Friday 23 December 2022

For Britain, see England


The inability of some people to distinguish between the terms ‘England’, ‘Britain’, and ‘UK’ is well understood by most Welsh and Scottish people. And it isn’t about whether people do or do not support independence or even devolution; most unionists in Wales recognise that there is a difference of some sort between Wales and England even if they’re not always clear about what it is. Indeed, for many Welsh unionists, the idea that Wales can be a distinct nation whilst being part of a political union which confers greater strength to the parts as well as to the whole is a key element of their unionism, even if independentistas by and large consider them misguided. The problem they face though is that what looks obvious to them isn’t always as obvious to English politicians, let alone ordinary English voters. Whilst they don’t always express themselves in such blunt terms, ‘Britain’ (or even the UK) in England is really just Greater England; a monocultural, monolinguistic state, with an official religion of which the monarch is head. Subtleties such as Welsh disestablishment or the very existence of the Welsh language completely pass them by.

Some years ago, I spent some time working in Solihull, and during the course of a conversation with one of my colleagues there, he was surprised to learn that Welsh was the first language of many, was spoken daily, used in people’s homes, and the medium of education in many schools. He had always assumed that it was on a par with Latin – brought out for ceremonial use in Eisteddfodau, in the way Latin is brought out for ceremonial use by the Catholic Church or some universities. He was not a stupid man, by any means: he was apparently well-educated, knowledgeable and articulate, and was holding down a job at a fairly senior level in a large organisation. Whilst I’ve not often heard things expressed in the same way, his attitude is not untypical of many people in England, for whom Wales is those two geographically definable western peninsulas, but otherwise indistinguishable. There’s nothing malicious about the attitude, it’s just accepted ‘truth’. It crosses political dividing lines as well; one of the problems faced by people like Mark Drakeford who genuinely want to make the union work for Wales is that so many senior English Labour politicians share, deep down, the same sort of ignorance of difference.

Yesterday, it was PM Sunak who managed to clumsily express a similar view, with his statement that British is “…a shorthand that people use…” when they really mean English, clearly conveying that, in his mind, the two words are basically interchangeable. The ‘people’ who he says use this shorthand are, though, almost exclusively English; it’s not a shorthand that many in Wales or Scotland would ever use, where the difference between the two words is much more clearly understood. I’ve long believed that the eventual demise of the union between the nations of these islands will be down as much to the insouciance and carelessness of its supporters as to the efforts of its detractors. Sunak is just another piece of evidence of a problem of whose existence he remains blissfully unaware. And whilst his ignorance might irritate us, it's hardly unhelpful to the cause.

Wednesday 21 December 2022

Outsourcing morality


An unwelcome trend in recent decades has been for politicians (among others: there is a wider problem here as well) to ‘outsource’ their moral responsibility to those who make the rules. The result is that anything not specifically banned by the relevant rules or laws is considered to be acceptable. (Johnson and his party have taken this a stage further; they don’t even pretend to adhere to rules, even those they’ve written themselves.) The decision by the courts this week that there is nothing illegal about the policy of deporting asylum-seekers to Rwanda is a case in point, with the Home Secretary for the time being declaring it a huge victory, which will enable her to implement the policy, as though neither she nor he colleagues have any responsibility to consider the moral acceptability of dumping desperate people in a country with which they have no previous connection.

It's not quite the victory as which she presents it, though. Although the court ruled that the policy itself is not illegal (subject to possible appeal), it also ruled that the way in which the government had attempted to apply it was unlawful in every one of the cases it considered. In practice, that means that the process of getting to the point where any single individual can actually be sent to Rwanda will be long and complex; the chances of having a whole planeful of candidates any time soon are extremely low. They may decide, for propaganda purposes, to send a plane to Kigali with just a handful of people on it, but as publicity goes, that has a huge potential to backfire.

