over some detail or other of policy, it’s the sort of blind loyalty that Johnson is currently getting, to the extent that his MPs and ministers are willing to appear on the media defending something he’s said or done, only to find – just a few hours later – that he’s performed another U-turn. They learn nothing, feel no embarrassment or shame, and repeat the process over and over. A political system which depends on finding a spark of decency and a fragment of backbone amongst the current crop of Tory MPs is broken, and badly so. And the consequences are being felt by the oldest and most vulnerable citizens. Those who tell Wales and Scotland that we should stay and fight for a reformed UK rather than opt out and build better systems for ourselves need to point to a credible mechanism which can allow that to happen, because at the moment there doesn't seem to be one.

Tuesday 20 July 2021

Staying popular with the horses


It’s easy to understand how the English government has concluded that having hundreds of young people packed together in poorly ventilated venues such as nightclubs while large numbers of people in the relevant age group are still unvaccinated is not the most brilliant idea ever, although it’s a lot harder to understand why it was not so obvious until hours after declaring that the clubs could open. How exactly did something so blindingly obvious only become so after it had happened? It’s also easy to understand how they concluded that taking steps to mitigate the problem by only allowing in those who have been fully vaccinated is better than doing nothing at all, once the original mistake has been committed. But I struggle to imagine the conversation around this which led to the conclusion that the right thing to do was postpone the implementation until after most of those concerned have been fully vaccinated. It’s a bit like a committee running a stable full of horses which takes a decision to change the lock after the first horse has bolted, but then decides to delay implementing the decision until after the last horse has escaped. It might well be more popular with the horses, but that’s rather losing sight of the original objective.

Friday 16 July 2021

Magic sauce and ketchup


‘Incoherence’ and ‘bluster’ are two of the kinder descriptions which people have applied to yesterday’s speech by the UK’s Prime Minister, which majored on what he appears to think was memorable rhetoric about magic sauce and ketchup rather than on any identifiable substance. The lack of detail was palpable, and much of it was just a rehash of previous announcements, with the possible exception of an extra £50 million for football pitches. It’s almost as though he thinks that saying something is tantamount to making it happen, and that people are being unkind and unfair if they don’t fall over themselves to praise him for saying it instead of asking awkward questions about how and when he’ll actually do it.

Even some of his own MPs are starting to get restless, harbouring suspicions that there may not be any grand plan underlying the rhetoric, and that he not only doesn’t know how to deliver, but has no intention of doing so anyway. The fact that some of them are harbouring suspicions proves only that they’re marginally faster on the uptake than those who haven’t even got to the ‘harbouring suspicions’ stage, but then being slow on the uptake is the main qualification for being a Johnsonite Tory. When the brightest amongst them are those who have a vague feeling that Johnson might just possibly be a tad insincere and devoid of any plan of action, we know that we’re in rather a large pickle. And one made without magic sauce at that.

The Queen of Hearts used to spend half an hour a day practising so that she could believe six impossible things before breakfast. It’s doubtful that Johnson bothers to practice. On the other hand, he might not need to, because he almost certainly doesn’t believe what he says either. Some of his MPs, however, clearly do need a lot more practice. The purpose of yesterday’s speech, according to the advance notice briefed to the media, was to reassure Tory members and voters in the south of England that it was possible to spread prosperity across the whole of the UK without taking anything away from what are currently the most prosperous areas. Technically, it’s true (although uttering a truth of any sort was probably an accident), but only if one ceases to believe the deeply ingrained Tory mantra that the total amount of money is limited and that any government spending on one area demands a cut somewhere else. Given that the Tories have spent decades promoting and reinforcing this myth (and the Chancellor is still busily repeating it), the surprise is not that some of their members and supporters believe that ‘levelling up’ must inevitably imply a transfer of resources from the south east to the rest of the UK, but that so few of them are rebelling to date. (I was going to say ‘revolting’ there, but prefaced by the words ‘so few of them’, it seemed somehow inappropriate.)

