Monday 28 February 2022

Brexit benefits, #94


According to the BBC’s Katya Adler:

“EU announces it has agreed unanimously amongst all member countries to take in Ukrainian refugees for up to 3 years without asking them to first apply for asylum. Just been announced following a meeting of EU Interior ministers.”

Fortunately for the UK, Brexit means that we are free to ignore this and insist that they must apply for visas which will only be available to spouses, unmarried partners of at least two years, parents or their children if one is under 18, or adult relatives who are also carers (of people already entitled to be in the UK). Or they can apply for seasonal fruit-picker visas. I can feel the pride swelling up inside me to see the UK ‘leading the world’ (© Boris Johnson) by responding to the crisis in such a generous fashion. Oh, wait a minute, what I can feel swelling up inside me isn’t pride at all, it’s something entirely different…

Sunday 27 February 2022

Dividing rather than uniting


At the time of the Brexit referendum, the Brexiteers tried to sell us two wholly contradictory messages about the EU. The first was that ‘Brussels’ was over-ruling national governments, and the second was that the EU was inherently slow and inefficient at taking decisions, because they needed to co-ordinate and balance the interests of 28 member states with differing needs. They could never have been right on both, and the situation in Ukraine has shown that it was the second of those which carried the greater truth.

The question of dependence on Russian gas and oil is a case in point. It is certainly frustrating that, despite what are supposed to be crippling sanctions, so many European countries are still taking – and paying for – Russian oil and gas, thereby helping to fund Putin’s war. It is easy, though, for the UK government to demand that others stop the flow immediately when the UK itself has almost no dependency on Russian hydrocarbons. Demanding that Germany, Italy etc. damage their economies whilst remaining aloof looks like the typical selfishness which we have come to expect post-Brexit. Where is the offer to share, short term at least, the UK’s supplies so that the pain is spread more evenly?

It's also notable that, whilst demanding that other countries impose self-damaging sanctions, the UK is continuing to protect, through its network of tax havens and the secretive companies based there, dodgy Russian money, because that suits the interests of the UK finance industries (to say nothing of Tory party funds). And in the light of what is going to become a major refugee crisis on the European mainland, our offshore state chooses to wash its hands of the problem and demand that other countries bear the burden, presumably judging (and, sadly, probably correctly) that the voters to whom they wish to appeal are more interested in keeping foreigners out than in providing refuge to people in their hour of need. That’s two more examples of the essential selfishness underpinning Brexit.

I have my doubts about the effectiveness of sanctions against Russia, but I recognise that they’re the only game in town without risking all out war across the continent. But, to stand any chance at all, they need to be comprehensive; governments, and especially the UK, seem to be spending more time trying to work out what exceptions should be allowed than in making them maximally effective. Boris Johnson is still blustering away about how the UK is ‘leading’ on sanctions, but the reality is that the UK is, as ever, largely pursuing its own interests. And it no longer even has a seat at the table where the most important decisions are being taken (even if the process of taking them is slow and tortuous). Less Global Britain, more the weakest link.

Saturday 26 February 2022

How sanctions work. Apparently.


According to a ‘diplomatic source’ quoted in this story, one aspect of the UK’s sanctions against Russian oligarchs is to attack their lifestyle:

"They come to Harrods to shop, they stay in our best hotels when they like, they send their children to our best public schools, and that is what's being stopped.

"So that these people are essentially persona non grata in every major western European capital in the world. That really bites."

Leaving aside the distinct possibility that being prevented from undergoing the ‘education’ provided by certain public schools might be doing the children a favour, let’s picture the scene in the Kremlin, as Putin sits at one end of his legendary table and one of his favourite oligarchs enters to sit at the other end.

Oligarch: Zdrastvuytie, Vladimir Vladimirovich

Putin: Zdrastvuytie, Mikhail Sergeyovitch. How can I help you today?

O: It’s these British sanctions – they’re causing me a lot of problems. My wife, Ludmilla, had set her heart on some new soft furnishings from Harrods, and we were going to send Ilya Mikhailovitch to Eton. Even worse, my girlfriend, Natalya, is giving me a lot of grief about not being able to meet up with her friends for tea at the Savoy, and the restrictions on how much money she’s allowed to keep in her account mean she’s down to her last few thousand. We need to do something, Vlad.

P: You want me to nuke Londongrad?

O: No, I don’t want that. Apart from anything else, Natalya is there at the moment, even if I can’t visit her.

P: Just as well – no point nuking the capital which is doing most to help us with our finances. So what do you want me to do?

O: Well, if you could just see your way to calling off the invasion and returning the tanks to their bases, I’m sure that my life could return to normal.

P: Are things really that bad?

O: Oh, yes they are. Trust me on this, Vlad.

P: OK, I’ll get on to it right away. Anything else?

O: No, that’s all. Spasibo. I owe you one.

