Friday 23 December 2022

For Britain, see England


The inability of some people to distinguish between the terms ‘England’, ‘Britain’, and ‘UK’ is well understood by most Welsh and Scottish people. And it isn’t about whether people do or do not support independence or even devolution; most unionists in Wales recognise that there is a difference of some sort between Wales and England even if they’re not always clear about what it is. Indeed, for many Welsh unionists, the idea that Wales can be a distinct nation whilst being part of a political union which confers greater strength to the parts as well as to the whole is a key element of their unionism, even if independentistas by and large consider them misguided. The problem they face though is that what looks obvious to them isn’t always as obvious to English politicians, let alone ordinary English voters. Whilst they don’t always express themselves in such blunt terms, ‘Britain’ (or even the UK) in England is really just Greater England; a monocultural, monolinguistic state, with an official religion of which the monarch is head. Subtleties such as Welsh disestablishment or the very existence of the Welsh language completely pass them by.

Some years ago, I spent some time working in Solihull, and during the course of a conversation with one of my colleagues there, he was surprised to learn that Welsh was the first language of many, was spoken daily, used in people’s homes, and the medium of education in many schools. He had always assumed that it was on a par with Latin – brought out for ceremonial use in Eisteddfodau, in the way Latin is brought out for ceremonial use by the Catholic Church or some universities. He was not a stupid man, by any means: he was apparently well-educated, knowledgeable and articulate, and was holding down a job at a fairly senior level in a large organisation. Whilst I’ve not often heard things expressed in the same way, his attitude is not untypical of many people in England, for whom Wales is those two geographically definable western peninsulas, but otherwise indistinguishable. There’s nothing malicious about the attitude, it’s just accepted ‘truth’. It crosses political dividing lines as well; one of the problems faced by people like Mark Drakeford who genuinely want to make the union work for Wales is that so many senior English Labour politicians share, deep down, the same sort of ignorance of difference.

Yesterday, it was PM Sunak who managed to clumsily express a similar view, with his statement that British is “…a shorthand that people use…” when they really mean English, clearly conveying that, in his mind, the two words are basically interchangeable. The ‘people’ who he says use this shorthand are, though, almost exclusively English; it’s not a shorthand that many in Wales or Scotland would ever use, where the difference between the two words is much more clearly understood. I’ve long believed that the eventual demise of the union between the nations of these islands will be down as much to the insouciance and carelessness of its supporters as to the efforts of its detractors. Sunak is just another piece of evidence of a problem of whose existence he remains blissfully unaware. And whilst his ignorance might irritate us, it's hardly unhelpful to the cause.

Wednesday 21 December 2022

Outsourcing morality


An unwelcome trend in recent decades has been for politicians (among others: there is a wider problem here as well) to ‘outsource’ their moral responsibility to those who make the rules. The result is that anything not specifically banned by the relevant rules or laws is considered to be acceptable. (Johnson and his party have taken this a stage further; they don’t even pretend to adhere to rules, even those they’ve written themselves.) The decision by the courts this week that there is nothing illegal about the policy of deporting asylum-seekers to Rwanda is a case in point, with the Home Secretary for the time being declaring it a huge victory, which will enable her to implement the policy, as though neither she nor he colleagues have any responsibility to consider the moral acceptability of dumping desperate people in a country with which they have no previous connection.

It's not quite the victory as which she presents it, though. Although the court ruled that the policy itself is not illegal (subject to possible appeal), it also ruled that the way in which the government had attempted to apply it was unlawful in every one of the cases it considered. In practice, that means that the process of getting to the point where any single individual can actually be sent to Rwanda will be long and complex; the chances of having a whole planeful of candidates any time soon are extremely low. They may decide, for propaganda purposes, to send a plane to Kigali with just a handful of people on it, but as publicity goes, that has a huge potential to backfire.

In any event, her pledge to operate the policy ‘at scale’ is pretty meaningless in the context of a deal which can, apparently, only handle around 200 refugees a year in its current form. That’s one planeful, which I suppose might encourage them to send lots of planes with just a few people on each rather than just get one annual headline. The Home Office, like much of the rest of government, seems to consider itself exempt from climate change policies, as well as any responsibility for morality. The theory is that sending people to Rwanda will make the desperate people think twice about making the crossing, and thus bust the people-smugglers’ business model. That, though, depends on them both knowing about the policy and believing that it will be applied to them. Doing the maths says that deporting 200 to Rwanda of the 40,000 who’ve arrived so far this year means that each individual has a 1 in 200 chance of being deported. And only then after a lengthy process. Given the degree of desperation which many feel, that doesn’t look like an effective deterrent to me; the policy fails even on its own stated terms.

The point is, of course, that the stated reasons for the policy aren’t the real ones, and never have been. The numbers involved are a drop in the ocean. The policy isn’t really about migration or asylum at all – it’s about electoral politics. People like Braverman, Patel and Sunak really do believe that being seen to be heartless and ruthless in dealing with small numbers of desperate people will buy them votes. And the worst part of all is that they might even be right.

Friday 16 December 2022

Choosing the enemy


Perhaps there’s something in the water in Downing Street; or perhaps power simply goes straight to the incumbent’s head. But the rock-solid belief that the PM of the day can deal with major problems by ignoring them or diverting attention elsewhere seems to take hold almost as soon as a new PM crosses the threshold. As Boris Johnson showed, with a sufficiently thick skin, a good dose of chutzpah, weak and terrified underlings, a complete lack of human empathy, honour, honesty and conscience, and sheer dogged determination to do whatever he or she wants regardless of the consequences, a PM can get away with it. For a while. As the same man also demonstrated, gravity cannot be denied indefinitely, and things eventually catch up with the incumbent. Whilst both of his successors have shown at least some of the same traits (see: lack of honesty, empathy, honour, or conscience), neither has quite been able to match the sheer bravado with which their mentor simply ignored anything he didn’t want to hear (see: covering his ears and humming the English anthem). The PM who lost out to a lettuce, to say nothing of the one who lost out to the one who lost out to a lettuce, simply don’t have what it takes to carry it off even for the short period for which Johnson somehow managed it.

The way in which Thatcher ‘vanquished’ the unions has become part of Tory Party folklore, along with the belief that simply attacking ‘the unions’ will somehow transform itself into a huge wave of support, but an inability to distinguish between taking on the miners on the one hand and declaring war on nurses on the other looks like a huge mistake, as even a growing number in his own party are recognising. It’s impossible to believe that senior civil servants are not telling him, in blunt terms, that he’s taking a very ‘brave’ stance (perhaps he's unfamiliar with Yes, Minister and thinks it's a compliment) given the public support for the nurses, but he’s still clinging tightly to his shovel and continuing to dig, even when he’s been offered a way out in the form of asking the ‘independent’ pay review body to consider whether circumstances might have changed. The ‘independence’ of pay review bodies isn’t exactly what most people might understand by the term (the members are appointed by the government which also sets their remit) but that does create an opportunity to blame the ‘independent’ body for any climb down. It’s a face-saving approach rather than a considered decision, but a drowning man can’t be too picky.

