Thursday, 23 March 2023

Loophole 22


One of the more surprising things about Boris Johnson’s performance yesterday was that he had spent several days rehearsing what to say and being coached about his answers. I dread to think how he would have performed otherwise. Whether we actually learned a lot that was new is another question; that a compulsive liar would lie about whether he had lied or not was a given from the outset. I have a smidgen of sympathy with his bewilderment at the fact that he was fined for attending his own birthday celebration whereas others present were not, but my bewilderment is not, like his, about why he was fined, but rather about why others, particularly those who organised the occasion, weren’t. Indeed, the whole approach of the Met to who was fined, who wasn’t and for what – and even as to who was or was not sent a questionnaire – seems to have been a largely random process. It’s a randomness for which he should be thankful, rather than critical; a more thorough approach would have seen the fixed penalty notices piling up on his doormat. After this week’s findings that the Metropolitan Police are institutionally misogynistic and homophobic as well as racist, it seems that we can add ‘incompetent’ to the charge sheet.

His defence, such as it was, to the charge of misleading the House of Commons was that he genuinely believed what he was saying to be true at the time: he genuinely believed that the rules and guidance which he put in place allowed everything that happened in Downing Street. In part it’s a very brave defence. Claiming that he was too stupid to understand his own rules might get him off the charge of misleading the Commons, but it hardly polishes his image as a man expecting to return to the top job. But he’s also trying to exploit a loophole: since part of the ‘guidance’ was, according to him, that people should ‘adapt’ the guidance as necessary to their particular circumstances, that was what he was doing. It's just that his ‘adaptations’ meant basically ignoring everything else in the guidance. That, one might say, is some loophole. We might even call it 'Loophole 22', since there is never any way in which anyone can break the guidance.

Overwhelmingly, though, what came across was someone who still doesn’t get it. He really does not understand why those who faithfully did as they were told should be in any way surprised or upset to find that he did something completely different. He’s always been special and different – the rules which apply to the common herd have never applied to him in the past and shouldn’t now. Indeed, even the rules under which he was being questioned shouldn’t apply to him – he more or less managed to say that he will accept the fairness of the process and the outcome only if, and to the extent that, it agrees that he is an entirely honest man.

The committee isn’t really investigating the gatherings in Downing Street at all; those gatherings are merely the underlying issue on which they have to decide whether he was, or was not, in contempt of parliament. They are working to a technical definition of that term, and it is for the committee members to determine whether the relevant criteria have been met or not, i.e. whether his misleading of the House was inadvertent, reckless, or intentional. However, in the wider sense of the word contempt, it was pretty obvious yesterday that he feels little but contempt for the committee and its members. Indeed, he seems to feel little but contempt for MPs, whether as individuals or a group, for the institutions of government, for the normal rules of political debate, for honesty and truthfulness, for the electorate at large – in fact for anything and anybody that isn’t Boris Johnson. Strangely, it’s still possible that, on the very narrow subset of his contempt for which he was being held to account, the members of the committee could still conclude that it was reckless at worst. But he surely did more than enough yesterday to rule out any possibility of inadvertence.

Wednesday, 22 March 2023

Playing the wrong role


In 1938, the then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, took himself off to Munich and signed an agreement with the then German Chancellor, a certain Mr Hitler, about the future of Czechoslovakia in an attempt to avoid war on the European mainland. Hitler, of course, never had any intention of abiding by any such agreement. As sometimes happens in history, a leader comes along who really doesn’t care a damn about conventions, laws or honesty, but is just prepared to say whatever is necessary at the time to get what he wants. Amongst those excoriating Chamberlain for appeasing Hitler was a certain Mr Churchill. The said Mr Churchill has long been an idol of one of his successors, the one who is hopefully facing his very own Waterloo this afternoon (to mix up the wars and metaphors), and who has long sought to model himself on the uncompromising approach of his hero.

All this goes some way to explaining the statement by Johnson today that he will vote against the Conservative government tonight over the Northern Ireland Protocol agreement which his successor-but-one has negotiated with Brussels. Indeed, in comments reminiscent of Churchill’s accusations of appeasement, he is demanding that the government tear up the Protocol (negotiated by Johnson) as well as the amendments negotiated by Sunak and unilaterally renege on the agreement it made with the EU, leading to a probable all-out trade war with our continental neighbours. All very Churchillian. Except…

As usual however, his command of the detail is a little deficient. He doesn’t seem to realise that the role he’s acting out is that of Hitler, not Churchill. The man who signed an agreement he had no intention of keeping; the man who could never take yes for an answer, and would always go on to demand more until all-out war became more or less inevitable. His Churchillianism is what it’s always been – superficial, and based on a rhetorical style which he fondly imagines he is emulating, but which others can see for the bluster which it is. It will be on show again this afternoon.

Tuesday, 21 March 2023

Getting the best defence


The Guardian carries a profile of David Pannick KC, the high-flying and extremely expensive barrister engaged by Boris Johnson to support his attempts to prevent him from being found guilty of a contempt of parliament and being sanctioned in consequence. Like any good lawyer, he’s obviously set out to do the best for his client, giving him the best defence possible, although (also like any good lawyer) he’s probably well aware that the object he’s been given to polish isn’t exactly high in carats. But looking for potential loopholes, failures in procedures, possible infractions of natural justice (even if parliamentary rules mean that parliamentary processes cannot be challenged on such a basis) is all part of the job. After all, it’s allegedly a principle of British law that any defendant is entitled to the best defence possible (although the practice differs from the principle in that the best defence is only ever going to be available to those with enough money to pay for it).

Best defence possible - unless, of course, the defendants are asylum-seekers or migrants, in which case any lawyer following what looks in principle to be a remarkably similar course of action in order to give his or her clients the best chance of success would be dismissed and condemned by Johnson and his supporters as a ‘lefty lawyer’ seeking to obstruct the processes of government. There is another key difference as well, of course. Much of the work done by immigration lawyers is done wholly or partly on a pro bono basis in support of desperate people, but, as the Guardian notes, “Pannick is not known for doing much pro bono work but rather for his extremely high legal fees. The peer is known to charge approximately £5,000 an hour for his services.” But then, in Borisworld, that strange place inhabited by the man himself and a significant number of other post-truth Tories, the idea of doing something for nothing is probably enough in itself to put someone beyond the pale. Oh, and there’s another difference: in Johnson’s case, it isn’t even the client who’s paying the bills – it’s all coming out of government funds. Our collective generosity to a man who has done so much damage to all of us apparently knows few bounds.

Monday, 20 March 2023

Stupid or mad?


