Wednesday 20 December 2023

Coincidence and probability


Lots of people struggle to understand the way probability works, and the fact that some ‘coincidences’ are relatively easy to predict. The classic example is the birthday problem which shows that in any group of 23 people, there is a 50% probability that 2 of them will share a birthday, and as the number in the group increases, so the probability also increases, until it becomes close to a certainty in a group of around 50. With there being 365 days in a year, it’s a result which just ‘feels’ wrong to most of us.

Other ‘coincidences’ are rather harder to predict. Millions of people update or replace their smart phones every week, and most of the time, it’s a process which is smooth and painless; but for a tiny minority something goes wrong and data is lost. That can also happen even if the phone isn't being replaced, although finger problems rather than technological ones are a likelier cause. I don’t know what the probability of that happening to any one individual is, but it’s going to be a very small number. It would be an amazing coincidence if three people who worked closely together all managed to lose all the data from precisely the same time period, and it's not an outcome which many people well-versed in probability theory would predict. It would be even more astounding if those same messages were then found to have mysteriously disappeared from the phones of those who had received them as well.

Still, being vanishingly unlikely isn’t the same as having a probability of zero, and sometimes highly unlikely events can happen. One doesn’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to wonder, though, whether there might not be a simpler and more probable explanation, perhaps relating to questions such as honesty and truthfulness.

Tuesday 19 December 2023

Identifying hostile states


During an apparently well-received speech at the weekend at a neo-Fascist Festival in Italy, the Prime Minister claimed that “hostile states” will increasingly “drive people to our shores” to destabilise Western nations unless leaders crack down on illegal migration and revamp asylum conventions. In the generic sense that most migration is provoked by the actions of hostile governments across the world (few people wake up one morning and think: ‘things are OK here, so let’s cross half a continent and then cross a dangerous waterway in a small boat to get to somewhere else'), he may be right. Getting him to correctly identify which those hostile states are is another matter.

We could start with Russia. Few would disagree that this is what a ‘hostile state’ looks like, and its war against Ukraine has certainly driven many millions to seek refuge in countries further west.

Then, rather more controversially, there’s Rwanda, which has been aiding and abetting the M23 rebels in Congo to drive people from their homes and seek refuge elsewhere.

More recently, there’s Israel, which has driven millions from their homes. It would be surprising indeed if at least some of these didn’t end up seeking refuge in Western Europe.

Then there are the traditional colonialist countries who invaded much of the world, stole their riches, exploited their people and then moved on. We cannot overlook the impact of that history on modern trends in migration.

Finally, neither can we overlook the two biggest miscreants of all; two states whose repeated military adventures over a decades-long period have done much to create what Sunak likes to call the ‘crisis’ of immigration into the UK and Western Europe more generally. I refer, of course, to the US and the UK, and the list of countries blighted includes Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

Having the UK government declare the UK to be a hostile state might seem strange to some, but it’s not a lot stranger than declaring an unsafe place to be safe, and the glorious flexibility of the English constitution would surely find a way through the resulting paradox. It could also give us a new enemy to hate: imagine the Tory Party going into an election declaring the Tory Government to be hostile to the UK and claiming that the only way to counter this would be to elect a Tory Government. It would probably be easier for them to unite people in hatred of the Tories than in hatred of the Labour Party. And it really isn’t a long way away from Sunak’s pitch at his party conference that he was the candidate of change who was going to overturn all those horrid things done by recent governments. It would make for an ‘interesting’ election campaign, although it might give the BBC some difficulty when it came to the rules around impartiality. Every time they interview Rishi Sunak, Prime Minister, they’d have to interview Rishi Sunak, Leader of the Opposition, as well so that he could refute what the first one had said.

There is a universe somewhere where this all makes sense: it just isn’t this one.

Monday 18 December 2023

Market forces are failing to date


It is axiomatic for Conservatives that ‘the markets’ can and will solve problems – it’s just a question of matching buyers and sellers. It’s an axiom which is coming under some pressure in relation to the Rwanda scheme. Those who own the aeroplanes are concerned about reputational damage if they become involved and the Home Office has so far failed to locate any planes which can be made available. It’s not because there aren’t any, it’s rather that the ‘sellers’ of aeroplane services aren’t willing to provide those services to the ‘buyers’, for reasons which (in the Holy Grail of capitalist economics) are a distortion of the market because they have nothing to do with money. For the purists, money is the only driver in economics.

Perhaps capitalist economics will reassert itself if the buyer is prepared to offer such a high price that the sellers will ‘take the money and run’. Turning reputational damage into filthy lucre would hardly be a first. It may even be something that a certain Conservative peer might be able to assist with. She has no planes of course, but a lack of capacity to produce useable PPE proved not to be a bar either. And Chris Grayling managed to contract ferry companies with no ships, so there’s plenty of precedent. If the pile of filthy lucre is high enough, capitalism decrees that someone should eventually respond. But if the market does indeed fail, fall back plans seem to consist of hiring a plane in unbranded livery and hoping no-one will find out who owns it (probability: close to zero) or using RAF planes rather than commercial ones.

The Rwanda scheme isn’t the first occasion on which a government has rushed into a plan with a lack of detailed planning and preparation, and it won’t be the last. But it’s certainly shaping up to be one of the worst debacles in recent times. But then, the initial announcement was never intended to be taken seriously; it was always a Johnson-style plan to divert attention in the short term from his own behaviour. Sunak could have scrapped it within days of taking office (Johnson really wouldn’t have cared, although he might have huffed and puffed a bit just for show); how and why Sunak decided to double down on a half-baked plan which was never going to work is something which is likely to become an essay question for future students of the decline and fall of the Conservative Party.

Friday 15 December 2023

Returning stolen property


For one brief moment, when I saw the headline (“Parthenon marbles should return to Athens, says Lord Frost”) on this story, it seemed as though Lord Frost might actually have said something with which I could agree. It was not a thought which lasted long, though. It turns out that any return of the marbles to Greece is so heavily caveated that the Greek government could never agree to it, other than as a ruse to gain possession (even without recognition of ownership) and then breach the terms of any agreement reached. Maybe not: not all governments are as venal and dishonest as that of the UK. It is dependent on the Greek government agreeing firstly to a wider Anglo-Greek cultural partnership (the terms of which Frost, presumably, wants to dictate) and an agreement “…to definitively set aside for good the rights and wrongs of the individual acquisition”. Oh, and giving back one load of looted treasure cannot be taken as any sort of precedent in relation to other treasures looted by the British Empire. Whether the use of the term ‘Anglo’ is deliberate, careless or just an indication that he doesn’t know the difference between English and British is a matter of conjecture, although I tend to the view that it’s probably the last of those.

