Friday 31 December 2021

Winning doesn't prove a gambler to be right


The compulsive gambler who stakes all the money he has on the spin of a roulette wheel producing a red number will see a win as a vindication of his strategy, whilst a loss is merely a spur to find more money to try again. He ‘knows’ that his strategy is right: it’s just a matter of time. Most of us can see and understand that whether the wheel comes up red or black is purely down to chance, a matter of luck rather than judgement; but winners always need to believe that there’s more to it than that; that they possess a special skill and ability to judge.

It is our great misfortune at a time of pandemic to have the UK led by a gambler, prepared to take risks with the lives of others in the belief that he knows better than the rest of us. If Omicron turns out not to have the hospitalisation and death rates which some feared, he and his supporters will describe it as a vindication of his approach; if things go the other way, it will simply be a case of bad luck. In truth, of course, the biggest factor is simply luck either way; there wasn’t enough information available to be able to claim that it’s about the application of any skill or ability. If ignoring all those voices who warned him that strong urgent action was needed turns out not to be a disaster, that actually tells us nothing about his judgement – but will probably encourage him to do the same again in the future.

If it really turns out that the cost of his recklessness is only in the hundreds or low thousands of additional premature deaths (which is the best case scenario), that doesn’t prove that he was right not to do more to prevent them, any more than it proves that Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon were wrong to take stronger action. Equally, the converse is true – if it all goes horribly wrong and there are tens of thousands of additional premature deaths, that doesn’t prove Johnson wrong and Drakeford and Sturgeon right. The truth is that they’re using different criteria to judge ‘success’, and those criteria are based on completely different sets of values and priorities.

The leader elected by the voters of England, albeit under their badly-flawed electoral system, prioritises money and wealth over lives and health. As his remark about ‘letting the bodies pile high’ indicates, he regards the number of deaths – however high it might go – as a price worth paying for protecting the economic interests of the few. Measured against that criteria, his decision not to act was always the ‘right’ one, regardless of the consequences. He’s not so much hemmed in by the crazies on his party’s fringes, as some have presented it, but freed by them to follow his instincts rather than having to accept the advice of experts who don’t share his values. The leaders elected by the people of Wales and Scotland, on the other hand, prioritise the protection of citizens over mere monetary considerations, and their natural instinct would be to act even more strongly were they not hamstrung by London’s control of the necessary resources. From their perspective, acting strongly was always the ‘right’ thing to do, even if the number of premature deaths avoided was much lower than it has been.

People often claim that the UK is a single country with a single set of values, but the pandemic has clearly shown that to be a gross oversimplification. Our problem has been not that Wales and Scotland have dared to express that difference by diverging from England in responding to the pandemic (as the Tories and their media supporters keep claiming) but that the union prevents us from diverging as much as electoral politics in Wales and Scotland suggests that we might have liked to do. The union has become an obstacle to expressing our values, and we could well do without it.

Tuesday 28 December 2021

Don't let them take us down with them


The old headline which some say is apocryphal but which others attribute to the Times in 1957, which read “Heavy Fog in the Channel. Continent cut off.”, serves as a classic indicator of that special English sense of being exceptional and at the centre of everything. We had a contemporary indication of that same attitude this week, when Sir Somebody Tufton-Bufton MP declared that if England does something different to what he referred to as ‘the principalities’ then it is not England which is out of step, but everybody else. Given his obvious ignorance of the nature of the UK and its component parts, it will surely come as a surprise to no-one to discover that he is, like his party’s leader, yet another Old Etonian, another product of that network of so-called ‘educational’ institutions which seem to exist primarily to remove any feelings of empathy and humanity from their charges and replace them with an innate sense of superiority and exceptionalism. Accurate and useful knowledge seems to play only a minor role in the curriculum.

Anyway, the basic difference between the more civilised parts of the UK on the one hand and England on the other in this case is about whether it is sensible to take formal precautions to try and slow the spread of Omicron before it gets completely out of control, or whether we should rely on the common sense of people to take their own decisions about the level of risk involved and wait until the health service is overwhelmed before acting. And the problem for the civilised parts is that it’s only when England acts that money will be available in the quantities required to support the affected individuals and businesses. Notwithstanding certain obvious exceptions, and without playing down the damage that those exceptions can do in spreading the virus, it is true that many people, even in England where their leader is still exhorting them to party on and leading by example, are showing a great deal of common sense and voting with heir feet. Some of the businesses affected are effectively being closed by customer withdrawal rather than by government dictat – something which the Chancellor apparently considers a good thing since he doesn’t need to subsidise them, but which will not feel quite so good from the perspective of either the businesses themselves or those working in them.

