Tuesday 30 November 2021



In his farewell speech to Barbados, Charlie Windsor said that “the creation of this republic offers a new beginning”. He’s right, of course. We can only hope that the idea catches on – there are a few monarchical states a lot closer to home that could do with just such a new beginning.

Monday 29 November 2021

Which crisis is the most important?


During the Cold War, the boundary across Germany between East and West was heavily policed on both sides, nowhere more so than in Berlin itself. Border police regularly detained people trying to cross into their respective zones. As far as I’m aware, though, only on one side of the border were people regularly shot for trying to get out rather than in. Most borders, and the policing of them, are about keeping people out; borders which have the equal objective of keeping people in are comparatively rare. They are generally associated with authoritarian regimes, fearful that – given the opportunity – their people would seek to move elsewhere en masse.

Listening to Patel and Johnson, it appears that they want the French to police their borders much as the East Germans used to do, ensuring not only that no-one can get in without permission, but also that no-one can leave without consent. One even has the impression that they wouldn’t mind a great deal if the French border police went further and emulated the East German practice of shooting people. They probably think it would win them votes, and they might, sadly, even be right about that. But it isn’t the way modern European states work. Most European states – a paranoid UK being the most obvious exception – have spent decades trying to improve freedom of movement and remove barriers, not erect them. French border controls – just like those in the UK, as it happens – are designed to prevent entry rather than exit. And whilst people smuggling is illegal in France, as it is in the UK, no-one should be at all surprised if the reality on the ground isn’t quite as simple as Patel says it is (very little is as she says it is). Not all the people are being smuggled, some desperate families are simply clubbing together to buy boats. There is, ultimately, nothing illegal about a group of people setting off in a boat from a French beach; adding British border force agents to those patrolling the beaches would do nothing to alter that, even if the suggestion were not a gross insult to France. Unlike the UK government, the French government still seems to have at least a vestigial grip on the idea of applying the rule of law rather than acting out of prejudice, malice and self-interest.

Last week, in the wake of a mass drowning which was inevitably going to happen at some point, the PM convened a crisis meeting of Cobra. It was, though, addressing the wrong crisis. Many of us would have thought that the real crisis here is the desperation (just how desperate does a parent have to be to take small children on such a perilous crossing?) of so many people fleeing war, oppression, hunger and poverty in search of a better life. For Johnson, the crisis is that the drownings aren’t acting as a sufficient deterrent, and that the extremists in his party, egged on by a vicious and callous media, are demanding further action to stop refugees from arriving on these shores, even if that means taking deliberate action, of dubious legality, which will lead to more deaths.

As Simon Jenkins pointed out last week, many of those seeking to come to the UK in dinghies have the training, skills and experience which the UK economy desperately needs. There is an obvious insanity about spending so much time and effort in turning away people who could be filling the gaps, simply in order to play to prejudice about ‘others’. It’s the result of a desire to gain and retain power by whipping up and then appealing to people’s darkest instincts, even if it means tanking the economy in the process. And that, perhaps, is the biggest crisis of all that we face: we have a government incapable of feeling, let alone displaying, empathy or humanity and no immediate way of changing it. Worse still, the English electorate is, apparently, happy to go along with this.

Friday 26 November 2021

Moving towards a new norm?


A few days ago, the Welsh branch of the Conservative and Unionist Party blasted the agreement between Labour and Plaid as a “move towards Welsh independence”. I can’t have been the only independentista to read the report and sigh, “If only!”. The rather, how shall I put it, ‘overblown’ claim from Plaid’s leader that this is some sort of “down-payment on independence” can only have added to the Tories’ sense of outrage, a sense which is easily triggered, and seems to have only two settings – extremely high and totally over the top. In reality, of course, the content of the agreement in itself has little or nothing to do with independence, and will advance it not a jot.

There may be another sense, however, in which it is indeed a step along the road, and that is not about the content but about the very fact of the agreement’s existence. It marks a move, initiated by Labour on this occasion in circumstances where some might consider that it wasn’t entirely necessary, to a more mature politics in Wales, one which recognises that in a proportional system (soon to become more proportional, hopefully, as a result of the agreement, although it’s yet to be seen how far Labour will move in practice towards STV), absolute majorities of seats without absolute majorities of votes are at best unlikely, and that some form of co-operation between parties needs to become the norm. Whilst the Tories (and the London leadership of the Labour Party) are stuck in the name-calling ‘we can never work with *separatists / *socialists / *Tories’ (*delete according to your own prejudices) mode of politics, Welsh Labour and Plaid have shown a willingness to move towards the much more European style of politics where post-electoral negotiations and agreements are the mark of a normal grown-up democracy. As Cynog Dafis has pointed out, the idea that everything in the agreement might be delivered in a single three year period is unlikely, underlining the fact that co-operation needs to be seen as a long term norm rather than a one-off fix. It is in that sense of building in more maturity that it might indeed be a step along the road to strengthening the powers of the Senedd and a step further down the long road to independence. The Tories might be slightly right, even if for completely the wrong reason.

