Thursday, 31 March 2022

The past won't conform to prejudices


As far as I’m aware, none of those arguing about whether a book which has been commissioned to tell the ‘patriotic’ story of the English Monarchy should or should not be circulated to children in Wales via schools has actually seen the content as yet. Certainly the public at large hasn’t yet seen it, and debating whether to distribute it or not without seeing the content can only be based on a mixture of supposition and prejudice. Having said that, one thing of which we can be certain is that any book which sets out to tell a story from a ‘patriotic’ standpoint (and that is the clearly-stated intention of those who have commissioned the work) is, by definition, not setting out to give a balanced or objective view. That, in effect, makes it, wholly intentionally, a work of propaganda rather than information. Whether a work of propaganda should be distributed in schools is a matter of opinion; for what it’s worth, I see no harm in that at secondary level if the intention its to study and analyse the work in comparison with other versions of the same events; critical analysis is a valuable skill. There should surely, though, be no place for the distribution of one-sided propaganda in primary schools – not in a democracy, anyway, or even a semi-democracy like the UK.

There’s something rather Soviet-era about such a blatant approach to ensuring that a particular version of history is inculcated into children as part of their education, but in truth all states seek to ensure that their citizens share a common understanding of history, as a means of building a sense of commonality and belonging. The problem in this instance is that the current rulers of the UK are stuck in a time-warp, and are trying to reinforce a narrative which has become outdated, using the methods of a long-gone era when people had no other sources of information, methods which simply look crass in the devolved landscape of the twenty-first century. I don’t believe that it would be impossible to build a new narrative of the UK fit for the current era, but it would look nothing like the immediate post-war narrative to which the current government seem to want to return (let alone the eighteenth century narrative more favoured by the Rees-Moggs of this world). Whilst ‘history’ is built on a series of facts which are themselves unchanging, the interpretation and relative importance of those facts is always changing, as new facts come to light and new perspectives are applied, in a process which exceptionalist Anglo-British nationalists seem incapable of grasping.

It isn’t just the much-debated book which underlines the attachment of our rulers to an outdated view; we’ve recently had the Education Minister, Nadhim Zahawi arguing that pupils should be taught about the benefits of the empire and colonialisation as well as the brutality. In a limited sense, he has a point. People probably should know and understand that when they look at grand old houses in the countryside and grand old buildings in our city centres, they are indeed seeing the benefits of colonialism – for the colonialists. And it would be far from an entirely bad thing if many of those railing against immigrants and refugees coming here from poorer countries had been taught, and had understood, that much of what makes the UK a wealthy country was acquired by transporting stolen wealth from those poorer countries. I suspect, though, that that isn’t what Zahawi and his ilk have in mind. His statement referred to the way the colonists set up administrative systems and exported the British Civil Service (and others have referred to building railways) – he’s talking about the ‘benefits’ which should be taken into account on the plus side of the equation when the exploitation, the massacres, and the slavery are being criticised. To call these ‘benefits’ of colonisation, though, requires us to assume that leaving those areas uncolonized, letting them benefit from their own natural resources and developing links through trade and commerce rather than conquest, would not have left them better off, and that they would never have developed such administrative systems of their own accord. It’s an arrogant assumption, to say the least. It might be less pejoratively-worded, but at root it’s simply a modern variation on the old idea that Britain brought civilisation and cricket to the savages, in return for which they should be grateful enough to overlook the worst excesses.

Whether we are talking about the monarchy or the empire, understanding our history is important in giving us a sense of who we are, but that requires an ever-changing analysis of the facts. We cannot change the past. Whilst some of us might wish that it were possible to airbrush the monarchy and the empire from history, that would be no more honest than presenting them as unchanging symbols of what it means to be British. Trying to imbue our children with a biased view of either the monarchy or the empire does them no favours when they will eventually find themselves in a world which has a totally different understanding. Addressing that is rather more important than sloganizing about the distribution of a book.

Tuesday, 29 March 2022

Lame ducks don't recover


One of the Prime Minister’s official titles is “First Lord of the Treasury”; the Chancellor is merely the “Second Lord”. The First Lord is ultimately responsible for Treasury policy, even if he delegates much of the detail to the Second Lord, who he appoints. The Chancellor is answerable to the PM, and if he doesn’t do what he’s told, the PM can replace him at any time.

Disputes over detail between the two neighbours in Downing Street are not exactly unusual – the long-running feud between Blair and Brown was a notable example. But getting to the point where the Chancellor is actively frustrating the PM’s policy (leaving aside any value judgements on the content of that policy) to the extent to which the current Chancellor is doing is surely exceptional. The PM’s plan for energy which was promised within a few days a couple of weeks ago has yet to appear – apparently because the Chancellor is blocking it. It isn’t the first major government statement to be held up, despite the PM’s promises, by the Chancellor refusing to pay for it. See, for example, climate change policy; levelling up; NHS waiting list reductions. On the weekend, it was reported that there was panic in Number 10 about the utter inadequacy of the Chancellor’s Spring Statement in terms of it addressing the problems people are facing.

All of these raise questions over the extent to which the First and Second Lords actually talk to each other at all – and specifically as to whether the PM has any control over what his ministers are doing. He was quoted some time ago by Dominic Cummings as preferring chaos because “it means people have to look to me to see who is in charge”. The reality looks rather different. The chaos is real enough but rather than looking for decisions from the notoriously indecisive PM, as Johnson seems to expect, ministers are just doing whatever they want.

For reasons which escape me, his apologists and supporters seem happy to allow him to bumble on in chaos mode, leading a government whose only guiding principle is to grab the headlines by saying one thing and then go on to do something different or even nothing at all. It’s as if he believes that saying something is equivalent to doing it. Some are arguing that the threat from the lockdown misdemeanours has gone away. Perhaps, perhaps not. With the first batch of fines due to be issued today, the fact that the police have found enough evidence of criminal behaviour, even if the first batch doesn’t include the PM himself, will be enough to demonstrate that he was misleading parliament when he said that all rules were followed. One thing that has not changed since the parties were revealed – and will not change, even if the PM escapes a personal fine (the police are in a hopeless position on that – if they let him off, it will be seen as preferential treatment, and if they fine him, as a political act) is that the events turned him into a lame duck PM. It is his very ‘lameduckedness’ which gives other ministers the freedom to ignore his wishes and guidance, and nothing seems likely to change that.