It’s been suggested that one of the reasons for abolishing all Covid restrictions is that he’s simply become bored with the whole pandemic business. Given his obvious short attention span, that’s entirely credible. Sooner or later he’ll get bored with the whole levelling up business as well, particularly if people keep asking him difficult questions about the detail. His MPs had better start that half an hour a day practice so that they’re ready to parrot whatever he comes up with next.

Thursday 15 July 2021

At least they didn't get it backdated

These days, it is (rightly) considered politically incorrect to refer to the nationality of the hapless trade union negotiator who, when he returned from arduous discussions with the employer, told his members, “There’s good news and there’s bad news. The bad news is that I didn’t get us a pay rise; in fact I’ve agreed a pay cut. But the good news is that I got it backdated.” Whatever his nationality, he would clearly have felt fully at home as a rebel MP in the English Conservative Party.

Earlier this week, those brave enough to rebel against the authoritarian nationalists who have taken over their party set out to reverse a wholly unnecessary and mean-spirited cut to overseas aid, a cut which owes more to the fact that it is electorally popular with the section of the electorate whose support the government seeks to retain than to any financial considerations. They ended up not only failing to overturn it, but setting the cut in concrete for the foreseeable future. When it came to the vote, they discovered that many of those who they thought were going to take a principled stand alongside them turned out to be innumerate as well as unprincipled and allowed themselves to be bought off by a promise that the cut was only ‘temporary’, and that the aid would be restored when the government’s budget on day-to-day spending returned to surplus.

Budget surpluses are a regular feature of government spending forecasts, invariably just a few years away, but they are conspicuous only by their absence in the historical records of out-turn. According to this report from the House of Commons Library, “Since 1970/71, the government has had a surplus (spent less than it received in revenues) in only six years. The last budget surplus was in 2000/01.” The prospect of a revenue surplus in the foreseeable future is negligible, which means that the ‘temporary’ cut has now become an indefinite one. If there is any good news at all here, I suppose it is that the rebels proved themselves even more hapless than that trade union negotiator: at least they didn’t manage to get the aid cuts backdated.

Wednesday 14 July 2021

Using the word 'freedom' is a deliberate attempt to mislead


According to government statistics, an average of around 1800 people are killed on the roads in the UK each year. That’s around 5 people each and every day. Some of those are the result of drivers breaking the speed limits or driving under the influence, but the existence of laws prohibiting both undoubtedly means that fewer are killed as a result of speeding or drinking than would be the case of the laws didn’t exist. We don’t know exactly how many deaths have been prevented by those laws, but we do know that around 5000 fewer people are killed on the roads each year now than was the case in the 1960s. Those laws aren’t the only contributory factors in the reduction, of course: road improvements and vehicle improvements have also contributed. But the contribution of reduced speed is so strong that many are arguing for even tougher action. If we suppose, for the sake of argument, that all of the lives saved are due to the laws on things like speeding, drink driving and the use of seat belts, then simple maths tells us that the maximum numbers of premature deaths prevented is around 13-14 per day. There are very few people who would seriously argue that this number of deaths is so low that we should just ‘live with it’, and ‘restore people’s freedom’ to drive at whatever speed they choose and drink as much as they like before getting behind the wheel, depending instead on their own good judgement and sense of responsibility.

Yet that is exactly the approach being taken by the UK Government in response to Covid. It is now the official policy of the UK Government that, for the next month or three (after which they assume, with little by way of supporting evidence, that the pandemic will be over as far as the UK is concerned) up to 200 people per day should die at the peak of the third wave and up to 2,000 per day should be hospitalised in order to give us the ‘freedom’ to decide for ourselves whether or not to take some simple and inexpensive steps to protect ourselves and others from onward transmission of the virus.

It’s not as if the argument about ‘freedom’ is significantly different from that relating to driving laws. I’m old enough to remember that opponents of drink driving laws and compulsory seat belts both argued at the time that the laws were an unwarranted interference with their personal liberty, and they should have the ‘right’ to decide for themselves whether to wear a seat belt or drink before driving. And there were also the familiar arguments about banning drinking and driving having a disastrous impact on some businesses such as pubs and restaurants. The difference is that, at the time, the government of the day was convinced of the value of the laws and presented them in terms of taking necessary steps to protect lives rather than as a restriction on freedom. With consistent messaging along those lines, and the passage of time, public attitudes changed – those laws enjoy considerably more support now than they did at the time. Laws, even apparently unenforceable ones, can and do change perceptions and attitudes over time.

