Friday 31 March 2023

Sunak and simple algebra


The Prime Minister has told us previously of his concern about the fact that so many people have a poor grasp of mathematics. His own government is far from immune from the problem. They announced this week that they would be moving asylum-seekers into former military camps in order to save money on hotel bills, but a little bit of simple algebra is all it takes to throw more than a few small doubts over that claim. Perhaps I can help a little. If x is the reduction in the number of migrants staying in hotels, then the factors in the equation are as follows:

·        Let a be the number in hotels at the outset,

·        Let b be the number given leave to remain,

·        Let c be the number deported,

·        Let d be the number moved to former military camps, and

·        Let e be the additional number detained over the coming 12 months.

That gives us a simple equation: x (or the reduction in a) = b + c + d - e.

And we can put rough numbers to those factors. We know that a is approximately 51,000, because the government has told us so. We know that, of those whose cases are assessed, more than 80% end up being given leave to remain, but we also know that over a 12 month period, not all those cases will be assessed because there is a huge backlog. Some estimates suggest that the proportion of those 51,000 whose claims will be assessed in the next 6 months could be as low as 10% based on current performance, but let us assume that the government actually manages a huge improvement and deals with just over 50% in a year, or 26,000. Of those around 20,800 (b) would be given leave to remain, with the remaining 5,200 earmarked for deportation. Except that the status of the Rwanda deal is such that it is unlikely that anyone will be deported there in the near future, and there are no other returns agreements in place other than that with Albania, so the number of deportations (c) is likely to be close to zero. The three former military camps are reported to be able to house up to around 3,000 each at most, so d is maybe 9,000. Finally, the move to detain all arrivals in future, at the current rate of arrivals, gives us an extra 50,000 a year (e), a number which, due to climate change, famine and war, to say nothing of reductions in overseas aid, is likely only to increase.

That gives us x = 20,800 + 0 + 9,000 - 50,000, or a grand total of -20200. In other words (because the answer is a negative number) the number requiring to be housed in hotels will go up, rather than down. And substantially so. One can vary the assumptions and guesses, of course – but there is no credible set of assumptions which doesn’t result in a negative reduction – except for those which depend on magical thinking rather than mathematics and logic. Eliminating the backlog by the end of the year, deporting 20,000 plus each year – these are the assumptions of fantasists. But the biggest fantasy of all is that housing people in camps, or on boats, and reducing the provision for them to the bare minimum to sustain their existence is going to lead them to decide to stay in places ravaged by war, hunger and poverty when they can see that a better life is possible.

I suspect that the government’s justification for making the provision more basic, i.e. that it is unfair to give migrants more help than we give ‘to our own’, will strike a chord with some. It’s repeating a line that I read far too often on various social media; it’s a way of breeding and encouraging resentment against others. Divide and rule. We should remember, though, that if two groups are being treated unequally, bringing the one down to the level of the other isn’t the only way of achieving an equitable balance. Why is the provision for ‘our own’ so basic in the first place? We could even give the alternative approach a fancy name – something like ‘levelling up’ perhaps?

Wednesday 29 March 2023

To strive, not to succeed


A political strategy which depends on appealing to a certain section of the electorate by demonising and persecuting an identifiable group of people faces a serious problem should the stated objective ever be achieved: it would need to find another identifiable group to persecute instead. Far better to demonstrate the effort being made to tackle the problem without ever actually succeeding. The Tories may shout “Stop the Boats”, but in reality that is the last thing they want. Take away that slogan and what do they stand for; what is their appeal to that particular section of the electorate? It might be argued that they could then claim the credit for the success, but that’s not likely to be a very long-lived benefit. No, the Tories need the boats to keep coming in order to demonstrate their strength and resolve in tackling the problem.

Whilst some of their more extreme members haven’t worked out yet that the objective is not to succeed but merely to strive and are demanding that the UK withdraw from any conventions which might stand in the way, the PM himself realises that the political advantage which he seeks lies in the battle, not the victory. Tough rhetoric coupled with draconian-sounding laws which can never be effective is the starting point, but he actually needs the international courts to stand in his way and obstruct the government. That’s an essential part of the performance. Paying Rwanda to take a few asylum-seekers (maybe, sometime, perhaps) whilst turning a blind eye to Rwandan actions which drive more people into becoming refugees is another. And then we have the ‘revelation’ that the UK is diverting money from overseas aid to pay for dealing with the refugees once they arrive in the UK. Few things could do more to ensure that the flow of refugees continues than diverting money from addressing poverty, famine, and natural disasters in the poorest countries and spending it in one of the richest.