It seems that there are people who really think this is the way Russia works.

Friday 25 February 2022

No good solutions


Had Putin stopped at recognising the independence of the two breakaway republics, and agreeing to their requests for military support to bolster their defences, he might have got away with it, in the sense that the position is at least arguable and most of the west would have thought it a small price to pay. Although the regions concerned undoubtedly voted for Ukrainian independence in 1991, opinions can change and it is at least ambiguous whether they want to be part of Ukraine, part of Russia, or independent of both. Worst of all, no-one seems particularly keen to find out. It would have led to a few paltry sanctions and decades-long negotiations to attempt to come to some sort of longer term agreement. What the people think is – and never was – of any great import in the power games. But he didn’t stop there, and there is little room for doubt about the wish of Ukrainians to be a free and independent state. There must be serious consequences, although there can surely be little doubt that the puniness and futility of the sanctions announced earlier this week will have emboldened Putin significantly.

On the underlying principles, there are some double standards being applied.

·        Putin believes that ‘allowing’ Ukraine (and others) to become independent was a huge mistake which must be reversed. The Ukrainians are really just a different type of Russian, and not a nation at all. Their country should be reunited with the motherland, restoring the ancient boundaries of Russia. Allowing them to decide for themselves what they want is unthinkable.

·        The Ukrainian government believes that Ukraine is a unique nation with its own history and culture, that its Soviet-era-determined boundaries are sacrosanct, and that the breakaway regions in the south-east are populated by people who are just a different sort of Ukrainian and should be reincorporated into Ukraine. Allowing them to decide for themselves what they want is unthinkable.

·        Whilst supporting Ukraine’s right to independence, Johnson also believes that ‘allowing’ Scotland (and Wales) a degree of autonomy was a huge mistake which must be rectified by undermining and rolling back that autonomy. They are just a different sort of Briton, and not a different nation at all. Allowing them to decide for themselves what they want is unthinkable.

All of them accept, of course, the inalienable right of all nations to determine their own future; it’s just that they also want to give themselves the right to decide which groups are or are not nations, and impose that view on others. None of that serves to excuse Putin, or establish some sort of moral equivalence. It is merely to point out that the idea that the right of a nation to enjoy its freedom and independence can or should be constrained by what a larger neighbour is prepared to ‘allow’ isn’t confined to Putin, and for further evidence, consider the way in which the US meddles in the affairs of countries in its own ‘back yard’. There’s more than a whiff of hypocrisy about a PM demanding that the sovereign right of one nation be respected whilst personally denying another the right to even ask itself the question. There is a difference in the level of violence involved, but the mindset is basically the same. And the bit missing in each case is asking what the people want – those with the might and the power will take that decision for them.

For those of us who genuinely believe that the people living in any area have the right to determine their own future, yesterday was a black day, and it’s hard to see a way forward. Becoming involved militarily would be folly, whether that’s troops on the ground or the more limited intervention of trying to impose a no-fly zone as called for by some Tories. Either risks escalation, whether by accident or design, into a conflagration which has the potential to end civilization in Europe and perhaps the world – and it’s hard to interpret Putin’s warning about anyone trying to stop him as anything other than a threat to do just that. Arming insurgents, as promised by Johnson, looks like asking people to fight a long and bloody war in which many more would die – it’s too easy to stand a thousand miles away and urge others to fight. Putin says he does not intend to ‘occupy’ Ukraine. To the extent that anything he says is believable, that might well be his wish; but it’s hard to see how merely installing a puppet government which may struggle to command the loyalty of the police, armed forces, or civil service, never mind the general population, can be made to work without an occupying force to impose its will.

That, inevitably, brings us back to sanctions, as being the only useable weapon in the West’s armoury. To be meaningful, they need to bite, and bite hard; something which is difficult in a country the size of Russia, with so many resources at its disposal. Targeting a few – or even a few thousand – rich Russian individuals or banks whilst continuing most trade links simply won’t cut it but those who are likely to suffer most from more serious sanctions are the ordinary Russian people, who have no say in what Putin does anyway. Johnson’s address to ‘the nation’ yesterday was long on rhetoric but short on detail. There was, in a rare departure in the direction of truth for Johnson, an admission that there is no quick solution. Regime change in Russia looks unlikely to happen soon, and the record of sanctions changing anything is poor. The one thing missing from Johnson’s speech was any admission that serious sanctions will cause us pain here (an omission which was not made by our own Mark Drakeford, who was very clear that effective sanctions will cause us pain as well). It leaves me doubtful, to say the least, as to whether Johnson is serious even now about the severity of the sanctions to be imposed.

Russia’s alliance with China doesn’t help the situation either. As a result of profit-driven cost-cutting and globalisation, China has been gifted (by capitalism) the potential to significantly damage western economies at any time should it choose to support its ally, a point which Covid demonstrated well, almost by accident. And what Russia can’t sell to, or get from, the west, it can probably sell to, or get, from China, which will certainly not support any sanctions imposed.