Friday, 25 March 2022

Undestanding what the target is


The Chancellor has been almost universally criticised by the media and opposition parties for failing to help the most economically vulnerable to overcome the challenge of increased costs, especially of food and energy. But ‘helping the most vulnerable’ was almost certainly not his objective, and nor is it the criterion on which he and Johnson will judge his success. From the Tory perspective, there are actually two very different groups which are the ‘most vulnerable’ to the current economic problems.

Group A is what they like to call the ‘JAMs’, those people who are ‘just about managing’. People with a mortgage who will struggle to keep up with payments if interest rates rise, people who are finding it difficult to pay the increased cost of fuel for their cars, people facing hikes in domestic fuel bills, pensioners who have a small occupational pension on top of their state pension – these fit the Tory definition of vulnerable.

Group B, on the other hand, includes people in rented accommodation who can't afford to buy a home, people who cannot afford a car never mind the fuel to put in it, people who depend on benefits and/or food banks, pensioners totally reliant on the state pension – these will fit most people’s definition of economically vulnerable, but they’re not the target group the Tories are aiming to help, as is obvious from the measures announced this week.

Some have argued that this is a difference between those who can be presented as the ‘deserving poor’ and the ‘undeserving poor’, but I suspect that the truth is much more cynical than that – it’s about who is most likely to be persuadable to vote Tory. The Tories, after all, have one and only one objective in mind – retaining power. ‘Protecting the most vulnerable potential Tory voters’ is more useful to achieving that aim than ‘protecting the most vulnerable in society’.

One thing we know is that the more people find themselves struggling, the less likely they are to engage with political activity. Many in Group B are non-voters, sometimes recognising that making the effort to go out and vote will make little difference to their situation, but often just not having the time and energy to care about anything other than their immediate needs. There are some Tory voters in this group, especially amongst pensioners, but the Tories can reasonably conclude that if someone is still voting for them despite being in their current plight after 12 years of Tory governments, then nothing the government can do is likely to lose them many more votes in this group. But if non-voters are lifted up enough to be able to start thinking about politics, they are more likely to be anti-Tory voters than government supporters.

Group A, on the other hand, includes many who are key targets; it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the strength of Tory support in this group could determine the outcome of an election. Spending as little as possible on helping Group B means that there is more available to help Group A, where it might have more political impact. And Group B are a convenient group to demonise as scroungers – getting the not so well-off (Group A) to blame the poorest (Group B) fits a political narrative as well, and is one of the oldest tricks in the divide and rule playbook. Keeping them in their place is deliberate, not accidental.

The question which Sunak and Johnson will be asking themselves is not ‘have we protected the most vulnerable?’ – that was never their objective. It is, rather, ‘have we done enough to persuade enough JAMs to continue voting for us to be able to win the next election?’ And that isn’t just a question of economics; all the prejudices about deliberately doing more to help the ‘hard-working’ instead of the ‘layabouts’ come into play as well. The answer to that question is far from being as clear-cut as the near-universal criticism of Sunak suggests. I suspect that he’s probably misjudged even that – again. Just as he did at the start of the pandemic, he’s underestimated the scale of the crisis facing us, and is likely to be back with further measures shortly in order to avoid what is otherwise going to hit even his favoured JAMs very hard indeed. And whilst being extremely wealthy shouldn’t of itself rule someone out of being Chancellor, it’s reasonable to ask whether someone who is personally in a position to ride out any financial storm which comes along is ever going to understand just how much difference a fairly small amount of money can make to so many people, a factor which may well contribute to his repeated inadequate responses. That’s a practical question, based on the context as they see it; the more philosophical question about whether they should care is one that doesn’t even cross their minds.

Thursday, 24 March 2022

Rewarding failure

Yesterday, Boris Johnson said that it appears that P&O may have broken the law in the way that they sacked 800 seafarers a few days ago, and that they may face large fines as a result. Given that the owners are the same people whom Johnson is currently begging for more oil, this looks like another example of saying the right thing for a headline and then finding an excuse to do nothing. And sure enough, someone has come up with a potential loophole. According to this report from Sky News, a leading maritime lawyer has identified a change in the law signed off by Chris Grayling in 2018 which means that the company did not, in fact, need to notify the government. Whose word should we believe: a leading expert in the legal field or a compulsive liar who says the first thing which comes into his head? It’s a tough call.

The fact that Grayling was involved actually explains a lot. This is, after all, a man who saw no reason why ferry companies should need ships at all. It’s a small step from that to concluding that they don’t need crews either; and another small step to concluding that there’s no need for them to pay a decent wage to any crew who they do inadvertently hire. The only remaining mystery is why he hasn’t been given a knighthood for his colossal failures, in line with that given to Gavin Williamson. It’s probably just a matter of time.

Wednesday, 23 March 2022

The right to vote doesn't determine honesty


It seems like only days ago (probably because it was only days ago) that Boris Johnson was warning people against being Russophobic. Hardly surprising, in a way, for a man who just a few years ago declared himself to be a committed Russophile. (To say nothing of his being a fervent Sinophile, which is also not a spectacularly good look at present.) In his view, there are good Russians (who donate large sums of money to the Conservative Party) and bad Russians (who owe their wealth, mostly crooked in origin, to the active intervention, or at least passive tolerance, of the Kremlin). The alert may notice that there is no necessary contradiction between the two categories, leaving us with a significant number of Schrodinger’s Russians (those who are simultaneously both good and bad). This week, the Prime minister has warned that allowing foreigners who have made their homes here to vote in local and Senedd elections would open up the UK’s political system to donations from foreign governments, singling out Russians for his attention, in what would look strangely like a Russophobic statement if it hadn’t come from a man who told us that we must not be Russophobic.

