Thursday, 30 June 2022

Playing games


Apparently, the revolting Tories who failed to depose the Prime Criminal a few weeks ago are coming back for a second go. The Guardian claims that they are ‘ruthlessly organised’ this time, but if they were remotely capable of achieving such a state, they wouldn’t be in a situation of needing a second attempt. When it comes to ruthless organising, one thing that can be said for Johnson, on the basis of hard empirical evidence (to say nothing of his home receiving more fixed penalty notices than any other address in the UK) is that he is very capable of ruthlessly organising a party in a brewery (or indeed anywhere else), unlike those seeking to displace him. Their latest cunning plan consists of arranging a slate of anti-Johnson MPs to fill all the places on the 1922 Committee, the organisation for backbench Tory MPs. It really shouldn’t be that difficult: since only backbench MPs are allowed to vote in the election, and we already know from the numbers in the no confidence ballot that the overwhelming majority of those are against him, they’re aiming at an open, barn-door sized, goal. Their performance to date doesn’t guarantee that they won’t miss, though.

Apparently, some of those who voted to retain him as leader in the latest ballot did so on the basis that there would be enough other people voting against him for him to do the decent thing and resign anyway, as happened with his immediate predecessor. That cunning plan avoided them putting their heads above the parapet as well as playing to their own cowardice, but depended on the assumption that a man who has ignored convention, rules, decency and honour his whole life would suddenly discover an attachment to such values when it became clear that four out of every ten of his followers were no longer willing to follow. Anyone believing that really is too stupid to be an MP, another reason to doubt the effectiveness of their organising skills. Others apparently only discovered how venal and dishonest Johnson is when they saw the scale of last week’s by-election defeats and realised that their own seats might be in danger. Self-preservation is a strong instinct, but it isn’t known for encouraging organisational skills in those who had lacked them previously.

The man himself has drawn a line – cleverly using invisible ink so no-one can see where it is – and has moved on. From his perspective, he never did anything remotely wrong; issuing apologies and taking responsibility are just words to be deployed as and when their use can no longer be avoided. The real villains are journalists and reporters who insist on reporting what they want to report rather than regurgitating his press releases. Is there more scandal to come? Almost certainly. Any Tory MP who thinks for a moment that there will be no further revelations about Johnson’s actions is living in the same fantasy land as the man himself. The best that they can hope for is that people are so accustomed to his dishonest behaviour that new revelations receive scant attention. It may be working: attempting to appoint Carrie to senior posts and asking a Tory donor to cough up £150,000 to build a tree house for a six-month old in the garden of a house where his tenure is neither secure nor long term have both received far less coverage than the inherent corruption involved would deserve. He can always divert attention with another emergency phone call to President Zelensky.

The Tory MPs are treating the whole thing as some sort of Westminster parlour game, but by their actions – or inactions – they are complicit in facilitating the most corrupt and dishonest government which the UK has ever seen. This is no game.

Wednesday, 29 June 2022

Height, gender, and tyranny


According to the latest despatches from the fantasy world inhabited by the UK’s Prime Criminal, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is all down to the gender of the president, Vladimir Putin. If only he’d been a woman all this unpleasantness could have been avoided. We don’t know much else about this imaginary female Russian president, although we might be better able to guess at Johnson’s assessment of her physical appearance if we knew whether she also had an imaginary husband who voted Conservative. We do know that, assuming Ms Putin turned out to be roughly the same size as Mr Putin, a shorter than average man would have become a taller than average woman, a fact which grows in importance when we learn from the Defence Secretary that Putin suffers from something called ‘small man syndrome’. It's a diagnosis which his former experience as a ski instructor and army officer clearly leave him entirely qualified to make. On the other hand, it could be his personal experience as a man only a few inches taller than Putin which gives him this amazing insight into Putin’s character; we can only guess. There is, of course, nothing new about disseminating derogatory information about the physical attributes of opponents; it can surely only be a matter of time before allegations about the imagined deficiencies of Putin’s assets in the genital department begin to circulate.

Exactly what the observations of Johnson (another not exactly giant of a man) and Wallace add to the sum total of human knowledge remains to be determined. There is an outside chance that ridiculing men who happen to be on the short size may rebound on its perpetrators which might bring some benefit in the form of light relief to observers of the UK political scene, although it could easily come at the expense of harm and hurt to innocent bystanders who also happen to be vertically challenged. And that is surely the danger in making overgeneralizations, whether they be about height or gender. 

There’s also a question about their accuracy. History tells us that some dictators and tyrants were short – we tend to think of Napoleon or Hitler – but it also tells us that some were tall. Peter the Great – one of Putin’s heroes, apparently – was 6 foot 4 inches; Syria’s al-Assad is 6 foot 2, and Saddam Hussein was 6 foot 1. And history can be misleading – most of those dictators who we tend to think of as being short were actually very close to male average height (5 foot 7) – a statement which applies to Hitler, Putin and Napoleon for instance. In truth, there is no correlation between height and propensity to tyranny observable in the world’s historical records, it’s all in the fevered imaginations of those who want to belittle (pun intended) their opponents.

So, returning to Johnson, does his suggestion that the problem is Putin’s gender bear any greater relationship with the truth? It’s certainly true that there have been fewer female tyrants than male ones, but any objective analysis ought to start by recognising that females have largely been excluded from leadership roles in most of the world for most of human history. A lack of opportunity to produce their fair share of dictators does not, in itself, prove a lack of propensity. It is, though, probably true that certain attributes are more common in males than in females – and vice versa. It is quite possible that the desire for war and conquest is more predominant amongst males than females, but greater prevalence isn’t at all the same thing as gender being an absolute determinant. It depends on the individual rather than simply on gender. To choose just two examples on daily display, being a woman doesn’t stop Liz Truss being one of the Cabinet's biggest warmongers, and being female doesn’t stop Priti Patel being probably the nastiest person ever to hold the office of Home Secretary. Whilst Johnson may be clutching at the germ of a sensible point, his innate misogyny and inability to apply any sort of subtlety to his analysis make it, ultimately, next to worthless. If Johnson had been female, would he still have become Prime Criminal - and would he still have performed even more badly than a reincarnated olive? It's one of those things which are unknowable.

