Saturday 27 August 2022

Peas in a pod?


“Tone deaf” doesn’t begin to describe the message which Boris Johnson sent to the Edinburgh International Culture Summit yesterday. It was apparently intended, primarily, as a defence of Ukraine and a condemnation of Putin and Russia, and it started promisingly enough, with the words, “Throughout history, we’ve seen what happens when aggressors try to oppress and to eliminate culture. We saw it with the Nazis in the Second World War, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Taliban in Afghanistan”. There’s little there with which one could disagree, but the problem is with what it misses out. The list of miscreants over the last century or so is a reasonable starting point, but using the phrase “throughout history” surely invites, or even requires, a rather more comprehensive assessment of cultural genocide. And to a lot of people, in many countries of the world, there will be one obvious, glaring omission from the list of rogues. There is one state which, in its various previous guises, has invaded more of the world than anyone else, ever, and has committed extensive cultural genocide in the process. Systematic looting of cultural treasures and imposition of its own language was the norm for the empire in question, and still colours the attitudes of those (such as, er, Boris Johnson) who want to insist that English should be the first language of everyone in the UK. From the point of view of an English exceptionalist like the PM, there is of course, a huge difference. Whilst replacement of Ukrainian by Russian is an act of cultural vandalism, in the case of the British Empire, the English language was a ‘gift’ for which those who previously used other languages should be grateful, and not an imposition at all.

There was a second sentence in his address which also jumped out at me, when he referred to Putin’s “vile assertion that Ukraine is somehow not a real country”. It rang a very recent bell, because just a few days ago, Lord Frost made the 'vile assertion' that Wales and Scotland aren’t nations either. One can argue about the semantics of ‘country’ vs ‘nation’, but the message is essentially the same and the clear equivalence is that, in both cases, people are being told that they have no right to a different culture or a separate existence. Perhaps Johnson is judging people against a very special scale of vileness, where Putin scores highly because, well, because he’s not English, whereas Frost scores nul points precisely because he is. That’s just the way exceptionalism works – ‘we’ are always right and ‘they’ are always wrong. If you start from the utter certainty that your own language and culture are inherently superior to all others, alternative views are never going to count for much. Putin and Johnson aren’t really so different at all.

Friday 26 August 2022

Time to escape


Listening to what the two candidates for the leadership of the Tory Party have to say (an action which probably ought to carry some sort of health warning), one might reasonably be excused for concluding that there are one or two small areas of disagreement between them about policy. After all, in ordinary parlance, for one to suggest that the other’s policy platform would represent a “moral failure” whilst the other describes the former Chancellor’s economic policies as a failure doesn’t exactly scream “unity”. There is one thing, though, on which they are definitely speaking in unison – the outgoing government has been something of an all-round disaster, not just in economic terms but also in managing to keep the number of Covid deaths down to an unnecessarily high 200,000 or so, a level which either or both of them would have been happy to exceed significantly in the interests of securing a further reduction in the cost of pensions and the NHS.

However, whilst the Tory Party might appear to have become a bit like Four Feather Falls – a place where “anything can happen, anything at all”, and where reality or truth are rarely allowed to intrude – in truth we are just witnessing a temporary interlude of summer madness before they return in a fortnight, under what will purport to be new management, to the comfortable incompetence to which we have been accustomed, albeit with the added ingredient of a PM who can’t even attempt an occasional racist or misogynist ‘joke’ as a diversion. Sunak’s apparent conversion to the idea of taking a moral stance will be shown to be exactly what it is, ‘apparent’, before it dissipates in a cloud of smoke. We will have a budget, which they’re not allowed to call a budget because if they did, the Office of Budget Responsibility (established by a foolish government led by some has-been called Cameron in the far distant past before the Great Purge) would be required to assess the proposals and can be more-or-less guaranteed not to give the answer that the new PM wants to hear. Far better to use out of date numbers which give the ‘right’ answer than accurate ones which do not. Sunak will loyally vote in favour of a budget with almost every proposal in which he claims to disagree, because it is, from what he considers to be his highly moral viewpoint, better to have a Conservative government doing all the completely wrong things than risk the possibility of an alternative government getting some things almost half right. Interestingly, no-one (as far as I’m aware) seems to have asked Truss whether she would similarly vote for a not-a-budget-at-all produced by Sunak, presumably because that has become too much of a hypothetical question, but we can probably assume that the answer would also be in the affirmative. And her hated ‘Treasury orthodoxy’ would probably turn out to be a splendid thing after all, if a willingness to say so kept her in the Cabinet.

How long can it last? Well, assuming that Truss doesn’t decide to start a nuclear war over cheese imports with France (which, unbeknownst to many of us, may be our deadliest enemy), she can theoretically avoid calling a general election until the beginning of 2025. She might decide to go earlier than that, but it’s hard to believe that even she is stupid enough to do that in the middle of an energy and cost of living crisis which has all the signs of persisting throughout the winter at the very least. It would be nice to be able to believe that there is, waiting in the wings, some sort of credible alternative government which knows what it would do instead and is able to articulate a programme for reform and change. Sadly, we’re not in Four Feather Falls at all, and the phrase “anything can happen” does not apply. Some things simply aren’t credible, even in the land of make-believe. Best we escape from the asylum now.