The truth is that, for all the sloganizing and outrage, there are no good solutions, and no good outcomes. It’s a question of finding the least worst, and whilst Johnson boasts about the UK leading the way on sanctions, the reality is that most of the rest of the world sees the UK as a weak link in the chain, largely due to the UK’s addiction to Russian cash. Whether the west is serious, and prepared to take the pain involved or is merely involved in a game of rhetoric and bluster remains to be seen. Putin is probably assuming the latter, and the history to date suggests that isn’t an entirely irrational assumption.

Thursday 24 February 2022

Following England on education would be a mistake


The changes to university policy in England which are, apparently, due to be announced today are little short of an open attack on the idea that a university education should be equally available to all. Extending the period for repayment of student loans from 30 years to 40 will leave students in debt from the time they graduate almost to the point at which they retire, and it is an absolute nonsense to pretend that that won’t have a disproportionate effect on the less well-off. And given the long-known link between family income and educational attainment, the proposal to increase the minimum level of educational attainment to gain entry to university in the first place will also exclude poorer rather than richer people. Coupled with proposals to cap the number of places in English universities, the overall thrust is to return university education to what it was decades ago when I was young – the preserve of the middle and upper classes.

Of course, some would argue that there’s nothing wrong with setting a minimal level of educational attainment for university entry, and adding a minimum requirement for a GCSE in English (in England) and Maths sounds almost reasonable. It is, though, asking the wrong question and blaming the wrong people, and it’s based on ideology more than anything else. If English students are getting into university without a basic command of English and Maths, the question we should be asking is not ‘why are those individuals failing to achieve?’ so much as ‘what is wrong with an educational system which sees pupils leaving school without such basic skills?’ It is ideology which blames the individuals and seeks to exclude them, as though the failure is entirely down to them, rather than looking at how an educational system is failing individuals so badly.

I hope, and believe, that there is a more enlightened view in Cardiff, and that Wales will not follow suit. It will be difficult, though, for a devolved administration whose funding is set in London by comparison with England, to continue with current policies if their funding is reduced. There is also a danger that English students – excluded from England’s universities by the new regime – will seek to fill a greater proportion of the places available in Welsh universities. Reluctant as I would be to start imposing restrictions on the right of students to study where they wish, the Welsh Government needs to be ready to protect the interests of Welsh students if that appears likely to happen. England turning a university education into the privilege of an elite should not lead to Wales doing the same. It’s yet another example of the need for independence to set our own direction.

Wednesday 23 February 2022

Putin all aquiver


It is, just about, possible that the Russian oligarchs sanctioned yesterday by the corrupt kleptocracy in London are even more stupid than Boris Johnson and his ministers. Possible, but highly unlikely. Assuming that it is rather more probable that they are at least marginally brighter, and given the months of warning that they had been given, it’s probably not unreasonable to assume that they will have taken steps to move at least part of their liquid assets into friendlier territories, such as the myriad tax havens which operate with impunity under the ‘supervision’ of the British state. And even if they didn’t do that, we can surely be certain that the others who have not yet been sanctioned are in the process of taking such action right now.

Putin, of course, having been told that sanctions the like of which have never been seen before were on their way, is now quaking in his boots at learning that a few cronies who’d been given enough warning to take evasive action are now going to be barred from laundering their money openly in London, and will be compelled to do it opaquely from behind secretive companies established under British protection elsewhere. And if those threatened with the next round of sanctions are already making plans to do the same, then the UK’s money markets will actually gain rather than lose from these sanctions, because the UK’s overseas territories provide some of the best and most secretive havens for dirty money anywhere in the world. The competitive advantage of avoiding regulations applied elsewhere might almost be called a Brexit bonus.

The gulf between words and actions might not, though, be so hard to reconcile. We simply need to remember that the current government’s understanding of ‘the economy’ is limited to ‘that which enriches me and my friends’. Appearing to target the mega-rich of Russia whilst protecting the interests of London’s money launderers comes entirely naturally to anyone from that perspective. And it’s hardly as if Johnson saying one thing and then doing another will come as any sort of surprise to anyone – least of all Putin.

As to the substance of the Russian action which has led to this, it’s worth considering for a moment whether there is much of a difference between the UK sending troops to Estonia on the border with Russia, and Russia sending troops into the Donetsk republic on the border with Ukraine. In both cases, they were invited by the de facto government of an ‘independent’ country. The difference resolves around that word ‘independent’, or more specifically, around international recognition of that ‘independence’. It’s not the first time that territories have unilaterally declared themselves independent and it won’t be the last. And it’s not the only time that a country making such a declaration is recognised by some but not by others. The thing that is missing in all this is that neither Russia nor Ukraine seems to have the slightest interest in ascertaining the wishes of the people living inside the two new republics, even if a free and fair vote were an attainable outcome in current circumstances. Whether ‘the West’, including the UK, should be backing Ukraine’s claim to the territory or recognising the new republics ought to depend on the wishes of the people living in them, a consideration which doesn’t even seem to be on the table. We are, instead, being driven by the rivalries of the ‘great powers’, in a way which is reminiscent of centuries gone by rather than the realities of a globally connected and interdependent world. We can only hope that repeating the mistakes of the past doesn’t lead to a repeat of the outcomes of the past.