Some may struggle to reconcile these two statements – after all, given the extent to which the PM’s party has benefited from generous donations from Russians who qualify to donate by virtue of being on the electoral register, it’s reasonable to wonder why he is now so strongly against it. There is, though, a key difference. The extremely large donations which have been made to his party have come from wealthy Russians who have been allowed to buy UK citizenship, using the money which they’ve effectively stolen from the Russian state and its citizens, aided and abetted by the kleptocracy in the Kremlin. Allowing ordinary, common or garden foreigners – teachers, lecturers, doctors and the like – to vote (and thus donate money from their legitimate earnings) might aid parties other than his own, whereas any sensible billionaire (and especially the crooked variety) looking to protect his own interests doesn’t require a huge degree of intelligence to work out which party is most likely to be of assistance to him. (And with luck, he might even get a peerage as well.)

In reality, the problem here is nothing to do with either nationality or voting rights; it is to do with the rules around political donations and their enforcement. Whether a billionaire donor is Russian or British is irrelevant – the questions should be about the provenance of the money being donated and the extent to which any quid pro quo is involved. Assuming that a donation is legal and clean just because the donor is registered as a UK voter (thereby allowing the receiving party to claim ‘no rules were broken’) is an enormous weakness in the UK’s system. It is, though, not a devolved issue. The Welsh government can decide who may vote in its elections but it can’t change the rules on donations; only the UK government can do that. Instead of criticising the Welsh government for opening up the franchise to all those who’ve decided to make their homes here and contribute to our communities, the UK government should be looking to clean up the rules over political donations rather than using them as an excuse for limiting the franchise. When we look at who benefits from the current lax rules, it doesn’t exactly take a lot of effort to work out why they’re not doing that.

Monday, 21 March 2022

Pots and kettles


The Guardian quotes Sajid Javid as having said on BBC’s Today programme this morning:

"The Russians just don’t seem that they can be trusted, and especially President Putin, who we know is a compulsive liar. We know that he has difficulty in separating fiction from fact."

Who would ever have imagined that a government led by a compulsive liar who struggles to separate fiction from fact would find that others might not entirely trust anything it says? And are we supposed to laugh or despair at the imbecility of any minister in Johnson’s government who could be so utterly lacking in self-awareness as to say such a thing about a government leader somewhere else?

Sunday, 20 March 2022

Opposing tyranny


What a difference a day makes. Just when some journalists were (rather foolishly and prematurely, given his past record) beginning to argue that Boris Johnson’s leadership at a time of crisis had saved his premiership in the eyes of the only people who matter, Tory MPs, he goes out of his way to show what a complete buffoon he is, and how utterly unfit he is to represent the UK on the world stage, by comparing the bloody and desperate struggle of Ukrainians against a Russian invasion with the UK’s vote to leave the EU. It’s a poor comparison in so many ways – not least because, on one interpretation, Putin is actually trying to ‘help’ Ukrainians avoid choosing to join what Johnson and Putin both apparently see as the evil and tyrannical EU. Johnson sees Brexit as his victory and is determined to celebrate it – but it was actually more of a victory for Putin who did so much to assist and fund the leave campaign in his aim of sowing division amongst his perceived enemies. Brexit is on course to do almost as much damage to the UK economy as sanctions will do to the Russian economy, just a little more gradually. Who needs sanctions when your opponent can be persuaded with a relatively small amount of cash to shoot his own foot?

When it comes to opposing tyranny, the PM has had a bad week all round. Repaying the UK’s debt to heavily-sanctioned Iran, something which has been ‘impossible’ for decades, sucking up to the United Arab Emirates the day before a company owned by the government of Dubai sacked 800 British seamen with a flagrant disregard for the law, and pleading for help to a Saudi government which is daily using the same tactics of bombing civilians in Yemen as Russia is using in Ukraine, all in pursuit of their oil, doesn’t exactly burnish his credentials as a supporter of freedom and democracy. Going on to warn the rest of the world not to make any deal with Putin, saying, “I know there are some others around the world who say it’s better to make accommodation with tyranny,” when that’s exactly what he’s spent the week trying to do with three other tyrants is just the hypocritical icing on the hollowed-out cake.

There is a very clear message from Johnson to Putin in all this: No matter how much we sanction you now, when a crisis arises somewhere else in the future and we need your help, we will reach an accommodation, just as we are now seeking to do with Iran. We will then turn a blind eye to your atrocities, just as we are doing with the Saudis, to whom we are even selling the weapons. Oil and money trump everything ultimately. It’s just a matter of time. Ethics don’t enter into the equation at all.

And it’s a message being delivered in our name for as long as we allow ourselves to be governed by a man demonstrably devoid of any sense of ethics or morality.

Friday, 18 March 2022

Bad luck or carelessness?


It was Harold MacMillan who said, when asked what drove his government’s policy, “Events, dear boy, events”. His latest successor, if he could ever be persuaded to answer truthfully, would probably have to reply “Coincidence and happenstance”. Looking back over the past few years, it is truly amazing how often luck – often bad for everyone except him – has followed Johnson around.

I mean – how unlucky can somebody be if every time he wanders into the garden at Number 10 during a national lockdown he finds a wholly unexpected party in full swing? What sort of fate is it that reveals an unlawful gathering in progress behind almost every door that he opens in the building? How unfortunate can somebody who has merely skipped away from his protection squad to attend a party at a chum’s palace in Italy be to find out that his chum’s father – a former KGB agent with direct access to Putin – just happens to be present as well? What a terrible piece of luck it was to find that a despotic regime in Iran was stupid enough to believe him when he said that Nazarin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was training journalists, and increased her sentence accordingly.