There’s an old saying that we should choose our enemies carefully, because that choice ends up defining us. It’s a truism which Sunak seems not to understand. Defining his party and government as opponents of paying a decent wage to nurses – and by extension, as opponents of a caring and effective NHS – doesn’t look the wisest choice for someone whose one job was to detoxify his party enough to ensure that it isn’t wiped out at the next election. But then again, as the last 5 PMs have shown us, in the eyes of the party’s MPs and members ‘wisdom’ is not even on the ‘desirable’ list of attributes for a Tory PM.

Wednesday 14 December 2022

Defining a crisis


James Callaghan never actually said “Crisis? What crisis?” as he returned from a trip abroad during the so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’ in 1979, but that well-known comic, ‘Thesun’ turned it into a highly memorable and effective headline. Like the phrase ‘Winter of Discontent’ itself, it underlined the extent to which newspaper headlines can set a tone or an agenda, a power which they continue to abuse on a regular basis. People in the UK are facing a deliberate attack on their living standards which is almost unprecedented, certainly since the 1930s; the biggest war to be fought on European soil since 1945 is raging in Ukraine and driving millions from their homes; and the NHS is close to collapse after 12 years of intentional government policy. Yet the biggest crisis facing the UK, according to a host of newspapers, is a few thousand desperate people taking a perilous boat-trip from France to Kent; people fleeing war, oppression, disease, or simply abject poverty seeking a better life in one of the world’s richest countries.

The numbers, in relation to the UK’s population, are tiny. They are very much lower than the numbers of those seeking refuge in other countries such as Germany. Yet the Little Englanders who set the news agenda have decided (not without some justification, it must be said) that playing to the racist and xenophobic element of their readership sells papers. It also helps their political allies amongst the Tories to push an agenda which seeks to scapegoat migrants for inadequacies in the Health Service, housing, and education rather than allowing people to understand that those inadequacies are a result of sustained government policy rather than migration. Divide and conquer has always worked for them, and it’s working now, unfortunately. Getting some of the least well-off to blame those even worse off than themselves rather than those who’ve hoarded all the resources to themselves is their standard operating procedure.

The result is a government which announces ever more extreme measures to tackle the non-crisis, in an attempt to divert attention from the real crises. Sections of the media actively egg them on, and the official ‘opposition’ seems more interested in criticising them for the inefficiency of their implementation of their policies than for the policies themselves. If international law decrees that the government’s policies are illegal, the answer, apparently, is not to change the policies to comply with the law, but to disapply the law, and the last PM but one has today joined the ranks of those calling for the UK to opt out of the European Convention on Human Rights. His Brexit deal seriously wounded the Good Friday Agreement; the fact that his latest proposal would finish it off seems to be as trivial a concern to him as his own breaches of domestic law.

Crossing the Channel in a small boat is certainly a crisis for those in the boats, even if not for the rest of us. The cost of living is certainly a crisis for most of us. But perhaps the biggest crisis of all is the gullibility of those who believe that the former is a bigger problem than the latter, and the ruthless way in which that gullibility is being exploited. And it might be the hardest one to solve.

Monday 12 December 2022

Legislating for Welsh


When I was a small child in primary school, we had an occasional lesson in Welsh. Our usual class teacher would leave the room, and a Welsh-speaking teacher would take over the class for a period. He usually proceeded to read us a story. In English. Somewhere, a box was duly ticked, and a class of monoglot English speakers had officially had their exposure to the language. My first real educational contact with the language didn’t happen until I went on to the grammar school. Welsh was compulsory for the first year, after which we were given a choice of continuing with Welsh or learning German. And it was fairly obvious that the teachers (with the exception of the Welsh teachers) thought that German was preferable. Prevailing attitudes at the time. It might be down to my long-term rebelliousness that I chose Welsh anyway. I eventually emerged with an average (grade 3 in old money) ‘O’ level pass, but unable to use the language in any meaningful way. Much like the French that I also learned.

The teaching of Welsh in English-medium schools has improved immeasurably since those days, although I have a sneaky suspicion that lurking behind the statistics and the boxes ticked the actual situation on the ground may not be quite as the official reports suggest. And we know for certain that Welsh lessons in English-medium schools, even though compulsory until the age of 16, are not generally turning out citizens who can use the language. The odd individual who does manage it – and I’ve known a few – is very much the exception, and those exceptions result more from personal determination and motivation than from simply attending lessons. If the objective is to build the number of Welsh speakers, the one thing that we know does work is Welsh-medium education (although there are still some serious questions about the way in which so many seem to ‘lose’ their Welsh after leaving school).

There are many things that the Welsh government need to do if they are serious about reaching the target of 1 million speakers by 2050, but given that adults find it harder to learn a new language – any language – than children, education is always going to be the most important; and it is Welsh-medium education that works best. The call by Cymdeithas yr Iaith and others for the government to ensure that all children are educated through the medium of Welsh highlights the one policy that could really make a difference, although it’s neither a simple nor a short term response. Getting non-Welsh speaking teachers to the point at which they can confidently and fluently teach their subjects through the medium of a second language, which they themselves have learned as an adult, is a massive undertaking. And getting there involves a great deal more than simply legislating for the outcome.

The negative response to the idea by the First Minister is disappointing, of course; but I can’t help feeling that there is some merit in the points he makes. It is far too easy for those of us committed to the cause of the language to believe that legislation will do the job, and I suspect that Drakeford is actually right to fear that trying to simply impose such a solution, even in the form of a decades-away target, will create something of a backlash (even if it were politically possible for any leader of Welsh Labour to suggest such a thing and carry his or her party with him or her). It would be a lot easier to suggest such an approach if we’d already achieved the first million and were looking to get to the second, but that’s a bit of a ‘chicken-and-egg’ argument. Such legislation is not a bad idea per se; but it looks premature, and had Drakeford found a way of expressing that, I’d have a lot more confidence that he was convinced about his own government’s aim.

The growth in Welsh-medium education has been a success story over the past 60 years, but it’s a growth which has largely been demand-led, fought for by determined campaigners, with authorities (usually, but not exclusively, Labour controlled) dragging their feet and being slow to respond to that demand. There are many children who have already missed out on the opportunity due to a lack of availability in their areas, and there is little doubt that there are children today being educated through the medium of English who would have been educated through the medium of Welsh had convenient provision been available. Speeding up the process of making that provision, training the educators, and getting to the point where future growth is more supply-led (Welsh-medium education is one of the few things where ‘build it and they will come’ actually seems to be a viable approach) than demand-led (with a requirement for comprehensive ‘proof’ of that demand before a new school is even planned) are entirely within the control of the Welsh government, and they are simply not doing as much as they could. The time for legislation will surely come in due course, but in the meantime there is a danger that premature demands for legislation that Drakeford can’t and won’t deliver diverts attention from those things which he can and should deliver. And on which he is failing.

Friday 9 December 2022

Labour declining to use the power it already has?