The current government has, from the outset of the pandemic, given the impression of acting only reluctantly if at all, and now seems to be valuing the right of some to infect others above the right of those others not to be infected. It values individual selfishness over any sense of collective solidarity to protect each other. They have deliberately chosen to frame the debate around relaxing restrictions in terms of ‘freedom’ (despite knowing full well that it will feel like anything but ‘freedom’ to the most vulnerable now being forced into some sort of self-imposed lockdown) rather than in terms of avoiding premature deaths. Worse, a weak and spineless opposition, aided and abetted by a sycophantic media which is unwilling to call out the government for its lies and spin, have allowed themselves to be bounced into debating on the same terms. The very use of the term ‘Freedom Day’ by anyone outside the government is itself a capitulation to a mindset which is prepared to sacrifice thousands of the weakest and most vulnerable members of society in order to advance the economic interests of the richest.

Friday 9 July 2021

Dividing to conquer


Whilst death and taxes may be life’s only absolute certainties, there are other things which run them close. Amongst those are that the English Conservative and Unionist Party will always attempt to balance the government’s budget at the expense of the poorest, whilst encouraging those just a little better off to blame those poorer than themselves for inequality rather than blaming the richest.

The ‘pensions triple lock’ was designed to ensure that the UK state pension can never lose value over time as it often did previously. In fact, during a period of low inflation and low wage growth, it can have the effect of marginally increasing the value of pensions – for example, if inflation is 2%, the guaranteed minimum increase of 2.5% means that pensions will increase in value by 0.5%. Not a huge amount, but a small slow step towards better pension provision in a country with one of the lowest state pensions in the developed world. The fact that, as a result, state pension increases have been marginally higher than wage increases in recent years doesn’t alter the fact that the poorest pensioners – those entirely dependent on the state pension – remain amongst the poorest in society. There are increasing suggestions that the Chancellor – a man who will never find himself having to live on the basic state pension – is going to alter or suspend the triple lock in order to save money this year.

It’s true that, because of the way the calculation operates, pensioners could be in line for an increase of up to 8% this year as a result of the pandemic, but this would be a ‘one-off’ quirk, and would still leave those dependent solely on the pension as one of the poorest groups in society. Comparing percentage increases – 2% for wages and 8% for pensions – may appear to show that pensioners are getting an unfairly advantageous rise, but it’s a misleading statistic. 8% of £9,340 (current state pension) amounts to an annual increase of £747; 2% of £28,000 (average full time weekly wage) amounts to an annual increase of £560. The difference between the two is a lot smaller put in those terms, and extra purchasing power is always going to be of most benefit to those who have the least of it to start with. It’s also true that many pensioners are not wholly dependent on the state pension and receive occupational or personal pensions of some sort in addition. Those extras are not subject to the triple lock and are likely to increase only in line with wages or inflation, but policy in relation to the basic state pension should surely be set by thinking about those wholly dependent on it, not those receiving additional monies which can and should be taxed appropriately.

The very idea that spending to deal with the pandemic has created a ‘debt’ which needs to be ‘repaid’ is a nonsense anyway, as has been discussed on this blog previously, but attempting to ‘repay’ a non-existent ‘debt’ by keeping the income of the poorest groups low is also an attempt to divide us amongst ourselves. It helpfully diverts attention from the way in which the richest have benefited disproportionately from government spending on the pandemic. Presenting the situation as some sort of conflict between generations (as some seem keen to do) all adds grist to the Tory mill. It also overlooks the power of compounding (referred to earlier this week), which means that the main beneficiaries of a slow growth in pensions over a long period aren’t today’s pensioners at all. They will see only modest benefits from a half per cent or so each year. No; the power of compounding means that the real beneficiaries will be those who are decades away from retirement – precisely those being encouraged to oppose the triple lock today. We should be asking ourselves whose interests are really served most by limiting pensions increases.

