Thursday 30 September 2021

Who needs enemies?


The Labour Party are keen, apparently, to win back some of their lost ground in Scotland, with many frequently claiming that they can never form a UK government again unless they do so. It’s not true, of course – the figures show that for every election (except autumn 1974) which has returned a majority Labour government, the party has also won a majority of seats in England. For Tory and Labour alike, the only requirement to form, or at least lead, a government in the UK is to beat the other party in England. Labour’s desperation to recover lost ground in Scotland is more a reflection of their acceptance that they’ve lost England than it is of any particular need for Scottish seats.

But let us suppose for a moment that their belief were true, and that winning back Scotland is indeed absolutely key to their success. What form of rational discussion in advance of the leader’s speech yesterday ever came up with the notion that the big promises to be not only highlighted in the speech, but also widely briefed in advance of it, should be England-only policies on issues such as health and education? It’s obvious that they continue to believe that they have some sort of divine right to Scottish votes, and that the SNP have somehow illegitimately stolen them, but are they really so divorced from the ground reality in Scotland that they think the answer is simply to bash an obviously-popular SNP government verbally and then talk about English policy as though it’s UK-wide? They seem to have learnt nothing at all from their perceived collaboration with the Tories in the ‘Better Together’ campaign in 2014, and are behaving in the same way as the Tories even now.

Perhaps in England, declaring themselves to be ‘patriots’ and wrapping themselves in the union flag looks like a strange, and probably doomed, attempt to compete for the English nationalist vote with the nationalists now running the Tory Party, but in Scotland (and in Wales also, albeit less so) it is more likely that it simply looks tone deaf to many. With ‘friends’ like these, the union hardly needs enemies. Another good day for the independence movement.

Wednesday 29 September 2021

Envisaging an alternative


There is a spoof newsflash doing the rounds on social media, which claims that Priti Patel is setting up a taskforce to deport any EU lorry drivers who happen to be enticed by the option of temporary work in the UK on 24 December, when they will, according to the government, no longer be required. It’s almost credible; there does seem to be an attitude in government that the problem is not going to be attracting lorry drivers in permanent jobs to come to the UK for lower wages, worse conditions and a very temporary contract, but getting rid of them afterwards. I suppose that, for those who ‘know’ that the UK is the best place in the world, and that everyone everywhere else is desperate to come here, it is ‘obvious’ that getting them to go home on 24 December is far and away the biggest problem. The newsflash is a spoof, but that underlying attitude is very much in evidence, and the inability to understand why this amazing offer from the UK government really is not too good to refuse is the main reason why the scheme seems doomed to fail. And even if it were true, as they seem to believe, that EU lorry drivers will be queuing up (presumably not the ones who remember being on a certain disused runway in Kent last Christmas Eve) to come to the UK and take up the jobs, 5,000 for two months seems unlikely to make much of a dent in a longer term structural shortage of 100,000.

But that underlying attitude of the current government can also be generalised. Many of their policies clearly start from the assumption that ‘workers’ exist solely to meet the needs of ‘the economy’, where ‘the economy’ is a neutral-sounding term which is actually a euphemism for the interests of capital and those who control it. In policy terms, it means that the education system exists only to supply workers with the skills needed by ‘the economy’; the government response to a pandemic is governed first and foremost by a need to protect ‘the economy’ rather than people’s lives; people on benefits are expected to take whatever jobs exist, wherever they may be and regardless of personal preferences or find themselves without any means of support; and foreigners are expected to come here as and when required to fill any gaps and then depart promptly when no longer required. It is a world view which sees people as ‘resources’ and values them solely in terms of their economic usefulness rather than individuals with needs of their own, and which sees government as a means of facilitating that. It is a deeply ideological mindset, based around serving the interests of the few rather than the many.

It’s not the only possible view of the world, though. Imagine an alternative which sees ‘the economy’ as existing to meet the needs of people, education as a means of allowing people to seek knowledge and personal fulfilment, and government as a means of managing the economy towards those ends. The success of capitalist ideology is that so few seem able to envisage that alternative – even the official party of opposition. Much of what has come out of the Labour Party’s conference this week is about trying to put a very slightly kinder edge on the application of the ideology rather than offering any sort of alternative to it. But the truth is that the economic system under which we live is a human construct which doesn’t have to operate as it does. Humans built it, humans control it, and humans can change it. Just not the humans currently in control.