Reading some of the stories about Boris Johnson’s planned ‘bombshell’ defence to the charge of misleading parliament, it appears that there are two main elements to his response. The first is that Sue Gray is going to work for Keir Starmer, so everything she said and all the evidence she collected are tainted and invalid and can be ignored, and there is no other evidence that the parties actually took place at all. And the second is that whilst Boris Johnson was on the television night after night telling us all that we must not meet with other people indoors unless strictly necessary for work purposes and even then we must maintain social distancing, there is no written evidence that anyone told Boris Johnson that attending an event not strictly necessary for work purposes and not maintaining social distancing was against the rules. This is a man who claims that he didn’t even know he was at a party because no-one emailed him to tell him so. The defence will, of course, be delivered with the customary bluster, distraction, and outright mendacity for which he is famous, but stripped down to its basics it sounds a lot like pleading either stupidity or insanity. Too stupid to understand his own rules, or mad enough to believe that anyone else will believe that what he says is in any sense true.

That doesn’t mean he won’t get away with it, of course. There are those in his party who seem to believe that a majority of the seven members of the investigating committee who painstakingly and unanimously put together their interim report will be bowled over by his (alleged) charm, wit, intelligence, erudition and occasional classical allusion, and will agree that Boris Johnson couldn’t possibly be expected to know what the rules set out by Boris Johnson were. It doesn’t seem the likeliest outcome, and would be the death knell for any claim that the House of Commons has any standards at all when it comes to the truthfulness of ministers. It’s more likely that the majority – under increasing pressure from Johnson’s allies – will agree some minor slap across the wrist, which Johnson will take as seriously as he took the police fine which he received, whilst claiming it as a complete exoneration. However, attempting to browbeat and undermine the independence and integrity of the four Tory members of the Committee doesn’t look like the smartest move for someone who wants them to let him off, and going in with guns blazing – which is what he seems to be preparing to do – isn’t likely to help them find a way of reversing the conclusions of the interim report.

And then we have what in any rational world would be the likeliest outcome based on any examination of the facts – guilty as charged. With that guilt exacerbated by his own attempts at denial and continued refusal to accept the validity of the process, never mind any conclusions it reaches, any self-respecting parliamentary committee could only see his response as requiring a more severe penalty than might otherwise be the case, an outcome which neither he nor dozens – perhaps 100 – Tory MPs are likely to accept. And then what? Is he really prepared to blow up the Tory Party and the government in pursuit of his own selfish interests and insistence that he is right and every one else is wrong? All the past evidence says yes to that. Pass the popcorn.

Saturday, 18 March 2023

Bring back Norman Wisdom


The story about Llangollen International Eisteddfod deciding to change its motto because Google Translate can’t translate it correctly is a sad sign of the times. The expert advice obtained by the Eisteddfod authorities (“Their unanimous advice was that the motto is beautiful when read with an understanding of the nuances of the Welsh language, but that for non-Welsh speakers and new generations of audiences and indeed Welsh speakers, the intended meaning is not clear enough.") seems reasonable enough (although the idea that new generations of Welsh speakers can’t understand the phrase “byd gwyn” should raise some concerns about the education system). It’s not a bad argument for having a different but parallel motto in English; the idea that the one has to be a direct translation of the other is a strange one. It’s not much of an argument for changing the original Welsh, though.

Where do we end if we start expunging phrases from Welsh because Google Translate can’t handle them? As an experiment, I tried asking Mr Google to translate “bwrw hen wragedd a ffyn”, a phrase which I don't think any Welsh speaker would have much difficulty understanding. The answer I got was “cast old women and sticks”, an ageist phrase which is obviously offensive to elderly humans of the female gender with its suggestion that it’s acceptable to throw them around the place. And I don’t doubt that there are many other idioms which we all use daily which will not always translate literally into English. Are we to strip them all out of the Welsh language because of the inadequacies of an automated translation software package?

And does the argument apply to all languages compared to all other languages (there are probably few phrases in any language which wouldn’t cause a problem sooner or later if literally translated into every other language)? Incidentally, it isn’t only Google that can struggle with idiom: there is a story about a meeting in the European Parliament where “Nous avons besoin de la sagesse normande” (la sagesse Normande being a French idiom for common sense) was translated by the interpreter as “We need Norman Wisdom”. A beautiful and entirely accurate literal translation, but utterly destroying the meaning of the speaker’s words. As it happens, Mr Google has the same problem with the phrase; it also gives Norman wisdom (albeit with a small w) as the translation of sagesse Normande.

Notwithstanding that the ‘problem’ demonstrably also affects other languages, I suspect that I know the answer to that question about the more general applicability of the proposed approach to other languages, sadly. As a nation, we have a more than unfortunate tendency to compare everything we do with our larger neighbour; for some, it seems that even the words we use can only be judged by comparison with any potential translation into English. It’s a sad reflection on us that the proposal for change has got as far as it has.

Friday, 17 March 2023

What are the odds?


The old joke is that you can tell when a politician is lying because his or her lips are moving. There is another rule as well, though, which is of less universal application, which is that denying things three times turns them into certainties. I think it was devised after Nixon had denied three times that he was going to resign – and then did. A variant of this applies to Boris Johnson – the more firmly and frequently he commits to doing (or not doing) something, the more certain it becomes that he will do the opposite of what he says he is or is not going to do.

The Guardian is reporting today that he has been reselected to stand in his current constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. It’s not the first time he has committed to standing there again, but being formally nominated and accepting the nomination surely increases the odds that he will, in fact, do something completely different. The Guardian’s sub-headline claims that this is “...quashing speculation that he might seek safer seat”. Au contraire; according to the Nixon rule, giving such a firm promise to the members of his party in that constituency merely increases the probability that he will indeed seek a safer seat. He has, after all, something of a reputation for firming up on promises before breaking them. And letting down people who depended on him is second nature. Time will tell, but today is probably a good day for those who enjoy a little flutter to visit their local bookie and lay a bet against him standing again in Uxbridge.

Thursday, 16 March 2023

Drifting apart


The main driver for the establishment of the European Convention of Human Rights in 1950, on which the European Court of Human Rights was based, was a certain Mr Churchill, and most of the drafting was done by British lawyers. It was heavily based on the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and was intended to provide a framework to prevent the sort of inhuman treatment of some groups which had bedevilled the European continent over the previous two decades. The values underpinning it were at that time generally (outside the UK at least) believed to be close to universal, with only rogue states declining to ratify the convention and join the court. It was one of the earliest and best achievements of pan-European co-operation and understanding.