The argument of the so-called ‘freedom lovers’ of the swivel-eyed crazy tendency which has infiltrated and taken over the Tory party is that setting rules infringes our rights to take our own decisions. I suppose we should be glad that they haven’t – not yet anyway – tried to apply this to certain other offences, like murder or theft. There is a sense in which they have a point: what events have shown us is that, whether we are given rules or merely guidance, most people do the sensible thing. For most of us the outcome (in terms of our behaviour) is much the same. In the same way, most of us don’t need a law banning us from killing other people to prevent us from doing it. The difference between rules and guidance, though, is about the lack of enforcement. With rules, we can and do take action against those who transgress and endanger the rest of us (unless, of course, they are cabinet ministers, advisers, Tory MPs or donors), whereas with guidance, they are free to continue to act as they wish (and may even gain unfair advantage from their actions). Specifically, in this instance, to spread a virus variant the potency of which is still not fully known or understood. Underlying their argument is an ideological aversion to any action being taken collectively rather than individually.

Some might object to the distinction drawn above between England and the more civilised countries of the UK, but doesn’t this go to the heart of an important aspect of what civilisation is about? Acting collectively, in the interests of the many rather than the few, setting rules which allow us to live side by side in a commonly-agreed framework rather than allowing individuals to do as they please regardless of the consequences for others  – aren’t these all aspects of a developed civilisation? Under the leadership of an ignorant and exceptionalist elite, England is rapidly turning its back on civilised values. And that applies not only in the specific dealt with here, but in the treatment of the least fortunate in society and of refugees, to pick just two examples. Remaining attached to what England is becoming is not a future which offers much hope to anyone.

Sunday 26 December 2021

It takes more than a pint to drown Brexit sorrows


In what appears to be a temporary diversion from the Great Cheese War, it seems that Liz Truss has decided to promote the ability to buy champagne in pint bottles as some sort of massive Brexit bonus. All she needs to do now is persuade those pesky French champagne producers that putting their product in 568 millilitre bottles for the UK Market is an idea worth pursuing.

She’s missed the point, though – and not just because outside Tory circles, champagne isn’t always the tipple of choice. The ability to drown one’s sorrows at what Brexit has done in smaller bottles won’t look like much of a ‘bonus’ to many. Now, if she were talking about buying wine in good old-fashioned quarts…

Wednesday 22 December 2021

Criminalising the bullied


One of the problems faced by the first capitalists with their mills and their machinery was the pre-existing work culture amongst a largely agricultural population. The idea of working the same hours every day all year round was a strange one to a population used to the idea of working when things needed to be done, spending longer in the fields in the summer and staying indoors more during the dark winter months. In time, the idea that ‘work’ required regular hours on regular days in a regular location became so deeply ingrained that most workers – to say nothing of most employers – now find it difficult to conceive of an alternative model.

One of the few ‘benefits’ of the pandemic has been to challenge that concept of ‘work’. Whilst many tasks still require a physical presence at a set location (although increasing use of robots and AI will reduce that number over time), what the pandemic has shown us is that with modern technology at our disposal an awful lot of work does not require that workers are in a set location or even working set hours. Some employers are even seeing this as an opportunity to reduce office costs (and improve staff morale and motivation) by no longer requiring physical attendance on a regular basis. Others are in a state of near panic, so tightly bound by the old paradigm that they don’t understand how they can ever manage people without physically policing their activities.

As we know from ‘Britannia Unchained’, the idea that workers are essentially idle is not only the strong belief of many employers, it is also rife at cabinet level. From their perspective, they work hard and deserve the rewards that go with that; the rest of us are born idlers who need to be kept in line with clear rules and firm discipline. It’s part of the explanation which Raab and others have repeated for those Downing Street ‘gatherings’ – these were people working under extreme pressure and needed the relaxation, whereas the rest of us (including front line health service workers) needed to be kept in line and observe the rules. They seem to genuinely believe that preparing for, and debriefing after, press conferences is more exhausting than simply looking after the sick.

Anyone who has ever considered the question of productivity in relation to much office-based work knows how difficult a concept it is. At its simplest, productivity is simply output divided by input, but in many – perhaps most – office jobs, ‘output’ is difficult to define and measure. Lazy employers therefore fall back on measuring the easy part – input. Or, as it’s otherwise known, hours worked. They even build up a bureaucracy around time keeping, with a host of rules and exceptions, in order to train their staff to work by the clock. No surprise that many end up presiding over a workforce of clock-watchers as a result. They’re measuring completely the wrong thing, of course – output is far more important than input. Most of us who’ve ever worked in an office will be able to think of at least one person who’s worked long hours without producing very much (or even who has done more harm than good during the hours worked!), as well as someone else who’s managed to appear totally on top of his or her job without ever staying after the end of the day. For employers measuring only input, ‘working from home’ has left them feeling threatened and vulnerable. Instead of asking how they can assess what their staff are producing, or even think about how to encourage a culture of wanting to be productive, they’ve resorted to using fancy monitoring software and demanding that staff return to the office prematurely.

The decision of the Welsh Government yesterday to introduce fines for those who go to work when they could be working from home is very badly targeted. Whilst the objective (reducing contact) is the right one in the face of the pandemic, fining workers who are bullied and feel threatened by incompetent employers who are unable to manage a workforce other than through monitoring their presence in the workplace is merely adding to the pressures on the individuals. It’s taking the easy option – just like those employers who only measure input – rather than the difficult one, which is about encouraging and helping employers to find new working methods (or, as a last resort, fining those who don’t). At a time when the people of Wales have shown, in general, an amazing willingness to act collectively and follow the leadership of Drakeford and his government, criminalising people who are in fear of losing their jobs because of the actions of bad employers is intensely counter-productive. It’s a surprising lapse in judgement from a man who has generally been seen to be doing a good job.