It is a pity that both parties (Plaid having been more guilty than Labour on this score) went into the election denying any intention of coming to any agreement with anyone, each party pretending that it could end up forming a government with an overall majority all by itself. The shadow cast by the First Past The Post electoral system used for Westminster elections is a long and dark one. Coming to an agreement after the event can (and will) then be presented by opponents as some sort of U-turn, no matter how the proponents try to finesse the wording. Unfortunately, it looks as though it may yet take some time for the media (and the parties) to understand that the new norm makes trying to rule things out, absolutely, in advance a somewhat silly approach, and that they need, instead, to help the wider public understand the probable outcomes and consequences of proportional voting systems. Obsessing in advance about the precise implications of any particular post-election agreement is unhelpful, because it’s nigh-on impossible to accurately second-guess the outcome of any election and it’s a diversion from a proper examination of the programmes of the respective parties.

The fact that some sort of post-electoral agreement ought to become the accepted norm does not, of course, mean that any particular agreement is necessarily the right thing to do at the right time. My own scepticism in 2007 about both the One Wales agreement and the aborted All Wales Accord was on the details, not the principle. It is entirely to be expected that members of both parties should hold differing views on the detail and be debating those differences. Whilst the current agreement includes a lot of policies which will be acceptable to both Labour and Plaid members and supporters, the degree to which it will be a ‘success’ is hard to prejudge. The detail of the small print in an agreement – to say nothing of the things that aren’t written anywhere – will always leave plenty of scope for disagreement and disappointment in one party or the other. By way of example, one of the biggest running sores within Plaid over the One Wales agreement was over student fees, and it wasn’t because of what the agreement did say (no increase for three years), but because of what it didn’t say (what happens in year four?).

It’s a bold political move for Mark Drakeford and Labour, and a pragmatic one for Adam Price and Plaid. Only history will tell us whether, and to what extent, it actually takes Wales forward.

Thursday 25 November 2021

Controlling the parameters


One of the great successes of the Tories in recent years – since the days of Thatcher, effectively – is that they’ve managed to persuade people that the government’s finances should be treated in exactly the same way as a household’s finances. It’s absolute nonsense, of course, but it has established the perimeters of political debate for other parties.  They feel obliged to follow the Tories’ example of setting a ‘fiscal rule’ for government spending, and Labour is this week reiterating its own commitment to that ideological viewpoint.

In practice, I don’t think that the Tories have ever stuck to any rule that they’ve laid down. The rule is for show, not for obeying. In economic terms, they don’t need to abide by the rule, and they know it. For them, aided and abetted by their friends in the media, the main purpose of the rule they so carefully lay out isn’t to constrain their own actions so much as to put limits on the ambitions of any opposition parties. And that’s where we see the real extent of their success: they’ve managed to hamstring the main opposition party into declaring it will follow a set of rules which the Tories themselves never follow, and thereby make it harder to propose radical alternatives. 

The Tories have effectively seized control of the parameters of the Overton window of political debate. An opposition party which was serious about wanting change would never allow itself to be suckered in such a way; fortunately for the Tories, their main opposition party doesn’t meet that criterion. The result is a Labour Party which is, without spelling it out, more committed to following the fiscal policy which led to austerity than the government itself.

Wednesday 24 November 2021

Letting people determine their own future


The British Labour Party has long suffered from a blind spot when it comes to the idea of national liberation. They have been enthusiastic supporters of the concept across the whole of the former Empire, arguing that it is for the people of the former colonies and possessions to determine their own future. But when it comes to England’s earliest possessions and conquests, here within the UK itself, their position is rather different. They’ve never quite been able to make up their minds about where Ireland fits in all this, though. Whilst Corbyn was a committed supporter of a united Ireland, Starmer has made it clear that he takes a much more unionist position and would campaign for the continuation of partition in the event of a border poll.

Whether that it the position of everyone in his party is another question – his shadow Northern Ireland Secretary said yesterday that the British Government should remain neutral on the question if a poll were to be called. As she put it, “It is only for the people of Northern Ireland to determine their own constitutional future”. It’s a sound principle, and logically it has more general application. I never understood how Corbyn could be such a strong supporter of a free united Ireland and still be such a strong opponent of Scottish or Welsh independence, and by the same token, I don’t understand how Labour can argue that the future constitutional position of Northern Ireland is entirely a matter for the people there to determine without interference from London, but the future constitutional position of Wales and Scotland is very much a matter for the London parties and the UK government to take a view on.

It might be argued that the ‘situation’ (a euphemism for decades of violence) in Northern Ireland is different, but there’s a danger in taking that view of indicating that, in some sense, violence pays. Another difference is that the British Labour Party organises and contests elections in Wales and Scotland, whereas it does not do so in Northern Ireland; that  would make it reasonable for the branch offices in Wales and Scotland to take a view and campaign on one side or the other, but it’s not much of a justification for the UK government or the English Labour Party to get involved. Doing so goes directly against the sound principle that the Shadow Secretary outlined yesterday. Still, no one should really expect the thinking of the Labour and Unionist Party to be any more logical, or any less muddled, than that of the Conservative and Unionist Party. Unionism always somehow trumps logic.

