Saturday 29 April 2023

What's in a name?


According to a report by the BBC, Rishi Sunak will continue to refer to Bannau Brycheiniog as the Brecon Beacons, regardless of the decision of the Park Authority to use only the Welsh name in future. He also thinks that “most people” will do so, because the name is internationally known and Wales will lose visitors by using only the original name. He’s obviously learned an important lesson from places like Beijing, where nobody goes any more because they can’t find Peking on the map.

Talking of maps, he probably has one of those maps, like the one I remember on the wall of my classroom in primary school in the 1950s, with great swathes of red showing the countries of the Empire, on which the island off southern India was called Ceylon, where Rangoon was the capital of Burma, and Salisbury the capital of Rhodesia. After all, he is literally a product of Empire, with both his grandfathers coming from Punjab province of British India (before the imperial power split the area between the two new states of Pakistan and India), and his own parents coming respectively from the Colony and Protectorate of Kenya and Tanganyika. (Try finding those on a modern map.) We know that his predecessor but one thinks the world was a better place when that map represented the reality of political power and England ruled both the waves and the naming of countries and places; it would not be a complete surprise to find that someone whose roots are deep in that world has a bit of a blind spot for that same era.

In the short term, he’s probably right in saying that “most people” will continue using the name with which they are familiar. Other places which have reverted to their original names have certainly found that it takes time for the reversion to be widely accepted and used. Apart from anything else, people continue to use old maps for decades – that map I referred to earlier was still on the wall despite being overtaken by events on a yearly basis. The problem isn’t with “most people”, though. It is with those in positions of power who insist on using a name which the relevant local authorities have dropped. It wouldn’t be good diplomacy for Sunak to tell President Xi that he lives in Peking not Beijing; and it isn’t particularly diplomatic to tell the Park Authority that he will deliberately continue to use the English name against their wishes. I doubt that he would do the first; it is telling that he is so unable to understand why he shouldn’t do the second either.

Friday 28 April 2023

Teaching the Scots a lesson, Sunak-style


For reasons best known to themselves, it is a regular theme of unionist politicians that the SNP, the party founded with the objective of obtaining independence for Scotland, should stop campaigning for independence for Scotland and give all its attention to other issues, such as making the union with England work. It’s a bit like telling the RSPB to stop banging on about birds, or the RNIB to stop promoting the interests of blind people, and to concentrate instead on what the government people are really interested in, such as being nasty to immigrants. Telling people committed to a particular idea that they should simply forget their original objective seems to be a particularly pointless and futile approach, although forgetting the original objective might appear normal to Sunak who has burned almost all the campaign pledges he made in his failed attempt to lead his party. Anyway, he’s taking his turn to play the game today in his speech to Scottish Conservatives. I’m sure that it will play well at the conference itself, and have just as much impact as it does when other unionists say the same thing. They take a similar line with Wales on the rare occasions when they can be bothered to think about us at all.

It is, for them, an article of faith that the SNP are unable to discuss any issue other than independence*, and that the campaign for independence is based entirely on a series of manufactured grievances. That faith is, in turn, based on the unshakeable exceptionalist belief that England is always best at everything, and if the facts and data don’t always support that contention they will invent other facts and data which do. They are genuinely unable to understand why anyone in Scotland (or Wales) could ever believe that they could do better than the most truly wonderful government in the whole of human history – hence it can only be based on hatred of all things English. He’ll get his round of applause and a headline or two, cross Scotland off his ‘to-do’ list for this week, and go back to pretending that he can stop small boats crossing from France by passing a law or two. That’ll teach those pesky Scots.

*There are obvious dangers in commenting on live investigations into potentially criminal matters, but, as an aside, I can’t help noticing that the people who are so keen to criticise the SNP for turning every issue into an argument for independence seem also to be keen to pile on their outrage at the idea that the SNP may have spent money raised to campaign for independence on something else. Perhaps that’s a different SNP.

Thursday 27 April 2023

Open the box - or merely take the money?


There are, of course, some MPs whose actions are based, at all times, on a clear set of principles to which they adhere. Then there is another group, probably larger, who set out to do that, but find it difficult at times. Sometimes principles can clash, and sometimes the pressure of the whips can be just too great. Then there are Tories. That’s not to argue that all Tories are completely free of any sense of principle (although some clearly are – see, for example, Johnson, B.). It’s more that they either adopt a flexible (they would probably prefer the word pragmatic, but that’s just euphemism) approach to principles, or else follow the Marxian (Groucho) approach of having alternative sets of principles for different situations and occasions.

This tendency was on display yesterday, as parliament discussed the Illegal Migration Bill, when the likes of Theresa May and IDS (which really should stand for Irritable Duncan Syndrome, but disappointingly does not) took their principled stand on modern slavery out of the box where it is normally kept, gave it a good polish, and showed it to anyone who was interested (spoiler: not a large number) in the Chamber of the House of Commons. The government was very wrong, they put on record in Hansard so as to be able to refer to their own wise words when it's time to write their memoirs, not to exclude victims of modern slavery from the planned more-or-less automatic flights to central Africa. However, by the time it came to a vote on the issue they had carefully packed up the principle and put it back in its usual box whilst they sat on their hands and allowed the legislation to pass. It turns out that the principle they had so proudly been showing around the Commons was trumped by the Marxian alternative principle of not embarrassing a Tory government, using a vague form of words about further discussions and consultations to try and paper over the huge gulf between what they said and what they then proceeded to do. Still, I understand that it’s a very nice box, sufficiently solid and robust to betray no indication of its content until those rare moments when it is temporarily opened.