Update:  The First Minister has subsequently clarified that there has been some misreporting over this issue, and the intention is not to punish those attending their place of work, but to support them by providing a solid reason for them to refuse a request from their employers. It's a welcome clarification, although it says something about some employers that their staff need to be threatened with prosecution in order to persuade them to behave reasonably and lawfully. There is also a danger, of course, that announcing that there is, in effect, no intention ever to actually fine anyone might serve to weaken that protection. Still, not enforcing laws seems to be the in thing when it comes to Covid, as we've seen with certain parties... 

Tuesday 21 December 2021

With one bound, PM leaps out of frying pan


“We will not hesitate to act!”, declared the PM yesterday as he announced that his government has, in fact, decided to hesitate rather than act. Despite all the warnings from scientists and those working in the NHS that after Christmas is too late for any action to have a meaningful impact on the spread of Omicron, the government has decided to wait until there is hard evidence that the number of hospital admissions is too large for the NHS to cope with before taking any action to reduce that number. The Cabinet clearly understand neither what exponential growth is, nor that the lag between infections and hospital admissions means that waiting until they’re already too high means not only that even more drastic action is required, but also that hospitalisations will continue going up for a week or two even after action is taken. It amounts to a policy of waiting until there are too many, and then loading on even more. And even if, as we all hope, most infections are milder than with previous variants, there will still be many, many additional premature deaths as a direct result of government hesitation, purely because of the sheer number of people likely to be catching the disease.

We know that the headline figure of around 90,000 per day new infections is an understatement. Many of those infected will either be asymptomatic or else driven to avoid taking a test by the government’s total unwillingness to provide adequate support for those who are unable to work. At a doubling rate of every two days (current estimates are between 1.5 and 3 days), the number infected will double twice between now and Christmas Day, and another three times by the end of the year. Unchecked, that could mean 2.8 million recorded cases a day by the end of the month. The ‘good’ news (for the government’s spin doctors at least) is that the headline figures will never reach that level. The UK only has capacity to do around 800,000 tests per day, and there is no way of increasing that capacity in line with the rate of infection. By the end of the year, the headline figures are likely to have reached the peak allowed by that capacity constraint – and also to have been rendered utterly meaningless as any reflection of what is actually happening as a result. On the particular measure of infection rate, the UK government’s policy of  ‘waiting until we have more data’ is equivalent to ‘waiting until events render the data meaningless’.

There is one other piece of ‘good’ news for the PM in all this as well. Watching the numbers soar out of control is likely to divert attention – for the time being at least – away from parties and rule-breaking. Whether encouraging people to worry instead about catching Covid, and about which of their friends and family will be hospitalised or die, is an entirely positive change is another question entirely.

Monday 20 December 2021

Choosing the right border to control


Historically, by-elections are a poor guide to anything of much import. However much anyone tries to generalise, the reality is that there are always unique factors in play which won’t necessarily be in play when a general election comes along, even if the ‘special factor’ is no more than the overall context in which the by-election is held. The result is that pundits and politicians can draw their own conclusions on the flimsiest of premises. And that brings us to John Redwood, a man whose principal claim to fame in Wales relates to his amazing crooning ability. His interpretation of the Shropshire North by-election last week is that it was the result of the government wandering away from the one true path of Conservatism, by increasing taxes and spending. Apparently, the electorate voted against the Tories because they wanted more austerity. Maybe his rather dodgy approach to logic is just another failing attempt to persuade us that he isn’t a Vulcan after all.

Talking of ministers from distant planets, Liz Truss has now been placed in charge of Brexit, a minor part time task which she will be required to perform whenever she isn’t on tank-driving duty following cuts to the UK’s armed forces. Her appointment will be bad news for cheese importers. It’s probably good news for Boris Johnson, however – placing the minister who is, by the strange alien logic of the Tory Party, his likeliest successor, in a role in which it is inherently impossible to succeed might buy him a bit more time to reduce the UK’s population whilst enjoying the party atmosphere at Downing Street. Whether it’s good news for anyone else is highly dubious, although Truss’s capacity to make things worse is significantly lessened by the extent to which things are already extremely bad in the Brexit department. And she can always call on Liam Fox (planet of origin currently unknown) to help with a major push to sell jam and marmalade abroad. Maybe she’ll even appoint him as a special envoy, selling ice to eskimos for the purposes of.

Meanwhile, the Sontaran in charge of health in England seems to be deliberately trying to undermine the message being given out by Number 10 about there being no more restrictions by talking up the possibility of imposing further curbs within days. Whether it’s all part of a cunning plan to rule by sowing confusion and division, or whether it’s simply the result of chaos and incompetence is a matter on which people will hold different opinions. Mere earthlings, given our inability to comprehend intergalactic logic, will probably tend towards the latter explanation.

