Tuesday 30 May 2023

Johnson getting bitten by his own decisions


Given Boris Johnson’s long-standing propensity neither to pay much attention to detail nor to think through the consequences of any decision he takes, it was probably inevitable that the remit he himself gave to the Covid inquiry, and the decision on who should lead it would come back to bite him on his backside. ‘Seat-of-the-pants’ government is rarely going to be consequence free, but a man who has talked, or rather lied, his way out of every scrape he’s ever been in was hardly going to start giving careful thought to the remit, the role, or the personnel involved in the inquiry. The fact that he believed – and appears still to believe – that his handling of Covid was an unqualified success would hardly have encouraged him to do so either. It is a lack of care and attention which is now threatening a situation where the government ends up taking its own inquiry to court to avoid releasing documents. Or facing fines and a jail term for refusing to hand over the documents which the inquiry says it needs. Comic opera would be an overly kind description. It would make for an interesting court case, although publicly-expressed legal opinion to date seems to be near-unanimous that it’s a case which the government is destined to lose.

In principle, the demand that documents which are ‘unambiguously irrelevant’ to the inquiry should not need to be handed over is not entirely unreasonable, but the question which that raises is about who decides what is relevant or not, and on what basis, especially given the current government’s record of hiding anything which might be embarrassing to them. It’s doubtful that anyone would expect that all other aspects of government should have come to a complete stop so that ministers would concentrate 100% of their time and effort on dealing with the pandemic. However, although discussions on policy in areas unrelated to Covid might appear to be irrelevant in themselves, if a substantial proportion of ministerial time was being diverted from dealing with the pandemic to trivial issues of detail in other fields, for example, that could well have impeded the proper handling of the pandemic, and the apparently irrelevant becomes relevant. It would also give an insight into how seriously the government was taking the threat. It’s a judgement which only the inquiry itself is in a position to make – and one which, indeed, the inquiry must make. The extent to which government paid the appropriate amount of attention to the pandemic goes to the heart of what the inquiry was set up to determine. The fact that documentation is handed over to the inquiry chair doesn’t necessarily mean that all of that documentation must therefore become public; it’s perfectly possible for the two sides to agree, after reviewing the evidence, which parts should be redacted or omitted from any public reports, but allowing those who are being investigated to determine what is or is not relevant would be a severe restriction on the ability of the inquiry to reach a considered opinion. The government’s unwillingness to engage in such a process raises the obvious question – what have they got to hide?

Saturday 27 May 2023

Paying the piper


The idea that a minister can decide to lie, lie and lie again to the House of Commons and the government will then pay almost a quarter of a million pounds for legal advice to help him respond to the committee investigating his lies without further incriminating himself ought to be outrageous. The decision to lie was his and his alone; Johnson should face the consequences of his actions, and if he feels he needs legal advice to try and wriggle off the hook, he should be paying for it himself, although I know that he finds the idea that he should ever pay for anything to be a strange one. The situation is, however, a little different when it comes to the Covid inquiry. This is an inquiry into who did what and when during the pandemic, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable – in principle at least – that the government should receive legal advice and support and that that support should be extended to those who were ministers at the time.

Except that we’re dealing with Johnson here. As I understand this week’s events, the lawyers appointed by and paid for by the government were working on preparing the various papers and documents requested by the inquiry, and came across entries in those documents which suggested potential illegalities on the part of the former PM. They reported those to their client, which is the cabinet office (since they are paying the legal fees), and civil servants in the cabinet office decided that the appropriate course of action in the case of alleged illegalities was to inform the relevant authorities – in this case, the police. At this point, the former PM seems to have gone ballistic and declared that he no longer wished to be represented by those lawyers, but would appoint his own. What he seems to have expected is that, having uncovered evidence of law-breaking, the lawyers should have spoken only to him, and kept that evidence secret, especially from those who were actually paying the lawyers, even if doing so might undermine the government’s own collective case. It is – or should be – an utterly unrealistic expectation, and the same goes for his belief that the government should now pay for him to appoint his own lawyers, answerable only to him.

The conflict of interest is obvious. The risk to Johnson of presenting a case which ignores some evidence, glosses over other evidence, and depends on him continuing to lie and obfuscate is purely reputational. And to the extent that he has any reputation to lose, he simply doesn’t care, as he has shown time and again. The risk to the lawyers of presenting a case which might run counter to the interests of those paying them, and includes a demand that they cover up any criminal activity which might come to light, is also reputational, but the difference is that they’re likely to care very much about that. But the biggest risk falls on the public purse: the cabinet office is being asked to give an open-ended commitment to pay for a case which puts Johnson’s personal interests above those of the government, which presents evidence which has not been shared with the government and which might undermine the government’s own case, which excludes any evidence that Johnson might not want to include, and over the costs of which they have no control.

He who pays the piper usually calls the tune, but what Johnson wants, as ever, is for someone else to pay the piper whilst he calls the tune – and a tune, at that, which could run directly against the interests of those paying the piper. In his letter to the inquiry chair, Johnson said that he was in the process of appointing new lawyers, but that the Cabinet Office had yet to “agree funding and other practical arrangements”, which raises the question: has Sunak got the guts to tell him to pay for his own lawyers this time?

Friday 26 May 2023

Plans, plans, and more plans


In response to yesterday’s publication of the latest figures for net immigration, the PM said simply that the numbers are “too high”. Without knowing why he thinks they’re too high or having any indication of the criteria he’s using to arrive at that assessment, it’s impossible to validate his claim, although the suspicion must surely be that ‘the right number is whatever number will buy the most votes’ rather than a thought-through assessment of the UK’s needs and interests. It’s not true however, as some have claimed, that the Tories have no plan to deal with the situation. They actually have lots of plans, even if some of them are mutually contradictory and incoherent.