A starting point which initially looked like an admission of the need for change ends up being just another example of English exceptionalism, under which ‘England’ dictates to lesser nations the terms and conditions of regaining access to their own cultural heritage. Or, to put it another way, the state which committed the original crime attempts to look generous, and expects some credit for so doing. Why anyone thought it newsworthy is beyond me.

Thursday 14 December 2023

Running the numbers


In an attempt to estimate how many technically advanced civilizations there are in the galaxy, astronomer Frank Drake came up with the eponymous Drake Equation in 1961. It was intended to identify the factors which might be involved in determining an answer, and its shortness and elegance betrays the complexity and difficulty involved in assigning values to the assorted variables. For the mathematically-minded, it also shows how a galaxy with an apparently enormous number of stars can contain either a very low or a very high number of civilizations – and of particular relevance here, it’s an illustration of how the compound multiplication of low probabilities can rapidly reduce a large probability into a small one.

Some Tories have their own version of the equation (although they may not have realised that fact themselves as yet) – we might call it the Boris Johnson Comeback Equation. It sets out how their revered ex-leader might turn out to be their revered future leader. It all depends on the assumptions we make about the numbers. To pull off this feat, a number of things need to happen, each of which has a finite and non-zero probability:

a)   He needs to be accepted again as a suitable candidate by his party, some of whom may have become a little wiser with the passage of time

b)   He needs to find a Tory in a safe seat who is willing to step aside in his favour (and ‘safe’ doesn’t have the meaning that it used to have in the years B.J. (Before Johnson)

c)    He then needs to win the subsequent by-election, during which much of the attention will be on his past lies and failings

d)   He needs to persuade his fellow MPs in the House of Commons to back him as leader (despite the fact that it was they who deposed him in the first place), or at least put him in second place so that the vote goes to the party membership

e)   He needs to win the backing of those party members.

Even if the probability of all five individual factors is 90%, multiplying them together using the formula:

Probability = abcde

gives as a probability of only 60% for success; and 90% seems ‘generous’ for at least some of those factors. For those in the Tory Party who have repeatedly shown themselves to be mathematically challenged (including, of course, the man himself), none of this is a problem. And, or so the theory goes, once back in post he can elevate Nigel Farage to the Lords, appoint him as deputy PM and Home Secretary, and call an election during which his famous campaigning skills will see him sweep to victory over Labour.

Thos famous campaigning skills include, of course, hiding in a fridge to avoid reporters and refusing to be interviewed by anyone who might ask him difficult questions. Whilst it’s true that the Tories did win a general election under his leadership, ascribing the victory entirely to the leader is a leap which ignores the fact that the leader of the opposition was widely portrayed as unelectable, and that the issue of the day was Brexit, in the time before a more realistic assessment of the ‘benefits’ set in. There’s always a debate between two views of history – the one sees the movement of social and political forces, whilst the other concentrates on ‘Great Men’. Whilst Johnson clearly subscribes to the latter view, the idea that he is one of them is a bit of a stretch, to say the least. The suggestion that an election in which Johnson were the leader of the Tories would or could do other than concentrate on his many proven failings and lies is a strange one, particularly given the extent to which so many are disillusioned with Brexit and closely associate it with Johnson and Farage. Has the Tory Party become so utterly deranged that it would follow such a path? Opinions may differ, but the fact that it can’t be entirely ruled out tells us a lot about how far down the path to insanity they have travelled.

Sunday 10 December 2023

Identifying the good guys?


The disgraced, sacked, reappointed, and disgraced and sacked again former Home Secretary has certainly been getting into the festive spirit during the last week, with her demand that MPs should forgo their Christmas holiday and spend the time in parliament passing ever more vicious legislation against immigrants and asylum seekers. ‘Goodwill to all men’ trips off her tongue like superglue off a duck’s back.

Had she and her ilk been in power in Bethlehem a couple of thousand years ago, anyone arriving on a donkey would have been immediately detained and put on the next camel train to Egypt, innkeepers would have been subject to large penalties for using outbuildings as temporary accommodation for the desperate, and health care workers would have been banned from providing pre- or post-natal services to anyone arriving by donkey. Donkey, dinghy – much the same thing, really. In additional measures, angels would have been designated as terrorists for their role in an obvious attempt to overthrow the existing order and, using the absolute sovereignty of the local parliament, any unusual stars would have been described as fake news and banned from shining their light through local airspace. Any wise men arriving from afar would have been declared to be oxymorons (foreigners being automatically deemed unwise) and detained indefinitely for having a four-syllable descriptor. If the government proposed a cull of the first-born, the parliamentary party would set up a star chamber (although without a star, obviously) to determine whether the proposal was sufficiently cruel to act as a deterrent to procreation.

Back in the twenty-first century, the so-called ‘real world’ which we now inhabit, it really does look increasingly as though large and growing sections of the Conservative Party have become so indoctrinated by their new, improved British values that they’ve read the biblical story of the nativity and concluded that Herod was the good guy. His problem was that he was just too easy going and a bit of an old softy deep down.

Thursday 7 December 2023

Why concentrate only on one side of the equation?


The government claims that its proposed changes to the rules for legal migration into the UK will reduce the net total by around 300,000 per year. If they fully implement what they have announced, that may well turn out to be an underestimate; their numbers are based on the English exceptionalist belief that people are so keen to come to the UK that people will leave their families behind and come to take up low-paid jobs as carers, and that the brightest and best post-graduate researchers will similarly abandon their families and come to the UK alone, at least until their salary crosses an arbitrary threshold. It’s a big ‘if’ though; and the chances of the Tories fully implementing the plans are vanishingly small, not least because it will take time to draw up the detailed rules and procedures and process all those applications already in the system whilst the clock is already ticking down to the next election.