It is strange that the state which did so much to ensure that it was written and implemented should now be the one most critical of its very existence. Even stranger is some of the language being used to justify that scepticism. A few days ago, the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman (and it continues to astound me that those four words can be used in conjunction), declared that "… it's a court which is politicised, …” and “I think sometimes the jurisprudence from the Strasbourg court is at odds with … British values more generally." For a court largely based on British values and the British interpretation of human rights to have strayed so far from its original mission would be quite a change. But wait – we need to allow for that strange Anglo-centric view of the world which has infected the Tory Party here. Because what’s changed isn’t the values – those ‘universal’ values – which were at the heart of the establishment of the court, but the values and beliefs of the English Government. Only a perverse Anglo-centric view of the world could conclude that it's everybody else who is out of step with ‘us’. And her suggestion that the court is politicised seems to be code for failing to do what the greatest nation on earth, as they see it, requires of it, which is to allow it to erode, step by step, those rights which the court is bound to uphold.

It might have been the British government and British lawyers who led the process of establishing the convention and the court, and the supremacists and exceptionalists amongst them (of which there were many) may well have believed that they were imposing British values on the rest of the continent in order to save it from itself, but they were not and are not exclusively British values. And they’re no longer even commonly-held in the UK. In the 1950s, it would probably have been fair to assume both that those values were commonly held across the UK and that many in the UK really did believe them to be uniquely British. Today, it is obvious that they are wrong on both counts. Not only is the English government increasingly an outlier within Europe, it is also becoming an outlier within the UK itself. The gulf between the values being expressed by the English government and those being expressed by the governments in Wales and Scotland is increasingly wide, and it’s hard to see how they can be reconciled in the long term. Whilst much of the debate around independence centres on economics, the question of shared values and a shared ethos is equally important. When those things no longer exist, what is the glue which makes people feel like part of a single whole? Just as England is drifting away from its continental neighbours, so it is also drifting away from those who share these islands with it.

Tuesday, 14 March 2023

EU red tape?


When major projects go wrong, there’s rarely a single, simple cause. That is obviously true in the case of HS2. Certainly it’s been hit by inflation (although the mathematical competence of anyone who argues that spreading the expenditure out over a longer period addresses that is open to serious challenge). The way that the UK has approached such projects is another, and mirrors one of the problems which has bedevilled the electrification of the GWR main line: disbanding the team after one project and starting from scratch a few years later on the next loses expertise and experience. Treating such projects as part of a rolling programme where the team moves from one project to the next, as other European countries have done, is a much more efficient and effective way of building and retaining experience and knowledge. An approach to getting approval which relies on individual business cases for each part of the project rather than taking a wider view (which is how we lost the electrification beyond Cardiff) is another peculiarity of Treasury thinking which makes major projects hard to build. And all that is without the complicated procedure for obtaining the various required consents, largely – to hear the Brexiteers talk – imposed by the EU when the UK was a member.

The visible result of this is a slow and disjointed approach to developing mass high-speed transport in the UK, whilst France, Spain and others have been building complete and coherent networks. One of the consequences is that France is able to talk about banning short haul domestic flights whilst the UK is busily promoting an increase in internal air services by adjusting the taxation regime. Whatever the reasons, it’s clear that construction and infrastructure projects in France can be progressed more quickly and effectively than they can in the UK.

I can’t help but wonder whether that was a factor in the announcement at the end of last week that the UK will pay France to build a detention centre for migrants. Under the new Migration Bill, the UK is going to need a great deal of additional capacity to hold detainees, a policy made especially difficult when Tory MPs (and even government ministers) oppose any and every such centre in their own constituencies. Given the inability of the UK government to build anything very much, it will be cheaper and quicker to pay France to build camps instead (although, unless they’re turning a tidy profit from doing so, the attraction to the French government is rather less clear). Obviously, France is not bound by the same EU red-tape and bureaucracy which is, apparently, doing so much to hold the UK back.

Monday, 13 March 2023

Taking offence


The Home Secretary is apparently issuing instructions to police forces to the effect that upholding freedom of speech is more important than acting on behalf of people who feel offended by what someone has said. I wonder if she’s talked recently with the other Suella Braverman, the one who declared she was offended by the words used by Gary Lineker. Perhaps she’ll tell all the Tory MPs demanding action against Lineker that they, and the BBC, are supposed to be supporting free speech, not being offended by his words, and that his right to say what he likes is more important than the rights of anyone who may be offended. Or is free speech limited only to those who say the ‘right’ thing (using the word ‘right’ in both senses)?

Friday, 10 March 2023

How many points does it take to make a good plan?

Perhaps there’s been some sort of deflationary process at work or perhaps attention spans are shorter, but I’m sure the answer used to be closer to ten than five. Maybe it’s just harder to think of ten. I can remember being part of a group of Plaid members picketing a hotel in Cardiff whilst Labour’s leader was in a meeting inside – back in the days of Michael Foot, I think, although the details escape me. To say that Plaid was a rather less well-organised party in those days would be putting it kindly; although we’d been encouraged to turn up, none of us were really sure what we were there for. It was Owen John, as I recall, who said that we had to come up with a ten-point list of demands – nothing less would do – to put to Labour, and then demand a meeting. Coming up with the first half dozen or so was the easy part; it was making the full ten in a way which was relevant to the occasion which caused us the problem. On my recollection (although as the late queen of England put it, “recollections may vary”) the picket petered out before we’d reached the magic number.

Anyway, ‘five’ seems to be the number to go for these days, with Sunak’s five plans (although in truth, the lack of detail makes them look more like five slogans) and Labour’s grandly-titled five missions (although the use of the word ‘mission’ conveys a sense of purpose which seems to be sadly lacking in the detail). In the war of the fives, Sunak has criticised Labour for omitting ‘stop the boats’ as a key mission. Yesterday, Labour revealed its plans for childcare (although ‘plan’ in this context looks more like a plan to develop a plan rather than a thought-out policy), an area which, in turn, seems to be missing from Sunak’s list of slogans. Whilst it’s true that ‘the boats’ is dominating the xenophobic tabloids and the news reports, I somehow suspect that the lack of affordable child care might be directly and personally impacting rather more people than a few arrivals along the south coast of England. So, half a cheer for Labour for choosing a rather better ditch to falsely promise to die in than Sunak.