Leaving aside the not entirely irrelevant fact that Rishi Sunak has trouble with his arithmetic and a tendency to invent whichever numbers suit his argument at the time (he is just following the well-known tradition that 89.6% of all politicians’ statistics are, like this one, entirely made up), his claim that it would cost every household £1000 “to meet the pay demands of the union bosses” repeats the rhetoric which the government uses repeatedly, which seeks to pretend that this is all about ‘union barons’ rather than union members, aka ‘workers’. It’s a deliberate attempt to distance the working people involved from their ‘union bosses’ (who, in reality, are actually the servants of the workers, not their bosses – their actual bosses are the tight-fisted employers), but it’s a trick which works, not least because the BBC and press follow the line of talking about this as a dispute between ‘unions’ and employers rather than between workers and employers. It also, of course, draws a line between those ‘hard-working people’ who are disadvantaged by strikes, and those ‘evil’ trade union barons who seek only to ‘disrupt’. One of the reasons why it’s been so effective for decades is that ‘His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’ are so pathetically afraid of the media that they are unwilling to call out this trick for the sleight of hand which it is, and unwilling to support working people seeking to maintain and improve their standard of living.

Any industrial dispute is, ultimately, about power, or rather the balance of power enjoyed by employers on the one hand and employees on the other. And successive governments – of both parties – have consistently tried to shift that balance away from workers whilst strengthening the hand of employers. That is what all the anti-trade union and anti-strike legislation has always been about, whether it comes from Thatcher or her predecessors – never forget Barbara Castle and her ‘In Place of Strife’ Bill. The way that UK society has become more unequal, with those at the top hoarding ever greater amounts of wealth, whilst those at the bottom struggle, isn’t an accident, and wasn’t inevitable. It is a direct result of that shift in the balance of power. Austerity for the many and obscene wealth for the few has been inherent in the Labour-Tory philosophy for decades.

There are signs that at least some of the public are beginning to see the light, particularly in relation to workers in the NHS. The hypocrisy of giving them a round of applause once a week during the worst of the pandemic and grinding down their standard of living now is difficult for Sunak to conceal; of all the battles he could have picked, this looks like the most unwise of all, and underlines how far his lifestyle is from that of most of those he seeks to rule. Responding to pay claims by attempting to further restrict the power of working people by banning strikes or trying to impose minimum service levels which must be maintained rather than seeking a negotiated settlement is an attempt to divide and rule which might play well with Telegraph readers, but appears to be having the reverse effect on wider public opinion. And it doesn’t help his case that he showed – as he regularly boasts – during the pandemic (to say nothing of the response to the war in Ukraine) that availability of money isn’t a problem for the government; how money is used is ultimately a political question, not a financial one.

Despite all of that, there is actually a good case to be made for seeking to prevent strikes in certain essential services; but to do so in a fair and just society requires a quid pro quo, and that quid pro quo can only be an absolute cast-iron guarantee to protect the living standards, in absolute as well as relative terms, of those working in those services. Telling those employees that they have no choice; they must accept a decrease in their standard of living and they cannot act collectively in an attempt to maintain that standard is a recipe for social division rather than harmony. It’s also counter-productive in the short to medium term – with the economy close to full employment, lower paid people in the public services can, and some probably will, vote with their feet. Restricting immigration to please the racists and zenophobes amongst their supporters merely compounds the problem. But that must be as obvious to Sunak as it is to others, which leads to the inevitable conclusion that that is the outcome he seeks. If someone wanted to destroy public services, including the NHS, and replace them with services run for profit, what would they do differently to Sunak?

Despite not being in government, the Labour Party is currently in a position of unprecedented power for an opposition party. With the increasing certainty that they will be forming the government in less than two years’ time, setting out clearly that they would reverse some policies would make it much harder for those charged with implementing them to actually do so. Perhaps the most obvious example is the new coal mine in Cumbria. If investors, even those as far away as the Caymans looking to avoid tax on their profits, felt a high degree of certainty that the project was going to be cancelled in two years, would they really still invest? Even in the public sector, why rush to make things happen now when you know that they’ll only be reversed in a matter of months? Labour’s unwillingness to use that power is astounding – and more than a little worrying for those of us who want to see significant change rather then mere tinkering.

Tuesday 6 December 2022

Who's really doing what Putin wants?


Nadhim Zahawi is clearly a man of deeply and sincerely held views. Appointed as Chancellor from the Downing Street bunker in the dying days of the Johnson regime because of his deep and long term loyalty to Johnson, within 48 hours he was equally sincere in his belief that Johnson should resign. When the subsequent Truss regime imploded, he was one of the first to express his deeply-held view that Johnson should return as PM, and then last week he told us with immense sincerity that there was no chance of a Johnson return. It’s anybody’s guess as to what his position on the question will be next week, but we can be certain that it will be deeply-held and sincere. Or, at least, as deeply-held and sincere as any other views he’s expressed.

On which subject, he told us very sincerely yesterday that striking nurses are playing into the hands of Putin. If I understand his argument correctly (and who knows with Zahawi?), Putin will be delighted if the nurses manage to maintain or improve their standard of living, but deeply disappointed if the nurses do their patriotic duty and accept a drop in their standard of living (something which all of us, except millionaires like, er, Zahawi, are apparently obliged to do as part of our patriotic duty). Now I may well be missing something here, but if Putin wants the nurses to get a decent increase whilst the UK government wants their living standards to fall, doesn’t that rather make Putin look at least a little bit like the good guy here?

In truth, I doubt that Putin is actually much bothered about nurses or any other group of workers in the UK. His main aim in relation to those countries like the UK which are supporting Ukraine is to see the population demoralised to the extent that they force their government to stop supporting Ukraine. On that basis, given a choice between a UK government which grinds down standards of living and blames the war in Ukraine, or a UK government which acts to maintain the standards of living of its population regardless of events in Ukraine, it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to conclude that he’d prefer the former. By a large margin. But if the UK government wants the same outcome from the strikes as Putin, who is really playing into his hands?

Monday 5 December 2022

More words, not action, from Labour?


Looking back over successive elections since the time of Harold Wilson, I can’t remember a point during the lifetime of a Conservative government when the Labour Party was not promising, or at least talking about, either abolition or else major reform of the House of Lords. Nor can I remember a time when they’ve ever delivered on the fine words once elected. When push comes to shove, there are always other priorities and too many vested interests. And Labour PMs have usually ended up finding that the House of Lords is useful to them as a means of rewarding donors and supporters – or even just getting rid of troublesome MPs.

Today’s Great Announcement of the results of a Commission led by Gordon Brown can only sensibly be read in that historical context; the rhetoric is fine, but will they deliver this time? Some Labour voices in the Lords are already suggesting that the proposals should be watered down or delayed. There are, they argue, more important so-called ‘bread-and-butter’ issues which need addressing first, as though governments can only focus on one issue at a time. The words coming from Starmer and Brown today suggest that they realise that constitutional reform is not as divorced from the immediate economic reality as many seem to suggest: empowering the regions and nations of the UK can also help government to be more responsive, if done properly. That caveat (‘if done properly’) is an enormous one, though. The whole history of devolution tells us that the centre only ever cedes power reluctantly, always seeks to control tightly how it can be used, and always retains the right to ungrant what it previously granted. And whilst the idea that Starmer's Labour will be any different from the Tories on those questions has yet to be either disproven or demonstrated, the history of Labour attitudes to reform once they get elected is not exactly encouraging.