I should add another certainty to the list at the start of this post: the Tories will always seek to persuade working people to oppose policies which are in their own best long term interest, and to support those which benefit the Tories and their friends. Sadly, they often succeed.

Thursday 8 July 2021

Learning the international lessons


One of the most difficult moral problems for humanity as a whole is the question of deciding when and how ‘the international community’ (a term which itself raises a whole host of issues) can or should intervene in the affairs of a sovereign state. In recent decades, the de facto answer has been ‘whenever one of the most powerful states decides that its interests are served by so doing’, a response which many would feel to be wholly inadequate, based as it is on the ugly principle that ‘might is right’. The idea of sovereignty is a powerful one, but other states must surely have some sort of right to protect themselves against the actions of states which decline to abide by internationally agreed standards. And what about a state which only endangers the lives and wellbeing of its own citizens – should the rest of the world simply stand by and watch, because ‘sovereignty’? Even those of us most opposed to the self-interested war-mongering tendencies of states such as the USA and the UK are left feeling very uneasy at the double standards which allow allegedly ‘friendly’ rogue states to oversee the deaths of thousands of their own citizens, and economic sanctions often end up impacting precisely those who are already the worst hit.

Insofar as it’s an issue that gets discussed seriously at all, it’s usually in terms of what ‘we’ should do about ‘them’. But perhaps we should also give it some thought in terms of what ‘they’ should do about ‘us’. Professor Richard Murphy drew attention this morning to this letter in the Lancet, signed by 100 scientists outlining why a policy of allowing mass infection by Covid should not be a policy option. This is a policy which certainly threatens thousands more premature deaths amongst UK citizens than might otherwise be the case, but as the authors point out, it doesn’t only impact the UK:

“… preliminary modelling data suggest the government's strategy provides fertile ground for the emergence of vaccine-resistant variants. This would place all at risk, including those already vaccinated, within the UK and globally. While vaccines can be updated, this requires time and resources, leaving many exposed in the interim. Spread of potentially more transmissible escape variants would disproportionately affect the most disadvantaged in our country and other countries with poor access to vaccines.”

That gives the rest of the world, and especially the poorest countries, a direct interest in the actions of what they might, entirely reasonably, perceive to be a reckless government which doesn’t even care about protecting its own citizens, let alone those of other states. Add to that a casual and increasing disregard for international law, treaties, and human rights, and it becomes legitimate to ask – at what stage should the international community start to take action, and in what form, against the rogue state which the UK is rapidly becoming?

Tongue-in-cheek perhaps, but not completely so. There are lessons to be learned from the pandemic, and they are not only the domestic ones from which the current government is incapable of learning as it strives to repeat them. There are also international lessons to be learned. As things stand, the world has shown that it is in no position to deal collectively with a viral threat to mankind. Yet there seems to be little thought being given to the changes we need at an international level to ensure a better state of collective readiness in future, and an ability to deal with states which decide to opt out of international actions. And the next novel virus could be a great deal worse than Covid.

Wednesday 7 July 2021

Could the removal of restrictions prove economically counter-productive?


There is some doubt as to whether Einstein ever actually described compound interest as the most powerful force in the universe, but exponential growth, the underlying principle, is something that many people – including, it seems, many politicians – struggle to grasp. I remember Dr Phil Williams once doing a back-of-the-envelope calculation projecting forward the effects of a 7% annual growth of sales to arrive at the number of years it would take before the entire matter of the universe had to be converted into Mars bars. It was a very large number but it demonstrated the power of exponential growth (and, of course, the fact that, ultimately, there are limits to that growth).