It is, apparently, the ‘net’ number which is most important; the difference between those arriving and those leaving (although I have a suspicion that if 1,000,000 UK-born white people left each year to be replace by 1,000,000 entering the UK from Asia or Africa they would quickly find that the net number isn’t what those target voters are interested in at all). However, if we assume that they mean what they say about wanting to reduce the net number, then reducing immigration isn’t the only potential solution; we could also increase the number leaving. On this score, we can look to the lunatic fringe of the Tory Party, aka the deputy chair of the party, for part of the Tory solution: encourage republicans to go and live elsewhere. Strictly speaking, of course – and considering only quantitative issues rather than qualitative ones – it doesn’t matter whether those who leave are republicans or not, it just matters that people leave. Unkind souls might wish to point out that abolishing freedom of movement didn’t exactly help them achieve this objective – indeed, there is some evidence that Brexit and accompanying regulation has forced some of those who previously left to return to the UK, which is one of the factors leading to an increase in the net difference. But then coherence and consistency are not requirements for Tory policy.

Another two Tory plans revolve around reducing the number of jobs which migrant workers can do. The same fringe element at Tory HQ has in the past suggested forcing council tenants guilty of anti-social behaviour to live in tents in the fields, get up at six, pick fruit and veg all day, followed by a cold shower and lights out at six in the evening. It helped him get promoted to deputy chair. And moving people out of houses into tents might help to ‘solve’ the housing shortage as well, I suppose. Another Tory, a former cabinet minister, once proposed obliging pensioners to pick fruit and veg, but paying them less than the minimum wage because they’d be a bit slower collecting the produce. Oddly, that wasn’t the thing for which he ended up disgraced.

Yet other Tory plans turn on the idea of reducing what they like to call the ‘pull’ factor; reducing the reasons why people choose to come to the UK. One of those, obviously, is that English is so widely taught – when considering which European country might be a good place to live, knowing English helps to make the UK an attractive proposition. Reducing the funding for the British Council, the body charged with promoting the English language, is a small step, and will take time to have an impact, but, as a certain supermarket regularly reminds us, ‘every little helps’. Another pull factor is the perceived quality of teaching and research in UK universities. Opting out of European funding programmes, leading to researchers leaving in droves, is one small step in addressing that issue; restricting foreign students to those prepared to come without their families is another. Faced with a choice between allowing immigrants in and destroying the university sector, it is apparently preferable to encourage the brightest and best foreign students to go and study in those countries perceived as competitors to the UK. The reasons escape me but are obvious to those obsessed with migration. If the result helps bring about a financial crisis for tertiary education, well, having fewer universities offering fewer courses all helps to deter foreigners from coming here to study.

But the biggest pull factor of all is the persistent perception, despite all the government’s efforts to date, that the UK economy is one of the world’s richest and most successful. Not to worry – they have a plan to deal with that as well. Holding wages below inflation so that people, particularly in the lowest-paid jobs, become poorer each year, ensuring the weakest growth rate in the G7, forcing up interest rates – these will all help to deter people from coming here to seek a better life. (They might also, incidentally, help to encourage UK citizens to seek a better life elsewhere, bearing in mind the importance of that net number.)

Those who argue that the Tories have no plan to reduce net immigration are being utterly unfair. They have loads of plans, most of which they are busily implementing. It’s just that they have chosen not to explain them very well. It’s a bit like with Brexit: spelling out the implications for the UK is something best avoided if you want people to vote for you on the back of an anti-immigrant viewpoint. But, and this is also like Brexit, implications a-plenty there will be, and guess on which parts of the population they will mostly fall?

Tuesday 23 May 2023

Assessing the straws


The trouble with the last straw is that you can never be certain that it is truly the last one until the camel’s back has already been broken. And that, in a sense, is Sunak’s conundrum. For a man who proclaimed integrity as one of the guiding principles of his government, even appointing Suella Braverman into a job from which she’d been sacked just days previously for a breach of the ministerial code was a high-risk decision. Allowing her to continue embarrassing him on a more-or-less daily basis is like adding more and more straw to the camel’s load. It's not the weight or importance of each individual straw that matters, merely its marginal impact on the existing load. It's a particular problem when he himself is engaged, as Peter Oborne has pointed out, in following the Johnsonian path of daily lies, untruths and distortions. Which particular scandal will be the one which forces the camel to its knees, breaking its back in the process?

Many of Braverman’s allies have been quick to point out that in the scale of things, exceeding the speed limit isn’t the biggest of scandals (although cabinet ministers and Tory MPs giving the impression that it isn’t really a ‘proper’ crime at all isn’t going to be conducive to the government’s own messaging on road safety). The seriousness of asking publicly-paid staff to assist in getting her special treatment depends on details which have yet to emerge – a polite request, greeted by a ‘no’ followed by immediate acceptance of the answer and the reasons would be a different matter to a repeated instruction and a refusal to take ‘no’ for an answer. And the apparent encouragement / instruction of an assistant to lie looks rather more serious, although it could still turn out that said assistant was acting on his or her own initiative, rather than following ministerial direction. Lack of honesty merely adds to the suspicions. And every straw adds to the load.