However, that isn’t the only reason for doubting whether they will ever do more than talk about the plans. Assuming that potential immigrants will happily leave their families behind as well as paying increased fees for the privilege of coming to the UK is only one of the silly assumptions that they’re making. They are also assuming that the electors whose votes they are chasing would either prefer to see the social care system go into meltdown than have immigrants working in it or else don’t understand the degree of dependency on those immigrants. The reality will become obvious at some point. It’s not a crisis which would hit social care overnight, of course – but like Hemingway’s description of bankruptcy, it’s something which will happen in two ways: slowly, and then suddenly. Perhaps there are some people who really would be happy with that – but it’s unlikely that those whose relatives are dependent on that care will agree. And as things slowly get worse, the government will inevitably be tempted to reverse its policy, albeit as quietly as possible. Hopefully before the collapse enters the sudden phase.

Labour’s response has been little better. Equally convinced that the population are demanding an immediate halt to immigration, they have come up with an entirely arbitrary proposal to cap net migration at 200,000. Why 200,000? Why not 250,000? Why not 150,000? These are not questions to which they have any sort of rational answer; they’ve simply produced a figure from thin air which they think might be acceptable to the racists and xenophobes whose votes they seek, with no real thought given to the implications. Yet still they are likely to win the next election. Suella Braverman has said this week that the Tories face “electoral oblivion” if the government’s Rwanda legislation fails. In a rare moment of consensus, I agree. But then I’d also agree if she’d said that the Tories face “electoral oblivion” if the government’s Rwanda legislation succeeds. Saying that the Tories face electoral oblivion is one of those sentences which currently works perfectly well without any qualifying clause.

There is one policy change that they could make which might actually get the net migration figure down without the performative cruelty which they both seem to think is essential politics. Mathematically, in any ‘net’ figure there are two factors involved – so increasing emigration would have the same effect on the net numbers as decreasing immigration. It’s unfortunate that they shot themselves in both feet by removing freedom of movement, but if the financial incentives were good enough, there might be quite a few people willing to help the government out of its troubles by emigrating. It’s not a solution that’s ever likely to occur to them though: from their exceptionalist position, they would never understand why anyone would ever want to escape the dysfunctional rogue state which the UK has become.

Tuesday 5 December 2023

Labour austerity looks inevitable


It’s impossible to disagree with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer when he says that Margaret Thatcher was responsible for significant and long term changes in the way that the UK economy works, or that she entered government with some clear ideas about what she wanted to do. Whether the changes were a good thing or not is much more arguable, to say the least; and the idea that those changes released entrepreneurialism in the UK has been succinctly rebutted by Prof. Richard Murphy. Perhaps Starmer merely wished to praise the determination and attitude she showed rather than what she actually did, but it didn’t sound that way when he said it, and not for the first time he seems to be struggling to ‘correct’ his words retrospectively. And whether it was politically wise even to go that far is another question entirely – why on earth raise a comparison to Thatcher when you’re staring at an open goal left by Sunak?

There is a fundamental belief at the core of Conservative ideology that the private sector and the public sector are in competition, and that the private sector creates wealth whilst the public sector consumes it. It’s clear from their statements that better public services depend on private sector economic growth that Starmer and Reeves also believe it. They’re not alone: it’s one of those things that is so ‘obvious’ that many people across the political spectrum believe it. It’s also absolute tosh. It may be based on a confusion between two different meanings of the word ‘wealth’. There is the wealth which all the individuals in a country own, measured by bank balances and assets held, and there is the wealth of the country as a whole, measured by GDP. The ‘growth’ that Starmer is referring to is an increase in GDP, but an increase in spending by the public sector leads to the same amount of GDP growth as the same amount of increased spending in the private sector. Given the way that GDP is calculated, it cannot mathematically be otherwise. Certainly, some people became extremely wealthy under Thatcher, but much of that was a redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich, and the ever-increasing gap between the richest and poorest in society is the most pernicious long-term effect of Thatcherism. The accumulation of private wealth in an ever-smaller number of hands is not the same as an increase in national wealth.

There are, of course, arguments to be had about whether it is ‘better’ for investment to come from the private sector or the public sector – and the public sector’s record in managing some projects and investments leaves a lot to be desired. Whether that is inevitable or a result of structural or procedural problems is a debate for another time, but the idea that only one of those approaches should count in measuring growth is just ideological bias. When the private sector invests, the money comes from a combination of borrowing and income raised from customers; when the public sector invests, it comes from a combination of borrowing and taxes raised from the population as a whole. In GDP terms, whether we pay for something out of tax or as part of the price of the goods and services we buy is irrelevant – we’re still paying either way. It’s just that tax deducted from salary is more obvious. And in either case, 'borrowing' is a simplistic way of describing a complicated process whereby the government - or the banks operating under government licence - create and destroy money at the press of a few keys, as well as borrowing directly from people who see their loans as investments.

The debate which we should be having – and which a Labour Party worthy of the name would be leading rather than suppressing – is about which things we want to purchase collectively through the state, which we want to leave to the profit-driven market place, and how we decide between the two. It’s a point which ideologically-driven fiscal conservatives like Starmer can’t even begin to understand. And that lack of understanding leads inevitably to Labour austerity.

Monday 4 December 2023

Avoiding criticism


According to Rishi Sunak, the UK is a world leader when it comes to action to respond to climate change, despite his decisions to delay some actions and plough ahead with further oil and gas exploration. To put it in context, however, he regularly claims that the UK is a world leader on most things. Lack of any supporting evidence is, apparently, no hindrance to making outrageously inaccurate claims and expecting that everyone else will just accept those claims as true. In the case of climate change, he does, on this occasion, produce some 'evidence' for his assertion: none of the other world leaders at COP28 have raised any issues with him, proving, in his mind at least, that they’re all very happy with what he’s doing. It probably helped him to avoid their criticism that he made only the briefest of flying visits, spending more time flying there and back (in a private jet, of course, so as to demonstrate his credentials on the subject) than he did on the ground.