Some of the answers that Starmer and Brown have been giving today already look evasive, and there is a marked lack of detail on how the grand principles will actually work. What do they mean, for instance, when they claim that the replacement for the House of Lords (the council for regions and the nations) will represent the nations and regions? How will that work? How will they be elected? If elections are fought by the same parties as fight elections for the House of Commons, the new ‘council’ will end up being defined more in terms of its party balance (between ‘government’ members and ‘opposition’ members); the idea that, for instance, the Welsh members will vote and act as a bloc fighting for Welsh interests instead of splitting between the government and the opposition is one for the fairies. None of this is answered by today’s announcement – these are, apparently, all matters for ‘consultation’ and debate (which the more naïve might have thought was what the commission was supposed to be doing).

They are also promising legislation to ‘protect’ the powers of the Senedd and the other devolved administrations, but the ‘how’ is again missing. Unless they are proposing constitutional changes which will abolish the idea that no legislation passed by one government can tie the hands of any future government (and they certainly do not seem to be proposing that), then all they can really promise is that the next Labour government will offer such protection for the duration of a single term. It’s not much of a promise in reality. The real underlying problem, the one that they have completely ignored, is the supposition that ‘sovereignty’ is invested in the monarch by God and exercised by Westminster by the grace of the monarch. It’s the inevitable result of a monarchical constitution. Without moving to a position where ‘sovereignty’ is expressly recognised as belonging to the people in each nation or region, on whose behalf it is exercised through the various parliaments, it’s hard to see how they can deliver the long term changes needed. The founders of the Labour Party would have had little problem with understanding that, but the timid creatures currently inhabiting the party will continue to run a mile from the idea of real empowerment.

Monday 28 November 2022

Breakfasts and holidays


Economics in the real world is hard, and one of the things that economists often do is to simplify things. As an exercise in explaining a theory, it’s perfectly fine; but in the hands of politicians who have understood the theory but not the extent to which it has been made simple, it’s potentially disastrous. For an economic purist, humanity is an economic animal and all decisions should rationally be taken by analysing the best economic outcome for the individual. To use an extreme example, in deciding whether to have cornflakes or toast for breakfast, I should cost all the ingredients, all the costs involved in purchasing, transporting and preparing them, and the opportunity cost of the time it takes me to prepare and eat it. “Breakfast means breakfast”, to coin a phrase, and the two options are considered entirely fungible. Preferring the taste or the texture of one over the other is to use irrational factors in the decision-making process. Real life doesn’t work that way, of course (which is not to deny the fact that there are far too many people in the world for whom the decision to eat breakfast or not is very much an economic one). And fungibility is a difficult concept.

A better and more current example of this sort of over-simplistic thinking is the Tory reaction last week to the idea of a tourist tax or levy in Wales. Imposing such a tax is, in their view, a disastrous policy which will lead to the overnight complete collapse of the tourist industry in Wales, as visitors avoid the tax by going elsewhere. Even in their own terms, it’s wrong; if the tax were indeed to have that effect, it wouldn’t be the fact of the tax that did the damage, it would be the impact of that tax on the relative prices of a visit to Wales and a visit to another part of the UK. It would be higher prices that people would be avoiding, not the tax per se. Nevertheless, from their hopelessly over-simplistic perspective, “holiday means holiday”, and people will go to the railway museum in York, or the beach in Bournemouth, instead of visiting Zip World in Gwynedd. But real life isn’t like that. People really don’t decide between a museum, a beach, and a thrill ride on the basis of price. ‘Irrational’ factors such as personal preference play a major role. And it isn’t only about deciding between one type of holiday or another – in deciding where (and whether) to go on holiday, people also make choices about whether to spend the money on other things; competition for the spend on a holiday in Gwynedd isn’t limited to the range of holidays available elsewhere. All of these factors are ignored in search of a doom-laden headline from Tories who are basically averse to all taxes in all circumstances but unwilling to be honest about it.

Whether the proposed levy will impact the number of visitors coming to Wales is an open question to which no-one really knows the answer (and the fact that no-one knows the answer is a much better ground for examining the proposals very carefully). The extent of any impact will also depend on the amount of the levy; there’s a huge difference on the overall price of a holiday between a levy of, say, £1 per night and one of £100 per night. To further complicate things, any imminent introduction of such a levy would be coming at a time when the UK government is deliberately setting out to reduce people’s ability to spend as well as their living standards. Sorting out which change actually caused any reduction in visitor numbers would be far from straightforward. The Tories did get one point almost half right though. Some places have indeed used a levy or tax in an attempt to reduce the number of tourists. That doesn’t necessarily mean, as the Tories claim, that such will always be the effect, but there is no doubt that it is one potential effect. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is another question – the Tories assume the latter, but for people living in areas with high numbers of tourists, ‘over-tourism’ is a real concern. I hope, though, that that forms no part of the Welsh government’s thinking in relation to the proposed levy, and that they genuinely are going to ensure that any revenue is used to reduce the impact of tourism on local services rather than fund other expenditure. Not because I dismiss the problems which over-tourism can cause, but because using pricing mechanisms to control numbers pushes even the cheapest holidays beyond the reach of even more people and makes holidays the preserve of a smaller number. I somehow doubt that that issue even crossed the Tories’ minds.

Friday 25 November 2022

Silly assumptions and silly celebrations


Unionists are celebrating their supposed ‘victory’ in the Supreme Court earlier this week, with a ruling which establishes very clearly that, under UK law, there is no legal route for Scotland (and the same would obviously apply to Wales) to determine its own future which does not involve being granted permission by the UK Government, and that there is no requirement for that government to give – or even have – any reason other than they don’t want a particular outcome. Scotland is, it seems, trapped in a curious version of Catch 22: the country has an absolute right to leave a ‘voluntary’ union of ‘partners’ if it chooses, there is just no legal way of exercising that right. Asked the question, specifically, one of the unionists in chief, ‘Keith’ Starmer said that it wasn’t for him to explain how Scotland could exercise that right, it was for those seeking independence to set out how they intend to proceed. They have, of course, done so, several times, even complying fulsomely with the route set out by Thatcher decades ago (who said that, if a majority of Scottish MPs were elected on an independence platform, Scotland would become independent). It’s just that, every time they set out a route, Labour-Tory politicians – backed up by the courts which are bound by the principle that absolute power stems from the Crown and resides in the UK parliament, whatever the acts of union might have said – conspire together to change the unwritten rules.

Whether their celebration is justified or not is another proposition entirely: it looks more like another example of the short-termism which dominates UK politics, and is based on the assumption that support for independence (and the SNP) is a temporary phenomenon which will go away if denied loudly enough for long enough. After all, every promise and policy they themselves put forward is regarded as nothing more than a short-term fix to get elected, and many do not survive election day, let alone detailed parliamentary scrutiny. Why would they expect the SNP to be any different? Perhaps they’re right; perhaps the desire for independence will fade away in the light of stubborn refusals to countenance it. The evidence to date suggests otherwise, though. And trying to present the whole debate as nothing more than some sort of personal campaign by Nicola Sturgeon contains more than a hint of traditional imperialist misogyny, to say nothing of contempt for the mass of the Scottish population.