Sunak’s indecisive initial reaction looks like a combination of waiting to see if it will blow over and the politicians’ tendency to outsource their sense of morality to someone else. It sometimes seems that many of them really believe that morality is about whether they are explicitly found to have breached a particular rule rather than taking responsibility themselves to behave in a manner which leaves them beyond reproach. Just for once, I almost agree with Jake: It doesn’t need the PM to initiate a formal ethics investigation into the incident, and the PM is perfectly capable of looking at the facts and deciding whether what has happened is acceptable or not. And doing so more or less instantly. (Although I disagree with Jake’s apparent belief that the incident should be judged on a stand-alone basis rather than judging the perpetrator on her overall approach). The fact that he hasn’t done so – and seems incapable of doing so without a period of dither and delay – underlines the extent to which he is a prisoner of factions within his own party. It’s not clear that he still knows or even cares whether the camel is dead or not yet.

Friday 19 May 2023

Understanding capitalism


In response to the various apologies issued by water companies yesterday, the Prime Ministers spokesperson was asked yesterday if the PM thought it was fair that customers of the water companies would have to pay for this investment, and replied:

“We’ve been clear that we think water companies must put consumers above profits …”

Have the Tories really reached the point where they no longer understand how capitalism works?

Thursday 18 May 2023

Who do we trust?


A few days ago, the Western Mail published an article by Mike Hedges, the Labour MS for Swansea East, setting out why he thinks independence for Wales is a bad idea. It was based, as the unionist case almost invariably seems to be, on the idea that Wales ‘can’t afford’ to be independent, and backed up with some examples of problems experienced by other countries which attained independence to demonstrate his point. His selection of examples, and of particular statistics from those examples, was, of course, highly selective. Nothing wrong with that per se; it didn’t purport to be an objective academic analysis, and lots of politicians on all sides of all debates choose their examples and statistics in such a way as to back their case, whilst ignoring or dismissing those which don’t. Independentistas do the same.

There are other ways of looking at the same thing, however. For all the difficulties he identifies for the examples he has so carefully chosen, how many of those countries said, after achieving independence, that they’d rather like to give up their independence and go back to how things were before? It’s a rhetorical question, of course. Or take another approach. In advance of achieving Welsh independence, the unionists regularly explain how their analysis of the economy ‘proves’ the impracticability of Welsh independence. But, to ask another rhetorical question, in how many cases of a country seeking independence has the state from which it seeks that independence NOT told them that economic analysis shows it to be impossible? The point is that any economic analysis which starts from the point of view of ‘what is’ will always show why the status quo is best – they’re hardly going to say it isn’t, are they?

We could try a little thought experiment here. Supposing, just for the sake of argument, that Glyndwr’s rebellion had been a success, that English aggression had been subdued, and that a rather larger Wales and the two parts of England under the Tripartite Indenture had lived alongside each other in peace and harmony for the last six centuries. How would things be different, purely considering economics? It strikes me as being unlikely that Wales would have allowed its natural resources to be plundered and the benefit and wealth extracted from the country to anything like the extent which happened in practice. I somehow doubt that Welsh society would be dramatically more egalitarian than English society (I’m not convinced that we’re actually as naturally socialist as I and many others would rather like to believe), so from the time of the Industrial Revolution, we would probably have had Welsh capitalists instead of English ones. The wealth would have flowed to the Welsh capital (Machynlleth initially, or maybe Merthyr after the establishment of the coal and steel industries) instead of the English capital. It would, though, largely have remained in Wales, and Wales’ GDP per head would be higher than it is as a result – probably roughly equivalent to that in England, even if not shared any more fairly.

Those outcomes would not have been inevitable, however. History doesn’t work that way. Let us suppose that the Welsh in general really are as innately stupid and incompetent as so many unionists would have us believe, and really could not have managed our resources and wealth any better. It’s a scenario in which the relative wealth and prosperity of England and Wales end up roughly as they are today, six centuries of independence having made no difference at all. Does anybody really believe that there would then be a great clamour from Wales demanding union with England as the ‘solution’ to the problem of our own mass stupidity? To put the question another way: if the union had not previously been brought about by military conquest, would we really invent it voluntarily?

I deliberately simplify, of course, by reducing it to such a simple question. Other outcomes – some sort of ‘Common Market’, or even ‘Single Market’ between the countries of these islands  look likelier, but any such arrangement would have been based on equals choosing to co-operate rather than on one imposing its will on the others. The broader point is that, in considering the question of independence, we all – unionists and independentistas alike – do so from the perspective of our own political standpoint. And that standpoint is coloured by and filtered by our own analysis of actual rather than theoretical history. We’re not capable of producing an economic analysis of independence without basing the numbers on a set of assumptions – and those assumptions are not shared. So any economic arguments produced by Mike Hedges can and will support and validate his own standpoint (and that of those who think like him) on the question, just as arguments produced by independentistas will support and validate our alternative standpoint. Neither group will ever convince the other on that basis, no matter how hard they try or how rigorous their analysis. And the truth is that neither group will get it right anyway: an independent Wales following its own path would fairly quickly demonstrate, whether for external reasons or simply from following an unpredicted path in terms of policies, that neither set of assumptions was entirely correct.

We should start from an acceptance that there are three possible economic outcomes to independence: it makes us better off, it makes us worse off, or it makes no difference, and there can be no certainties, only previous examples to guide us. The difference between those outcomes owes more to the policies implemented by the independent government than it does to the fact of independence in itself. The question then comes down to a very simple one – who do we trust most to resolve the issues facing us, ourselves or someone else? It’s a question which mere economics can never answer. As I recall, the late Iain McLeod once said, as the British Empire was busily disintegrating, that people generally prefer self-government to good government (‘good’ obviously being a synonym for ‘colonial’ in this context, patronising soul that he was). But even a Tory can get something half right occasionally.