Not all his luck is entirely bad, of course. For him, anyway. Russia starting a major war on the European mainland has driven almost all mention of parties and rule-breaking off the front pages (just how long does it take the Met to read a questionnaire and conclude that he has no valid excuse, by the way?). And he had a real stroke of good luck this week in suddenly finding a way of repaying the UK’s debt to Iran after decades in which successive governments said it was impossible due to sanctions, just at the time when Iran’s oil might come in rather handy. He's been hit by more bad luck on the oil front this week, though. The day after his trip to beg a favour from the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, a company chaired by one of the most well-connected sultans in Dubai just happens to sack 800 British workers and find itself in need of its own favour, of the huff-and-puff-as-much-as-you-like-but-don’t-do-anything-serious variety. Not that the UK government’s reaction might have any impact on the UAE’s willingness to help, of course. And having then travelled on to Saudi Arabia to plead for more oil raise human rights issues and boldly declare that a country which executed 81 people the day before his visit was making progress on the matter, what an unlucky coincidence it was to hear that they promptly executed another three on the day of his visit.

To rephrase Oscar Wilde, at what point does bad luck start to look like carelessness?

Thursday, 17 March 2022

When the Carrie's away...


A few weeks ago, Boris Johnson changed government policy on the sales of fur and foie gras over a weekend. This issue, like a number of other animal-related issues was seen as being important to Mrs Johnson, so Mr J waited, according to this report, until Mrs J was away for the weekend before sliding out the announcement by way of briefing reporters. It looks as though she must have been away again last weekend, when an attempt was made to reverse the manifesto policy on hunting trophies in a similar manoeuvre. She was obviously home again by yesterday, though, (and in no mood to have her manifesto overturned a second time) when the government claimed that it has no intention of reneging on its commitment after all. Until the next time the Prime Ministerial spouse decides to have a weekend away, obviously.

It's an ‘interesting’ approach to policy-making, to say the least. Perhaps Downing Street should follow the example of Buckingham Palace and fly a different flag when the boss is in residence, and lower it when she’s away. At least that way, reporters would know when to take briefings seriously.

Wednesday, 16 March 2022

Visiting the sins of the fathers on the sons?


In a climate of increasing action against Russia and its oligarchs, Baron Lebedev of Siberia has said that it is crucial that "crucial we do not descend into Russophobia", a point supported strongly by Michael Gove, who said in an interview that we must avoid “an approach in the UK that said that everyone of Russian ancestry was somehow persona non grata”. They are right, of course, but in a classic piece of distraction, they deliberately miss the point, which isn’t about being anti-Russian at all. There are millions of ordinary honest Russians who don’t support what Putin is doing, and many other basically honest Russians who only support him as a result of being fed a highly controlled diet of propaganda. However, if we were to draw a Venn diagram with two circles – a large one denoting the millions of honest Russians with whom we should have no quarrel and a very much smaller one denoting that group of Russians who became very rich in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union and whose continued wealth depends on the tolerance of the Kremlin – how much overlap would there be? If the subset ‘honest Russians who just happened to make a fortune out of the end of the Soviet Union’ exists at all, which I tend to doubt, it would be a very small group indeed.

Gove has also argued that "There is a distinction to be drawn between the actions of parents and the actions of children", echoing a point made a few days ago by James Cleverly (walking proof of the fact that nominative determinism is not a thing) who said that “my father was a former chartered surveyor but I’m not, so what your father did for work is, I’m not completely sure, totally relevant”, in defence of the fact that the PM has elevated the son of a KGB agent to the House of Lords. I somehow doubt that they’d take quite the same attitude to the son of a bank robber who became rich because his father gifted him a large part of the proceeds of his nocturnal activities. Although that might, actually, be a better parallel. And, as an aside, where sanctions have been imposed on Russian individuals, they have very frequently been applied to family members as well, given the common practice of transferring assets between relatives. Rightly or wrongly, tarring the offspring with the same brush is the norm in this situation, not the exception.

As far as I’m aware, we don’t know the detail of how Lebedev père acquired his riches; we do know that most of the assets of the former Soviet Union ended up in the hands of very few people, and that that number includes a number of former KGB agents. And we do know – because one of them has told us – that at least some of the auctions were rigged and that a great deal of bribery was involved. And we also know that Lebedev fils owes his wealth entirely to the transfer of monies from Lebedev père. Dirty money doesn’t become clean as a result of being transferred from father to son (and neither does it become clean – which may come as a shock to some – as a result of being donated to the Conservative Party).

It is argued that Lebedev Senior is an outspoken opponent of Putin, afraid to leave Russia for fear that he won’t be allowed to return. Given that he reportedly offered to act as a back-channel for communication between Johnson and Putin over the Skripal affair, one might be forgiven for wondering how strong an opponent he really is. Oligarchs who seriously turn against Putin end up fearing rather more than living in exile. He is, at least, being tolerated. The question being asked is about whether Junior should remain a member of the House of Lords and allowed to continue to operate in the UK – the real question is why Senior has not been sanctioned at all to date. Not so much a question of whether the son should be punished for the sins of the father as whether the father is being excused because of the influence of the son. After all, the son has a number of close friends in influential places, and the current Prime Minister has often been a recipient of his largesse. Having a rich friend to fly Johnson to his villa in his private jet to attend ‘bunga bunga’ parties, after one of which the then Foreign Secretary was seen at the airport on his return journey looking “dishevelled”, “like he had slept in his clothes”, and apparently having difficulty walking in a straight line may leave the PM feeling somewhat indebted to the kind donor. It may also just possibly leave him open to the acquisition of kompromat. The real security risk might be a lot closer to home than Baron Siberia.

The source of the wealth of the Russian oligarchs didn’t suddenly become suspect when Russia invaded Ukraine; it’s been obvious and blatant for years. The acceptance of it as a normal part of life in the City of London has not been driven by any great moral principle, it’s more about greed and the desire to grab a share of the booty. Applying sanctions selectively and slowly tells us more about the extent to which the UK’s establishment has itself become corrupted by contact than it does about taking any moral high ground.