Tuesday 28 September 2021

Promoting democracy?


There is a degree of poetic justice in the way in which a proposal to commit the Labour Party to supporting electoral reform was defeated yesterday. The votes of ordinary members (allegedly) were overruled by block votes cast by a handful of union bosses and leaders of other ‘affiliates’. It gets better (or worse, depending on your viewpoint); since an ordinary member can also be a member of a trade union and of one or more affiliated group, the same member can vote three or more times. There must be many ‘members’ of the Labour Party who ‘voted’ three times – probably once in favour and twice against, looking at the numbers (available here) – without ever having been asked for their opinion. A party which can operate its own affairs under such a flawed system, and justify retaining such a system, is not going to become a beacon for electoral reform.

This article yesterday (by an obviously Labour-supporting academic) set out some of the reasons for Labour’s persistent rejection of electoral reform. Ultimately, it seems to come down to the view that FPTP suits the Labour Party, and that there is no evidence that a system of PR would have made a Labour Government more likely. And it amounts to an admission that, as previously noted, the Labour Party would sooner allow the Tories to have absolute power for most of the time in exchange for Labour having an occasional turn, using an electoral system which encourages people to vote against the party they dislike most by voting for the only other one which stands a realistic chance of forming a government. The classic paragraph for me was this one:

“With the exception of the remarkable 1945 election, the British public have never voted in a majority for leftwing parties. Adding together the votes of Labour, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru at every other general election has never amounted to more than 50% of the vote. This is not to say that leftwing governments are impossible under PR, but there is virtually no evidence from British election history that more than 50% of British voters are prepared to vote for leftwing parties.”

It's an astonishing argument which amounts to saying that, because we can’t persuade enough people to support a left-wing programme (even supposing that we could call Labour’s programme ‘left-wing’, which is a whole other argument), we need an electoral system which allows us to impose such a programme based on a minority of votes. But is the underlying assumption – that under PR people would have voted for the same parties at every election as they did under FPTP – actually true? It seems to me unlikely; at the very least, freed of the pressure to choose between one of the ‘big two’ parties on the basis of which they hate least, and knowing that voting for their first choice party could no longer be described as a ‘wasted vote’, it is surely more likely that votes would be distributed rather differently. And that, in turn, might have had significant effects.

As an example of possible differences, even under FPTP, UKIP gained around 12.5% of the votes in the 2015 General Election. Had that been translated into seats, they would have held around 81 seats, a sizeable group in the Commons. And if people had believed that they could win, their vote might well have been higher. Had that happened, would the Conservative Party have fallen so heavily under the control of extreme Brexiteers, or would those extremists have remained more isolated in another parliamentary block? Would there even have been a referendum on the EU? Would their vote have collapsed in the following elections in the way in which it did? Engaging in ‘What If?’ is interesting, but ultimately a bit fruitless, other than to support the contention that the assumption that people would have voted the same way is unlikely to be valid.

The truth is that none of us can be certain what previous election results would have looked like under PR. Nor can we know what difference it will make to future election results. What we do know, however, is:

1.    It would be more likely that people would feel able to vote for their first choice party rather than vote for the party most likely to defeat the party they like the least, and

2.    The distribution of seats in parliament would more closely match the distribution of opinions amongst the electorate.

Arguing that securing a victory for ‘our’ party is more important than either of those outcomes is fundamentally undemocratic. But that’s where Labour now finds itself.

Monday 27 September 2021

Labour propose more austerity


The Labour leader’s lengthy essay has been widely attacked in Wales and Scotland for barely bothering to mention either country at all. It makes for good knock-about politics in Wales and Scotland, but it’s entirely to be expected from a politician who is increasingly turning into an English nationalist and wrapping himself in the union flag in an attempt to out-UKIP the Tory Party. Why wouldn’t someone like that instinctively believe that what’s good for England is good for England’s possessions as well?

The document has also been widely panned for being the vacuous cliché-ridden series of slogans which it undoubtedly is, but that unfairly gives the impression that it is somehow innocuous. It is not: in just a few choice phrases about ‘repairing the UK’s finances’, it reveals a continuing commitment to the misguided belief that the government’s finances are like those of a household, a commitment which necessarily implies both tax increases and spending cuts. It is, in short, a recipe for further austerity. As this article in yesterday’s Sunday Times makes clear (paywall), the Shadow Chancellor intends to set a wholly unnecessary ‘fiscal rule’ in order to deliver a balanced budget, something which only a combination of tax increases and spending cuts can deliver.