In truth, of course, it’s all – everything – our own collective fault. Electing a bunch of aliens with no conception of ordinary human values, concerns, morality, or way of life to govern us was always going to be a bad idea. Electing aliens from a host of different planets with conflicting objectives who can’t even agree with each other was an even worse one. If we want to prevent a repeat in the future, one obvious step is to move the UK’s border forces away from patrolling ports and airports and set up an iron cordon around a certain school near Windsor which apparently acts as the HQ for the programme to convert human beings into aliens. If there was ever a border over which we needed to take back control, that is surely it. And it’s a lot shorter and easier to control than the UK’s coastline.

Saturday 18 December 2021

In pursuit of truth?


“In all humility, I have got to accept that verdict”, said Boris Johnson in response to the result of the by-election on Thursday. The idea of Boris Johnson expressing – let alone feeling – humility is so far removed from reality that some conspiracy theorists may even wonder how the deep state managed to replace the real thing with a fake. Normal service was quickly resumed, however, when the PM added that people have been hearing “a litany of stuff about politics and politicians” from the media. What he seems to mean by that is that the problem isn’t anything that he and his gang have said and done, but that the media have dared to report it. He dismissed all the reports about parties, corruption, sleaze, flat refurbishments, and Peppa Pig as “exactly the kind of questions about politics, politicians, the running of government” which he believes that people really neither want nor need to hear about. From his perspective, the media should be concentrating, Pravda-style, on reporting only what the government tells them to report. Having proved over the past two years that the journalist-turned-pm doesn’t understand what being PM is all about, he neatly demonstrates that he doesn’t actually know very much about journalism either.

A few days ago, he was reported to be furious with the BBC in particular for continuing to report stories about parties and broken rules. Apparently, he thought that the media had ‘made their point’ and should now move on. It is the approach he has adopted throughout his life; do what you like, lie, bluster, and obfuscate, and wait for the fuss to die down. The idea that actions should have consequences, or that he should be in any way held to account, is one around which he cannot get his head. And, as the infamous Eton letter demonstrates, he’s been the same since childhood. The problem – for the rest of us, if not for him – is that, to date, the approach has generally worked. How a man sacked – twice – for lying, and who was party to a conspiracy to have a journalist beaten up, could ever have got to be PM is a puzzle to which there is only one possible solution: the utter amorality of his party, from top to bottom. The members of that party, from MPs through to the ordinary members who voted him in as leader, have not only indulged him, they have positively cheered him on, even when his actions are prima facie criminal. For the whole rotten party, power is more important than principle or honesty – especially the power to line their own nests and look after their own at the expense of others.

Johnson seems to believe that he can prevent or deter the media from asking the ‘wrong’ questions by simply refusing to answer, telling journalists that they are asking “the kind of question that breaks the golden rule”, as though it is for him to set any rules about what questions they should be allowed to ask. In a robust democracy, journalists would refuse to publish or air interviews in which a PM decided which questions to answer, and the media would decline to report any statement which they know to be factually untrue (a category which would almost completely remove Johnson from the airwaves). Instead we have mostly had sycophancy and compliance – one might suspect that the only reason the government doesn’t take action to control the media in line with the PM’s ‘golden rule’ is that, as Humbert Wolfe wrote, they are usually quite good at controlling themselves. At the moment, the media are actually showing an unusual degree of backbone in continuing to report things which the PM would rather see kept quiet. Whether they will continue to do so, or eventually conclude instead that, faced with a government able to ‘exonerate’ itself from all sins and willing to stonewall indefinitely, they’ll get fed up and move on remains to be seen. The latter of those two options would be a bad omen for all of us.

Wednesday 15 December 2021

Sticking to pretend principles


Of the 361 Tory MP’s in the House of Commons, 135 are considered to be part of the ‘payroll vote’, that is, MPs who must either resign before voting against the government, or be sacked after doing so. Of the remaining 226, over 100 – nearly half – chose to vote against the government last night. We can be reasonably sure that a number of the 135 on the payroll vote agreed with them, but decided (surely not?) that their careers were more important than what passes for their principles.

The main arguments that the rebels used against the idea of people having to display their Covid vaccination status were firstly that they are opposed to the idea of people having to display their ‘papers’ before entering certain venues, and secondly the lack of evidence that such a move would be effective against transmission. It’s worth comparing their stance on this issue with their stance on other issues.

Whilst I haven’t checked the lists in detail, it is clear that most – perhaps even all – of the rebels also voted recently in favour of demanding that voters should be required to show ID before voting. They clearly believe that requiring all electors to show their ‘papers’ in an attempt to reduce the almost non-existent incidence of electoral fraud is a good thing, but requiring only those who wish to enter venues where large numbers of people gather to show their ‘papers’ in an attempt to reduce hospitalisations and premature deaths is a bad thing.

What could possibly be the huge difference between the two propositions? Two things immediately spring to mind. The first is that the requirement for ID to vote will disproportionately benefit the Conservative Party, and the second is that the requirement for ID to enter venues will disadvantage Conservative donors and supporters certain businesses. Still, the rebels pretend to have their principles – and as Marx (Groucho, not Karl) didn’t quite say, if people don’t like them, then they will pretend to have others. But only ever ones from which they and their ilk will benefit.