On Monday, Boris Johnson told us to be prepared to see the number of new cases of Covid reaching as many as 50,000 per day by the 19th July. Given that there were already around 27,000 cases per day on Monday, and that the number is doubling roughly every 10 or 11 days, that looks, typically for Johnson, to be an optimistic assessment. Unless something changes, that number is likely to be exceeded several days before then.  Yesterday, the new English Health Minister said that the number may top 100,000 per day by an unspecified date sometime this summer. Perhaps he was just trying to avoid excessively underlining his boss’s message by being too honest, but that, too, looks like an optimistic scenario, even though it’s a number significantly higher than the peak seen during the second wave, of around 81,000 per day in late December. Again, unless something changes, current growth rates suggest it's about three weeks away. It is being widely reported today that the expectation is for around 2 million cases in the next few weeks, with around 10 million people supposed to be self-isolating. This, it seems, is now deliberate government policy. Encouraging people to go back to work by removing support for businesses by running down the furlough schemes and at the same time removing all those restrictions which have helped to control the spread of the virus is probably the most effective combination of policies anyone could devise to maximise the spread of the Delta variant and encourage the evolution of new variants. That too, it seems, is now the official policy of the English Government.

Telling people that they must take responsibility for their own safety rather than expecting the state to protect them through laws may sound good to the libertarians in the Tory Party, but the point is that mask-wearing, for instance, isn’t about self-protection, it’s about protecting others. Removing the requirement is like abolishing speed limits or drink-driving laws – the laws are there to prevent people becoming potential victims, not simply to restrict the liberty of perpetrators. In the circumstances, taking responsibility for our own safety means deciding how much we can depend on others taking actions to protect us, and many are likely to conclude that we simply can’t.

It’s being done in the name, allegedly, of reopening the economy. There is, however, at least a possibility that it will turn out to be a complete failure, even in those terms, since the effect may be to dampen spending rather than grow it. They seem to be assuming that everyone else will see the removal of restrictions in the same terms as they themselves do – as being about the restoration of freedom. For many in the population, it may turn out to be the complete opposite – the start of a new, voluntary, lockdown with no obvious end point or route out. People who have been cautiously starting to venture out, in the knowledge that other people around them who may be infectious are legally obliged to take the obvious precautions of wearing masks and keeping their distance, and that those actions have dramatically reduced the prevalence of the virus, may well decide that it’s no longer as safe as they thought. That would be an entirely rational response in a situation where people may well be infectious without knowing it, and where the number of people in that position in the population at large is increasing rapidly in accordance with what appear to be the new government targets. The chance of coming into close contact with an infectious person on public transport or in shops goes from having been very low just a few weeks ago to very high by the end of the month. If large numbers of people respond by taking more steps to avoid potentially dangerous social contact, then the impact on economic activity is likely to be negative rather than positive.

It hasn’t been easy for the UK Government to secure both one of the highest levels of deaths per head in Europe and the biggest economic hit, but it’s a record which they seem determined to maintain. The complete disregard for its citizens is may well be a good demonstration of what ‘Global Britain’ is all about, but it’s doubtful that many outside the UK will be as impressed as Johnson might wish to believe.

Tuesday 6 July 2021

A high stakes gamble


As part of their justification for removing Covid-related restrictions in England, English ministers have argued that we need to get used to Covid, just like flu. It requires us to simply accept a higher level of preventable hospitalisations and preventable early deaths than would otherwise be the case. They are apparently unwilling to spell out the numbers which they consider ‘acceptable’, but the continued references to flu suggest some sort of parallel.

It’s not an easy comparison to make, though, for several reasons. Firstly, in non-pandemic years at least, very few people die directly of flu; most of those who die do so of complications such as pneumonia. We also know that most of those who die with flu are older and poorer than the population at large, and that fuel poverty is a key factor in turning illnesses resulting from flu into deaths. Some of those points are true of Covid as well; Covid also causes pneumonia and other complications, which is why the news reports keep reporting the numbers of people who have died ‘with Covid’ rather than ‘of Covid’. Like flu, it is also more serious for older people. Claiming that flu and Covid are now on some sort of par is a bold claim, but it’s noticeable that it’s one being made more by politicians than by epidemiologists.

Even if it were ‘true’ in simple numerical terms, there are other complications. Whilst the current numbers of infections are already way higher than flu (although it’s hard to be certain about the extent because flu is not a ‘notifiable’ disease), there are few, if any, experts in the field who don’t believe that they would be significantly higher again were it not for the measures currently in place. As the government itself admits, removing those remaining restrictions will undoubtedly lead to a surge in infections, and that in turn will inevitably lead to a surge in hospitalisations and deaths, although hopefully the vaccination programme will mean that it won’t be on the same scale as in the second wave. And any comparison with the actions taken to mitigate flu in a non-pandemic year as opposed to those which might be necessary in the event of a pandemic caused by a new variant of flu are misleading to say the least.