The problem with a slogan such as ‘repair the public finances’ is that it implies that those finances are currently ‘broken’ – after all, something which is working never needs repair. It might, though, need improvement so that it works better. And in the case of the public finances, there is certainly room for improvement in a tax/benefits/spending system which benefits the haves and punishes the have nots. Some of Labour’s more detailed proposals make sense in that context – for example, taxing extreme wealth in order to pursue a more distributive economic policy has a great deal to be said for it. It’s a proposal which can be justified on its own merits, however; it’s got nothing to do with repairing the public finances, and does not require a balanced budget.

The problem with Labour’s proposals the way they are currently being framed is that they effectively invite us to believe that Labour austerity is somehow better than Tory austerity, or that Labour will be better at delivering austerity. Those who seriously believe that austerity is necessary are unlikely to swallow either of those propositions; why wouldn’t they simply continue to vote for the real thing? The rest of us are left looking for an alternative view of how the economy should work and for whose benefit. Labour are very clearly telling us that, if that’s what we want, we shouldn’t be looking in their direction. That’s one thing at least that they’ve got right, albeit unintentionally.

Sunday 26 September 2021

Divide and rule suits the rulers, not the masses


Divide and rule is one of the oldest tricks in the book for ruling elites, at all times and in all places. And it’s working very well for the current government, facing a food / energy / fuel crisis. We should remember that:

·        it was the government which decided to opt for a form of Brexit which imposed wholly unnecessary barriers to trade and free movement with our nearest neighbours;

·        it was the government which decided, as part of that, to opt out of Europe-wide energy trading arrangements;

·        it was the government which decided, again as part of that process, to make it difficult for European truckers to pick up and transport loads within the UK as part of their return trip, therefore making such trips less financially viable;

·        it was the government which decided to create a ‘hostile environment’, encouraging EU workers to leave and deterring them from returning.

The current crises, in their entirety, are the direct result of decisions taken by a government which considered an ideologically pure form of Brexit to be worth the pain and disruption which it would cause. Yet, take a glance across social media, listen to daily conversations, and what do we see? Many people are blaming and criticising each other, not the government. Turning us against each other serves them well – and damages the interests of most of us. From the perspective of those who hold, and want to retain, power it must surely feel like an enormous success. The response which they fear most – of people coming together and building greater social solidarity – has been pushed further away than ever. When will we ever learn?

Saturday 25 September 2021

Creating unnecessary crises


One of the little life lessons which most of us learn at some point is that words and actions have consequences. As a topical example, when a government whose first response to anything is to lie tells us that there is no fuel shortage, the most rational response – perhaps the only logical response – is to act as though there is, and the resulting fuel crisis is thus a direct consequence of the government’s serial dishonesty over a lengthy period. Similarly, a government which sets out to create a ‘hostile environment’ and make it difficult for people to come and live and work in the UK should not be in the least surprised if making a partial U-turn and offering some of those foreign workers temporary and conditional visas for just as long as it suits our needs turns out to be a less than attractive offer for many (although that does not, of course, mean that they won’t express surprise in due course).

The underlying problem is that Johnson has never quite learned that little life lesson, or, rather, that what his experience has taught him is that the negative effects of his words and actions only impact other people. Ignoring, or even deliberately trampling over, the needs of others has served his interests rather well on the whole; those who keep expecting that he will change are being premature, to say the least. The conclusion that we are, therefore, doomed to lurch from one crisis to another for the foreseeable future is a gloomy one – it will end only when a sufficient number of Tory MPs conclude that his actions are endangering their seats. His party is historically known for having a majority who are fanatically loyal to its leaders until they aren't, at which point change is rapid and ruthless.

But that brings us to the real conundrum: that so many of those suffering as a direct result of his actions don’t seem able to make the connection between their own behaviour and its consequences either, and continue to believe him, justify his actions, and (according to the polls) vote for him. To give the man his due, persuading so many of the populace to act against their own interests, even when the consequences of their actions are obvious, is quite an achievement. It’s not one to be proud of, but that scarcely matters to a man for whom embarrassment and shame are only for lesser beings.