They are right, of course, in legal terms (and in terms of normal English politics) to say that the SNP (and other pro-independence parties) cannot simply turn the next general election into a plebiscite on independence. But normal English politics has ceased applying in Scotland, where a different political reality rules. Have the unionists really thought through what happens if (and I’ll accept it’s a big ‘if’, although within the range of currently credible outcomes) 60% of the electorate votes for parties who have declared that their only policy for that election is independence, and every MP from Scotland belongs to a pro-independence party? They seem, instead (the Tories as much as Labour), to be putting their hands over their eyes and ears and clinging to the assumption that people will be so keen to get rid of the Tories and replace them with a Labour government in London that the SNP will be defeated electorally and replaced by Labour MPs. And they’re betting the house on that outcome.

There are those independentistas in Scotland who have been critical of Nicola Sturgeon, suggesting that she has been too slow, too cautious. It’s a difficult call, but I suspect that she’s as aware as anyone that moving too fast and losing would be the biggest setback of all. The issue really would be off the table for a generation. Indeed, one of the surprising things to me has been the unwillingness of the unionists to allow a referendum at the point at which they had their best chance of winning it. Looking at the support for independence across the age demographic, the simple fact is that young independentistas are entering the electorate and older unionists are leaving it. A Scottish parliament along with a Scottish contingent in Westminster, both filled with independentistas, and enjoying overwhelming electoral support (the only bit of the puzzle still missing) should be the unionists’ worst nightmare, yet they seem determined to bring it about. The unionists can and always will win the legal arguments, because the absolute sovereignty of the Crown trumps all else. But all the Supreme Court decision has really done is to emphasise that it’s a political issue, first and foremost – and it will ultimately be determined by the voters of Scotland. The assumption that a territory and its people can be held in a union indefinitely against the clear will of those people because the monarch's ancestors declared themselves absolute rulers is a very silly basis for celebration.

Monday 21 November 2022

Overpaid comics


Living former Prime Ministers – a species of which the UK currently has a glut which is bigger than ever before in its history, the size of which is projected to rise again shortly – can command handsome fees for giving speeches based on their experiences and the wisdom it has allegedly given them. We know, for instance, that Boris Johnson was paid £276,000 (plus expenses) for one speech in the US (whilst also being paid for being an AWOL MP). We also know that he has since given another speech in Singapore, although the fee for that one will probably not become public until the next update of his declaration of interests. The host for the second one has had to apologise to those present to hear it, some of whom felt his robust remarks about China were inappropriate and offensive. The words used by Bloomberg in delivering the apology were that “…the presentation was meant as after-dinner entertainment rather than serious discussion of important controversial and complex issues”, implying that, whatever the fee was, it was being paid not for any expertise or enlightenment, but for a very expensive – and not particularly amusing – stand-up comedian. Overpaid, unfunny and offensive stand-up comic may be one of the fairest descriptions of Johnson ever, but it is surely not what people think they are getting when they pay an exorbitant price for a guest speaker.

It’s also interesting to read precisely what Johnson said that so aroused the ire of those in attendance. He accused China and Russia of being “… states that have been traditionally hostile to immigration and that are becoming increasingly nationalist in their attitudes”, of being “… willing to show a candid disregard for the rule of international law”, and of having demonstrated “… the immense limitations of their political systems by the disastrous mistakes they have made”. There’s not much to disagree with in any of that, but any objective observer would recognise that those same traits have recently been on display a lot closer to home – and especially under the so-called leadership of Johnson himself and his successors. It is that curious English exceptionalism which enables him to see dangerous nationalism everywhere except in the mirror. Paying the pot to criticise the kettle is obviously lucrative from the perspective of the pot, but it provides little in the way of meaningful political analysis. Just as well that one host, at least, recognises that he was overpaying a bad comic rather than employing any sort of expert.

Friday 18 November 2022

A plague of Hunts


Poor old Jeremy Hunt. This kind, compassionate Conservative, who set out determined to look after the interests of the poorest, didn’t really want to introduce a lot of the measures he announced yesterday, but he was, sadly, compelled to do so in order to comply with the new fiscal rules introduced by, er, Jeremy Hunt, the cold, uncaring Conservative who is bound by rigid dogma and ideology to look after the interests of the richest in society. New chancellor, new fiscal rules; but the problem with setting a fiscal rule which requires “that underlying debt must fall as a percentage of GDP by the fifth year of a rolling five-year period … [and] that public sector borrowing, over the same period, must be below 3% of GDP” is that the Hunt who set the rules left the Hunt charged with following them with little choice but to introduce measures which will increase taxation, cut public services, and reduce the standard of living of most people by around 7%. (Although, curiously, and I’m sure this is entirely unintentional, it seems that the wealthiest 10% will actually find themselves better off. Who would ever have expected that from a Tory Hunt?)

Whilst the self-styled nice Hunt can only follow the rules, the nasty Hunt didn’t have to set the rules in the way he did. He could, for instance, have set a target that debt must not rise by more than x% of GDP; or that public sector borrowing must not go above 5% of GDP. Either of those would have left him able to properly fund public services and protect the vulnerable. The so-called ‘black hole’ exists only because the fiscal rules have been applied to forecasts; applying different rules to those forecasts could have increased or reduced the size of the so-called hole – or even turned it into a surplus. Setting the rules in such a way as to oblige the Chancellor to impose a new version of austerity tells us only that the rules are doing exactly what the not-so-nice-after-all Chancellor wants them to do – austerity is a political choice, not a necessity.

He claimed yesterday that the alternative was to heap debt on our children and grandchildren, and that this was something that Conservatives don’t do. But in truth, it is exactly what Conservatives (and other governments for that matter) do do, and always have done. The UK has had a national debt since 1692 and has never repaid it all. Individual debts have, of course, been repaid, but only by raising new ones. If we treat a generation as being around 20 years, then in the terms in which Hunts (both of them) describe debt, today’s taxpayers are effectively still repaying the debts of their 14 times great grandparents. And the thing is – it really doesn’t matter; it’s entirely normal. Nobody, as far as I’m aware, is arguing that debt can or should be allowed to rise indefinitely – but neither does anyone, for all their profound statements, know precisely what amount of debt is impossible, and the UK’s public debt as a percentage of GDP is lower than a lot of other countries across the world – including both the US and Japan. The idea that the UK – one of the wealthiest countries in the world – is uniquely unable to provide basic services and standard of living for all its citizens owes nothing to any laws of economics; it is based on a dogmatic view that public spending is always inherently bad. And that’s a view shared by both Hunts, as well as all the other ones in the cabinet. Worst of all is that the Labour Party seems to be hooked on the same dogma, and seem determined to follow a similar set of rules. It seems that nasty Hunts aren't confined to a single party, even if they go under different names.

