Thursday 27 October 2022

Humpty-Dumpty for PM


In defence of the PM’s decision to reappoint as Home Secretary an individual who has breached security rules and the ministerial code, government ministers went on the airwaves yesterday to claim that she had made a mistake, accepted the fact, and apologised, and that her re-appointment was therefore entirely acceptable. Sunak himself said much the same: “The home secretary made an error of judgement but she recognised that she raised the matter and she accepted her mistake”, before going on to say that she would be cracking down on criminals, such as burglars. Bearing in mind the fact that she deliberately shared a confidential document with someone who had no right to see it, to say nothing of the widespread suggestions that this was actually a pattern of behaviour rather than a one-off, it could presage a whole new approach to crime and punishment. Just imagine the savings for the criminal justice system if the criminals being cracked down upon had merely to admit a mistake, apologise, and resume their criminal activity unhindered. Sunak’s definition of ‘integrity’ seems to differ little from that of Johnson.

Then we have his approach to answering questions in the Commons. There is an old party game in which one person gives the answer to a question and the rest have to work out what the question was – my favourite was “9W”, which was apparently a response to the question, “Mr Wagner, do you spell your name with a ‘V’?”. The idea is that there is at least some possibility of working out how the answer related to the question, but Sunak (like both of his predecessors) seems determined to take it to a new level. According to Hansard, the question to which “I was pleased to have a call last night with the First Minister of Scotland” is the response was “…will he admit his mistake and sack the Home Secretary without delay”. It’s not at all clear that he has understood the rules of the game, but it certainly fits the Tory definition of ‘accountability’. To say nothing of underlining the utter pointlessness of Prime Minister’s Questions.

It shows, though, that he is, at heart, a party animal, always willing to have what passes in his life for fun and games. He’s also joined in the great pensions hokey-cokey. Whether the government is or is not in favour of the triple lock currently seems to change by the hour. It was certainly in the 2019 manifesto, and he’s committed to that manifesto, but was unwilling to commit to this part of it yesterday. His chancellor was unwilling to commit to it just over a week ago, then was, according to last week’s outgoing PM, completely committed to it, but this week is unsure again. It's all part of the Tory definition of creating ‘certainty’.

Integrity, accountability, certainty – three keywords which mean exactly what Sunak wants them to mean. No more, no less. Inside Sunak lurks none other than Humpty-Dumpty.

Wednesday 26 October 2022

Unite and die


It is a curiosity of the English constitution that the replacement of the Prime Minister is regarded as a complete change of government, creating a clean sheet where what has gone before can be consigned to the dustbin of history as though the ‘new’ team somehow had no hand at all in any of it. Thus the new PM can vow to ‘correct the mistakes’ of previous administrations with an attempt at keeping a straight face. Admitting that there were mistakes and attempting to correct them is generally a good thing rather than a bad one, of course; but it presupposes that the person seeking to correct them recognises what is and what is not a mistake in the first place.

That brings us to the reappointment of Suella Braverman as Home Secretary. Appointed by Truss only a few short weeks ago and sacked by Truss just one week ago, the task facing Sunak was a very simple one of deciding which was the mistake – the original appointment or the sacking. He has, in effect, decided that the mistake was the latter, sacking someone for an open-and-shut breach of the ministerial code, and that appointing a woman whose fondest dream is to give herself a Christmas present by short-circuiting the legal processes to send a planeful of desperate people on an involuntary trip (handcuffs would presumably be a bonus) to a country with which they have no connection, run by an oppressive regime, and where their future prospects look poor, to say the least, was one of Truss’s better decisions. To Sunak, possession of a gaping hole where a person’s sense of humanity should reside is an asset; breaking rules can be ignored in his attempt to bring what he calls ‘integrity’ back into government. 'Integrity' - that's another word whose definition seems to be flexible.

A key part of his message to his party is that it must unite or die. But if ‘uniting the party’ makes it necessary to keep the Bravermans of this world sitting around the cabinet table, the two words are not as mutually exclusive as he seems to think. Just as he defines mistake in a way which many others may feel is perverse, so the rest of us may define ‘success’ in a way which might not be entirely to his liking. The good news is that, if he achieves both the unity and the death of his party (as currently seems likely) he may well go down in history as the most successful Tory PM ever. In footballing terms, a footnote to history might describe this winning goal as having ‘assists’ from Johnson and Truss. But it's the goal that will be remembered.