The government chooses to present figures for the vaccination program in terms of the ‘proportion of adults’ who have been vaccinated. This is not unreasonable in itself given that vaccinations have not yet been authorised for the younger groups, but it also serves to disguise the fact that, as of this week, only 33.7 million people in the UK have been fully vaccinated, a figure which is barely above 50% of the population (66.6 million). Whilst more will be done before 19 July, that will still leave up to 40% of the population open to infection, a level far higher than is consistent with any suggestion that ‘herd immunity’ can stop the chain of infections. And free of restrictions, a large proportion of that 40% are likely to become infected, even without raising questions about repeat infections and the duration of the immunity provided by vaccination for other groups.

Most of those will be younger people, of course, and to date it seems that younger people are less likely to be seriously ill or die. But ‘less likely’ isn’t the same as a zero probability; some of the young people concerned will be hospitalised and some will die. Some will develop ‘long Covid’, and be seriously ill for months. The even bigger concern is that the more the virus circulates the more it will evolve. As some scientists have already pointed out, removing restrictions which have been proven to work is like building variant factories in the UK. That there will be new variants as a result is inevitable; the only question is whether those variants are more infectious, more dangerous and/or more vaccine resistant than the variants already circulating. They might or might not be; but the government is effectively taking a massive gamble with people’s lives. It is running a major medical experiment using millions of people, predominantly but not exclusively the younger generations, as involuntary and unconsenting guinea pigs. Normal ethics considerations relating to large scale experiments require that people are given enough detail to make an informed choice as to whether to participate or not. It’s a choice being denied by a government obsessed with the dogma of balanced budgets and shrinking the state.

There was a rather unsubtle attempt to bully the devolved administrations into meekly following suit yesterday, but all the signs are that they will continue to show more sense than that. It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the English government simply want to avoid having a less damaging comparator on their doorstep if things go badly wrong – and it will be hard to avoid the ‘let it rip’ philosophy in England directly impacting on Wales in any event. We may be lucky, we may not – both individually and collectively. But gambling on the current government making the right choice in the light of its record to date is not exactly what anyone would call a sure-fire thing.

Monday 5 July 2021



During the press conference following his meeting with the German Chancellor, Boris Johnson ridiculed the Northern Ireland Protocol with the words, “Imagine if bratwurst could not be moved from Dortmund to Dusseldorf because of the jurisdiction of an international court – you’d think it was absolutely extraordinary”. It’s a fair point, and I’m sure that Angela Merkel would indeed find it a truly extraordinary state of affairs. But then she would also probably find it extraordinary that anyone would even suggest such a ban on moving bratwurst from Dortmund to Brussels, or Copenhagen, or any other city within the European Single Market. Even more extraordinary and incomprehensible to her would be any suggestion that a German Chancellor would voluntarily negotiate and then sign a legally-binding international treaty agreeing to restrictions on moving bratwurst between Dortmund and Dusseldorf. But then, according to Boris Johnson, it’s something that “no British Prime Minister could ever agree to” either. I wonder which one it was who did just that?

Saturday 3 July 2021

Right solution, wrong application

 Whether the PM really did miss Cobra meetings at the start of the pandemic in order to work on the biography of Shakespeare for which he has been promised £500,000 is as yet neither proven nor disproven. That he has no obvious academic background which would qualify him for such a task is obvious; clearly the money on offer is more to do with the publisher’s belief that the book will sell because of who wrote it rather than because of the content. It was reported yesterday that his planned approach to writing a book on a subject about which he knows little was to pay someone who really is an expert in the field to be recorded answering his questions and then rewrite the answers in his own words. According to one academic who declined the ‘opportunity’ to have his expertise presented as that of another, Johnson’s agent had claimed that “The originality and brilliance … would lie in Mr Johnson’s choice of questions to ask and in the inimitable way in which he would write up the expert answers he received”. It’s an ‘interesting’ way of describing presenting someone else’s knowledge and expertise as though it were his own.