Thursday 23 September 2021

UK Labour is incapable of reforming democracy


The problems with any so-called ‘progressive alliance’ are many and varied, and have been discussed here before. There is, though, one worthwhile prize which could result from a temporary alliance in a single election for a short-lived government with no other major objective, and that is the sort of electoral reform which would end forever the UK’s system of giving absolute and almost unchallenged power to a single party on the basis of a minority of votes. The problem with that as a proposal is that, in realistic practical terms as politics stands today, such an alliance could only be led by the Labour Party, and the leadership of that party remains opposed, apparently implacably, to the sort of reform required.

It’s not that there’s no-one in the Labour Party who understands the need for such reform. Quite the opposite; there are a number who actively campaign for such a change and involve themselves in cross-party campaigns to that end. Their reasoning is, however, lost on the leadership. The leadership is willing, in effect, to allow the Tories untrammelled power for most of the time as long as Labour get their turn at the same sort of untrammelled power for some of the time. Coupled with a hopelessly over-optimistic assumption about the likelihood of them winning an election any time soon, and the usually implicit, sometimes explicit, but always arrogant, demand that any other non-Tory party should stand aside to allow Labour their crack at government, it’s a recipe for the semi-permanent Tory government which the English electorate are forcing not just onto England itself, but onto Wales and Scotland as well.

Those who think that Labour can be brought round to their way of thinking have only to look for a moment at yesterday’s proposals for reversing the Labour Party’s own internal democratic progress to take power back out of the hands of the ordinary members and give it instead to MPs and union bosses. Can anyone honestly believe that a man who could seriously propose such a reversal of democratic progress is the man who is going to lead an electoral alliance aimed at electoral reform for the UK as a whole? It’s utterly unbelievable. Those who want us to cling to the wreckage of the UK in the hope of a reforming Labour government at some unspecified future date do us no favours; they merely condemn us to more of the same. Wales, like Scotland, has an alternative path open to us, should we decide to take it, which would enable us to create a system in which we get a government by people we vote for, not just on an occasional basis, but every time. We need to have faith in ourselves rather than others, and take that path.

Wednesday 22 September 2021

Living down to the words of Bevan


In the past few days, in the wake of problems with energy supplies and food, ministers have been almost falling over themselves to assure us that the lights will not be going out this winter, Christmas will not be cancelled, and that talk of a three day week is ‘alarmist and misguided’. Given their track record to date of predicting the consequences of their actions and delivering on promises made, the safest assumption is probably that all three are near certainties, and that the main question is whether they’ll happen in series or in parallel. One might almost think that they’re going out of their way to live down to the accusation made against them by Nye Bevan all those years ago. Lest anyone jump to the wrong conclusion, I’m not talking about them being lower than vermin (although judging by some of their actions, they could well be going for justifying that one as well). No, the one that I’m referring to here is the accusation that they are organising geniuses, an accusation which, in context, was far from being the compliment which the words suggest it to be.

Monday 20 September 2021

What are they diverting attention from?


It was a little over 50 years ago that the UK switched from pounds, shillings and pence to the new decimal currency. I have a vivid memory of the time shortly before the change when my grandmother and her sister were sitting in front of the fire bemoaning the fact. “Why do they have to do this now?,” said one, “Why couldn’t they wait until all we oldies had died out?”. I suspect that many of that generation, if they were still with us today, would happily vote for the return of what was, to them, the familiar money of the time – there is something in all of us which finds comfort in the familiar. And there’s never a ‘right’ time for everyone for making such a change.

Those of my generation were taught measurements primarily in imperial measures. Although metric units were also introduced in schools alongside imperial measures in the 1960s, my A levels in Physics and Maths in 1970 still used mostly imperial measurements. One random result of that education is that I know that acceleration due to gravity is 32ft/s2 but would need to look up the metric equivalent. It’s easy to see how, for many older people, a return to feet and inches, or pounds and ounces, might be attractive. It’s ‘only’ since 1974 that metric units became the prime system taught in schools, bringing the UK into line with most of the rest of the world. That word ‘only’ is doing a lot of work, though. What it means in practice is that around 70% of the population have been taught only, or primarily, metric measurements, and that those feeling some sort of nostalgia for what went before are likely to be over 60 years old.