In any event, her pledge to operate the policy ‘at scale’ is pretty meaningless in the context of a deal which can, apparently, only handle around 200 refugees a year in its current form. That’s one planeful, which I suppose might encourage them to send lots of planes with just a few people on each rather than just get one annual headline. The Home Office, like much of the rest of government, seems to consider itself exempt from climate change policies, as well as any responsibility for morality. The theory is that sending people to Rwanda will make the desperate people think twice about making the crossing, and thus bust the people-smugglers’ business model. That, though, depends on them both knowing about the policy and believing that it will be applied to them. Doing the maths says that deporting 200 to Rwanda of the 40,000 who’ve arrived so far this year means that each individual has a 1 in 200 chance of being deported. And only then after a lengthy process. Given the degree of desperation which many feel, that doesn’t look like an effective deterrent to me; the policy fails even on its own stated terms.

The point is, of course, that the stated reasons for the policy aren’t the real ones, and never have been. The numbers involved are a drop in the ocean. The policy isn’t really about migration or asylum at all – it’s about electoral politics. People like Braverman, Patel and Sunak really do believe that being seen to be heartless and ruthless in dealing with small numbers of desperate people will buy them votes. And the worst part of all is that they might even be right.

Friday 16 December 2022

Choosing the enemy


Perhaps there’s something in the water in Downing Street; or perhaps power simply goes straight to the incumbent’s head. But the rock-solid belief that the PM of the day can deal with major problems by ignoring them or diverting attention elsewhere seems to take hold almost as soon as a new PM crosses the threshold. As Boris Johnson showed, with a sufficiently thick skin, a good dose of chutzpah, weak and terrified underlings, a complete lack of human empathy, honour, honesty and conscience, and sheer dogged determination to do whatever he or she wants regardless of the consequences, a PM can get away with it. For a while. As the same man also demonstrated, gravity cannot be denied indefinitely, and things eventually catch up with the incumbent. Whilst both of his successors have shown at least some of the same traits (see: lack of honesty, empathy, honour, or conscience), neither has quite been able to match the sheer bravado with which their mentor simply ignored anything he didn’t want to hear (see: covering his ears and humming the English anthem). The PM who lost out to a lettuce, to say nothing of the one who lost out to the one who lost out to a lettuce, simply don’t have what it takes to carry it off even for the short period for which Johnson somehow managed it.

The way in which Thatcher ‘vanquished’ the unions has become part of Tory Party folklore, along with the belief that simply attacking ‘the unions’ will somehow transform itself into a huge wave of support, but an inability to distinguish between taking on the miners on the one hand and declaring war on nurses on the other looks like a huge mistake, as even a growing number in his own party are recognising. It’s impossible to believe that senior civil servants are not telling him, in blunt terms, that he’s taking a very ‘brave’ stance (perhaps he's unfamiliar with Yes, Minister and thinks it's a compliment) given the public support for the nurses, but he’s still clinging tightly to his shovel and continuing to dig, even when he’s been offered a way out in the form of asking the ‘independent’ pay review body to consider whether circumstances might have changed. The ‘independence’ of pay review bodies isn’t exactly what most people might understand by the term (the members are appointed by the government which also sets their remit) but that does create an opportunity to blame the ‘independent’ body for any climb down. It’s a face-saving approach rather than a considered decision, but a drowning man can’t be too picky.

There’s an old saying that we should choose our enemies carefully, because that choice ends up defining us. It’s a truism which Sunak seems not to understand. Defining his party and government as opponents of paying a decent wage to nurses – and by extension, as opponents of a caring and effective NHS – doesn’t look the wisest choice for someone whose one job was to detoxify his party enough to ensure that it isn’t wiped out at the next election. But then again, as the last 5 PMs have shown us, in the eyes of the party’s MPs and members ‘wisdom’ is not even on the ‘desirable’ list of attributes for a Tory PM.

