Friday 23 September 2022

Games, not answers


There is an old joke from the Soviet era that workers used to say “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us”. It tells us something about the economic processes of that time and place. The UK has its very own equivalent, and it’s found in Westminster where it’s known as ‘Question Time’, or, in its grandest form where the Prime Minister him or herself is the subject, ‘Prime Minister’s Questions’. Sometimes, the same process is repeated after a ministerial statement, a difference of nomenclature rather than substance. More of a game than the process of enlightenment which any of those names suggests, the objective is for the opposition to pretend to ask questions (whilst actually trying to make a political point), whilst the relevant minister pretends to answer them (whilst actually attacking the questioner, his or her party, and any bystanders who might be easy game). In a functional democracy, it would have been abandoned years ago as being utterly unfit for purpose, but that initial caveat rules out any prospect of abolition for the foreseeable future.

Yesterday, it was Jake’s turn to take questions on the subject of fracking. Faced with a fairly simple and straightforward question from Plaid’s Hywel Williams (“will the Secretary of State confirm that licencing powers on fracking remain with our Senedd, and that he has no intention of trying to return those powers to Westminster?”) he could have chosen to give a really simple, one word answer, ‘yes’. That would be cheating, though; the rules of the game require that he must never give a straight answer. Instead, he chose to say, “I am not seeking to upset the devolution settlement”, a response which could have at least three different interpretations. The first is the way in which it has been widely interpreted – simply a verbose way of saying ‘yes’. The second is that he means ‘no, and using parliament’s powers to over-ride those of the Senedd does not upset the devolution settlement because the right to do so is part of that settlement’. And the third is ‘no, I don’t want to merely upset the devolution settlement, I want to tear it up’. I don’t know what he actually meant – but then, we’re not supposed to – but on the basis of his record and that of the current government, the first of those somehow seems the least likely.

He was similarly evasive when it came to how the government was planning to honour the commitment given by Truss just a few weeks ago that fracking in England would only go ahead with local consent. All he could say was that it comes down to money and is up to the companies wanting to undertake fracking to offer sufficiently large sums of money to communities (or those individuals in them deemed to be most negatively impacted) to ensure that there is only minimal opposition. Who decides what is sufficient and how much opposition remains was left deliberately unanswered, but the suspicion must surely be that he, Jacob Rees-Mogg, will decide. It certainly won’t be determined by any democratic process on the ground (making it, stunningly, even less democratic than the Russian approach to referendums, which involves sending armed men door to door demanding that people complete the ballot papers under their gaze). In a strange way, we should probably welcome his statement. Formalising the fact that bribery is a key part of the way the current government takes decisions, and is much more important than any type of democratic vote, is a rare display of honesty, even if that might not have been entirely intentional.  

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