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.

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