Wednesday 14 December 2022

Defining a crisis


James Callaghan never actually said “Crisis? What crisis?” as he returned from a trip abroad during the so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’ in 1979, but that well-known comic, ‘Thesun’ turned it into a highly memorable and effective headline. Like the phrase ‘Winter of Discontent’ itself, it underlined the extent to which newspaper headlines can set a tone or an agenda, a power which they continue to abuse on a regular basis. People in the UK are facing a deliberate attack on their living standards which is almost unprecedented, certainly since the 1930s; the biggest war to be fought on European soil since 1945 is raging in Ukraine and driving millions from their homes; and the NHS is close to collapse after 12 years of intentional government policy. Yet the biggest crisis facing the UK, according to a host of newspapers, is a few thousand desperate people taking a perilous boat-trip from France to Kent; people fleeing war, oppression, disease, or simply abject poverty seeking a better life in one of the world’s richest countries.

The numbers, in relation to the UK’s population, are tiny. They are very much lower than the numbers of those seeking refuge in other countries such as Germany. Yet the Little Englanders who set the news agenda have decided (not without some justification, it must be said) that playing to the racist and xenophobic element of their readership sells papers. It also helps their political allies amongst the Tories to push an agenda which seeks to scapegoat migrants for inadequacies in the Health Service, housing, and education rather than allowing people to understand that those inadequacies are a result of sustained government policy rather than migration. Divide and conquer has always worked for them, and it’s working now, unfortunately. Getting some of the least well-off to blame those even worse off than themselves rather than those who’ve hoarded all the resources to themselves is their standard operating procedure.

The result is a government which announces ever more extreme measures to tackle the non-crisis, in an attempt to divert attention from the real crises. Sections of the media actively egg them on, and the official ‘opposition’ seems more interested in criticising them for the inefficiency of their implementation of their policies than for the policies themselves. If international law decrees that the government’s policies are illegal, the answer, apparently, is not to change the policies to comply with the law, but to disapply the law, and the last PM but one has today joined the ranks of those calling for the UK to opt out of the European Convention on Human Rights. His Brexit deal seriously wounded the Good Friday Agreement; the fact that his latest proposal would finish it off seems to be as trivial a concern to him as his own breaches of domestic law.

Crossing the Channel in a small boat is certainly a crisis for those in the boats, even if not for the rest of us. The cost of living is certainly a crisis for most of us. But perhaps the biggest crisis of all is the gullibility of those who believe that the former is a bigger problem than the latter, and the ruthless way in which that gullibility is being exploited. And it might be the hardest one to solve.

Monday 12 December 2022

Legislating for Welsh


When I was a small child in primary school, we had an occasional lesson in Welsh. Our usual class teacher would leave the room, and a Welsh-speaking teacher would take over the class for a period. He usually proceeded to read us a story. In English. Somewhere, a box was duly ticked, and a class of monoglot English speakers had officially had their exposure to the language. My first real educational contact with the language didn’t happen until I went on to the grammar school. Welsh was compulsory for the first year, after which we were given a choice of continuing with Welsh or learning German. And it was fairly obvious that the teachers (with the exception of the Welsh teachers) thought that German was preferable. Prevailing attitudes at the time. It might be down to my long-term rebelliousness that I chose Welsh anyway. I eventually emerged with an average (grade 3 in old money) ‘O’ level pass, but unable to use the language in any meaningful way. Much like the French that I also learned.

The teaching of Welsh in English-medium schools has improved immeasurably since those days, although I have a sneaky suspicion that lurking behind the statistics and the boxes ticked the actual situation on the ground may not be quite as the official reports suggest. And we know for certain that Welsh lessons in English-medium schools, even though compulsory until the age of 16, are not generally turning out citizens who can use the language. The odd individual who does manage it – and I’ve known a few – is very much the exception, and those exceptions result more from personal determination and motivation than from simply attending lessons. If the objective is to build the number of Welsh speakers, the one thing that we know does work is Welsh-medium education (although there are still some serious questions about the way in which so many seem to ‘lose’ their Welsh after leaving school).