Monday 13 December 2021

Giving Boris his due


As the Johnson era winds slowly and painfully towards its inevitable demise, many will conclude that it has been a premiership marked by utter failure. That may not be entirely fair or true, however. Whilst there have certainly been many failures (corruption, sleaze, driving people into poverty, crashing the economy, and tens of thousands of unnecessary premature deaths amongst them), his government has either achieved, or laid solid foundations for, a number of very significant developments:

·        Strengthening the EU: the remaining member states of the EU have been united as never before by the strains of Brexit, and talk of other defections has all but disappeared.

·        Irish unity: No British Prime Minister in history has done as much as Johnson to bring about an end to partition and reunite the island of Ireland.

·        Scottish independence: Some of the latest opinion polls are showing record levels of support for independence; by using all the means at his disposal to delay a second referendum, the PM has dramatically increased the probability of success.

·        Welsh independence: Whilst not quite there yet, the current UK government has managed to turn a fringe interest into a widely-discussed proposition, which may well become the dominant view after Irish unity and Scottish independence.

·        Nuclear disarmament: After the loss of Faslane, which will inevitably occur soon after Scottish independence, England will find its nuclear weapons homeless and be forced to base them, temporarily at least, in either the US or France. (Yes, France! Oh, the irony!) It will probably take at least ten years to build a replacement base, even if they can find a location in England willing to host them. Few things are more certain to increase people’s opposition to nuclear weapons than a proposal to site them on their doorstep.

·        Electoral Reform: Likely to rise up the agenda as people come to understand the problems associated with giving an absolute majority to a single party on the basis of a minority share of the vote.

·        House of Lords reform: removing Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish peers from the chamber, coupled with the way in which peerages have effectively been sold in exchange for large donations, will cause a rethink of the whole system when England becomes an independent country following the breakup of the UK.

·        Monetary Policy: Johnson has clearly demonstrated that the fundamental basis of economic policy on which the UK (and the Tories in particular) has operated for the past 40 years – the idea that the government is like a household – is just a myth.

I’ve never been a particular fan of Corbyn, most particularly because of his blind spot when it comes to Wales and Scotland, but had I been forced to choose between him and Johnson in the 2019 election, I would reluctantly have opted for Corbyn. Looking back though, I doubt that I’d be able to draw up a similar list of successes after two years of a Corbyn premiership. Johnson’s government has done a great deal to promote these key changes, whereas under Corbyn we would probably have stood still for two years (although there would have been many more of us still around to see it, a far from inconsequential benefit).

Some might argue that none of the above is what Johnson set out to achieve, or even that he actually set out to achieve quite the opposite. They’d be right, although MacMillan’s dictum about ‘events’ comes to mind. No doubt the immediate aftermath to his regime will be overwhelmingly negative, not least from within his own party; but that isn’t the point. History is written by the winners, not the losers, and in the long term the history of the Johnson era will come to be written not by those who lament the passing of the old but by those who celebrate the birth of the new. In that context, it will surely come to be seen as the government which (albeit accidentally) facilitated the emergence of the new from the ruins of the old. Johnson as Gramsci’s midwife. The cost of the Johnson era for the UK’s citizens has been a high one, though, as a result of which I somehow doubt that we’ll ever end up feeling any debt of gratitude towards him.

Saturday 11 December 2021

Escaping the kitchen


Lord Geidt, the PM’s ethics adviser (a pointless job if ever there was one) is allegedly considering his position after being made to look a complete fool by believing what the PM told him in the first place, and then seeing that contradicted by the report of the Electoral Commission. He does indeed face a very difficult choice. He can either believe the new assurances provided by the pathological liar in Downing Street and see his own reputation further trashed when the inevitable happens and the Johnson regime implodes, or he can take the opportunity which the PM has, entirely unintentionally, provided to him and quit now in the hope of salvaging what remains of his reputation. On second thoughts, it might not be that difficult a decision after all – it certainly wouldn’t be for most people, although, there again, most people wouldn’t have been so foolish as to accept a job as an ‘ethics adviser’ to a man like Boris Johnson in the first place. Mathew Parris sums up the reason why Geidt has been placed in this position as follows: “Geidt assumed a gentleman wouldn’t tell him a barefaced lie about his scratching around for inappropriate ways of paying his interior decorator. Geidt’s assumption was correct. A gentleman wouldn’t.”

There is an increasing sense of ‘fin de siècle’ about the current regime, and the sharks other Tories can sense it. Liz Truss’ response to questions about ‘that’ party was to emphasise that last Christmas she hadn’t been partying – she’d been off signing trade deals. Leaving aside the minor little detail that these trade deals were basically about replicating deals we already had until we decided to leave the EU, and that all that ‘hard work’ wouldn’t have been needed at all had the government done what the leavers promised and kept the UK in the Single Market / Customs Union, it was a blatant leadership pitch, drawing a clear line between her and Johnson. (Although Parris was pretty blunt about the ‘benefits’ of a Truss premiership as well!) How long it takes for them to dislodge a man who is incapable of realising how bad he is at the job or how serious things have become is yet to be seen. Tory MPs are traditionally a very loyal bunch, until the day that they aren’t, at which point their innate brutality in pursuit of self-preservation comes to the fore.