Monday 24 April 2023

I blame the schools


For reasons which entirely escape me, it has long been the accepted norm in the UK that former pupils of private schools are grossly over-represented in the higher levels of most professions, and most especially, perhaps, in parliament. Whilst they are over-represented even on the Labour benches, the real disparity is to be found lurking in the ranks of the Conservative Party. Whilst only around 6% of the population are entirely privately educated, rising to around 17% at sixth form level (source), fully 45% of Tory MPs are from ‘public’ schools, and a whopping 65% of the cabinet.  The baleful influence of such schools isn’t limited to those who went there; it rubs off on those who work with – or more usually, for – the ‘beneficiaries’ of such an education. It isn’t just the difference between state education and private education which matters either; for those who attended such institutions, there are layers of prejudice and snobbery about precisely which school individuals attended. Even amongst themselves, not all schools are equal. As Jake demonstrated a few years ago, those who went to one school in particular have a distinct tendency to see themselves as being superior not only to the masses, but also to those who went to ‘lesser’ schools. Just about everybody, in fact.

Perhaps it’s at least partly the effect of being torn out of their families and sent away at such an early stage, but there is a strong correlation between those who are subjected to this experience and a range of attitudes which is, shall we say, somewhat removed from the normal life experienced by most of us. The nature of the fee-paying system inevitably means that they are overwhelmingly drawn from the wealthiest levels in society with all the early advantages that confers on them, but they still nevertheless contrive to believe that they got where they are on their own merits, by dint of their own brilliance. It’s almost as if they think that it was they who had the perspicacity to be born to the right parents at the right time rather than some accident of birth. The gulf between their perception of the world and the experience of the majority of us sometimes shows through in unexpected ways. Raab and those defending him (and again, Jake is to the fore) do not interpret the events surrounding Raab as bullying at all, and don’t see why he had to resign. Most people who’ve ever been subject to bullying in the workplace would look at the report into Raab and conclude that yes, this is the behaviour of a bully, but if we look at the issue in the context of schooling, it makes perfect sense to argue to the contrary. For someone who has been to one of the UK’s ‘great’ public schools, what looks like bullying to most of us would appear to be perfectly normal behaviour. ‘Character-building’ even. Suffering it in their early years and then inflicting it on others in their later years is their idea of normal.

It isn’t the only thing they learn, of course. They also learn the art of name-calling as a substitute for debate, as in ‘Sir Softy’ (although that one sounds more like an aristocratic ice cream franchise than a serious insult), and ‘Crasheroonie Snoozefest’ (which is as utterly meaningless as it is puerile). Whilst it’s true that a lot of the people sitting behind them cheer wildly at this nonsense, we need to remember that statistic quoted earlier: 45% of them had the same type of education. Of course they think it’s clever and amusing. Their ‘education’ has a lot to answer for.

One of Raab’s attempts at a ‘get-out-of-jail’ card was to argue that treating junior staff badly is only bullying if the person doing it intends it to be so. It’s a nice try, but since ‘intent’ is extremely difficult to prove, there would probably never be another provable instance of bullying again. And I’m even prepared to believe that he didn’t intend to bully anyone; he was simply indulging in what, to those around him, is normal behaviour when dealing with lesser beings. In response to the whole Raab affair, the government seems to be looking for ways to prevent a repeat by making it harder for anyone ever to lodge a complaint about bullying. It is to them entirely natural to disregard the simpler solution of simply treating other people like humans. But why would we expect anything different, bearing in mind their background?

Saturday 22 April 2023

Choosing our enemies


From the outset, there have always been different ideas about what devolution was about. According to David Frost, in his demand earlier this week that devolution should be rolled back, it was supposed to be about simply running “an effective local administration”, and that was more or less the basis on which it was sold to many, including the most recalcitrant elements of the Labour Party. The implication was that the devolved parliaments would be largely restricted to implementing central government policy, rather than making policy themselves; and where they did make policy, they would be doing so within a UK framework. Over time, most of the Labour Party seems to have come round to the idea that it is about more than that, with one Labour MS complaining last week that the lack of powers granted to the Senedd “… relegates the Welsh Government to little more than ‘managing’ public services on behalf of the Westminster Tory Government”, Well, yes – but as Frost shows, whether that’s a virtue or a vice depends entirely on perspective.

(As an aside, it was interesting to note that part of Frost’s justification for his proposal is that many of the Scottish Parliament’s powers were theoretical prior to Brexit. In his words, “…devolution was designed in a different world – a world in which many powers theoretically devolved to Scotland were actually held at EU level and could not be exercised in practice”. So, membership of the EU was a good thing if it prevented the Scottish government from exercising its powers, but a bad thing if it stopped the English government from doing so. But, as he sees things, Brexit now means that the powers held by Scotland are real – a situation which, for him, needs to be reversed urgently.)

However devolution was presented at the time, the real underlying reason was more to do with Labour’s fear of losing Scottish seats at Westminster than recognising any demands for a degree of self-government; the commitment of Labour’s leadership to the idea of absolute sovereignty residing in Westminster and the Crown is as unshakeable as that of the Tories. They thought that setting up a parliament in Edinburgh, with an electoral system almost guaranteed to prevent any party getting an overall majority, would cement Labour’s position there. For Labour, Wales was always something of a ‘tag-along’ since the same political threat to Labour’s position didn’t apply.