Monday 21 February 2022

Moments of pride


Apparently, Boris Johnson will tell the world today that lifting all Covid restrictions in England this week is a “moment of pride”, although scientists and health experts, to say nothing of opposition politicians, are using rather different descriptions, such as “reckless”, “dangerous”, and “premature”. It’s what happens when the political need to buy off his own backbenchers takes precedence over the need to protect the lives of citizens.

Part of the argument is that Covid is now no worse a disease than seasonal flu, in terms of the numbers of people becoming seriously ill or dying as a result of catching it – and we don’t take drastic measures to protect ourselves from seasonal flu, do we? Whilst true, as far as it goes, it is confusing the ordinary seasonal flu which comes around every year with the sort of pandemic seen much more rarely. A more accurate comparison would be with the actions which we would take if a pandemic such as that of 1918 were to hit, when it is highly likely that we would indeed take precautions to try and control the spread. In short, it’s not the death rate per million cases which determines whether action is required, but the sheer number of infections. On that measure, the pandemic is far from over, and Johnson’s proposals for ‘living with Covid’ amount to a proposal that between 1000 and 2000 people per week will die with Covid, and that the most vulnerable will bear the brunt. The idea that mask-wearing is a matter of personal choice and responsibility is all very well if the primary purpose of wearing a mask is to protect the wearer, but it isn’t; it’s about protecting those around the wearer. Allowing people that personal choice is tantamount to treating the infection of other people as some sort of human right.

Here in Wales, there is increasing pressure on the government to follow the UK’s lead, particularly from the Tories. They are actually right to argue that having a common set of rules makes life less complex (although having a common set of rules over a wider area, such as Europe, is apparently a very bad idea), but the result is that, for them, a ‘common set of rules’ amounts to ‘following England’, no matter how reckless decisions taken in London may be, and no matter how little London consults before announcing changes. Prioritising ‘all doing the same thing’ over thinking about what the ‘best’ approach might be is prioritising unionist ideology over public health. A more imaginative approach would be to treat the way in which the four administrations have varied their actions (even to the very limited extent to which that has been possible) as a means of examining which policies have the best outcomes. Devolved decision-making in the face of a novel threat could teach us all lessons for the future, when other pandemics appear, and be a positive advantage rather than a disadvantage. A 'moment of pride', even. The problem, though, lies in the word ‘imaginative’; it’s simply not a word which can be applied to the ‘Welsh’ Tories.

Saturday 19 February 2022

Saving Boris and the Tories


Lord Frost has said that devolution needs to be rolled back to “save Boris, the Conservative Party and the country”. Leaving aside the not insignificant question as to whether saving Boris and the Conservative Party are objectives which either Wales or Scotland are so keen to achieve that they’re willing to have powers taken away from them to bring it about (although their wishes don’t matter anyway – he seems to have absolutely no intention of asking them), there is surely room for at least a little bit of doubt as to whether such actions would achieve those objectives anyway. And as for ‘saving the country’, if by that he means preserving the union, then I can’t think of anything less likely to achieve that objective than arbitrarily and unilaterally taking powers away from the Scottish Parliament and the Senedd. And his suggestion of “re-establishing our sovereignty in Northern Ireland”, with its inevitable consequence of a land border between the Republic and the North, doesn’t immediately strike me as a recipe for peace and stability either.

It all says a lot about his mindset, though. He claims that having different policies in the four parts of the UK is a nonsense, yet this is a man who also believes that 28 European countries agreeing a common set of policies is also a nonsense. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this is English exceptionalism at its best (or worst, depending on perspective). Only England can make rules; others must merely obey. Still, I imagine that there are more than a few SNP politicians delighted that the extremists of the Tory Party are showing their colours so openly. It’s an ill wind, as the saying goes.

Friday 18 February 2022

Labour is the obstacle, not the enabler


It was reported yesterday that, in the latest twist on the so-called ‘progressive alliance’, Labour and the Lib Dems have been discussing a non-aggression pact which under which each of the two parties would do only minimal campaigning in the other’s target seats, with the objective of removing as many Tory MPs as possible. Whilst there may be many of us who would be delighted at seeing Tories booted out, it doesn’t follow that we would be equally elated at seeing them replaced by the self-styled ‘progressive’ parties. It raises, and not for the first time, the question of what the word ‘progressive’ actually means.