Monday, 27 June 2022

Mine's smaller than yours


In scenes vaguely reminiscent of the Four Yorkshiremen, it seems that the so-called ‘leaders’ of the UK and Canada got themselves into a debate in Germany over who had arrived in the smallest private jet. At a mere 45 metres long, Johnson’s A321 Airbus beat Trudeau’s 47 metre Airbus CC-150 in the aircraft poverty stakes. How many people were in Johnson’s retinue is not recorded, but it’s doubtful whether it was anywhere near the 170 – 220 which an A321 is normally capable of carrying.

Johnson did, however, cheat in order to win the game. (Nothing new there of course.) It seems that he only won because he was in the backup aircraft, rather than his usual transport, which is a 60 metre long Voyager variant of the Airbus A330 (normally configured, in civilian use, for anything up to 406 passengers). That, however, was unavailable, because the monarchy have first call on its use, and Charles Windsor had exercised his royal privilege to bag the plane for himself. Presumably to make sure that there was adequate space for his official toilet seat, and enough cupboards to hold carrier bags full of cash should he happen, in the course of his travels, to bump into any rich sheiks looking to relieve themselves of a spare few million quid.

Johnson’s victory over Trudeau because of the use of the royal trump card does, however, bring us to the question that no-one seems to have asked. Both Johnson and Windsor travelled from the same starting point (London) to the same destination (Rwanda) to attend the same meeting, and each used a separate enormous aircraft to do so. And while Johnson then travelled on to Germany leaving the heir to the throne in Kigale, the bigger plane continued to sit on the runway at Kigale until such time as its passenger returns home. Whilst we know that the two men are not exactly the best of bosom buddies at the moment, they both claim to be strong supporters of action on climate change, something which is not exactly easy to square with use of large private jets. Surely either one of the planes would have been quite large enough for them to sit far enough apart that they didn’t even need to acknowledge each other. One each side of the cash cupboards perhaps. Is it really beyond the wit of those purporting to run the UK to organise itineraries such that one plane would have sufficed?

Sunday, 26 June 2022

Denying history


One of the oldest ploys of colonial and imperial powers is to deny the existence of other nations which might be in any way inconvenient to them - by, for instance, daring to occupy territory in an area coveted by the colonial power. It’s often accompanied by an argument that the people concerned had no meaningful history before they were colonised. It's an approach which has been on display today from the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, who said that Ukraine “… does not have a history without the Russian people, none at all”. It’s an arrogant and dismissive thing to have said, but it reminded me of the Welsh politician who said that “…between the mid-sixteenth century and the mid-eighteenth century Wales had practically no history at all, and even before that it was the history of rural brigands who have been ennobled by being called princes”. Lavrov is clearly a mere amateur; such a statement would have been much more effective had he found a tame Ukrainian to say it. But perhaps the Ukrainians have more self-respect.

Friday, 24 June 2022

An over-powered jet of hot air


Apparently, Jacob Rees-Mogg believes that one of the most important benefits of Brexit would be the ability to sell higher powered vacuum cleaners. Why any manufacturer would want to produce and sell over-powered and inefficient machines specifically for a small market like the UK when they can just as easily sell the same efficient and equally effective machines that they are selling elsewhere is unanswered question. Still, given that engineering and economics weren’t even subjects when Jake was a lad, we should probably overlook his ignorance of both.

It reminded me of the cleaner in our house when I was young – so around 60 years ago, I guess. The flexible hose could optionally be attached at either end, with one end providing suction for cleaning, and the other a jet of air for … well, no-one was quite sure what it was for, which is presumably why they don’t make them like that any longer. Perhaps they should reintroduce them though. An inefficient and over- powered device producing a jet of hot air of little use to anyone seems like a deserving first entry on the list of Brexit benefits. It’s quite a good analogy for Jake as well.

Thursday, 23 June 2022

Seizing the opportunity?


One of the consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been increasing speculation about the possible break-up of the Russian Federation. From the Washington Post, through Bloomberg, to the i, columnists have been analysing the situation and wondering aloud whether the war could provide the spur needed for some of the 22 autonomous republics currently part of the Federation to seize the opportunity to break free. It comes against a background of increasing centralisation as Moscow accretes power from the far-flung parts of its empire, and increasing Russification, as the centre tries to impose a common identity and language on a very disparate group of nationalities, and the theory is that weakening a large colonial power by breaking it up into smaller states would generally be a good thing for the world at large. But only in the case of Russia, of course. Brave patriots seeking to escape the clutch of Russia are an entirely different thing from the dangerous separatists seeking to break up other established states, such as the ‘most successful political union in history’, as unionists like to refer to the UK, without a shred of hard evidence to back up the claim. It’s worth noting in passing that some of Russia’s possessions have, in one form or another, been part of ‘Russia’ since before the UK came into existence – historical longevity is clearly not the factor which accounts for the difference in perception.

Attempted Russification is nothing new – and nor is the concept unfamiliar to us here in Wales. It’s happening in the occupied parts of Ukraine right now (and for balance, it’s worth noting that the Ukrainian government is also attempting a process of Ukrainification as well). The remaining residents are issued with Russian passports, school curriculums are being aligned with those in Russia, and the rouble replaces the Ukrainian currency. It’s something that many states have attempted to do at many times in history, usually under autocratic rulers (who tend to be rather more effective, due to their innate ruthlessness, in enforcing the rules, using as much violence as is required). And despite all the lessons of history, such rulers always tend to believe that they can succeed in rapidly eliminating any sense of national feeling which does not align with the ‘official’ state view.