In fairness, Johnson is actually onto something here, he’s merely applying the approach to the wrong task. Instead of outsourcing the writing of the book to someone who knew what he was talking about while Johnson got on with what is euphemistically called ‘running the country’, just imagine how much better things could have been if he’d outsourced running the country to someone who knew what he was doing whilst he got on with writing the book. It would probably not be beneficial to the quality of the book, but who cares about that?

Thursday 1 July 2021

The problem with federalism


Those who wish to perpetuate the union between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland seem increasingly to be falling into two distinct camps. The group currently in the ascendant seem to believe that the English centre can simply impose its will on the peripheral parts of their kingdom and reinforce a common identity by the prominent display of symbols and the deployment of random royals for the natives to wave flags at. As strategies go, it’s pretty dumb and more than a little tone deaf; more likely to have the opposite effect to that intended. There is, though, a more thoughtful group of unionists who recognise that simply trying to eliminate non-English identity and any desire to express that identity through political institutions is counter-productive. For them, continuation of the union depends on reimagining and repurposing it to make it fit for the twenty-first century instead of attempting to return to the eighteenth. It’s a group which includes the Welsh First Minister, whose twenty point plan was the subject of yesterday’s post.

Quite apart from the fact that they can be and are being ignored by the so-called muscular unionists, and leaving aside that their attempt to envisage a new role and purpose for a union which has outlived its usefulness rather than think more creatively about what would best serve current needs betrays a sense of small-c conservatism, they face a huge legal and constitutional problem: they can’t deliver on their proposals, even if we cast aside enough cynicism to believe for a moment that they really, really want to. Everything they say depends on an assumption that an unwritten constitution based on the principle that absolute sovereignty is vested in the Crown acting through Westminster can be bent so as to allow the existence of the Senedd and the Scottish Parliament to be declared unchangeable, and their powers never overridden, without the consent of those bodies or the people who elect them.

It can’t, and the outcome of a court case in Belfast yesterday underlined the reason why. The court found that the Northern Ireland Protocol did indeed conflict with the 1800 Acts of Union, but that the legislation implementing the protocol overrode the relevant provisions of those Acts, in effect repealing them. Even if new legislation does not explicitly state that any previous legislation to the contrary is repealed, that is legally what happens: new legislation always supplants anything older which is different. A constitution which gives primacy to the idea that no government can ever bind its successors can never provide the sort of guarantees that the Drakefords of this world claim to be offering. Whatever Westminster legislates for it can subsequently reverse and there is no mechanism under current UK law to prevent that happening.

Some might argue that once an Act is passed declaring the existence of the Senedd, and its powers in devolved areas, to be inviolable, it would be political considerations rather than the purely legalistic ones which would be uppermost. The Johnson government, with its willingness to ignore convention, regulation and the rule of law, let alone political opinion in Wales or Scotland, demonstrates comprehensively why that is no defence. And even if it turns out to be a (comparatively) short-lived phenomenon, there can be no guarantee that England will never elect another similar government in the future, even if it does manage to un-elect the current one in the near future.

None of that makes it absolutely impossible to enshrine the existence of the Senedd into the UK’s constitution, but I doubt that there is an irreversible way of doing so without moving to a wholly, or largely, written constitution with safeguards preventing constitutional change through simple parliamentary majority. That is something to which the current governing party of England is unlikely ever to agree, and there is considerable doubt about whether the main opposition party in England is open to the idea either. And who can blame them? What, exactly, is the incentive for a party which has gained absolute power under one system to immediately change that system for one which places constraints on their actions? In any event, it’s a project which would probably take decades to accomplish, with commissions and enquiries galore along the way. However sincere the federalists might be, demanding that we set aside all aspirations for statehood in the short term in exchange for the hope of a highly improbable outcome in the longer term is tantamount to telling us that we must put up indefinitely with the current situation. If we fall for that, we will have only ourselves to blame.