We know that Labour and the Lib Dems are united in their ‘progressive’ belief that whatever outcome Scots vote for want can and should be ignored, even if pro-independence parties win every seat in Scotland. We know that they are united in their support for the ‘progressive’ policy that the UK should retain and be willing to use weapons of mass destruction to incinerate millions of civilians. We know that they are both committed to the ‘progressive’ policy of balanced budgets over the long term, as though a ‘progressive’ form of austerity is somehow better for its victims than a Tory form of austerity.

There are some areas of disagreement between them – whilst the Lib Dems are keen supporters of electoral reform, Labour remain committed to the ‘progressive’ policy of a winner-takes-all system on the basis that it is better for them to have absolute power some of the time (whilst allowing the Tories to have it most of the time) than to be obliged to compromise and negotiate. We discovered yesterday that at least some senior Labour figures (it’s not clear as yet whether this is actual party policy) support the ‘progressive’ policy of extra-judicial executions, and the establishment of something akin to a ‘progressive’ police state in which police are encouraged to batter down people’s doors at 3am.

For Labour, ‘progressive’ actually seems to mean ‘whatever policies Labour promotes’ which is a distortion of language on a grand scale. It is, in essence, a negative rather than a positive approach, more to do with who holds the levers of power than with what they actually do with them. There certainly is scope for some realignment in UK politics, but it inevitably starts with electoral reform, the one change against which Labour continues to hold out. Whilst we shouldn’t under-estimate the advantages of replacing a corrupt and dishonest kleptocracy, neither should we simply accept that ‘any’ short-term temporary alternative is going to be better if we then allow things to revert after one or two terms in government. The one form – perhaps the only form – of electoral alliance which would make a real difference is an agreement between a number of parties to fight one election as a single bloc with the sole aim of electoral reform followed by new elections. And it is the ‘progressive’ Labour Party which is the biggest obstacle to that.

Monday 14 February 2022

War shouldn't be a diversion from parties


An understanding of history is always useful in considering current events, but there can be a problem when people look at that history through a very narrow filter. The current UK government seems unable to see anything except through the filter of ‘the war’, which is colouring their judgement more than a little. For Ukraine, see Czechoslovakia; for the Donbas, see the Sudetenland; for Putin, see Hitler (minus the moustache and with cropped hair). The comparison breaks down completely when they get to ‘for Johnson, see Churchill’, of course. Whilst there are some obvious parallels, assuming that the outcome will therefore be the same is a dangerous and simplistic place to start – yet all the UK’s statements suggest that is exactly what they are doing.

Whilst the EU, and especially the French, are at least trying to engage in rational discussion, sending the UK’s, shall we say ‘geographically challenged’, Foreign Secretary to shout slogans at the Russians in an attempt to boost her leadership credentials to dictate where, on Russian soil, Russian forces are allowed to be stationed looks particularly counter-productive. Fortunately, the Russians understand that the current UK government is an international joke as well as a domestic one, and are treating the Foreign Secretary accordingly. Johnson’s bluster about the UK leading Europe in responding to the situation is just that, bluster; and his government’s clumsy comparisons with the events of 1939 even managed to upset the people they claim to be trying to help.

Nobody knows whether Putin will decide to mount a full-scale invasion (or even a more limited incursion in 'support' of what he sees as ‘Russians’ in the eastern part of Ukraine). The ‘intelligence’ which leads some politicians to claim that they do know is of the same dubious quality as that which told us that Saddam Hussain had weapons of mass destruction which could be turned on us in 45 minutes. What we do know – to misquote Churchill – is that “jaw, jaw is better than war, war”; one of the lessons of the past which the current government seems to have difficulty understanding in its desperate search for a diversion from parties and police investigations. The best contribution the UK government could make to peace in Eastern Europe at the moment is to lock Liz Truss and Ben Wallace away and get Boris Johnson back to the much safer (for everyone else at least) ground of parties and prosecco, allowing the serious European leaders to try and negotiate a way forward, building on existing unimplemented accords. If they had any sense of self-awareness at all, Johnson and co wouldn’t even need to look back as far as the 1940s to understand that making international agreements and then failing to implement them merely stores up trouble for the future.

Sunday 13 February 2022

Putting it in writing


One of the issues at the heart of the Downing Street gatherings affair is the idea that the people who made the rules didn’t stick to them; that they behaved as though they were allowed to follow a different process to everyone else. In that context, the approach adopted by the police of sending questionnaires to 50 suspects (and that is indeed what they are – suspects, rather than witnesses) asking for their responses is a curious one. Maybe there are some lawyers out there who know better than I, but I’ve never previously heard of a case where the police wrote to suspects asking for their confessions on a pre-printed questionnaire rather than interviewing them. It looks very much like a unique process designed specifically as a means of investigating people who already believe that normal processes don’t apply to them. They claim that the questionnaire is equivalent to a police interview and that the responses “will be treated as written statements made under caution”. I wonder how the police will react in future if any suspected criminal demands the right to answer a questionnaire in his own home and to be allowed a week to prepare his responses and talk to his fellow suspects rather than have a face to face interview with a police officer down at the station. Actually, I don’t wonder at all – I’m pretty sure that I know what the reaction would be. It looks like another case of ‘one rule for us…’.

