Thursday 28 April 2022

Agreeing with Dorries


This week brought a rather frightening occurrence – I found myself agreeing with something said by Nadine Dorries. They say that given an infinite number of chimpanzees with an infinite number of typewriters and an infinite period of time, one of them will eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare, in the correct order, and duplicating every single one of the bard’s original spelling errors. (Mathematically speaking, the idea is wrong – infinity is so vast that we’d actually end up with an infinite number of perfect copies, but let’s not allow mathematical precision to spoil the flow.) The thing is, the perfect copy doesn’t have to be the infinitieth one; the power of randomness is such that it could equally be the first, which means that it doesn’t need an infinite period of time for even Dorries to say something sensible. It just feels that way sometimes. Mind you, given a choice between agreeing with Dorries or agreeing with Jake, it’s a tough call for many of us, although that didn’t prevent the PM from coming down firmly on the side of Jake.

It isn’t just me: both the columnist Simon Jenkins and many of the heads of the Civil Service have also found themselves obliged to agree with Dorries on this occasion, even if it’s a trend which won’t last. Jake is, of course, famed for being out of touch with reality, and it didn’t really need him to wander round the offices of civil servants leaving patronising and insulting notices on empty desks to demonstrate how removed he is from the real world in which most of us live. He manages that just by getting up in the morning. And I suppose, given the PM's history of sexism and misogyny, that it shouldn’t be a surprise that Johnson would support a fellow old-Etonian and Oxford graduate ahead of a mere woman, especially one from a working-class background. She, like the civil servants who have attracted the derision of Jake, is supposed to know her place, and her deviation from her usual position of providing adulation for the PM will not have been welcome.

The point she made, though, is a valid one. The issue we should be addressing is not whether civil servants are at their desks for the specified 37 hours per week, but what they do with their time and how productive they are. If the job gets done efficiently, why should we care where they do it? Whilst there are some roles, even within the civil service, where staff working together and talking directly to each other can spark innovation and efficiency, there are plenty of other, much more mechanistic, jobs where the opportunity to mingle round the coffee machine or the water cooler can actually damage overall productivity. And even those where it is of benefit don’t really require 5 precise days of 7 hours each to achieve the necessary effect.

So, are the civil servants working from home being productive or not? And if not, why not? We know that there are problems with backlogs at the DVLA and the Passport Office, and we know that both have got worse since the start of the pandemic (although neither were particularly famous for the speed of their response even before that). Is it because they are inherently inefficient or workshy, or is it because of a lack of resources (staff absences due to Covid have been high) or even a lack of systems to support homeworking? Are the rules about what staff can work on at home too restrictive, meaning that some particular tasks end up with a backlog? Could changes to rules, or better systems actually facilitate more efficient working? Despite Jake’s obsession with seeing offices full of people sitting at desks doing whatever it is that they do, we know that a combination of Covid, a war in Europe hitting energy costs and supplies, and the need to reduce our carbon usage all mean that working from home, where it can be managed, is to be preferred, and that’s without even beginning to consider issues such as work/life balance.

That’s not an analysis which Jake has done, of course – nor is it one he’s ever likely to do. He doesn’t need to when he ‘knows’ that state employees are inherently lazy and workshy and can only be managed by close direct supervision. Both he and Johnson share the ideological standpoint that everything the state does is essentially rubbish (the civil service can’t even organise decent parties – as some of the ministers defending the PM have pointed out, there were no outside caterers, no balloons or poppers, and people were wearing suits). For ideological Tories, delays at the DVLA and the Passport Office can only ever be down to the poor performance of individual civil servants, and the underlying assumption is always that employing fewer staff on minimum wage level salaries in companies owned by Tory donors will do a better job, presumably because the employers will be able to use bigger whips. The more one thinks about it, the more surprising it is that Dorries seems to have abandoned her party’s ideology and struck the nail on the head. It could just be the effect of that randomness mentioned earlier. Or maybe she just didn’t get the memo telling her what she’s supposed to believe. Perhaps the memo's author was working from home and wasn’t allowed to send the e-mail because of civil service rules.

Monday 25 April 2022

Certainty and stability


In an attempt to stave off attempts by some Tory MPs to dislodge Boris Johnson from Downing Street, the Tory Party Chair, Oliver Dowden, said yesterday that changing the PM would lead to "instability and uncertainty". In principle, he has a point: change can indeed lead to instability and uncertainty. However, in practice, his statement requires us to believe the converse: i.e. that keeping Johnson in place is providing ‘stability and certainty’. That’s a big ask. Just last week, the Guardian catalogued 30 times when Johnson has performed a U-turn, sometimes with dazzling speed. Also last week, the Education Minister was sent out to tour the studios in the morning explaining why it was absolutely right to vote down Labour’s proposal for an enquiry into whether the PM had misled parliament, only to discover as soon as he got back to the office that what he should have been saying was that it was absolutely right to support Labour’s proposal. It’s his own fault, mind: plenty of other ministers have found out that the line which they’ve vociferously been explaining in the media has changed before they even get back to their desks, and they never seem to learn. It’s an example of Johnsonian certainty in action.