Monday 24 October 2022

Out by Christmas?


It seems increasingly likely that Rishi Sunak will become the UK’s next soon-to-be-ex-PM by the end of the day, either because Mordaunt fails to reach the threshold of 100 nominees or else because an indicative vote amongst MPs shows her so far behind Sunak that she succumbs to the inevitable pressure to withdraw rather than potentially allow the Tory Party’s membership to override the views of MPs again. Either way, it will be presented as the start of an outbreak of party unity. That will, though, just be another pretence.

Johnson claimed that he had the numbers to enter the race. That’s almost certainly a lie, according to many commentators, and there is indeed no reason to suppose that his long-standing divorce from truthfulness has in any way been impacted by a six week absence from high office. His inability to face the fact that he simply doesn’t have the support means that he has been forced to alight on some other reason for withdrawing from a race that he had never formally entered, and he came up with the line that he could not unite his warring party. It’s one of those strange statements which treads the boundary between truth and falsehood: whilst it’s certainly true that he cannot unite his party, the idea that he believes that he can’t, or that this is his real reason for not standing, is for the birds, such is his unshakeable belief in his own talents.

The accidental truth, though, that Boris Johnson cannot unite the Tory Party conceals a much greater truth of more general application: nobody can. And however much they try to present the forthcoming coronation of Sunak as a mark of unity, Sunak can’t do it either. The party is hopelessly divided into factions whose only mutual factor is an intense loathing of each other. And whilst part of that is about policy issues – such as levels of taxation and public expenditure – an awful lot of it is deeply personal. Johnsonites won’t forgive Sunak for, as they see it, knifing their man, and the path being followed by the current Chancellor (who may or may not still be in office tomorrow) is utterly unacceptable to the free market ultras, for whom cutting taxes and slashing public expenditure is an article of faith. Whether the policy of the new government can somehow be made attractive to ordinary voters is little more than a side-show compared to the difficulties of getting it through a jittery bunch of Tory MPs fearful above all for their own futures.

The electoral system in use in the UK forces any party serious about winning a majority to become something of a broad church. Whilst that’s traditionally been more obvious in the case of Labour, it’s always been true about the Tories as well. Unity around the desire for power and for the trappings of office has long enabled the Tories to conceal the fact better, but differing views about the relationship between these offshore islands and the mainland of Europe have been bubbling away internally since the days of Thatcher, and the ‘victory’ which Brexit represents for one Tory faction has been the catalyst for a descent into an all-out ideological war which has become highly personal in the process. There will be no bridging of the void this side of a general election, and it’s entirely possible that they may burn through a few more PMs before then. Why Sunak – or anyone else except Johnson with his grossly inflated sense of self – would actually want the job in the circumstances is beyond my understanding.

A proportional system would allow the major parties to fragment into more cohesive and united individual parties, and force negotiations between those parties about agreed programmes for government. Sometimes, those agreements would break down, just as the internal agreement within the Tory Party has broken down now. The difference is that such a breakdown between parties would create the opportunity and the mechanism for those differences to be judged by the electorate if no alternative could be formally negotiated. The current system tries to hide the differences and pretend that there is a coherent government in place, on the basis of an artificially high ‘majority’ in an election 3 years ago. It’s a sham, and the only remaining question is whether any pretend peace between the factions can hold until Christmas. It looks unlikely, although if Sunak sends MPs home for Christmas early (around the middle of November, perhaps), he might improve his prospects. Johnson is probably calculating that he’ll get another chance sooner than many imagine.

Wednesday 19 October 2022

Staying afloat on a tide of outrage


When it emerged on Monday that Liz Truss had been meeting the Chair of the 1922 for ‘routine discussions’, I’m sure that I was not alone in assuming that this particular 'routine' was the one where the PM was passed a figurative bottle of whisky and a loaded revolver. It’s certainly starting to look like a routine occurrence. However, by the time she got to the House of Commons, it looked like she’d drunk the entire bottle and then forgotten to use the revolver. Or, given past performance, fired it and missed. Six times.

