Tuesday 27 June 2023

Buying votes


Given what the government’s own economic impact assessment says about the plans to deport some asylum-seekers to Rwanda, it’s not really surprising that they should have tried to avoid, or delay, releasing the information. It was eventually made public after members of the House of Lords threatened to delay the passage of the Illegal Migration Bill unless they were given clear information about the impact of the bill’s provisions. The assessment contains a large number of assumptions and estimates, much of which appear to be little more than partially-informed guesswork, but the bottom line is that the economic impact of the proposals depends entirely on the extent to which they act as a deterrent and reduce the number of crossings. Initially, at least, deporting immigrants to Rwanda will cost more than processing them in the UK. On the specific issue of deterrence, the report itself notes that “The academic consensus is that there is little to no evidence suggesting changes in a destination country’s policies have an impact on deterring people from leaving their countries of origin or travelling without valid permission…” before going on to explain why the reasons adduced by academic research for that conclusion ‘may’ be wrong and then quoting examples from other countries which purport to demonstrate the truth of that which the academic consensus rejects. The extent to which those examples are valid comparisons is open to debate, to put it mildly. To call the conclusions dodgy in mathematical terms would be an understatement.

The main argument used by the government to plough ahead with the scheme regardless is that, as Braverman put it, “Our impact assessment shows that doing nothing is not an option”. Actually, I can’t find anything in the report that does say that in such specific terms, but it’s hardly news that she has read what she wants to in the document. What the document does say, very loudly and clearly, is that only two options have even been considered: the status quo and the new bill. Whilst saying that opponents are offering no alternative, they are glossing over the fact that neither are the government. They know that whether the policy acts as a deterrent or not is open to question to say the least, and that it will cost more than current policies unless and until that deterrent effect cuts in, but they have decided to implement it anyway.

Chris Mason, of the BBC, paraphrases one possible reason for that – “they think it's worth a try”. As a basis for an essentially cruel and inhumane policy, many will consider it rather less than adequate. But I wonder how serious they are about ‘stopping the boats’ anyway – if the policy wins them votes, it will have achieved its real aim. It isn’t only the people-smugglers who are using desperate people as pawns for their own benefit.

Friday 23 June 2023

Being 'on it'


A colleague in one of the various places I worked over the years told us one day that she’d come up with a brilliant way of impressing our mutual boss with her commitment to the job. She had set up an ‘auto-reply’ rule in Outlook such that every e-mail from said boss received an instant response, saying “OK, I’m on it”. The potential flaws in this approach seemed a little obvious to me; whilst it’s a good response to a request for information or the completion of a task, there are plenty of other boss-originated e-mails to which it is a pretty poor response. And always receiving such a response within seconds to an e-mail sent at 3am (said boss did work all hours; the organisation had something of a culture of presenteeism) is never going to be entirely credible. Even leaving aside the practical issues and potential misunderstandings, what does the phrase even mean anyway? Sent automatically without the ‘sender’ having even read the original e-mail, it is an inherent lie from the outset.

It’s probably no surprise, therefore, that it was a phrase used by Sunak yesterday, albeit with the added flourish of him being ‘100%’ on it in relation to the cost of living problem. And it is, equally obviously, a lie. In this particular case, being ‘on it’ means that he has no plans to actually do anything except shout a bit of encouragement from the sidelines while the Bank of England engineer a deliberate recession in the strange belief that denying people money to spend will somehow overcome the barriers to trade which his government has chosen to erect. And being ‘100%’ on it implies that he is doing nothing else at all (although, on reflection, it might be better if that bit were true, given how much damage he causes when he does do anything).

In theory, it shouldn’t matter how wealthy a PM is, but a bland reassurance that “It is going to be OK and we are going to get through this” will always sound more than a little tone deaf coming from a multimillionaire who clearly doesn’t understand the sort of financial pressures which most of the population are facing, and who certainly isn’t facing them himself. His ‘we’ is really a ‘you’ in that context. Whilst he’s obviously trying to sound positive and upbeat, he really doesn’t have a clue as to how his statements sound. Telling people in increasingly desperate financial straits that all will be well as long as they don’t ask for pay increases sounds a bit like telling someone suffering from serious depression to pull themselves together, as though the solution is entirely in their own hands. The crisis is of the government’s own making, resulting from decisions that they have taken, and demanding that the majority suffer a drop in living standards to pay for the government’s mistakes is no substitute for action. Getting poorer more slowly isn’t the killer campaign line that they seem to think it should be.

Thursday 22 June 2023

How many legs does a recession have?