Cummings reckons it will probably be next summer that Johnson is finally told to go and spend more time with his families – for most of us, that looks like a lot of pain to go through in the meantime. The bigger question is what comes next. A belief that any of the current crop of likely replacements would be any better would be seriously misplaced. Pinning hopes of salvation on replacing Johnson with a proper austerity-supporting Tory just looks like choosing a different frying pan, when what we need is to get ourselves out of the kitchen.

Thursday 9 December 2021

We can always opt out


Whatever Johnson was apologising for yesterday, it wasn’t for the holding of an illegal party in Downing Street, an event which he still claims never happened, despite it having taken place just a few yards from the office where he was allegedly ‘working’ at the time, and despite the increasingly detailed reports, including this one (from a Tory-supporting newspaper, the Times) saying that the party started at 6pm and ended with people leaving “rat-arsed” shortly before 2am. I’m not even sure that he was apologising for the jokey way in which his staff tried to work out how they would handle questions if the press ever found out about it. I suspect that what he was really ‘apologising’ for was the fact that the recording had become public. It’s a misdirected ‘apology’ if ever there was one.

He also said that he was furious. I believe him on that, but given his past record and the nature of the man, it is entirely reasonable to conclude that his real fury is directed at whoever leaked the recording. And more time will probably be spent investigating that than investigating whether a party was or was not held, the latter being a question to which they already know the answer. In the meantime, the first person thrown under a bus by the PM is someone who wasn’t even at the non-party; and it seems likely that other staff will shortly suffer a similar fate.

Leaving aside the jokiness in the video, which inevitably looks callous and unsympathetic in the circumstances, the question asked of Stratton at the rehearsal was a clear sign both that the staff knew how damaging the party could be and that they needed to have answers ready if it did come to light. It would have been better if, knowing that, they hadn’t ploughed ahead and held it anyway, but there is a sense in which preparing a response in advance is a sign of a residual degree of professionalism. It makes the eventual handling of the response when it did come to light look even more clumsy and incompetent. They had 12 whole months to prepare their answers and they botched it. The reason for that comes back to the man at the centre: preparation and sticking to an agreed script is not exactly one of his better known character traits. He much prefers to ‘busk’, to fly by the seat of his pants, to make up whatever answer he thinks will deal with the immediate question, and then stonewall and bluster until the media get fed up and the issue goes away. Professional staff are wasted on him.

It’s too easy, though, to see this whole saga as being about what happens when a lying and incompetent clown gets elected to an office where there are no real checks and balances. The questions we should be considering are how he ever got into a position for which he is so obviously unsuited, and why there are so few checks and balances that his ultimate downfall lies in a sufficient number of Tory MPs becoming convinced that his continued occupation of the role makes them more likely to lose than to hold their seats. The answer to both of those questions is that we have a political system which is arcane, broken and unfit for purpose, and which neither of the two main English parties seem to have any motive to fix. Any sincere unionist, who really believed that the UK as an entity was worth preserving, would be giving serious thought to the questions but they prefer to close their eyes to reality and preside over the continuing decline and rot. No matter what Welsh or Scottish politicians think, only English politicians can solve this. We don’t have to remain part of it, though.

Tuesday 7 December 2021

Tories' new 10 point plan for tackling drugs

The latest announcements can be summarised as follows:

1.       Talk tough to win headlines in the Express and Mail.

2.       Slash spending on drugs treatment and rehabilitation centres.

3.       Talk tough to win headlines in the Express and Mail.

4.       Dress up in hi vis jacket or police sweater and anorak, preferably both. Beanie hats are optional, but help if you really want to extract the urine.

5.       Stand by and watch as the police smash their way through someone’s front door (but avoid mentioning that the individual concerned is, according to the law, innocent at this point).

6.       Talk tough to win headlines in the Express and Mail.

7.       Announce the partial restoration of the cuts imposed under 2 above.

8.       When the strategy fails, blame the previous government. Even if it was your own party. Especially if it was your own party.

9.       Talk tough to win headlines in the Express and Mail.

10.   Repeat steps 1 – 9 above on an infinite loop. 

The slight difference in the current iteration of the strategy is the proposal to confiscate the passports of middle-class users. Working class users are assumed not to possess passports, and billionaires don’t need them, as they can buy their way into any country. There will, of course, be an important unstated caveat to any proposed punishment of middle class users.. In the event that it emerges that any Tory minister or donor is known to have used drugs, any or all of the following additional rules will apply:

1.    They are exempt. Just because they are.

2.    The crime was committed in the past and is therefore not worth investigating.

3.    Ministers will be given the right to overrule any court decision with which they disagree.

That should divert attention for a while.