History has almost invariably proved them wrong. In Spain under Franco, the Catalan and Basque nationalities and languages were viciously suppressed for a generation; it didn’t work. Whilst the personality – and ruthlessness – of Marshall Tito kept the different nationalities of the former Yugoslavia together for decades, the country rapidly imploded after his death. Closer to home, despite the Welsh language being effectively outlawed for all official purposes for centuries, a fifth of the population stubbornly persist in using it, and we now have a government committed to expanding its use. Eliminating national identity by force takes consistent effort over a long period. Conversely, gaining independence and elevating the status of the Irish language seems to have been something of a disaster for the language. Perhaps the lesson is that, in many circumstances, the oppression itself provokes a reaction, meaning that oppression may not be the best means of achieving the unity of identity that the state demands of its citizens.

It’s a lesson that it’s unreasonable to expect Putin to learn any time soon. Dictators are far too easily convinced that they can simply will things to be as they wish and impose them if necessary; by the time they realise that they’ve got it wrong, it’s already too late. A similar rule applies to world kings – imposing their will on their distant possessions in the teeth of local opposition is usually counter-productive in the end, but their misplaced sense of self-belief makes it impossible for them to realise that fact until it's too late.

Will Russia fall apart as a result of the war in Ukraine? In truth, nobody knows. It wouldn’t be the first time a movement for national independence saw the imperial power’s difficulty as their own opportunity. On the other hand – as we also know only too well – killing an empire and all the exceptionalism which goes with it is no short term project either.

Wednesday, 22 June 2022

Still dividing, still ruling


Divide and rule is probably the oldest trick in the book for the ruling elite, yet still they get away with it. It is such an obvious trick that one might think people would start to see through it, but enough people seem to fall for it every time to allow the elite to maintain their grip on society. Control of the media is clearly a part of the trick, but the gullibility of large numbers is probably more important. And social media – which theoretically provide an opportunity for alternative views to those expressed in the main stream media – are filled with the views of the gullible, acting as willing shills in their own oppression. The rail dispute is more complex than much of the more simplistic reporting suggests; arguments over the replacement of people with technology and new working methods are in the mix as well as the pay dispute as such. But at the heart of the dispute is an argument over whether holding down pay – and thus imposing a real cut in living standards – on working people is the only or even the best way to prevent a wage-price inflation spiral.

The first problem with even presenting it in that way is that current inflation is not the result of a wage-price spiral at all. It’s understandable that those who remember the inflation of the late 1970s would be keen not to return there, although it’s just possible that a government whose whole approach depends on expecting people to forget what they’ve done in the last 12 years might be pinning rather a lot of its hopes on people remembering what happened almost half a century ago and being suitably afraid as a result. The point, though, is that the causes of inflation now are rather different; even if the solution was the right one in the 1980s (itself highly debateable), it doesn’t follow that it’s the right one today.

The government are largely getting away with framing the terms of the argument, and Labour’s absolute terror of being seen to be supporting working people defending their standard of living is a complete gift to the Tories. Not only does it reinforce the Tory framing of the dispute, it also assists Tory stereotypes about the evil trades unions and alienates Labour from many of its own members and supporters. Dominic Raab has told us today that the government (which claims not to be a party to the dispute or to have any role in its resolution) “can’t allow … the unions … to win this argument”, as though ‘the unions’ are somehow an entity completely different from and divorced from the working people they represent. The Tory line is accompanied by misleadingly selected figures about how much the employees in dispute currently earn, in an attempt to suggest that they don’t ‘need’ an increase at all – a dishonest way of stating that they must accept a cut in living standards. The figures have, of course, been seized upon and repeated ad nauseum by people complaining that they (or nurses or some other ‘deserving’ group) earn less and aren’t getting a pay rise at all. They’ve been conned into a silly and ultimately self-defeating argument which focuses their ire on a different group of working people rather than on those who are orchestrating the attack on living standards.

It's true, of course, that some people earn less than some rail workers. It’s true, equally, that some of those lower paid people will get a wage rise lower than that asked for by the rail workers. It’s true that there may be some unfairness in both of those things. But extrapolating those facts to an argument that rail salaries must not be allowed to keep pace with inflation is an argument which justifies and supports the attack on their own living standards. Their ire would be better directed at those who are doing very well out of the misnamed ‘cost-of-living crisis’; the bankers gaining as a result of interest rate rises which generate extra profits for no extra work, or the oil giants benefiting from a wholly speculative price increase when their costs of extraction have changed not one iota. And, of course, the speculators and gamblers who so heavily fund the Tory Party. Just what does it take for the working people criticising the rail strike to realise that their own interests align more closely with those of the rail workers than those feeding them the lies?

Monday, 20 June 2022

Dulce et Decorum?


In an article in yesterday’s Sunday Times, Boris Johnson confirmed in his own words the point made here on Saturday – the decisions that he and others have taken (or as his acolytes insist on putting it, ‘getting the big calls right’), to encourage Ukraine to fight for total victory over Russia rather then seeking a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement, whilst at the same time denying them the types of weaponry which might give them a chance of doing that, will lead, as Johnson himself says, to a long drawn-out war of attrition, as lives and materiel are expended by both sides in return for marginal gains of devastated territory. Johnson’s latest ‘solution’ is to provide more help training Ukrainians who can be sent to the front line to replace those being killed or wounded. Between 100 and 200 Ukrainian soldiers are currently dying every day, according to government sources there, but the true number is probably higher – whilst any war is in progress, both sides exaggerate the number of enemy dead and understate their own losses. Training 10,000 every 120 days – the target Johnson seems to be setting – doesn’t even replace the numbers being killed, let alone those being wounded as well. It’s an approach to war which keeps the conflict going until, eventually, they run out of Ukrainians to train.