In fairness, it is true that uncertainty can lead to instability, and not everything about the current PM is uncertain. There are some certainties:

·        Whatever he says today, he’ll say something different tomorrow

·        Whether something is true or not is not a consideration to him

·        He betrays everyone eventually.

Things may look different to ministers appointed by Johnson, of course, especially those who have been most loyal and most willing to allow themselves to be swept along by the tide of lies, illegality and corruption. Under a different leader (assuming that the Tories can find one untainted by Johnson), their future does indeed look very unstable and uncertain. It’s easy to see why Dowden would be feeling more than a little uncertain about his own future when it comes to replacing the PM. For the rest of us, the bigger worry is that there really isn’t anyone in the current Tory Party who’d be much better. The possibility that there isn’t looks more certain than not.

Saturday 23 April 2022

No refresher course needed


There is an old story about the trade unionist who was sent in to negotiate a pay rise but returned to his members to tell them that he hadn’t got them a rise at all, and in fact had been forced to accept a pay cut on their behalf. The good news was that he'd got it backdated. Perhaps in later life he became a teacher at Eton, instructing the likes of Boris Johnson in negotiating skills.

This week, the PM went to India, and the trip was billed in advance as an opportunity to get India onside with sanctions against Russia for its attack on Ukraine. By all reports, they didn’t quite get around to discussing that in detail, but Johnson did manage to agree to a relaxation of the rules on export of British military equipment, one of the consequences of which is that it will now be easier for such equipment to reach Russia via India. He promised to plug any ‘loopholes’, seemingly oblivious to the fact that avoiding such loopholes was precisely the objective of the licensing rules he’s just removed.

In other talks whilst he was there he pushed for an expedited timetable for a trade deal with India, to be concluded by a wholly arbitrary date, apparently forgetting that the details of the last trade deal he signed in a rush are still busily unravelling. Responding to a question on that matter while he was there, he helpfully reminded the world that his response to any deal signed in a rush is to unilaterally opt out of the bits he doesn’t like. For good measure, he also managed to demonstrate in successive interviews that he can’t even negotiate successfully with his own MPs. It’s an approach guaranteed to fill the Indian negotiators with confidence about the integrity and dependability of their interlocutors, to say nothing of the likely longevity of Johnson's term of office. Or maybe not. It may be significant that in calling for a trade deal "by Diwali in October", no year was specified.

He has, though, clearly shown that he doesn’t need to go back to that trade union negotiator/ mentor for a refresher course – the lessons are all still quite clear in his mind.

Friday 22 April 2022

Following orders


The top civil servant in the Home Office has apparently found it necessary to tell the department’s staff that they will not be breaking the law nor be guilty of racism if they implement the Home Secretary’s plan to deport some asylum seekers to Rwanda. The claim that the plan does not break any laws is a bold one for a civil servant to make; ultimately it is for the courts to decide whether the plan is legal or not, and we can be certain that there will be legal challenges aplenty. The question as to whether it is racist or not is more complex. It is arguably not directly racist in the sense that race will not be a factor in the criteria for deciding which of those migrants who arrive by one particular mode of entry will be sent; but since the overwhelming majority of those arriving by that route are of African or Middle Eastern origin (Europeans generally having safer routes available to them, as well as less need to seek sanctuary - current circumstances notwithstanding), there is every probability that it will be indirectly racist.

But perhaps the most significant part of the mandarin’s lecture to staff was the bit where he said that staff were obliged to implement ministers’ decisions. That sounded a lot like telling them that they must always follow orders, an approach to government which many will have thought to have been seriously discredited at Nuremburg. There are lots of things in human history which have been entirely legal under the laws in force at the time – including, of course, slavery – but being ‘legal’ doesn’t make them right, and it doesn’t absolve those implementing them of all moral responsibility for their actions. Where to draw the line is far from being an easy question: a situation in which different civil servants draw the line in different places depending on their own consciences would clearly cause untold difficulties. But the precedents for a government which falls back on instructing its servants to do as they are told regardless of any reservations about legality or morality – which is where we seem to be headed – are not exactly good. The Civil Service is, quite rightly, expected to be neutral rather than partisan in implementing the policy of the elected government of the day. But acting in a neutral fashion isn’t – and should not be allowed to become – the same thing as acting without any sense of morality. The fact that the head honcho at the Home Office doesn’t seem to understand the nuance here is something that should worry us all.

