Monday 30 May 2022

More guns and bombs is no route to peace


The war in Ukraine is highly challenging for those of us with a long-standing commitment to the belief that disputes between states should always be resolved peacefully; that the phrase ‘war crime’ is tautologous; and that dividing the world into opposing armed blocs is a denial of the essential truth that this planet is all we have and we need to learn to share it effectively. Seeing two countries which have pursued a path of studied and long-term neutrality – albeit not quite as absolute as some might think, given their long-standing joint exercises with NATO – seeking membership of one of those armed blocs has been a particularly depressing development.

Whether Putin was right to claim that the eastward expansion of NATO threatened the security of Russia, and that the stated intention of Ukraine to seek membership of NATO intensified that threat, is something over which historians will argue for generations to come. One of the problems with understanding and interpreting history is that we don’t get to change a parameter or two and then re-run events to see what changes. The result is that there is always scope for alternative narratives, not about events themselves, but about their causes and significance. Perhaps in a century or so historians will have access to classified Russian archives and be able to assess whether this was actually the way Putin saw things, or whether it was a convenient excuse for doing what he always intended to do anyway. Had the Eastern European states formerly part of the Soviet bloc not joined NATO and the EU, would Russia have left them in peace, preferring some form of economic domination, or would it have attacked them all, possibly even sooner, in an attempt to rebuild the Soviet Empire to which Putin seems to be very attached? Put another way, has NATO acted as a deterrent which has delayed war, or a provocation? It's not as easy a question to answer as many seem to think.

There seems to be no justification for Putin’s claim that Ukraine was conducting some sort of genocide in Donbas, although there has been some reluctance in Ukraine to recognise the fact that the majority of the population there were Russian speakers. That doesn’t automatically make them Russians, although we know that there were at least some who considered themselves such and wanted to be part of Russia rather than Ukraine. Whether they were a majority or not is another question. It certainly wasn’t obviously so at the time of the vote for Ukrainian independence, but opinions can change. The only way to find out whether the people of that area would prefer to be in Russia or Ukraine is to ask them, but that’s now a task made impossible by a combination of killing people, driving others out of their homes and deporting others to Russia. A simple majority of those remaining, conducted under the rule of an occupying power, is hardly a basis for any sort of democratic decision.

The first question is how the war can be brought to an end. The demand for complete ‘territorial integrity’ being made by the Ukrainian Government is a recipe for a long, grinding war of attrition during which many more will die. The alternative suggestion of negotiating the cession of some territory to Russia in exchange for peace involves allowing the aggressor to ‘win’ (although what, exactly, they will have won looking at the destruction they have caused is another question), and can provide no certainty that, after a suitable breathing space, Russia won’t simply try again. It’s too easy to tell Ukrainians, as the UK seems to be doing, that they should fight to the last Ukrainian to recover all the lands within what is, like all other boundaries in the world, an arbitrary line on a map. It’s also too easy to tell them that they must give up part of their territory in exchange for a negotiated settlement. Neither response is satisfactory. But if we accept the unlikelihood that Ukraine can defeat Russia comprehensively without massive further casualties and a huge increase in the scale and nature of its weaponry, then there will have to be a negotiation eventually. And lines on maps will inevitably be part of that, as they have been in just about all past peace treaties.

The second – and ultimately bigger – question is how we build a world order which prevents the biggest and best-armed countries from simply imposing their will on others, an issue which applies to other countries, including the US, as well as Russia. Recruiting more countries to NATO and increasing expenditure on armaments isn’t the only possible answer, despite what UK and other politicians would have us believe. Challenging that approach is not doing Putin’s work for him, as those – such as the leader of the Labour Party – demanding absolute loyalty to NATO have suggested; indeed if the current so-called ‘security structure’ in Europe has been shown not to work, blindly doubling down on it is never going to be the best response. A United Nations in which those with the biggest clout can simply veto international action against those transgressing its rules has been shown to be a failure. Many had thought that increasing trade was the answer – in this case, that plugging Russia into an interdependent world economy would prevent aggression. In practice, it just made it harder to impose immediate crippling sanctions on the transgressor. It’s not a simple question, but continuing with a world order based on the idea that ‘might is right’ is not a sustainable future for humanity. There’s nothing cowardly or unpatriotic about seeking a better alternative than more guns and bombs.

Saturday 28 May 2022

It's not just Johnson, it's the system


It's a long-standing flaw in the UK Constitution, such as it is, that so much of it is based on precedent, understanding, and an assumption that the country is run by ‘decent’ people. One particular example of that is the code of conduct which binds Ministers of the Crown to certain standards of behaviour. The code has absolutely no statutory basis and can be changed or torn up on the whim of the PM of the day, as we discovered yesterday. The interpretation and application of the Code is entirely down to one person, and even without tearing it up, the findings of any investigation under its terms can be overturned by its sole custodian, as we learnt when Priti Patel was excused for bullying.

Johnson’s decision to remove “all references to honesty, integrity, transparency and accountability” as required attributes for ministers has attracted some criticism, but it merely formalises the status quo. Such attributes are not only not required from ministers in the current government, they are positively frowned upon. The more significant change is the one which says that breaches of the ministerial code will no longer be expected automatically to lead to ministerial resignations. In one sense, there is something not entirely unreasonable about the idea that ‘minor’ breaches should be treated differently from ‘major’ breaches; after all, the penalty for parking on yellow lines isn’t the same as the penalty for murder. There is a key difference, though: someone deliberately deciding whether to park illegally or murder someone knows in advance that one is a ‘minor’ offence whilst the other is a ‘major’ offence, and also knows that different penalties apply. In Johnsonland, whether a breach of the code is minor or major, and what the punishment will be, are not defined in advance, only after the event; and he is the sole person who will make that determination.