The success of the strategy depends not on achieving the stated objective, but on being seen to forever tweak it and find others to blame for its failure. And, of course, on the gullibility of the relevant electors, aided and abetted by those sections of the media which actually give it credence. Perversely, the best hope of defeating it might be the enemy within the Tory Party, in the shape of a certain Boris Johnson. No, not in the sense of changing anything the government does; more in the sense of diverting attention away from the perpetual war against immigrants and reminding people of other aspects of modern conservatism, such as sleaze, dishonesty, entitlement and self-enrichment. If there’s one person willing to serve up a never-ending dose of diversionary news, we probably couldn’t hope for better than Johnson. I find myself almost hoping that a by-election is called and that he wins it. Second best is no by-election and the thorn remains very firmly in the side, ensuring that Sunak continues to limp along, frustrated at every turn by the latest news from the deluded inhabitants of Borisworld. Fun though it might be to watch, sadly none of it helps refugees or potential refugees, and worst of all, there are no signs that the potential alternative UK government will be any more sympathetic, or even try to be; it will merely seek to be more ‘efficient’ at dealing with the perceived ‘problem’. As ever, the poorest and most vulnerable are bit actors, whose fate is of no concern. It should be.

Monday 27 March 2023

Who's the baddest of them all?


The PM is out and about today promoting his latest plans for persecuting those who commit anti-social behaviour. The Labour opposition is bitterly complaining that all he’s done is stolen and watered down their own plans for the same problem. It’s turning into a competition to see who can propose the most authoritarian measures, although they haven’t yet started an argument about what colour jumpsuits the offenders should be wearing, and neither (so far) has repeated the call a certain Boris Johnson made for them to be chained together to add to their shame and discomfort.

There is no doubt that ‘anti-social behaviour’ is a serious nuisance in some communities (although the definition isn’t really as obvious as some seem to think), nor that it is often the poorest communities which suffer most (which is not the same as saying that’s where the law is most assiduously enforced). And I suspect that many of those plagued by it would rather like to see their tormentors beavering away at their community service in fluorescent clothing. And yet the idea that police will be given more powers to dispense some sort of instant justice leave me more than a little uneasy – and that would be so even if we hadn’t had strong evidence last week that some police officers really can’t be trusted to act fairly without favour, and not to take advantage of their position. It’s not a new idea, of course: it was Tony Blair who wanted to empower police to march people to the nearest cash-point and take money from them on the spot (a very middle-class view if ever there was one, with its assumption that everyone had a cash card and could just withdraw substantial sums from their bank at will). We should also never forget that what they are willing to do with one group of citizens today, they will probably be happy to do to another group tomorrow.

The real question should be about what we are, collectively, trying to achieve. That, in turn, is connected with the age-old question about the purpose of the justice system – deterrent, punishment, or re-education? The answer, from Tory and Labour alike, seems to be first and foremost punishment, with an assumption (based on very little hard evidence) that punishment is in itself a deterrent. And the more obvious and embarrassing that punishment is, the better. It’s not at all clear to me, though, that that is the ‘right’ answer. The more desirable objective is surely that people feel enough common ownership to value facilities rather than vandalise them; that they feel enough membership of the community to consider the needs and feelings of others; that our communities are cohesive enough to reduce the extent of policing rather than increase it. It’s far from obvious that shaming miscreants contributes much to delivering that outcome.

And that brings us back to that old question of ideology again. Do we want to create and maintain cohesive communities of which people want to be part, or do we want to enforce compliance by heavy-handed policing? The traditional Tory answer is obvious – enforcement is always better than any form of community solidarity. Imposing ‘law and order’ on the lesser orders (but not on themselves) is a major part of what they see themselves as being all about. It’s  also the stock authoritarian answer. The fact that Labour are competing to see who is the most authoritarian is another example of the point made here before: such differences as exist between Labour and Tory aren’t about ideology – they share the same basic ideology, and are competing solely to see which can most effectively pursue it. They may yet end up arguing about the colour of the jumpsuits.

Saturday 25 March 2023

Maintaining the flow of people?