Thursday 21 April 2022

What if they cease to be useful?


During his visit to Ukraine to meet with President Zelensky last week, Johnson was fulsome in his expression of support for the right of Ukraine to choose to exist as a free and sovereign nation, and pledged to do everything he could to ensure that happens. Some people might remember him saying something very similar to Nicola Sturgeon the last time he visited Scotland. Oh, wait…

It isn’t the only discordancy in his treatment of the two different situations; in a whole range of ways, on the substantive issue of Ukraine’s right to existence, his views, and the views of his party, are much closer to those of Putin than Zelensky:

·        Putin believes that the loss of the Russian Empire, or even its revised post WW2 incarnation, was a historic geo-political mistake; Johnson has expressed similar views about the British Empire.

·        Putin seeks to recreate the old Russian Empire – Johnson and his Brexiteers wanted to build Empire 2.0.

·        Putin deeply regrets that Ukraine was allowed to vote for independence in 1992; Johnson deeply regrets that Wales and Scotland were allowed to vote for devolution in 1999.

·        Putin believes that he has the unilateral right to claw back that level of independence; Johnson believes that he has the right to claw back any and all devolved powers.

·        Putin believes that Ukrainians aren’t really a nation at all, just a different type of Russian with an odd accent and a local patois which should be eliminated; Johnson’s views about Wales and Scotland are not exactly dissimilar – they’re really just the same as the English. (When he's not publishing articles calling them 'verminous', that is.)

·        Putin believes that Ukraine has fallen under the sway of evil nationalists who have created the entirely false idea that Ukraine is a separate and distinct nation; Johnson feels much the same about Scotland and Wales (and probably Ireland as well).

·        Putin believes that he is defending Russia by using military force to ensure that Ukraine can never become host to unfriendly forces; some Tories made it clear that England would feel obliged to bomb Scotland in similar circumstances.

·        Putin believed that Russian ‘liberators’ would be welcomed with open arms and banners when they returned Ukrainian territory to the Russian fold; Johnson similarly seems to believe that Scots welcome his determination to not allow them any choice over their future.

·        Putin believes that Ukraine should know its place and do whatever its larger neighbour tells it; Johnson thinks that the same applies to Ireland as well as Scotland and Wales, and some Tories even suggested starving Ireland in order to make them comply with the UK's wishes over Brexit.

·        Both Putin and Johnson and their parties are kept afloat by a huge influx of cash from Russian oligarch cronies, without which they would be struggling.

It’s enough to make me wonder whether he just forgot to write the other article before deciding which side to support. More likely, he just came to the same conclusion as he did over Brexit, which was nothing to do with advantages and disadvantages for the UK, or even with what was right or moral, but with which did the most to promote his own personal interests. There is no moral judgement involved in deciding which side to support, and his history shows that, over time, he betrays or lets down everyone in pursuit of his own self-interest. At the moment, Zelensky and Ukraine are useful as an utterly absurd excuse for not replacing a chancer with a serious and dependable person (always assuming that such a person could still be found in the Johnson-led Tories) at a time of crisis. If he is not removed from office, what happens when their usefulness wanes? Or if he just gets bored?

Wednesday 20 April 2022

Abandoning morality


An inability to learn from experience seems to be a standard requirement for Tory MPs, particularly when sent out on defend-the-PM duties. Every time any of them comes up with a new line of defence which they think to be clever and apt, some quote or action will be dredged up from the PMs 'colourful' past to undermine the point they are making, yet still they keep trying to do it. And thus it came to pass yesterday that, within hours of one Cabinet Minister comparing the fixed penalty notice with a parking fine, someone drew attention to the PM’s views on parking fines – as in that he accumulated piles of them, deliberately ignored them, didn’t pay them, and allowed them to disintegrate in the rain, using a Belgian-registered car as his excuse on the basis that the local constabulary wouldn’t bother to chase the owner of a foreign vehicle. Another handy comparison bites the dust, unless the more limited lesson that we’re supposed to draw is that at least he pays his fines these days. The long arm of the law doesn't seem to be long enough to catch even a self-confessed serial fine dodger.

According to an increasing number of reports, many Tory MPs have decided to wait until after the May local elections before moving to depose their leader. The theory behind this is, apparently, that a really bad set of results will demonstrate that the electors at large want him out and that will be the trigger for the gutless ones to think about doing something to remove him. It’s a way of evading any sense of morality or propriety that might still be lurking somewhere about their personage; it says, in effect, that all the lawbreaking, the lying, the misleading are entirely acceptable to Tory MPs up until the point that the electorate demonstrate at the ballot box that they are no longer acceptable to voters, and thereby threaten the continued presence of the spineless ones in the distant recesses of the palace of Westminster. It’s every bit as self-serving and immoral as the PM himself. They deserve all the opprobrium which is heading their way.