By sheer coincidence (or maybe not!) that is exactly the demographic most likely to vote Conservative (and of course to support Brexit). And that is enough in itself to explain the otherwise perverse decision taken last week by Boris Johnson to allow traders and others to use solely imperial measurements. I don’t doubt that the very word ‘imperial’ also has its attractions to them, along with the symbolic rejection of a foreign, European, way of measuring things. They should beware, however, of following simple demographics. Whilst it’s true that older people are more likely to vote Conservative, it doesn’t follow that people somehow turn Tory as they age. As each cohort ages, what they feel nostalgia for is likely to be what was prevalent when they were young. There is a danger that they are hitching their populist bandwagon to what is, by definition, a short-lived electoral cohort.

In more practical terms, why on earth would any manufacturer or trader want to sell his or her wares solely in imperial units when they can already use both if they wish? Certainly, it makes no sense at all for anyone expecting to export, especially to Europe. And with 70% of their customer base likely to be more familiar with metric than imperial measures, selling in units with which those customers are unfamiliar doesn’t look like a good business decision even for those selling only into the domestic market. Maybe a few older market traders whose customer base is made up largely of people of a similar age might want to take advantage of their new ‘freedom’, but they, too, are traders not likely to be in business for much longer, for the same demographic reasons.

It is, ultimately, little more than a gimmick, a stunt, aimed at appealing to nostalgia and that sense of exceptionalism which characterises English nationalists. Like blue passports, it’s a headline-grabbing diversion from reality. We should pay more attention to those things from which they are trying to divert our attention with such pointless gimmicks.

Thursday 16 September 2021

Nothing to see here


The Guardian describes yesterday’s cabinet reshuffle by Johnson as being “ruthless”. The PM himself will probably be pleased with that description, but a reshuffle in which the majority of ministers remain exactly where they started, and in which one demotee, Raab, had to be bought off by bestowing on him the utterly meaningless title of Deputy Prime Minister looks, in practice, to be anything but ruthless. In any event, being ruthless requires being decisive, even if only decisively wrong, and decisive is not an adjective which many would apply to the PM.

Many years ago, Theresa May described her party as “the nasty party”. I always thought that she intended it as a criticism, a warning that the party needed to change, but Johnson, ever keen to be seen as the opposite of whatever went before him, seems to see it more as a blueprint for action. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, who enjoys a justifiably unchallenged lead as the nastiest of the bunch, retains her position with the PM heaping praise on her and egging her on to become even nastier, and both the Chancellor and the Work and Pensions Minister, determined to press ahead with their policy of further impoverishing the poorest are also retained in post. Meanwhile, one of the least offensive ministers, Robert Buckland, was removed, apparently for not being nasty enough (although it may just have been, as John Crace suggests, that Johnson either confused his Roberts or simply needed a convenient vacancy to which he could demote Raab).

Closer to home, there were those who expected the Secretary of State for Wales to be amongst the casualties, but he has been described as having clung on to his post. The reasons for his survival are unclear. Perhaps he is nastier than he appears to be (that’s almost a compliment of a sort). Then again, maybe Johnson was unable to find a Welsh Tory MP who he considers even nastier to replace him. But the likeliest explanation is that Johnson has simply forgotten that he’s there; Wales isn’t exactly at the top of his list of priorities.

Overall, this ‘ruthless’ reshuffle looks more like a case of ‘no change’ than ‘all change’. The one possible exception is that the new Foreign Secretary might try and use her position to cut down on cheese imports, although whether the Brexit Secretary needs anyone else's help to cut off the flow of food to the UK is an open question.

Tuesday 14 September 2021

The teacher can only do half the job


One of the interesting quirks of the Welsh language for learners is that we use the same word – dysgu – to mean both teaching and learning. Knowing which would be the correct translation depends entirely on sentence construction and context. I remember my Welsh teacher in secondary school explaining it in terms something along the lines of Welsh seeing it as a single process of two equal parts performed jointly rather than the English view of two separate processes performed by two different parties. I was never entirely sure of that ‘explanation’; the way languages use and adopt words is rarely, if ever, as thought-out and planned as that suggests; it just happens.