Those who did stay a little longer certainly picked up plenty of criticism from other delegations. The Observer says that “Representatives of several countries also told the Observer they were disappointed at the UK’s stance”, and Labour sources say that they “… found other international delegations bemoaning the UK government’s approach.” But Sunak didn’t stay long enough to hear it for himself, even if he knew how to switch his ears to receive mode, and it therefore doesn’t count. US climate envoy Al Gore was pretty blunt, but he probably doesn’t count as a world leader in Sunak’s view – not least because he isn’t British and only the British government can be a world leader. Besides, Gore’s accusation that the UK government is “in the pocket of fossil fuel companies” probably sounds like a compliment to Sunak. After all, isn’t facilitating the making of private profit by large corporations exactly what Conservatives are for?

Saturday 2 December 2023

Ending the silliness


Most of us would understand that if we buy a television from a person who previously stole it from the house next door it doesn’t suddenly cease to be stolen, and nor does it become ours, even if we get a proper paper receipt from the thief. Once stolen, always stolen; and it remains, legally, the property of the original owner. And receiving stolen goods is an offence in its own right. As a general rule, that is the viewpoint of the UK government – except, apparently, when it comes to cultural treasures, in which case possession becomes nine-tenths of the law. There isn’t really much doubt that the Parthenon marbles held in the British Museum were looted from Athens by Lord Elgin, and arguing – as the British government does – that he took them with the consent of the Ottoman rulers at the time rather overlooks the fact that the Ottomans had simply helped themselves to the whole of Greece in the first place. The subsequent sale to the British Museum, covered as it is by a proper paper receipt, doesn’t make the original theft go away.

Sunak claims that the issue is “long-settled”, and the Greeks should stop raising the issue. It seems to me that for a dispute between two parties to arrive at the status of ‘settled’, one of two things has to happen: either both parties agree that it is settled, or else some mutually-agreed outside body, court, or mediator makes a judgement. In the case of the marbles, the Greek government has never agreed that the issue is settled, and the UK government has refused all offers of mediation and dispute resolution – presumably because it recognises that it would lose. A unilateral declaration that the issue is ‘settled’, of the type made by Sunak, is a product of magical thinking of the sort at which English exceptionalists excel.

They do, of course, have an act of parliament to back up their refusal to consider repatriation of the looted materials. But the belief that a law passed by the English parliament prohibiting the British Museum from ever disposing of any of its treasures, howsoever they were acquired, will somehow stand up in any international court is as silly as believing that an act of parliament can make an unsafe country safe. (It’s also inconsistent with the core principle of the English constitution that no parliament can ever bind its successors, but consistency isn’t exactly a strong point of the current government.) It is, though, the sort of silliness that flows inevitably from an unshakeable belief that the English parliament, uniquely on the whole planet, has absolute sovereignty and can pass any law it wishes, as well as ignoring any international treaty or body that it chooses, because that sovereignty was bestowed by God in person on the monarch. It is also the sort of silliness which transcends any change of government, and to which all previous governments have fallen prey, and we have seen from Starmer’s response to Sunak’s approach that the next government will be no different.

A change of government is never going to be enough to stop the silliness; the whole system and structures of government also need to be changed. A written constitution recognising that sovereignty belongs to the people not the monarch would be a good start, closing down unelected law-making institutions would be another, and an electoral system which didn’t put absolute power into the hands of a extremist fringe on the basis of a minority of the votes would be a good third step. (And banning the alumni of certain schools, which seem to actively promote magical thinking, from ever standing for election or holding any positions of power might help as a stop-gap until the bigger issues could be addressed.) None of this will we get from Labour. Yet all of it is available any time that we take the decision to do things ourselves. We really don’t have to allow ourselves to be dragged along by the silliness.

Sunday 12 November 2023

Poor Suella


Poor Suella Braverman. It has long been her fondest dream to see a plane taking off for Rwanda filled with unhappy, and preferably tearful, would-be immigrants. It looks very much as if the Supreme Court will tell us all on Wednesday whether her dream is lawful or not. One rather suspects that she would quite like to be at Heathrow to wave it off on 25th December. There can, after all, be few more thoughtful Christmas gifts for desperate people than a free one-way flight to a country of which they’ve never heard. It is also looking extremely probable that she will by then, in any event, be just another former Home Secretary, leaving someone else to gloat over the flight, if it is indeed to take place.

The reason for her pending departure, assuming that Sunak manages to find a tiny fragment of backbone down the back of the settee where he usually hides his principles, is that her second fondest dream came true just yesterday. She hoped for disruption, violence and mass arrests and was presumably delighted when she got some. She is probably a little disappointed that those arrested for the disruption and violence were her supporters rather than the ones she wanted arrested but will probably conclude that it just confirms what she said about police bias. It is clearly unfair that the police deliberately targeted those using violence rather than those just doing a bit of chanting. She probably wishes that the other Suella Braverman – the one who told police to stop messing about investigating hate crimes and concentrate on real crimes such as violence – had never opened her mouth.

Thursday 9 November 2023

The power of the hat


This week saw the official state opening of parliament. This is a strange ceremony which sees a posh bloke and his wife arrive in a horse-drawn carriage, with his magic hat following behind in a carriage of its own because, apparently, only three people are allowed to touch it (presumably in case the magic wears off or gets imparted to the wrong person). The procession is followed by people responsible for sweeping up the inevitable results of parading horses through the streets. When they get to parliament, the posh bloke sits in a posh seat, wearing his magic hat, and his wife sits in another slightly less posh seat deliberately placed at a lower level so that no-one ends up looking taller than the posh bloke himself. 

He then gets handed a speech, written on goatskin parchment which contains no trace of goat, which he is obliged to read out to an audience comprising as of right several hundred legislators who have not been elected to the role, including the hierarchy of a single sect of a single religion of only a part of the UK as well as a group which are only there because some ancestor or other did something or other which pleased one of the posh bloke’s ancestors. The officially humble elected legislators are summoned to attend whether they like it or not and forced to stand, which is not entirely strange to them because the legislature has never considered it necesary to provide enough seats for its members anway. The speech contains details of things that the government might or might not do during the next twelve months: there is no obligation on the government to do something just because they’ve forced the posh bloke to say that they would, and there is nothing to stop them doing things which they didn’t even tell the posh bloke about. It also contains party political propaganda which the posh bloke is obliged to read out whether he agrees with it or not.