Tuesday 19 April 2022

The issue is defining the problem, not the solution


The criticism of the UK government’s policy of sending people involuntarily to Rwanda has been fierce, and has provoked the response from the Foreign Secretary that the critics “fail to offer their own solutions”. Disingenuous doesn’t begin to describe this response – because the issue is not about alternative solutions but about the definition of the problem, which she presents as being the “deadly trade” of people trafficking and also the “deeply unfair” current situation that “advantages those with the means to pay people traffickers over vulnerable people who cannot”. From that perspective, any ‘solution’ which doesn’t accept her definition of the ‘problem’ can easily be dismissed as failing to be a ‘solution’ at all.

The real problem is the desperate conditions in which many people in many parts of the world are living; conditions which are usually caused, or at least exacerbated, by the actions of rich countries like the UK, which have for centuries extracted the wealth of poorer countries, supported oppressive and corrupt regimes, and supplied weapons and armaments (sometimes to both sides) in even those wars in which they have not themselves been directly engaged. The problem is not that desperate people are prepared to take enormous risks to come to the UK, it is that war, oppression, hunger and poverty drive them to leave their homes and communities in search of a better life in the first place. The UK is only one country (and far from being even the favourite country) to which they seek to migrate. It’s a problem to which the UK’s ‘solution’ has been to cut the aid budget, and pretend that the issues aren’t linked.

People trafficking is, of course, a problem which needs to be eliminated; but people selling illegal routes to the UK can only thrive because all the legal routes have been closed to those who use their services. And deporting some of their ‘customers’ is punishing the victims, not the perpetrators. We don’t lock up those who’ve been burgled because we can neither identify nor catch the burglars. Flying people to Rwanda is itself a bit like a dark form of officially-sanctioned people trafficking, except that the Government doesn’t make them pay and doesn’t take them where they want to go, but merely dumps them in a country to which they have even less connection.

I’m not even convinced that Patel has been entirely honest about her own definition of the ‘problem’ which she’s trying to solve – I suspect that her real issue is either concern that the sort of people who vote Tory don’t want immigrants of any sort coming to the UK or her wish to bolster her own credentials with the equally unpleasant elements who now control her own party. Expecting those who think that what she’s doing is morally repugnant to propose an alternative solution to achieve the same ends is even less realistic in either case. The real ‘problem’ which needs solving is that we have a deeply corrupt, immoral, uncaring, and dishonest government, which according to their own words (albeit not their actions) is behaving in a wholly un-British fashion. It’s a problem to which there is no solution which leaves the current structures and constitution in place.

Friday 15 April 2022

Failure is a feature of the UK, not a bug


As a general rule, I support the UK being generous towards those who come to these shores fleeing war and oppression, and even those who are fleeing poverty (who some prefer to call economic migrants), especially given the UK’s historical role in creating the poverty which they are trying to escape. I’ll admit though that when I read yesterday’s news, the uncharitable thought crossed my mind that the UK today might be an altogether kinder and gentler place if Mr & Mrs Patel, Mr & Mrs Sunak, and Mr & Mrs Javid had been detained at the border and flown to a detention centre in Rwanda, and if Mr & Mrs Johnson had been prevented from bringing any US-born offspring into the UK. (People criticising Sunak for being a permanent US resident whilst also being Chancellor of the Exchequer tend to forget that until he renounced his US citizenship in 2016 – and only then to avoid a tax bill – the current PM was himself both a member of parliament and a US citizen obliged to pay tax under US rules on all his earnings. Even if Sunak had told his boss about the Green Card issue, it’s unlikely that someone who saw no significant problem in a full US citizen becoming Foreign Secretary would object to a Chancellor holding the much lower status of mere permanent resident of the US.)

Whether the policy will ever be implemented or is just a very cruel gimmick to try and get racist voters to back the Tories in local elections next month, or even an attempt to divert attention from the government’s other misdeeds by appealing to that sense of racism, is an open question. I don’t doubt that money will change hands and Rwanda will receive some much-needed cash (although I wouldn’t put it past the current government to take the money out of the overseas aid budget), but that doesn’t mean anyone will actually be sent there. There are more than a few legal issues to overcome (in domestic law as well as in international law), which is why Johnson himself is already firing warning shots at the lawyers who might be tempted to use the courts to prevent any flights from taking place (or to enforce the actual law of the UK rather than what Johnson and Patel think the law should be, to describe it more accurately). He and Patel like to refer to lawyers as ‘politically-motivated lefty activists’, although a more accurate description would be ‘people who believe that following the rule of law is, on the whole, rather a good thing’. The rule of law is, however, an increasingly strange concept to the corrupt lawbreakers who staged a coup within the Tory Party and are now doing the same to the UK as a whole. I’m still waiting for the defence that it’s only breaking the law in a very specific and limited way (just like committing a murder or two, really).