Thursday 25 August 2022

Working through the numbers


Many people find arithmetic challenging, and the harder the sums, the more difficulty they have. Politicians have always struggled with sums (although their mathematical blind spot never quite seems to extend to an inability to add up the columns on their expenses claims), none more so than those who govern us in the post-truth era. It’s not unique to the UK; former President Trump still seems to have difficulty understanding why most of the rest of the world considers 306 electoral college votes is a bigger number than 232, or why 81 million votes is more than 74 million. Another group which has a similar difficulty (although with a remarkably similar exception when it comes to totting up their fees) is the legal profession, although we should always remember that they have been especially and extensively trained to argue that black is white if that’s what the paying client wants.

Put the two together, and what do we get? Allow me to present the probably-soon-to-be ex-Secretary of State for Wales, Sir Robert Buckland KBE QC MP, who seems to be labouring under the delusion that winning 14 Welsh seats out of 40 constitutes a majority. In defending his appointment (as an MP for a seat in England) as the Secretary of State for Wales, he has come up with the remarkable assertion that, “If the people of Wales want to get rid of me as the Secretary of State for Wales, then they need to vote for different parties at elections and help get a different government elected”. Unusually for a Tory MP, the advice to not vote Tory if you live in Wales is exceptionally sound, albeit perhaps not quite what he intended. The glaring flaw in the argument, however, is that the electors of Wales have conscientiously followed his advice, in every election for the last century, and, not to put too fine a point on it, failing to vote for the Conservatives does not, in practice, mean that we don’t get a Tory MP for an English seat as Secretary of State. Indeed, experience (to say nothing of mere logic) shows that his suggestion is the complete reverse of the truth – the fewer Tory MPs Wales elects, the less likely it is that any of them will be considered up to the job, and consequently the more likely it is that an MP from England will be appointed to the role. The complete elimination of all Welsh Tories would turn that probability into an absolute certainty.

What he should have said, but perhaps lacked the courage to say, was that “If the people of Wales want to get rid of me as the Secretary of State for Wales, then they need to elect more Tory MPs in the vague hope that the PM of England will consider at least one of them to be up the job”. It’s easy to understand why even a lawyer might balk at saying that the way to get rid of a Tory Secretary of State is to vote for more Tories; It isn’t the most immediately obvious approach. And it doesn’t necessarily work in practice either – even if all 40 Welsh MPs were Tories, there’s no guarantee that an English PM would appoint any of them. It would be marginally more honest, though, even if the probability is that the Welsh electorate would ignore the advice, as they have done for the last century.

The real point in all this, however – and the one which his comment studiously avoids – is that if we want those representing Wales to be elected by and answerable to the people of Wales, we need first to opt out of Westminster. The Tory habit of appointing MPs from England to rule over us (think Peter Thomas, Peter Walker, David Hunt, John Redwood, William Hague, Cheryl Gillan) is not just an occasional exception. It’s easy enough to understand why he wouldn’t want to tell us what we really need to do to avoid having Secretaries of State who represent seats outside Wales, but it’s actually not so hard to work it out for ourselves.

Wednesday 24 August 2022

Who needs rules?


The prisons, so they say, are full of innocent people. Not really, of course, but it’s a way of expressing the fact that an awful lot of prisoners continue to protest their innocence years after their convictions. A few of them are telling the truth; there are more miscarriages of justice than anyone would really wish. But the vast majority of those ‘innocent’ people are merely frustrated that their claimed innocence has collided with what the courts foolishly like to think of as provable, demonstrable fact. For the minority of truly innocent victims of miscarriages of justice, it is, I suppose, fortunate that they weren’t sentenced to death and executed. If I understand the argument promulgated by the current Home Secretary, Priti Patel, in 2011, hanging a few innocents is a price worth paying because of its deterrent effect. One can never be entirely sure with Patel, but it did sound a lot like she was saying that hanging innocent people will deter others from being innocent, although I may be missing something there.

Anyway, back to all those ‘innocents’ currently banged up in jail. The potential for savings if the police and courts simply took their word for the fact that they know the difference between wrong and right is immense. And it would rapidly clear the backlog of outstanding cases as well as resolving the barristers' strike. Far fetched? Maybe not, under a Truss government. She appeared to argue yesterday that a government led by her would have no need of an independent ethics adviser, because she knows the difference between right and wrong and always behaves with integrity. Leaving aside the remote possibility that she might not be telling the whole truth there (see this article, from earlier today, about an alleged misuse of government facilities by, er, Liz Truss), it certainly helps to explain her proposals for ‘simplifying’ (i.e. reducing) the regulation on banks and financial services companies. After all, we all know that we can trust bankers, hedge funds and speculators with our lives; it’s not as if any regulatory deficiencies have ever allowed them to cause any serious problems. And why stop there? We all know that we can trust the bosses and owners of water companies to address leaks and pollution, so letting them regulate themselves, as a certain, er, Liz Truss, did in 2015 (since when sewage discharges have rocketed) was obviously more sensible than spending government money and resources on monitoring them.