Anyway, what brought it to mind today was this story about the death of the PM’s mother. It quotes the PM talking about his mother in a conference speech in 2019 in which Johnson said his mother had taught him “the equal importance, the equal dignity, the equal worth of every human being on the planet”. I’m certain that she tried and played her part in the one half of the process, the teaching. But I can see nothing in the subsequent life of her child which shows any evidence that the second half of the process, the learning, ever occurred. Quite the opposite – he gives every impression of believing that no-one else, whether family, acquaintance, or complete stranger can ever be the equal of himself, that no foreigner can ever be the equal of a white Brit and that no-one can ever be as important as he. I’m sure that his mother did her best with him, but perhaps my old Welsh teacher had it right all along – teaching without learning is only half of what’s needed.

Monday 13 September 2021

It's not a care plan at all


According to one analysis of the so-called ‘Social Care Plan’ unveiled by Boris Johnson last week, around 70,000 people will die waiting for social care before the lifetime cap on costs of £86,000 comes into force. It’s a headline figure which the Labour Party have seized on to attack the plans, but it seems to be missing the point. It’s not at all clear how introducing the cap earlier would make any difference at all to the numbers waiting for or receiving care – if the cap were to be introduced tomorrow, for instance, instead of waiting until 2023, would any of those 70,000 somehow magically start to receive the care they need?

The real criticism of Johnson’s ‘plan’ is that it isn’t a plan for social care at all. It seems to propose no changes to the way social care is provided or to the quality of that care, merely to the way it is funded. It is a ‘plan’, in short, to raise more revenue for the government and to protect inheritances, especially of the wealthiest, but it does nothing to increase or improve the provision of care, let alone fill the huge gap in the number of carers, a gap which the government’s core policy, Brexit, has served only to widen.

The Labour Party are right to draw attention to the fact that even the financing changes are effectively postponed for years whilst the extra cash is poured into the NHS, but they seem to have allowed themselves to fall into the trap of debating primarily the financing of care rather than how provision is to be improved or increased. An opposition which was prepared for the announcement (and, after all, Johnson has been saying for two years that he had a plan ready; opposition parties have no excuse) would have been ready with some sort of response around how they would deal with the real issues which face many families seeking care for family members. For sure, making quality care affordable for all is part of that, but it’s far from being the totality of it. Treating it, first and foremost, as simply a funding issue is handling the issue on Tory terms, where everything is about money rather than people.

Friday 10 September 2021

Enhancing his reputation


Some unkind souls reading this story yesterday (“Boris Johnson stakes reputation on £12bn fix for health and social care”) might have been asking themselves what reputation the PM has left to stake on the outcome of anything. That is, though, to take a very narrow view of the meaning of the word ‘reputation’. If we consider the PM’s reputation to be one of bluster, mendacity, indecision and incompetence, there can surely be little doubt that it will emerge as unscathed from what he misleading chooses to call his social care plan as it has from everything else he’s touched in life. Indeed, it will probably even be enhanced.

Thursday 9 September 2021

Small steps and giant leaps


During its conference, which starts tomorrow, the SNP is due to debate the issue of Trident and the removal of nuclear weapons from Scotland within three years after independence. There is little doubt that the party will reaffirm its opposition to allowing the weapons to remain on the territory of an independent Scotland. Amongst the ‘solutions’ apparently being considered by London is that if Scotland is ‘granted’ its independence, it will be on condition that part of the country is carved out and remains part of rUK (or Greater England to give it a more appropriate title) as some sort of ‘overseas possession’. The fact that anyone could even consider for a moment that independence is theirs to ‘grant’ or that they have some right to retain any part of Scotland that they choose demonstrates that, deep down, many of those in charge in London really do see Scotland (and by extension, Wales) as a possession rather than a partner.

One of Labour’s senior MSPs at Holyrood has attacked the SNP’s proposals, pointing out that moving weapons from Scotland to England (Wales, thankfully, having now been ruled out) does nothing for nuclear disarmament; the same number of weapons would still exist, just in a different location. She has a point, although it would be reasonable also to point out that her party’s position – leaving the weapons where they are – isn’t exactly a major step towards disarmament either. A more valid criticism of the SNP would be that, having reversed its previous policy on NATO a few years ago and decided that an SNP-led Scotland would join NATO after all, there is a degree of hypocrisy in being part of a nuclear-armed alliance with a collective policy of being ready to use nuclear weapons whilst refusing to have them stationed on its soil. That wouldn’t make Scotland unique, of course; there are plenty of other NATO members who neither possess nuclear weapons nor are willing to host them.