Not so long ago, it seemed that members of the UK government were positively gloating as the Eurozone entered recession and the IMF predicted that the UK would not. It was seen as one of those elusive Brexit bonuses. In those far distant times (at least a fortnight ago), a recession was seen as a really bad thing, one to be avoided at all costs. It turns out that, according to one of Hunt’s advisors, recession is a good thing after all, and that Hunt himself supports the idea that the Bank of England should deliberately cause one. Orwell has been replaced by Schrodinger: two legs are now simultaneously both good and bad, and the same goes for four legs. ‘Their’ recession is awful and we’ve been lucky to have dodged a bullet there; ‘our’ recession is a wondrous thing to behold.

In reality, whether the economic performance of an economy meets the definition of a ‘technical’ recession is about as useful a discussion, in terms of the impact on people, as the alleged theological debates of the past about the number of angels that can dance on a pinhead. An economy whose rate of growth over four successive quarters is 0, -.1, 0, -.1 has technically not been in a recession, but another economy which posts figures of -.1, -.1, +.1, +.1 has, since the definition is based on two successive quarters of negative growth. But it’s clear to the most casual of observers that the economy which was ‘technically’ in recession has actually performed rather better than the one which wasn’t. Arguing about whether the definition has been met or not is a diversion from debating and addressing the real impact on real people. Although I suppose that it’s easy to understand why they might want to divert attention.

The most immediate losers from today’s decision by the Bank of England are those who are buying their homes on a mortgage, and that’s where most of the focus has been, with some demanding immediate financial help for those impacted. The concentration of attention on that particular group probably tells us more about the financial position of those in politics and the media than it does about the real-world impact. But that impact goes wider than that: people renting their homes from landlords who have ‘buy-to-let’ mortgages will find the landlord’s increased costs being passed on at some point, and an increase in some rents for that reason will lead to an increase in the ‘market rate’, meaning that all tenants will suffer. Businesses which borrow money for investment (or even just as working capital) will want to pass on their own increased costs of interest as well. As Richard Murphy has pointed out, there are circumstances (like those in which the UK finds itself currently) where interest rate rises are themselves inflationary – the ‘cure’ for inflation is making the disease worse. But, as the saying goes, when the only tool in the box is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

The government has rejected any idea of assistance for those suffering the results – if the objective is to cause pain, then mitigating the effect is acting counter to the objective. And that’s the point. Although they don’t put it in so many words, it is now the deliberate objective of both the government and the Bank of England to make most of us poorer. (Not all of us, obviously – multi-millionaires will continue to get richer as economic resources flow in their direction.) It should be surprising that so few realise that making people poorer is deliberate policy, but in a week where it emerged that over 60% of people believe that halving inflation means that prices will either stay the same or fall, it’s a lot less of a surprise. If only we had an opposition party willing to say that it really doesn’t have to be this way; but Labour are committed to agreeing with the basic premises of government policy. Fine words expressing a bit more empathy with the victims of government policy isn’t the same as proposing an alternative.

Monday 19 June 2023

When to draw a line


The recent drama on the BBC, Steeltown Murders, was an example of how the emergence of new evidence can lead to the police re-opening old cases which were not solved at the time. (In passing, it also reminded me of the fact that I was, briefly, on the very, very long list of potential suspects, by dint of living in the south of Wales and owning a white Austin 1100, two facts which taken together were considered sufficient to lead to a visit from the boys in blue, a request for an alibi, and an examination of the vehicle in question.) In very general terms, there are two reasons why the police might re-open an old investigation – either there is new evidence, or else it becomes clear that the previous investigation was in some way flawed. Whether all crimes which fit into one of those categories should automatically be re-opened is another question; it is surely right to consider also the seriousness of the crime in question and the length of time which has elapsed.

It is hard not to conclude that the investigation by the Met into the various gatherings in and around Downing Street during the Covid lockdown was somewhat less than thorough and rigorous. Johnson ended up being fined for what always seemed to me to be the least serious of the events at which he was present, whilst getting off scot-free for events which seemed far more serious. Turning to Conservative HQ, it is beyond my understanding that the police could have looked at a photograph of 20-odd people, clearly not socially distanced and attending what was clearly a party and then claim that there was not enough evidence of rule-breaking. The video that emerged last week has, inevitably, led some people to demand that the investigation should be re-opened, since the case now clearly meets both the criteria referred to above – a less than thorough initial investigation coupled with new evidence. The Tories are clearly keen for the matter to be declared ‘closed’ and to ‘move on’, and in terms of an operational police decision, it would be hard to justify pouring significant amounts of time and resource into re-investigating this particular crime, no matter how inadequate and incompetent the original enquiry seems to have been.