Monday, 14 March 2022

Identifying the transaction


There is a scene in The Godfather where an undertaker asks a favour from the mafia boss which involves something ‘unpleasant’ happening to a third party. The favour is granted willingly and unconditionally, with a simple statement that, at some future date, the Godfather might well need a favour from the undertaker – and some years later, that is precisely what happens when the undertaker is asked to patch up the body of the Godfather’s hot-headed son before his mother sees it. Two unrelated favours, in a sense – but there is a transaction hidden there, and all involved know it, even if it would be difficult to prove to the standards of a court of law.

Political donations can work in a similar way, and the transactional nature of some of them is also very difficult to prove. Take the case of Alexander Temerko and his company, Aquind. Both have been making generous donations to the Tory Party and an assortment of ministers and MPs (including Welsh Secretary, Simon Hart) for some years, involving a total of £1.1 million. The money was always given as ‘no strings’ donations, of course, out of the heartfelt generosity of Temerko and the ultimate owner of Aquind, Viktor Fedotov (although the latter denies having any control over the donations). One of the other beneficiaries was Penny Mordaunt, who now seems to have incurred the ire of Temerkov by daring to campaign against a business project of his. His response was to describe her as an “absolutely uncontrollable woman” – clearly, he expected that she would be more ‘controllable’. I wonder what could possibly have led him to think that? This case has come to light because an MP has NOT done what was clearly expected of her – in how many other cases have MPs discovered that their views on particular projects just happen to align with those of donors?

The issue here is nothing to do with the nationality of those involved – Temerko is Ukrainian-born, as it happens, although with strong links to Putin’s Kremlin, even if Fedotov is Russian. The issue predates the current hostilities which are leading to some people asking more questions, albeit late in the day. Having said that, it’s always possible that oligarchs used to operating in a political culture where politicians do what they are paid to do may have greater expectations of subsequent compliance than those used to operating in a less overtly corrupt political culture. The question, though, is a broader one – the fact that there are no conditions imposed at the time of making donations to influential politicians doesn’t mean that a return favour might not be requested or expected, even if not until some years later; and politicians who accept large sums, especially from dodgy sources (and surely donations from companies with no obvious source of revenue ought to provoke a question or two, at least) should ask themselves why they are being given the money rather than enthusiastically accepting it because ‘no rules have been broken’. Might there just possibly be unstated expectations for the future?

Lawyers for Aquind have said that all donations were “entirely lawful, properly declared and have not been made in return for any special treatment”, and doubtless they are correct – there was no clear ‘transaction’ involved in any of them. The same thing could be said in relation to the case of the Godfather’s favour to the undertaker. But it doesn’t take a lot of thought to work out what might have become of that undertaker had he refused to return the favour when requested.

Sunday, 13 March 2022

Curious Conservative 'logic'


The ‘leader’ of the Scottish Conservatives, Douglas Ross, announced last week that he had withdrawn his letter of no confidence in the Prime Minister because, he said, “the middle of an international crisis is not the time to be discussing resignations”. His ‘logic’ is curious, to say the least, given that his statement shows no indication that he has changed his mind about the main issue, which is that Boris Johnson is utterly unfit to hold the job. Faced with a major international crisis, surely the need to ensure that the man at the helm is up to the job increases rather than reduces. The argument that a proven liar who, whenever he’s under pressure (and often when he isn’t) says the first thing that comes into his head, even if it's the opposite of what he said yesterday, is the best person to establish enough trust to negotiate with friends and enemies alike is a very strange one. ‘Stability’ in a crisis is a good thing, of course – but who in his or her right mind would apply the label ‘stable’ to a government led by a man who his former close confidant describes as being like a shopping trolley with defective wheels which lurches unpredictably from side to side? Insisting that we should stick with an unpredictable Johnson to face up to the even more dangerously unpredictable Putin defies all normal logic. It makes sense only if Ross believes that any conceivable Tory replacement would be even worse. Oh, hold on, perhaps he has a point after all...

Friday, 11 March 2022

Shame, not pride, is the only response


Whenever things get to the point where I begin to think that the current government could not go any lower, there is one minister who is always willing to step forward to prove me wrong. Just about the only thing that the UK government could have done to top its abysmal and disgraceful performance to date in handling the Ukrainian refugee crisis was to turn on European neighbours and criticise them for being too generous. So, with a certain inevitability, that is exactly what the ever-dependable Priti Patel has done, with her expression of concern to the Irish government that Ireland’s decision to allow refugees in without visas, in line with the humanitarian policy of all EU states, threatens the UK’s vicious and inhumane policy by creating a potential ‘back door’ for desperate people.

I suppose one could argue that it demonstrates that she at least understands the basic principle underlying the whole war – the right of large countries to expect that smaller neighbours will know their place, do as they’re told, and never implement any policy which might annoy their larger and more powerful neighbour. It’s just that nobody seems to have told her that she’s supposed to at least pretend to be on the side of the victims of the bullying, not behave like the bully.

Her Kafkaesque decision to set up a visa processing centre in Lille, which will neither accept appointments nor walk-ins and whose location is being kept secret somehow reminds me of the scene from the old radio programme, The Men from the Ministry, where a request from another department to borrow the ‘Permission Refused’ stamp was greeted with the response “Stamp it Permission Refused and tell them we haven’t got one”. Except that was a parody of the way government works, with refusal always the first option, and was funny. There is nothing in the least bit amusing about Patel’s refusal (backed by the PM and the other pathetic apologies for ministers) to help desperate and vulnerable people at their time of greatest need.

And all the while, the government bang on about how proud we should be of the UK’s leading role in the world, freed of the constraints of EU membership, and claim that it is demonstrating the unity of the realm. Pride – real, genuine pride in a leading humanitarian role – might actually help to achieve that if they could give us any reason for feeling such pride. The increasing feeling of shame which so many are instead feeling will do quite the opposite. The Irish can and should feel proud of their efforts to date; not for the first time, their outward-looking, European perspective puts the narrow insularity of the Anglo-British nationalists to shame.

Thursday, 10 March 2022

Can dancing solve Johnson's problems?