Thursday 17 November 2022

Fruitful distractions


Fair play to the Tories – not a phrase which appears often here. When it comes to finding a distraction from the major problems of the day, mostly caused by them in the first place, their creative ability knows few bounds. Thus it was that yesterday, when the newly appointed (and soon to be ex) PM was striding across the world stage doing his best to avoid justifiable criticism for the UK failing to meet its climate targets (to say nothing about its plans to distance itself even further from those targets by exploiting new oil and gas reserves) by staring pointedly at the Russian Foreign Minister (who must, surely, have been absolutely terrified as a result), his team back home came up with an even better distraction technique. They issued a formal denial that the Deputy PM had ever thrown any tomatoes at staff. The other world leaders must have been mightily amused - or, more likely, utterly bemused.

It was a brilliant move, although on closer examination, the denial was somewhat incomplete. There was no denial that tomatoes had been launched on a ballistic trajectory across the room, the denial solely related to the alleged target. During the tomato-related incident – which will surely come to be known as tomato-gate – we are sincerely assured that no persons or animals were in any way physically harmed, although it seems that some of those present might have interpreted it as threatening behaviour, a bit like a shot across the bows of a ship. More importantly, the denial only covered tomatoes, leaving open the possibility that other fruits and vegetables, some with a much greater propensity to wound or injure (imagine the potential damage resulting from hurling a large watermelon, for instance) might have been deployed. For completeness, we should demand a comprehensive list of all the fruits and vegetables which the Deputy PM has never thrown at staff. Tory MPs must also lay urgent questions about which other cabinet ministers may, or may not, be in the habit of throwing fruit around during meetings. Only then will their party realise the full potential of their attempt to use allegations of fruit-throwing as a distraction technique.

Friday 11 November 2022

Seeing no evil


Recruitment processes vary greatly. In the public sector particularly, great emphasis is placed on fairness and transparency, and recruiters are often advised to discard all previous knowledge of the applicants, even in the case of internal applicants, and to base their decision solely on the application form and interview. This has long struck me as being potentially more than a little dangerous – if there is information which is known which might make a candidate unsuitable for appointment, choosing to ignore that information because it wasn’t mentioned on the application form and didn’t arise in response to interview questions can lead to a silly appointment. The private sector often works rather differently, as a result of which there can sometimes be a lack of transparency.

There is one appointment process which appears to be utterly unique, however, and that is the process by which a Tory Prime Minister appoints his or her cabinet. Apparently, the standard response to a suggestion from a close aide that “There may be a serious problem in appointing X” is not to ask for more information as any rational person would be likely to do, but to say something along the lines of “Tell me no more – I’m going to appoint X anyway, and I want to be able to deny that I ever knew any details of the problem”. What it really tells us is that the biggest problem of all is appointing one of the three brass monkeys to the highest post in the land. And that the Tory Party has an apparently limitless supply of brass monkeys.

Wednesday 9 November 2022

Rewarding a rare achievement


Very few government ministers ever get sacked; they invariably ‘resign’, and almost never entirely of their own accord. Nods, winks, and outright threats combine to make it entirely clear when a letter of resignation is expected, and it would not be at all surprising to find that letters are sometimes written for doomed ministers and handed to them for them to append their signature. Gavin Williamson’s departure yesterday has been presented to the world as a resignation, but it is clear that the ‘resignation’ was preceded by a decision in Downing Street to withdraw the proposed defence of the Minister, making it clear what action was required of him.

Having been given a knighthood to reward his previous failures, this is a superb opportunity for another award of some sort. A lifetime achievement award is surely in order for a man who has succeeded – uniquely, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain – in getting sacked from three different cabinet jobs by three different Prime Ministers, and all in the space of less than four years. Perhaps Sunak’s successor, due to be appointed within the next few months, will give him an opportunity to add to his score. One might think that no PM could ever be so stupid as to appoint him again, but there were those who thought the same thing after his last two sackings. The previous peak of his career – before being elected to parliament in 2010 – was, apparently, to win Fireplace Salesman of the Year in two consecutive years in 2006 and 2007. A third award would look good on his mantlepiece, positioned nicely between the two of them.

Wednesday 2 November 2022

A tale of two honourable members


Once upon a time, there were two ambitious Tory MPs, desperately trying to climb the greasy pole towards the top job. One got as far as being health secretary during a pandemic, during the course of which he managed to condemn thousands to an early death by sending them to unprepared and ill-equipped care homes, whilst doling out lucrative PPE contracts to mates and associates with no previous experience in the field. None of that could stop his inexorable rise which was, instead, halted by some CCTV footage of an illicit liaison with one of his staff. The other actually reached the very top job, and was responsible not only for appointing the first to a job for which he was woefully inadequate, but also advocated that even more bodies should be piled high in the streets. He was also partial to the occasional sexual peccadillo, and equally inadequate for the job in which he found himself, but was shameless and brazen enough to laugh, bluster and lie his way through his own failings. The last straw which brought him down was his inability to be honest about what he knew and when about the sexual peccadillos of another person whom he had appointed to a government job.

Whatever, both men, finding themselves prised out of the jobs which gave meaning to their existence, decided to bunk off from their other job – that of being an MP – and its expectation that they might serve their constituents as well as turning up for the occasional parliamentary vote, and seek their fortune elsewhere. The first signed up for reality TV (so called, apparently, because it bears no connection whatever with what 99.99% of the population would recognise as reality), whilst the other took himself off to give a lecture in the US before taking (another) luxury holiday in the Caribbean.

So far, so similar: but then observe the reaction. The first became the subject of much opprobrium from his former colleagues, even losing the whip, whilst over 100 of those same colleagues (allegedly – the counting skills of a man who appears less than entirely certain about the number of his own progeny must necessarily be treated with considerable caution) welcomed the second back with open arms as some sort of prodigal son. Given that the basic offence committed by both is the same (abandoning their constituents during term time to seek rewards elsewhere), the differing responses of their party seem rather strange. It could be, of course, that ‘Matt’* simply went to the wrong school, which failed to inculcate a sufficient sense of brazen indifference and/or allow him to make all the right connections. Alternatively, it could simply be that his colleagues look down on a man who accepted a few thousand for some pretty degrading activities and prefer the chutzpah of ‘Boris’* who apparently charged $150,000 for giving a 30 minute speech, the basic premise of which was that his chaotic period in office made him some sort of expert in global issues. Perhaps it was neither, and was all down to good old Tory values, under which milking one’s position to extract vast sums on false pretences from unsuspecting Americans is simply more acceptable than the public consumption of marsupial genitalia for a comparative pittance. About the only thing of which we can be certain is that neither response had much to do with lokking after the needs and interests of the men’s constituents.

(*Some names have not been changed to protect the guilty)

Thursday 27 October 2022

Humpty-Dumpty for PM


In defence of the PM’s decision to reappoint as Home Secretary an individual who has breached security rules and the ministerial code, government ministers went on the airwaves yesterday to claim that she had made a mistake, accepted the fact, and apologised, and that her re-appointment was therefore entirely acceptable. Sunak himself said much the same: “The home secretary made an error of judgement but she recognised that she raised the matter and she accepted her mistake”, before going on to say that she would be cracking down on criminals, such as burglars. Bearing in mind the fact that she deliberately shared a confidential document with someone who had no right to see it, to say nothing of the widespread suggestions that this was actually a pattern of behaviour rather than a one-off, it could presage a whole new approach to crime and punishment. Just imagine the savings for the criminal justice system if the criminals being cracked down upon had merely to admit a mistake, apologise, and resume their criminal activity unhindered. Sunak’s definition of ‘integrity’ seems to differ little from that of Johnson.