It reminds me of the old story about the husband and wife who, prior to marriage, decided that he’d make all the major decisions and she the minor ones. After 20 years of marriage, he was asked how this arrangement had worked. “Great! in all these years I’ve never had to make a major decision.” One suspects that for Johnson, like the wife in the case of that story, there is nothing that any cabinet minister could do which would ever be considered a ‘major’ breach of the code. Nothing that he does could ever be considered a resigning matter, and holding any of his subordinates to a higher standard will only expose his own failings.

The issue is being highlighted by the fact that no-one would, with any credibility, describe Johnson as a ‘decent chap’ of the sort upon which the smooth operation of the UK constitution depends. And, whilst it might be a particularly undecent chap exposing the problem, he isn’t the real problem. The real problem is that the lack of statutory definition and effective checks and balances allows this to happen. If Johnson helps people to understand why a country needs a proper written set of rules with legal force, he might – wholly unwittingly (although that’s the way he seems to do most things) – have done us all a favour, even if it takes time to implement the necessary changes once he’s gone. I suspect, though, that his eventual departure will simply be marked by a huge sigh of relief (not least on his own side), and ‘normal’ service will be resumed. The sooner Wales opts for becoming an independent state, with a written constitution, the better.

Thursday 26 May 2022

Only one real fact established by 'partygate' investigations


As excuses go, ‘I thought it my duty to thank departing members of staff and wish them well for the future’ isn’t an entirely bad one, although, as others have pointed out, it doesn’t stand up well to comparison with the ban on saying farewell to family and friends on their deathbeds. It’s an excuse for the wrong accusation, though, and amounts to a classic piece of misdirection. Nothing in the laws which Johnson implemented would have prevented him thanking and saying farewell to members of his staff; what the laws prohibited was any gathering of people not strictly necessary for work purposes. Saying thank you and goodbye did not require getting people together in a room with food and drink and farewell speeches – no matter how usual that might have appeared in normal time, those simply weren’t normal times. It’s quite clear that Johnson didn’t understand the difference, but being too stupid to be PM isn’t much of an excuse at all.

As things stand, he has been fined for the one event where it might reasonably have been argued that his attendance was completely unplanned and he was caught unawares, and completely let off for one of the most egregious – a party in his flat. Some on his own side suggest that he was lucky to get away with the latter (or even that there was a cover-up) after Sue Gray failed to investigate it, but it looks more like utterly incompetent policing than a carefully planned and executed establishment cover-up. Sue Gray suspended her investigation into that event at an early stage, before establishing the facts, when the Met decided to investigate after all, but the Met, in turn, seems only to have ‘investigated’ those events for which Sue Gray had already provided all the necessary evidence. Use of initiative does not seem to have been an attribute deployed by the boys in blue as they burned their way through half a million quid examining evidence that someone else had already collected. Once they had finished, Ms Gray seems to have decided that further investigation of that one event would add little to the overall picture which she was painting and turned over no additional stones.

Seizing on the fact that he was fined only once as some sort of vindication and confirmation that he did nothing else at all wrong is typical of Johnson’s character. And claiming to have taken “full responsibility” is just a meaningless form of words. He’s actually taken responsibility for nothing, because he thinks he’s done nothing wrong, and has left the punishments to all those junior staff who assumed that events organised and attended by their bosses would have been checked for compliance in advance. At one level, that’s not an unreasonable assumption; but at another, it indicates a certain lack of pro-active thinking and analysis of the sort which one might hope would be reasonably prevalent at the heart of government.

Neither Johnson nor those immediately around him emerge with much credit from the whole saga, but the only real fact to have emerged is that, of the 359 or so (the number keeps changing as more get caught out for their various sins) Tory MPs, an unknown number, which is lower than 54, have a even a vestigial backbone, let alone any sense of shame, honour, or embarrassment.

Tuesday 24 May 2022

English nationalism makes Labour their own worst enemies


During the 2015 election campaign, the Tories made great play (with some nasty but effective little posters to back it up) of the idea that a Labour victory in England would end up leaving Ed Milliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket. Whether it worked or not, we can’t be entirely certain. It was aimed, obviously, only at English voters, and particularly the sort of nationalist English voters who subsequently fell prey to the insane idea that England was so special that it could have all the benefits of EU membership with none of the costs or disadvantages.

It was, though, nonsense. It might not have looked that way at the time, because not many really believed that the SNP would pull off what was almost a clean sweep (winning 56 of 59 seats). However, once the results were in, it was clear that Westminster politics was facing a new reality. That reality was delayed by the unexpected overall majorities for the Tories delivered by an unrepresentative voting system, not only in 2015 but also subsequently in 2017 and 2019. But with the polls currently suggesting both that an overall majority for any one party is highly unlikely and that SNP dominance of Scottish seats is unlikely to disappear any time soon, whichever party comes out top in England in the next election has no choice but to deal with the fact that a block of 50+ SNP MPs is highly likely to hold the balance of power. Whether, or how, they choose to wield it over England-only issues is unclear, but their votes (and those of the people who elected them) cannot simply be ignored.