Perhaps preventing rentiers and exploiters from pocketing vast profits at our expense imposing unnecessary regulation on honourable people who can always be trusted to do the right thing by the people as a whole is one of those functions which Jake argues that the state no longer needs to do. Rules are not for the likes of him. Or Johnson. Or Truss. Those of us who might think otherwise are obviously misunderstanding some basic concepts. Like right, wrong, honour and integrity, just for starters.

Monday 22 August 2022

Is there a pill for that?


Some people are being very unkind about the proposal floated by the Treasury to allow doctors to write prescriptions giving people a reduction in their energy bills. Suggesting that a 10 minute consultation with a GP is not only hard to come by but might not be the most accurate way of assessing the financial situation of the patient, or that overworked doctors might not welcome having a host of people seeking extra appointments to deal with their heating bills, misses the point completely. These are mere practicalities; but we had a vote about that in 2016 and the majority of those voting clearly decided that we should no longer allow ourselves to be held back by practical considerations. Or facts, come to that. It was agreed that we should take back control from the tyranny of truth.

We should, instead, look at the potential of this latest proposal. Why stop at heating bills? Why not let doctors issue prescriptions for the payment of universal credit, allowing them to decide not just who should get it, but how much they should get? It would be a huge simplification of a complex bureaucratic system in which an army of civil servants, backed up by complicated and expensive IT systems, carries out a detailed assessment of needs and then forces people to wait weeks before they get anything. Just think how much easier it would all be if a 10 minute consultation at the GP’s surgery led to an instant pay out.

What about allowing GPs to prescribe food for the hungry (in the form of supermarket vouchers, perhaps?). We could abolish the need for foodbanks overnight. Let’s be even more imaginative: the GP surgery could become a single point of contact for just about anything. We might need a few more doctors of course. But think of all the civil servants we’d no longer need to carry out assessments and impose delays. Surely some of them, at least, could become doctors, with a few hours training. The rest can join the queue at the surgery.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more advantages I can see in the idea. Perhaps I can get my GP to prescribe a general election. That must surely be worth 10 minutes of his time, although, returning briefly to the world of fact and truth, there has to be at least a possibility that, as with any sort of prescription drugs, the cure may turn out to be not much better than the disease.

Friday 19 August 2022

History is always selective


History – or rather, the way history is interpreted – has a lot to answer for. And most especially, the choice of when ‘history’ starts. His own interpretation of history is at the heart of Putin’s claims that Ukraine is historically part of Russia and that Russia and Ukraine are a single people and a single country, artificially separated by their common enemy. The Chinese interpretation of history is at the heart of China’s claim that the island of Taiwan is a province of China, sovereignty over which the mainland has an absolute right to regain, by force if necessary. There was an interesting analysis of that latter claim on the Guardian’s website yesterday. Neither the Russian claim nor the Chinese claim are entirely without merit, given the understanding of history on which they are based, but both are based on a nationalist interpretation and are selective about which parts of history count. And, as the writer puts it: “Nationalist renderings of history are always suspect”. It’s something of an understatement: as the war in Ukraine and the military forces being deployed by China tell us, a selective view of history deployed in the interests of a particular political position is not only suspect, it’s positively dangerous.

We’re not exactly immune to the same considerations closer to home. Whilst many independentistas in both Wales and Scotland deploy their own interpretation of history, which stresses that which went before the establishment of the UK, the Anglo-British nationalists argue that history effectively started in 1707 with the Act of Union, under which the previous kingdoms of England (already incorporating the territory which we now know as Wales) and Scotland were abolished (‘for ever’ according to them) to be replaced by a new United Kingdom of Great Britain (Liz Truss’s ‘single country’). In truth, neither tell the full story, which is about movements of people and conquests of territory dating back to before there is any recorded history to tell us what happened, let alone any concept of nationhood or even country. For nationalists, there has to be a starting point: a date of some sort which is regarded as the foundation of the ‘country’, before which ‘history’ doesn’t count and after which there is only one ‘right’ way of ordering states. It’s just that different nationalists choose different starting points. But those are all essentially arbitrary.

The above-referenced article on Taiwan poses a very pertinent question: “One has to wonder why ancient, pre-modern history seems to trump the contemporary will of the Taiwanese people for self-determination…”. It’s posed in a way which is specific to Taiwan, but the question it raises is of much more general application. Welsh and Scottish independentistas and Anglo-British nationalists alike seek to use history to define nations and borders, starting from the assumption that whether the people in a given territory are, or are not, considered to be a nation is the determinant of their right to self-determination. Certainly, feelings of nationhood may be a factor in deciding whether or not they want self-determination, but ultimately why should a selective view of history (and all views of history are ultimately selective) ever trump contemporary will? It is, of course, useful – to say the least – if the people in any territory share a common interpretation of their history, a common sense of nationality, or even a common language – but none of those are necessary prerequisites to self-determination. If sovereignty belongs to the people, and the people in Ukraine, Taiwan, Wales, Scotland or even Ynys Môn want to establish an independent state covering their territory, on what moral basis should that ever be denied?