Both nationally and internationally, the move has generated a great deal of condemnation, including from the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. The UK ought to be sanctioned for its actions, including expulsion from the Council or Europe and all international human rights organisations. The problem with that is that those behind this policy would see that as a positive, not a punishment. Our own Mark Drakeford has, in fairness and as one would expect, condemned the policy unreservedly, but what he and others like him need to realise is that this sort of thing isn’t a bug in the UK system which can be put right by a change of government in England (even if that looked like a remotely conceivable possibility, and even if English Labour wasn’t trying to present itself as being as keen as the Tories to enforce border controls), it’s a feature with which we will have to put up until Wales decides to opt out of the failed state which the UK is rapidly becoming.

Monday 11 April 2022

All following the same rules


If the government were a football team, the strong support given to the Chancellor over the weekend by the club chairman, Boris Johnson, would have been widely interpreted as meaning that Sunak was about to resign, but hadn’t been told yet. In this case, however, the chairman needs to retain someone who’s doing such a good job of diverting attention from his own failings, so an involuntary resignation doesn’t appear to be imminent. This leaves the Chancellor free to pursue his penchant for ignoring the first rule of holes, which is to stop digging. Having been caught out doing something which almost everyone considers to be, at best, a little dodgy, best practice would be to admit it and hope to move on. Setting up a mole hunt to find out who leaked the information is a guaranteed way of giving the story more legs, as is the Chancellor’s formal request for a full investigation into his own financial arrangements. We can write the outcome of that investigation now, in a single sentence: ‘no rules were broken’; but the question of the morality of it all will still hang over him.

According to a report in the Sunday Times yesterday, one of the first things Sunak did on being appointed as a minister in 2018 was to sit down “with … the head of propriety and ethics, and [talk] her through his own finances, reported to amount to £200 million, and that of his wife”. Apparently, he told her that his wife was a non-dom for tax purposes and also that they both held green cards which had been obtained by declaring themselves to be permanent residents of the US. Her response was not reported by the paper, but it is surely unlikely that any ethics adviser – even one appointed by probably the most unethical government in history – would not have raised an eyebrow or three and asked him to consider how it might look if it were to become public. An outcome of that discussion under which Sunak decided to tell as few people as possible, including not even telling his boss, in itself suggests a certain awareness that it might not be an entirely good look.

Still, there is one potential benefit to come out of all of this, given the number of Tories prepared to argue that the finances of a husband and wife are entirely separate and should not be considered together. I’m sure that they’ll be equally sympathetic to any future benefits claimant who refuses to give any financial details of other members of the household on the basis that they aren’t the ones making the claim and that it’s unfair to consider the household income as a whole. After all, they wouldn’t want to argue that different rules apply to themselves, would they?

Saturday 9 April 2022

Honourable action not expected soon


Standard advice for individuals and organisations facing bad news stories is to get all the bad news out at once, apologise profusely, make the necessary changes to what you’re doing, and hope people will forgive and forget. And if really necessary, let a few heads roll. The worst thing one can do is deny the undeniable, justify the unjustifiable, and hope that whoever felt sufficiently motivated to leak the bad news won't go on to leak the worse news. Neither Boris Johnson over the widespread rule-breaking during lockdown, nor Rishi Sunak over his tax affairs, seem to have received the memo.

The idea that the Chancellor’s household could benefit from a tax avoidance loophole which he could have chosen to close but didn’t was bad enough; the revelation that he held a US Green Card visa for six and a half years as a UK MP (one and a half years of that time as Chancellor) is worse, much worse. And his answers to date leave a series of obvious questions unanswered. In the first place, they tell us that Sunak, like Johnson, believes that rules don’t apply to people like himself: having given a binding commitment to be a permanent resident of the US, moving to another country and taking on a position as a government minister looks a lot like extracting the urine. It also suggests a certain lack of commitment to both countries – for how long does one have to be a member of a legislature, let alone a minister of the Crown, before realising that you are, perhaps, no longer a permanent resident somewhere else?