Many – including, obviously, Frost and a goodly proportion of the English Conservative Party as well as more than a few Labour MPs – would argue that the dominance of the SNP in Scotland since 2007 proves that the argument was wrong, and that devolution strengthened the demand for independence rather than weakened it. Maybe, maybe not; we only get to live history once, despite Marx’s comments about tragedy and farce. When the time comes for a particular idea or proposition, that idea or proposition will generally find a way of expressing itself whatever the political circumstances and structures in existence at the time. The belief that that expression can be prevented by covering the ears and saying ‘no’ loudly and repeatedly is a strange one, and not one to which history gives a great deal of credence. That clearly doesn’t stop the Frosts of this world having an absolute blind faith in its efficacy. If independentistas could choose the opponents most likely to help us win by default, Frost has probably elevated himself to somewhere near the top of the list. Adding to the divisions in his own party in the process is just a bonus.

Friday 21 April 2023

Firm decisive inaction


Just as I was reading the headlines about Raab being all lawyered up and determined to “fight to the death” to keep his job, up pops the headline about his resignation. Given the contradiction between this and what his ‘friends and allies’ were saying last night, many will have assumed that this was a result of a conversation with the PM, who told him that if he didn’t jump, he’d be pushed, and in normal times with a normal government, that might be a reasonable conclusion. However, some journalists are reporting that that was not the case at all, and that Sunak didn’t tell him he had to go. It seems that Sunak was still busy mulling over the content of a report for which he had had months to prepare, and to which he had promised a rapid response, trying to decide which was the least worst option: sacking a close ally likely to alienate the swivel-eyed tendency in the Tory Party, or keeping him on which was likely to alienate just about everyone else, including those at the top of the Civil Service charged with implementing government policy. There is one thing for which we should be grateful to Raab: he has enabled Sunak to show us just what firm decisive inaction looks like.

Thursday 20 April 2023

There are no longer any good chaps


It remains more than a little hazy, to say the least, whether the PM declared his wife’s interest in a child care company before, or only after, he was challenged over the matter in a meeting of a committee of the House of Commons. And the reason for the haziness is that making a declaration isn’t the same thing as publishing the details. For ministers, it seems that, whilst they are obliged to declare everything, the government’s ethics advisers decide which bits should appear on the public register and which bits should remain a secret between the minister and civil servants. And the implication – although the fact that no-one has actually defended Sunak by putting it in these terms suggests that it might not actually stand up to detailed examination – is that he duly told the relevant people about the interest, and was then advised that it did not need to be made public. As I understand the position in relation to MPs, there is no such filter – they are simply obliged to declare, for a public register, any interest “which someone might reasonably consider to influence their actions or words as an MP”. In short, it looks as though those scrutinising the decisions of ministers are held to a higher standard than the ministers making the decisions, and that, on becoming ministers, MPs are magically exempted from the rules applying to others.

The basis on which the ethics advisers decide which interests need to be declared and which do not is even hazier. The current adviser had this to say on the matter: “To [publicly declare all interests] would represent an excessive degree of intrusion into the private affairs of ministers that would be unreasonable, particularly in respect of their family members. The list instead documents those interests, including of close family, which are, or may be perceived to be, directly relevant to a minister’s ministerial responsibilities”. It’s not helpful and doesn’t strike me as being particularly reasonable either. Assuming for a moment that the story which Sunak wants us to believe is true (whilst accepting that that proposition is at least open to question), and that he did declare the shareholding in the child care agency but the adviser told him that it did not need to be made public, on what basis did he decide that? He could not have known in advance, of course, that Sunak would announce a policy from which that agency (and therefore its shareholders) would benefit – but, by the same token, he could not have been certain in advance that Sunak would not do so either. And to ignore the specific and concentrate on the general: the same is true for all ministers in all governments. Unless you know in advance every decision which every minister in every government is going to take, you can never be certain that any specific financial interest will not gain a benefit from those decisions. It may be an “intrusion” into the private lives of ministers, but people who have chosen to put themselves in a position of taking decisions which impact on all of us should expect proper scrutiny as to whether the decisions they take are directly benefiting themselves or those close to them. And that is impossible to do without a full and public list being available.

It ties in with another story this week, about ministers being allowed to remain directors of companies after being appointed. It has long been accepted practice that anyone appointed as a minister should resign any directorships at the time of his or her appointment, but it isn’t a rule, and has been increasingly ignored since Boris Johnson became PM. The thread which binds these stories together is the fact that there are so few hard rules around how governments should behave; the English constitution, such as it is, depends on what historian Peter Hennessey called the “good chaps principle”, the idea that people in government are essentially honourable, honest, decent, and trustworthy. There is, though, no mechanism for ensuring that only “good chaps” get into positions of influence (the ascent of Boris Johnson demonstrating the point admirably) or of controlling those who don’t fit into that category once they get into positions of power. Depending on the fundamental honesty of those who govern us opens the UK up to corruption on the grand scale (see PPE acquisition, for example) with little redress. The system is badly broken, and probably irreparable as things stand. With a proper written constitution and clearer enforceable rules, we in Wales really could do better on our own.

Tuesday 18 April 2023

Proof of the theorem?