Tuesday 23 November 2021

They weren't supposed to take him seriously


It seems as though the PM is finding some of his backbenchers increasingly restless over what he has labelled as his ‘social care plan’. In reality, it is no such thing – it does nothing at all to address the current gaps and failings in social care. It is, in fact, more of an inheritance protection plan, targeted in particular at the wealthiest in society. Under his plan, those who have least stand to lose it all if they need social care, whilst those who have the most will lose just a small part of their accumulated wealth. And the main beneficiaries will be the adult children of the most well-off in the richest part of the UK, namely the south east of England.

It’s easy enough to see many opponents are unhappy with the proposal, but I can understand why the PM might be puzzled by the opposition coming from within his own party. After all, isn’t protecting the wealth of the richest what Tories do? What else are they for? The problem for his whingeing minority is that they were silly enough to stand for election – and win – in constituencies where there are many fewer wealthy people, and to do so on the back of a very unconservative promise (and one of the many which the PM never had any intention of actually doing anything about) to ‘level up’ the country. It’s a promise which, if it meant anything at all, could only ever have been achieved by spreading wealth more evenly.

It’s a sort of ‘Brexit bonus’ in reverse for the PM; having purged the traditional Conservatives from his party prior to the 2019 election and replaced them with people for whom the only thing that mattered was Brexit, he now finds himself leading a party many of whose MPs aren’t even proper Tories, and don’t understand that their sole mission in life is to protect the wealth of the wealthiest. Whilst it’s true that they were supposed to convince the less wealthy electors in their constituencies that they would look after them as well, they were never supposed to believe it themselves. Johnson himself probably can’t even begin to understand what’s going wrong for him. After all, someone who doesn’t believe a word of what he says himself must find it very strange to discover that anyone else might take him seriously.

Monday 22 November 2021

Following the headlines


Apparently, Boris Johnson is so exasperated with the continued flow of migrants across the channel from France that addressing the issue has been elevated to his top priority, eclipsing the Covid pandemic. Many might think that the arrival of a few thousand refugees is actually a fairly minor problem for a rich country, particularly when the government is actively pursuing policies which are leading to 1,000 premature deaths every week. The reaction, however, is driven by headlines and the pursuit of votes, not by logic and certainly not by compassion.

His ministers and backbenchers are coming up with ever more drastic ‘solutions’ to the problem, including exporting all new arrivals to Albania for processing. It seems no-one actually bothered to seek permission from the Albanians before leaking the proposal, but then they probably just assumed that, as a small country, Albania should know its place and do as it is told. Others have floated the idea of sending refugees to the Falklands for processing, presumably in the belief that being sent to an internment camp on a cold small island with inadequate facilities will act as a deterrent. There is, of course, a question as to whether any of this is allowed under international law, but post-Brexit, international law no longer applies to the UK, or so the government seem to believe.

The Home Secretary is blaming the EU (of course – we all know that everything is the fault of the EU); in this case for not having internal borders between countries, and allowing people within the EU to travel freely across the continent. How dare they! I can’t help thinking that this is a woman who, if she thought she could get away with it, would be demanding controls on movement at county level across the UK in order to stop migrants arriving in Kent from getting to London, let alone further afield.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party – this ‘progressive’ party which wants all non-Tories to unite behind it – can only manage to criticise the government for not doing more to stop migrants from arriving. That’s right – faced with a vicious government doing everything it can to prevent refugees from fleeing persecution, war, and hunger, and risking their lives and those of their children in the process, the ‘opposition’ can only demand even tougher action. Shameful is an inadequate word to describe Labour’s response. Labour, like the Tories, are being driven by headline stories in the mass media which the supporters of both consume on a daily basis. Neither is interested in what’s right or wrong; neither has any concern for the human tragedies involved. They both believe that being seen to be tough on refugees will gain support, or at least bolster their support, amongst their target groups of electors. The most depressing part of all is that they may well be right.

Friday 19 November 2021

Not being special


It has long seemed to me that the principal unionist argument against independence for Wales – that we are too poor to be independent and too stupid to change that – is ultimately self-defeating. It inevitably invites the question: if the result of 500 years of union with England is that Wales is too poor to run its affairs, and according to unionists will always be so, in what sense has the union been a good thing? It’s impossible to pretend that the current economic situation of Wales is nothing at all to do with the way in which we have been governed for five centuries.

In that sense, Gove’s admission yesterday that “of course [Wales] could [thrive as a independent nation]” is a significant step away from telling us that we could not, and is a much more honest assessment. A positive case for the union could then be built on the claim that even if we could thrive as an independent nation, there are other reasons to make a positive choice to remain part of the UK. The problem for Gove is that he is completely incapable of finding and articulating those reasons. He’s not alone in that, which I guess is why most unionists fear to even dabble with admitting that Wales could be a successful independent country.

The only benefit he adduces is that “…the United Kingdom is the single most successful state in the world”. The evidence to back up that assertion is notable only by its absence. What does ‘successful’ actually mean? A middle-ranking military power, an economy which is not particularly exceptional, an empire forced into retreat, an unspectacular offshore European state – that’s the reality. It’s not even as if the UK is a particularly long-lived state – it’s existed in its current form and in its current borders for barely a century, and there are plenty of states which have been around much longer than that. Any appeal to history claiming longevity and continuity is inevitably based on the never-stated assumption that England is an ancient state, but has merely adopted different form and borders over the centuries – not an assumption likely to convince many outside the borders of England. But then, jingoistic nationalists like Gove don’t need ‘evidence’; they simply ‘know’ that their country is the bestest and most successful of all time simply because it is.