The statement issued on his behalf says that “All laws and rules have been followed and full taxes have been paid where required in the duration he held his green card”. It’s deliberately opaque. If all taxes on all worldwide earnings were paid to the US authorities in accordance with green card rules, that would imply that he paid tax on his MP and ministerial salaries to the US government. The unanswered question is whether that was as well as, or instead of, paying them to the UK Treasury. Either would be astonishing: on the one hand, paying tax twice on the same salary, to two different governments, seems somewhat out of character for a household willing to use tax avoidance measures (people don’t get to be, or to stay, as rich as the Sunaks by paying tax twice over), whilst on the other hand, having a Chancellor setting income tax rates which he doesn’t have to pay himself because he’s officially resident elsewhere would be a very strange state of affairs.

There is another unanswered question about the circumstances in which he then surrendered his green card. The statement says, “Upon his first trip to the US in a government capacity as chancellor, he discussed the appropriate course of action with the US authorities. At that point it was considered best to return his green card, which he did immediately.” The use of the passive is interesting. Whilst obviously intended to give the impression that the Sunaks were being pro-active here, the statement does not tell us which side initiated the discussion, nor does it preclude the other, and probably likelier, interpretation that the US authorities said something along the lines of, “You’re having a laugh aren’t you? Hand it over now.”

In what strange universe could Sunak, or anyone else, have thought it appropriate to continue to hold the card, and claim to be a permanent resident of the US, whilst serving as a legislator and minister of another country? In any functioning democracy, the actions of the Chancellor would be considered terminal for his career as both a minister and an MP. But that would depend on him acting honourably. And given that honourable action by the Chancellor might lead people to expect the same from the PM, it's unlikely that his resignation should be expected anytime soon.

Friday 8 April 2022

Not being unlawful isn't the same as being acceptable


Most people will have some sympathy, initially at least, with the protests from Sunak and his supporters that attacking his wife is an unfair political tactic. He, after all, is the politician and therefore fair game, not her. Their protests might have a bit more credibility, however, if they didn’t come just days after the UK government decided to sanction the alleged (they don’t even seem entirely sure of that) step-daughter of the Russian foreign minister on the grounds that “those benefiting from association of those responsible for Russian aggression are in scope of our sanctions”. It's a simple fact that any close association between individuals can mean that someone benefits from the wealth or activity of another, and there are few associations closer than marriage. Sunak might not need his wife’s money, but any income she receives is part of his household’s income and must therefore be open to a degree of scrutiny. A Chancellor who claims to oppose tax avoidance yet whose household benefits from it ought to realise that he has questions to answer; the fact that he doesn’t tells us a lot about his sensitivity (or lack of) to what others might think.

By the same token, his marital arrangements are, in principle, solely a matter between the two of them, but when the spouse of someone who thinks he should be PM is openly declaring her intention to return to India where she claims to be domiciled, he really shouldn’t be surprised if people start wondering about the extent of his own commitment to the country which he seeks to govern. With that ambition in mind, his protests about opposition politicians would sound a great deal more sincere if it wasn’t almost certain that the information had been leaked by someone on his own side determined to stop him achieving said ambition.

He and his supporters are claiming that neither he nor his wife have done anything wrong, and in legal terms they are correct. But is merely being ‘legal’ enough? It isn’t just Sunak; time after time politicians caught out doing something which others might feel is perhaps a little dodgy respond by denying any wrongdoing and stating that ‘no rules were broken’. Confusing what is right or moral with what is legal has become increasingly common as politicians outsource any sense of morality to whoever makes the rules. Being legal, however, isn’t the same as being ‘right’; the fact that something hasn’t yet been legislated against doesn’t make it acceptable. It is not at all unreasonable to expect those who govern us, or seek to govern us, to give at least a little bit of thought to whether what they are doing is not only ‘not currently banned’ but also stands up to scrutiny in terms of what the governed might see as reasonable. They do, after all, keep telling us that a sense of fair play is one of the great British values which allegedly unites us. It does not, however, seem to be one of the values which they think is important in terms of their own actions.

Thursday 7 April 2022

Words, not action


For as long as most of us can remember – at least the last 60 years or so – nuclear fusion reactors have been the great promise for the future, and they’ve always been just 20-30 years in the future. Based on experience to date, and the problems still to be overcome, I will confidently predict that, 20-30 years from now, operating fusion reactors will still be just 20-30 years away. Only in the land of make-believe (otherwise known as Global Britain) would local authorities be putting time and effort into bidding to host a power plant which we don’t yet know how to build and which is unlikely to be built for at least half a century. In the meantime, the only type of nuclear power generation which we do know how to build and operate is the fission reactor, and any realistic talk of expanding nuclear power production is inevitably going to be based on that technology. And whilst there has long been talk of alternatives to uranium and plutonium (such as thorium), switching to a different technology would itself add time and cost to the development of the first power stations.