Thursday 18 August 2022

Truss, Sunak, and the reluctant genie


For a Russian nationalist like Putin, it is entirely obvious that Ukraine is not, and never has been, a country at all. It is merely a part of Russia, and its people are just Russians with a funny accent and an odd dialect which some of them insist on using instead of standard Russian. It follows that, in those parts of Ukraine occupied by his forces, it is entirely proper that the school curriculum should be replaced by a proper Russian one, that the people should be issued with Russian passports, and that the flag of Russia should be flown everywhere instead of the previous ‘regional’ flag. Since it is clearly unacceptable to have different laws applying in a single country, obviously the laws laid down in Moscow will henceforth apply in occupied Ukraine also. All this will help those people previously ‘confused’ about their identity to understand that they are Russians, and to start behaving as such.

In the real world, a strategy of Russification will have mixed effects. Those who already identified as Russian (and those of us outside Ukraine tend to forget that that is a significant proportion of the population, particularly in the east of the country) will welcome it; some will comply with varying degrees of reluctance; others will double down on their Ukrainian nationality even if (like Catalans and Basques under Franco) they express it largely in secret, clandestinely passing on their language to their descendants. Some might think that the utter destruction being wrought on the territory taken over by Russia might push more people into the third camp, but the reality is that those in the third camp are perhaps the most likely to have moved westwards ahead of the invasion (or subsequently been deported to the far-flung reaches of Russia ‘for their own safety’), leaving a population predominantly consisting of those who are either delighted or else willing to comply. That is the advantage of using military force to impose a change of nationality on a reluctant people.

But leaving aside the use of military force as the method of choice, how different is what Putin is trying to do in Ukraine from what the English conservative party is trying to do in Wales, and more particularly in Scotland? Demanding that we all accept that the UK is not a union of four nations but a single country in which the same laws should apply everywhere would surely ring a bell or two in the Kremlin. As would branding everything with the Union flag. OK, expecting the devolved administrations to be accountable to the central government in performing tasks which are in their purview would probably look to Putin more than a little bit like going soft on the rebellious natives, but abolishing the devolved parliaments without the use of force leaves the Tories forced to take things a step at a time. And attempting to eliminate any ‘local dialects’ is not a venture which has been met with unqualified success over the last four centuries, with or without violent imposition.

The crucial difference though is that without repeating the highland clearances (which is sort of what Putin is doing in Ukraine), the impact on public opinion of those remaining may not quite work in the same way. Whilst they both start from the assumption that identity can be changed by imposition and central dictat, Putin is driving out those with Ukrainian sympathies so as to leave nothing to chance. Truss and Sunak, on the other hand, are assuming that most of those Scots and Welsh who aren’t already fervent supporters of the Union will simply comply and fall in behind the new reality rather than doubling down on their own sense of identity. Only time will tell whether they are right on that, although in Scotland at least it seems highly unlikely as things stand. They seem to believe that Blair’s devolution let the genie out of the bottle; others might think that the genie would have found a way out eventually anyway. Either way, from what I remember of the myths from my childhood, genies are not often amenable to being controlled, and putting them back into bottles is not an endeavour generally accompanied by huge amounts of success. I suppose, though, that it might divert a bit of attention from the looming economic disaster.

Wednesday 17 August 2022

Getting it right whilst still being spectacularly wrong


Once upon a time, I found myself trying to drive through a major investment in IT with the intention of improving the productivity of software development in the company where I worked at the time. Somehow, I had to persuade the big boss that the investment was going to produce the returns to justify it, and it wasn’t an easy task. Partly, that was because of the difficulty in measuring productivity in the first place. In principle, ‘productivity’ is easy enough to calculate. It’s simply a question of dividing output by input: the more output you get from a given number of person-hours/ salary costs, the more productive the team is being. Whilst the input is easy enough to measure, the output from software development is a much more difficult task. ‘Lines of code’ is a simplistic approach, but any experienced coder (using the tools available in the 1980s) would know that the number of lines of code required for a given functionality is variable, depending on skill, knowledge and experience, and that some of the best coders wrote fewer lines of code to achieve the same result. Obviously that didn’t mean that they were less productive; generally it meant the reverse. And then, how about accuracy? If the working definition of an operational piece of software is code with all the obvious errors removed, how do the remaining errors (and there were always some, in those days at least) impact on productivity? But the difficulty of measuring productivity was only part of my problem; the biggest part was convincing said big boss that we couldn’t just stand over people with whips (almost literally what he said to me) and force them to work harder, thus achieving the desired improvements whilst avoiding the capital spend.

This week, Liz Truss, who clearly comes from the same school of management as the afore-mentioned big boss, has proved that even the most obtuse politician can sometimes get something more or less right. She is right to draw attention to the poor level of productivity in the UK economy, and right to point out the regional variations in productivity, which appear to show that London has the highest productivity levels. She has, however, rescued her reputation for ideology-led ignorance by getting her diagnosis (people outside London don’t work hard enough), and her solution (bigger whips) so spectacularly wrong. We should be seriously concerned that someone so divorced from reality could ever get anywhere near the levers of power.

The main driver of improved productivity is investment, and the reason that the UK has such a poor level of productivity compared to most other developed economies is because there has been such a low level of investment in recent decades. That in turn has been led by an emphasis on short-term profits, cost-cutting, and asset-stripping. A UK economy which used to be led by people who knew what producing and selling stuff was all about has been replaced by one where everything is about short term returns; a Conservative Party which used to be in tune with productive industry now dances to the tune of the hedge funds and private capital asset-strippers. For sure, profits can be increased in the short term by stripping out costs, leveraging balance sheets, reducing standards and bearing down on the terms and conditions of employees (maybe even by wielding bigger whips), but the extent to which that is possible is limited, and the longer term damage caused by a failure to invest is immense. That lack of investment, in turn, is a direct result of modern Tory ideology, whether applied by Thatcher, Blair or whoever – and the problem doesn’t go away by simply doubling down on the ideology. Or improving whip manufacturing.