In relaunching his mathematics strategy yesterday, having done little or nothing about implementing it since the last time he launched it (anyone else see a pattern emerging there?), the Prime Minister claimed that the UK economy is losing “tens of billions” of pounds a year due to functional innumeracy. The first question which sprung into my mind was that often voiced by my old maths teacher, “show me your workings”. That thought was closely followed by memories of the same teacher's strictures about applying the ‘reasonableness test’ – if an answer looks or feels wrong, it probably is.

If we take “tens of billions” to mean £20 billion – the lowest possible mathematical interpretation of the number – and compare it to the UK’s total GDP of £3.1 trillion, it implies that the UK is losing just over 0.6% of GDP every year, purely (according to Sunak) as a result of the fact that children are only taught mathematics until they are 16 rather than 18. According to the government’s own figures, that’s equivalent to between 7 and 8 trade deals with Australia. In ten years’ time. ‘Show me your workings’ is an apt response.

I don’t doubt that there is an economic cost to innumeracy (although a substantial part of that cost may well be the result of having a surfeit of innumerate politicians who pluck arbitrary figures out of the air), but attributing that to the fact that most pupils are not taught any maths after the age of 16 looks like a non-sequitur to me. As someone with three maths A levels to my name (I’ve always liked numbers and what they can tell me), I can honestly say that I don’t think that much of what I learned in the field after reaching 16 has been of much practical use to me in life, no matter how interesting I found it at the time. It seems far more likely to me that the problem of functional innumeracy lies not in the age to which maths is taught in schools, but in the extent to which what is learnt matches what is being taught. That is to say, at its simplest, that maths teaching up to the age of 16 is far from universally effective, and that putting that right would be a better use of any additional resources which can be made available. That isn’t a criticism of teachers as such – we know that there is a huge shortage of specialist teachers of the subject, and has been for a long time. It’s just that assuming that lessons delivered = lessons learned, especially when they are delivered by non-specialist teachers, is an invalid premise. And if they can’t deliver the resources and the processes to get the basics right, the chances of a successful outcome to Sunak’s latest half-baked proposal are close to zero, a statement which can be confidently made even without having enough data to calculate a precise probability.

There is an old adage which claims that 97.8% of all politicians’ statistics are made up on the spot (although estimates of the precise percentage vary), and in this case Sunak’s numbers appear to provide proof of that theorem. It's not exactly a first for him.

Monday 17 April 2023

Adding up the numbers


Answering a question from the BBC’s Chris Mason this morning on nurses’ pay, the Prime Minister was at pains to point out that, allowing for turnout, only a minority of the whole RCN membership voted to reject the deal. He’s right, of course, and it proves that he can at least do some simple maths (maths being his chosen subject of the day). He is clearly implying that a majority of 54% to 46% doesn’t really count, because it’s not a majority of the whole electorate, and in any event the RCN had advised members to vote for the deal. I seem to remember another vote in the fairly recent past where, allowing for turnout, only a minority voted for the outcome and those running the vote (the government of the day) advised people to vote the other way. In that particular case, I could have sworn that Sunak was amongst those arguing that it was an absolutely definitive vote which must be respected. It’s probably just a new branch of applied mathematics (Sunakian rather than Euclidean) under which the validity of any arithmetical result depends on the ideological perspective of the observer. It fits the post-truth world in which we seem to be living, but I’m not sure that learning this new type of mathematics, even up to 18 years of age, will actually serve to make the UK population more numerate. But then, that isn’t really what he wants. A truly numerate population would be challenging the government on a whole range of issues where their numbers simply don't add up.

Defining effectiveness

For most countries, “controlling the borders” is about who and what comes in rather than who or what goes out. There are exceptions, of course – people trying to leave the former East Germany were often shot, and leaving North Korea is not exactly a simple proposition. But the more general case is about inward movement rather than outward movement. The proponents of Brexit always saw it as about stopping the ’wrong’ foreigners coming into the UK; many of them seem to have been genuinely surprised that removing freedom of movement would affect UK citizens travelling to Europe. After all, it’s ‘obvious’ why the UK would want to keep out foreigners, but it’s equally ‘obvious’ that no sensible country would want to keep out Britons. Those foreigners just don’t understand that there is a huge difference between migrants (people coming into the UK) and ex-pats (people going from the UK to another country). So queues at the border for entry into the UK are expected, whilst queues to enter France are nothing to do with Brexit but, as the PM’s spokesperson put it, are because French border officials are “inspecting and stamping every single passport”, as though that were an arbitrary decision taken by the French entirely independently of the UK government’s demand to be treated as a third party country.

When it comes to goods, the controls implemented by the UK to date fall a long way short of those it is obliged to implement as a result of the Brexit agreement. In theory, of course, the UK could simply decide not to implement any controls at all; indeed, that is the logic of some Brexiteers. There are consequences of doing that, though; world trade rules would require that if the absence of controls between the UK and the EU is the result of unilateral UK action rather than a specific trade agreement, those controls could not be imposed on goods from any other country either. The conflict that causes, coupled with the exceptionalism which still can’t quite accept that the EU would not give the UK the same free access as it had while a member, means that the UK has repeatedly postponed the implementation of border checks on goods coming from the EU. Instead, the government is struggling to find a way of claiming that it is applying the checks it is obligated to apply whilst doing as little as possible to actually apply them.