As she then sat on the bench surrounded by the circling sharks, wearing a fixed non-expression while a standing Jeremy Hunt trashed everything she’d said, including things uttered only in the previous few days as well as things she hasn't even said yet (past, present, future - all happen simultaneously in Trussland), the image from the past which came to mind was of Yeltsin dictating terms to Gorbachev as the Soviet Union disintegrated. Like Gorbachev, she retained the job title, but all power had already flowed out of her grasp, even if the full realisation hadn’t quite sunk in.

Today, she is due to face the House of Commons herself for Questions to the PM. Perhaps Starmer will have an off day; perhaps he will struggle with some sort of strange internal sense of kindness. But barring either of those (or a reloaded revolver being quietly passed to her before she gets to her place), she is facing further utter and very public humiliation over things she’s said and is still saying. It can surely only be a serious deficiency in the functioning neuron department which prevents her from understanding just how humiliated she has already been, and just how pointless it is to continue the farce.

Closer to home, our very own First Minister showed a very rare flash of anger yesterday. It has outraged the Tories, of course, but they would probably be outraged if they discovered he had dared to eat cornflakes for breakfast (unless he hadn't, in which case they'd be outraged at that). Outside the ranks of the perpetually outraged, it will probably have done Drakeford more good than harm (although we should probably also exclude those who are opposed to cruelty to dumb animals). The Tory ship, as badly holed as it is, can surely not continue floating for much longer. Expelling vast clouds of faux outrage through the ever-increasing number of holes in an attempt to keep the water out is necessarily a time-limited operation - even RT's apparently limitless supply of the stuff must come to an end at some point.

Monday 17 October 2022

Sometimes, abandoning the ship is the only sensible course of action


As they survey the wreckage of their party and watch the political death throes of this month’s outgoing PM, the minds of Tory MPs seem to be more than a little preoccupied by the question of who should become next month’s outgoing PM, and what the mechanism should be for choosing that next lame duck. It’s the sort of short-sighted perspective which is probably the inevitable outcome of their personal obsession with retaining their own job, but the more important questions for the rest of us are who should succeed next month’s outgoing PM, how, and when.

Whilst watching the implosion of successive Tory governments with ever increasing rapidity is a fun spectator sport, it’s not the end, nor even the beginning of the end, of the pain unless there is an alternative available which is not only credible (and without needing to move a muscle, the possibility of a Starmer government has come to look not only credible but unavoidable, as he watches the ratings of Labour’s traditional opponent reverse past him at incredible speed), but which also has a different plan, which escapes from the underlying beliefs which have led to the implosion. On that latter point, Starmer is looking a good deal less credible; and changing the personnel whilst keeping the mission largely intact will do little to help the lives of those being so badly damaged by the ideologues of the Tory Party.

There are, of course, a number of different reasons for the implosion, but the centrality of Brexit cannot be ignored. However, it isn’t Brexit itself which is the underlying problem so much as the delusions of grandeur which underpinned the whole exercise. The ill-fated budget was based on the same delusion as Brexit itself, which is that the UK is a major player in the world economy on a par with the US and China and can behave with the same disregard for rules and norms as those two countries can, unlike perceived ‘minor’ players such as Germany or France which should know their place, and be ever grateful for the UK having saved them during ‘the war’. The more evidence accumulates to support the alternative proposition – that the UK is, in fact, nothing more than a middle-ranking off-shore island of Europe – the more that evidence must be denounced as fake and irrelevant by politicians who simply double down on the notion that ‘we’ cannot be expected to accept such a lowly status and must be given whatever ‘we’ want.

How different, really, is Starmer’s position? Continued references to ‘making Brexit work’ without saying how suggest the answer is ‘not a lot, really’. In truth, Brexit doesn’t even need to be completely reversed in order to achieve a workable state of affairs; it just needs a willingness to move a great deal closer to (and preferably to join) the single market and the customs union. Without doing that, ‘making Brexit work’ is just a meaningless slogan, which there is no way of implementing. Yet the starting point of the probable next-but-one government (after both this month’s and next month’s outgoing PMs have duly outgone) appears to be that only minor changes in the tone of discussions are required and all will be well. It’s no less deluded than the current lot – and ultimately it’s pretty much the same delusion at work.