The regional differences aren’t all they appear either. That takes us back to the first of the problems I referred to earlier – how to calculate output, in order to measure productivity. There’s a useful explanation here of the three different ways of calculating GDP (which should all produce the same answer), and one of those simply adds up the total of wages and profits in the economy. One of the consequences of that is that a CEO based in London and paid £2 million per annum ends up contributing the same to total output as 50 widget makers, each paid £40,000 per annum, employed in his company’s factory in Wales, despite the fact that the CEO, personally, produces precisely nothing. Since London is often the location for head offices and senior staff, it will almost inevitably appear that London therefore has a higher economic output per head than the rest of the UK – but much of that ‘output’ is, in effect, simply being transferred (some might even argue, ‘stolen’) from elsewhere in the UK. What Truss is telling us is that the widget-makers of Wales (and elsewhere in the UK) add little of value to the economy, especially compared with the bankers, head office staff, hedgies, speculators, and gamblers of London. Truss and her Britannia Unchained colleagues are arguing that the problem is that the widget-makers are just indolent and need a damn good kicking; a rational economic analysis would be asking whether we’re really valuing different economic activities in a sensible way.

Monday 15 August 2022

Not being very nice


There is nothing either new or surprising in Angela Rayner’s statement last week that “Leaving [England] to perpetual Conservatism at Westminster is not very nice”. It has long been Labour’s position that Scotland (and Wales come to that) has some sort of ‘duty’, out of a feeling of solidarity, to tolerate a Tory government (for which they didn’t vote) for 60% of the time, in order to prevent England having a Tory government (for which it did vote) 100% of the time. Her understanding of the electoral numbers is just plain wrong, of course – the occasions on which the difference between a Tory and a Labour government has depended on Scottish or Welsh results are actually very rare; Labour’s election victories at Westminster have almost always depended on them winning a majority of seats in England. The bigger problem is a voting system which allows a party to win a majority of seats with a minority of the votes, something which Labour continues to resist pressure to change, coupled with their desire for the sort of absolute power which becoming the largest party at Westminster wouldn’t give them unless they also have an overall majority. Their poor understanding of mathematics blinds them to the fact that their chances of having the absolute majority they crave would actually increase if Scotland no longer sent members to Westminster. The idea of having to accommodate any other views or parties is anathema to them – they would, apparently, prefer permanent opposition.

But even supposing that the commonly-held myth were true – that Labour needs to keep Scotland and Wales in the union in order to protect England from the Tories, her argument that abandoning England to the Tories is ‘not very nice’ can easily be stood on its head. It is equally ‘not very nice’ for a party which seems to believe (despite all the evidence to the contrary) that it cannot win in England to demand that Wales and Scotland should therefore tolerate, for most of the time, a Tory government which seeks to rip up and over-ride the devolution settlement in order to give Labour a better chance of an occasional victory at UK level. Apparently, not being very nice to Wales and Scotland is OK, just as long as no-one is ever not very nice to England.

There is a very strong argument for solidarity between nations and countries. It’s one which Labour’s founders and early pioneers would have understood instinctively, and perhaps some vague folk memory of that instinct drives her comments. But only an Anglo-British nationalist would argue that international solidarity somehow magically stops at the borders of the UK, which is what Labour’s words, policies and actions suggest. And only such a nationalist would argue that solidarity requires the compliance and obedience of small nations to meet the needs of the larger one with which they currently happen to share a state.

Any serious effort to maintain the union would start from a willingness to adopt a fair voting system as well as a written constitution which recognises that sovereignty belongs to the people rather than the Crown-in-Parliament, and which entrenches devolved power. None of those are policies which Labour seems to be willing to go anywhere near, which leaves them with the same default option as the Tories: just say no to the outcome of any democratic vote that they don’t like. What Rayner doesn’t seem to understand is that the desire for independence in Scotland (and to a lesser extent Wales) isn’t just driven by a wish to get rid of one party (the Tories) but by a wish to do things differently. The fact that Labour’s sole policy is ‘not being the Tories’ doesn’t mean that everyone else views the world through the same prism. A Labour party saying the same as the Tories is no ‘solution’ at all; it merely makes the problem worse.

Friday 12 August 2022

Domestic violence is everyone's business


A guy I once worked with was utterly shocked (along with the rest of his family) when his sister was killed by her husband; they hadn’t known that there were any issues at all between the pair. I remember his words to me at the time: “No-one ever knows what goes on behind closed doors”. When it comes to domestic violence, there are only ever two people who really know what happened, and even they will have different versions of events. Plaid seems to have got itself into more than a little bit of difficulty in its response to the assault by MP Jonathan Edwards on his wife, and the party’s response seems to have led to some uncomradely comments, not to say bitterness and dispute, amongst the members, judging only from the public comments I’ve seen on Facebook and elsewhere. Bearing in mind the words of that erstwhile work colleague, I don’t know enough about the detail of what actually happened to comment on the original event. There are some general political issues, though.