Only half a cheer, though, because when we come to look at why Labour is proposing to develop a policy (this year, next year, sometime …), it appears that the motivation behind it is rather more grubby than it appeared at first sight. They have, apparently, identified 100 constituencies in which they think their new policy (whatever it is and whenever they announce it) will buy them enough votes to gain a majority in the Commons. And I use the word ‘buy’ deliberately – this is transactional politics in action. Their second argument is that getting more people (largely women) back to work in jobs which otherwise don’t pay enough to cover the cost of childcare whilst leaving a worthwhile income for household spending will boost the economy overall. I’m sure that it will, but this is another indication of how Labour has bought into capitalist ideology, and sees the role of the state as to increase the supply of labour rather than promote the fulfilment of individuals. It’s a better offer than the Tories are making, but being more competent at running the system is a) not exactly difficult, and b) not really changing very much. The availability (or lack) of free or cheap childcare is unquestionably holding people back, and Labour is right to recognise it. There is a danger, though, that we lose sight of the underlying problem, which is low pay. However it’s presented, state-funded childcare is a subsidy first and foremost to employers, not to employees, and it enables the continuation of a low wage economy, particularly for women. A real ‘mission’ would be to address that problem, not to apply a coat of fresh New Labour paint.

Thursday, 9 March 2023

Echoes of the past


In purely factual terms, the allegation by Gary Lineker that the language being used by Tory ministers in relation to asylum seekers and refugees “…is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s” is demonstrably true, and it takes very little digging through the things said at the time to establish that (although it might perhaps have been fairer to refer to ‘the German government’ or ‘some German politicians’ rather than ‘Germany’ as a whole). The response by Braverman (“Equating our measures – which are lawful, necessary and fundamentally compassionate – to 1930s Germany is irresponsible and I disagree with that characterisation”) is similar to the answer that the Nazis would have given – they would have described their policies as lawful, necessary and compassionate, too. It would have been no more true in their case than it is in Braverman's. It isn’t just the words which evoke the past, it’s also the actions. Detaining tens of thousands of people – probably in urgently established camps of some sort – without trial pending their expulsion also carries echoes of the same past, even if expulsion is considerably less extreme than the historical precedent which the proposal evokes.

Unfortunately, however, Lineker has effectively proved the underlying truth of Godwin’s Law, and that endangers the argument he was making. The debate then turns around whether the comparison was fair or not, or whether he should have drawn the comparison or not, rather than the substance of the comments he made – which were that “This is beyond awful” and “This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people”. His comments need no comparison with any historical precedent; they stand on their own terms. Whilst there is a good argument that BBC newsreaders and current affairs presenters should not express an opinion on the events they are covering (although, in practice, there is always something of a pro-establishment bias in the way news is presented, whoever forms the establishment at the time) it is far from clear that that rule of political impartiality needs to apply to those presenting sports programmes. And I very much doubt that he would have received the same criticism had he supported the government’s proposals.

On the substance of the issue – the detention and expulsion of tens of thousands of people without any legal process – the usual double standards and lies continue to apply. In defending his decision not to step down whilst he is investigated for bullying, Dominic Raab came out with this gem yesterday: “We believe in innocent till proven guilty in this country”. For cabinet ministers, obviously; for desperate and vulnerable people, rather less so. It is argued that they have broken the law by the very act of traversing the channel; but according to the principle enunciated by Raab, the determination of whether the law has been broken or not in the UK is a matter for due legal process, not ministerial dictat. Instead, detention and deportation with no trial or legal process is considered entirely adequate for refugees and asylum-seekers. Like most of the ‘British values’ to which ministers are forever referring, the application of the principle to which Raab refers is limited to the chosen ones. And that's another unfortunate echo of the past.

Tuesday, 7 March 2023

Just a minor problem, not a crisis


In the scale of things, the arrival of a few tens of thousands of people a year in small boats is a minor problem to one of the world’s richest countries. It’s only as high as it is because the UK Government has spent years trying to close down other, less obviously visible, routes for refugees to reach the UK, and the numbers coming here are smaller than those going to most of our major European neighbours. Yet, to hear the government talking and to read some of the more lurid stories in the tabloids, it would be easy to see how people could come to believe that it's actually a major crisis. The main factor that turns it into a ‘crisis’ is government rhetoric, past and present, using the issue to divert attention from more pressing questions such as the rising cost of living, and to blame refugees and immigrants for the manifest failings of government.

And so we are to be presented with yet another attempt at legislation to ‘stop the boats’; legislation which is as likely to be effective as anything else they’ve done so far (i.e. hardly at all), setting themselves up for another failure on the ground which can nevertheless be presented to that racist and xenophobic section of the electorate to which the Tory Party now seeks to appeal as being ‘tough’ action. Whether the new law is entirely in line with the UK’s international obligations under treaties to which the UK is a signatory is currently an unresolved question – the Telegraph (paywall) is reporting that, “…it will be stated in the Bill that the new laws may not be compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights”. The willingness of the Tory Party – which long prided itself on being the party of law and order – to break international law whenever it feels like doing so didn’t go away with the last-but-one Prime Minister.

The Bill is likely, according to the Guardian, “…to place a legal duty on the home secretary to detain and remove nearly all asylum seekers who arrive “irregularly””. Given the limited capacity of the Rwanda scheme (around 200 per year) and the fact that the UK government has very few agreements in place with other countries to return immigrants either to their own country or to the last country they were in before reaching the UK (having effectively torn up the latter as part of Brexit), this will lead to a need to detain large numbers of people, indefinitely, with no legal redress available to them. The Times reports that, “…there will be new powers to enable the mass detention of tens of thousands of people every year before their removal.” The idea that the government can give itself the power to round up and detain tens of thousands of people every year with no court process is one which should frighten all of us. The idea that there is a majority in parliament in favour of such draconian action ought to be provoking much more reaction than it is. The UK is a failing state. The belief that the new law will somehow act as a deterrent and stop people attempting the journey shows a failure to understand how desperate people are. Quite apart from anything else, the refugees and those despicable people who make money by trafficking them are as capable as anyone of seeing that the UK is simply incapable of removing such numbers of people, and that building or requisitioning places to hold tens of thousands more people every year is not going to be sustainable for long.

It's not about controlling borders or reducing immigration at all (the UK economy has a major need for the labour which could be provided with a more humane approach), it’s about seeking votes on the back of treating people inhumanely. Depressingly, it might even work to some extent. We should never forget, though, that a government which demonises and mistreats one group of people one day to serve its own narrow electoral ends is perfectly capable of picking on another group the next day. There are those who look at what the UK government is doing and say ‘this is not who we are’. In truth, if we allow it to happen, this is exactly who we are.