Escaping our current plight requires more than a change of the hand on the tiller; it requires the UK to develop a realistic understanding of its position and status in the world, a willingness to co-operate with others, particularly our closest neighbours, and an overhaul of political structures and processes which give outright total power to cultists on the basis of a minority of the votes. When I look at Starmer and Labour, I see none of that, only a lust to have their turn at pulling the levers. It would be comforting to think that, shorn of Scotland, Wales and the remainder of Ireland, English politicians would at last be forced to confront the reality they’ve been ignoring for decades, but it seems more likely they’ll just double down on the same delusions in their reduced territory. Remaining in an arcane union out of some sense of responsibility to help them (Welsh Labour’s favoured position, apparently) merely dooms us to be dragged along by the same delusion for the foreseeable future.

Saturday 15 October 2022

Clarity is a virtue. Usually.


If there’s one thing that can be said with certainty about this month's outgoing PM, Liz Truss, it is that she is always ‘very clear’. Reminding us just how clear she is has become something like a trademark catch-phrase, a form of words which seems to open almost every sentence which utters forth from her mouth. The difficulty is not that what she says isn’t clear, it is that she has an amazing ability to be very clear about two complete opposites at the same time.

·        She was very clear that abolishing the highest rate of income tax was absolutely (another favourite word) the right thing, and equally clear that scrapping the proposal to abolish it is also the right thing to do.

·        She was very clear that increasing the rate of corporation tax, as proposed by Rishi Sunak in a budget which now seems like it took place sometime last century, would definitely cause a recession and would in any event not raise any additional revenue. She’s now equally clear that going ahead with the increase is an important part of her plan for growth and will also raise an extra £18 billion for the government’s coffers.

·        She is very clear that the government can increase planned expenditure, cut planned revenue and borrow less all at the same time, and that there is absolutely no need for any cuts to departmental budgets. She’s now equally clear that the numbers need to add up, and that means some hard decisions on spending will have to be taken.

Being clear is usually a virtue, and she now seems to be very clear that she’s done quite enough to convince people that she has a clear way forward which is clearly understood by everyone. Clarity, though, is a bit like beauty: it’s all in the eye of the beholder, and in this case there seems to be a distinct lack of beholders sharing her perception. To be entirely fair to her, though, there is one big thing that she has achieved. Tory MPs are now falling in behind her in droves, exactly as she asked. I wonder when she’ll realise that most have them have knives in their hands, even if the rest are armed only with the traditional offering of a glass of whisky and a revolver. Perhaps Brutus Kwarteng will initiate the final denouement next week by making the customary personal statement allowed to ousted ministers. Pass the popcorn.

Friday 14 October 2022

Only two more before Christmas


One of the wonders of the internet is that it is easy to find out whether some of the most familiar quotes were ever actually said by the person to whom they are most often attributed, by simply tapping into publicly-available research done by others. It has turned out to be a bit of a disappointment, though; many (perhaps most) of the pithy quotations about whose origin I have been so certain for years turn out never to have been uttered by the alleged author. It shouldn’t really affect the validity or usefulness of the words or phrase themselves, but it’s still something of a disappointment to find that something has been misattributed for decades.

And on the subject of usefulness, it turns out that there is, apparently, no trace of Lenin ever having referred to ‘useful idiots’. It doesn’t mean that useful idiots don’t exist, however, and that brings me to the newly-appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer. The outgoing post-holder certainly discovered that he was little more than a useful idiot to the shortly-to-be-former PM. He had thought that he was being appointed because of his outstanding ability, intellect, and understanding of economics. It’s the sort of exaggerated and arrogant self-worth which is drummed into students at Eton, and which never thereafter leaves them. Events have shown, however, that he was little more than a human shield for an economic experiment which his boss was determined to conduct, and has now been sacked for following her orders too enthusiastically.