Apparently, the UK’s so-called modern parliamentary democracy cannot operate without this pantomime being performed before each session. But who, in their right minds, would ever invent a process which placed such a dependency on the alleged powers of that magic hat?

Tuesday 7 November 2023

Is peace ever a bad thing?


Sir Keir Starmer sems to have got both himself and his party into something of a twist over calls for a ceasefire in Gaza, preferring merely to support a ‘humanitarian pause’. From the point of view of those being killed, any halt to the shooting has to be better than nothing, but the two things are entirely different. A pause suggests that the killing will be resumed once the potential victims have had their deliveries of food, water and medicines – more a case of providing a final meal for the condemned than of granting them a reprieve. Principled it is not, and it’s been a pleasant surprise to see the extent of pushback against him from his party’s members.

His argument is an ‘interesting’ one. There is no point calling for a ceasefire, he says, when neither side is going to agree at this stage. It may well be true that they won’t agree, but it’s a curious argument against seeking a ceasefire, and he doesn’t seem to understand that it renders much of what he says on other issues completely pointless as well. If you believe that Sunak is not going to agree to an early election, then it’s pointless Labour calling for one. Indeed, there’s little point in the opposition ever calling for anything if they know that the government isn’t going to agree. They could probably sack half their press team if they stopped calling for things to which those to whom the call is made aren’t going to agree. Worse, he and many of the senior members of his party seem to have fallen into the trap of believing that anyone calling for a ceasefire is necessarily supporting one side in the conflict – and from his perspective, that would be the wrong side. The idea that some people might just want to stop the slaughter is clearly alien to him.

There’s something equally strange about the government’s obsession with trying to prevent any marches on Remembrance Day, because they would be somehow inappropriate. On my understanding of history, the whole point of Remembrance Day is to remember the fallen, celebrate the subsequent peace, and remind ourselves that we should never let it happen again. It’s hard to understand why calling for peace is in any way at odds with those sentiments. Except that the act of remembrance has been increasingly hijacked as a celebration of British exceptionalism, nationalism and military victory, rather than a tribute to those who lost so much. It’s true, of course, that not all of those marching are limiting their demands to a ceasefire, and that there are elements who are calling for a victory for one side in a long-standing and complex conflict. But most just want to stop the killing – is that really so inappropriate on the day we remember the fallen in so many other wars?

Monday 6 November 2023

They know their members


Those great British values so beloved of the Home Secretary, or at least her new degraded version of them, have been making a number of outings in recent days. Apparently, showing any sympathy for people who end up sleeping rough is now un-British, as is failure to support all of the institutions of the state, and holding a demonstration of any sort on 11th November. One rather suspects that they actually wanted to criminalise failing to kick homeless people, failure to wear a poppy, failure to observe the two minutes’ silence, and failure to be an ardent monarchist. And, probably, failure to be a member of the Tory Party. The only thing that stopped them is the realisation that they don’t have enough prison cells or detention camps to house all the people who would thereby be criminalised. Yet.

In truth, they will have real difficulty in drawing up legislation to implement these totalitarian views, unless it simply says that the police can and must do whatever the Home Secretary tells them to do. Keeping it simple. Barring that, for instance, if they ban giving tents to the homeless, will they also ban giving them money for a cup of tea? And if it’s OK to give them money, will there be a limit on it, or can we give them enough to buy a tent? And even if there is a limit, what if a group of people gang together and collectively give someone enough to buy a tent?

The devil, as they say, is in the detail, and the detail will give the legal draftsmen nightmares, if it ever gets to the point of drawing up legislation. I doubt, thought, that it ever will; it’s all about winning votes rather than passing laws. I don’t know how many voters at large will be attracted by such a programme, although I’m sure that the number isn’t as low as I would like. But that isn’t the target electorate in this case: the target is those people who will have a vote in the forthcoming leadership election in the Tory Party. Those putting forward this sort of proposals have used their best judgement and concluded that that particular electorate contains many of the most nasty, cruel, inhumane, unempathetic, jingoistic, backward-looking, and mean people in the UK. It’s not often that I concur with the judgement of Suella Braverman.

Friday 3 November 2023

Catching the PM by surprise


When the pandemic struck, it seems to have come as a complete surprise to Boris Johnson that the hopelessly underfunded NHS and Social Care systems had not sorted out what he called the “decades-old problem of delayed discharges”, meaning that something like 30% of hospital beds were occupied by people who didn’t need to be in a hospital at all. He’s probably going to be even more surprised, not to say angry, when he finds out who had been in charge for the previous decade, and who had been cutting budgets for the whole of that period. On second thoughts, probably not. Everything that happened before 2019, in his mind, was the fault of a different government and party. It’s only in the world that the rest of us live in where there’s any connection between the two.

Wednesday 1 November 2023

Nature's Way


Yesterday’s session of the Covid inquiry heard suggestions that Boris Johnson saw the virus as “nature’s way of dealing with old people”. For once he may have been, albeit only slightly, unfairly quoted. What he actually said was that his party believed that to be the case; as for himself, he merely said that he wasn’t entirely sure that he disagreed. It’s an important distinction, and it’s one that does make a difference. Whilst the rats seem to be quite happy to desert a sinking ship those who were closest to him seem quite happy to heap the blame on one man, the issue which should worry us more is that the phrase reflects the thinking of the government party as a whole. And it really isn’t that surprising.

Covid has been just one example of a mindset which thinks that the only important people in society are ‘working people’, and especially ‘hard-working people’ (and it’s worth noting in passing that on this point, as on so many others, the difference between the Tories and Labour is striking mostly for its absence). It is a philosophical viewpoint which, as often commented on this blog, places the needs of ‘the economy’ above those of ordinary people, and sees most of us as nothing more than resources to be exploited in the interests of that ‘economy’. But the ‘economy’ isn’t some amorphous undefined general good; from their perspective, ‘the economy’ is all about companies and businesses, not people. Enriching those who own and run those companies is the main purpose of economic activity; others simply sell their labour. And if people have no labour to sell – the old and the vulnerable – then they are disposable. Johnson may, on behalf of his party, have put it in starker terms – more honest terms, even, an unusual word to use in relation to Johnson – than his colleagues, but it would be a mistake to let the others off the hook just because of his rare burst of honesty. ‘Eat out to help the virus spread’ was simply one example of that philosophy in action – the interests of the businesses concerned were seen by the then Chancellor as trumping the interests of those who would die as a result. Sunak may not have put things in such forthright language as Johnson, but he’s every bit as guilty, and we shouldn’t allow anger with Johnson’s insouciance to cloud that fact.

