Thursday 26 August 2021

Unaffordability is a myth


One of the standard objections to allowing refugees access to the UK is that the UK is unable to look after ‘its own people’. It’s usually expressed in terms of questioning why refugees should have priority over homeless people / unemployed people / poor people / military veterans* (*select disfavoured group according to preference). Superficially, it’s not a wholly unreasonable question to ask. It is, though, completely the wrong question, and is based on a series of invalid premises. The invalid premises are that the UK is unable to support those living here who currently need support; that that inability is due to a lack of resources; and that using limited resources to help one group therefore necessarily means that other groups cannot be helped. Take away those premises, and the right question to ask is why, in one of the world’s richest countries, there is so much poverty and homelessness, whether amongst long-standing residents or new arrivals.

In global terms, the UK is a rich – very rich – country. Domestic poverty and hunger aren’t a result of any lack of resources, they’re a result of the way those resources are distributed. And that distribution is a result of a deliberate political choice – which means that it could be changed by making a different political choice. It does, though, suit the ruling classes in the UK to pretend that eliminating poverty, hunger, and homelessness are ‘unaffordable’, and it suits them even more to allow justifiable anger about those issues to be directed at immigrants and refugees rather than at themselves. ‘Divide and rule’ has long been the preferred approach of ruling classes everywhere, and the UK is no exception. Persuading the less well-off that the ‘problem’ is caused by those even poorer than themselves is just the current manifestation of that approach. The saddest part is seeing so many swept along by the big lie that ‘we can’t afford’ to help refugees fleeing a situation that our own government did so much to create.

Friday 20 August 2021

It's almost certainly not the zeal of the converted.


Wales’s ‘go-to’ politician, when the media want a silly quote delivered by a man whose only moving part seems to be his mouth, is the man who manages to be both the ex-leader and the future ex-leader of the Conservative group in the Senedd, Andrew RT Davies. And as a bonus, sometimes he doesn’t even wait to be asked; his incoherence can also be entirely spontaneous and unprompted, as in today’s demand for an independent Welsh inquiry into the handling of Covid.

There are some good reasons for having a separate Welsh inquiry, just as there are some good reasons for not holding one, although Davies seems to be having some difficulty articulating the former. That’s probably because his only real reason is his belief that a separate inquiry will do more to damage the Labour government than a UK-wide inquiry. It may or may not be true; there is surely at least an equal chance that separate inquiries will do more to expose the comparison between approaches in Wales and England, to say nothing of revealing what else could have been different if Wales had more devolved power. He should remember who will appoint the inquiry's leader (spoiler: it won't be Andrew RT Davies). In lieu of saying what he really means, and absent any ability to come up with anything better, he’s resorted to saying that Wales will be consigned “to a solitary, overlooked chapter” in any UK-wide investigation. That sounds like the story of Welsh life in general to me, but for the leader of the so-called ‘Welsh’ Conservatives to declare in such an open and forthright manner that the problem with UK-wide processes set up by the Conservative government in Westminster is that they are guaranteed to largely ignore the different circumstances of Wales is either a Damascene conversion or else shows an almost incredible lack of self-awareness. There aren’t many who’d put their money on the former.

Thursday 19 August 2021

Beyond hope or redemption


In a manner which uses a rather curious definition of ‘honouring commitments made’, the UK Government has agreed to take an arbitrary number, bearing no relation to either need or the criteria on which it is claimed to be based, of refugees from the catastrophe which it has helped to create in Afghanistan. But not all at once; the numbers accepted will be spread over a five year period. To qualify for this largesse on the part of the UK, refugees need to find their own way out of their country, and travel to the UK without passing through any other country which the UK Government deems safe (because if they do, they will be regarded as having passed up on the chance to be accepted in that other country), and spend potentially 4 or 5 years in a refugee camp somewhere while the UK gets around to processing their applications. Whether by action of the new Afghan government, disease or taking risks in the process, a fair number of those who might otherwise qualify will clearly never make it.