There are many things that the Welsh government need to do if they are serious about reaching the target of 1 million speakers by 2050, but given that adults find it harder to learn a new language – any language – than children, education is always going to be the most important; and it is Welsh-medium education that works best. The call by Cymdeithas yr Iaith and others for the government to ensure that all children are educated through the medium of Welsh highlights the one policy that could really make a difference, although it’s neither a simple nor a short term response. Getting non-Welsh speaking teachers to the point at which they can confidently and fluently teach their subjects through the medium of a second language, which they themselves have learned as an adult, is a massive undertaking. And getting there involves a great deal more than simply legislating for the outcome.

The negative response to the idea by the First Minister is disappointing, of course; but I can’t help feeling that there is some merit in the points he makes. It is far too easy for those of us committed to the cause of the language to believe that legislation will do the job, and I suspect that Drakeford is actually right to fear that trying to simply impose such a solution, even in the form of a decades-away target, will create something of a backlash (even if it were politically possible for any leader of Welsh Labour to suggest such a thing and carry his or her party with him or her). It would be a lot easier to suggest such an approach if we’d already achieved the first million and were looking to get to the second, but that’s a bit of a ‘chicken-and-egg’ argument. Such legislation is not a bad idea per se; but it looks premature, and had Drakeford found a way of expressing that, I’d have a lot more confidence that he was convinced about his own government’s aim.

The growth in Welsh-medium education has been a success story over the past 60 years, but it’s a growth which has largely been demand-led, fought for by determined campaigners, with authorities (usually, but not exclusively, Labour controlled) dragging their feet and being slow to respond to that demand. There are many children who have already missed out on the opportunity due to a lack of availability in their areas, and there is little doubt that there are children today being educated through the medium of English who would have been educated through the medium of Welsh had convenient provision been available. Speeding up the process of making that provision, training the educators, and getting to the point where future growth is more supply-led (Welsh-medium education is one of the few things where ‘build it and they will come’ actually seems to be a viable approach) than demand-led (with a requirement for comprehensive ‘proof’ of that demand before a new school is even planned) are entirely within the control of the Welsh government, and they are simply not doing as much as they could. The time for legislation will surely come in due course, but in the meantime there is a danger that premature demands for legislation that Drakeford can’t and won’t deliver diverts attention from those things which he can and should deliver. And on which he is failing.

Friday 9 December 2022

Labour declining to use the power it already has?


Leaving aside the not entirely irrelevant fact that Rishi Sunak has trouble with his arithmetic and a tendency to invent whichever numbers suit his argument at the time (he is just following the well-known tradition that 89.6% of all politicians’ statistics are, like this one, entirely made up), his claim that it would cost every household £1000 “to meet the pay demands of the union bosses” repeats the rhetoric which the government uses repeatedly, which seeks to pretend that this is all about ‘union barons’ rather than union members, aka ‘workers’. It’s a deliberate attempt to distance the working people involved from their ‘union bosses’ (who, in reality, are actually the servants of the workers, not their bosses – their actual bosses are the tight-fisted employers), but it’s a trick which works, not least because the BBC and press follow the line of talking about this as a dispute between ‘unions’ and employers rather than between workers and employers. It also, of course, draws a line between those ‘hard-working people’ who are disadvantaged by strikes, and those ‘evil’ trade union barons who seek only to ‘disrupt’. One of the reasons why it’s been so effective for decades is that ‘His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’ are so pathetically afraid of the media that they are unwilling to call out this trick for the sleight of hand which it is, and unwilling to support working people seeking to maintain and improve their standard of living.