Another thing we learned yesterday is that the PM’s then communications chief, Lee Cain – a man whose principal claim to fame is having dressed as a chicken to pursue David Cameron around the country during the 2010 election – believed that Covid was the wrong crisis for this particular PM (i.e. Johnson). ‘Wrong sort of crisis’ might make it sound as though he’s competing with Thérèse Coffey for that job at Network Rail, but while it has a certain air of truth, it leaves one very big question unanswered – exactly what sort of crisis would have been the right one to have someone like Johnson in charge?

Monday 30 October 2023

Identifying the right hero


Whether Christmas is the religious celebration as some wish to see it, or some sort of re-purposed celebration of the winter solstice as others choose to see it, is a matter of opinion, albeit often strongly-held. As a question of historical fact, since no-one really knows exactly when Christ was born, choosing an existing pre-Christian feast as the time to celebrate that birth was a shrewd piece of marketing for those seeking to convert the population to the new religion.

In practice, most of us are happy to adopt a ‘live and let live’ philosophy rather than demand that others must accept our definition of the nature of the event, whichever definition we choose. That said, for historical and cultural reasons, even in an increasingly secular society, most of us are also aware of, and tend to support, the seasonal concept of ‘peace on earth and goodwill to all men’. It's an idea which is strongly associated with the Christian take on Christmas (although some of us might wish that the sentiment wasn’t confined to such a short period of the year). It’s also generally seen as a time for families to take a break and be together.

Unless, of course, we are talking about the Home Secretary. It has been revealed this week that she has cancelled all Border Force leave over Christmas, in the expectation that the Supreme Court judgement due in early December will give the green light to start flying people to Rwanda. If that is indeed the outcome, the staff will be needed to implement the decision before and during the Christmas break. It’s a strange sort of ‘goodwill to all men’ which doesn’t even apply to her staff, let alone those who they will be expected to strap forcibly into aircraft seats if her dream comes to pass.

Many of their previous statements have led me to wonder whether members of the current government really understand the ‘British’ values which they claim to espouse, because they have a curious way of showing it. In this case, I can’t help but wonder whether Braverman has read the traditional story of Christmas through her own distorted lens and somehow concluded that Herod was actually the hero.

Sunday 29 October 2023

What could possibly go wrong?


The deliberately misnamed television channel, GB ‘News’, has found itself in some difficulties recently. It  was forced to sack or suspend presenters over misogyny, and has been criticised for a lack of the balance expected of any proper news outlet, although the latter seems a tad unfair given that, despite its name, it makes no pretence of broadcasting news, merely opinion. With those difficulties as background, I struggle to imagine the internal discussions which led to some bright spark suggesting that the way forward was to hire the worst misogynist and most compulsive liar that they could find, let alone that such suggestion was then acted upon. Announcing the decision the day after it was revealed that the Covid inquiry will this week be presented with a veritable feast of misogyny and foul language in messages exchanged between Johnson and Cummings is surely just having a laugh.

Johnson has regularly managed to display his misogyny, racism and disregard for the truth in columns written for various newspapers over the years, but everything we’ve seen there has been through various stages of editing and proof-reading before it appeared. Now they’re going to give him a live television show, circumventing all that checking and editing. What could possibly go wrong? As far as I’m aware, no bookmakers are currently offering odds on how long it will be before he gets sacked from this job, but it surely can’t be long. Will it all be over by Christmas? Or will he manage to drag it out until he has laid waste to GB News in the way he managed to do for the Conservative Party?

Saturday 28 October 2023

Watching the clock


Tonight, most of us will turn the clocks back by one hour; some will inevitably forget. Those who live their lives according to what the hands of the clock say will feel obliged to stay in bed an extra hour, whilst those who follow their body clocks will just get up an hour early. In the dark. Most will just be slightly confused for a day or two.

Living our lives according to the hands of the clock brings me to the PM’s father-in-law. He has argued this week that young Indians should be demanding to work 70 hour weeks in order to boost the wealth of Indian billionaires like Mr Murty the Indian economy. His call revolves around the need for an increase in productivity.

‘Productivity’ is an interesting concept, and there is more than one way of measuring it. At its simplest, it’s just output divided by input: a widget-maker who produces 15 widgets per hour is more productive than one who only produces 10 per hour. But whilst increasing the number of hours worked will increase the total number of widgets produced, it does not in itself increase the productivity of the widget-maker. Someone who produces 70 in a seven hour day may well produce 100 in a ten hour day, but he’s still only producing 10 per hour; output divided by input is unchanged. In monetary terms, though, things might look rather different. If someone is willing to work 10 hours a day for the same pay as he previously received for working 7 hours a day, then the owner of the widget factory has 30 extra widgets to sell at no extra labour cost to himself. On that measure of productivity (number of widgets per £ of labour cost), it has obviously increased. And extra wealth flows to the owner of the widget-making machine as a consequence.

That in turn goes to the heart of why capitalists have always opposed reductions in working hours: they make most profit by keeping people chained to their machines (or their desks for many of us in the modern age). It’s the same attitude behind SirJake’s demand to see civil servants back at their desks, or Gove’s instructions to English local authorities to drop any thought of a four-day week. It should be obvious to them that what matters is output, not input, but their thought processes haven’t really advanced much since the days of the mill owners of the eighteenth century. Billionaires who have a great deal of agency over what they do, where, and when, and who see a direct financial return for their efforts, may well see 70 hour weeks as normal (although some of the activities which they class as ‘work’ may not look very much like work to the man or woman pulling the lever on the widget machine) but it is a demand which, in essence, sees working people as a resource to be exploited, as people who should only ever expect to live for their work rather than work to enjoy life.