The Met also claim that the questionnaires “have formal legal status and must be answered truthfully”. Yeah, right. We’re talking about Boris Johnson here; the assumption that he will see those words and decide to give honest answers looks like rather a significant flaw in the approach. He has a simple choice: he can either tell the truth and therefore admit that he’s been lying all along, to parliament as well as the media, or he can simply repeat his previous lies. And there cannot be many people – outside the Metropolitan Police Force, of course – who aren’t reasonably certain about which he will choose. Lying is his default option, even when he doesn’t need to because honesty would serve his cause better.

The question is surely not whether he will return a pack of lies to the Met, but what will they do with it when they get it. Based on their performance to date, it would hardly be surprising if they said something along the lines of, “OK, sir. Sorry to have troubled you”, no matter how much hard evidence they have proving his guilt. It’s unlikely that they’ll have the guts to add ‘intending to pervert the course of justice’ to the charge sheet. Whether he's fined, or let off because of his lies, the issue doesn’t end, no matter how much the PM wants it to and thinks it should; it merely returns from the criminal to the political sphere. And, again based on the Met’s record, the probability that his responses will be leaked is not insignificant. Perhaps there is an advantage to this unique written procedure after all.

Saturday 12 February 2022

Major is talking to an audience which no longer exists


Ex-PM John Major’s speech this week seems to have gone down particularly badly in the party he used to lead. As a pro-EU figure, he’s been roundly trashed by the Brexitmaniacs who currently run both the party and the UK. It’s a pity, because there was a lot in the speech which was apparently nothing to do with Brexit. I say ‘apparently’ because there is actually a connection: the mindset which led to Brexit is the same one which led to many of the other things which he criticised. One passage in his speech struck me as a particularly powerful one, and certainly struck a chord with me. He asked:

“Can it really be a crime to be frightened; homeless; desperate; destitute; fleeing from persecution, or war, or famine, or hardship; and to cross half the world on foot and dangerous waters in an unsafe boat, in the hope of finding a better life?”

It’s a good question, and one to which the current cabinet, unfortunately, have already given a resounding ‘yes’ in response by promulgating a law to criminalise exactly that. By way of contrast to Major, we also had the hapless Culture Secretary this week telling us that the only thing that might make her lose faith in the current PM would be “if he went out and kicked a dog”. It’s only a ‘probably’ even then, mind. She’s fine with criminalising refugees, making the poor even poorer, law-breaking by government ministers, and repeated blatant lies, just as long as no dog is harmed in the process. It would be hard to find a better illustration of the gulf in values between Major and Johnson than the contrast between those two statements.

The problem for Major is that he doesn’t seem to understand that the people he thinks he’s trying to appeal to – the decent, honest members of the Conservative Party – no longer exist. They’ve either been driven out, or else gone over to the dark side in the belief that their own interests are better served by doing so. He’s wasting his breath.

Thursday 10 February 2022

Growing bananas by the Thames


Proving that there’s a direct causal link between a political donation and a favour granted is difficult at the best of times. The PM’s flat redecoration was funded by a man who was also seeking support for a pet project, and linking the two things in a single e-mail, as the PM appears to have done, inevitably raises the suspicion that there is a relationship between the two. Labour’s request that the police investigate is good knockabout politics, but is unlikely to be enough to ‘prove’, to the standard of evidence required by a court of law, that the one facilitated the other. The PM’s defence, through his spokesperson, is that the project never went ahead, so there was no corruption. It’s a bit weak, though – it could equally be argued that the ‘favour’ was giving the matter consideration. There is no doubt that it was indeed ‘considered’ before being rejected, and the question is surely whether publicly-funded time and effort would have been expended on even considering it if the request hadn’t come from a major donor.

There was a rather more clear-cut example of the relationship between donations and access last week, when another donor asked for his money to be refunded, apparently because it didn’t get him the level of access to ministers that he was led to expect. It comes to something when the degree to which donations and access are linked is regarded as being so normal that legal action can be threatened in an effort to enforce the implied terms of what might look to some as an essentially corrupt contract, or else demand repayment for default. But why does anyone think that rich people and businesses make large donations to a political party in the fist place? Whether the expectation is that they will get special favours, or merely that the overall legislative and regulatory climate will benefit them, is a question of degree not kind. An implicit quid pro quo is ever present, and is not a bug but a feature of political funding in the UK.