There are some serious questions to be asked about whether NATO really is a nuclear-armed alliance or not. Whilst three member states possess nuclear weapons, the French arsenal is excluded from the NATO command structure, and there have long been doubts as to whether the UK missiles (which are only leased from the US) could ever be launched without US agreement. In theory, ‘NATO’ could launch a nuclear strike, but in practice, any decision would be taken in Washington, not at NATO HQ. And NATO’s whole pretence of being a nuclear-armed alliance, as well as the concept of deterrence in mainland Europe, depends on an assumption that the US would be prepared to engage in all-out nuclear war in the event of an otherwise unstoppable incursion into another NATO member state. That is no more credible under Biden than it was under Trump. Whether such a debunking of NATO’s status as a nuclear alliance is enough ‘cover’ to excuse the SNP’s decision to join NATO is a matter of opinion. I don’t find it so, and remain deeply disappointed by the SNP’s move away from the sort of defence posture followed by the Republic of Ireland, which looks to me a far better model for an independent Scotland (or Wales).

Does that mean that the SNP’s stance on closure of the base at Faslane is little more than gesture politics, at the expense of Scottish jobs, as Labour’s Baillie suggests? I think not. Whilst I’d like to believe that being forced to build a new base in Greater England might encourage a future Greater England government to think again about whether and why it should retain nuclear weapons, I suspect that’s just a pipe dream on my part. There seems little prospect that they will ever abandon their delusions of power and greatness, and the need to wave their missiles around is fundamental to that. But there is nevertheless a sense in which Baillie is wrong. Whilst it’s true that a single decision by one small country like Scotland has little effect overall, disarmament is necessarily a step by step process, and some of those steps will be very small. Labour’s argument that Scotland should do nothing is tantamount to arguing that no country should do anything; it’s a recipe for making no progress at all. And to misquote Neil Armstrong, even if it’s a tiny step for the world, it’s a giant leap for Scotland; it’s the biggest single thing that they can do to promote the idea of ridding the world of the scourge of nuclear weapons. I’m sure that the SNP will get this one right this weekend.

Wednesday 8 September 2021

Which 'crisis' are they really trying to solve?


In the light of yesterday’s announcement of a hike in National Insurance contributions, some have claimed that this is an example of what they call ‘intergenerational unfairness’, since it means that those in work are paying for the care of retirees. Indeed, even some Labour figures are echoing the same line. This is, though, to misunderstand the way NI works. It has always been the case that people in work pay in during their working years to support today’s retirees, on the understanding that tomorrow’s workers would support them in the same way. That’s the deal, the contract; it’s why people say with legitimacy that they’ve ‘paid in all their lives’ and are now entitled to the benefits which were promised to them. That’s the way NI has always worked. It’s not a bug, nor a problem; it’s a feature. It’s the way it was designed to work. It only becomes a matter of ‘intergenerational unfairness’ if someone suggests that the contract will be broken, and that those paying in today will not receive the benefits when their turn comes.

Whether it’s the right way or the best way of doing things is another matter entirely. It’s always been actuarially unsound in that the money paid in has never been put aside to pay future benefits, but is instead simply added to the general tax take and spent as the government wishes. But that doesn’t matter: as long as the government stands by the promise to pay, the scheme remains sustainable. The problem arises when a government wants to renege on the promises made by its predecessors (or in the case of Boris Johnson, even those it made itself) and avoid providing the promised benefits for which people were led to believe that they had spent up to 50 years contributing. Whether honouring that promise, that contract between the state and its citizens, depends on tax rises or not depends on a number of factors, and those factors vary over time. They also vary according to ideology. But let us accept, for the sake of argument, that increasing longevity coupled with increasing needs for care means that the government needs to raise taxes in some form to meet the costs: what is the best and fairest way to do that?