Whether his successor will be as useful is now an open question, but there can be little doubt about the extent of his idiocy. Having a chancellor committed to a different economic approach may turn out to be of some use in the short term – and not just to the PM. Kwarteng himself will also benefit from the idiocy of the new incumbent, as he finds himself bumped down the leader board from the second shortest-serving chancellor to the third within a week or two. Only an idiot’s idiot would hitch his wagon to a doomed PM whom most of her own MPs now believe is destined to be turfed out herself within days. Step forward Jeremy Hunt (and isn’t it reassuring to get back to the days when at least one member of the cabinet admitted that he was a Hunt). Perhaps he believes that his soon-to-fail attempt to rescue that which cannot be rescued will place him in pole position to replace her; perhaps he even believes that his own ability is so all-encompassing that he can actually achieve the impossible (even if Charterhouse isn’t quite as well known as Eton for instilling that particular type of arrogance). We won’t have long to find out – only two more chancellors before Christmas.

Thursday 13 October 2022

Never is a very long time


The First Minister, Mark Drakeford, has been reported today as saying that he will never support independence, but believes that “decisions that affect only people in Wales [should be] taken only by people in Wales”. At first sight, it’s a neat turn of phrase which sounds like a commitment to a lot more devolution of powers to Wales. On closer analysis, however, it's far from being as clear as that, because there are few decisions currently taken by the Welsh government which meet a strict interpretation of his rule. Some health services, for instance, are accessed on a cross-border basis – decisions taken in Wales will affect some people in England, just as decisions taken in England will affect some people in Wales. In the field of education, many Welsh students choose to study at English universities, just as many English students choose to study in Wales – decisions taken in Wales won’t just affect people living in Wales. We could go through a whole host of devolved areas and find that there are few decisions which can be said to have ‘no’ impact on people living outside Wales: a statement by Drakeford which sounds like a call for more devolution could be interpreted as a justification for rolling back what has already been devolved.

Anyone seeking to use it that way would be well advised to exercise a little caution, however, because the same could be said for many decisions taken by the UK Government. Foreign policy, defence and overseas aid are obvious examples, but trade policy, immigration policy and many other areas of government also lead to decision-taking which does not ‘only’ affect people in the UK. Does that mean that UK independence is an impossibility? In a sense, yes it does. What Drakeford has touched on, perhaps inadvertently, is that we live in a world which is increasingly interdependent, and where any government which ever takes any decisions is likely to be impacting others outside its jurisdiction. It’s why, for many years, many independentistas preferred the term interdependence or ‘full national status’ to the word independence; either are a better description of the status any country seeking to be a good member of the international community would seek.

It turns out, though, that taking some decisions individually, some co-operatively through negotiation, and some by pooling sovereignty with others is precisely what ‘independence’ actually means to most states in the modern world; the issue is deciding which decisions are taken where. The UK, as a state trying to assert its own unique right to decide everything and to take back both pooled and devolved powers to itself, is very much an outlier, and the consequences are becoming clearer daily. If the First Minister was trying to say something along those lines, he may find that he is not as far away from many independentistas as his assertion that he will ‘never’ support independence suggests. It’s more a difference of opinion about the detail of what should be decided where and how Wales’ input is made. The biggest difference of perspective is probably about whether we start with the UK as a given and argue about why any powers should not remain at that level, which should be devolved and which should be pooled (with, for instance, the EU), or whether we start from the tabula rasa perspective that the continued existence of the UK and its exercise of power in particular areas needs to be justified on a case by case business. That’s no small difference in perspective, of course, but neither is it necessarily as great as Drakeford’s words suggest. And ‘never’ is a very long time – is he really telling us that in the event of Irish reunification and Scottish independence, his mind would remain closed to any suggestion that Wales should seek any status other than that of being subservient to Westminster, relying on powers which can only ever be ‘loaned’ to Wales?

Thursday 6 October 2022

Four negative numbers can become one positive number - with enough faith


The UK Government continue to insist that they have a ‘plan for growth’. They do not: they have a plan for tax cuts, half a plan for spending cuts, and a half-baked plan for deregulation, the sense of which the head chef, Jake, is having difficulty convincing even his fellow cultists about. Their ‘plan’ for growth consists of little more than an unshakeable faith that growth will inevitably follow the implementation of those three ‘plans’ despite a complete lack of corroborating evidence.