I wonder if Johnson sees – or is even capable of seeing – these trainees as real people rather than numbers. They are all somebody’s sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters; they are individual human beings with hopes, dreams and aspirations. Yes, of course, the ‘fault’ lies with Putin and Russia, for launching an unprovoked, illegal and immoral assault on a neighbouring country. But that doesn’t make it right to stand on the side-lines and encourage the defenders to fight to the last Ukrainian, whilst taking the soft option of selectively supplying weaponry, training replacement soldiers, and implementing economic sanctions at a snail’s pace against the aggressor. Neither the losses being inflicted by the Ukrainian defenders nor the inadequate and patchy sanctions will be enough to force Russia to the table, which is the only way the killing can be brought to an end. In the meantime, and not for the first time in human history, a nation is left mourning the loss of a generation, as this story from Ukraine relates. The immediate priority should be to stop the slaughter rather than prolong it, but Johnson’s response sounds more like harking back to what Wilfred Owen called the old lie than a serious attempt to stop the killing.

Saturday, 18 June 2022

Getting the big calls right


The PM’s decision yesterday to cancel his attendance and speech at a conference of his own MPs and activists in Doncaster in order to visit Kyiv has not gone down well with those he was due to address. I’m not at all sure that the attendees have missed much, but I can certainly understand why Johnson might think that a city under regular attack by bombs and rockets is currently a friendlier and safer place for him than a Conservative conference. One of his northern MPs said visiting Kyiv wasn’t much of an excuse because the PM “could have gone there any time”, but that perhaps misses the importance of the timing from Johnson’s perspective. The previous day, the EU’s ‘big three’ (the leaders of the three biggest economies in the EU: Germany, France, and Italy) visited Kyiv. Pre-Brexit, the ‘big three’ would either have included the UK rather than Italy or else would have been expanded to become the ‘big four’. Either way, from Johnson’s perspective, he was in danger of being sidelined – and it would be a huge mistake to think that anything Johnson does would have been motivated by anything other than meeting Johnson’s personal need for attention and recognition.

It also helps him to turn the news coverage away from his own misdemeanours and crimes to one of the issues on which both he and his supporters are regularly claiming that ‘he got the big calls right’. It’s a claim which, notwithstanding the natural outpouring of sympathy for a European country subjected to a vicious, illegal, and unprovoked attack by a neighbour, deserves to be analysed rather more carefully than it has been.

There are, ultimately, only two ways in which wars come to an end: either one side wins a clear victory, or else a ceasefire is agreed, followed by negotiations (which may take years or even decades) aimed at signing a formal treaty. Johnson’s ‘big call’ (and that of much of what is called ‘the west’ as well) seems to be to encourage the Ukrainians to continue fighting in pursuit of complete victory whilst providing them with enough armaments only to slow the Russian advance, and denying them the key weapons which would make a victory on the battlefield possible. That is backed up by the painfully slow incremental imposition of sanctions which seem more aimed at hurting selected individuals than at rapidly destroying or undermining Russia’s ability to wage war. It’s a recipe for a lengthy war of attrition in which many more, soldiers and civilians alike, will be killed or wounded until, eventually, the losses become so great that one side or the other sues for peace. Putin is probably assuming that ‘the west’ will eventually tire of the cost and impact of underwriting Ukraine’s war effort: he may well be right; the issue is already dropping down the news schedules, to be at least partially replaced by concerns over the so-called cost of living crisis which is itself partly driven by the costs of the war. Unless ‘western’ policy (or Russian policy) changes, it’s fairly obvious which side will end up making the concessions  – the only question is over how much death and destruction it will take to get to that point. Any conclusion about whether Johnson has got this particular ‘big call’ right ought properly to be based on the extent to which the likely outcome is acceptable, and rather less on the publicity and rhetoric of the man himself.

It's a gloomy assessment, which has nothing to do with justice or fairness. There is, however, nothing particularly defeatist about asking which is the most important – the location of lines drawn on a map, or the lives of those living on either side of those lines? Stopping wars after they have started is a major challenge, but the bigger one is preventing them from starting in the first place, and investing an increasing proportion of the world’s resources in armaments doesn’t obviously seem to be the best way of promoting peace. What humanity needs is a rule-based international order accepted by all under which disputes can be resolved peacefully. One of the few certainties is that it’s too late to establish one of those once a war has started. It certainly does not help, though, when the leader of a rogue state like the UK spends so much time and effort trashing such order as does exist. Expecting others to abide by the rules in such circumstances is wholly unrealistic. ‘Getting the big calls right’ is about more than generating a few headlines which can be used as dead cats. And it’s a lot harder. Especially so for a lazy narcissist like Johnson.

Thursday, 16 June 2022

Scoring own goals


When presented with an open goal, the usual response of a footballer is to kick the ball into it. Politics doesn’t work that way, especially for Labour leader Keir Starmer. With large swathes of the establishment, including the heir to the throne and the established church, lining up to criticise the scheme to send refugees to Rwanda as unjust, immoral and illegal, and with a number of Labour MPs leading the charge in the House of Commons, the office of the leader of the opposition manages to kick the ball towards his own net instead, by declining to say whether Labour would reverse the policy if it were in government, or even whether Starmer believes it to be morally wrong. Ultimately, it seems that fear of being seen by racist voters to be ‘soft on immigration’ ends up trumping any sense of principled policy making.

It also ends up helping to enable the disingenuous argument, as put forward by Johnson and Patel, that anyone opposing the policy of sending refugees to Rwanda is aiding and abetting the people smugglers who are placing so many vulnerable and desperate people in small boats and sending them on a risky journey across the world’s busiest shipping lane. According to their interpretation, the only way to stop people smugglers is to deter their potential ‘customers’ by convincing them that taking the risk will leave them in an even worse situation than staying where they are (although attempting to implement the policy without first jumping through all the necessary legal hoops might actually have the opposite effect when those ‘customers’ see that no-one really gets sent anywhere). The possibility of doing more to intercept and catch the smugglers themselves doesn’t seem to have even crossed their minds, probably because it might mean having to work with the French, which might amount to a tacit and very un-Brexity admission that co-operation with neighbours could be more effective than confrontation.