However, ignoring it is, it seems, precisely what the failed Labour campaign team of 2015 is advising Keir Starmer to do. The lesson that they appear to have learned from that campaign is that they mustn’t allow the Tories to depict a potential minority Labour government as depending on the votes of the SNP for its survival – a rather simplistic interpretation which overlooks the fact that a minority Tory administration would also have to handle the situation in Scotland somehow if it wanted to get any legislation through. In order to avoid the Tories painting them in such a fashion, Labour, they say, must make it clear that there will be no deals or arrangements of any sort with the SNP. This, they hope, will help them attract the votes of English nationalists for themselves.

One element of the proposal makes a certain amount of political sense. Forming a minority government and daring the SNP to vote against the policies they put forward will work for much of the probable Labour manifesto; SNP MPs are more likely to support Labour, or abstain, on most policies than they are to vote with the Tories. And on some issues (Trident leaps to mind), even if the SNP oppose Labour policy, a minority Labour government could probably rely on Tory support. There are some policies which Labour might have to adapt or delay rather than risk defeat, but a minority Labour government could probably work overall most of the time.

The bugbear – and the big argument against the above – is the second suggestion from the failed campaign team, which is that Labour should rule out, in any and all circumstances, allowing a second referendum on Scottish independence. Even if every Scottish MP is from the SNP (not an impossible outcome), elected on a specific platform of holding a second referendum, and even if an overall majority of Scottish electors voted for the SNP (a currently unlikely but, again, not impossible scenario) the suggestion is that the ‘democratic’ Labour Party should simply say no. It's almost guaranteed to encourage the Scottish MPs to be as awkward as possible. It could, of course, be just a campaign tactic to attempt to win over English voters opposed to Scottish independence (although all the evidence of polls suggests that English electors’ opinions on Scottish independence aren’t actually that strongly held), to be followed by a ‘reluctant acknowledgement of the facts’ after the event; but a wholly foreseeable and unnecessary U-turn the day after the election looks like foot-shooting on a Johnsonian scale. But if it isn’t just a tactic, and Labour adopt this as policy, the chances of a Labour minority government surviving for long seem to be slim, undermined by their own wholly avoidable commitment to English nationalist dogma.

If Labour really wanted to protect themselves from the accusation of being in the SNP’s pocket, they could commit to the introduction of STV for all future parliamentary elections. Nothing would do more to reduce the number of SNP MPs than a proportional electoral system in which non-SNP votes received their fair share of seats. As a bonus, it’s a policy which the SNP themselves would probably support. It makes it more likely that minority governments, parliamentary arrangements, and coalitions would become the norm, although many of us would see that as another bonus. But Labour – or at least some of them – seem to be saying that they’d actually prefer another Tory government to a situation where they don’t themselves have absolute power. Sometimes, they are their own worst enemies.

Monday 23 May 2022

Playing to his strengths


According to Andrew RT Davies, who manages to be the previous ex-leader, current leader, and future ex-leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party in the Senedd, he and his party will be bold enough to break from the policy pursued by the UK party on issues where they think that the Welsh perspective is different. He seems to have struggled to find meaningful examples, though. It is, perhaps, convenient that, on the two issues he did manage to mention (a public holiday on St David’s Day and Barnett consequentials for HS2), the Senedd has no power to act, even in the unlikely event of a Tory Senedd victory. And both have already been dismissed out of hand by his Westminster masters. He won’t be called on to do anything more than get angry, shout a bit, and sloganize. At least he’ll be playing to his strengths, then.

He doesn’t seem to be asking for the transfer of more powers, for instance so that the Senedd could itself declare a Bank Holiday. On all the things where the Senedd actually can change policy, he remains fully aligned to doing whatever his masters in London tell him. It’s a bonus, for him, that he is only the leader of the Senedd group, not of the whole party in Wales. It means that no policy his group of ‘Welsh’ Conservatives in the Senedd adopts will apply to the people in his party who might possibly have some influence in London, namely Welsh Tory MPs. It’s easy to see how the UK party can tolerate this sort of low-level verbal difference of opinion without losing any sleep. It’s less easy to see why Davies would believe that anyone in Wales would be taken in by it.

Saturday 21 May 2022

Hammers and nails


They say that when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The Bank of England is demonstrating the consequences of that. It’s easy enough for the UK Government to repeat ad infinitum that the BoE has sole responsibility for controlling inflation, but the only tool that they’ve allowed the Bank to have is the very blunt instrument of interest rate rises, a tool which the Bank is using with abandon despite the fact that the problem with which they are dealing bears little more than a passing resemblance to a nail.

The theory behind interest rate rises is simple enough: if the cost of money increases, people will borrow less and spend less, and if less money is chasing goods and services, the price of the latter will stabilise. Like most theories in economics, however, it’s only as valid as the assumptions underpinning it, and in this case, the assumption is that inflation is caused by too much money chasing too small a supply of goods and services, the classic cause of inflation. If that assumption were true, making money more expensive might well work, albeit at a cost. However, in this case, the problem isn’t an excess of money in the UK economy, it is a price shock caused by events – some of them, such as Brexit, caused directly by inept government actions, and others, such as war and the pandemic, completely outside the control of the government, let alone the Bank. The Bank’s governor has himself admitted to feeling “helpless” in this situation, although that hasn’t stopped him wielding the hammer with gusto against the imaginary nail.