Wednesday 17 May 2023

A 1000 year Reich?


Former Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, once said that, “between the mid-sixteenth century and the mid-eighteenth century Wales had practically no history at all, and even before that it was the history of rural brigands who have been ennobled by being called princes”. For him, Welsh history, apparently, only really started with the Industrial Revolution and the growth of Britishness across these islands. One of the implications – that the same was not true for England, and that English history thus long predates Welsh history, was left unsaid.

The English nationalists currently in charge of both his old party and the current governing party, on the other hand, repeatedly proclaim an unbroken history of these islands dating back to 1066, or ‘a thousand years of history’ as which they often approximate it. It’s a phrase heard a lot during the recent royal Brit-fest. (It often strikes me as somewhat odd that English history, as they see it, began with the defeat of the English and the imposition of French rule by force, although that is far from being the only odd feature of an English nationalist view of history.) Whilst the sundry acts of union seem to put clear dates on the incorporation of Wales into England, the union between England and Scotland, and the subsequent union between the UK and Ireland, the truth is a great deal messier, with allegiance and submission generally in place well before the formal acts, even if sometimes being recognised and sometimes rather less so and the rule of the English Crown sometimes being more theoretical than real. What is unarguable, though, is that the start of that 1,000 years of history was in a very much smaller land area of these islands than is covered by today’s United Kingdom. The ‘continuity’ in which they take such pride is very much an English phenomenon, although perhaps I should really say ‘Norman-French’. For them, it’s not so much that Welsh history doesn’t exist, it’s more the case that English history displaced it; English history is our history too, since even before they gobbled Wales up.

The extent to which it is important is a matter of opinion, of course. Our sense of history is one of the factors shaping our sense of identity, but erasing that sense of identity requires more than erasing our sense of history, as the experience of Wales surely shows. Or, rather, has shown to date. The English nationalists running the UK have repeatedly tried different approaches to imposing a uniform idea of nationality and culture on us, but have often lacked the degree of ruthlessness and consistency which success would require; for a century or two, they were too busy trying to impose their culture and language on a world-wide empire to pay too much attention to the differences at home. Besides, the Welsh among the ruling classes bought in to the imperial mindset anyway, and the masses didn’t matter.

Things are, however, changing. With the empire gone, and the deliberate decision to reduce British influence in the world which Brexit represents, those nationalists are now retreating into ‘home’ territory. Deleting alternative identities is the only way that they can feel secure in their own. (Or at least, that’s what they currently believe. If they were to succeed, they would probably find other reasons to feel insecure.) One of the themes coming clearly from the National Conservative movement (often shortened to NutCon, or something similar, I understand) is the idea that the state equals the nation, and that all those living within the state boundaries must be made to feel part of the nation (or be driven out). And the nation of which they must feel part is one which shares their values, religion, culture, language and attitudes, whilst those who don’t are traitors, Marxists or worse. It’s authoritarian and sees enemies everywhere. Even though they’re in control of the government, they somehow believe that they are not and that enemies of the state are using nefarious means to control them. And there's a generous dose of antisemitism included in that view as well.

Their view of history is (like much of their thinking) distorted. Most historians looking at the ‘1,000 years of continuity’ would see many episodes of rupture and change, but history should never be confused with fact. It’s continuity if enough people can be persuaded to believe it is continuity, by being fed a redacted and over-simplified view of the past. It's a dangerous mindset, as a more comprehensive view of history quickly teaches us, but it has a stronger hold on the narrative than is healthy. It’s easy to dismiss these people as cranks and nutters – the very personage of Jake encourages that dismissiveness – but they actually represent a real and present danger to the freedoms of all of us.

Tuesday 16 May 2023

Can't even gerrymander properly


It ought to be shocking that a man who was a minister when the government introduced voter ID can now stand up and say that it was indeed an attempt to prevent people voting, and the only thing wrong with it was that the people it prevented from voting were the wrong ones. Ought to be, but somehow isn’t. Still, failing even to get gerrymandering right is an admission of incompetence; and shouting it out loud a sign of the complete shamelessness which is the new normal. They’re incompetent and shameless, they know it, they know we know it, and they don’t even attempt to conceal it any more, boasting about it instead. They really do think we're all stupid.

Monday 15 May 2023

Not traditional Tories at all


There seems to be an ongoing battle in Sunak’s cabinet between those who think that feeding the population is on the whole a good idea and those who are so ideologically opposed to immigration that they think that it is better to let food rot in the fields than to allow businesses to recruit people to collect it. As has become the norm in the Tory Party, it seems that the ideologues are winning. Since Sunak has the power to override or sack the Home Secretary any time he wishes, it is reasonable to conclude that he is on the side of the ideologues, for the time being at least.

Braverman’s core argument seems to be that we should train up UK workers as HGV drivers, fruit pickers, and butchers rather than rely on attracting people from elsewhere to fill those jobs, and that’s the way to build a “high-skilled, high wage economy that is less dependent on low-skilled foreign labour”. The logic involved in that – that training people to do jobs which she obviously regards as low-skilled helps to increase skills and wages  escapes me, but let’s leave that to one side.