It’s far from clear just how many of the UK’s unwanted migrants Rwanda is willing and able to accept. Some initial reports suggested the number was around 200 (presumably, per year) but the Home Secretary has repeatedly insisted that there is no limit and that Rwanda can take many thousands. Whether the ‘bung’ that the UK government has given the government of Rwanda will be enough in the second case is doubtful; it would be a very strange arrangement which capped the cost but not the number of people involved. If the numbers are open-ended, the cost is likely to be open-ended as well. Perhaps they’re just hoping that the issue will never arise: they seem to fondly imagine that sending a single planeload, or perhaps two, will have such a chilling effect on all those seeking to come to the UK that the flow will simply stop, however unlikely that might seem to anyone else.

In the meantime, the Rwandan army is making regular incursions into the Congo in support of the M23 rebels, who are laying waste to large areas of that country. To date, it appears that around 800,000 people have been driven from their homes by the fighting and are living in refugee camps. No doubt some of those will, in due course, set out on a perilous journey to reach safety, possibly even involving small boats at some point. It would be a surprise if any of them thought that Rwanda might be a ‘safe place’ to be sent in the circumstances, but that doesn’t mean that Rwanda’s authoritarian leader wouldn’t be happy to be paid to take them. And I doubt that Braverman or Sunak would think twice about sending them either, along with a cheque. As if the whole Rwanda project wasn’t distasteful enough in itself, and the people smugglers insufficiently evil, the Rwandan regime is creating more refugees which will potentially keep the people (and the money) flowing. And the UK is likely to end up funding it; treating desperate people as a commodity to be traded seems to suit all concerned. People smugglers, governments – aren’t they ultimately doing the same thing here? The main difference seems to be that the people smugglers take them somewhere that they want to go, and they travel voluntarily. It's quite something when those evil enough to take money from desperate people before sending them on a life-threatening journey can almost look benevolent compared to governments. It all tells us more about the true values of Sunak and Braverman than anything they say can ever do.

Friday 24 March 2023

Licensing criminality?


The Conservative UK Government and the Labour Welsh Government both want to claim their share of the credit for the granting of freeport status to two areas in Wales, and in the case of the one in Holyhead, the Plaid-run Ynys Môn council is staking its own claim for a share of the praise as well. It’s understandable that politicians want to claim credit for delivering benefits to their constituents, and clearly Wales needs a bit of ‘levelling up’, but I wonder if the enthusiasm all round is quite as justified as any of them seem to believe. Unanimity amongst politicians is either a very good sign or a great big red warning light; rarely anything in between. In this case, it brings to mind the old saying that ‘whilst success has many fathers, failure is a bastard’. Whether those claiming to have been part of the fathering process now will still be doing so in a few years time remains to be seen.

There is nothing new about the idea of freeports; there are around 80 in the EU and the UK had seven as well before the (Conservative-led as it happens) government abolished them in 2012. It’s not true (as Sunak declared) that this is some sort of Brexit dividend; that the UK could not have set up freeports whilst it was a member. It’s not entirely untrue either – the EU is taking an increasing interest in the operation of freeports, and setting tighter rules about what benefits they can offer, which might have constrained the detailed rules around the new ones. The EU is concerned about the potential for tax evasion, corruption and crime, all of which seem to have been a feature of freeports in the past, along, of course, with money-laundering. In theory, there is a customs border around every freeport, ensuring that goods brought legitimately into the freeport without paying customs duties are not then taken illegitimately into the wider economy. In practice, enforcement of that border is patchy at best – creating one of the many opportunities for criminal activity.

Even assuming that the new Welsh freeports manage to avoid all of those concerns, and run as they are intended to with everyone following the rules, the extent to which they provide real long-term economic advantage to the country as a whole is open to question. The UK Government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility has said (referred to here) that the proposed freeports in England are likely to reduce government revenue by around £50 million a year because of the tax breaks granted. If the extra economic activity is sufficiently large – and occurs in the places that need it most – that might be a price worth paying; it’s certainly not a reason in itself for not having freeports. But the OBR also points out that historical evidence suggests the "main effect" of freeports will be to move economic activity from one place to another. And it was largely that factor which led the Cameron government to scrap them.

It’s understandably difficult for any politician to do other than welcome a boost for the area which he or she represents, and taking a wider view can be hard. But is economic growth in Ynys Môn or Pembrokeshire, much-needed as it may be, really a boon to Wales it if merely shifts economic activity and jobs from Flintshire and Carmarthenshire, and reduces the income of national and local governments in the process? It’s a question which doesn’t even seem to be being asked in the rush to jump on the bandwagon.

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.