Still, never let it be said that the UK government is unable to be imaginative or innovative in its approach: holding out the possibility of posthumous refugee status is a world first. It’s also a new low for the conscience-free regime currently running the UK. Apparently, according to the PM in his speech to parliament yesterday, instead of feeling an entirely natural degree of shame at what has been done in our name, we must all take great pride in the huge strides made for women’s rights in those parts of Afghanistan which were briefly occupied by Western forces, even while we watch those rights being stripped away as the country returns to fundamentalist misogyny. It’s delusional, of course; but the participation of the UK in the original invasion was born out of the same basic delusion, which is that the UK is some sort of great player righting the world’s wrongs across the globe rather than an increasingly insignificant offshore European island. It sometimes seems as if there is no event or circumstance sufficiently powerful to shatter the delusion. Even after the UK is split asunder, and the writ of Westminster is reduced to the English rump of the UK, I suspect that those ruling England will continue to cling to their strange notions of greatness and exceptionalism. There truly is no hope for them.

Friday 13 August 2021

A level grades are a blunt instrument


The report last week that the UK Government is being ‘forced’ to fund more places in English universities to train doctors and dentists as a result of ‘grade inflation’ raises more questions than it answers. At a simplistic level, the problem is easily understood – if pupils get higher grades at A level than would have been the case had they sat exams, then more people will meet the grade-based criteria for entry onto the courses. But if those people are suitable to become doctors and dentists under one system, what is it about sitting exams which would somehow have made them unsuitable? If Pupil X gets an A* when assessed by his or her teachers but ‘only’ a B in an exam, why is the same pupil, with the same knowledge and abilities, doctor material in the first case but not in the second? How do we ‘know’ that pupils with an A* grade obtained in an examination can go on to be successful doctors and dentists, whilst those with a B cannot?

Using grades obtained by an adolescent in his or her last year at school as an absolute determinant of his or her future career prospects seems almost designed to waste a lot of potential talent. Clearly, the grades obtained by pupils at A level tell us something about how much work and effort those pupils have expended, how much knowledge they have accumulated, and how likely they are to apply themselves to their work at university, but they aren’t – and can’t be – as definitive as the way in which they seem to be being used. Exams are in some ways a blunt instrument; they are not an assessment method which suits all, and the circumstances in which a pupil finds him or herself on one particular day may not be representative of that pupil’s general character and approach. And although all of us want those providing our medical care to have the necessary knowledge and expertise, it’s not at all clear that the precise grade obtained in A level Biology is a particularly good indicator of that.

We know that there is a shortage of doctors and dentists in the UK, and that the UK is simply not training enough to meet our needs. We also know that this is a problem which cannot be resolved quickly, given the length of time it takes to train people. But neither is it a recent problem: it is a long-running problem under successive governments, whether Tory or Labour, which share an ideological commitment to competition and markets. What this so-called ‘grade inflation’ underlines is that that shortage is not a result of a lack of people wanting to become doctors and dentists, nor is it a question of their suitability for the role. It is the result of decisions by successive governments to limit the number of places, largely on financial grounds. They have made a deliberate choice to train fewer than we need and recruit people trained outside the UK instead, in the process not only rejecting many of those who want to follow careers as doctors and dentists and have the ability to do so, but also depriving other countries of the benefits of their own investment in training. Any government which was serious about providing proper health care for its citizens would start by looking at how many people it needs to train to provide that care and then provide enough places to meet that need, rather than setting a financially-driven cap on the number of places and filling those places through market-style competition. It is yet another example of a government decision driven by ideology rather than need.

Tuesday 10 August 2021

Do the Tories understand capitalism?


It might appear a silly question, given that the Tories are generally regarded as being the party of capitalism, but some of the things they have said and done recently give rise to more than a vague doubt about the answer. And that’s not just a question about Brexit, legion though the examples might be in that regard.