In response to an external price shock, interest rate increases don’t stop the poorest needing to buy essentials, they simply pile more financial pressure onto people. Continuing to hit the non-nail with the hammer can only make things worse, potentially leading a government which claims to be promoting growth to preside over a recession instead. In response to the level of price shock that we are experiencing, only government can take action; blaming the Bank, as some Tories have done, is simply abrogating responsibility. And even the government, with all the resources at its command, cannot prevent the sort of price shocks we are seeing; but what it can do (and is refusing to do) is to mitigate the effect on the most vulnerable in our society. If there’s one clear lesson from the pandemic, it is that the government is not, in practice, constrained by a lack of money, a point which they are demonstrating yet again with the huge costs of supporting Ukraine in its defence against the Russian attack. They could equally deploy sufficient resources to help people through the current crisis, but have taken a conscious decision not to do so. They are, instead, fiddling around the edges of the problem, leaving those who can’t cope to their own devices. They’ve probably assumed (and its not an assumption which I’d challenge) that the people bearing the brunt of the crisis aren’t, and never will be, Tory voters. It’s just another demonstration of a complete lack of care for any citizen who isn’t one of them.

Friday 20 May 2022

Trying people in secret


It would be an understatement to suggest that many people are mystified by the conclusions of the Met investigation into events at Downing Street. Various explanations have been suggested as to how this might have happened, ranging from some people being penalised for answering the infamous questionnaire honestly, or the police looking for only ‘slam dunk’ cases where the evidence is absolutely incontrovertible, to strange loopholes involving the fact that Downing Street is both a home and an office. Whatever the reason, it does seem as though junior and middle-ranking staff have taken the brunt of the punishments whilst those at the top setting the tone and culture have largely escaped. Whilst the detail about who has been fined and for what remains officially secret, the chances of further information being made public by disgruntled staff look to be high. As Keir Starmer has discovered, the Tories are enthusiastically in favour of demanding that the police re-open investigations where the rationale for the police conclusion is inexplicable and happy to use ‘new evidence’, however flimsy, to boost their case. In the interests of consistency, they will surely demand a re-investigation of Johnson when new evidence does come to light. And porcine aviation is established fact.

The question which the outcome does – or should – raise is whether fixed penalty notices are an appropriate way of dealing with such matters. It’s not like a parking fine, for instance, where it’s usually simply a matter of fact as to whether a vehicle was parked in a particular location for a particular period of time. And whilst it’s true that those fined could decline to pay and demand a court hearing, it’s easy to see why many might decide not to for reasons of hassle and cost, especially when their real gripe isn’t that they’ve been fined but that someone else has not. Use of FPNs looks to be more about saving cost in the justice system than about ensuring that justice is not only done but is also seen to be done. But in cases where evidence has to be sifted and weighed and will never be officially revealed, and where complex and changing regulations have to be assessed and interpreted, is it really appropriate to allow the police to act as judge, jury and executioner – and to do so in secret?

Thursday 19 May 2022

The problem with the 'I' word


Whilst ‘independence’ is the best word to describe the status of free nations, the word is not without its problems. One of the reasons why Plaid avoided using the word for many years is because there are reasonable grounds for arguing that no nation is truly ‘independent’ in the modern world; in one way or another all countries are interdependent in a global economy. There’s another problem, though, and in a roundabout way it was flagged up by Peter Hitchens in his call for England to declare its independence from the UK. This one is more of an etymological problem than a practical one, and it stems from the fact that in English, as well as in other languages, when considered in the abstract the opposite of independence is dependence. It’s a feature of language which provokes the unconscious conclusion that any country which is not independent must therefore be dependent.

It is, however, a nonsense. If we consider the host of countries which have achieved their independence from colonial powers, they were not generally ‘dependent’ on the colonial power. Indeed, if anything, the colonial powers which stripped out natural resources and enslaved populations were actually dependent on their colonies. It is certainly the case that much of the accumulated wealth of the former colonial powers is the direct result of this exploitation of those countries over which they ruled. And almost all of those newly independent countries have become significantly richer as a result of shedding their alleged ‘dependence’ on their ex-colonialists, even if past asset-stripping and residual unbalanced power relationships mean that many haven’t yet been able to catch up.

As part of his call for English independence, Hitchens said that “England had never been dependent on the rest of the UK”, implicitly repeating the assumption that, conversely, the rest of the UK is dependent on England. It’s an assertion which ignores the history of unequal economic relationships in which wealth and talent have been sucked from the periphery into the centre (and not overlooking the fact that much of England is in that periphery along with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). The fact that England is, on average, better off than the rest of the UK is not down to any special ability or talent uniquely possessed by people considering themselves English, it is as a result of flows of wealth over decades and centuries. And averages hide many sins; even within England there are huge regional disparities as a result of the same process. Claiming that ‘England’ is richer than Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, is a distortion; it would be more accurate to say that a part of England (largely the south east) is richer than Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and most of England. And that wealth has been acquired as a result of a process of transferring it from elsewhere.

In the real world, dependence is usually the wrong word to describe the opposite of independence. Subjugation, control by another country, colonisation, and exploitation are all better and more accurate alternatives. There are, though, rare exceptions to the rule, in which dependence really is the opposite of independence. And England is one of those exceptions, as a country whose wealth is historically almost entirely dependent on others. I hope that they take up Hitchens’ call to seize their independence; it’s about time that they stopped depending on extracting wealth and talent from their few remaining possessions.