Patel’s claim that there is no other way of dealing with the problem than acting illegally sounds a bit like someone telling a court, “I was broke and couldn’t think of another way of getting any money, so I robbed the bank”. Whether there are practical alternatives or not depends on how the problem is defined. If the problem is defined – and it’s not unreasonable to suspect that this is the working definition being used by Patel and Johnson – as ‘how do we get massive headlines and appeal to the basest instincts of our core electors?’, then there is a degree of truth in their claim that opponents are not coming up with alternative solutions. Opponents simply aren’t defining the problem in the same way. Defining the problem as ‘what can we do about a situation where so many people are rendered so desperate by war, famine, oppression and economic inequality that they are prepared to risk their own and their children’s lives by travelling thousand of miles to a place where they can escape those things?’, would lead absolutely no-one, ever, to suggest putting some of those people on a plane and flying them from one of the world’s richest countries to one of the poorest. And that means, according to Patel, that they are not offering any alternative solutions. In the remaining neuron which serves as her logic circuit, she even has some claim to be right.

What’s unclear is which definition ‘Keith’ Starmer is using. Some of the language used by some Labour people suggests that they might actually be looking at the plight of the individuals, but Starmer’s reticence to state, straight out, that the policy is utterly unacceptable in any civilised society and would be immediately scrapped by an incoming Labour government suggests that he, too, might be more fixated on the headlines than on the people involved. Allowing the Mail and the Express to determine Labour policy shows just how far that party has fallen.

Wednesday, 15 June 2022

The PM is more successful than many realise


Reports suggest that the expected mutiny amongst Tory MPs over the plans to unilaterally tear up an international agreement may have been over-exaggerated, as the majority of the expected rebels guard their silence. Maybe they are just biting their tongues waiting for the right moment; maybe they are basically happy with the UK government breaching international law as and when it sees fit; or maybe they have been gullible enough to believe the suggestion being put about by some Johnson supporters that it is all a gigantic bluff, designed to shock the EU into rolling over and agreeing to whatever the UK government wants.

The last of those seems the likeliest. The report tells us, for example, that “One MP said the party was trying not to criticise the government in case it jeopardised the chances of Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, returning to the negotiating table, and that they were hoping the legislation would never have to come to a vote”. There are two slight problems with that analysis, though. The first is that it’s not the first time that the PM will have got something through on the basis of a false promise that he didn’t really mean it, although that doesn’t prevent Tory MPs being gullible enough to believe him. The second is that it sort of assumes that no-one of any importance in the EU will be able to read the same reports. But then, assuming that all foreigners are stupid is what English exceptionalists do. In the real world, knowing that the UK government will struggle to get the bill through both houses of parliament, that the process is likely to take up to eighteen months, and that the shelf life of the current PM is likely to be a lot less than that, it’s just possible that those foreigners will be astute enough to conclude that they might be better off waiting to see who the successor is, and whether he or she is any more trustworthy, before agreeing to any renegotiation. Which means, of course, that this cunning ploy to speed up change is more likely to delay it. That is an entirely normal outcome for the sort of ‘cunning’ plan devised by Johnson, even if he never expects it.

It is all, however, helping the PM to achieve one of his main stated aims, that of uniting the country. He could soon become the most successful Tory PM in history in terms of uniting the monarchy, the nobility, the clergy of the established church in England (long-known as ‘the Tory Party at prayer’, the customarily Tory press, and the electorate at large, as well as the heads of government in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The only slight problem – for him at least – is that the thing which is uniting them is opposition to him and his policies. Still, I’m sure he'll find a way of describing it as a great success, and a majority of his MPs can still be relied on to parrot the message. For now.

Monday, 13 June 2022

Let them eat cake


They say that ‘we are what we eat’, but it’s not at all clear what that makes the UK government, which is today publishing its so-called food strategy for England, a document extensively leaked last week. From that and other recent statements by Johnson and his ministers, we now know that the government wants to:

·        Increase the consumption of venison

·        Abolish import tariffs on foods such as caviar

·        Have champagne put into pint bottles and distributed door to door using electric vehicles, or wine floats as they are to be called

·        Abandon previous animal welfare based plans to ban the import of foie gras

·        Distribute fresh grouse to food banks

The surprising thing is not that one of those is a lie (I should probably be careful about giving them ideas, especially with only a few weeks to go before the ‘glorious twelfth’, but I made up the bit about grouse), but that the rest are all true, or based on truth. The strategy does indeed talk about responsibly sourced wild venison, and they are truly considering abandoning previous plans to ban the import of foie gras. Although Johnson didn’t specifically refer to caviar last week, he did say that food such as olives and bananas, of which the UK produces little or none, should not be subject to tariffs; there is no obvious reason why the same argument would not apply to caviar.  The government do indeed want the French to put their champagne into pint bottles (why the French – the originators of the metric system – would want to do such a thing is one of life’s great unanswered questions), although there are, sadly, no plans as yet for doorstep deliveries – I suspect that Rees-Mogg obstructed that one in cabinet because he thinks it should actually be dished out using pint-size ladles from a big vat on the back of a horse-drawn cart: none of this new-fangled electric technology for Jake.

At a time when food prices are a major issue for struggling families, and when there is an obesity epidemic, the government’s approach displays how far removed from the real world most of its members are. Bottle sizes for champagne, the availability of foie gras, and how to cook venison – these are not exactly issues which the average family confronts on a daily basis. They do tell us, however, something about the current government’s priorities. And it isn’t good.