Although he can’t explain what he means by ‘successful’, he does set out why (in his opinion) it has become so successful. As he puts it: “We have the most diverse cabinet, the most diverse parliament, the most diverse leadership in all public institutions of any developed democracy and we have that because we are a multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-ethnic state, that shares attachment to the rule of law, to respect for property rights, to democracy, equality and decency”.

There’s so much wrong with that statement that it’s difficult to know where to start. Let’s just take one indicator of diversity, gender. House of Lords 28%; House of Commons 34%; Cabinet 26%. Unless we define none of the 38 countries above the UK in this list as being ‘developed democracies’, then his statement is demonstrable nonsense. And anyone looking at most of the public institutions in the UK would see an obvious predominance of white males which in no way reflects the overall population. Then, how about “… attachment to the rule of law, … to democracy, equality and decency”? For anyone who has paid any attention at all to what the current government has been doing, that is simply risible. Yet he manages to say it with a straight face – he’s taking us all for fools.

Like most Anglo-British nationalists, he starts from the absolute and firm conviction that the UK is the very best, most special country in the whole world, and closes his eyes and mind to any suggestions, let alone facts, to the contrary. In fairness, that belief that one’s country is in some ways ‘better’ than all others isn’t restricted simply to nationalists of the Anglo-British variety, even if that particular group seem to have caught the bug in one of its most virulent forms. It’s one of the reasons that I prefer the term independentista to nationalist. I don’t want Wales to make any claim to being better than anywhere else, I simply want Wales to be a normal country, at peace with its own abilities and limitations. A country which is good at some things and less good at others, and accepts that. A country which seeks to co-operate with others rather than dominate them or demand special treatment. A country which sets out to be a good world citizen rather than a bully, buccaneer or pirate. A country which honours its international commitments rather than tears them up. A country which treats all people as human beings rather than dividing the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ and demonising the poorest.

At one level, that doesn’t look like much of an ambition, but it’s actually a greater and more honourable ambition than someone like Gove could ever understand. And it’s only achievable by ridding Wales of the influence of the Goves of this world once and for all.

Thursday 18 November 2021

Looking for the simplest explanation


As is customary and expected with any sudden change of course by the PM, he has failed to think through the implications of his attempt to undermine Labour by proposing some tinkering with the rules on outside earnings by MPs. The Guardian has pointed out that, of all the MPs who have second jobs, only around 10 would be impacted by the changes which the PM has proposed. Once again, appearances have been given more prominence than substance and, once again, his words fall apart as soon as they are subjected to any analysis.

His words in describing the case of Owen Paterson as “a sad case” in which Paterson “had fallen foul of the rules” as though it was some sort of accidental transgression suggest that he still does not understand quite how egregious Paterson’s actions were. As additional evidence for that conclusion, the Guardian points out that his new proposals (although they have been described as some sort of ‘ban’) would probably not even have covered the case of Owen Paterson. The Chair of the Commons Standards Committee, Chris Bryant, has said today that the PM’s proposals are “not very well thought through”. If there were any evidence of competence or thought on the part of Johnson, I’d almost be tempted to disagree. Proposing a ‘clean-up’ which would have exonerated Paterson, and actually leave more freedom for his MPs to enrich themselves on the side by lobbying than current standards allow might start to look like a cunning plan. It’s either so cunning that even the intended beneficiaries don’t understand it, or else it’s as silly and unworkable as it appears. Occam’s razor applies.

Wednesday 17 November 2021

Watching the worms wriggle


There used to be an advert for a large insurance company which claimed that they would never make a drama out of a crisis. It would be a piece of good advice for the current government, whose leader seems reluctant to let any crisis go past without turning it into a long drawn-out drama, largely because of a lack of attention to detail and a strange belief, which persists in the face of all experience to the contrary, that quick action (or, even better, a quick verbal promise of future action), the consequences of which have not even been considered momentarily, will make the crisis go away. He thought that the Paterson issue would go away once he instructed his MPs to do what the editor of the Telegraph told him to do, and he thought that he could kill the ‘second jobs’ issue by introducing a partial ban. The problem, as ever, is that neither was given much thought beyond the expected headlines.

One of the results today is not just that different ministers are giving different responses as to what the new policy means, but some ministers are even managing to contradict themselves. This morning, apparently, the International Trade Secretary told Times Radio that MPs should be able to work 8-10 hours a week and told BBC Breakfast that 10 or 15 hours a week was reasonable, before going on the BBC Today Programme to suggest a figure of 10 to 20 hours per week. Maybe they should just have stuck to asking her to state the length of a piece of string. The problem with the government’s approach is that every ‘quick answer’ which they come up with merely opens the door to more questions. And the detail just hasn’t been thought through.