Tuesday 17 May 2022

In a sense it really is our own fault


Yesterday’s story about the government minister who suggested that people who are struggling to get by should work longer hours or get a better job tells us a lot about the underlying philosophy of the current government, and is a form of victim-blaming. If people are unable to get by on their income, this is, apparently, not because employers are underpaying them, nor is it anything to do with legislation which allows employers to pay less than a living wage, or the actions of the benefits agency in threatening to withhold benefits from people who don’t take low-paid work. No, according to the Tory gospel, it’s their own fault for staying in poorly-paid employment. Whilst there was something of a grudging admission that changing jobs or working longer hours wouldn’t work for everyone, the way the exception was phrased suggests a belief that it is indeed the answer for most.

The idea that people can and should better themselves with no need for legislation or assistance is a key fallacy of Tory ideology, but it lies behind a lot of their thinking, and deliberately conflates the idea of ‘anybody’ with ‘everybody’. As a general rule (although there are always some exceptions), it is true that ‘anyone’ can get a better job, just as ‘anyone’ can become a successful billionaire entrepreneur. And their idea of social justice is based on that idea that opportunities are equal, with its concomitant that anyone who doesn’t do either or both of those things therefore has only themselves to blame. Poverty, in their eyes, is the fault of the poor themselves; people who do not enjoy ‘success’ are just life’s losers. But here’s the point: whilst it’s true that ‘anyone’ can get a better job or become a billionaire, it doesn’t follow that ‘everyone’ can. Indeed it would be impossible for ‘everyone’ to do so. Whilst some doors might theoretically be open to ‘anyone’, we know that only a limited number can pass through them before the room becomes full. We also know that which people pass through them isn’t simply a matter of individual determination; there’s also a good amount of luck involved, to say nothing of the individual’s background.

Let us take as an example, a certain B Johnson, currently the temporary resident of number 10, Downing Street. In theory, anyone in the UK could have ended up living at his current address, but given his limited ability, his utter inconsistency, and his penchant for lies, would he be in the same place today had he been brought up on a council estate? Would he have ever gone to Eton? And without going to Eton, would he ever have got into Oxford? And without both of those things happening, would the Conservative Party ever have endorsed a man (let alone a woman) with such a cavalier disregard for the law and for truth, who is known to have conspired with another to have a journalist beaten up, and who has been fired from two jobs for lying, as a candidate for parliament, never mind for PM? Background, and more particularly parental income and wealth, to say nothing of the consequential power relationships, matter; they matter a lot.

It suits the Tories, though, to blame the poor for their own plight. It suits them even better to blame the poor for the fact that those above the poverty line are also struggling. From their perspective, it’s far better for the not-so-well-off to blame the even poorer for their situation than to encourage them to look at where the power and wealth are being increasingly concentrated. The words of the hapless minister yesterday weren’t a mistake or a slip of the tongue, they were part of a deliberate culture of victim-blaming. One thing that is entirely the fault of those of us who are not part of their priviliged elite is allowing them to get away with it.

Monday 16 May 2022

Yet another cunning plan seems likely to fail


There are contradictory reports about what the government is or is not planning to do about the Northern Ireland Protocol this week. Some are suggesting that the PM is telling his ministers to tone down the rhetoric, and that he will vow not to scrap the protocol; whilst others are suggesting that he is imminently going to give the green light to a new parliamentary bill which will effectively nullify part of the international agreement which he signed. There might be circumstances in which ‘keeping the other side guessing’ is a valid negotiating tactic, but sending mixed messages to a party such as the DUP, which sees everything in stark black and white terms, before meeting with them isn’t one of them. Indeed, giving that party mixed messages and a succession of broken promises rather than honesty about what was going to happen and why is one of the causes of the current mess. The mixed messages look less like a negotiating tactic than a reflection of the fact that the PM can’t make up his own mind and simply veers between options depending on who he spoke to last.

It appears that getting Tory MPs to pass an Act of Parliament which specifically authorises ministers to over-ride the provisions of an international treaty that they negotiated and signed up to may not be a simple task. There are still a few brave souls in the traditional party of law and order who cling to the outdated belief that abiding by international law is, on the whole, rather a good thing. And then there is the House of Lords. Given that this is not a manifesto commitment by the governing party (indeed, there was a clear manifesto commitment to implement the agreement, not to change it), their lordships have the constitutional right to delay the legislation for up to a year – and it is highly likely that, with no whipped majority available to the PM, they will do precisely that.

The measure is likely to be sold to the dissenting MPs on the basis that the government has no intention of using the powers which the legislation, if and when passed, will give them; it is merely a bargaining stick to convince the EU that it must change its stance or else. Even assuming that a sufficient number of dissenting MPs are persuaded by that (it does, after all, require them to believe the word of a known serial liar), it is unlikely that their noble lordships will fall for it. But, not for the first time, it looks as though the PM and his team have either not thought through the consequences of their actions, or else are assuming that what happens in the UK is somehow invisible to those pesky foreigners in Brussels and beyond.

If they could only try and stand in the shoes of the EU Commission for just a few moments, they might start to understand that watching the UK government struggle to get unilateral changes through its own parliament doesn’t exactly come across as a huge threat requiring their immediate capitulation. What it does encourage is quite the opposite: do nothing while the UK parliamentary drama plays out, with at least an evens chance that the whole thing will blow up in the face of the UK Government, or even that there will be a change of government during that year. It also, of course, gives them twelve months to plan quietly and implement their own response to any attempt to unilaterally change the rules through act of parliament. The UK government will in the meantime make the same preparations for implementing its proposed changes as it did for the Brexit Agreement itself (i.e. do nothing). It will then come as a complete surprise when the EU, once again, seamlessly implements its own fallback plan, leaving the UK Government astounded at the inability of those Europeans to understand just how special the UK is.