Friday, 10 June 2022

Pinning the blame where it belongs


Being extremely rich should not, in itself, be a bar to serving as a government minister. What should act as much more of a bar, however, is an inability to even begin to understand the pressures on people for whom even a small drop in their income or a small increase in the costs of things they buy makes a huge difference. Unfortunately for the population at large, the two things do have a strong tendency to occur in tandem. It doesn’t even take vast wealth on the scale of that of the Chancellor’s household to make someone tone deaf to the needs of ordinary people; even the comparatively modest income of the PM, which puts him in the 99th percentile (i.e. he is paid more than 99% of the UK’s population), is enough to leave him floundering when it comes to the impact of his policies and statements on people.

Yesterday, he told us, in effect, that we must not expect our incomes to rise in line with inflation; a statement which amounts to telling us that we must accept a real-terms fall in our standard of living. Belt-tightening will inevitably look more than a little easier to bear for someone whose household maintains a stock of multiple types of bread than for one which is struggling to buy a single loaf. Most of us fall between those two extremes, but those closest to the highest end of the range seem to find it impossible to understand the pressures on those lower down the scale.

(As an aside, I’ve long believed that there is a good argument for setting MPs salaries at the average for the population as a whole (about £26,000 in today’s terms, although there would need to be additional travel and accommodation expenses to cover their costs of doing the job). It would incentivise them to do two things – firstly to try and lift the average salary of the population at large, and secondly to minimise the differences between the top and the bottom. We could give it an imaginative name – something like ‘levelling up’, maybe. The argument against has always been that we need to pay higher salaries to get the best people, but there are several answers to that. The first is simply ‘Boris Johnson’, disproof, if ever it were needed, that paying a high salary attracts the best people to the job; the second is that the process of selecting MPs (i.e. voting for the one with the right colour rosette on his or her lapel) in no way resembles a process of selecting for ability; and the third is that people attracted to the job because of the high salary may not always start out in the right frame of mind to see themselves as servants of the people.)

It's worth asking the question that Johnson obviously has no intention of answering directly – why exactly are we in a position where he is demanding that people accept a cut in living standards? When multiple factors are at play, it’s always difficult to sort out the relative impact of each, but we know at least some of them: the war in Ukraine; the aftermath of Covid; and Brexit. Some elements of this are outside the control of the UK government, but not all. And in every case, government actions have made things worse than they could otherwise have been. Energy price rises, for instance, have been more modest in some countries because their governments have chosen to make it so, and the Brexit decision to leave the single market and customs union and the associated impact on the supply chain is a deliberate and pre-meditated own goal. To an extent, it is not unreasonable for the government to say that they cannot control all of the events impacting on the cost of living, but they could do more to mitigate that impact, particularly for the most vulnerable. Saying ‘we’ll do more’ without being able to answer the obvious questions about ‘what’ and ‘when’ is no answer at all. It is, however, wholly unreasonable to expect the population at large to take a hit for government incompetence and ideology-driven policy making, which is what Johnson is, in effect, demanding.

Thursday, 9 June 2022

Faith-based economics


It is an article of faith for the Conservative and Unionist Party that the answer to all problems is to cut taxes, by which they really mean taxes on income, whether personal (income tax) or corporate (corporation tax). So when inflation is high, the solution is to cut taxes so people have more money to pay the bills, and if there is deflation, the solution is to cut taxes so people have more money to spend. If the Tory Party is united, it’s time to cut taxes, and if it’s divided it can magically be reunited by cutting taxes. The possible inconsistency in arguing that the same solution can be applied to diametrically opposite problems can safely be ignored – we are, after all, talking faith not fact here.

What they never mention is the caveats and corollaries which come with tax cuts. The first, and most obvious, of those is that income tax cuts only benefit those who pay tax in the first place. Many of those who are struggling the most in the face of rising fuel and food costs are on incomes so low that they pay little or no income tax; a cut of 1% of nothing is still nothing. Conversely, those who pay the most £s in tax gain the most pennies back if the rate is cut – who would ever have expected that a Tory policy would provide its greatest benefits to the most well-off? The second is that another of their articles of faith (equally poorly grounded in fact) is that government expenditure must be limited by the amount of tax revenues received; tax cuts must therefore also lead to spending cuts. It is, again, not exactly a coincidence that those most impacted by cuts in government spending will be those least able to fund alternatives.

When it comes to corporate taxes, their argument is that businesses which retain more of their profit will have more money available to invest, and that investment drives growth. Whilst investment can indeed drive growth, the evidence that businesses with greater retained profits will invest that extra cash is not exactly overwhelming. Many will simply choose to give that money to their shareholders, in extra dividends or share buy backs, having effectively externalised the costs of the public services which they use by passing them on to the rest of us. If there were good investment opportunities available, which would produce a better return than keeping the money in the bank or returning it to shareholders, they would be making the investment anyway, and borrowing the money to do so. And it is often the businesses which are struggling, for whatever reason, which most need to invest in new products, equipment, or processes; businesses which make little or no profit do not benefit from cutting taxes on profits. The people who do are shareholders – who would ever have expected that a Tory policy would provide its greatest benefits to the most well-off?

There is another article of the Tory faith worth referring to here – and that is the infamous Laffer Curve. This purports to show that there comes a point where tax increases have a negative impact on government revenues because people are incentivised to find ever more creative ways of avoiding or evading tax. For those who follow the true faith, this ‘proves’ that tax cuts can lead, counter-intuitively, to increased government revenue. There is just one problem. There is no – zero, zilch, nada – empirical evidence to support the Laffer Curve theory. It's junk economics, especially in the way the Tories seek to apply it. Indeed, such research as has been done tends to support the rather more blindingly obvious, and completely intuitive, conclusion that a government which cuts tax rates will end up collecting less money.

It is, unfortunately, far from unique in the history of man and economics to discover that a government basing its economics on articles of faith rather than empirical facts ends up pursuing policies which somehow, miraculously and entirely coincidentally of course, end up benefiting its own supporters.