Monday 6 December 2021

Maybe it will be the little things that get him


The response by the Metropolitan Police to the reports of parties at Downing Street during last year’s lockdown was clumsy at best. Saying that they do not routinely probe "retrospective breaches" of Covid rules was a pretty silly thing to say – as many others have pointed out, the nature of any crime investigation is that it is retrospective, because crime can only ever be investigated after it has occurred. It might be true that most prosecutions for breaches of Covid regulations have resulted from police action taken at the time of the breach rather than from a “retrospective” investigation, but it isn’t universally true, and there was nothing in the regulations themselves which suggested that people would only be prosecuted if they were caught red-handed. But whilst the words used were badly chosen, the basic point is one which many victims of car crime, burglary etc will be only too familiar: under-resourced police forces do indeed pick and choose which crimes they investigate and which they ignore.

The question which deserves more scrutiny than it gets is about how the police come to a decision about which crimes they should investigate and which do not deserve their time and attention. Whatever the answer to that should be, it most definitely should not resolve entirely around how long ago the offence was committed. Telling would-be offenders that they’ll get away with the offence if they can only keep it secret for long enough is a poor approach to law enforcement, and an even worse one to crime prevention. And in the specific case of Covid breaches, telling those who were fined for holding parties which were raided and broken up by the police that the difference between them and the offenders at Number 10 was that nobody reported the Downing Street parties at the time they were happening is not much of a justification for differential treatment before the law.

In the grand scheme of things, and all other things being equal, it doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable for an overstretched police force to say that it really doesn’t feel investigating the details of a party held twelve months ago is a sensible investment of officer time, despite the fact that during last year’s lockdowns, the Home Secretary, no less, was urging people to report their neighbours for holding parties. (Perhaps she should be reporting Rishi Sunak for failing to report his neighbour.) However, all other things aren’t equal. Any decision on whether or not to investigate is inevitably an intensely political one – whichever way the decision goes. Of course the opposition parties want to expose and punish the repeated and continuous lies and evasions at the heart of the current government, and a decision to investigate will inevitably be seen as supporting that. On the other hand, a decision to let the matter drop will, equally inevitably, be seen as allowing ‘them’ to get away with what ‘we’ would be punished for.

The government really does seem incapable of helping itself. A government with any sense of honour or shame would simply announce that after an internal investigation any of the organisers still employed at Downing Street had been disciplined and that nothing similar would ever happen again. Instead of which, a government which is incapable of ever admitting doing anything wrong ties itself up in knots by arguing that only a ‘formal’ party would have been against the rules. (I don’t even know what that means: does it mean white tie events, or events to which embossed invitations were issued? If that’s what the rules really meant, the police were surely wrongly applying them to events held by others.) The PM’s spokesperson has consistently both failed to deny that parties were held and argued that no rules were broken – two things which in no conceivable universe could both be true.

There is a sense in which whether a party was or was not held is small beer in the scale of things. To date the media have generally gone fairly easy on Johnson; he has learned that if he just ignores a bad story or doubles down on the lie, the media eventually get fed up of the story and move on. There would be a certain poetic justice if it turned out that it was something fairly small which eventually did for him. We should never forget that it was, eventually, tax evasion which placed Al Capone in prison.

Friday 3 December 2021

Constraining the work of the Senedd


One of the consequences of the exceptionalism so prevalent in Westminster is that most of the politicians there are incapable of imagining that there is any way of doing things that could possibly be better than that used by themselves. They really do believe that dividing legislators in binary fashion into government and opposition and lining them up on two sides of a room – at a distance equivalent to the length of two swords, just in case things get a bit too heated – to bellow at each other is a rational and reasonable basis for debate. So it’s really no surprise to find that the Secretary of State, who survived the last reshuffle presumably because Boris Johnson had forgotten he was there, is struggling to understand how an opposition party can formally agree to support the government on some issues but not on others. The idea that the political parties in any parliament can set out to work on a more consensual basis is clearly causing his brain some processing difficulties.

It seems, however, that there is indeed a potential problem under the rules of the Senedd, on which the Llywydd is seeking legal advice. Those rules are contained in the legislation governing the operation of the Senedd – which was, of course, written by those who think that Westminster is the only conceivable model for running a parliament. There’s nothing at all surprising that people who believe that a binary division is the only possible modus operandi would end up imposing the same principles on its subordinate legislatures. Whether the deal between Labour and Plaid is good or bad is, of course, a matter of opinion; but the attempt to agree in advance on a deliverable programme in a host of policy areas is in principle a noble one and an entirely sensible approach in a chamber elected by a proportional (albeit imperfectly) system. The idea that a national parliament can be prevented from deciding for itself what processes suit the nation best underlines, yet again, the core problem with devolution. Power, even over what look like procedural minutiae, remains in London.

Thursday 2 December 2021

Aberration or just extreme example?