Saturday, 4 March 2023

Now that was a cunning plan


Once in a while, politics produces a huge surprise; the scales fall from my eyes and I realise that I’ve got something totally wrong. Take the lockdown parties in Downing Street, for example. I had foolishly followed the public narrative that these were organised by the then PM and those around him, and that they were, in consequence, guilty of repeatedly breaking the rules that they themselves had made. From statements made by Johnson and some of his acolytes yesterday and today, I now know that those parties were in fact organised by ‘Keith’ Starmer, as part of a cunning plan to bring down the government. It was Keith who arranged the delivery of that infamous wine fridge, and who visited the local supermarket in disguise to fill a suitcase with bottles of wine. His plan was so well thought-out that he even arranged for the Cabinet Secretary to be personally compromised by his attendance at one of Keith’s soirees, in full knowledge that any subsequent investigation would be delegated to the Labour Party’s mole in government, Sue Gray. But the most cunning part of all is that he managed to do all of these things without leaving a single trace of evidence to implicate himself. I can understand why Jake and Mad Nad are so angry. Indeed, it is the very thoroughness with which Keith has managed to expunge all the relevant e-mails and What’s App messages which is the strongest proof of his intimate involvement in the plan. No innocent person would have gone to such extreme lengths. I’m just waiting to hear how it was Keith who arranged for the Tory membership to elect Liz Truss to replace Johnson. It’s quite some conspiracy.

As is often the case, though, I find myself wondering whether those making these claims have really thought through the implications. I mean if Keith is so clever, competent and cunning as to be able to organise all this over many months and years, even getting his mole into position years ago, and if Boris and his gang are so stupid, gullible and incompetent that they fell into the trap so completely, doesn’t that rather suggest that Keith might be more suited to the top job than Boris?

Friday, 3 March 2023

What flavour is pride?


In the worst days of the old Soviet Union, there were regular shortages of almost everything. Not just life’s luxuries, but even essentials, such as bread. When word got out that a shop had managed to get a supply, queues would rapidly form and people would patiently wait their turn, hoping that there would still be some left by the time they got to the head of the queue. Some might have felt a sense of stoicism at their ability to withstand shortages and muddle through somehow, but for most it was a feeling of resignation and acceptance. It was just the way things were: criticism and protest were tightly controlled and potentially fatal, even if they could spare the time to engage in such activities. The reality was that they had little choice but to spend many hours queueing first for one product, then for another and for many that became their prime focus. It’s doubtful that many saw the situation as a source of pride in being Russian. And the elites, of course, had their own secure supplies, including luxuries as well as the basics.

Post-Brexit Britain hasn’t reached anything like that situation, although it sometimes seems as though the government is trying hard to emulate Soviet Russia. It isn’t just shortages, first of one thing, then of another. There is a more general sense of decline; a feeling that nothing quite works any more. The political elite looking after their own would be familiar to those queuing Russians, as would the feeling of hopelessness to do anything about it. The expectation that tomorrow will be much like today is becoming more deeply embedded in the collective consciousness, as the hope for a better tomorrow recedes ever further into the future. And as the Russian elites found, to their delight, forcing people to concentrate on keeping body and soul together is a wonderfully effective vaccine against protest and dissent. There is one big difference, however. In the UK, in 2023, the government actually expects us all to take pride in the way that we cope with all the problems which they have created, by appealing to something called the ‘blitz spirit’. It’s very much a redacted view of what happened during the war years, but it somehow seems to work with a particular demographic – mostly those who aren’t old enough to remember what really happened, but who carry an idealized understanding passed on by their parents. Stalin would have been astounded at the effectiveness of the approach.

It reminds me of a story I’ve referred to in the past. And it’s still true that some of us would find it a lot easier to be proud of being British if things worked as they were supposed to and goods were available when wanted. Pride comes in different flavours, I suppose.

Thursday, 2 March 2023

Deeply-held principles


Fair play to Rishi Sunak. He’s truly an amazing character. Not quite up there with the Queen of Hearts, though, who could believe six impossible things before breakfast, but clearly working towards it. Having been utterly convinced for some years that membership of the European Single Market was a disaster for the UK, he’s now discovered that being part of that market whilst also being part of the UK is a truly unique, world-leading position for Northern Ireland. He still, apparently, believes that it would be disastrous for England, Wales or Scotland, all of which enjoyed precisely those advantages before he and his mates came and took them away. All he has to do now is convince his own party that close alignment with the Single Market is simultaneously a huge advantage and a disastrous constraint, depending on where he happens to be in the UK at the time. Schrodinger’s PM.

His real achievement, though, is the so-called Stormont brake. Under his predecessors, the basic plan was that the UK government would take unto itself under UK law the right to abrogate its treaty obligations under the Agreement with the EU, and then stand back and watch the EU apply sanctions and start a trade war. Under Sunak’s new, improved, operating manual for the Brexit deal, the NI Assembly can unilaterally disapply any new EU rule (but not, apparently, any pre-existing rule) if enough members from two different parties can agree so to do, and if the new rule can be shown to be non-trivial and have a significant impact on the lives of people in Northern Ireland. If the DUP manages to jump through all those hoops, then the matter will be discussed between the EU and the UK Government, a discussion from which there are three possible outcomes. The first is that they agree to disapply the rule, the second is that they agree not to disapply the rule, in which case the UK government overrules Stormont (power devolved is power retained…), and the third is that they disagree, in which case the UK can unilaterally disapply the rule and stand back and watch the EU respond with sanctions and a trade war. Sunak’s next mission is to convince the DUP and the extremists in his own party (two groups not used to dealing in rational argument at the best of times) to agree that this is a huge change from the position from which he started. It isn’t, of course; but Sunak’s ‘success’ depends on those groups having an equally flexible approach to their deeply held principles. By a lucky ‘coincidence’, that may even turn out to be a valid assumption.

Monday, 27 February 2023

Ideology hasn't gone away


Something that this blog has touched on from time to time is the idea that ideology is no longer relevant, or that we live in some sort of ‘post-ideological’ world, as I’ve seen some politicians describe it. It isn’t true. Different ideological perspectives haven’t gone away at all; they are just not represented in the main political parties, and don’t form part of mainstream political debate. The two main UK parties have both bought in to the same ideology, and argument between them is more about whether, and to what extent, the effects of their common ideology should be mitigated than about whether the underlying tenets of that ideology should be challenged and debated. This article on Nation.Cymru a couple of days ago referred to the same issue, albeit that it wasn’t always clear about the distinction between principles and ideas on the one hand and underlying ideology on the other.