There’s no doubt that Sunak’s household would benefit directly if Indian workers were to accede to the exhortations of their capitalist masters. That wouldn’t make Sunak the first PM to benefit from overseas slavery or something akin thereto, but that’s not much of an excuse. It wasn’t that, though, so much as the impact of the corollary (all economic dictums seem to have corollaries of some sort) on Sunak which struck me. If increasing the hours spent on producing things means that more things are produced, then decreasing the time spent on destroying things means that fewer things are destroyed. I don’t doubt that Sunak ‘works’ a large number of hours, but much of his work seems to be about enriching the few by impoverishing the many. Reducing the length of his working week would therefore have some clear advantages for the many in UK society. Preferably reducing his hours to zero. He should heed the unintended lesson of his father-in-law.

Friday 27 October 2023

Forming an orderly queue

The Tories are fond of reminding us of the importance of what they like to call ‘British’ values, albeit occasionally prefaced by the counter-productive adjective ‘Great’ with its implication that Northern Ireland is excluded. They are rather less proficient at articulating what those values might be, or at least of doing so in a way which makes their actions in any way correspond to the values expressed in their words. When I try and compile a list of what I always thought were key elements of ‘British’ values, what immediately springs to mind is the way in which the current government undermines them rather than supporting them: think honesty, integrity, rule of law (domestic and international), fairness, justice and compassion, just for starters.

There is, however, one British attribute to which Tory MPs do indeed seem to subscribe in both word and deed, and that is the propensity for forming an orderly queue. It’s not a uniquely British trait, of course – Russians, particularly from the Soviet era, could teach us a lot about the etiquette of queuing. But perhaps the biggest problem with this particular element of Britishness is to do with what they are queuing for. And in the case of Tory MPs, it’s the queue to take their place in the scandal stakes. No sooner does Sunak allow himself a small sigh of relief as one of his MPs is effectively expelled from the House, than another manages to get himself arrested. It’s all very courteous, the way in which they patiently wait their turn to grab the headlines, and it’s been going on for a long time now. I’ve lost count of how many have patiently stepped up to the plate, but one way or another, the Tories are down from 365 at the last election to around 352 today. And the arrow is pointing in only one direction.

The thing is that nobody, not even – or perhaps, especially not – Sunak, knows how many more are currently standing in the queue. All we know is that as soon as the one at the head of the queue gets ‘processed’ another steps forward to take his or her (usually his) place in the headlines. The only good news for Sunak is that, at the rate of, say, one a fortnight, we are unlikely to get far enough through the queue to completely destroy his majority. Only his reputation, mental balance, and hairline. I can almost imagine that he might rather prefer that they abandoned that patient British attitude to queuing and all of the MPs currently in the queue rushed forwards at once. At least he’d then know the scale of the problem. On second thoughts, that’s probably something he’d rather not know. And spotting an empty queue would probably only encourage more of them to join it.

Thursday 26 October 2023

Future career paths


There have been some suggestions that the PM should try sacking a few senior cabinet ministers if he really wants to give the impression that he’s promoting change, since promising change without changing anything is always going to look unconvincing. His critics seem to be targeting Hunt (who was never Sunak’s choice for the job anyway, merely an unsackable hangover from the disastrous Truss regime) or Braverman (probably the most toxic minister of all, and therefore most popular with the swivel-eyed tendency and virtually unsackable as a result). The heads they are more likely to get are Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey or Party Chair Greg Hands.

Coffey, at least, seems to be taking the threat seriously and is laying the ground for a new career outside parliament. Not as a protector of the environment, of course – pouring sewage into the rivers is perfectly fine by her. No, the change of career she is eyeing up is clearly as an excuse deviser at Network Rail. ‘The wind came from the wrong direction’ is an excellent start, right up there with leaves on the line or the wrong type of snow. She should go far. The further the better in fact.

Hands, on the other hand, seems to be auditioning for the role of ventriloquist’s dummy. The chief requirement for the role is an ability to repeat the words put into his mouth by the boss, whilst keeping a straight face. Having an expressionless face carved out of wood and a void, tailored to the ventriloquist’s hand, where the brain should be, both help potential applicants. He may, however, face strong competition from the Senedd's very own Andrew RT Davies, although the proportional nature of Welsh elections means that the latter is unlikely to be coming onto the jobs market for a while yet. Unfortunately.

Coffee and Hands are not, of course, the only current Cabinet Ministers likely to be looking for alternative employment in the, hopefully, not too distant future. Yesterday, I noted that the abolition of the cap on bankers’ bonuses shows that the PM himself is eyeing a move back into banking, for which ingratiating himself with current incumbents will do him no harm at all. Hunt, on the other hand, seems to be lining himself up for the unpaid role of election campaign assistant. For the Labour Party. Perhaps we should be scrutinising all ministerial statements in the coming months for a hint of their likely future career path. 

I’ll admit, though, that it’s currently proving challenging to guess at any conceivable future career path for a Braverman.

Wednesday 25 October 2023

Bonuses, merchants and Prime Ministers


In “The Tempest”, William Shakespeare tells us that “What's past is prologue”. For the current PM, that prologue was a period as a banker, or a merchant as a Cockney might have it. It’s a ‘profession’, using the term in its very loosest sense, which managed to wreck the economy on the back of excessive incentives for its practitioners to do what made them rich rather than what served the interests of the population at large. An unkind person might see his subsequent appointments as Chancellor and Prime Minister as being just a case of following the same career goal by a different route. He certainly understands why his fellow merchants can’t do a proper job of economic destruction unless they are properly incentivised, which goes a long way towards explaining the decision to abolish the cap on bankers’ bonuses.

He claims that the decision is not his at all, and is entirely a matter for the ‘independent’ regulators (a majority of whose members are appointed, strangely enough, by the government), although it’s not so long ago that one of his successors as Chancellor made it clear that it was very much a decision for the government to take. It might, of course, simply be a test run for an excuse which he intends to rely upon a great deal between now and the next election – “nothing to do with me, guv”. He’s already written off most of the decisions taken by his four predecessors as PM since the Tories were elected in 2010 in a similar fashion; it’s a small jump from there to include his own. Alternatively, it might be preparation for the prologue to become the epilogue, as he anticipates some sort of return to the banking sector. Career consistency in the economic destruction sector means he’s at least eyeing a job about which he knows something. And, as the saying almost goes: ‘once a merchant, always a merchant’.