A few days ago, the press carried a picture of a small child in tears wearing a lifejacket wading ashore from a small boat in the Channel. It was graphic, but different people will have seen different things as they interpreted the picture to fit their own views. I saw a small and vulnerable human who was absolutely terrified and in desperate need of care and protection. I don’t know what horrors that child had suffered or witnessed, and struggle to imagine the desperation that parents must have felt to have undertaken such a perilous journey with children. I know, though, that others will have seen something quite different. They will have seen a threat to ‘our’ way of life; potential future competition for housing, jobs or health services; someone who is not ‘one of us’ and should be immediately returned to the country of origin; or even maybe a potential future terrorist.

The gulf between those two views is enormous, and it cannot be bridged by rational argument or mere fact, because it is based, ultimately, on deep-seated prejudices and attitudes. To be fair, there is a natural human tendency to divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘not us’, and none of us are immune from it; trying to pretend that it is not so is futile. The best we can hope for is to reduce it to a question of which team to support on the field of play, rather than a basis for treating large groups of our fellow humans. Over time, the group considered to be ‘us’ has grown in size: from tribe to town to nation. There is a sense in which the EU can be seen as part of that process – an attempt to create a common feeling of being ‘European’ whilst continuing to host and nurture a diversity of cultures and languages. It’s an aspect of the EU from which the UK has always been semi-detached, and which it has noticeably tried to reverse over the past five years, retreating to a smaller and more insular definition of ‘us’. But even the EU’s best efforts still leave plenty of scope for the rest of the world to be considered as ‘not us’.

However, all the world’s really big challenges can only be solved when we start to recognise that ‘us’ is the whole of humanity; that it is only by working together that we can address climate change, war, hunger and poverty. It’s no coincidence that that list matches pretty well the list of causes which lead to people becoming migrants and refugees. If we choose instead to keep part of the world in poverty so that the other part can enjoy an unfair share of wealth or, to put it another way, to look after ‘us’ and leave ‘not us’ to their own devices, those problems will never be resolved. And for the remainder of the shortened lifespan of humanity which will result from such a decision, all of those problems will still be with us.

Taking a wider view of ‘us’ doesn’t mean an end to diversity or difference, but it is the key to our collective future. Whether it’s achievable or not is an open question. If the UK can’t even manage to accommodate a few desperate refugees, I doubt that it can adapt sufficiently in the time available. When I see the sort of hatred of ‘not us’ which is evidenced by the recent incident in which people attempted to prevent the launch of a lifeboat, and the PM doubling down on his unlawful and immoral plan to push boats back into French waters, I can only take a pessimistic view. Our best hope is that the UK under its current regime is simply an aberration. Whether the UK is indeed just an aberration, rather than a particularly egregious example, only time will tell.

Wednesday 1 December 2021

Being used as the stakes in a high-risk gamble


Whilst in theory the Welsh Government has the power to determine what steps should be taken to minimise Covid risks, in practice the scope for divergence from England is limited by the tight control of the purse strings being retained in London, the long and porous nature of the border, and the shared media which inevitably highlights what is happening in England and can lead to a degree of confusion when the rules differ. Despite that, the Welsh Government has tried to maintain a safer environment in Wales than that pertaining in England, and has succeeded, by and large, in keeping most of the population on board with its decisions.

It has been clear since the emergence of the latest variant that the desire of Wales (and Scotland) to take stronger action that England is still strong, with the First Ministers of both countries openly demanding tougher action, a demand which Johnson has rejected outright. It isn’t just non-Tory politicians who are expressing their concern – just yesterday, Johnson slapped down the head of the UK Health Security Agency for her entirely sensible advice that people should try and avoid unnecessary socialising. The PM, apparently, is all in favour of unnecessary socialising whatever the risk. Today, senior doctors and NHS leaders have warned that the government needs to take stronger action on a precautionary basis, describing it as “bizarre” to wait until a spike happens before acting.

Whilst the government is entirely correct to emphasise that advisors advise and ministers decide, a decision not to act in the face of such strong advice from so many experts indicates that the government has decided to take a gamble. How much of a gamble remains to be seen. It may be that they end up being lucky: the new variant could turn out to be less of a problem than some think likely. If that happens, they will retrospectively claim that they took the right decisions, ignoring the degree to which luck plays a part; if things are as bad as others fear, the gamble will cost thousands of premature deaths. None of us – not even the most knowledgeable experts – have enough information at present even to make a reliable guess as to the outcome; only time will tell. Johnson might get away with it this time – that would be a good outcome in the short term, but might also simply encourage even more recklessness in the future.

What is clear is that the UK government is being less than honest with the population. Their rejection of the suggestion that all arrivals into the UK should self-isolate until after a second negative test on day 8 (as put forward by Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon) was on the basis that it would have a detrimental impact on the travel industry, which demonstrates that impacting one particular industry sector is a more important consideration for Johnson than hospitalisations and deaths, let alone increased pressure on the NHS. Presenting sound and sensible public health actions as being ‘restrictions’ on ‘liberty’ not only presses the right buttons with the Tory party’s increasingly influential extremists, but also encourages the public to overlook the fact that our lives are the stake in Johnson’s massive gamble, a gamble which puts profit ahead of people. And, to return to where this post started, as long as Wales is tied to England, no matter how much the Welsh Government might huff and puff, Welsh lives are part of that stake as well.