This, according to the Cabinet Office, will mean that the UK has “the world’s most effective border”. Whether that’s true or not hinges on how the word ‘effective’ is being defined. If it’s defined in terms of ensuring a free flow of goods and people, then yes, it could indeed turn out to be highly effective. But if it’s defined in terms of preventing smuggling, breaches of standards, and unfair competition, then what they are trying to put in place actually looks more like the world’s most ineffective border. I suppose that having the freedom to open borders counts, in a way, as the UK being able to decide for itself how to control its borders, but I somehow doubt that that is what most people thought it would mean. It goes to the heart of the delusion of the Brexiteer extremists. They always believed that Brexit was about breaking up the EU and smashing all trading rules, and they still can’t understand why not everyone thinks that is a brilliant idea.

Friday 14 April 2023

Timidity and leadership


This week, referring to the controversy over Gender Recognition Reform in Scotland, Sir Keir Starmer told us, “The lesson from Scotland is that if you can’t take the public with you on a journey of reform, then you’re probably not on the right journey.” In itself, it’s not an entirely bad point – any parliament which is about to pass a law which it knows that a majority of people would oppose should at least stop and think about the issue. But the Scottish Parliament did indeed give the matter a great deal of thought before passing the act; Starmer’s comments reveal a lack of respect for the right of that parliament to decide for itself what laws to pass. Even if it were an entirely valid argument for the parliament not to proceed with the act, it’s no sort of argument whatsoever for over-ruling that parliament. He’s confusing two separate issues. It could be deliberate, but it also could simply be that he, like most of his party, is so wedded to the idea of the absolute supremacy of the Westminster parliament in all matters that he thinks over-ruling Holyrood on a whim is entirely normal. That doesn’t bode well for the relationship between a future Labour government and the administration in Edinburgh.

But is it really as strong an argument as he thinks anyway? I wasn’t exactly a fan of the Wilson government in the 1960s for various reasons, but there were some important reforms to come out of that period. The death penalty was suspended in 1965 before being abolished for everything except treason in 1969 (Blair finished that job in 1998). Rather timidly, the suspension was the result of a private member’s bill rather than a government proposal, but it would never have become law without the support of the government. It was a significant change – but it would never have passed the Starmer test and, even today, there is still majority support in the UK for the death penalty in some circumstances. Taking his words at face value, one has to wonder whether he would have supported abolition. Perhaps I’m being unfair to Starmer; perhaps he would have supported abolition because ‘it was the right thing to do’. But that rather negates the argument he put forward earlier this week about gender recognition, and turns ‘taking the public with you’ from a grand principle into an excuse for inaction in selected cases.

Whether the Scottish government and parliament took the ‘right’ decision is open to debate (and it’s too long a debate to air here); it’s a complex issue with many disagreements of detail, not just of principle. But sometimes governments and parliaments need to show that they can lead, rather than follow, public opinion, particularly ‘public opinion’ as presented by the tabloids. It’s a point which Labour under Starmer doesn’t seem to understand. Being even more timid than Harold Wilson isn’t exactly a recommendation or compliment.

Thursday 13 April 2023

Appealing to the minority


Most of the most fervent supporters of Laura Norder, in her rawest and most vengeful state, tend to prefer to see her dressed in deepest blue, and are highly suspicious of attempts to lighten the shade a tad, never mind choose a different colour entirely. The result when the Labour Party attempts to steal ownership of the issue from the Tories is that it ends up sounding either like empty rhetoric (“tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”) or like an even more extreme version of the Home Secretary of the day. Tony Blair ‘only’ had to outflank Michael Howard in the role; the increasingly hapless Keir Starmer has to deal with the deranged Suella Braverman. Desperate times call for desperate measures, some might say, which may help to explain Labour’s highly personalised attack ads on Sunak over crime issues.

It's not entirely unreasonable in principle to seek to associate the current leader of the Tory Party with the actions of his party’s government over the past 13 years, even if he wasn’t even in parliament for the first five of those years: the buck stops at the top. It does, though, make it harder for anyone with any sense of rationality or fairness to argue that the actual DPP at the time a decision was taken not to prosecute Jimmy Saville was in no way responsible for the decision taken by the organisation he headed, which was the essence of Johnson’s unpleasant slur against Starmer. And there is at least a danger that extending the criticism of Sunak all the way back to 2010 ends up sounding like a criticism for not changing the rules and processes bequeathed to the Tories by Labour following the 2010 election. Fighting fire with fire is one thing, but joining one’s opponent in the gutter is another entirely. One of the earliest moral strictures drummed into me as a child was that two wrongs don’t make a right; the Tories may have started the descent into the gutter, but that’s a wholly inadequate reason to join them there.

The third attack ad has been widely interpreted as being an attack on the PM’s wife, but it seems to me that, looked at in objective terms, it is the most valid of the three to appear to date. It is a matter of recorded fact that the Sunak household benefitted from the availability of non-dom status for tax purposes, and when it came to light, he seemed to see nothing wrong with the arrangement as a matter of principle. Certainly he did nothing as Chancellor, and has done nothing as PM, to abolish or limit the availability of the status, and whilst that’s a sin of omission rather than a sin of commission, it’s entirely fair to pin that one directly on him, in a way that blaming him for sentencing by the judiciary simply is not.