In 1976, the UK suffered a severe and prolonged period of drought. Eventually, things got so bad that the PM at the time, James Callaghan, appointed a Minister for Drought, Denis Howell, who apparently, amongst other things, was ordered by Number 10 to do a rain dance on behalf of the whole UK. Three days later, it started raining, the UK suffered widespread flooding – and he rapidly found himself ‘promoted’ to Minister of Floods. I’m sure that I’m far from being alone in suspecting that neither his appointment nor his rain dance (if he ever did it) had much to do with the change in the weather. (In three days, the civil service had probably not even managed to find him an office or staff, let alone research the detailed etiquette of a rain dance.) However, appointing a minister to take specific responsibility for a problem area on behalf of the government has become something of a fall back position ever since. Apart from anything else, it gives the PM someone to blame instead of having to take the flak himself.

In the light of the appalling mismanagement, confusion, and downright lies surrounding the handling of the Ukrainian refugee crisis, Boris Johnson has this week resorted to the same sleight of hand. Despite the headline, he hasn’t created a new minister at all, merely appointed one; whatever his own wishes on the matter, creation isn’t part of his powers even under the royal prerogative. It’s come at a heavy price to him – by choosing someone outside parliament to take on the role of Minister for Refugees, he’s been forced to ennoble yet another of his mates, further expanding the unelected house of parliament. No doubt the new minister will need time to settle in, be found an office, desk, and a few staff, and determine his terms of reference as a new sub-department is carved out at Westminster, and all that before getting down to the job in hand. Somehow, I doubt that he will turn out to be quite as lucky as Denis Howell; with or without a ministerial dancing act, this is not a problem which is going to resolve itself in three days. Still, things could be worse – Johnson could have appointed an existing peer, such as Baron Lebedev of Siberia, to take on the role. Now that would have shown Putin that he means business. Whose business is a whole other question.

Wednesday, 9 March 2022

Time to change the rules


One of the few things which almost everybody ‘knows’ about economics is the law of supply and demand, which crystallises the relationship between supply, demand and price. Theoretically, if supply falls or demand increases, the price rises; and if demand falls or supply increases, the price falls until, in either case, a new balance is reached (the achievement of which new state might also involve the entrance of new suppliers or substitute products, or the exit of existing suppliers and old products). But, as with most over-simplistic rules, the reality is more complex.

We are currently seeing a huge spike in oil prices as a result of a combination of fear that Russian oil will be cut off and the decision by some customers to stop buying from that source, although there is no reduction in demand. The oil market, in terms of its effects on price, is working as one might expect, leading to price increases. There is currently, though, no increase in the cost of production of oil: the same oil, at the same cost of production, is simply being traded at a higher price. We know who’s paying the increased price – all of us – so who’s getting the extra money? The answer, of course, is that it’s going in increased profits – to oil companies, speculators, market makers etc. They are, in effect, getting a huge boost in their income for no extra cost or work. The market is working to transfer money from the poor to the rich – not just within countries like the UK, but also between countries. It is working to ration the supply of oil, based on price and ability to pay. That is what markets do – unless we change the rules.

For those who argue that we should not interfere in markets, I’ll just point out that ALL markets have rules of one sort or another. The questions we need to ask are who makes those rules, and whose interests they serve. In principle, markets are the best solution that humanity has come up with for the exchange of goods and services, but we should never forget that they are in essence a human invention, and they should be there to serve us, not to enslave or impoverish us. If they’re not doing that, then they are not working for humanity, only for a section of it – and changing the rules is a wholly rational response.

All the ‘solutions’ to the current crisis that I’ve seen politicians putting forward (more nuclear, more renewables, opening up new oil fields) necessarily involve long term projects, whereas the problem is here and now. There is an alternative, but it involves those governments wanting to hit Russian oil revenues working together, even if only for the short term, to share what oil is available rather than leaving it to the market. Effectively, it means forming a temporary cartel of purchasers to deliberately ration oil on the basis of need rather than accidentally on the basis of ability to pay. There’s still an economic hit from the reduction in availability, it’s just shared more evenly rather than disproportionately affecting the poorest people and the poorest countries. It would be uncomfortable, to say the least: we’ve seen the economic results of a shortage of energy in the past (three-day week, anyone?). But it raises the questions that have been referred to here before – how serious are we about stopping Putin, what price are we prepared to pay to achieve that, and who in society should pay that price? For all the rhetoric, the answers I’ve seen to date, based on actions rather than words, are ‘not as much as we want you to think’, ‘as little as possible’, and ‘those who can least afford it’. Words are too easy – it’s action that is needed.

Tuesday, 8 March 2022

A Great British welcome


Following the announcement by the Home Secretary that she had ‘surged’ the UK’s presence in Calais to deal with the exodus of Ukrainians (when did ‘surge’ become a transitive verb?), the BBC went in search of it, in the wake of a family seeking help. They eventually found “…three men at a trestle table in a deserted departure hall at the port, with bags of ready salted crisps and Kit Kats”. The way in which government ministers lie so casually and blatantly, even when they know that minimal research will expose those lies, ought to be surprising. Ought to be, but isn’t – it’s become the new normal. I guess they’re assuming that their supporters won’t care about the lies, as long as foreigners are kept out. Sadly, they’re probably right. Worse still, I have a depressing suspicion that the people to whom Patel, Johnson et al are seeking to appeal will probably  be more outraged at the excessive generosity of the crisps and Kit Kats.

Monday, 7 March 2022

Ignorance as a qualification?


Last week, the Welsh Secretary, Simon Hart, told us that he wished Wales hadn’t been able to set its own rules for handling Covid. In itself, the idea that an Anglo-British nationalist wants Wales and Scotland to do as they’re told rather than follow their own paths is about as newsworthy as the revelation that the Pope is a Catholic. In support of his position, he argued that “if you look at all of the measurements of success or failure, … actually there was precious little difference between England and Wales”. It’s one of those statements which has the veneer of truth, but where the situation is actually rather more complicated.