The underlying question, which hasn’t been properly asked as yet, is ‘what are MPs for?’ Over time, the job has developed into something of a mish-mash of different and sometimes conflicting roles. The government has been trying to talk up their role as working for their constituents, and it’s true that most MPs do a lot of casework on behalf of their constituents. Or is it? From observation, most MPs delegate most of that work to their staff. It is often the caseworkers who meet with constituents, do the necessary research and write the letters; an MP with a good and well-run office has to do little more than sign the letters placed in front of him or her. And with the technology to scan signatures into computers, I wonder how many actually do even that. There is an expectation that MPs will show their face at various events in their constituencies, but it is clear that many (particularly in ‘safe’ seats) spend little time on that either.

They do have a role in passing legislation though parliament, but for most of them, that role is limited to turning up and voting the way their party’s whips tell them to vote, and many will not even have read the legislation on which they are voting. They have a theoretical role in holding the executive branch to account, and that’s a role which many of them consider to be important, but faced with an executive which follows the lead of a man who either avoids answering the question or simply lies, it’s not a role at which most of them are, or can ever be, terribly effective. And it is, in any event, more of a role for the opposition members than those on the government benches who are generally encouraged to lob soft questions to ministers rather than challenge them.

They also form the ‘gene pool’ from which ministers, shadow ministers, and committee chairs can be drawn. For those whose motivations are to do with their own careers, this may well be the most important role of all. That isn’t necessarily the view of those who put them there, though.

Idle hands make mischief as the saying goes; for many backbench MPs in a situation where the government has a secure majority of 80, a majority endangered only by its own recklessness and incompetence, it’s easy enough to see how – for all their claims of working 70-80 hour weeks – there is scope for enough of them to treat the gig as a part-time one, and enrich themselves by pursuing other avenues at the same time. Add in the culture of corruptness of a government which awards contracts, honours and benefits to its friends and donors, and the attraction to businesses of paying an MP to promote their interests is obvious. It is only those in receipt of the cheques who are naïve enough to believe that they are being paid for their expertise and knowledge rather than for their access to power.

It’s tempting to argue that all outside work should be banned, but there are a few complications. Doctors and lawyers, for instance, need to demonstrate that they are still practicing to maintain their licences, and given that they could lose their seats at the next election, it isn’t wholly unreasonable to allow them to do the minimum required to maintain the currency of their licences. There is though, as far as I’m aware, nothing which requires either that they be paid for their efforts or that they retain any monies thus earned. If their salary as an MP was tapered (like Universal Credit for example), it would be reduced by the amount of any external earnings. Or they could simply donate the extra to charity. Lots of MPs also get paid by the media, whether for writing columns or being interviewed; one could legitimately argue that that is part of their responsibility to communicate with their constituents, and express their political views. But aren’t they, in effect, already being paid for doing precisely that through their salary?

It isn’t just about outside work. In some ways, being paid to do something is more honest than receiving gifts (free holidays in Mustique or Málaga, anyone?) for, allegedly, no consideration at all.  It is true that some MPs get paid less as an MP than they might get paid for doing other work (and I have myself fought elections knowing on some occasions that such would be the outcome), but a salary of over £80,000 a year puts them in the highest 5% of UK citizens. There is no evidence at all that increasing the salary would draw in more talent; indeed, many might suspect that it would simply draw in more people whose interest is more in the money than in any concept of public service. In any event, most electors don’t vote on the basis of the candidates’ ability and experience anyway, they vote according to the colour of the rosette pinned to their clothing.

Any system of rules which attempt to define which outside earnings are acceptable and which are not will leave loopholes and grey areas, and the unscrupulous ( and the ‘unscrupulous community’, if I may coin a phrase, often seems to be over-represented amongst politicians) will take advantage. In an attempt to overcome a run of bad publicity, Johnson has opened a large can of worms. The only way to shut it completely is to cap MPs earnings at the level of their already generous salary. I can confidently predict that the worms will continue to wriggle for the foreseeable future.

Tuesday 16 November 2021

Aiming at the right target

Christoper Chope MP is probably not at the top of the PM's Christmas card list, if indeed he was ever on it. And he obviously hasn't exactly endeared himself to many of his colleagues judging by some of the comments they've made about him. They were rather hoping that a motion accepting the report of the Standards Committee on Owen Paterson would go through the House of Commons quietly last night in an attempt to draw a line under an embarrassing episode. I wonder though whether they’re aiming their ire at the right target, given that he's done the same thing so many times before.

It’s surely reasonable to ask exactly what sort of democracy allows the sort of arcane procedure under which one MP shouting the word “object” from his corner of the chamber is considered to have ‘won’ the vote and defeated the motion, overriding all other members present, even if all of the other 649 are in favour of the motion. An organisation which runs its affairs on the basis of silly rules really shouldn’t be surprised if silly people use those rules to make silly points. The silliest people are those who ignore the fact that the rules are silly.

Monday 15 November 2021

Too little too late is still better than nothing


The world has emerged from the COP26 summit in Glasgow with some sort of an agreement, albeit a seriously inadequate one. In an echo of the Brexit process, a deal of any sort is better than no deal at all, however marginally. In another echo of Brexit, the PM has welcomed the deal as “a big step forward”, although even his boosterism hasn’t, so far at least, run to proclaiming its world-beating brilliance. Whether, and to what extent, the failure of the talks can be blamed on the host state and its at best semi-engaged Prime Minister is a matter of opinion, but Glasgow will certainly not go down in history as the new Paris, as he had suggested that it would in advance.