Friday 13 May 2022

Improving government efficiency


Civil servants perform no useful function, and we can simply sack 20% of them with no impact on government services or performance. That is, apparently, what the PM believes, and why he has asked every department to reduce its numbers by that arbitrary percentage, leading to an overall reduction of 90,000 jobs. It’s hardly as if there are any backlogs in, say, the Passport Office or the DVLA which might be exacerbated by an arbitrary 20% cut in staff numbers.

I suppose that, for the head of a cabinet which could easily reduce its headcount by 100% with only a net positive effect on government performance, a cut of a mere 20% might even look to be a bit on the cautious side. And I somehow doubt that, in calculating the cost savings involved by not paying 90,000 salaries, he has taken any account of the potential corresponding increase in expenditure on benefits (or pensions, for those ex-civil servants who decide that they will simply retire early rather than seek alternative employment). Then again, because there will be no one available to administer said benefits and pensions, maybe it doesn’t matter anyway. Another brilliant cost-saving ‘efficiency’.

Interestingly, one of the things he said was that he wanted civil service numbers to get back down to where they were in 2016. For all of 10 milliseconds, I found myself wondering what could possibly be significant about that date. Could there have been some strange event which subsequently required the government to employ thousands of extra civil servants to negotiate trade deals, to implement new border controls, or to replicate other functions previously performed elsewhere, such as in Brussels maybe? But luckily, now that Brexit is officially ‘done’, none of that is needed any more. Obviously. And those unicorns are still grazing happily on the sunlit uplands.

Thursday 12 May 2022

Eventually, reality will assert itself


The significance of Sinn Fein becoming the largest party in Northern Ireland after the recent elections has received a lot of attention, although the detail of the result suggests it is more symbolic than seismic. One thing which did emerge from that election though is that it, as the BBC put it, “cemented a majority for parties which accept the protocol”, largely as a result of the growth in the number of Alliance MLAs. The Assembly now contains an even bigger majority in favour of accepting the Northern Ireland protocol and making it work than it did before the elections. The UK government, being what it is, has instead chosen to interpret the result as a resounding demand for scrapping the protocol, even if that leads to a trade war with the EU.

I’m sure that I remember ministers of the government which now wants to scrap the protocol describing it as giving Northern Ireland “the best of both worlds”, and the overall deal as being very good for the whole of the UK, but that was in a long-ago past. The problem is, as the Guardian put it, whilst “A responsible prime minister would have set about trying to reconcile unionists to the deal, while negotiating adjustment to level the controls”, what he has actually done is “stoked the DUP grievance, trying to use its intransigence as a lever to exert pressure on Brussels”. The DUPs have been used as dupes all along. Although, in fairness, anyone caught out believing anything Johnson told them deserves to end up looking foolish.

The problem which now exists – of trying to get workable power-sharing operating again at Stormont – is one entirely of the PM’s own making. It was he who promised not to put a customs barrier in the Irish Sea, he who then negotiated and agreed a customs barrier in the Irish Sea, and he who is refusing to implement the agreement which he negotiated. It is all based, as it has been from the outset, on the exceptionalist belief that the UK is so special that it can have whatever it wants, and that mere foreigners can be blustered and threatened into subservience. And the traditional intransigence of the DUP – never a party to knowingly learn from its mistakes – is being used again as a tool with which to seek to batter ‘Brussels’.

There are only three potential ultimate outcomes from this mess, even if it takes an all-out trade war with the EU before a new UK government recognises the fact:

·        The UK can implement the agreement it has signed, and somehow try to persuade or bribe the DUP into accepting the protocol with a few minor changes

·        The EU will be obliged to implement formal border controls across the island of Ireland, which would probably delight the DUP, given its inability to see beyond the short term, but infuriate the US and probably hasten Irish unity in the longer term

·        The UK could agree to align itself more closely with EU single market and customs union rules (which is what the Brexiteers actually promised back in 2016), thereby removing the need for the protocol (and incidentally hugely benefiting the UK economy as a whole).

The nearest thing to a certainty is that none of the above will happen until the current government is replaced, because they are incapable of understanding the consequences of their own actions to date, let alone the real status of the UK in the world. Trying to escape the consequences of past lies by telling even bigger ones eventually catches up with people, even those with the attributes of a greased piglet.

Wednesday 11 May 2022

Seizing the opportunity


There is no ‘right’ answer to the question ‘how many members should a parliament have?’ For sure, constitutional experts can pore over comparisons with other countries and earnestly assess workloads and processes, but for all that, it ultimately comes down to a judgement by politicians, often based on a compromise between what they think the answer should be and what they think the populace will accept. For those who oppose the existence of a particular institution (like many Tories in relation to the Senedd), the ‘right’ answer for them is zero, compelling them to oppose any and every suggestion of an increase. Similarly, there is neither a ‘right’ size nor a ‘right’ number of constituencies; for those who want a direct relationship between electors and their representatives, the answer is a large number of small single member constituencies, whereas for those who want the most proportional outcome possible for any election, the answer will be a small number of large multi-member constituencies. For all the attempts to rationalise and justify any particular number, the reality is that it depends on the political viewpoints and priorities of those making the decisions.

The joint declaration by Plaid and Labour yesterday that there should be 96 members elected from 16 six-member constituencies is a statement of their joint judgement on those questions, as is the knee-jerk response from the Tories opposing any increase, under any circumstances, ever. It’s a bold plan, bolder than I was expecting, and in terms of overall numbers of members and constituencies, they’ve come up with a very good answer. There are two little niggles, though.