Whatever the rights and wrongs, all the reports suggest that Starmer is delighted by the reaction to the ads. It’s an approach which has left many, including members of his own party, uncomfortable and uneasy, but he doesn’t care. It’s not as if they’re going to vote Tory as a result. All he cares about is appealing to those voters who can win or lose him the next election. We can be certain that he will have had detailed analysis showing who these people are and what they care about, but we can get a long way towards answering those questions by some simple arithmetic. To win an absolute majority, he needs to win 128 seats directly from the Tories; to displace the Tories as largest party, 79 seats would do the job. Assuming that all the extras come as direct changes from Tory to Labour, he needs about 150,000 people to change their votes to win 79 seats, and around 500,000 to change their votes to achieve an overall majority. They are the only votes in whom he is interested; he can and will forget the other 46 million voters.

The problem with identifying such a minority slice of the electorate is that they are unlikely to be typical of the rest of us: appealing to Tory voters who live in seats with small Tory majorities necessarily involves appealing to a comparatively tiny minority of the electorate, and one likely to hold more extreme views. People who believe that the justice system is about punishment, not protection of the public, rehabilitation or re-education, and that the more people thrown into prison for longer terms in poor conditions the better. Many probably also want to bring back hanging and flogging. People who don’t like foreigners, especially those of a different skin hue, and think the EU is some sort of evil empire. People for whom the not-so-subtle racism invoked by associating a picture of a PM of Asian origin with a message suggesting that he is lenient on grooming gangs is more of a wink and a nudge than a red flag. They could have taken a different decision; they could have decided to try and appeal instead to those Tory voters (yes, there are some) who have been turned off by the dishonesty, sleaze and sheer incompetence of the last three PMs; they have instead decided to go after those voters to whom all the worst attributes of Johnson actually appealed.

At it’s simplest, it’s case of seeing the end as justifying the means, but it’s another serious indictment of an electoral system where parties know that they only need to pitch their appeal to a tiny minority of voters. It would never work in a properly proportional system.

Sunday 9 April 2023

Talking sense. For once.


The Conservative Party has slapped down its Scottish leader, Douglas Ross, for suggesting that Scottish Tories should be encouraged to vote for the Labour Party, or even the Lib Dems, in seats where those parties have a better chance of unseating an SNP candidate than the Tories themselves do. It’s easy to see why his London masters would not be happy – telling their voters to vote for a party which they’re trying to demonise certainly counts as mixed messaging.

It is, though, one of the more sensible things that Douglas Ross has ever said, although one has to admit that the competition is weak. ‘Sensible things said by Douglas Ross’ is not exactly a long list. But on any objective examination, there is far less of a difference in policy terms between the Tories and the Labour Party under Keir Starmer than there is between either of those parties and the SNP. And whilst the independentista vote has (to date at least) largely been concentrated behind one party, splitting the unionist vote three ways in a first-past-the-post election helps the SNP to win more constituencies. Some of us think lots of SNP MPs is rather a good thing on the whole, but for those who don’t, a large-scale campaign of tactical voting makes a lot of sense. It does, though, miss the point and avoid tackling the real problem, which is the electoral system itself.

If they really wanted to stop the SNP winning a huge majority of seats on a small majority, or even a minority, of votes, they’d introduce STV and multi-member constituencies. Paradoxically, they could be reasonably certain that the SNP itself would support them in doing so, despite that party being the one (currently) most likely to lose out as a result. For some people, the concept of fairness trumps short-term party advantage. Labour and the Tories won’t do that, of course. Both of them like a system which gives them absolute power on the basis of a minority of votes: the Tories because it keeps them in power most of the time, and Labour because they occasionally get to take a turn. Neither of them likes it when the system works against both of them and in favour of another party, such as the SNP, but that’s only a problem in Scotland, and their real focus is on winning seats in England. They’re the only seats that count in reality.

It’s doubtful that Ross will worry too much about the reaction of his masters in London; he’s not exactly unaccustomed to falling out with them. And he’s probably achieved what he set out to do: plant the idea in the minds of Scottish Tories that voting Labour in Scotland is some sort of patriotic duty for any committed unionist. Whether he’s given much thought to what happens next if they do as he suggests is an open question. But I’m not expecting to add to that list of sensible things in the immediate future.

Saturday 8 April 2023

Canaries and ferrets


With the possible exception of those Conservative politicians disposed to see membership of the RSPB as a terrorist act, most of us would be hard put to think of a less harmful pursuit than keeping and breeding exotic canaries. Although perhaps the canaries might see things differently. It seems however that this comparatively benign pastime is another victim of the new rules and regulations which are the inevitable result of leaving the EU single market and the customs union. Another of those hard-to-find Brexit bonuses, one might say.

The canary breeder quoted extensively in the article seems to think that canary-breeders as a group are working-class Brexit voters, although the research and polling to back up that assertion, if they exist, do not seem to be referenced in the report. But the tone of his words (“the people who are affected – working-class people, people who voted for Brexit, who voted to leave – are now finding that they can’t actually do anything because they can’t take their birds back and forth to mainland Europe”), along with the demand that canaries should be treated “in the same way as dogs, cats and ferrets*” suggests that the very fact that they were proponents of Brexit should be enough to exclude them from its effects. It's a strange form of logic to argue that people who voted for something should be excluded from the impact of their decision. It is, though, not untypical of the Brexit mindset, with its continued insistence that the UK is in some way entitled to continue to enjoy the benefits without following the rules. The idea that the consequences of Brexit would encourage a change of mind rather than an assumption that they are the result of EU intransigence is obviously one for the birds. In this case, literally so.