One of the issues raised by her apporoach is this: to what extent should people be free to choose their occupations rather than being ‘encouraged’ or even compelled to do those jobs which are available? Clearly, it cannot be a completely open choice – if 50 million of the UK’s citizens chose to become cobblers, we’d have an excess of shoes and a shortage of just about everything else. But neither do most of us want to see the type of command economy which marks people out as they leave school, allocating them to occupations according to need. In the real world, as a matter of fact, it tends to be the case that the children of the most well-off in society have rather more choice about how to earn their living than do those from poorer homes. There is another ideological component underlying that: for the political right (accepting the limitations and reservations about using such simplistic terms as left and right), the masses (but not themselves or their families, obviously) are there to serve the needs of the economy, whilst for the political left, the economy is there to enable people to achieve fulfilment as individuals. (As an aside, it’s a distinction which obviously places the modern Labour Party as one of a number of competing brands on the political right.)

In practice, things are not quite as black and white as that and, in the economy as currently constituted, we need a mechanism of some sort to decide how to fill those jobs which need filling, whilst avoiding a glut of cobblers. For the Conservative Party and Labour Party alike, the traditional answer is that ‘the markets’ should solve the problem. Shortages in one occupation should lead to increased wages, whilst surpluses in another should see pay falling behind. Looking at the actions of the current government, that begs the question: are they really traditional Tories at all? Deliberately holding wages below the rate of inflation (and thus making those receiving them poorer) in occupations where there is a clear and growing shortage is the reverse of what free market ideology suggests should happen. Their approach increasingly seems to be one of compulsion and direction in which the population does as it is told to serve those who wield economic power; but that only underlines the extent to which they have moved away from a belief in market forces towards authoritarianism. Braverman is just the most egregious example.

Saturday 13 May 2023

Starmer isn't really serious about change


It’s understandable that a Labour Government led by Keir Starmer, if that’s what we’re going to get after the next election, would have a long list of things it wants to do. Some of them would be new initiatives, others would be repealing some of the worst acts of the current government (although his appetite for the latter seems very limited at present). The problem with acts of parliament passed by one government is that they can be very easily repealed by its successor; ensuring that change ‘sticks’ is far from easy. There is one major change which he could make, however, which would not only be hard to repeal in itself, but would also make it harder for the Tories to reverse other changes at some future date. That change is the one thing which Starmer seems absolutely keen to reject, namely proportional representation. Once a parliament is elected by a fully proportional system, it’s hard to imagine circumstances in which it would decide to revert to the absolutism of first-past-the-post.

What makes it so easy for one government to reverse the actions of its predecessors is the way in which our current electoral system usually gives absolute power to one party on a minority of the vote. Changing that means that repealing legislation would require a more consensual approach. It’s true that it would also make it harder for a government to get its own proposals through parliament in the first place; but looking at Brexit, the legislation to tear up international law over asylum, and the new act giving sweeping powers to individual police officers, many of us might think that to be rather a good thing. Demographics coupled with opinion polls showing that younger people’s opinions tend, on the whole, to be more socially liberal and progressive than those of older people, meaning that it is far more likely that a Labour leader prepared to be bold (a category which admittedly might exclude Starmer) could find a majority in a proportional parliament than a Tory leader seeking to appeal to the extremes. It seems that Starmer would sooner enjoy absolute power for one term and pass a whole series of reversible measures for the Tories to unpick than enjoy a more diffuse and conditional hold on power for a much longer term and make longer term changes to the UK’s society and economy. On that basis, apparently, many people see him as some sort of ‘progressive’. It’s a strange definition that they are using.

Friday 12 May 2023

What does a police state look like?


The more we read about the police handling of protesters associated with the coronation, the worse things get. After arresting people taking part in an anti-monarchy protest the details of which had been agreed in advance with the police force, it then emerged that, the previous night, they had arrested three women’s safety volunteers who were wearing hi-vis jackets with the Metropolitan Police logo on them who were taking part in a scheme run in partnership with the police to hand out rape alarms to vulnerable women. Today, it has emerged that they also managed to arrest a fervent monarchist who was handcuffed and then held for 13 hours, for the inadvertent ‘crime’ of standing too close to Just Stop Oil protesters. There was even a report that one person had been arrested for being in possession of a piece of string, although the length of the piece of string remains, as is ever the case, unknown. One common thread running through it all is the utter failure to talk to or listen to those arrested, with the police preferring to simply incarcerate them for hours before attempting to establish any facts.

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I might be tempted to believe that this was all entirely deliberate on the part of the Metropolitan Police, in an attempt to undermine the new laws by showing just how stupid and arbitrary they are. Sadly, however, given the Met’s record in recent years, I just don’t believe that they are clever enough to do that, and we have to look for other explanations. Such as incompetence, lack of co-ordination and communication, authoritarianism, and a desire to please their political masters. Somewhat surprisingly, they seem to have achieved the last of those: government ministers seem to be queuing up to declare how wonderful it is that the Met took a firm line in arresting people, and seem to be not in the least embarrassed that some of those arrested – maybe even all of them – had done nothing which justified charging them with any criminal offence, even under the new open-ended anti-protest laws which were rushed in in time for the coronation.

And that underlines where the real blame lies. The Met deserve – and are getting – a lot of criticism for their approach, but the real culprit here is a government which is determined to stamp out the traditional right to protest in the UK. It appears that there is now no form of protest which is permissible if the police decide otherwise, even if the details are agreed with the police in advance. Worse, it isn’t even ‘the police’ as a whole who make that decision, or even individual police forces; power has been given to individual police officers to decide for themselves what behaviour they will or will not allow, and to arrest and detain anyone who does something that they don't like. That looks like a classic definition of a police state to me, yet that’s where we’ve got to. And the official opposition can’t even decide whether it wants to reverse the process. Wales really can do better for itself.