One of the problems with NI is that it is not a progressive tax; higher earners pay proportionately less than lower earners. Adding a levy to income tax would be a far more progressive way of achieving the same thing. (A tax on wealth would be another.) The government seems to have shied away from that option for two reasons. The first is that their focus groups and opinion polls have told them that it will be easier to ‘sell’ a hike in NI than an income tax hike, particularly if people can be persuaded that the money is going to a specific purpose of which they approve. (It isn’t, of course: it’s just going to be added to general government revenue, and after the first year, any relationship between the size of the levy and the spend in the relevant area will be entirely arbitrary.) The second is that, because employers’ NI is also being increased, the amount of the increase appearing on payslips as an additional deduction will look lower for NI than it would for income tax. This does, of course, assume that people will not understand the relationship between increased employers’ NI on the one hand and price increases and reduced wage increases on the other; any increase in taxation on businesses will eventually come out of the pockets of the employees and customers. Sadly, it’s probably an accurate assumption on the part of the government.

The bigger problem with yesterday’s announcement is that the crisis that it is intended to solve isn’t the one that the government says it is. One has only to consider who the real beneficiaries are to realise that. By and large, those who will benefit from steps taken to avoid the need for the elderly moving into care to sell their home to pay for it aren’t those elderly people themselves, but those who stand to inherit those homes on the deaths of the owners. (There are, of course, exceptions to that, such as situations where one or more of those caring for an individual live in the same home and have no other, but that isn’t the most usual situation.) What that means is that the main beneficiaries from any policy designed to avoid having to sell houses to pay for care tend to be middle-aged; and the wealthier their parents are, the more they stand to gain. The crisis being solved here isn’t the crisis of paying for care, it is the ‘crisis’ of largely Tory voters (not to say donors) facing the loss (or attrition in the value) of the inheritance which they see as being rightly theirs. Professor Richard Murphy put that in stark terms this morning: Yesterday’s tax plans were all about capturing tax revenues for private gain to the wealthy at cost to working people”.

We do face a care crisis; quality care in later life is increasingly out of reach for far too many people. The causes of that are many and varied, but they are certainly not helped by a government which has deliberately reduced the availability of carers, and a succession of governments which have attempted to privatise and cut spending. The economic story of recent decades has been about the increasing transfer of wealth from the many to the few; paying properly for care depends on reversing that process, not promoting it. The UK, as one of the world’s richest countries, has the resources to provide proper quality care for all those who need it, but has chosen not to. Nothing in yesterday’s announcement comes near to the fundamental change of approach which is needed. It might, though, benefit the Tories financially and electorally, despite the crocodile tears of some of their MPs.

Monday 6 September 2021

Falling bridges


It is not entirely unreasonable for someone to be making plans for the death of a 95 year old woman, particularly if that woman just happens to be the head of state. And whatever one might think about the way in which the UK’s head of state is chosen, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that the various parliaments within the UK might decide, when the death is announced, that they will suspend their deliberations for a period as a mark of respect. It seems, though, according to the plans leaked last week, that it will not be up to them; it has already been decided by someone in London that that will happen without waiting for those parliaments to decide for themselves. The exquisitely Ruritanian exception, apparently, is that in the event that the UK Parliament finds itself in recess at the time, it will be recalled in order to adjourn itself. It has also already been decided that on the seventh day after the death, the Senedd will pass a motion of condolence and the new king will travel to Cardiff to receive it. Whether any of the elected members have any say on any of this is a question answered only by the fact that no other possibility seems to have been considered. However reasonable the proposed actions might be in themselves, there seems to be a certain detachment from the idea of democracy here.

In order that no-one eavesdropping on any Prime Ministerial conversations understands what has happened in the few minutes before an official newsflash makes the actual public announcement, the PM will be given the message in code, being told merely that “London Bridge is down”. Presumably, now that this particular code has been broadcast to the world, the civil servants will have to come up with a new code phrase instead. How can they choose a suitable phrase allowing the secret to be maintained for a whole ten minutes - and, more relevantly, why on earth does anyone think that it needs to be?

My favourite bit of all, though, came in the Guardian’s report on the same story which tells us that one of the big concerns of those writing the plans is the “potential for public anger if Downing Street cannot lower its flags to half-mast within 10 minutes of the announcement since there is no ‘flag officer’”. Perhaps I’m underestimating the degree to which the reality at the time will match the pre-scripted outpouring of official grief, but I’m struggling to believe that people will take to the streets (or even just write cross letters to the newspapers) protesting at the absence of a designated flag-lowering person in Downing Street if it means that a whole eleven minutes passes between the announcement and the lowering of the flag. Or could it just possibly be that those drawing up the plans have ever-so-slightly lost the plot?