*Who knew that ferrets were specifically identified as an exception under the amended Northern Ireland protocol? The wondrous details of Brexit continue to astound.

Thursday 6 April 2023

Red, white, and blue tinted spectacles


The last couple of months haven’t exactly been a good time for the SNP. Between the resignation of a popular First Minister and an election to succeed her in which the party comrades proceeded to take great comradely lumps out of each other, ‘torrid’ would be a better description. The resignation and subsequent arrest of the party’s Chief Executive (and husband of Nicola Sturgeon) seems to be, for the unionist side in the constitutional debate, a bit like the icing on the cake. None of us knows, as yet, exactly what led to the arrest, and we may have to wait some time to find out. But the image which appeared in some newspapers of the police turning up with spades to excavate the garden added to the strangeness of it all. I suppose that Peter Murrell has a touch of the looks of a potential Bond villain for those who want to see such things, but the idea that the man universally credited with professionalising the SNP and turning it into a formidable election machine is running an evil empire based on a chest of treasure buried under a suburban lawn doesn’t immediately strike me as particularly credible. It’s possible that the police have simply adopted an over-literal interpretation of the phrase common among politicians that ‘he knows where the bodies are buried’; stranger things have happened. An alternative explanation is that they received a tip-off from the improbably-named source, Lirpa McLoof, last Saturday and the receiving officer instigated the search warrant process, and issued the spades, without looking at the office calendar.

Time will tell. In the meantime, the unionists are making hay in what may turn out to be a brief period of political sunshine for them in Scotland. Based on the extremely dubious assumptions that the independence debate was all about the personality of the outgoing First Minister, a set of made-up grievances, and a hatred of all things English, they seem to expect the tide to turn, and support for both independence and the SNP (which are not entirely the same thing) to turn and leave them triumphant. At least, that’s what they claim. If they really believed it to be true, I can’t think of a better time for the Prime Minister of England to turn around and say ‘OK, then. You can have your second referendum in the autumn’. They also know that demographics is against them: in simple terms, new voters coming on to the register as they reach voting age are massively more pro-independence than those leaving the voting register at the other end of the age scale. A newish English PM would find it easier to reverse the position of his four predecessors; he has, after all, changed just about every other policy they proposed. If the disarray amongst independentistas were as great as they wish to believe, this is truly their golden opportunity, given that a second defeat probably would kill the issue for a generation whereas delay allows the demographics to grind their way forward with that inevitability which is characteristic of the human life span.

They won’t do it, of course. They know that it would be a bigger gamble than they want the rest of us to believe. And neither are they capable of addressing the underlying reasons for the growth – with all its peaks and troughs – in support for independence, not least because they are incapable of seeing beyond their own interpretation that it’s all about the Scots’ imaginary grievances. After all, what can Scots really have to complain about when they’re part of ‘the greatest and most successful union of countries ever known in the whole course of human history’ (© some unionist or other)? It’s possible – likely, even – that the cause of independence may be suffering a bit of a setback in the short term, and perhaps even through to the next general election. But the unionists’ belief that they have seen off the threat with the departure of Nicola Sturgeon looks like the sort of optimism which only those who don’t understand the problem could possibly feel.

Tuesday 4 April 2023

Stoking the tensions


As most people from Wales or Scotland will understand, most of the rest of the world appears not to understand the difference between England and Britain. For all the difference in accent when people speak, we sound much the same as each other to a non-British ear. And there are no visible differences either – red hair may be marginally more prevalent in Ireland, but it isn’t uniquely so, and it’s not much of an indicator. Something similar happens in other areas of the world as well – or even within migrant communities. Whilst the difference between an Indian and a Pakistani or, say, someone of Indian ethnicity with a Mauritian/Kenyan background, will be clear and obvious to all of them, it’s a lot less so to many less familiar with the differences, and again is not obviously visible. Many of those stigmatised with the label ‘Paki’ over the years have no connection whatsoever with Pakistan; those doing the labelling simply don’t understand that.

That makes it highly dangerous for any politician in the UK to start labelling one particular group of people of Asian origin as being responsible for one particular type of crime. It would be dangerous even if it were true, but the evidence suggests that it doesn’t even pass that test. It’s a line which does, though, pander to a particular sector of the electorate, and it’s a sector which is unlikely to distinguish (and is probably incapable of doing so) between Pakistanis and Asians more generally. And to the extent that anything the Tories do or say these days can surprise me, I am surprised that Suella Braverman, given her own background, does not understand that. There seems to be a belief of some sort that there is nothing racist about a person of Asian origin stirring up hatred against other people of an Asian origin, but that’s not the way it’s likely to play out. It should go without saying that police will tackle grooming gangs, with no distinction as to their colour or race (although recent reports suggest that police are more, rather than less, likely to tackle non-Caucasian crime in at least some parts of the UK), and if some forces have ‘difficulty’ in doing that, it needs to be addressed. But using the sort of words which Braverman used yesterday is likely to make their task harder rather than easier, to say nothing of encouraging racist political groups. In her attempt to woo a particular sector of the electorate, she really has gone too far, and for all his cautious distancing from the detail of what she said, his failure to sack her means that Sunak is as bad. Who would have thought, just a few years ago, that having senior ministers from an Asian background would stoke rather than lessen racial tensions?