Firstly, it seems that Plaid’s disciplinary rules don’t actually allow the party to distinguish, in the way that the NEC attempted to do, between re-admission to the party and re-admission to the parliamentary group. From my own past extensive involvement with the party’s rules, that doesn’t surprise me: there are always new situations which those drawing up the rules failed to foresee and allow for. It’s why the rule book ends up as a lengthy and unwieldy document as new rules are invented to plug any gaps identified. In principle, though, expecting higher standards from those representing a party – any party – as a candidate for public office than are expected of ordinary members is not at all an unreasonable position to take. It’s part of the reason parties, including Plaid, use some sort of selection or vetting process to ensure that only suitable individuals get selected as candidates, even if such procedures can never be perfect.

Secondly, society as a whole often seems to apply dual standards to the question of domestic violence. It’s hard to imagine another violent crime in which the forgiveness of the victim (even if later regretted) is considered to be some sort of mitigation which diminishes the seriousness of the initial assault. There are power differentials as well as genuine feelings which can drive 'forgiveness' in  such circumstances. No violent assault by one person on another is ever, or should ever be, ‘just a matter for the individuals involved’. It is understandable that, in a domestic situation where the police believe that reconciliation is possible, attempts are made to resolve the issue by issuing a caution rather than a prosecution in order to spare families the trauma of a court case, but it is wrong to assume that the issue of a caution in itself somehow makes the case less serious. The decision between a caution and a prosecution isn’t simply based on the perceived degree of seriousness of the offence. And a perpetrator doesn’t somehow become a victim if the offence affects his or her future career, although that’s what some seem to be arguing.

Thirdly, parties need to be wary of trying to hold other parties to a higher standard than they expect of their own politicians. Arguing that a man fined for breaking lockdown rules should be forced out of office, but a man cautioned for domestic violence should be allowed to ‘move on’ and get back to normal is not a good look.

There is a debate to be had, of course, about whether someone committing a crime should have that held against him or her for ever, or whether society should be prepared at some point to forgive and allow the individual to return to normal life, particularly where contrition is genuine. I’ve always been in the latter camp on that question, but returning to normal life as an accepted member of society isn’t necessarily the same thing as going back to what the individual was doing before. There are some roles where different criteria are going to be applied, even if those roles aren’t formally identified, and the criteria aren’t written down anywhere. Ultimately, it’s a matter of opinion and judgement, and people will make different judgements. That difference of opinion seems to be at the heart of the uncomradely comments to which I referred above.

I haven’t been a member of Plaid for the last 12 years, and I no longer have any involvement with the rules or processes which the party applies, so there’s a sense in which it’s not my business. I do, though, live in the Carmarthen East constituency (the boundary with Carmarthen West is at the end of our drive) and I, like others, will have to decide at some point for whom to vote. It would be naïve for any party, or any individual, to believe that the events which have transpired will not affect the decisions made by individual electors.

Thursday 11 August 2022

How to win people to the Tory cause?


Last week, the frontrunner for the Conservative leadership declared that young people are natural Conservatives, and gave as proof the fact that so many of them are involved in ‘side hustles’ alongside their day jobs. Those interested in facts and evidence may care to note that poll after poll shows the reverse (young people are actually turning against the Tories) but then the sub-group ‘those interested in facts and evidence’ is not one to which Truss, or indeed many other Tories, choose to belong. Interestingly, and probably by complete coincidence, there was an article in the Sunday Times this week (paywall) which drew attention to the same issue, highlighting that an increasing number of young people are indeed attempting to monetise their hobbies. It did, however, put rather a different gloss on the matter, by explaining that they are doing it largely as a means of making ends meet in an economy that otherwise leaves them struggling.

Whilst there are, no doubt, a small number who have found that they can make more on their ‘side hustles’ than in their main job, that is far from being the norm. In essence, Truss seems to believe that people who feel themselves forced into spending long hours of their ‘free time’ working to earn an hourly rate well below the national minimum wage, whilst also holding down a full-time job, are showing an entrepreneurial spirit which makes them natural Conservatives. It’s a scenario which is open to at least one other possible interpretation about their potential support for a party whose policies have put them in that position. As a way of persuading low income groups to vote Conservative, it’s up there with one of the other core beliefs of her cult, which is that cutting public services to enable the government to cut taxes so that people keeping more of ‘their own money’ can spend more than the amount saved on buying the same services privately is going to make people feel more well-off and correspondingly grateful.

It's an ‘interesting’ approach to both economics and politics, which is certain to collide with reality in the near future. But then ‘believers in reality’ is another sub-group from which most Tories have long since checked out.

Monday 8 August 2022

What's the difference between the Tories and the Taliban?


It’s neither the start of a joke, nor a trick question. And the answer, in the specific case of education, is ‘not a lot’. The Taliban select on the basis of gender: they effectively exclude all girls from education, since girls have no role in the economic or social life of the country, and need to know their place. The Tories want to select at age 11 on the basis of parental income*, providing the children of the wealthiest 20% with a better education than the rest, who need to know their place in society. It’s a difference of detail rather than of kind. Both see education as a means of serving the interests of their god rather than those of the children – in the case of the Taliban, that’s Allah, whilst for the Tories it’s Mammon, as in the case of Sunak’s proposal to ban any education which does not confer a significant earnings advantage on the student.