It isn’t just about operational policing, though. The fact that Johnson received only one fine has allowed him to claim repeatedly that he was, in effect, ‘exonerated’ on all the other potential counts, adding to his sense that he is being unfairly targeted. Simply choosing to ‘forget’ past transgressions adds to the Johnson narrative (supported by Gove) that the privileges committee has reacted in an over-the-top fashion (even though they weren’t actually investigating the events themselves, merely the extent to which Johnson lied about them) to some minor misconduct. Given that compliance with the regulations was seen at the time as being essential for the protection of public health, allowing ‘them’ to get away with stuff for which ‘we’ would expect to have been fined (and many were) adds to a sense that there are two laws in operation and makes it harder to ensure enforcement in the event of a new pandemic. It’s hard to think of another crime where “This is an old story. We repeatedly apologised for this event at the time” would be considered adequate reason for taking no further action.

Perhaps the real question here is ‘who should decide?’ An overstretched police force is likely to be biased in favour of not re-opening investigations (or doing so in an under-resourced manner, something at which Steeltown Murders did more than hint). Victims and the public at large (and in the case of crimes committed by politicians, other parties) will tend to prefer a demand that ‘justice must be done’. Maybe we need a more transparent and independent way of assessing whether and when to re-open past cases and when to draw a line.

Friday 16 June 2023

Getting sacked the hard way


One of the by-products of the latest chapters in the Johnson Saga has been the exposure to public view, once again, of the Ruritanian nature of the rules of the UK parliament. Nadine Dorries promised to resign ‘with immediate effect’ a week ago, but is now refusing to do so until the government give her a satisfactory reason for not ennobling her. (Apparently, demanding an explanation for failing to appoint someone as a member of the legislature for the rest of their life is an entirely reasonable proposition on planet Dorries.)

In fact she can’t resign, even if and when she wants to. For reasons dating back to the days when MPs were often appointed against their wishes, resignation from the House of Commons is illegal. Members can, however, be expelled, and expulsion is automatic for any MP appointed to an office of profit under the Crown unless they have first asked the permission of the House. To facilitate the expulsion of members, two ancient posts have been retained, and been designated as ‘offices of profit’. It’s a strange designation for a job which has neither function nor remuneration – non-office of non-profit would be more accurate. By tradition, only MPs can be appointed to these jobs, and appointment results in immediate expulsion from the House of Commons. MPs can apply to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to be appointed to one of the jobs, and convention says that he can’t refuse. So, for an MP, ‘resignation’ in effect amounts to applying to be expelled.

It gets better. Once a member has been duly expelled for applying for and accepting an unpaid job with no responsibilities, someone has to move a writ in the House of Commons for a by-election to be called. If the majority vote for the writ (and convention, again, says that they must do so), the Speaker informs the Returning Officer and an election is called. Of course, a writ can only be moved and voted on if parliament is sitting; if an MP decides not to apply for a pointless unpaid job until the recess, the writ cannot be moved until parliament reconvenes. And all because they allow tradition to stand in the way of the obvious approach – an ‘I quit’ letter to the Speaker followed by an automatic by-election. Still, it gives MPs something to do and helps them feel important.

But who, in their right minds, would devise such a silly system in the first place?

Thursday 15 June 2023

Slowing the rate of decline


There is a scene in ‘the Scottish play’ where a somewhat drunken porter explains the effects of drink to Macduff and Lennox. One of the things which he says is impacted by drink is lechery. As he puts it: “Lechery, sir, it provokes, and unprovokes; it provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance”. Leaving aside any question about the extent to which this may be literally familiar to some politicians, the political parallel which actually brought this to mind is the impact of an increasing cost of living on wage rises. It provokes the desire for wage rises, but takes away the value of any that are actually achieved.

Yesterday, the PM stood up at PM’s Questions and claimed that the government was “…delivering… the fastest wage growth in years”. In absolute terms, it’s probably true, or at least as close to being true as any words that emerge from the mouths of ministers these days. But given the efforts which the government has been making to control pay rises, it’s a strange thing to claim as a ‘success’. And whilst it may be true in absolute terms, in relative terms wages are still lagging behind prices. He could, with an equal level of veracity, have announced that the government is “…delivering the fastest decline in real wages in years”. Some might argue that that would also be a ‘success’ for a government hell-bent on reducing the standard of living of the many as a way of opening the door to tax cuts for the few.