Any industrial dispute is, ultimately, about power, or rather the balance of power enjoyed by employers on the one hand and employees on the other. And successive governments – of both parties – have consistently tried to shift that balance away from workers whilst strengthening the hand of employers. That is what all the anti-trade union and anti-strike legislation has always been about, whether it comes from Thatcher or her predecessors – never forget Barbara Castle and her ‘In Place of Strife’ Bill. The way that UK society has become more unequal, with those at the top hoarding ever greater amounts of wealth, whilst those at the bottom struggle, isn’t an accident, and wasn’t inevitable. It is a direct result of that shift in the balance of power. Austerity for the many and obscene wealth for the few has been inherent in the Labour-Tory philosophy for decades.

There are signs that at least some of the public are beginning to see the light, particularly in relation to workers in the NHS. The hypocrisy of giving them a round of applause once a week during the worst of the pandemic and grinding down their standard of living now is difficult for Sunak to conceal; of all the battles he could have picked, this looks like the most unwise of all, and underlines how far his lifestyle is from that of most of those he seeks to rule. Responding to pay claims by attempting to further restrict the power of working people by banning strikes or trying to impose minimum service levels which must be maintained rather than seeking a negotiated settlement is an attempt to divide and rule which might play well with Telegraph readers, but appears to be having the reverse effect on wider public opinion. And it doesn’t help his case that he showed – as he regularly boasts – during the pandemic (to say nothing of the response to the war in Ukraine) that availability of money isn’t a problem for the government; how money is used is ultimately a political question, not a financial one.

Despite all of that, there is actually a good case to be made for seeking to prevent strikes in certain essential services; but to do so in a fair and just society requires a quid pro quo, and that quid pro quo can only be an absolute cast-iron guarantee to protect the living standards, in absolute as well as relative terms, of those working in those services. Telling those employees that they have no choice; they must accept a decrease in their standard of living and they cannot act collectively in an attempt to maintain that standard is a recipe for social division rather than harmony. It’s also counter-productive in the short to medium term – with the economy close to full employment, lower paid people in the public services can, and some probably will, vote with their feet. Restricting immigration to please the racists and zenophobes amongst their supporters merely compounds the problem. But that must be as obvious to Sunak as it is to others, which leads to the inevitable conclusion that that is the outcome he seeks. If someone wanted to destroy public services, including the NHS, and replace them with services run for profit, what would they do differently to Sunak?

Despite not being in government, the Labour Party is currently in a position of unprecedented power for an opposition party. With the increasing certainty that they will be forming the government in less than two years’ time, setting out clearly that they would reverse some policies would make it much harder for those charged with implementing them to actually do so. Perhaps the most obvious example is the new coal mine in Cumbria. If investors, even those as far away as the Caymans looking to avoid tax on their profits, felt a high degree of certainty that the project was going to be cancelled in two years, would they really still invest? Even in the public sector, why rush to make things happen now when you know that they’ll only be reversed in a matter of months? Labour’s unwillingness to use that power is astounding – and more than a little worrying for those of us who want to see significant change rather then mere tinkering.

Tuesday 6 December 2022

Who's really doing what Putin wants?


Nadhim Zahawi is clearly a man of deeply and sincerely held views. Appointed as Chancellor from the Downing Street bunker in the dying days of the Johnson regime because of his deep and long term loyalty to Johnson, within 48 hours he was equally sincere in his belief that Johnson should resign. When the subsequent Truss regime imploded, he was one of the first to express his deeply-held view that Johnson should return as PM, and then last week he told us with immense sincerity that there was no chance of a Johnson return. It’s anybody’s guess as to what his position on the question will be next week, but we can be certain that it will be deeply-held and sincere. Or, at least, as deeply-held and sincere as any other views he’s expressed.

On which subject, he told us very sincerely yesterday that striking nurses are playing into the hands of Putin. If I understand his argument correctly (and who knows with Zahawi?), Putin will be delighted if the nurses manage to maintain or improve their standard of living, but deeply disappointed if the nurses do their patriotic duty and accept a drop in their standard of living (something which all of us, except millionaires like, er, Zahawi, are apparently obliged to do as part of our patriotic duty). Now I may well be missing something here, but if Putin wants the nurses to get a decent increase whilst the UK government wants their living standards to fall, doesn’t that rather make Putin look at least a little bit like the good guy here?