Neither sees, nor is capable of seeing, any advantage in having an educated populace (indeed, it’s something that both fear, probably with good reason), and both are utterly incredulous at the idea that education should ever be about providing fulfilment for individuals. For the Tories, the idea that there are social advantages in having well-educated people (for example, to serve in a volunteer capacity in their communities) rather than using their education purely for selfish personal gain is something that they not only can’t begin to understand, but that they see as a positive threat. Better education has, from the perspective of the Tories and the Taliban alike, an unfortunate tendency to lead people to ask more difficult questions.

The final, and most depressing, similarity is the degree to which they have managed to convince so many people to agree with them. It wasn’t just their weaponry which gained the Taliban control of Afghanistan; the populace (well, the men at least) largely welcomed them back. And the Tories aren't imposing their will on a reluctant population – people actually voted for them, in large numbers. Just as many rejoiced at having their freedom of movement curtailed, so they also rejoice at having the educational opportunities of their children constrained.

Afghanistan under the Taliban is a failed state; the UK under the Tories is rapidly becoming another. In both cases, restricting educational opportunities is just one specific example of how and why. Time to head for the exit.

*Yes, I know that they actually want to select on the basis of tests and exams, but we have at least 60 years of research which tells us that parental income is an extremely good predictor of success in those exams. And the few exceptions who sneak through merely serve to put a veneer of meritocracy on what is in essence a system designed to maintain the privilege which comes with wealth.

Saturday 6 August 2022

Labour demands economic recession


In the light of the latest figures for inflation and the consequent rise in interest rates, the Bank of England has come under criticism from one of the contenders for the Tory leadership, who is making vague threats to ‘review the Bank’s mandate’. This is being interpreted as a threat to the so-called ‘independence’ of the BoE which has allegedly operated free of government interference since being granted said ‘independence’ by Gordon Brown in 1997. But, as anyone familiar with devolution will be only too well aware, ‘independence’ to operate in accordance with a mandate laid down by government – a mandate which can be changed at any time – isn’t really ‘independence’ at all. And given that the Bank is wholly owned by the UK Government and that the Governor, Deputy Governors, and External Members of the Monetary Policy Committee are all appointed either by the UK government or else by the monarch on the recommendation of the government, that ‘independence’ is illusory.

Insofar as the one tool (raising or lowering interest rates) that they have been given in order to achieve the stated objective of managing inflation is the right tool for the job at all, it’s one which is predicated on an assumption that inflation is always the result of an internal wage-price spiral which can be broken by reducing the living standards of the comparatively less well-off. How that same tool is supposed to bear down on inflation caused by a sequence of international shocks, whether self-inflicted such as Brexit, or whether entirely outside the control of any UK Government such as the war in Ukraine or a pandemic involving a novel pathogen, is a question which the government seems reluctant to ask, let alone answer, and the Bank itself can only wield its hammer with increasing frequency and severity, whether it has any effect or not.

The mandate given to the Bank by the government – to use interest rates to maintain inflation at or around 2% per annum – is, and always has been, entirely arbitrary. The idea that 2% is the ‘right’ amount of inflation is little more than the considered opinion of Gordon Brown in 1997, and the idea that it’s the ‘right’ number for all times and in all circumstances is a very peculiar one, to say the least. But the issue goes further than that – whether the objective of monetary policy should be entirely based on controlling inflation is merely another considered opinion; there are alternative views. The government could, for example, give the Bank a mandate which also seeks to ensure full employment instead of merely using its blunt hammer to attempt to manage inflation. In short, there are good reasons for considering, from time to time, whether the mandate under which the Bank operates is the best one, given the circumstances at the time, rather than assuming that what might have looked ‘right’ in 1997 is always going to be so.

In that context, it was pretty depressing to read that Labour’s Shadow Chancellor is one of those criticising the idea that the Bank’s mandate could or should be reviewed at present, arguing that it's the wrong time because the UK is on the brink of a recession. Given that that recession is at least partly a result of the Bank blindly following a mandate which gives it little choice but to cause said recession, this is precisely the time to be questioning whether it’s been given the most appropriate mandate. Instead of which, the unquestioning support for financial orthodoxy from Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition amounts to a demand from Labour that the Bank of England must be allowed to cause a recession without interference. Vote Labour for an economic recession doesn’t strike me as being the most appealing message to be giving out.

Thursday 4 August 2022

If this is the product of careful thought...


It became increasingly probable during the months before it happened that PM Johnson was going to be pushed out at some point, even if the nature of the final straw and the precise timing turned out to be the Tory equivalent of jailing Al Capone for tax evasion. Both Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss had obviously been preparing to launch their campaigns whenever and however it happened, even if denying the fact is an unwritten requirement under their party’s somewhat flexible rules. Both were not only first-hand witnesses but also active participants in all the errors and failings of the Johnson government from which they are now so keen to distance themselves whilst continuing to praise the author. They both claim to have known better all along, and have both had months to think about the policies they were going to present as part of their campaigns in order to sound coherent and credible.