Leaving aside the question of whether growth is always desirable or even attainable anyway (infinite growth in the context of a finite quantity of resources, for instance, is at the very least questionable), and assuming that what the PM means (although she hasn’t actually spelled it out in so many words) is an increase in overall GDP, how likely is it that growth will actually happen? There are a number of different ways of calculating GDP (all of which should ultimately produce the same answer, although the presence of estimated numbers in all of them means that there can be some variation). One of the most common is the simple equation:

GDP = C + G + I + (X-M)

By the same token, any increase in GDP can be measured by the increase in the total of the four factors, which are: C = consumption, G = government spending, I = investment, and (X-M) = the difference between exports and imports. (Prof Richard Murphy has more here). For GDP to increase, simple arithmetic tells us that at least one of those four terms must increase. The problem is that the increasing gap between prices and income will reduce C, the government is due to reveal on 23 November (assuming that the markets and restive backbencher allow it to wait that long) by how much it will reduce G, I is outside the control of the government to a large extent, but investment in new plant, equipment etc looks like a risky assumption in a time of economic uncertainty, and we know that (X-M) is impacted directly by Brexit. A government which was serious about growth would want to ensure that household consumption could at least remain static rather than fall, it would ensure that government spending – particularly on infrastructure – rose, it would do its best to create the sort of stability which reduces the risk to businesses of making large investments, and it would seek a closer trading arrangement with the UK’s closest and biggest markets. In reality, a government which claims to be committed to growth is actively taking decisions in relation to all four of those factors which will either suppress growth or, even worse, ensure a recession. No amount of blind faith can make four negative numbers add up to a single positive one.

There is, though, another possibility, and that is that the PM is not referring to growth in GDP at all. She wouldn’t be the first to confuse ‘making people wealthier’ with ‘economic growth’, and leaping from there to an assumption that an increase in the concentration of wealth amounts to economic growth. It would make rather more sense of her statements, to the extent that making sense of them is a realistic possibility. If the wealthiest in society have more money in the bank, the inescapable corollary is that they will be wealthier as a result, and if all the people with whom you mix are in that ‘wealthiest’ category, it can be easy enough to believe that ‘people in general’ are getting wealthier. The salary of a back-bench MP puts MPs in the 95th percentile of employed people in the UK, and many of those with whom they socialise (and from whom they seek donations) will be in an even higher percentile. The numbers, to say nothing of the everyday experiences of the rest of the population, might tell a different story; but who needs numbers when you have faith? That would be almost like asking an expert.

Wednesday 5 October 2022

Lexicographical crime


Yesterday, the new empathy-challenged Home Secretary, chosen for the job on the basis that her predecessor, Priti Patel, was simply not nasty enough, claimed that those Tory MPs who had ‘forced’ the government to abandon part of its proposed largesse towards the richest, had staged some sort of ‘coup’ against the elected government of the UK. Her definition of a ‘coup’, which is that MPs had threatened not to vote for a policy which they did not support and which formed no part of their manifesto at the last election probably constitutes some sort of crime against lexicography, but using a different dictionary than the rest of us, and defining words to mean exactly what they want them to mean (well, perhaps not exactly; exactitude is another missing attribute amongst the current government) is far from being the biggest problem with her statement. Within the normal meaning of the word coup, the overthrow of one government and its replacement by another, there has indeed been a coup, but it’s the one which took place a few months ago under which the Tory Party deposed one clueless leader in order to give itself free rein to find someone even more clueless, which is, I suppose, at least one task they’ve managed to complete successfully.

The bigger problem is that, under the UK’s unwritten constitution, and despite the way the media cover and present elections, we do not elect (and never have elected) governments, parties, or Prime Ministers. The only thing we are allowed to elect is a member of parliament for the constituency in which we live; once elected, he or she is free to support whatever policies, parties, or leaders he or she might choose, regardless of any pledges which might have mistakenly appeared on his or her election material. The result is that we now have a government whose leader was chosen by a vanishingly small proportion of the electorate as a whole which is following a programme which is significantly different from what the same people promised in 2019. And it’s all entirely legal and above board. There may be a few deranged members of the governing party who inexplicably consider that they might have some sort of duty to stand by what they said only three years ago – the ones who Braverman accuses of being coupists – but seen from the bunker in Downing Street, these people are little better than traitors, reneging on the only responsibility they have, which is to do as they are told.