The first is the way in which the boundaries are to be drawn. Simply using the boundaries of the 32 Westminster constituencies and pairing them up is likely to produce a few odd constituencies which don’t entirely reflect human geography. If it is, as suggested, just a ‘quick and dirty fix’, on a one-off basis to get the changes in place for the 2026 election, then it’s a reasonable way ahead. The problem is that ‘quick fixes’ have a tendency to become established: agreeing changes is always difficult, and by the time they are up for discussion there will be elected members who are invested in those boundaries.

The second is the method of election, using the d’Hondt system, rather than full STV. The method is not without its advantages. Marking just one party with a single cross is similar to the familiar FPTP system, and was used for electing MEPs. It produces a much more proportional result overall (even based, as it effectively is, on counting only first choice votes), and coupled with the proposal that parties will have to ‘zip’ male and female candidates is likely to produce a very gender-balanced Senedd. It abolishes the distinction between ‘constituency’ and ‘list’ members, under which the latter were often perceived (wrongly) to be some sort of second-class members. It also helps to shatter the myth, fundamental to the Westminster system and much beloved by certain egotistical politicians, that the election of individuals is down to their unique talents and abilities and not to the colour of their rosette; that voters elect individuals not parties. (There has been, as far as I can see, no mention of the obvious corollary – any MS elected solely on a party ticket who ‘jumps ship’ should be disqualified and replaced with the next person on the relevant party’s list. That’s a flaw in the current system for list members and could easily be rectified as part of these new proposals.) There are some downsides, though. It is not as fully proportional as a full STV system; so-called ‘closed’ lists leave considerable power to determine which of their candidates get elected in the hands of the parties rather than the electorate; and it takes no account of the second (third, etc.) preferences of those voters whose first choice party doesn’t cross the threshold for representation.

It bears the obvious hallmarks of compromise between two parties seeking out common ground in order to get something in place whilst they have a window of opportunity to do so, but is nevertheless better and more radical than I had expected from such a process. None of us knows when – or even whether – such a window of opportunity will present itself again. We should not delude ourselves about the timescale – or even the possibility – of further change once these changes are in place, but they represent a huge leap forward from where we are today. Grabbing that opportunity whilst the Senedd majority for implementing it exists is more important than any remaining niggles.

Tuesday 10 May 2022

Limping ever onwards


To the pleasant surprise of many, including myself, it turned out that gambling on Keir Starmer being as unprincipled as Boris Johnson was a very bad bet indeed. I’m not the only one to have underestimated Starmer on this occasion. One can nit-pick about what happens in the event of the ‘Barnard Castle’ loophole – a police investigation which concludes that there was probably a minor breach but issues no fines. And one can hypothesise that all Starmer has done is to accept, in advance, that which would have been inevitable in any event if a fine were issued; but it looks as though he has managed to seize the initiative and put himself ahead of the story. Had he waited – as apparently some of his aides wished – until a fine/no fine decision had been taken by the police, he might have missed an opportunity to draw a clear line between himself and the PM, and been beset by reporting on this issue for the whole of the next 6-8 weeks whilst a police investigation which appears to be even more painfully slow than that into the shenanigans at Downing Street takes place.

It's a gamble, of course – but, in the event, a rather better bet than the one which the Tories took in demanding that Starmer be investigated, and it turns the focus right back onto Johnson and those around him. The PM won’t resign; that would require a degree of self-awareness and a sense of shame or embarrassment, none of which he possesses. And his MPs seem determined to demonstrate their own lack of principle and the backbone which would be needed to dislodge him. He’ll simply limp on until the next crisis (more fines? Sue Gray?) in the hope that something will turn up. It isn’t quite what Macmillan meant by “Events, dear boy. Events.” Nor is it the “finest hour” to which his hero referred. It’s a good example of an utterly dysfunctional semi-democracy in inaction though.

Monday 9 May 2022

Gambling everything on a lack of principles


Given his alleged familiarity with Ancient Greece, it’s likely that Boris Johnson is at least aware of Aesop’s injunction to “be careful what you wish for” (although given his recent self-comparison with King Lear at the time the latter was going mad, it’s by no means certain that he understands the context or significance). It’s a suggestion which he and those others in his party currently revelling in the thought that Keir Starmer might also be fined for lockdown breaches should probably bear in mind.

We don’t yet know the outcome of the new police enquiry; whilst some of the reporting yesterday suggests that the version of events we’ve previously been given might not be an exact match with the verité, they may still conclude that no offences worthy of a fine have been committed, and that is probably the likeliest outcome. The Tories will not be unhappy with that as a result – they’ve slung a lot of mud, some of which has stuck, and they’ve managed to give the impression that it isn’t only the Tories who have broken rules. It’s not particularly edifying as a political process, but it meets the only remaining objective of the current PM and government – clinging to power at all costs.

But what if… Just suppose for a moment that the police do find a breach and issue one or more fines to those present – what are the consequences of that, and have the Tories thought them through? The first and most obvious consequence is that the Durham Police Force will find it difficult to justify opening a retrospective investigation and issuing retrospective fines in one case, having refused to do so in another. Dominic Cummings and his amazing eye test could easily become a live issue once again.