The UK is increasingly resembling a banana monarchy – like a banana republic but with a hereditary head of state. Whilst it’s true that we don’t actually have large scale banana production yet, that’s only because would-be banana producers haven’t yet bought sufficient access to the PM to be able to convince him that a giant banana plantation alongside the Thames is almost as good, in terms of his legacy, as a new garden bridge over the river. OK, the bananas wouldn’t grow alongside the Thames, but then we never got the bridge either. Some people made a lot of money from it, though. And isn’t opening up opportunities to make money what those large political donations are ultimately all about?

Wednesday 9 February 2022

Taking the long view


In 2018, Jacob Rees-Mogg informed us that it would probably take around 50 years to see the benefits of Brexit. One thing that we can say, with absolute certainty, is that fifty years from now, Jake will either be 102 years old or dead, and, whilst I make no judgement about the relative desirability of the two alternatives, population statistics tell us that the second outcome is considerably more probable than the first. That should make his new job, as Minister for identifying the benefits of Brexit, something of a doddle for the next four decades or so; he won’t have to look very hard to confirm his judgement that the benefits have yet to arrive. To make a real success of the job, he only needs to do three things. The first is to defeat the odds and remain alive, the second is to remain in government for a mere half a century, and the third is to find some benefits - or, more likely at that age, to remember what it was he was looking for. If the odds against the first aren’t good, the odds of his still being in post fifty days from now, never mind fifty years, are looking even worse. As for the third... Probably best not to get too comfortable in his new office.

Monday 7 February 2022

Ordering in the polish


According to reports yesterday, the PM has stated that it will take a whole Panzer division to remove him from Downing Street. Calling in the German army to do a job which Tory MPs are too spineless to do themselves seems a little on the extreme side, but if needs must… It wouldn’t exactly be the first time that England has looked to Germany to replace its ruler – England didn’t end up being ruled by the Hanoverians and the Saxe-Coburg-Gothas by accident.

Meanwhile, the attempt to prop up the unproppable, and defer the inevitable, continues with the announcement that Guto Harri is to return to the PM’s side to assist in digging him out of the largely self-excavated hole in which he finds himself. Given the descriptions which Harri has himself used of Johnson in recent years (to which Johnson’s would-be nemesis, Dominic Cummings, has delighted in drawing attention), no-one can argue that he’s going in blind. Indeed, many must have wondered what on earth can be going through his mind, even taking this job on at this stage (although there were reports suggesting that he’d initially taken a six-month leave of absence from the day job – hedging his bets, perhaps – before being required to resign). I can understand, however, why an experienced PR professional might see this as the turd-polishing challenge of a lifetime, and with minimal risk. If he pulls it off, he’ll become a celebrity in the PR world, able to command ever higher fees for his services. And if he doesn’t, future employers are more likely to give him credit for being willing to try than blame him for failing. It’s not as if there’s anyone in the field to whom the nature and scale of the ordure that he’s agreed to try and tackle are not obvious.

I’d guess that one of his first actions would be to take the spade away from self-appointed assistant digger-in-chief, Nadine Dorries. With Ministers like her prepared to go over the top and declare publicly that the PM tells the truth at all times in all circumstances, despite all the mere factual evidence to the contrary, the hole gets bigger daily. A six-month fact-finding trip to a location where there is no internet coverage would be even better than a spade-ectomy. What Harri might struggle with, most of all, is uncovering the full scale of the potential damage that he’s trying to manage. Cummings is hardly going to give him the whole story (he prefers the steady drip-drip to catch Johnson unawares) and Johnson himself doesn’t see anything wrong with anything he does, so has nothing to which he feels he needs to own up. The potential for new scandals, or new twists on the existing ones, to emerge is somewhere between high and astronomical. And the probability that either the spin doctor or his master will be allowed the time to build a strategy for recovery is diminishing with every new story.

As spectator sport, it’s worth following. If only Wales were indeed just a spectator…

Saturday 5 February 2022

Getting a good return on our investment


There was a great deal of criticism of the PM last year for employing a team of private photographers so that the Downing Street press team could exclude media photographers from events and show only the pictures that they wanted us to see. However, there is a story in the Guardian today telling us that the official photographer has handed over pictures of Boris Johnson enjoying a beer at the birthday party which he still says that he can’t possibly be expected to know whether it occurred or not, let alone whether he attended, until the Met finish their investigation and the full Sue Gray report is released. If the Guardian story is true, employing those private photographers might turn out to provide the best return of any investment of our cash that he’s made since taking office.