What all that means is that, no matter how crazy some of their current statements might seem, nor how often they have to retract and retrench, everything they are saying at the moment is the product of months of careful deliberation. Perhaps we should be grateful that they’re not just making it up as they go.

Wednesday 3 August 2022

There are no good outcomes for Wales


When it comes to the question of devolution, unionist politicians have always been split into two camps. On the one hand there are those who believe that the best way to maintain the cohesion of the UK is through a measured response to national aspirations in Wales and Scotland, whilst on the other hand there are those who believe that the best way to maintain that cohesion is to ignore those aspirations and impose rigid central control. The aim has always been a matter of complete agreement; any disagreement has been about the best strategy to achieve that aim. Broadly speaking, albeit with a significant number of vociferous exceptions, Labour has fallen into the first camp, whilst the Tories, with a few thoughtful and perceptive exceptions, have fallen into the second. We can never know which was right: whilst the second-campers point to the increasing clamour for independence from the Scottish Parliament as evidence for devolution having been a disaster (in terms of achieving the shared objective), no-one can ever be certain that that clamour would not have expressed itself in some other way had that parliament not been established. But being mostly Tories, we can be confident that their objective ignorance will not interfere with their subjective certainties.

And so it turns out. In the leadership race, the two remaining candidates have a shared aim, but two competing approaches. To reverse devolution, one promises to interfere in devolved areas in both Scotland and Wales more aggressively than any previous administration, whilst the other promises to simply ignore Scotland, its First Minister, and the electors. (It’s reasonable to assume that she’d apply the same approach to Wales if the idea of Wales ever made more than a passing acquaintance with her brain cell.) The absolute certainty that they know better than the people of Wales and Scotland what those countries want is common ground between them – and the resounding cheers coming from the hustings audience suggest that their views are indeed in tune with the predominantly white, affluent, elderly, English males who make up the electorate at this stage. There is nothing in the background, experiences, or knowledge of the candidates which would ever give them pause to reflect whether that electorate might be in any way unrepresentative of the wider electorates in Wales and Scotland – or even in England, come to that. Doesn’t ‘everybody’ think the way that they do, and share their prejudices and convictions? Everybody of any importance, anyway.

They clearly believe that over-riding the economic development priorities of the Welsh government, ignoring the constitutional mandate of the Scottish government, and scrapping the Northern Ireland protocol despite the clear majority in favour of it in the NI Assembly will somehow strengthen the union and make us all feel part of a greater whole. Perhaps history will show them to be right; unlike them, I’m at least prepared to admit that none of us can be certain. It does, though, look to be an unlikely proposition at the moment, more likely to foment discontent and undermine the union than strengthen it.

Neither Truss nor Sunak looks like being of much benefit to Wales; for an independentista, perhaps the least worst outcome of the race is a narrow victory for the one the MPs really didn’t want over the one that they only mildly didn’t want, leaving both the membership and the MPs divided and querulous. Fortunately, that looks increasingly like exactly the result they’re going to give us. Those who are not independentistas can merely look on with sorrow at the complete absence of any credible unionist alternative.

Monday 1 August 2022

Circular motion leads nowhere


Underlying the sacking of one Labour frontbencher for allegedly making up policy is a circular argument which ultimately leads nowhere. Basically, Starmer is arguing that Labour can only bring about real change if the party wins a general election, but that it can only win that general election by promising not to make any significant changes.

The detail of the statements and events which led to the sacking are strange enough. Apparently, arguing that working people should get pay rises at least in line with price inflation is not Labour policy. The only conclusion to be drawn from that is that it is now Labour policy that working people should accept below-inflation pay rises and be grateful for the resulting drop in their standard of living. It also seems to be Labour policy that working people have every right to withdraw their labour in an attempt to protect their standard of living, but that they should never exercise that right because it might inconvenience other people.

It isn’t just on industrial disputes where Starmer’s Labour has fallen in behind the Tory press; abandoning the previous commitment to bring rail, mail, water and energy back into public ownership is another example. In this case, they are blaming a wholly arbitrary fiscal rule which the Tories have long abandoned themselves but continue to use to beat opponents over the head, and fear of the Tory media causes Starmer to promise to work in a straitjacket from day one of a Labour government. It’s an unnecessary and wholly self-imposed straitjacket at that. And it makes me wonder whether they even understand their own fiscal rules at all – spending, say, £100 billion to bring a series of enterprises back into public ownership obviously increases public debt on one side of the balance sheet, but (assuming that the assets are worth the price paid to acquire them) it adds £100 billion in assets to the other side of the sheet. The net increase in total debt is precisely zero, but the government ends up owning assets which it can either run in a way that reduces prices or in a way which generates profits which flow to the Exchequer. There are good arguments for renationalisation, not least its popularity; there are also some good arguments against, none of which have anything to do with some imaginary and arbitrary fiscal rule.

The net result of the Starmer circularity paradox is that Labour’s leadership are going to great pains to tell us what they won’t change, but are struggling to identify anything that they will change, other than the personnel. Replacing an incompetent and mendacious government with one which is marginally less so is not an entirely pointless exercise, but it’s hardly an exciting or inspirational proposition. Running around in ever-decreasing circles is not an activity which generally produces beneficial consequences, and those participating in such activity might not like the place they end up.