Thursday 11 May 2023

Institutional amnesia can affect any organisation


It’s clear that the UK Government’s plan to ditch all EU-originated legislation by the end of the current year has run into significant difficulties. Whilst ideologues like Jake are demanding that the government stick to its original plan, those responsible for actually implementing it are slowly realising that most of the rules and regulations are there for good reasons, and that simply abandoning them without thinking through a replacement is a really bad idea. It’s highlighting an instance of what is known as “institutional amnesia”, an organisation's inability to recall and use historical knowledge for present-day purposes. Whilst the rules are still there, the reasons for putting them there have often been forgotten.

A lot of organisations suffer from the problem. I’ve worked for large organisations, in both the public and the private sector, which have reams and reams of policies and procedures, all carefully developed to respond to some stimulus or other – sometimes external, such as legislation or a problem very publicly hitting another organisation which they don’t want to repeat themselves, and sometimes internal, such as ensuring that something which has happened is never repeated. One potential result, from direct personal experience with one large employer, is that when a situation arises, all those carefully prepared and shelved policies get ignored because no-one remembers what’s in them or is able to find the relevant needle in the haystack of documentation, and those charged with responding to the situation re-invent their own shiny new wheels to address the problem. And then write a new procedure to cover the future. In simple terms, when organisations forget the ‘why’ which lies behind the ‘what’, they tend to ignore the ‘what’ as well.

If that’s a problem for large, well-resourced organisations under full-time professional management, imagine how much bigger that problem might be for an under-resourced organisation run at least partly by part-time volunteers with frequent changes in both its officers and its committees and groups. Particularly where competing egos and ambitions are in play. Like a political party for instance. And that brings me to Plaid’s recent travails and the report of the working party into the allegations of a toxic culture of misogyny, harassment and bullying. When I read some of the report’s recommendations, I couldn’t help but feel that the party was suffering from a bout of that institutional amnesia which eventually afflicts most organisations. Some of the proposed ‘new’ wheels looked extremely familiar to me. I’m well aware that, during my period as Chair, the party’s rule book got ever longer and more complicated – far too long, according to many – as rules were tweaked and new committees and groups established, invariably in response to an actual or perceived problem. One thing that I learned from that experience is that whilst rules, procedures and processes are very good at documenting what should happen, they are a very poor way of documenting the learning and reasoning which led to those rules and processes in the first place, and over time (to the extent that they are followed at all) the rules are followed with no real understanding of the rationale behind them. And then fall into disuse or get thrown into the nearest convenient bonfire of red tape.

It's not a problem to which I had (or have) a solution, and I don’t immediately see a solution to it in the working party’s report either. Plaid isn’t unique in facing the problem, although other parties making hay is only to be expected. As the report hints, the long-term solution lies somewhere in the area of the collective culture of the organisation, but changing and then maintaining a single cohesive culture is easier said than done. Particularly bearing in mind those egos and ambitions.

Tuesday 9 May 2023

To squirm or not to squirm


One should always be careful about believing the detail of what people plugging a book – or a podcast – about politics have to say. They do, after all, have a vested interest in selling something, and brash headlines are not exactly unhelpful. Guto Harri, Boris Johnson’s former Communications Chief has been at it today, claiming that Johnson squared up to the soon-to-be-king and gave him a dressing down over his description of the Rwanda policy as 'appalling' leaving Charles ‘squirming’; that Johnson thought that Sue Gray was a ‘psycho’ (takes one to know one, maybe?); and that Johnson was all set to sack Rishi Sunak as Chancellor when Sunak beat him to it by resigning, the dastardly Chancellor that he was.

There is a question over the discretion of both men in talking about what did or did not happen in what was supposed to be a private conversation with Charles but, notwithstanding the golden rule about being careful about taking the word of someone who has something to sell, it is entirely credible that Johnson would have said all these things to Harri. What is a lot less credible, though, is that Harri, as someone who knew Johnson better than most, and would have been extremely familiar with his tendency to dissimulate, exaggerate, and say different things to different people, could apparently have so readily believed that what Johnson was saying to him might bear some relationship to truth.

Johnson has denied the bit about Charles, of course, with a ‘source close to him’ claiming that he “does not recognise this account and it is inaccurate”. Well, he would, wouldn’t he, to coin a phrase. Johnson’s great hero, Churchill, once said that he knew that history was going to be kind to him because he intended to write that history. In Johnson’s case, we have two versions of history in one day, and in all probability neither of them actually reflects what happened. Still, it might all help to sell a podcast or two.

Monday 8 May 2023

The right time is now


For monarchists, there is, apparently, never a ‘right’ time to talk about the question of monarchy vs republic. Whilst one monarch reigns for 70 years, it is an issue which can be deferred until she dies; when she dies, such a debate would be disrespectful; and when a new monarch is crowned, it is disloyal and unpatriotic to raise the issue. That takes us back to the start point where there is an unchallengeable reigning incumbent albeit without the 70 years of reigning, even if he has been busy cutting ribbons and opening things. And so the issue goes largely undebated and life carries on. Few boats are rocked.