I find myself wondering whether there will be, in the coming weeks and months, even more echoes of Brexit. How long will it be before the PM claims that he only signed the agreement under duress because of time pressures; that he never understood the implications; that he didn’t think that anyone really expected the deal to be implemented; and that it is entirely reasonable for the UK to opt out of any bits it doesn’t like? The difference in this case is that it won’t just be Johnson and the UK discovering ways and excuses for not implementing even the seriously watered-down agreement which emerged.

Whether Glasgow really was the last chance as which it was painted is far from being as certain as many claim. One doesn’t need to be a climate change sceptic to recognise that the relationship between Gigatons of Carbon and degrees Celsius of global warming cannot be as precise as some of the charts (including this one from the BBC) would have us believe. Climate is too complex for even our very best models to identify and give the correct weighting to every possible factor; what we have are merely the best estimates of those who have invested their whole careers in attempting to model the whole system. They could be wrong – but that’s no excuse for inaction. It’s as likely that they are being over-optimistic as that they are being over-pessimistic; the lack of the absolute certainty which some would like to have is no reason for ignoring what the models tell us.

It is hard for less economically advanced states to accept curbs in their own development when the more advanced states which have done so much to create the problems prefer to spout fine words than take the urgent actions required. It’s worse when those richer states refuse to provide the resources required to help them (or in the case of the host state, actually reduce aid in the lead-up to the summit). Given that the two large economies which demanded a last minute watering down of the commitment to phase out coal, India and China, are both nuclear-armed states with advanced space programmes and burgeoning cities, it’s easy to forget that they are also both states where a large proportion of the population is extremely poor, and that both see rapid economic development as a route out of that poverty. For both of them, to say nothing of a large number of smaller countries, a demand that they find a way of combining that economic development with a zero carbon approach, and do so out of their own resources, is a big ask. And it’s an ask coming from places which achieved their own relative wealth without worrying about the environmental impact.

In a crisis which demands immediate collective global action, any agreement which depends on individual states taking action essentially leaves global inequality untouched. Without addressing that issue, progress will continue to be more limited than it could be, and needs to be. One of the simplest yet most effective steps the richest countries in the world could take would be to dramatically increase the amount of aid being provided to the poorest to assist them in reducing their dependence on fossil fuels. Given that the UK, instead of leading the charge as the host state, decided to lead the retreat by reducing aid, the chance of progress being made on the scale required in Glasgow was hopelessly overblown from the outset.

Whether it’s now too late to keep overall warming down to 1.5 degrees is a matter of expert opinion, the balance of which currently looks negative. But either way, it’s still worth doing the too little too late which has been agreed rather than nothing, whilst continuing to press for more.

Friday 12 November 2021

The Tories support only their own version of democracy


There have been plenty of studies over the years which show the correlation between the probability that people will register to vote and then turn out to do so on the one hand, and relative poverty or wealth on the other. There is no doubt that relative affluence corresponds to an increased likelihood of voting. By the same token, that correlation is reflected in the support for different parties – parties which draw support from the more affluent citizens benefit directly from the differing propensity to vote – and a lower overall turnout thus works to their advantage. Those few simple facts of life are all that is required to understand why the Tories in the UK are so keen to make it harder for people to vote; their insistence on presenting ID will have a disproportionate negative impact on the support of their opponents.

Conversely, of course, making it easier for people to vote potentially damages the Conservatives; increasing the turnout will disproportionately benefit their opponents. It’s easy to see, therefore, why the Tories have turned their faux outrage blasters to the maximum setting to attack the experiments being proposed by the Welsh Government for next year’s council elections. However, in accusing the Welsh Government of deliberately choosing Labour areas in which to run the experiments they have not only ignored the basic facts of the selection process (that all council areas were given the opportunity, but only some responded) they have also spectacularly failed to understand the electoral dynamics referred to above. If I wanted to give Labour a chance to win more councils by making it easier for people to vote in carefully selected areas, I wouldn’t select areas where Labour is already the dominant party. I’d select areas like Monmouth or the Vale of Glamorgan, where an increase in non-Tory votes might be enough to dislodge a few Tory councillors; I wouldn’t be trying to just stack up even larger majorities for Labour in existing strongholds. If this is, as the Tories claim, a sneaky attempt by Labour to give themselves an unfair advantage, then Labour would be staggeringly incompetent as vote-riggers.

The underlying attitude of the Tories is revealing – when encouraging more people to take part in the democratic process by making it easier to vote is regarded as being some form of cheating, it’s reasonable to ask to what extent the Welsh Tories believe in democracy at all. But then, looking to their masters in London, I think we already know the answer to that. Back in the 1970s, it was Dafydd Iwan who sang “Rwy’n credu mewn democratiaeth – fy nemocratiaeth i”. I somehow doubt that he intended it as an instruction manual for the Tories.

Thursday 11 November 2021

Have we reached a turning point?