Tuesday 24 October 2023

Rigging the rules


Arch-Brexiteer and current Northern Ireland Secretary, Steve Baker, has argued this week that there probably should have been a requirement for a ‘super majority’ in the Brexit referendum, despite acknowledging that his side would have lost on that basis. He said, “… the reason I say that is if we’d had to have 60%, everybody would have abided by the result. If it had been a 60-40 result, it’s inconceivable to me that we would have had all of the political difficulty which followed…”. If there had been a 60-40 majority, one way or the other, it’s just possible that he might be right – acceptance of the result might well have been more forthcoming. I’m not entirely convinced, though; people who hold a strong view about the ‘right’ way forward – people like Baker, in fact – don’t change their minds just because they have failed to convince a sufficient majority at a point in time.

The bigger problem with a requirement for a supermajority is not what happens when the vote exceeds 60-40, it’s what happens when it does not. If, say 59% had voted for Brexit and 41% against, meaning that the proposition was ‘defeated’, is there not just the tiniest possibility that the 59% would argue something along the lines of “we wuz robbed”? Once it is known, through a public vote, that 59% of the electorate support a particular proposition, stuffing the genie back into the bottle is never going to be easy. There are those who argue that some sort of super majority should be required – whether in a public vote or a vote in a parliament – for a change to the constitution. There is obviously an argument based on ‘stability’ to protect against over-frequent changes, or swings back and fore over a period, although whether that's necessarily a bad thing is open to argument. It’s not easy to apply though in a state which has no formal constitution and where whether a proposition constitutes a change to the constitution or not is itself open to argument.

Perhaps most worrying of all is that he wants to apply the rule in relation to any future border poll in Ireland. His concerns about a decision based on 50%+1 are entirely valid; reunification based on such a slim majority would leave a large part (50%-1) of the population unhappy with the new status. It would obviously be better for the idea of reunification to achieve a much greater level of consensual support. And a rejection of reunification on the same basis would have a similar effect on the other part of the population. Again, it would obviously be better for the status quo to receive resounding support. But suggesting that a vote of 59-41 in favour of reunification amounts to a vote for continued partition seems very much more problematic to me. It highlights the big problem with the requirement for a super majority for change, which is that it gives the status quo, however that was arrived at and however much it is contested, an inbuilt advantage in any vote. Whilst it’s easy enough to see why supporters of the status quo would argue that to be a good thing, it’s not clear why anyone would consider it fair. Seeking to rig the rules in favour of the status quo doesn’t seem the most sensible approach given the historical background to Irish partition.

Monday 23 October 2023

When did history start?


It’s not the simple question it appears; whilst ‘history’ in its most general meaning has no discernible start other than the Big Bang, ‘history’ in another sense started when pre-history ended – i.e. when written records started to be made – and ‘history’ in the sense of ‘our’ history (whoever ‘we’ are in this context) is often attributed to a fairly arbitrary start date. Perhaps a more interesting question is not when history started but whether our understanding of history shapes our political views or whether our political views shape our understanding of history.

Take Wales, as an example. Many modern-day nationalists point to the year 383 when the Romans left Wales (or, as Dafydd Iwan puts it in ‘Yma o Hyd’, “Pan aeth Magnus Maximus o Gymru, yn y flwyddyn 383). Does that view of the start date of Welsh history stem from a political outlook, or does the political outlook stem from the historical idea of an ancient people? It’s not a unanimous view, either way. Neil Kinnock infamously said that, "between the mid-sixteenth century and the mid-eighteenth century Wales had practically no history at all, and even before that it was the history of rural brigands who have been ennobled by being called princes"; which sounds as though ‘meaningful’ Welsh history only began with the Industrial Revolution. Does this view of the start date of Welsh history stem from the opinion that class differences are more important than national differences, or does a belief in the importance of those class differences start from a conviction that history really did start with the Industrial Revolution? Sometime in between those two dates, Wales became part of England, by dint of military conquest rather than any form of consent. The opposition of many to the idea of Welsh independence often carries an implicit belief that ‘our’ history started with that conquest – and that we should forget what went before.

The conflict about when history starts and the demand to forget what went before often derives from the fact that at different times, different tribes or peoples have occupied a particular land area. Take Palestine. For the people who today call themselves Palestinians, the defining event of modern history seems to be the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, and the often violent expulsion of Palestinians from their homes and lands. But the Israelites (not exactly the same as Israelis, but sufficiently similar for the purposes of argument) were living in ‘Palestine’ in biblical times, until they were driven out (or worse, slaughtered): sometimes by Muslims, sometimes by Christians, as during the Crusades. Only a few decades before Magnus Maximus left Wales with his legions, the (then probably in a majority) Jewish people in Palestine were revolting against Christian rule and anti-Jewish discrimination. So which was the more important expulsion – that of the Palestinians in 1948 (being continued today with ever more encroachment by settlers on the West Bank) or that of the Jews centuries earlier? Go back even further, and the inhabitants would have seen themselves as neither Muslim nor Jewish; neither Israeli nor Palestinian. When, in short, do we consider that the history of Palestine, and therefore the right of one people or another to occupy the territory, started? And the corollary, as with Wales, is: from which point in time do we expect people to forget what went before?

The series of events which constitute ‘history’ are often undisputed; but their interpretation and relative importance can give rise to very different views about the present. In ‘Palestine’, we have two groups each apparently dedicated to the effective expulsion (or even extermination) of the other, both determinedly ignoring one of the main lessons of their own history which is that unresolved grievances never die with the individuals; they simply continue to fester, sometimes for centuries. What the rest of the world can do to help them realise that, and learn to live in the same space on the basis of mutual respect is not a simple question, and neither side seems to be in any great rush to make the concessions which would be required of both to end the cycle of killing. But whatever it is that we should be doing, it is most definitely not to take one side or the other and encourage the chosen side to believe that it can ‘win’; ethnic cleansing is ethnic cleansing, whoever does it and to whoever it is done. Taking one side is, though, where the UK finds itself. And there doesn’t seem to be a lot of difference between government and opposition on the question. Securing peace requires nuance, not absolutism.