Those who support the idea that the head of state should be a hereditary position argue that it gives us a degree of stability under the late queen and the current king that we would not have with an elected president. They often posit the choice between the late queen and a recent political villain of choice – Trump, say, or Blair. Reducing the choice to named individuals might make it easier to opt for the monarch of the day, but it’s a verbal sleight of hand. There are other potential presidents. Presidency can be executive or ceremonial; assuming them to be the same thing is a deliberate attempt at deception. It is more realistic to suggest that the choice could be between a hereditary monarch and a president such as Michael Higgins of Ireland. And there are also other royals. It is by accident of birth that we now have King Charles rather than King Andrew. Whilst a choice between two billionaires such as Charles and Trump might lead many to prefer Charles, I strongly suspect that were the choice to be between Andrew and Michael Higgins, supporters of hereditary appointments might rapidly find themselves in a minority. But choosing between the two options on the basis of which individuals might end up in the job is, in any event, a poor argument for one system over the other. Even if it’s the best argument that the monarchists have. Especially if it’s the best argument that the monarchists have.

It's true, of course, that in a republic we could end up with the ‘wrong’ person in the job. It’s also true that in a monarchy we could end up with the ‘wrong’ person in the job. But in the first case, there is a mechanism for removal at a subsequent election whilst in the second, there is not. We potentially have to wait 70 years (although not for the current incumbent, obviously, despite the call as part of the crowning ceremony that he should live forever). Elections can get it ‘wrong’ - democracy allows us to make bad choices as well as good ones. But whether a choice is good or bad is in the eye or mind of the beholder; it’s not an absolute. Surprisingly, not everyone agrees that Johnson was a disaster, for example. And it is, at least, our choice in a way that hereditary succession is not.

“Not my King” has become a popular slogan of late, and in the sense that none of us chose him, it’s true. We are, though, his subjects, whether we like it or not. As the Archbishop of the established church in England made clear in the ceremony on Saturday, he consecrated Charles as “King over the peoples, whom the Lord your God has given you to rule and govern”. And whilst the Church holds sway only in England, the people given to Charles by god, according to the archbish, include those in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as sundry other remnants of conquest. The idea that we are ‘given’ to a monarch as subjects to be ruled over is a fiction, of course. But it’s a fiction which goes to the very heart of the English constitution. The authority of parliament and the government stems from the crown not from the people; it stems from the fiction that they rule in the name of and on behalf of the Protestant Christian god; and it's a fiction of which last Saturday’s events rather forcefully reminded us.

It’s often argued that, for practical purposes on a day to day basis, ditching the monarch for an elected and purely ceremonial president would make little difference to most of us. If it were possible to make such a simple single change, that would be true. But from an establishment perspective – and there is little difference between the Tories and Labour on this issue – a debate on converting the UK to a republic is a very large can of worms. Challenging the fiction at the centre of the constitution challenges a great deal more which is taken for granted. It isn’t just about who fills the role of head of state and how he or she is chosen – it’s about the relationship between the people and power, and about on whose behalf actions are taken. It’s actually a very big deal – and a long overdue change.

Sunday 7 May 2023

There is an alternative


Sunakland is a strange, other-worldly sort of place, which adheres to a system of logic which is unique and impenetrable to outsiders. It is a world where an overwhelming rejection of the governing party in a series of elections is heard by the PM as a huge vote of confidence and a demand that he continue with a relentless pursuit of the same policies. Some of his acolytes think the result shows that people are giving Rishi Sunak a chance. I’d love to see what the results looked like if they weren’t. Not all of his followers agree with him, however. Some manage to see the voters’ reaction to the last three years of chaos as being a demand to return the chaos-creator in chief to the top job, apparently in the belief that the chaos was caused by, rather than the cause of, removing Johnson from office. Yet others see people turning away from the party of low taxes and poor services and turning instead to parties who want to provide better services by (according to incessant propaganda from the Tories) increasing taxes as a sign that voters are demanding more tax cuts and austerity.

In other news from that strange place, it seems that the governing party (it seems reasonable to assume that a deputy party chair appointed by the PM is promoting party policy) believes that a quarter of the entire UK population should be encouraged to emigrate. I suppose that might help to solve the housing shortage without upsetting Tory MPs by building houses in their constituencies, although I’m not sure that he’s thought through the implications for the NHS nor the widespread labour shortages which would result from such a dramatic population cut, let alone the impact on the government’s oft-stated ambition to be a world leader in research and innovation. It would also help to achieve his goal if they weren’t still congratulating themselves on removing the freedom of movement of those they now want to freely move. Still, I understand that the border control authorities have acquired a tidy stock of small boats – they could march all republicans down to Dover and launch them towards France. That’ll teach the French a lesson as well. Like the message on the wall in Animal Farm, the slogan will slowly morph from ‘Stop the boats’ to ‘Launch the boats’.

Fortunately, for Wales and Scotland at least, there is a way to leave Sunakland without going anywhere. It really is time to take it.

Thursday 4 May 2023

Splashing the cash


From a republican perspective, the results of a poll showing that 54% of people in Wales would vote to keep the monarchy whilst 23% would vote for a republic is not at all a bad starting point on an issue which is barely discussed publicly and in relation to which the media and the main political parties relentlessly promote the status quo. And, interestingly, it’s far from clear that even all those who support the continuation of the monarchy are over-impressed by the cost to the public purse, with just over half saying that the monarchy should pay for the coronation out of their own resources. That said, it’s probably the case that attitudes to Saturday’s events probably reflect attitudes to the institution, and that the overall level of enthusiasm is rather less than the BBC and media would have us believe.