The Tories are not the only party to have been accused of using peerages as a means of rewarding large donors; the legislation banning the sale of honours followed the sale of honours by the Liberal leader Lloyd George in the 1920s, and Labour had its own little scandal under Blair. The price may have increased by more than the rate of inflation, but then the Tories have long expected larger individual donations than the other parties. Their role is, after all, to represent the interests of the wealthiest.

In the strict terms of any police enquiry, the latest suggestion that becoming Tory Treasurer and donating at least £3 million virtually guarantees a peerage is not something over which Johnson needs to lose any sleep. The problem with the legislation, which effectively stymied any prosecution for Labour’s activities under Blair, is that the burden of proof is so high. Mere correlation between donating large sums and being ennobled, no matter how strong that correlation may be, isn’t proof of a transaction having taken place. It appears that, unless the prosecuting authorities can amass evidence that there was an advance agreement that if X gave £Y, then X would become a peer, then there is inadequate evidence to mount a prosecution. Nods and winks, to say nothing of the entirely coincidental precedent that the previous n treasurers were ennobled, don’t count. In effect, the bar is set so high that there is never any danger of prosecution as long as those involved are careful never to record anything. The legislation has been rendered irrelevant, and Johnson can continue to distribute peerages as he chooses. Inspector Knacker is unlikely to be banging on the door of Number Ten any time soon. Well, not for selling honours at any rate.

It isn’t as simple as just the legalistic question of a criminal offence, though. Last week, something changed. It’s not that the Tories became any more venal or corrupt than they have been for the past couple of years, although the Paterson affair was perhaps more blatant than previous issues. It’s not that Johnson became any more dishonest or mendacious; he’s been that way all his life and that’s not something that will ever change. No, last week, for the first time really, some of those who have naturally supported him / covered for him / repeated his lies as though they were true / made excuses for him started to turn against him. The media began to press harder, to draw more attention to the amoral morass which surrounds him, and to actively look for new angles to keep the story running. Some of his own MPs and other senior figures in his party started to call him out for what he is and to make it clear that their future support is conditional at best. It’s doubtful that he realises it yet – perhaps he never will, given his apparent ability to believe whatever he chooses to believe – but his position weakened considerably over the period of just a few days. Given the size of his majority, the only people who can end the current nightmare are those within his own party (although who knows what new nightmare they would then inflict upon us). They’re not there yet, but if the polls start to move significantly further against him, Tory MPs can be a ruthless bunch.

On which point, outside the Westminster bubble, the reality of the incomplete Brexit project continues to impact the lives of those whom the world king believes to be his subjects in ways which are almost universally negative. Heaping entirely believable accusations of corruption and sleaze on top has so far had only a minor impact, but as one of his predecessors (a certain John Major) discovered, momentum can build uncontrollably. His best line of defence at the moment is the general public perception that “they’re all as bad”. His problem is that using such a line means admitting that he is in any way ‘bad’ himself. It’s an admission that he is utterly incapable of making. We may yet get to look back on last week as the long-overdue turning point.

Wednesday 10 November 2021

We need the freedom to be honest, not to join in corruption


In 1984, the then Conservative Government set up six freeports across the UK on an experimental basis. The experiment was not exactly a huge success, and in 2012 the then Conservative Government scrapped them. The current Conservative Government now wants to try again, including overruling any objections from devolved administrations, and taking powers away from those administrations in order to implement their plans.

Contrary to what Brexiteers seem to suggest, scrapping freeports was nothing to do with the EU or the single market – EU rules allow freeports to exist, and indeed there are currently 72 such zones spread across 20 of the remaining member states. They were scrapped in the UK because they just didn’t live up to their promise. It certainly is true that in 2019 the European Parliament called for freeports in the EU to be closed down as a result of tax evasion and money laundering; there is no reason to suppose that freeports set up in the UK will be any more immune to such problems. It’s also true that EU rules on tax breaks and aid to industries in freeport zones were a constraint on what individual governments can do, and that in theory, therefore, outside the EU the UK is able to offer more incentives. That may turn out to be more a theoretical statement than an implementable one, however; there is (and can be) no guarantee that EU countries (and the same is likely to apply to other countries) will accept imports from zones considered to be effectively outside the UK customs area on the same terms as those from the UK itself under the Trade and Co-operation Agreement. And why would they? Why would anyone want to allow companies being unfairly subsidised and given tax breaks which they themselves can’t match to undercut their own businesses?

The government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility told us in no uncertain terms a fortnight ago that “…the main effect of the freeports will be to alter the location rather than the volume of economic activity” – in simple terms, they will move jobs from one place to another rather than create new jobs. And in the process, they will reduce the tax income to the Exchequer, at the same time as demanding extra infrastructure investment. The main beneficiaries from the initiative (according to the thinktank UK in a Changing Europe) will be the businesses and super-rich individuals who take advantage of the tax breaks they offer. And there is good reason to expect that they will provide new opportunities for secrecy, money-laundering, tax evasion, reduced regulatory control, and fraud. Put that way, it’s easy to see the attraction for the current government; freeports will directly aid the Tories’ cronies and funders. It’s also easy to see why the Welsh Secretary would be so keen to seize on another opportunity to roll back devolution.