One of the key features, allegedly, about market capitalism is that it promotes innovation. Sometimes that innovation is purely the result of intense competition, but at other times it’s a response to changing market conditions or external shock. In any event, according to the theory, the most innovative businesses will thrive as a result whereas those adhering to outdated business models will go to the wall. The idea that those working for those failing companies should be left to their fate is an uncomfortable one for many of those of us opposed to unregulated capitalism, but for the enthusiasts, it’s a necessary and indeed desirable feature.

One recent such external shock has been the Covid-19 pandemic. It forced many businesses to experiment with different working patterns and to employ already available technology to facilitate more flexibility. The best employers have seen the benefits of this for both themselves and their employees and are already looking to embed the new working practices in their future business models. Admittedly, it hasn’t been so easy for those employers who start from an assumption that they need to measure and rigidly control hours worked by their staff, none of whom can, apparently, be trusted further than they can be thrown, rather than consider productivity or output, but such companies are capitalism’s natural victims of innovation. However, it isn’t just the businesses adopting (or failing to adopt) new practices which have been impacted – as capitalist theory would suggest, there’s also been an impact on other companies in the wider economy. In this case, that includes businesses such as city centre shops, restaurants etc, all of which have seen a fall-off in footfall, and which are now facing the probability that they will never be able to fully recover. Market conditions have changed, and their scope for adaptation is limited.

The response from some Tories has been to demand that people must be forced to return to their offices in the city centres, as we saw from former Tory leader, Ian Duncan Smith earlier this week, in his case talking about civil servants. But to return to my opening question – does he understand the market capitalism he claims to espouse? Demanding that organisations return to working methods and practices which have been superseded by events in order to protect some old businesses which will otherwise be unable to survive in the new world seems to owe more to the thinking of Ned Ludd than modern market capitalism. The question for thinking capitalists (to say nothing of those of us who consider the system to be flawed anyway) ought to be about how we support people during the transition to a different type of economy, not how we resist changes which will benefit many as well as reducing carbon-expensive travel.

Saturday 7 August 2021

Underestimating his contribution


Boris Johnson’s crass comments about Thatcher’s contribution to avoiding climate change by closing mines were not only insensitive to the affected communities, they were also, as is usual for the fact-free world he inhabits, plain wrong. Thatcher’s pit closures had nothing at all to do with reducing the use of coal; they merely outsourced its production to other countries.

But, following his strange logic for a moment, he was underestimating his own more than modest contribution to reducing the UK’s carbon footprint. After all, if it hadn’t been for the way he handled the Covid pandemic, there would be tens of thousands more old people still alive today burning fossil fuels to keep warm. If it weren’t for his Brexit deal, there’d be many more lorries on the roads ferrying wholly unnecessary food supplies around the country (and from the European mainland) to fill supermarket shelves. He’s saving millions of food miles at a stroke. And we should not forget that the planned reversal of the Universal Credit uplift will directly reduce the spending power of millions of people, in turn reducing their demand for goods and services and the carbon cost of producing them. Given the complete disregard for the consequences of government actions on people and communities displayed by his comments on pit closures, it’s surprising that he hasn’t yet claimed the credit for any of this.

Friday 6 August 2021

Progressive isn't the same thing as anti-Tory


Not entirely unexpectedly, given the poor performance of the Labour Party in recent months, the idea of forming what has erroneously been called a ‘progressive alliance’ has been rearing its ugly head again. Leaving aside the obvious lack of understanding by London-based political commentators of Welsh and Scottish politics (what on earth leads them to believe, even for a moment, that parties like the SNP and Plaid would want to be part of a formal coalition government to run the UK for five years, as opposed to a looser arrangement which allows Labour to govern in return for specific concessions?), there are plenty of reasons for the Labour leadership to reject the idea outright. Whilst it’s clear that the Lib Dems might be natural bedfellows for the Labour Party, why would a party so committed to austerity economics as the Labour Party want to constrain itself by an agreement with parties such as the Green Party, the SNP and Plaid which reject austerity? Why would a party so committed to the possession and renewal of weapons of mass destruction as the Labour Party want to constrain its ability to incinerate millions by trying to reach an agreement with parties which seek to scrap nuclear weapons?