Then we have his approach to answering questions in the Commons. There is an old party game in which one person gives the answer to a question and the rest have to work out what the question was – my favourite was “9W”, which was apparently a response to the question, “Mr Wagner, do you spell your name with a ‘V’?”. The idea is that there is at least some possibility of working out how the answer related to the question, but Sunak (like both of his predecessors) seems determined to take it to a new level. According to Hansard, the question to which “I was pleased to have a call last night with the First Minister of Scotland” is the response was “…will he admit his mistake and sack the Home Secretary without delay”. It’s not at all clear that he has understood the rules of the game, but it certainly fits the Tory definition of ‘accountability’. To say nothing of underlining the utter pointlessness of Prime Minister’s Questions.

It shows, though, that he is, at heart, a party animal, always willing to have what passes in his life for fun and games. He’s also joined in the great pensions hokey-cokey. Whether the government is or is not in favour of the triple lock currently seems to change by the hour. It was certainly in the 2019 manifesto, and he’s committed to that manifesto, but was unwilling to commit to this part of it yesterday. His chancellor was unwilling to commit to it just over a week ago, then was, according to last week’s outgoing PM, completely committed to it, but this week is unsure again. It's all part of the Tory definition of creating ‘certainty’.

Integrity, accountability, certainty – three keywords which mean exactly what Sunak wants them to mean. No more, no less. Inside Sunak lurks none other than Humpty-Dumpty.

Wednesday 26 October 2022

Unite and die


It is a curiosity of the English constitution that the replacement of the Prime Minister is regarded as a complete change of government, creating a clean sheet where what has gone before can be consigned to the dustbin of history as though the ‘new’ team somehow had no hand at all in any of it. Thus the new PM can vow to ‘correct the mistakes’ of previous administrations with an attempt at keeping a straight face. Admitting that there were mistakes and attempting to correct them is generally a good thing rather than a bad one, of course; but it presupposes that the person seeking to correct them recognises what is and what is not a mistake in the first place.

That brings us to the reappointment of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary. Appointed by Truss only a few short weeks ago and sacked by Truss just one week ago, the task facing Sunak was a very simple one of deciding which was the mistake – the original appointment or the sacking. He has, in effect, decided that the mistake was the latter, sacking someone for an open-and-shut breach of the ministerial code, and that appointing a woman whose fondest dream is to give herself a Christmas present by short-circuiting the legal processes to send a planeful of desperate people on an involuntary trip (handcuffs would presumably be a bonus) to a country with which they have no connection, run by an oppressive regime, and where their future prospects look poor, to say the least, was one of Truss’s better decisions. To Sunak, possession of a gaping hole where a person’s sense of humanity should reside is an asset; breaking rules can be ignored in his attempt to bring what he calls ‘integrity’ back into government. 'Integrity' - that's another word whose definition seems to be flexible.

A key part of his message to his party is that it must unite or die. But if ‘uniting the party’ makes it necessary to keep the Bravermans of this world sitting around the cabinet table, the two words are not as mutually exclusive as he seems to think. Just as he defines mistake in a way which many others may feel is perverse, so the rest of us may define ‘success’ in a way which might not be entirely to his liking. The good news is that, if he achieves both the unity and the death of his party (as currently seems likely) he may well go down in history as the most successful Tory PM ever. In footballing terms, a footnote to history might describe this winning goal as having ‘assists’ from Johnson and Truss. But it's the goal that will be remembered.

Monday 24 October 2022

Out by Christmas?


It seems increasingly likely that Rishi Sunak will become the UK’s next soon-to-be-ex-PM by the end of the day, either because Mordaunt fails to reach the threshold of 100 nominees or else because an indicative vote amongst MPs shows her so far behind Sunak that she succumbs to the inevitable pressure to withdraw rather than potentially allow the Tory Party’s membership to override the views of MPs again. Either way, it will be presented as the start of an outbreak of party unity. That will, though, just be another pretence.

Johnson claimed that he had the numbers to enter the race. That’s almost certainly a lie, according to many commentators, and there is indeed no reason to suppose that his long-standing divorce from truthfulness has in any way been impacted by a six week absence from high office. His inability to face the fact that he simply doesn’t have the support means that he has been forced to alight on some other reason for withdrawing from a race that he had never formally entered, and he came up with the line that he could not unite his warring party. It’s one of those strange statements which treads the boundary between truth and falsehood: whilst it’s certainly true that he cannot unite his party, the idea that he believes that he can’t, or that this is his real reason for not standing, is for the birds, such is his unshakeable belief in his own talents.

The accidental truth, though, that Boris Johnson cannot unite the Tory Party conceals a much greater truth of more general application: nobody can. And however much they try to present the forthcoming coronation of Sunak as a mark of unity, Sunak can’t do it either. The party is hopelessly divided into factions whose only mutual factor is an intense loathing of each other. And whilst part of that is about policy issues – such as levels of taxation and public expenditure – an awful lot of it is deeply personal. Johnsonites won’t forgive Sunak for, as they see it, knifing their man, and the path being followed by the current Chancellor (who may or may not still be in office tomorrow) is utterly unacceptable to the free market ultras, for whom cutting taxes and slashing public expenditure is an article of faith. Whether the policy of the new government can somehow be made attractive to ordinary voters is little more than a side-show compared to the difficulties of getting it through a jittery bunch of Tory MPs fearful above all for their own futures.

The electoral system in use in the UK forces any party serious about winning a majority to become something of a broad church. Whilst that’s traditionally been more obvious in the case of Labour, it’s always been true about the Tories as well. Unity around the desire for power and for the trappings of office has long enabled the Tories to conceal the fact better, but differing views about the relationship between these offshore islands and the mainland of Europe have been bubbling away internally since the days of Thatcher, and the ‘victory’ which Brexit represents for one Tory faction has been the catalyst for a descent into an all-out ideological war which has become highly personal in the process. There will be no bridging of the void this side of a general election, and it’s entirely possible that they may burn through a few more PMs before then. Why Sunak – or anyone else except Johnson with his grossly inflated sense of self – would actually want the job in the circumstances is beyond my understanding.

A proportional system would allow the major parties to fragment into more cohesive and united individual parties, and force negotiations between those parties about agreed programmes for government. Sometimes, those agreements would break down, just as the internal agreement within the Tory Party has broken down now. The difference is that such a breakdown between parties would create the opportunity and the mechanism for those differences to be judged by the electorate if no alternative could be formally negotiated. The current system tries to hide the differences and pretend that there is a coherent government in place, on the basis of an artificially high ‘majority’ in an election 3 years ago. It’s a sham, and the only remaining question is whether any pretend peace between the factions can hold until Christmas. It looks unlikely, although if Sunak sends MPs home for Christmas early (around the middle of November, perhaps), he might improve his prospects. Johnson is probably calculating that he’ll get another chance sooner than many imagine.