When nuclear energy generation started in the 1950s, the promise was that the electricity would be ‘too cheap to meter’, a forecast which has been proved spectacularly wrong. As things stand, I don’t believe that there is a single nuclear power project, anywhere in the world, which is not both much-delayed and running hopelessly over budget; pinning the hopes for future energy generation on this technology looks like a triumph of hope over experience and reality (which is at least, I suppose, a good match for the PM’s natural temperament). To add to the uncertainty, the UK government seems to be pinning its hopes on building a new type of reactor, or Small Modular Reactors as they are known. Whilst it would be unfair to refer to this as an entirely untested technology, it is nevertheless true that there is only one such reactor actually operating in the world today. And – ooh, look, it’s Russian. I’m sure that they’ll be willing to share their experience to help us free ourselves of dependence on Russian fossil fuels. They’ll probably see it as an opportunity to sell us their uranium instead. Even with the best will in the world, and a great deal of luck, the idea that these power plants will be rolling off a production line somewhere within the next few years is credible only to those who believe in unicorns and the benefits of Brexit. Which brings us, of course, to the current UK government. Today’s announcement of what it refers to as an ‘energy strategy’ (a title chosen, presumably, because it is neither a workable strategy and nor will it generate much electricity anytime soon) talks of there being 6 or 7 new power stations operating by 2050 – by the time the sunlight hits those uplands, it will have been filtered through so many sky-borne pies as to leave us in almost total darkness.

Even if the timescales were remotely achievable, and even if the unsolved problems of dealing with the radioactive waste could be solved (I assume that Ynys Môn council will be volunteering to host at least its share of the waste for a few thousand years in the meantime, given its enthusiasm for the technology), the proposals put forward today would still be, at the very best, a long-term solution to an immediate problem. And a very costly solution at that. It’s a huge missed opportunity; there are plenty of other quick and effective things which the UK and Europe could and should do to bring to an immediate end the dependence on Russian fossil fuels, including more energy-saving measures.

There are a number of possible reasons for the failure to act now. One of them is the attempt to minimise the pain felt domestically; but all of the so-called ‘crippling’ sanctions on Russia will have little impact whilst European countries continue to pay Russia billions for oil and gas. Trying to stop the war ‘painlessly’ is a recipe for the continuation of the slaughter. Another is the continued insistence on competition rather than collaboration as a guiding principle. Germany drags its feet over cancelling gas contracts, the UK has been slow to impose penalties which would impact its financial sector; both are looking after their own interests rather than working together. Sharing available resources – and the pain involved in a reduction in availability – would be much more effective.

But I can’t help but wonder whether there isn’t another, more Johnsonian, element to the publication of today’s ‘strategy’. His whole career is littered with the remnants of grand and expensive plans, announced to a great fanfare, which solve nothing in the short term but can be talked up incessantly for a year or two before being quietly abandoned before they start to cost serious money. Being seen to ‘act’ (i.e. talk) now is a way of doing nothing in the end. It’s his whole modus operandi – why would he change now?

Wednesday 6 April 2022

Poverty as an objective of policy


Whilst out and about today in his incessant search for new photo opportunities reasons to visit hospitals, the PM answered a question about energy price rises by saying that the government “… will make sure we look after people to the best of our ability”. The immediately obvious catch in that promise is the bit about the ‘best of our ability’, a caveat which, when applied to Johnson, puts a severe limit on what is actually achievable. It – with almost refreshing honesty – spells out that the limiting factor is the lack of ability of the PM and his government, and not the availability of resource.

He went on to add that “… there’s a limit to the amount of taxpayers’ money we can simply push towards trying to deal with global energy price spikes”, prefaced by the wonderful phrase “Now, we’ve got to be frank with people”, something he’s never achieved in his entire life, and a phrase which guarantees, when uttered by Johnson, that what follows will be either a lie or an obfuscation. And sure enough, it manages to be both. The decision as to how much help to give citizens – and perhaps even more importantly, which citizens should benefit – is far from being as black and white as he suggests. It is, rather, a political decision. The PM and the Chancellor have decided how much help to give to people facing a crisis not in response to some magical financial limit completely outside their control, but in response to their judgement about what they think they can get away with without losing the support of voters, or being defenestrated by angry Tory MPs (who themselves share the same motivation but disagree largely on the basis that they believe that the tolerance level of their electors is lower than the PM thinks it is).

As another report today highlighted, the decision to limit benefits to the first two children in any family has not led to smaller families, merely to more poverty. It’s another example of the same thing – government decisions which deliberately and entirely foreseeably increase poverty levels, and which are taken not on the basis of any real objective limit to what the government can do, but on the basis of political judgements about the best interests of the Tory Party.