It isn’t easy to try and sum up an ideology in a few words for the purposes of a short blog post, but if I had to pick out some of the key elements of the capitalist ideology which constrains mainstream political debate in the UK, I would pick the following four points:

1.    Competition (between individuals, organisations, and states) is generally to be preferred over co-operation,

2.    The objective of the economy is the generation and accumulation of wealth, and the purpose of the state is to facilitate that aim,

3.    Success, whether for an individual, an organisation, or a state, is measured in terms of the amount of wealth accumulated, and

4.    The role of citizens is to serve the economy and the state in the generation and accumulation of wealth.

The difference between Labour and Tory isn’t about any of those underlying beliefs, it is about the detail of policy resulting from them – Labour want to make the distribution of the accumulated wealth a little less unfair, and want to help the least privileged to be better able to compete with others and to fulfil their allotted role in the economy. These may be worthy aims, but they don’t represent an ideological difference. They might argue that small, gradual, and incremental changes are all that’s possible in current circumstances, and making small improvements to people’s lives is worthwhile in itself. I don’t totally disagree with that: for the disadvantaged, even a small improvement is better than nothing. There is, though, no reframing of how things could be; no great vision for a better world. The difference is between sects within an ideology rather than between different ideological perspectives.

One alternative ideological perspective would be to re-write points 1 to 4 above as follows:

1.    Co-operation (between individuals, organisations, and states) is generally to be preferred over competition,

2.    The objective of the economy is to secure the fulfilment and happiness of the population, and the purpose of the state is to facilitate that aim,

3.    Success, whether for an individual, an organisation, or a state, is measured in terms of the extent to which people are happy and able to lead fulfilled lives,

4.    The role of the economy and the state is to serve citizens in the achievement of the above.

It would be silly, of course, to ignore the role of ‘wealth’ in its widest sense in enabling the alternative view. Money may not buy happiness, but its absence is a sure-fire way of making people unhappy. But the policy differences stemming from the second perspective are much more significant than a little bit of redistribution here, and a bit of extra help there. An education system aimed at developing people’s potential, and at having a well-educated population as a goal in itself, rather than a population only trained to do the work required is one. An understanding that ‘wealth’ ultimately boils down to ‘access to resources’, and that a resource-constrained world needs to agree on how to share those resources fairly for the benefit of all is another.

I’m not naïve enough to believe that we can get from where we are to where we could be overnight, although we certainly won’t get there by not trying. But the alternative vision isn’t even being presented; those for whom ‘there is no alternative’, to coin a phrase, have successfully closed the Overton window to a narrow interdenominational debate with the constraints of their own ideology. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Friday, 24 February 2023

Something in the water?


Perhaps they’re just stupid, or maybe there’s something in the ‘water’ that they’re drinking, but it increasingly appears that some Tories can’t see a hole without jumping into it and digging it deeper. I suppose the Environment Secretary’s Press Officer might have had a day off, but he or she would not have been doing the job very well if they had not anticipated the “Let them eat Turnips” headline which followed the minister’s statement to MPs. The basic point she was making – that it is preferable to eat what happens to be in season – is eminently sensible, albeit unlikely to prove terribly popular with people who have become accustomed to year-round availability. To say nothing of the inherent contradiction with the Brexiteers’ message that Brexit would not impact the availability of products on UK supermarket shelves. And who wants to live on turnips anyway, even if it were possible for supply to immediately follow demand in the oversimplistic way that economics tends to assume.

There is, of course, some debate about the extent to which Brexit is to blame for what will surely be known to future generations as the Great Tomato Crisis of 2023. Those Tory MPs denying the impact of Brexit on the shortage are surely right to argue that voting for Brexit didn’t cause storms in Spain or frosts in Morocco, but that doesn’t entirely explain the empirical fact that the shortages are not being replicated across the EU. If suppliers can’t meet all the demand, it would not be surprising if they took the easy way out of supplying those countries to which they can export hassle-free rather than the country which has imposed swingeing economic sanctions on itself by erecting barriers to trade and committing itself to putting further obstacles in place in the future. Brexit is at least part of the problem.

It isn’t, however, the full story. A report on the BBC a few days ago also drew attention to the different procurement models in operation, suggesting that UK supermarkets have signed long-term deals with suppliers so that prices are fixed for 18 months, whereas EU supermarkets tend to buy their fruit and vegetables on a month by month basis at the spot price applying at the time. The UK’s approach works well if supplies are plentiful and stable: both supplier and purchaser have a degree of certainty. Suppliers can plan their seasonal activity well in advance, and retailers can keep prices stable for end-consumers. It falls down, though, when there is a disruption to supply. If producers, forced to prioritise, can get a higher price in the short term by prioritising customers prepared to pay more and with less paperwork and hassle, why wouldn’t they do exactly that?

There’s a wider issue here as well. ‘Procurement improvements’ are often touted by politicians as some sort of ‘efficiency saving’, and it’s true that better procurement can bring savings to the organisation doing the procurement. There are usually costs and consequences to someone else, however. Combining procurement needs for several departments or, in the public sector, for several different organisations (it might well be called a cartel if the private sector did the same thing) can make it harder for small local companies to supply goods and services; but using larger, more remote companies helps to leach cash out of a local economy. And whilst one of the other common tricks – using purchasing power to demand more credit by taking longer to pay invoices – improves the cash flow of the buyer, it has precisely the opposite effect on the supplier. What looks attractive at the micro level to the organisation(s) wielding the purchasing power can be a lot less so at the macro level for local workers and companies in general.

By unfortunate coincidence, the Labour Party announced a few days ago that one of the ways in which they are going to pay for their programme in government (because they’re hooked on the fantasy that everything has to be fully costed) is by improvements to public sector procurement. I’m sure that they’ll even put a specific sum of money on the benefit, even though the actual number is necessarily unknowable. They are unlikely to spell out the consequences for other parts of the economy, but consequences there will be (there always are) even if unintended. They’ve probably been drinking the same ‘water’.

Thursday, 23 February 2023

What are parties for?


It’s rather more than half a century since I read Bob McKenzie’s tome on British Political Parties, so my memory of the detail is more than a little hazy. My main takeaway from the book was that the Conservative and Labour parties, despite starting from very different places, had ended up, organizationally at least, in a very similar place. The Conservative Party started in parliament as a grouping of members elected as individuals, and only later set up any organisation outside parliament in the form of local associations to support those individuals. Indeed, as I recall, despite the party having been founded almost two centuries ago, for most of that time, only MPs could join the ‘party’; mere plebs could only join their local association. Labour, on the other hand, was founded outside parliament, as a democratic movement, with the aim of achieving the policy objectives defined by its members. Both have ended up, with the brief aberration of the Corbyn years, as parties largely run by their elected MPs; both leaderships see their memberships as being there to serve them, rather than the other way around.