Friday 4 February 2022

It's a very long slogan


It’s probably a mistake to take the UK Government’s verbose White Paper on ‘Levelling Up’ too seriously. It’s likely that we will have a new government before it ever gets converted into legislation, let alone action, and with even the supposed author having allegedly described the content as “shit”, it’s unlikely to survive the imminent fall of the man who invented the term ‘levelling up’ without having a clue what it meant. That is especially true if his successor turns out to be the current Chancellor, who has done his best not only to neuter the paper by refusing any significant new funding, but also to make people in the poorer parts of the UK even poorer by his decision on Universal Credit and his less than half-hearted attempt to be seen to be doing something about the cost of living crisis whilst making it worse.

There is little purpose, therefore, in any detailed analysis of something which is likely to be either ditched within weeks or else relaunched to mean something very different and a great deal cheaper. There has always been a huge contradiction at the heart of the vagueness, as a result of the PM’s propensity to promise different things to different people. In launching his crock of brown matter this week, Gove referred to the need to “shift wealth and power decisively to working people and their families”. Leaving aside the unlikelihood of the Tories ever wanting to shift wealth and power to working people, the PM has already promised his MPs and the electorate that his levelling up agenda will be achieved without taking anything away from anyone, and especially not from Tory areas in the south-east of England. Promising both to leave current wealth untouched and to shift it elsewhere is typical of the Johnson approach, but it is an impossible combination. Levelling up is, of course, possible without transferring wealth – but it depends on both creating more wealth, and ensuring that new wealth is created where it is needed. The timescale for doing that would be very much longer than the already hopelessly over-optimistic one laid out in the White (perhaps I should say Brown) Paper; and it would need the government to take much more control over the way the economy operates, something which is anathema to any conceivable successor to the PM.

‘Levelling Up’ remains what it has always been – a vague slogan which sounds like a good idea in principle. At 332 pages long, it now even fails the test of being a good slogan.

Thursday 3 February 2022

Strange tactics


The untrue smear used by Johnson against Starmer this week was a low blow, so low that an increasing number on his own side have been repelled by it, and some of his ministers have been forced into giving farcical responses to questions. He’s presumably working on the assumption that if he can only somehow demonstrate that everyone is as bad as he is, then people will forgive his own sins. It’s a curious tactic, though, for at least two reasons. Firstly, he accused Starmer of prosecuting journalists instead of paedophiles, but there is surely a danger that he might also be reminding people that some journalists might deserve to be prosecuted – especially those, perhaps, who conspire to have their colleagues beaten up, yet somehow get away with it. But secondly, insisting that the man at the top must take the blame personally for everything done by those under his management is a risky tactic for someone who is reportedly on the verge of sacking a number of staff in order to preserve his own skin. Even if the tactic weren’t proving to be so counter-productive on his own side, neither comparison strikes me as being particularly helpful to himself.

Wednesday 2 February 2022

Putin's not-so-secret weapons

The initial reaction of many to the announcement yesterday that the UK Government is giving Ukraine £88 million to, amongst other things, deal with corruption would surely have been laughter. But actually, it makes a lot of sense – the current UK government has, after all, become a world leader in the field of corruption. I can entirely understand how mere amateurs like those running Ukraine would be keen to benefit from the UK experience of being corrupt and getting away with it. Although the lessons might look on the expensive side, once they learn how to set up the right processes to funnel the training contracts to friends and donors at inflated prices, they will soon discover that the sum being given is nowhere near enough. As to how the UK will find this money – well, there are surely enough Russian billionaires in London willing to pay for a seat in the Lords.

That brings us to the first of Putin’s secret weapons when it comes to dealing with the UK’s threats. Those demanding sanctions against those Russian oligarchs who are bankrolling Putin are missing the point: the Tories have already been going after those same oligarchs for decades, usually in pursuit of political donations. What Putin knows is that any sanctions against the crooked oligarchs who maintain him in power will hurt the UK’s financial markets (and probably the Conservative Party’s coffers) more than they will hurt him. What the rest of the world refers to as laundering of dirty Russian money is actually, to the UK government, taking advantage of the Brexit bonus of not following the same rules as the rest of the world.

And his second secret weapon is that, apparently unbeknownst to Johnson and his cabal, there are people in Moscow whose English is good enough to read and understand the UK’s media output. And they therefore know that not only is Johnson a lame duck but also that nothing he says can be taken seriously, since it is almost certainly untrue. This one is more than a little dangerous, however, for the rest of Europe. Even if Johnson, in his delusional belief that he is leading for the whole of Europe on the issue, manages to hold a conversation with Putin without insulting him (there’s a first time for everything, but it seems unlikely), when he says that an invasion will be a complete disaster for Russia, does he really mean that it will be a huge success? (And can our friends have some of the reconstruction contracts after the event?)

Those arguing that we should forget all about the rule-breaking at Downing Street so that the PM can concentrate on the supposed threat from Russia are completely missing the point. There are few, if any, situations that the PM cannot make worse with effortless ease. Distracting him from foreign policy is exactly what the rest of the world needs the UK to do if it wants to maintain the peace in Europe. It’s our duty.