What the rest of us need to remember is that this ability to replace a government with a wholly different one, committed to a completely different political direction, isn’t a bug in the UK’s constitution, it’s a feature of it. There has been an entirely legal coup; this is the way things are supposed to work. The PM is appointed by the monarch, not elected by the people, and once appointed is free to do almost anything he or she wishes, subject only to having a sufficiently servile bunch of MPs for those changes which require legislation, which is far from being all of them. The ‘solution’ is not just to hold a new election. That might defer the problem until halfway through the next parliament, or the one after that, but it doesn’t solve it. And since the only solution for the UK as a whole involves persuading turkeys to vote for Christmas, the only way out is to escape from the turkey farm and ensure that independent states in Wales and Scotland start life with proper written constitutions, fair electoral systems, and a recognition that sovereignty belongs to the people not the monarch. We could call it something novel and exciting, like perhaps ‘democracy’.

Monday 3 October 2022

Killer arguments and estimated numbers


It’s not at all clear that the report on the ‘fiscal deficit’ for Wales by Professor John Doyle (available here) is quite the game-changer as which Plaid have tried to present it. It no more ‘proves’ that an independent Wales would be financially viable than any figures quoted previously have ‘proved’ that it would not be. The Tory leader, a man who has never knowingly issued a press release that doesn’t ‘slam’ somebody or other for something or other, has ‘slammed’ the report and all associated with it. That was entirely predictable which means that it can be easily discounted, but that would be premature for reasons to which we will return shortly. The chief sins for which the report has been duly ‘slammed’ seem to be the fact that the report’s author has dared to assume that an independent Wales might actually do anything different rather than simply replicate UK policy, and that there is more than one way to prepare a guesstimate. A country of 3 million behaving as though it were a country of 3 million is a truly horrific crime against economics, apparently. Imagining a different future is something with which his limited imagination just can’t cope.

The report does tell us a number of things:

·        The numbers prepared previously by the Office of National Statistics setting out the fiscal position of Wales within the UK are unfit for the purposes of assessing the financial situation of an independent Wales;

·        Those numbers are based on some assumptions and estimates which may not be entirely correct; and

·        Preparing estimates on the basis of different assumptions gives different answers.

It’s all useful stuff, but anyone who’s been paying attention knew all that anyway, even without a learned professor putting his name to it. The obvious conclusion – that the financial position of an independent Wales would probably be broadly comparable with the financial position of any similarly-sized country – is so blindingly obvious that it shouldn’t even need to be stated. When it comes to the economics, there is nothing special or unique about Wales; nothing which condemns us to be poorer than any similar country and nothing which makes us an unviable basket case, and any suggestion that there is has been based on a set of estimates and assumptions specifically designed to demonstrate precisely that.

That does, though, brings us back to why it would be premature to dismiss the Tories’ response, just because it is economic nonsense. There are, of course, some people who aspire to see an independent Wales but are worried about the finances, and who may therefore be swayed by this sort of report. However, I suspect that group is actually quite small. No matter what any ‘game-changing’ report might say, no matter how strong the evidence, no matter how well the case is put, those with closed minds cannot and will not engage in debate around the true economics of independence, and will prefer to double down on a claim that ‘my expert estimates trump your expert estimates’, no matter how utterly discredited (or rather, in this case, irrelevant to the context) they may be. People who don’t want Wales to be independent cannot imagine how it ever could be, and that subset of the population isn’t limited to members and supporters of the Conservative and Unionist Party. They may hide behind their precious numbers and exaggerated deficits, but the idea that their objections are simply financial is nothing more than a pretence to avoid debating why Wales should not become an independent country. Trying to persuade them to accept a different set of numbers implies that there is a willingness to debate the issue if only the financial objections can be removed. It’s a fool’s errand: there is no such willingness.

In truth, none of us knows what the detailed financial implications of independence would be – but then what the unionists never admit is that neither do we know the detailed financial implications of continuing in the union. The future is shaped by events which have yet to happen and decisions which have yet to be taken and is essentially unknowable. In the absence of any credible reason why Wales, uniquely in the world, should be incapable of running its own affairs (and opponents of independence have yet to come up with such a credible reason), the logical and rational assumption to make is that Wales is as capable as any other similar country. We can do it if we want to. The real question is whether or not we want to – and carefully worked out sums can never answer that question.