Leaving aside the fact that no-one could have known in advance whether different approaches would lead to different outcomes (which makes his statement a rationalisation after the event, rather than a reason for not allowing differences in the first place), one of the reasons for the differences in outcomes being small was that the English government constrained the ability of Wales to be more different, by, for example, only making furlough available when England needed it. There is also a danger in his use of headline figures, because – as the Welsh health minister has pointed out – a country with an older and often sicker population and higher levels of poverty would expect to lose a higher proportion of its vulnerable people to a pandemic where the death rate amongst those groups is higher. The very fact that the outcome was similar could itself be taken as at least a partial vindication of the Welsh approach. Statistics need to be interpreted with caution, rather than just looking at the headline figure, although, in fairness, Hart is probably just following the cavalier attitude of his boss. But leaving the numbers to one side, one thing which has stood out throughout the pandemic – and I suspect that this is what really irks Hart and his colleagues – is that the approach of Mark Drakeford and the Welsh government has been overwhelmingly supported by people in Wales, who are well able to tell the difference between a government trying its best (even if it didn’t always succeed) to keep people safe, and one more concerned for the profits of its friends and donors.

More shocking to me was the claim by Hart that, despite having been an MP for a Welsh constituency for 9 years before being appointed to the Cabinet, he had never heard of the Barnett formula. That really is an astounding admission to make, although it was probably part of what qualified him – in Johnson’s mind at least – to take on the job. Looking around the cabinet table, it is easy to conclude that ignorance is a qualification under the current regime rather than an impediment. On the other hand it could just be that whatever some of those providing him with cash were after, it wasn’t a detailed knowledge of Wales or its finances.

Friday, 4 March 2022

How serious are we?


To date, the EU has managed to sanction 680 individuals associated with the Putin regime, whereas the UK has managed to reach the grand total of 8. This is, according to the UK government an example of the way in which post-Brexit UK is ‘leading the world’. I wouldn’t like to speculate about the result if we weren’t world-leading. Unsurprisingly, the UK’s foot-dragging is leading to a certain amount of frustration in other European capitals who cannot understand why the UK, uniquely, is so willing to give the individuals enough advance notice to move their assets out before they get frozen. They obviously don’t understand Conservative Party funding. One Home Office minister, Damian Hinds, told the BBC that “it was not a competition”, a statement which would sound a great deal more sincere if his boss wasn’t always trying to present whatever the UK does as world-leading, a description which sounds more than a little competitive to me. (And, as an aside, I find myself wondering about the wisdom of allowing Russian billionaires to sell their assets to Chinese billionaires, as some of them are reportedly trying to do, as though that might not merely be storing up new problems for the future. For Ukraine, see Taiwan.)

Whether sanctioning individuals will be effective or not is another question; it sounds to me a bit like the old “we must do something – this is something” rather than a seriously thought-out attempt to influence events. A wider and more far-reaching trade embargo is more likely to have an impact, but is being weakened by the determination of some countries to continue paying hard foreign currency to Putin’s Russia for oil and gas (even if they’ve stopped trying to get exemptions for Gucci handbags). It’s easy enough to understand why a country like Germany (which gets around 49% of its gas imports from Russia) will be more reluctant to end the trade than the UK, which gets only a few percent of its total gas supply from that source. But if Europe, collectively, wanted to make a difference (and it’s a pity that the UK no longer even has a seat at the table, let alone that it takes an entirely selfish attitude), there are surely methods of sharing the pain. The ‘default’ scenario is that, if the gas is cut off, Germany loses almost half of its total supply, whilst the UK loses only around 4% of its supply. Without crunching the numbers in detail, and pulling a figure out of the air as an example, would the world be a better or a worse place if the countries of Europe agreed, in the short term at least, to share what gas is available from non-Russian sources so that everyone gets, say 80% (or whatever the percentage is when the numbers are fully analysed) of what they need? It would be painful for all, but the pain would at least be shared, and it might be a lot easier to get buy-in to shutting down the supplies on that basis.

I don’t doubt that some would argue that ‘we’ shouldn’t have to lose out because other European countries have allowed themselves to become dependent on an unstable trading partner (although I seem to remember them telling us in another context that ‘pooling and sharing’ is a good thing), but if that argument trumps the need to oppose blatant imperialism, then we might as well hand victory to Putin now and open negotiations about which other bits of Europe he wants. Supporting people through a period of high prices and scarcity would be expensive, but the pandemic surely proved that the availability of money really isn’t a problem in an emergency. And I note that no-one seems to be asking where we are finding the funds to ship vast amounts of armaments to Ukraine: as ever, the government can find money for things that they want to fund.

The question remains: how serious are we, really, about stopping Putin, and what are we prepared to sacrifice to achieve that?

Thursday, 3 March 2022

Leadership and greatness


There are some who believe that human history is largely shaped by the actions of a few ‘great men’, where ‘great’ refers to their influence on events rather than being a qualitative description. In this context, ‘great’ doesn’t preclude being utterly evil; indeed, the two often go together. Others argue that the so-called ‘great men’ were merely products of the social environment at the time, and that the real mover of history is more to do with social forces, or perhaps more accurately the clashes between differing social forces. It’s an interesting debate, but largely academic. Since we can’t run history twice to compare, we can never know, for instance, whether assassinating Hitler in 1938 would have completely changed history or simply led to another individual fulfilling a very similar role.

We do know – because he’s told us – that Boris Johnson is very much a supporter of the ‘great man’ theory of history. According to him, one such ‘great man’, Churchill, single-handedly saved our entire civilisation. It meshes with the British popular memory (a euphemism for fable and myth in this context) of how ‘the’ war was fought and won. To understand exactly how he claims this to have worked, I’d probably need to read his book, but given the reviews that’s not a pain I’m willing to endure. Suffice it to say that, in the real version of history, the most influential of all the armies on the battlefield – and the one suffering the greatest losses – was the Soviet Red Army, most of whose conscripts had probably never heard of Churchill, let alone been inspired by him. It’s just possible that fear of another ‘great man’ (Stalin) might have had a greater influence on them. That, and the fact that they were largely fighting, initially at least, on their own territory rather than that of someone else. Defence of the homeland and family will always feel more real in those circumstances.