It seems, however, that it’s not for obvious policy reasons like that that the Labour leadership rejects any sort of agreement with the Greens, SNP and Plaid at all – it’s because of their fear that the Tories might use any hint of an accommodation with the SNP in an appeal to an increasingly aggressive form of English nationalism (as if Labour haven’t already lost most of the English nationalist vote already). In effect, they would prefer to leave the Tories in government indefinitely than take a principled position against what has become the core driver of the English Conservative and Unionist Party. In the meantime, the Tories are using the absolute power given to them by a distorted electoral system which is unfit for purpose to promote a series of measures, including active voter suppression, to cement their undemocratic hold on power by uniting around 35 – 40% of English electors behind them.

There are serious problems with the whole concept of a ‘progressive alliance’, not the least of which is that the biggest party in any such alliance is hardly worthy of the description ‘progressive’. What is really meant is not a ‘progressive’ alliance at all, but a non-Tory alliance, as though being ‘not-a-Tory’ is, in itself, sufficient ground to unite a disparate group of parties around a five-year plan for government. It isn’t, and it is never going to be. What might, as an outside chance, be possible would be a much looser joint commitment by all the non-Tory forces to electoral reform, with a promise that they would jointly act to introduce STV and then call a new election under the new system within two years of them being elected on that platform. Coupled with vague hints that anyone supporting such an approach should consider voting for whichever pro-STV candidate was most likely to win in any given constituency (Labour are never going to agree to stand down candidates in a general election, and people should really stop predicating their analysis on an assumption that they will), that might just open a route away from a system of politics which gives absolute power to a single party on the basis of a minority of the votes.

Whilst it’s impossible to be certain what that might mean for future governments – changing the system might also change voting behaviour – it seems probable that long periods of single party rule would be consigned to history, and we would end up with governments which were forced to pay attention to alternative views and seek accommodations with them. Even this weak version of an alliance looks unlikely currently, though. Whilst Plaid, the SNP, the Greens and the Lib Dems are all committed to electoral reform, the Labour party is another question entirely. There are certainly individuals within the party supportive of STV (former Welsh minister Alun Davies, for example, has often indicated his support), but the London-based leadership is lukewarm at best. It often appears that they are content for the Tories to be in unconstrained government for 90% of the time in exchange for having their turn for the other 10%, and that they’d sooner be out of power completely than compromise with anyone else. Unless and until that changes, not only is any sort of alliance impossible – it’s actually pointless. Starmer’s reported comments this week are not exactly a cause for optimism.

Monday 2 August 2021

Distorting the meaning of words


The timing of today’s announcement of a new UK coin celebrating the fantasy world invented by Lewis Carroll is very apt, coming as it does on the heels of yesterday’s announcement by the Queen of Hearts Michael Gove that Scotland can have another referendum on independence when it becomes the ‘settled will’ of the Scottish electors. In true Wonderland style, that ‘settled will’ is a matter for the exclusive determination of the UK government using criteria which they will neither explain nor justify, but which absolutely definitely excludes counting the results of any elections held to date or which might be held in the future in which supporters of holding such a referendum win a majority, and which will be found to have arbitrarily changed whenever they are in danger of being met. As Carroll put it:

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."

What appears at first sight to be a change from the UK Government’s anti-democratic position that a referendum will never be permitted turns out to be little more than a re-statement of the same answer in terms which eliminate all possibility of logical counter-argument. At least Lewis Carroll knew that he was writing fantasy; it’s doubtful that Gove understands the difference.