It’s a lot harder to see why the Welsh Government would want to get involved, and the reticence being shown by Drakeford is wholly understandable. He does face two problems, though: if he refuses, he’ll be overruled and lose any vestige of control, and if freeports set up across the border attract companies to relocate from Wales, Wales will lose jobs and economic activity, for which he will then be blamed. But agreeing to host a freeport in Wales because England is doing so on our doorstep in Liverpool is more like the logic of an arms race than a sound economic plan. The better response to dishonesty and corruption on a grand scale is not to emulate it, but to escape its clutches. And that means more independence, not less.

Thursday 4 November 2021

Consequences are for other people


Presumably, Boris Johnson and the majority of his MPs are feeling rather pleased with themselves this morning after their little ruse to let their mate, Owen Paterson, off the hook yesterday. There is no obvious sign that anyone other than Paterson himself believes that he is not guilty as charged; the fig leaf behind which the rest of them are trying to hide is more about whether he should be allowed an appeal before sentence is carried out or whether the sentence should be reduced on compassionate grounds. One of the problems the Tory MPs have is that there are an awful lot of them, and it’s a very small fig leaf.

As ever with Boris Johnson, it looks like a last minute quick fix in an attempt to resolve an immediate problem (which some have argued might actually have more to do with changing the rules before an investigation is carried out into one B. Johnson than with helping out a supposed mate who didn’t even go to the same school). And also as ever with Johnson, there seems to have been little thought given to what happens next, or what any other consequences might be. Appointing a new ‘jury’ with a built-in majority in favour of the defendant might look like a wizard wheeze, but it’s completely unclear whether it can even go ahead if the other parties refuse to collude, as currently seems likely. It also raises serious questions about all those MPs who have previously faced sanctions under the same procedure. If so-called ‘natural justice’ means that the latest miscreant must have a right to appeal, does that not mean that all those others who have been judged and sentenced under the same procedure with no such right now have a right to claim that they are victims of a process which the government itself has declared to be fundamentally ‘unfair’? It might or might not be true that there are flaws in the current process, but if there are, they didn’t suddenly appear as a result of the latest case – and any fix for those flaws cannot fairly be applied only to one offender.

There were, apparently, a total of 13 Tory MPs who voted against the move, out of a total of around 360. Less than 4%. That tiny proportion underlines the extent to which principles, consistency, honesty and respect for the rules have been ruthlessly driven out of the governing party by a clique interested only in promoting their own interests. In the long term – as with much of what Johnson does – his actions are counterproductive for his party and will strengthen the case for longer term change. In this instance, that means an even stronger and more independent system for investigating rule breaches by MPs is required – no more marking their own homework. But that isn’t a problem for Johnson; he cares little for the long term as his actions in other areas (Brexit, climate change …) make abundantly clear. He cares only about what suits himself in the here and now – the longer term repercussions are for someone else to deal with.

Monday 1 November 2021

Do as I say, not as I do


According to the PM, the COP26 talks in Glasgow this week are in danger of failing, largely because the governments involved aren’t doing enough, either in terms of the commitments they are making or in terms of honouring those commitments once made. For once, he’s right. While there are government leaders attending the talks who continue to encourage the exploitation of new oil fields, propose to open new coal mines, encourage more people to travel short distances by air instead of surface transport, and cut the amount of aid required by poorer countries to help them reduce their carbon usage, it’s hard to see how the talks can produce any real progress. And when the leader of a government doing all the above then takes to the stage to publicly criticise everyone else and demand they do more, he really should not be surprised if people fail to take him seriously.

Surprised, though, is what he appears to be. Yet again, it seems that Johnny Foreigner simply doesn’t understand that the UK has a special entitlement to tell others how to behave whilst doing the opposite itself. It hasn’t helped his case that he admitted last week to having been a climate change sceptic before becoming Prime Minister, only changing his mind after moving in to Number 10 and being shown the facts in detail by people who knew what they were talking about. That would be in contrast, of course, to the journalist who didn’t know what he was talking about, and couldn’t be bothered to find out, for all those years during which he wrote trenchant criticisms of renewable energy and its supporters. One might expect that a man who spent years arguing the exact opposite of what he argues today, and doing so on the basis of what he now admits to be his own ignorance and unwillingness to establish the facts, might show a little more humility before criticising others. But then humility and Johnson are not usually words which would occur in the same sentence. Those other world leaders now being lectured by him might be forgiven for wondering how sincere a person might be who can apparently change his mind so suddenly, but who also continues to behave in ways which are in direct odds with what he says others must do, and whose deeply-held political principles at any one time have a remarkable tendency to match his own personal interests. They might also be forgiven for wondering whether, at some future date when his time in politics comes to an end and he reverts to making a few pennies from journalism, he might change his mind again if that’s what suits whoever pays for his scribblings. It’s not as if climate change is the only issue on which his ‘deeply-held’ principles have changed, nor the only one on which we cannot be sure that he believes what he’s saying.

The headline on the front of Saturday’s i newspaper, in the lead-up to the COP26 talks, read “Last chance to save the planet”, above a large picture of Boris Johnson. If that juxtaposition is anywhere near true, then we really are all doomed.