In itself, Johnson’s belief is relatively harmless; writing unreadable and historically inaccurate (according to the reviews) books and believing that which is inherently unprovable at least makes a change from believing, or pretending to believe, the impossible. The bigger problem is that he believes himself to be one such ‘great man’, and in terms of the old saying “some are born to greatness, others have greatness thrust upon them”, he firmly believes himself to be in the former camp. It follows that everything he does is axiomatically ‘great’, and the country he leads is equally axiomatically ‘great’ and ‘world-leading’ in everything it does. That perspective helps to explain his dismay, nay outrage, when others challenge his actions and refuse to take him at his own self-evaluation. Great men don’t need mere facts, rhetoric is enough.

It's educational to compare him with the current president of Ukraine. Here is a man who doesn’t seem to have made any claims to be great, and who seems to have ended up where he is not as the result of his own self-belief that he should be king of the world, but more by accident as a result of life imitating art in the form of his comedy show. There is little by way of self-aggrandisement or boastfulness, there doesn’t appear to be any flowery language (although like most of us, I’ve only ever heard him in translation, so it’s hard to be certain), he manages without the cod embellishment of referring to classical tales and texts, and speaks in a direct and apparently honest way showing – rather than just talking about – immense courage and determination. Definitely a case of having greatness thrust upon him, and for all the doubts that many Ukrainians had about him prior to the start of the war, he has turned out to be the right man at the right time.

Life has taught me not to place too much trust in heroes – all too often they turn out, eventually, to have feet of clay. But I surely can’t be the only one wondering if we might not be better off with a self-effacing leader who got there by accident rather than an arrogant narcissist who got there by deploying dishonesty on a grand scale, who believes that rhetorical flourishes count for more than actions and that promises made are valid only until the end of the sentence making them.

Wednesday, 2 March 2022

Can sanctions really work?


Some reports have suggested that the sanctions being imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine are having a major impact on the Russian economy already, with interest rates rising, and banks running out of cash. It is comforting to believe that the sanctions taken to date are having a dramatic effect, but there is a danger of seeing what we want to see. The initial impact may be more a result of the suddenness than of any real underlying impact – and they certainly are nowhere near leading to any rethink by Putin. Some estimates – and it’s difficult to estimate accurately – suggest that the impact overall will be a hit of something like 4-6% to Russian GDP. That’s significant, but hardly crippling. As a comparison, the best estimates of the impact of Brexit on the UK are that it will reduce GDP by around 4%. That’s bad news – especially for those on lowest incomes, who will (as always) bear the brunt – but no-one is suggesting that it’s akin to the sort of economic collapse which would ‘force’ the UK to go begging to Brussels for readmission, to the Single Market if not to the Union itself. And a government which cares even less about the fate of ordinary people than the Johnson government, which is where Russia finds itself, is hardly going to lose much sleep over even the worst case 6% drop in GDP.

In any event, Russia has plenty of chance to mitigate the effects of at least some of the sanctions. The UK has kindly given the oligarchs sufficient advance notice for them to be liquidating their assets and moving them out of the UK, and those who keep their assets hidden behind nominee and shell companies in the UK’s myriad of tax havens have been given even more time to prepare by the snail’s pace progress of legislation to deal with those tax havens. Add to that those states in the world which are prepared to try and find ways around the sanctions, and the apparent determination of some European countries to continue buying – and paying for – supplies of Russian hydrocarbons, and the reports of the damage being done to the Russian economy look hopelessly over-optimistic.

Accepting the argument that military intervention leading to direct armed conflict with Russia is too dangerous to contemplate, we are left with nothing better than sanctions. But whilst sanctions could be strengthened considerably (moving rapidly towards a complete trade embargo) and action could be taken faster (preventing the movement of assets), sanctions have never proved to be an effective mechanism, and certainly not in a short time frame. More extreme sanctions, such as a complete trade embargo would hurt more. There would be a cost to ourselves as well as to ordinary Russians, of course – although nothing remotely comparable to the price currently being paid by the Ukrainian people. The biggest problem we face is international disunity as individual states try to protect their own peoples and interests. And the underlying cause of that comes down to the fact that we have a competitive world order rather than a collaborative one – it's driven, in effect, by an ideology which encourages selfishness. All of the problems likely to be faced by individual states as a result of more resolute international action against Russia could be resolved – or at least mitigated – by a willingness to share the pain equally rather than protect individual interests. Without that, we’re probably doomed to a long term war of resistance and attrition from which the biggest losers are the Ukrainian people and the only winners are the suppliers of armaments.

Tuesday, 1 March 2022

Global Gobbiness

Words can have consequences. Sometimes, that’s because they’re taken seriously; at other times it’s because they provide people with an excuse to do or say what they wanted to do or say anyway. The Foreign Secretary’s words this week fall into the latter category. Linking the threat of nuclear escalation to something she said is absolutely unjustified; and the Kremlin must surely know as well as most of us do that it is ludicrous to take anything she says seriously. Even if it’s only about cheese. She has proved herself to be ‘geographically challenged’ in distinguishing between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea (both starting with ‘B’ and both being in Europe somewhere doesn’t make them the same thing) and under-briefed, having declared that the UK will never accept Russian sovereignty over parts of, um, Russia. And this week, she had to be publicly corrected by her boss over her suggestion that the government would support anyone choosing to go and fight in Ukraine, despite the little matter of that being illegal under UK law.

But words do have consequences, whether we like it or not. And having a gaffe-prone Foreign Secretary at a time of major international crisis is a really, really bad idea. As bad as having a clown for a PM and a Home Secretary lacking in any sense of human empathy. She cannot be held responsible for the way her words are interpreted or used – but she can be, and is, responsible for saying them. Opening the mouth before the brain is engaged is unhelpful in most situations; it’s potentially disastrous in the current one.