Tuesday, 7 June 2022

The problem of majorities


Giving people the choice between two options and counting the number supporting each is a reasonably effective way of making decisions. What it is not, however, is a way of changing minds. Whilst ‘the rules’ of the debate and vote might state clearly that the majority verdict on any question will be the one implemented, what rules cannot mandate is that the minority will somehow change its mind and wholeheartedly support the decision taken. This is a statement so obvious that it should not even need to be said, but we all know that when a party loses an election, it doesn’t simply pack its bags and dissolve itself, it continues campaigning for the next election.

And yet… The expectation of many Brexiters was that all they had to do was win a majority, and everyone else would get behind it and use their abilities to resolve all the problems the Brexiteers had caused by promising an impossible scenario. The expectation of unionists after the Scottish independence referendum was that a party which only ever existed to promote the cause of independence would simply change its policy to reflect the will of the majority. In both cases, they seem to have been genuinely surprised that those who felt the wrong decision had been taken by the majority could and would continue to campaign for what they believed to be right. The problem that many majoritarians face is their own unwillingness or inability to understand that the outcome of a vote changes few minds. Changing minds requires persuasion and argument. Democracy might require people to live with the outcome of any vote until they can change it, but it does not – and cannot – oblige them to like it or remain silent. A democracy which does not permit people to continue to argue their case is not a democracy at all.

And that brings us to the Tory Party and yesterday’s vote. The party’s MPs certainly took a decision, and took it by a clear majority. But the expectation which Johnson and those around him seem to have that the fears some MPs have of losing their seats at the next election will now evaporate because ‘the majority has spoken’ is equally unrealistic. A simple majority system doesn’t mean that those who fear that his law-breaking and dishonesty will lose them their seats will suddenly become proud of those self-same attributes. Given Johnson’s propensity for believing that he can bully, bluster and lie his way out of any situation, I’m not as convinced as many seem to be that his fate is now sealed in the relatively short term. It ought to be, but that depends on a degree of self-awareness which is alien to him. I suspect that those in his party who continue to oppose him face a longer and harder battle than they might currently expect. A different leader would recognise that losing the confidence of at least 40% of his MPs makes him a lame duck and that fighting that fact does more harm than good to his party, but the current leader has no more interest in his party than he does in the population at large. His Conservative opponents and supporters alike may be seriously underestimating Johnson’s capacity and willingness to take them all down with him.

Monday, 6 June 2022

Monarchy may be the self-destruct button for the UK


It is possible, as a few outliers have suggested, that ‘Keith’ Starmer didn’t really mean to say that it was our ‘patriotic duty’ to celebrate the Jubilee over the weekend, but I somehow doubt that he was particularly dismayed at the way most of the mainstream media, including the Telegraph for whom he wrote an article on the question, reported him as having said exactly that. Certainly, his Shadow Culture Secretary has been quick to jump on the bandwagon and claim that Labour is now the party of true patriots. Patriotism may, or may not, be ‘the last refuge of the scoundrel’ as a different Johnson from a different century put it, but it inevitably provokes questions as to what it means.

Labour seem to be defining it around support for what they refer to as “world-leading” institutions, and what they refer to as British values, such as “integrity, decency and honesty” and “tolerance, openness and generosity”. It’s impossible to argue that those aren’t values worth defending and promoting, and even taking a certain amount of pride in – but there’s nothing uniquely ‘British’ about any of them. And anyone with any degree of self-awareness would struggle to claim that they are values which the UK in the twenty-first century is actually displaying to the world. Those who claim (and we must include Labour in this) that these values are somehow ‘British’ and therefore ‘world-leading’ are crossing the line from harmless patriotism into dangerous exceptionalism, and implicitly claiming some sort of superiority for the nation or state to which they belong. It’s a step too far for many of us.

The institutions in which they tell us we must take pride include the monarchy itself, despite the fact that this great ‘unifying’ institution, whilst it might currently enjoy majority support, is slowly becoming irrelevant to increasing numbers, a trend likely only to accelerate after the inevitable departure of the current incumbent in the not-too-distant future. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with a certain amount of patriotism, nor with the idea that the state itself should encourage it, but in hitching itself to one particular definition of what that means – and a definition which is recognised mostly by a demographic which time and reality is slowly eroding – Labour is in danger of placing itself on the wrong side of history. Again.

They’re not unique in that, of course. For those who see only that which is and not the potential of what might be (another category in which we must include the Labour Party), the monarchy is as natural as sunlight. Perhaps for those who become adopted citizens of the UK, it really does look as though the nation is defined by the monarchy; certainly the omnipresence of it and its symbols seems to be a key part of the citizenship process. And probably for those involved in the celebrations – and especially those at the very core – let alone those whose awareness of it all was ‘informed’ by media coverage, it may well appear to have united communities, people and ‘the nation’. They are highly unlikely, in the course of their organising and participating, to have come face to face with the views of avowed republicans, even if not a few of the latter will have quietly participated in the festivities, either for the sake of communal harmony or even just because they fancied an outdoor party. But defining ‘the nation’ in terms of those who support the monarchy is defining it in a way which is, ultimately, exclusive not inclusive.

This isn’t about Scotland and Wales on the one hand and England on the other (although it is notable that antipathy, or even simply apathy, towards royalty is more prevalent in Scotland and Wales); there are plenty of people in England who will also feel that such a definition of ‘the nation’ is one that they are just not part of. It is true, though, that in Wales and Scotland there is an alternative vision available if people choose it, something which people in England will struggle to find, especially with a Labour Party apparently trying to prove itself even more committed to a backward-looking view of Britain that the overtly nationalist Tory Party. It’s yet another indication that the long-held view of many independentistas that the Union will eventually be destroyed by England’s exceptionalism rather than by the demands of its Celtic possessions may be correct.