The second consequence would be that the spotlight gets shone on Starmer – will he do as he said that Johnson should do, and resign, or will he attempt to argue that any breach was inadvertent and that things are different for him because, unlike Johnson, he wasn’t the one making the rules? The Tories are betting heavily on the latter. Their aim is to portray Starmer and Labour as being no better than themselves, and therefore ease the pressure on Johnson. However, if Starmer were to resign it would have completely the opposite effect. There would then be a clear contrast between a man caught out once who does the principled thing and resigns and a serial offender who carries on regardless. The pressure would move back to Johnson. There’s little chance he would resign even then – this is not a man who has ever felt any shame or embarrassment. But it might well lead to further unease amongst those of his troops who are sent out to defend the indefensible, once again. It would also, of course, give Labour a chance to replace a man who hasn’t exactly sparkled in the role to date. All that clamour for a reinvestigation would end up being a classic piece of self foot-shooting.

In short, the Tories are gambling heavily on their assumption that Starmer is no more principled than Johnson. I wish I could say that it looked like a really bad bet.

Thursday 5 May 2022

Aiming for the Moon. And missing.

There is a certain inevitability about the way that local elections are reported on, and interpreted, through the prism of ‘national’ politics. It’s not a particularly new phenomenon, although the extent to which it happens seems to have increased in recent years. It stems, ultimately, from the belief that ‘national’ (i.e. Westminster) elections are the only important ones and that everything else is a side-show, a mere indicator as to how opinion might be moving ahead of the next ‘national’ election. It's a pity in many ways; from experience, I’m well aware of many dedicated councillors (from all parties) who end up losing their seats because of the overall state of their party despite their record on behalf of their communities; and conversely, I’m aware of plenty of lazy and incompetent councillors who are only there because they’ve been dragged in on the coat tails of ‘national’ swings. It’s a pity in another way, as well: for those of us who believe that decision-making could and should be more local, and that there’s nothing wrong with two neighbouring councils following radically different policies if that’s what the citizens vote for, it leads to increasing expectations that parties will propose common platforms across the whole country, rather than having more freedom to propose county-wide manifestoes under the broad principles which their parties support.

It also leads to that truly horrible idea that electors should use local elections to ‘send a message’ to national politicians rather than to think about what they want for their own communities within the limited powers which local councils possess. Given the extent to which overall local policy can only be implemented within the financial straitjacket set ‘nationally’, there’s an inevitability about that as well; but it means a stifling of debate about whether local councils should have more power and more financial autonomy. Long gone, it seems to me, are the days when Plaid, for instance, used to argue for the ultra vires law to be replace by an intra vires law – basically meaning that councils would be able to do anything not expressly forbidden rather than only those things expressly allowed by central legislation. These days, parties seem to be more interested in giving more direction to local authorities than more discretion.

It also produces some outlandish claims about what a vote for a particular party might mean. My own favourite from this round of council elections is the Tories’ claim that “Only by voting Welsh Conservative can you stop Labour’s plan for more politicians in Cardiff Bay”. The precise mechanism by which electing Conservative councillors would change the plans for expanding the Senedd is – probably wisely – left unexplained. In truth, even if the Tories won every seat on every council in Wales – an outcome which some might think impossible given that they’re not contesting every seat (although for a party prepared to disenfranchise supporters of other parties and take direct political control of the Electoral Commission, not contesting seats doesn’t necessarily look like an insurmountable obstacle to winning them) – they would still have zero impact on this issue. It looks more like an attempt to scoop up the residual anti-Senedd vote than a serious policy proposal. They might just as well promise to mine the moon’s cheese reserves. At least that might show some innovation and initiative.

Monday 2 May 2022

Right hands and right hands


Insofar as the UK government can be said to have an economic strategy at all, it is one which depends on achieving a level of growth in the UK economy. But that growth is expected to somehow just appear, as if by magic, with no meaningful government action to bring it about. In the meantime, according to one former Bank of England official, the ‘independent’ Bank of England is obliged to force the UK economy into recession in order to hit its 2% inflation target. And who, exactly, sets the BoE’s target and demands that it meet said target? Well, that would be the same government whose forecasts on tax revenue and deficits assume that the economy will grow rather than shrink. They could, of course, change the BoE’s targets at any time. That would rather expose the fact that the idea that the BoE is in any meaningful sense ‘independent’ is more myth than reality, but leaving aside that entirely self-generated political problem there is nothing to stop the government relaxing the inflation target (whether in the long term or only temporarily) and replacing it with a target of achieving full employment. That would offend the Tory ideologues, of course, but it would benefit those citizens in difficulty in the here and now.

Worse, amongst the factors claimed to be driving inflation (other explanations are available) are a shortage of labour in some sectors (a more-or-less direct result of the ending of Freedom of Movement with EU countries), a privatised energy sector which has prioritised short term profit over longer term energy storage and security, the impact of Brexit and Covid on trade, and the war in Ukraine. Only two of those (Covid and the war) are not the direct result of ideology-based government policies, and both of those are exacerbated by a government declining to take mitigating action. In short, if we accept the theory of inflation being promulgated by one of those who has been very close to decision-making in the past, and whose views appear to be in line with Treasury thinking, we have a government which is deliberately following policies which lead to higher inflation, instructing the BoE to force the country into recession, if necessary, to control that inflation, and then basing its fiscal policies on the assumption not only that there will be no recession but that the economy will grow, all-the-while wringing its hands about the utterly but conveniently misnamed ‘cost of living crisis’. It’s not in fact a ‘cost-of-living’ crisis at all; it’s a full-blown economic crisis directly caused by government policy. It’s not so much that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, as that having two right hands inevitably leads to some form of circular anatine aquatic motion (as the late Rhodri Morgan might almost have put it). At best.