Can increasing the level of poverty really benefit a political party seeking to remain in government for the long term? Absolutely, with 2 caveats. The first is that the poverty predominantly hits the ‘right’ people – those who either don’t vote at all, or who will never vote Tory (and for the tiny minority who still do, nothing will deter them anyway)  and the second is that those not-so-poor who do or might vote Tory can be persuaded to believe that the poorest deserve their fate. If the poorest can be sufficiently demonised, keeping them poor is a very cheap way of distracting attention from the way government policies benefit the richest. It’s certainly cheaper than actually trying to help the not-so-poor.

The most depressing aspect of all is that deliberately increasing the levels of poverty as a means of keeping the Conservative Party in power in England might even work. Another reason or exercising our right to opt out.

Monday 4 April 2022

The Ministry of Silly Questions?


The process for allowing Ukrainian refugees into the UK has been much-criticised, entirely justifiably, at a time when urgent action is needed to help those displaced by the war. Uniquely in Europe, the UK government is still insisting on people completing complex visa application forms before being allowed entry. The government insist that this is necessary for ‘security’ purposes, but have failed to provide any sort of explanation as to why that is a great concern here, but not important for any member state of the EU. It's probably just another example of English (and it is English in this case – both the Welsh and Scottish governments have called for a more flexible approach) exceptionalism – they probably do genuinely believe that England needs to be more careful than anyone else. Perhaps they even think that the ‘hostile environment’ which they’ve spent so much time and effort creating somehow makes the UK uniquely attractive.

It has certainly been made clear – even if it was not so previously – that the UK’s process, even in the case of people in desperate need, starts from the assumption that people (with the possible exception of corrupt billionaires) must be kept out. It’s not an admission process, it’s an exclusion process. The pathetically slow UK approach has, however, thrown a little bit of light on the standard process, which involves completing a 51 page form for each individual. When I first read about how long the form is, I found myself wondering how on earth anyone could actually devise 51 pages of questions in the first place. Part of the answer has emerged in recent days: one of the questions asked is, apparently, “Are you a war criminal?”. Whilst it’s easy enough to understand why any country might want to think twice before admitting war criminals, I can’t even begin to imagine the thought processes of the civil servant who decided that the way to find out was to include the question on an application form. The one thing of which we can be certain is that any war criminal seeking entry to the UK who gets to that question is not going to answer in the positive, a rather obvious fact which makes the question completely pointless.

It made me wonder anew what other silly questions might be included in the form, the very length of which is clearly intended as a deterrent in itself. We are supposed to accept that government efforts to ‘simplify’ the form for dealing with Ukrainian applicants (reducing it, apparently, to a mere 30 pages) is a demonstration of the government being flexible and accommodating. It’s actually more a demonstration of how the whole UK immigration process is about building the biggest possible barriers to entry (barriers which would have excluded the parents of the current Home Secretary as well as those of a number of other government MPs and ministers) and resisting any and all attempts to lower those barriers.

Friday 1 April 2022

On what basis will the P&O boss be knighted?


It was a sheer stroke of luck that P&O, a company owned by an oil-rich state in the United Arab Emirates, would choose the day after the UK’s PM had travelled to the UAE, to beg them to increase the supply of oil, to sack 800 people with no notice and with blatant disregard for the requirement to consult. Who could ever have foreseen that the UK government’s response would be of the huff-and-puff-as-much-as-you-like-but-don’t-do-anything-serious variety? I mean, it’s not as if the UK would ever give ground to just any old despot for the sake of a few barrels of oil – not the new Global Britain, emboldened by Brexit, which is striding the world stage as a colossus to be reckoned with.

The Labour Party have said that the government’s lack of action is “bewildering” – a statement which only goes to show how easily they can be bewildered. Whilst it’s true that Johnson promised all sorts of tough action, they should surely realise by now that those were Johnson promises: the tougher they sound, the lower the likelihood that they will be acted on. It isn’t only facts with which he has an inverse relationship, and no-one is supposed to remember what he said yesterday. He certainly doesn’t. If it wasn’t obvious sooner, it surely should have been obvious from the moment he told parliament last week “P&O plainly aren’t going to get away with it” that that was exactly what was going to happen. The nearest that we can get to certainty with Johnson is to assume that whenever he says that something has happened, is happening, or will happen the opposite is likely to be true.

Given that he, like others in his party, has called for the head of the P&O boss, Peter Hebblethwaite, the only two remaining questions are when will Hebblethwaite get his knighthood, and what will it be for: services to the procurement of oil at a time of crisis; services to the demolition of red tape in relation to employment law; or services to tax evasion in its newly established freeports. And no, that isn't intended as some sort of April Fool joke.