Saturday, 4 June 2022

Packing up the bunting


As a general rule, I’m not a huge fan of the medals and titles which the ruling establishment dish out to a carefully selected sub-set of the population a few times a year. But surely, the person who selected the reading to be delivered by a certain B. Johnson at the Jubilee service yesterday deserves some sort of public recognition. Obliging a man whose moral compass was terminally mislaid decades ago, and who sits in the middle of a growing pile of corruption, dishonesty and cronyism, to read out loud to the assembled members of the great and the good, as well as anyone watching in their homes up and down the land, an injunction to think about "Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable” is pure class. It’s astounding that the congregation didn’t dissolve into a giggling mass, especially since they all knew that the man doing the reading was the person present least likely to think about or understand the words he uttered.

There was something more than a little Ruritanian about the whole event. It sometimes seems as though the amount of bling being sported by the male members of the monarch’s family is increasing in inverse proportion to the size of the remaining Empire, although that could just be a personal impression. There’s certainly something very quaint about the way the date was selected, given that yesterday was actually the 69th anniversary of the coronation. The 70th anniversary of the accession passed largely unmarked back in February. None of that matters much to those who enjoyed the day. It’s far from unreasonable to suppose that whether they knew or cared about what event they were actually celebrating is largely beside the point. Give it another day or two and the red, white and blue bunting will all be packed away again to wait for the next suitable occasion. Or sent to landfill.

It would be a mistake to read too much political significance into the event. Those who think that all those flags and all that deference are in some way representative of a great coming together of the people of the UK around what is probably it’s most outdated institution and all the (officially-approved version of) history surrounding it are likely to be proved as wrong as those of a more republican bent who see it as an attempt to impose an identity and mindset. Not only was the grass roots participation in the revelry rather less common than the media would have us believe, but also much of it was just seizing an excuse for a party. The lasting political impact is likely to be close to zero. The good news is that those who would drag us back to the past will probably see it as a huge success and carry on in the same doomed-to-failure vein. For most of us, though, we can recognise what they don’t – which is that nostalgia just ain’t what it used to be.

Thursday, 2 June 2022

Of dogs and mice


Imagine, for a moment, working in an environment where the boss is a vicious and vindictive bully, always placing his own needs above those of all others. Imagine an anonymous complaints system under which the boss positions spies outside the complaints office to record the names of anyone entering, and where you can’t trust the complaints manager not to reveal your name to the boss. Imagine being unsure whether you can even trust one of your less timid colleagues to deliver the complaint on your behalf. Imagine being too frightened to talk to your colleagues in the corridor or by the water dispenser for fear that one of them will report every word you say to the boss. Imagine the boss’s spies looking into every aspect of your everyday life, noting down anything incriminating for use against you at a later date.

This may sound a bit like living in the Soviet Union under Stalin, or the way the Stasi used to operate in East Germany, but it is actually the daily life experience of the mice who cower in terror on the Tory backbenches in Westminster. Paid in excess of £80,000 a year to use what passes for their knowledge, experience and ability to represent the people who elected them, it turns out that many of them are too terrified of the boss (or the Big Dog as he apparently prefers to be known) to speak out of turn or express an independent opinion which might in any way reflect badly on the Big Dog. The hound’s spies are everywhere. Emails may be intercepted and passed on and, in an echo of his own favourite era, even the walls are assumed to be in possession of ears.

Tory MPs are proud to refer to themselves as the world’s most sophisticated electorate, but it’s just another of their ‘world-beating’ fictions. No matter how hard I look, neither my thesaurus nor any other sources to which I’ve referred draw any synonymity between ‘sophisticated’ on the one hand and ‘duplicitous’, ‘devious’, and ‘dishonest’ on the other. But when ‘sophisticated’ is used as a euphemism for all of those, it’s surprising that they want to take so much pride in it. One of the few certainties in life is that if Johnson is brought down, the number of Tory MPs claiming to have voted for that outcome will be significantly higher than the number of votes of no confidence recorded by the returning officer, and if he wins the vote, the number admitting to having voted against him will be a lot lower than the number of votes recorded. As the old saying goes, success has many fathers, but failure is a bastard.

It ought to surprise us that they are such a timid bunch; it ought to surprise us even more that the electorate can be so easily persuaded to vote for mice. We take far too much about our political system for granted. That merely empowers the big dogs of this world – and breeds more mice.

Wednesday, 1 June 2022

Legal innovation at Number 10


The PM’s (presumably soon to be ex-) ethics advisor has, not unreasonably, suggested that receiving a fixed penalty notice for breaking the law might, in itself, be considered to constitute a breach of the overarching duty on ministers to comply with the law. It’s hardly a controversial conclusion to draw. In response, the PM has responded to the effect that it doesn’t really count as a breach of the law or of his duty to abide by the law because there was “no intent to break the law”. It’s a novel legal idea, but somehow, I don’t see ‘I did it m’lud, but I never intended to’ working as a defence in court, nor can I believe that ‘lack of intent’ will be accepted as mitigation in the case of other types of fixed penalty notices, such as parking fines or speeding fines. But when you’re world king, who needs a pesky ethics advisor anyway? Unless it’s the sort who brings karaoke machines to unlawful gatherings, of course.

It's not the only legal innovation to emanate from the current government. One of the main justifications for the policy of sending migrants to Rwanda is that it will break the business model of the people smuggling gangs who are currently preying on the vulnerable and desperate. Some naïve folk, like myself, might think that it would be better to punish the gangs themselves rather than those on whom they prey, but identifying and catching them has proven to be beyond the capacity of those responsible for enforcing the law, so they’ll punish the victims instead. This will, according to them, act as a deterrent to anyone else tempted to pay criminals to gain entry to the UK. If punishing the perpetrators is too hard, let’s simply punish their victims instead.

I hesitate to put ideas into their heads, but perhaps these innovations could be extended to other fields. If catching burglars is too much like hard work, why not fine the people who’ve been burgled? It wouldn’t stop burglary, but it’s likely to deter people from wasting police time by reporting it. It would do wonders for the crime statistics. Just as long as the victims of burglary don’t try to wriggle out of it by claiming that they had ‘no intent’ to be burgled.