That which has happened in organisational terms has been reflected in policy terms as well. ‘Policy’ has become that which they say to win votes (and is most definitely not to be confused with what they will do if actually elected). It’s an exaggeration (to which I’ve sometimes been prone myself) to argue that there is ‘no’ difference between them, but the difference between vicious uncaring austerity on the one hand and austerity with a caring face and a few minor mitigations on the other is hardly a difference of ideological outlook. The point is that, on all the main points of neoliberal economics, the two parties are singing from the same hymn sheet, even if one is the tenor and the other the bass. For both of them, the only conceivable answer to the question ‘what are political parties for?’ has become ‘ensuring the election of this gang rather than that gang’ instead of presenting voters with any sort of real choice of futures.

It leads to articles like this one from the Guardian, where the author argues that the Labour Party leadership has a duty to restrict the influence of mere members on its policies and leaders. Far better to let MPs be the judge, apparently. There are similar murmurings within the Conservative Party about the dangers of allowing ordinary members any sort of role in selecting their leader. (Although, after the Truss debacle, it’s easy to see why people might think that.) It’s the sort of view of what political parties are about which leads to this sort of nonsense, advocating that the SNP should drop their demand for independence and choose some other mission in the light of their failure to win over a clear majority. It reminds me of Phil Williams’s old story about the man who came up to him and said, “If only you’d drop this nonsense about independence, Plaid Cymru would sweep the Valleys”. Well, yes. Or, perhaps, maybe. It's not something that’s ever been tried, although there have been periods where it seemed that some Plaid figures were at least flirting with the idea. There was another article by Martin Shipton in the Western Mail a week or so ago (unable to find it online) about Plaid’s launch of its new strategy. It contained a number of valid points and criticisms, but one of his points was that Plaid’s new platform looked remarkably similar to the previous one. Both that and the Telegraph miss the point: if a party believes that its proposals are the right ones for the country in which it operates, failure to persuade the populace at large doesn’t make them the wrong ones. Unless, of course, you start from the prevailing Labour-Tory belief that parties are just about getting elected, not about what they do afterwards.

Some argue that we are in a period of post-ideological politics, where minor differences of approach are all that there are. That is testimony to the success of capitalist ideology in convincing enough people that it isn’t an ideology at all. (Spoiler: it is.) And in the case of the UK, an electoral system which polarises people into two main parties, both of which believe that they are fighting for voters exclusively in the so-called ‘centre’, reinforces the expectation that the future will always be much like the past. Breaking through that is never going to be easy, but it’s an absolute certainty that accepting the basic premise is not the way of doing it.

Monday, 20 February 2023

No way out for Sunak


Poor Rishi Sunak. All the indications are that he has gone into the negotiations with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol with the honest but completely mistaken view that he was trying to make the agreement signed by his predecessor but one work, and that the way to do that was to be reasonable and reach an agreement which would benefit all the stakeholders involved. He’s now finding out just how wrong he was; the objective of those opposing the agreement – including those who originally negotiated and agreed it – is not to make it work but to destroy it. The man responsible for the original agreement has never concealed, from the outset, the fact that he never had any intention of implementing it. Indeed, he made it so clear that it’s easy to understand his surprise at the idea that the EU ever thought he was being serious. The EU were taken completely unawares, despite all the evidence to help them, to find out that they were dealing with liars all along. 

In fairness to the Brexiteers, they have been fairly consistent in saying that what they want is full access to the EU single market without following any of the rules which member states have to follow, on the basis that this would give UK companies a competitive advantage. They’re right – it would indeed do that. Which is why no-one other than the English exceptionalists behind Brexit (and their DUP allies) ever thought for one moment that the EU would concede such an arrangement. In essence, it’s what those in favour of a ‘pure’ form of free trade have always wanted – trade with no tariffs, no border controls and no rules. And they genuinely seem to be so divorced from reality that they actually believed that they could bludgeon the EU into giving them such a deal.

We don’t yet know the detail of what Sunak has or has not agreed, although it would be surprising if it was far away from what has been widely reported in the press. And from that reporting, it looks like it’s little different from what could have been achieved in the original negotiation had the UK side been willing to take the time to discuss and agree rather than make threats and then sign up in haste (to 'get Brexit done') to something that they were never going to implement. It’s unlikely, though, that anything that is agreed will be acceptable to the DUP or the Tory extremists if it leaves any trace of EU laws or rules in Northern Ireland, or any hint of controls on the movement of goods between Northern Ireland and the UK. It's equally unlikely that the EU will agree to any deal which does not uphold both those things. And that would lead us, inexorably, to the establishment of border controls on the island of Ireland. The Brexiteers would say that isn’t what they want (although the DUP would probably be delighted). They might even be telling the truth on that, but only because they’ve always believed two things:

·        Firstly (even if few of them have said it out loud), that the Republic of Ireland should know its place and follow the UK out of the EU, preferably re-joining the UK and swearing loyalty to the English monarchy at the same time. Their attitude towards Ireland is a bit like that of Putin towards Ukraine – it’s not a proper country and has no real right to a separate existence.

·        Secondly, that the UK’s departure would be the beginning of the end for the EU, which is still the end-game for many of them.

Where that leaves Sunak and his renegotiation is a big question. There is some doubt about whether he actually needs to put his deal to Parliament at all. Under the UK’s arcane system of semi-democracy, it arguably falls under the royal prerogative, meaning that ministers can just sign it and implement it. It would make him look frightened and weak, but he might prefer that to the alternative scenario where he puts it to parliament and it gets passed by opposition votes with a huge number of Tories voting against it. Rocks and hard places both leave him weakened, with the blond-headed shark circling maliciously. And both still leave the Conservative Party unmanageable and drifting as it attempts to reconcile the two irreconcilably opposing views on Europe which have destroyed so many of its leaders over the past three decades. In any functioning democracy, these two views would be represented by two different parties, but an outdated electoral system which polarises elections between two parties means that both try to manage differences within a broad church. Traditionally, that’s been more of a problem for Labour than the Tories, but it increasingly looks as if it might turn out to be terminal for the Tories. The coming implosion is almost too kind a way out.

Friday, 17 February 2023

Valuing outcomes over process


One of the things I learned about running projects during my working life is that process is as important as outcome. And at the risk of being accused of a gross act of gender stereotyping, it also appeared to me that it was often (but not exclusively) men who fixated on outcomes, whilst women were often at least as interested in the process by which those outcomes were achieved. Success – at least in terms of carrying people with you – necessarily involves paying attention to both aspects. One of my great hopes for the Senedd (or Assembly as was) was always that achieving a gender balance might lead to a kinder form of politics in which the process of arriving at outcomes was given rather more importance than ever seemed to be the case in Westminster – that is to say that it would harness the best of both approaches. I haven’t been entirely disappointed, but then neither have things worked out quite as I would have hoped (especially, it has to be said, from the Conservative ranks).