Monday 3 April 2023

Brexit logic in action


The problems with long queues at Dover are, according to the Home Secretary, nothing at all to do with Brexit. They are all the fault of the ferry companies for accepting too many bookings, the Port of Dover for allowing them to fill their ships rather than sail half-empty, bad weather at sea, and silly people who actually want to go to a foreign country rather than stay in the glorious global UK, as advised by John Redwood. For an alternative view, the Independent’s travel correspondent, Simon Calder, explains here exactly why the decision to end freedom of movement and apply the same rules to UK travellers as already apply to other non-EU citizens has added to the delays. In a nutshell, the requirement to ensure that no-one has stayed in the EU for longer than allowed means that every page of every UK passport has to be examined for entry and exit stamps, the dates checked to see which fall within the last 180 days, and the total duration totalled to see if it’s more than 90 days, rather than the previous procedure which meant simply checking that the passport was valid and belonged to the person showing it. For a coach carrying 50 people, that is going to take some time to do. And, of course, it’s going to get worse, because – at the moment – few of us have many stamps in our passports showing entry and exit dates; as time passes that number will increase and the checks will take longer. And there’s a change in the pipeline meaning that all travellers will have to be fingerprinted and have their facial biometrics checked as well.

And yet, from the curious perspective of the Brexiteers, Braverman has a point, of sorts. The aim of Brexit was to ‘control our borders’; the emphasis is very much on the ‘our’. They never intended checks to be reciprocal, and assumed that the rest of Europe would recognise just how special and exceptional ‘we’ are. Ending ‘freedom of movement’ was always envisaged as a ‘one-way’ process; it was the freedom of foreigners to come to the UK which was to be ended, not the freedom of UK citizens to travel to the rest of Europe. It’s the same attitude which leads to people who come to the UK being ‘migrants’, whilst people going from the UK are ‘ex-pats’. Two completely different things. Apparently. And if you start from that perspective, then it’s obvious that Brexit does not require the French to impose the same level of border controls as the UK is imposing, which means the queues are down to French bloody-mindedness rather than Brexit. For people who think that way, Brexit was a chance for the UK to opt out of relaxed EU rules on travel, not for the EU to change its own approach in any way. In a magnificent piece of reverse logic, it also all ‘proves’ just how vindictive the EU is and how much better off we are not being part of it.

Whilst, for most of us, logic would suggest that the solution lies in negotiating a closer relationship with the EU and restoring at least some elements of freedom of movement, the Brexiteer argument is better expressed by John Redwood’s solution – ordinary oiks should stay at home, with its corollary that queues would then be shorter for the elite. That has the added advantage of preventing susceptible people from being contaminated by strange European ideas as well. Another Brexit bonus.

Saturday 1 April 2023

Is it all about Empire 2.0?


At first sight, the idea that the UK should leave a large and prosperous trade agreement on its doorstep in order to join one based on the Pacific Ocean looks like a very strange decision. It doesn’t look much less strange on second, third, or even fourth sight either. It’s not totally geographically invalid however – part of the UK is, in fact, close to the very centre of the Pacific Ocean. The Pitcairn Islands may only have a population of 47 (at the last count), but the men are all out of prison now and anyway even 1 would be enough to make the UK a Pacific nation. In a strange quirk of history, that infamous mutiny back in 1789 has given the UK access to the untold riches of a 0.08% boost to GDP (maybe – even the trade minister seems a little dubious about that claim), all based – as was much of the empire – on a bit of robbery, rape and pillage, for which we should now, apparently, be grateful.

The logic of there being strength in numbers as outlined by the minister is clear, and joining a large and successful trade partnership is therefore well worth the price of having to agree to a set of rules drawn up by the existing members and submitting to the judgements of the partnership’s courts. We need to keep reminding ourselves that it’s nothing like being part of the EU’s Single Market, even if that’s only because the benefits are so much smaller and under the new partnership the courts meet and arrive at their decisions in secret rather than in a more public and accountable fashion. And in what might well look to the remaining EU members as an echo of the past, the new kid in the bloc is already preparing to demand that it has its own way on who else might be allowed to join.

It's easy enough to mock, but it’s a lot harder to understand what on earth might drive anyone to believe that a small benefit from a far away trade partnership is better than a large benefit from one much closer at hand. Badenoch’s claim that it is like buying into a start-up is an interesting one, basing the decision on faith about relative economic growth rates into the far distant future, although it rather overlooks the fact that most investments in most start-ups fail. The argument that economic growth in the Pacific will be faster than in Europe probably stands up only if China is included; but that is not part of the plan and, even in China, growth is stalling.

I have a rather different theory about the potential attraction to the Little Englanders with their dreams of Global Britain, and it’s all about harking back to the past. Of the 11 existing members of the partnership, 6 are former British colonies and use English as an official language (4), a recognised language (1), or the main business language (1), so (unlike those pesky Europeans), they are not proper foreigners at all. Those who dream of Empire 2.0 fondly imagine that all those countries and their inhabitants see England (and England is what they tend to call it even if geographically inaccurate) as the motherland, the country that gave them their laws, customs and culture. This is England’s opportunity to place itself, once again, at their head and to provide them with the guidance that they’ve missed so much since foolishly becoming independent. From that perspective, their history is ‘our’ history; they share in the glory of empires past and dreams of empires future. It’s utter tosh, of course; exceptionalism always is. But never underestimate the power of exceptionalist tosh to drive decision-making either consciously or sub-consciously, even if – perhaps especially if – the decisions are economic madness.