In truth, I doubt that Putin is actually much bothered about nurses or any other group of workers in the UK. His main aim in relation to those countries like the UK which are supporting Ukraine is to see the population demoralised to the extent that they force their government to stop supporting Ukraine. On that basis, given a choice between a UK government which grinds down standards of living and blames the war in Ukraine, or a UK government which acts to maintain the standards of living of its population regardless of events in Ukraine, it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to conclude that he’d prefer the former. By a large margin. But if the UK government wants the same outcome from the strikes as Putin, who is really playing into his hands?

Monday 5 December 2022

More words, not action, from Labour?


Looking back over successive elections since the time of Harold Wilson, I can’t remember a point during the lifetime of a Conservative government when the Labour Party was not promising, or at least talking about, either abolition or else major reform of the House of Lords. Nor can I remember a time when they’ve ever delivered on the fine words once elected. When push comes to shove, there are always other priorities and too many vested interests. And Labour PMs have usually ended up finding that the House of Lords is useful to them as a means of rewarding donors and supporters – or even just getting rid of troublesome MPs.

Today’s Great Announcement of the results of a Commission led by Gordon Brown can only sensibly be read in that historical context; the rhetoric is fine, but will they deliver this time? Some Labour voices in the Lords are already suggesting that the proposals should be watered down or delayed. There are, they argue, more important so-called ‘bread-and-butter’ issues which need addressing first, as though governments can only focus on one issue at a time. The words coming from Starmer and Brown today suggest that they realise that constitutional reform is not as divorced from the immediate economic reality as many seem to suggest: empowering the regions and nations of the UK can also help government to be more responsive, if done properly. That caveat (‘if done properly’) is an enormous one, though. The whole history of devolution tells us that the centre only ever cedes power reluctantly, always seeks to control tightly how it can be used, and always retains the right to ungrant what it previously granted. And whilst the idea that Starmer's Labour will be any different from the Tories on those questions has yet to be either disproven or demonstrated, the history of Labour attitudes to reform once they get elected is not exactly encouraging.

Some of the answers that Starmer and Brown have been giving today already look evasive, and there is a marked lack of detail on how the grand principles will actually work. What do they mean, for instance, when they claim that the replacement for the House of Lords (the council for regions and the nations) will represent the nations and regions? How will that work? How will they be elected? If elections are fought by the same parties as fight elections for the House of Commons, the new ‘council’ will end up being defined more in terms of its party balance (between ‘government’ members and ‘opposition’ members); the idea that, for instance, the Welsh members will vote and act as a bloc fighting for Welsh interests instead of splitting between the government and the opposition is one for the fairies. None of this is answered by today’s announcement – these are, apparently, all matters for ‘consultation’ and debate (which the more naïve might have thought was what the commission was supposed to be doing).

They are also promising legislation to ‘protect’ the powers of the Senedd and the other devolved administrations, but the ‘how’ is again missing. Unless they are proposing constitutional changes which will abolish the idea that no legislation passed by one government can tie the hands of any future government (and they certainly do not seem to be proposing that), then all they can really promise is that the next Labour government will offer such protection for the duration of a single term. It’s not much of a promise in reality. The real underlying problem, the one that they have completely ignored, is the supposition that ‘sovereignty’ is invested in the monarch by God and exercised by Westminster by the grace of the monarch. It’s the inevitable result of a monarchical constitution. Without moving to a position where ‘sovereignty’ is expressly recognised as belonging to the people in each nation or region, on whose behalf it is exercised through the various parliaments, it’s hard to see how they can deliver the long term changes needed. The founders of the Labour Party would have had little problem with understanding that, but the timid creatures currently inhabiting the party will continue to run a mile from the idea of real empowerment.