At first sight, Rishi Sunak’s decision to use the Section 35 process to block the Scottish Gender Recognition Reform Act might well look like a clever move. After all, there are elements of the Act which leave some SNP MSPs – to say nothing of party members or voters – very unhappy, and if you’re going to choose a battlefield, one where the enemy is divided is better than one where he is united. It is, though, a classic example of confusing outcomes with process. And probably deliberately so. The problem doesn’t start and end with Sunak and the Tories either. Labour’s parliamentary opposition to devolving the right to Wales to review gender recognition rules here (despite the views of Labour MSPs), and what looks like implicit support for Sunak on this issue, seems to be based on similar considerations. It’s not at all clear whether, or to what extent, the problems over this particular legislation played a part in the announcement this week of the Scottish First Minister’s resignation, nor whether her successor will do what she said she was going to do and challenge the UK government’s decision in the courts. Given the divisions within the SNP on the substantive issue, it’s a tough call; but leaving the decision unchallenged serves only to emphasise the reality of devolution: real power remains in London.

A few days ago, Simon Jenkins wrote a column for the Guardian in which he argued that there has always been another route to independence, via the infamous ‘devo-max’ referred to by Gordon Brown and others at the time of the last independence referendum. I suspect that he’s entirely right in his suggestion that had that third option been on the ballot paper in 2014, it would have secured an easy majority over both independence and the status quo. That’s partly, at least, because ‘devo-max’ is – and always has been – an ill-defined proposition which means different things to different people. The likelihood that legislation passed by either the Tories or Labour in London would have matched the expectations raised by the term must surely be close to zero, meaning that it would have resolved nothing. We have, after all, seen what they did with the famous ‘Vow’, which was effectively gutted by the parties who signed up to it. But, even supposing that ‘devo-max’ legislation had been written and passed, both Labour and the Tories would certainly have inserted the equivalent of Section 35 somewhere; at the end of the day, whatever the extent of devolution, however the legislation is framed, power devolved will always mean power retained.

There is one, and only one, way of bringing about anything remotely resembling a federal UK, and that is to start from a position where each of the member countries is assumed to be independent and they then come together as equals to agree which powers (if any) are better pooled and shared. Voluntary pooling of sovereignty on the one hand, and the centre ‘allowing’ specified powers to be exercised for the time being by devolved legislatures on the other, are two completely different animals. It’s not a distinction which the main UK parties are capable of making; for them, achieving their desired outcome (maintenance of a unified state) will always trump considerations of process and buy-in.

Thursday, 16 February 2023

Welsh Labour too comfortable by far


One of the big issues surrounding the actions which we need to take to avoid climate change is that, whilst most politicians (excluding the fringe elements who choose to believe that the whole question of man-made climate change is either a hoax or a conspiracy) know what needs to be done, they fear doing it because they know that the actions required will be unpopular. For all the polls which show that most of us want our politicians to act, almost every individual action proposed meets with opposition. And sometimes that opposition even comes from the politicians professing their whole-hearted commitment to action, as in those who support wind energy as long as it’s in someone else’s constituency. A classic example of the problem is transport. There’s plenty of research which shows that whilst building roads alleviates congestion in the short term, in the longer term it simply leads to more traffic. Cutting private car use is one of those things which is popular in the abstract but unpopular in the specific.

To be able to tackle this sort of problem, two things are needed. The first is a government the opposition to which is divided and either unpopular or else trying to appeal to such widely disparate constituencies that the government is likely to be re-elected in one form or another, almost regardless of what it does. There are sham democracies – more like dictatorships as a rule – which more or less fit the bill, but the stand-out example which strikes me is our very own Welsh Government in Cardiff. It doesn’t matter how badly it does, on education, health, or whatever: a combination of deeply-held loyalty to one party over generations and an aversion to some or all of the alternatives makes it likely that Labour could do almost anything and still win. Well, maybe not quite anything, but almost. So if there were a government anywhere in the world which might try and call a halt to almost all road-building, Wales just might be the place. There will be protests, of course. People not getting their by-passes or long-awaited improvements will complain, and the ‘Welsh’ Conservatives will huff and puff in their usual irrelevant and hyperbolic style. But no-one will listen much, and Labour will still end up as the largest party after the next Senedd election, and continue to lead the government.

For the policy to be a ‘success’ however (rather than just avoiding any consequent electoral failure, which is a very limited definition of success) it needs to be accompanied by a rapid and dramatic improvement in the availability, comfort and reliability of public transport. And, ironically, the precise conditions which make it viable for the Welsh Labour government to get away with the first also, sadly, make it possible for it to fail on the second with equal impunity. It looks to be well on course to do so. It really isn’t enough to talk about improvements in the distant future, nor about responding to demand. Encouraging public transport use requires that transport to be available in advance of demand; use needs to be driven by provision rather than provision being driven retrospectively by usage. Fast, frequent, comfortable, reliable, with seats always available – these are key elements, even if expensive in the context of what is a largely rural and sparsely populated country. There is no obvious sign that the government understands this well enough to move away from the Treasury approach of a narrow cost-benefit analysis of each individual proposal.

Nor should we really expect that there will be. That sort of thinking requires the will to break free of the constraints imposed by the UK Treasury as an inherent part of the devolution settlement, and the comfortable – unchallengeable, even – position in which the Welsh government finds itself does not encourage that sort of thinking, even if its members were capable of it. The same factors – complacency, comfort, and unlikelihood of defeat  which make it possible for Wales to try a revolutionary approach also make it nigh-on impossible for us to see it through to its logical conclusion.

Monday, 13 February 2023

Applying the same rules to all


One of the ever-increasing number of living former Conservative leaders, Iain Duncan Smith, has called for a Chinese official to be arrested and detained pending prosecution for human rights abuses, if he should set foot in the UK. Apart from the diplomatic niceties involved in detaining officials of foreign governments (however repulsive they might be considered to be) and especially so in the case of one of the world’s superpowers, it is a core principle of English law that any accused person is innocent until proven guilty. The evidence is strong in this case, but until found guilty by a properly-convened court of law, there has to be a presumption of innocence, and the offences have to be ‘alleged’ or ‘suspected’ in the meantime. I find myself wondering whether this beknighted individual has really thought through the consequences of his suggestion. If other countries adopted the same approach, wouldn’t that make some members of the current UK parliament subject to summary arrest and detention every time they set foot in another country? Apart from current court cases challenging whether existing plans conform to human rights agreements and treaties, there is clear evidence – not least from their own statements – that members of the government are actively planning to abrogate the UK’s duties and responsibilities in respect of human rights. Duncan Smith’s proposal might have some merit, especially if we could persuade him to take a nice little trip to somewhere which applies the approach he is proposing.