There have been some wild claims as to just how much of a boost the UK economy will get as a result of the jamboree, with the palace repeating claims that the benefit could be up to £1.25 billion. That looks a bit like a politician’s statistic to me (92.8% of which, like the figure of 92.8% itself, are made up on the spot to support whatever argument is being advanced at the time). It’s certainly true that a lot of tourists like to visit royal sites and palaces – whether that number would rise or fall if the occupants were cleared out and the whole of the building made available for public view is an open question. Royal history without the royals might turn out to be a surprisingly lucrative proposition.

One rather more specific claim has been that pubs will gain from a £120 million spending splurge over the weekend. The basis of that claim is uncertain to say the least – the workings haven’t been reported – but, for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that it’s true. The question, then, is ‘is that a boost to the economy overall?’, and the answer to that depends on where the money is coming from. If people are smashing open their piggy banks, or pulling the money from under the mattress or wherever else they’ve been hiding it, then the expenditure will indeed boost the economy overall. If, on the other hand, they’re merely spending money which might otherwise have been spent in the supermarket or on other leisure activities, then the ‘boost’ to one sector of the economy is matched by a hit to one or another different sector. In a time when people are struggling with the cost of living, the second scenario seems rather more likely than the first.

It has been reported that the cost of staging the event to the public purse will be around £100 million. Again, I haven’t seen the workings, but am prepared to accept the figure for the sake of argument. The same question arises – where does this money come from? Given that the government keep telling us that the cupboard is bare, it won’t be coming from Rishi Sunak’s piggy bank, or from under his mattress (although the tax authorities might usefully take a peek anyway to see what might be there and where it came from). And in the absence of any announcement of cuts elsewhere, it isn’t obviously going to impact other spending. In terms of the government’s overall spending, it’s a tiny drop in the ocean, but the likelihood is that it is effectively going to increase, marginally, the current year’s deficit. And that highlights one of the key differences between government spending and household spending – the government can, and almost invariably does, spend money which it hasn’t actually got. The result is that spending £100 million of extra government money on a coronation provides a real boost to the overall economy in a way which transferring £120 million of private money from supermarkets to pubs does not.

That doesn’t mean that I’m advocating spending £100 million on a pointless and archaic ceremony; I can think of plenty of better ways of spending that money. I’m more interested in the general lesson here, which is that government spending which increases the budget deficit boosts the economy; and its corollary, which is that ‘austerity’ (cutting government spending to reduce the deficit/debt) dampens the economy. That doesn’t mean that governments can or should run ever bigger deficits (there are other mechanisms, such as a lack of resources and a consequent increase in inflation which impose constraints on that, although despite all the posturing by politicians about percentages of GDP the simple truth is that no-one knows with any certainty where the limits lie). It simply means that when growth is weak, deficit-funded government expenditure can boost it, and that the time to reduce deficits is when growth is strong. There’s nothing new about that, it's something which has been known and understood for many decades. The tragedy is that we have a government which, for largely ideological reasons (and to protect the interests of the wealthiest, which may well amount to the same thing) tries to pretend that the opposite is true, and a main opposition party which is so keen to prove its fiscal responsibility that it’s even keener on taking action likely to dampen rather than promote growth.

Monday 1 May 2023

One People...


There is a tendency amongst the usual suspects in the Conservative Party which is coalescing around a new political philosophy imported from the US called National Conservatism. The name is unfortunate, to say the least – my first reaction was that it sounds like it might be an attempt to place themselves to the right of National Socialism. My second reaction after reading a little more was that my first reaction may not be entirely unfair. The organisation is holding a conference in London shortly, to be graced by the presence of a whole host of prominent Tories, including Lord Frost, Jake Rees-Mogg, Michael Gove and Suella Braverman.

At the heart of their philosophy (outlined here by the Edmund Burke Foundation) is the idea that the nation-state is the best and natural unit of organisation for human societies. In an article penned jointly by Jake and Frosty for the Telegraph, the pair describe the ideology as a “belief in the nation state and the principle of national independence”. It’s hard for an independentista to disagree with that as a principle. Indeed, at first sight, it would seem obvious that anyone holding that view would necessarily be a firm supporter of independence for Wales and Scotland. That isn’t, of course, what they believe; in fact they are both in favour of winding back devolution rather than turning it into independence. It all hinges on the definition of a ‘nation’. Some would see nation-states as being created by nations, but for national conservatives, it's actually the reverse: nations are created by states. From that perspective, the existence of the UK state in itself determines that the people living within it form a single nation. It’s axiomatic and inarguable, by definition. In another reminder of the past, Ein Reich necessarily translates as Ein Volk.

It follows, for them, that a single nation has to be based on a single ideology and set of values, and the Foundation happily spells them out. They include the idea that “public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision”, and demand that the norm should be “the traditional family, built around a lifelong bond between a man and a woman”. They also want “the revival of the unique national traditions that alone have the power to bind a people together and bring about their flourishing”. It is a recipe for enforcing their own view of what a nation, and particularly the ‘British’ nation is, and for rolling back the diversity and freedoms to which we have become accustomed, whether directly through law or indirectly by establishing expected norms. It is about imposing a set of values and behaviours on all of us.

We are currently seeing an outbreak of red, white and blue (to say nothing of the expectation that we will all joyously swear our allegiance to the latest unelected head of state), associated with next weekend’s clowning of the king; but that will be as nothing compared to the agenda of these people. And they are increasingly the mainstream of the governing party of these nations, which holds that position based on the votes of only one of those nations and then reserves to itself the right to determine, or terminate, the rights and wishes of the others. Anyone who doesn’t want to become fully assimilated into the ‘one people’ needs to understand that the only way of preventing it is to opt out of the ‘one realm’ first. And sooner rather than later.