Wednesday 19 October 2022

Staying afloat on a tide of outrage


When it emerged on Monday that Liz Truss had been meeting the Chair of the 1922 for ‘routine discussions’, I’m sure that I was not alone in assuming that this particular 'routine' was the one where the PM was passed a figurative bottle of whisky and a loaded revolver. It’s certainly starting to look like a routine occurrence. However, by the time she got to the House of Commons, it looked like she’d drunk the entire bottle and then forgotten to use the revolver. Or, given past performance, fired it and missed. Six times.

As she then sat on the bench surrounded by the circling sharks, wearing a fixed non-expression while a standing Jeremy Hunt trashed everything she’d said, including things uttered only in the previous few days as well as things she hasn't even said yet (past, present, future - all happen simultaneously in Trussland), the image from the past which came to mind was of Yeltsin dictating terms to Gorbachev as the Soviet Union disintegrated. Like Gorbachev, she retained the job title, but all power had already flowed out of her grasp, even if the full realisation hadn’t quite sunk in.

Today, she is due to face the House of Commons herself for Questions to the PM. Perhaps Starmer will have an off day; perhaps he will struggle with some sort of strange internal sense of kindness. But barring either of those (or a reloaded revolver being quietly passed to her before she gets to her place), she is facing further utter and very public humiliation over things she’s said and is still saying. It can surely only be a serious deficiency in the functioning neuron department which prevents her from understanding just how humiliated she has already been, and just how pointless it is to continue the farce.

Closer to home, our very own First Minister showed a very rare flash of anger yesterday. It has outraged the Tories, of course, but they would probably be outraged if they discovered he had dared to eat cornflakes for breakfast (unless he hadn't, in which case they'd be outraged at that). Outside the ranks of the perpetually outraged, it will probably have done Drakeford more good than harm (although we should probably also exclude those who are opposed to cruelty to dumb animals). The Tory ship, as badly holed as it is, can surely not continue floating for much longer. Expelling vast clouds of faux outrage through the ever-increasing number of holes in an attempt to keep the water out is necessarily a time-limited operation - even RT's apparently limitless supply of the stuff must come to an end at some point.

Monday 17 October 2022

Sometimes, abandoning the ship is the only sensible course of action


As they survey the wreckage of their party and watch the political death throes of this month’s outgoing PM, the minds of Tory MPs seem to be more than a little preoccupied by the question of who should become next month’s outgoing PM, and what the mechanism should be for choosing that next lame duck. It’s the sort of short-sighted perspective which is probably the inevitable outcome of their personal obsession with retaining their own job, but the more important questions for the rest of us are who should succeed next month’s outgoing PM, how, and when.

Whilst watching the implosion of successive Tory governments with ever increasing rapidity is a fun spectator sport, it’s not the end, nor even the beginning of the end, of the pain unless there is an alternative available which is not only credible (and without needing to move a muscle, the possibility of a Starmer government has come to look not only credible but unavoidable, as he watches the ratings of Labour’s traditional opponent reverse past him at incredible speed), but which also has a different plan, which escapes from the underlying beliefs which have led to the implosion. On that latter point, Starmer is looking a good deal less credible; and changing the personnel whilst keeping the mission largely intact will do little to help the lives of those being so badly damaged by the ideologues of the Tory Party.

There are, of course, a number of different reasons for the implosion, but the centrality of Brexit cannot be ignored. However, it isn’t Brexit itself which is the underlying problem so much as the delusions of grandeur which underpinned the whole exercise. The ill-fated budget was based on the same delusion as Brexit itself, which is that the UK is a major player in the world economy on a par with the US and China and can behave with the same disregard for rules and norms as those two countries can, unlike perceived ‘minor’ players such as Germany or France which should know their place, and be ever grateful for the UK having saved them during ‘the war’. The more evidence accumulates to support the alternative proposition – that the UK is, in fact, nothing more than a middle-ranking off-shore island of Europe – the more that evidence must be denounced as fake and irrelevant by politicians who simply double down on the notion that ‘we’ cannot be expected to accept such a lowly status and must be given whatever ‘we’ want.

How different, really, is Starmer’s position? Continued references to ‘making Brexit work’ without saying how suggest the answer is ‘not a lot, really’. In truth, Brexit doesn’t even need to be completely reversed in order to achieve a workable state of affairs; it just needs a willingness to move a great deal closer to (and preferably to join) the single market and the customs union. Without doing that, ‘making Brexit work’ is just a meaningless slogan, which there is no way of implementing. Yet the starting point of the probable next-but-one government (after both this month’s and next month’s outgoing PMs have duly outgone) appears to be that only minor changes in the tone of discussions are required and all will be well. It’s no less deluded than the current lot – and ultimately it’s pretty much the same delusion at work.

Escaping our current plight requires more than a change of the hand on the tiller; it requires the UK to develop a realistic understanding of its position and status in the world, a willingness to co-operate with others, particularly our closest neighbours, and an overhaul of political structures and processes which give outright total power to cultists on the basis of a minority of the votes. When I look at Starmer and Labour, I see none of that, only a lust to have their turn at pulling the levers. It would be comforting to think that, shorn of Scotland, Wales and the remainder of Ireland, English politicians would at last be forced to confront the reality they’ve been ignoring for decades, but it seems more likely they’ll just double down on the same delusions in their reduced territory. Remaining in an arcane union out of some sense of responsibility to help them (Welsh Labour’s favoured position, apparently) merely dooms us to be dragged along by the same delusion for the foreseeable future.

Saturday 15 October 2022

Clarity is a virtue. Usually.


If there’s one thing that can be said with certainty about this month's outgoing PM, Liz Truss, it is that she is always ‘very clear’. Reminding us just how clear she is has become something like a trademark catch-phrase, a form of words which seems to open almost every sentence which utters forth from her mouth. The difficulty is not that what she says isn’t clear, it is that she has an amazing ability to be very clear about two complete opposites at the same time.

·        She was very clear that abolishing the highest rate of income tax was absolutely (another favourite word) the right thing, and equally clear that scrapping the proposal to abolish it is also the right thing to do.

·        She was very clear that increasing the rate of corporation tax, as proposed by Rishi Sunak in a budget which now seems like it took place sometime last century, would definitely cause a recession and would in any event not raise any additional revenue. She’s now equally clear that going ahead with the increase is an important part of her plan for growth and will also raise an extra £18 billion for the government’s coffers.

·        She is very clear that the government can increase planned expenditure, cut planned revenue and borrow less all at the same time, and that there is absolutely no need for any cuts to departmental budgets. She’s now equally clear that the numbers need to add up, and that means some hard decisions on spending will have to be taken.

Being clear is usually a virtue, and she now seems to be very clear that she’s done quite enough to convince people that she has a clear way forward which is clearly understood by everyone. Clarity, though, is a bit like beauty: it’s all in the eye of the beholder, and in this case there seems to be a distinct lack of beholders sharing her perception. To be entirely fair to her, though, there is one big thing that she has achieved. Tory MPs are now falling in behind her in droves, exactly as she asked. I wonder when she’ll realise that most have them have knives in their hands, even if the rest are armed only with the traditional offering of a glass of whisky and a revolver. Perhaps Brutus Kwarteng will initiate the final denouement next week by making the customary personal statement allowed to ousted ministers. Pass the popcorn.