It isn’t the only ‘creative’ presentation of economic statistics. Other ministers have been saying things like ‘a fall in inflation is the best type of tax cut’, and ‘when inflation is halved and people see prices starting to fall, they will feel better off’. It’s possible that their level of mathematical understanding is so low that they believe this stuff, and that they really don’t understand what inflation is. Occam’s Razor tells us that the simplest explanation (‘they’re just stupid’) is probably more likely than the more complex one (‘they know that they’re talking rubbish, but think they can fool us’). Those of us who live in the real world understand that, whilst falling inflation is, on the whole, a good thing (even if zero inflation is not necessarily so good) a world in which wage growth lags behind price increases simply means that we become poorer more slowly, not that we become better off.

Ultimately, that is the very best economic proposition on offer from the current government – 'we’ll slow down the rate at which you get poorer'. Trying to spin abject failure as success is all they have left – the desperate last throw of the dice.

Tuesday 13 June 2023

Lowering the bar


When Dominic Raab resigned after being accused of bullying staff just a few months ago, many of his friends and allies leapt to his defence, and claimed, in effect, that being a demanding manager wasn’t bullying at all, it was just a question of trying to maintain high standards. Jake, in particular, accused those complaining about Raab’s behaviour of being a “blizzard of snowflakes”. It’s clear that he thought the complainants were setting the bar too low. I wonder what he makes of the complaint from a fellow-member of the ever-diminishing Boris Johnson Appreciation Society that denying her the peerage to which she feels entitled and which her idol had promised her amounts to bullying by Rishi Sunak? Jake, sorry, that should be ‘Sir’ Jake, hasn’t yet sprung to the defence of Sunak the way he did for Raab. It’s a strange world where failing to ennoble Mad Nad is somehow seen as being worse than berating staff and their work in front of their colleagues.

Monday 12 June 2023

What's the crime?


It is just possible that I have watched too many detective dramas on television over the years. They’re all very formulaic: a crime, usually a murder (or, for Scottish viewers, a myrrdyrr) is committed, the police investigate, and the culprit is identified and arrested. It’s the order that is important – crime, investigation, arrest. Real life is obviously more complicated than that, as we’ve seen in the police investigation into the finances of the SNP.

I won’t claim to be exactly an impartial observer; I want the SNP to achieve its aim, and I have long been impressed with the political ability of Nicola Sturgeon, and her ability to give straight answers to straight questions, speak from the heart, and show a degree of empathy which is so rare in the average UK politician. It follows that I might possibly be allowing my own preconceptions, as well as my understanding of the normal flow of events, to colour my opinion on the events that are unfolding. But what’s still unclear to me is what crime the police think they’re investigating – and indeed, whether there has even been a crime at all. And I’m not entirely sure that they know either; if they do, they certainly haven’t been very forthright about saying what it is. It all seems to revolve around whether money raised by a party whose sole raison d’être is to gain independence for Scotland has been spent on a specific campaign for a specific referendum which has yet to be called or has been used in other ways to promote the idea of independence with an implicit understanding that a similar amount will be made available for that specific campaign if and when it happens. The idea that money would simply be locked away in some sort of separate account for years in readiness for a campaign which might not happen for some time is a strange one for anyone with any understanding of political financing.

Whatever, the very fact of an investigation and a series of high profile arrests on suspicion of ‘something or other’ has been a gift to the anti-independence forces in Scotland, and I really can’t blame them for making the most of it while they can. They’re hardly going to wait for the outcome of an investigation which might very well conclude that no crime has been committed before attacking the SNP, are they? Even if there is a potential for a large volume of egg to end up on their faces. The police are, I suppose, just doing their job: they’ve received one or more complaints and are investigating them. Whether the investigation really needed to take as long as it has is another question. It seems to be grindingly slow in coming to any sort of conclusion and that slow pace is certainly allowing the SNP’s enemies to make the most of their opportunity, although I suspect that the slowness is more to do with lack of resources than with any political motivation. An investigation into something where there might not even be a crime is not – and should not be – the top priority for any police force, however politically inconvenient that might be for those under investigation. It would be an outrage, though, if the investigation were to drag on in such a way as to impact the outcome of the next general election, especially if the conclusion were that no action should be taken. That would look to be very political indeed.

Saturday 10 June 2023

Perhaps they don't want to win


When Labour first announced their plans to spend £28 billion a year, including in the very first year of a Labour government, on action to stop climate change, it was a bold step. It’s true that there was a certain paucity of detail (why is it that politicians and the media like to concentrate so much on the amount of money being spent rather than on what it’s going to achieve?), and the idea that they could get from a standing start to the whole £28 million in less than a year always looked more than a little dubious, but it was setting out a serious ambition to tackle the number one problem facing humanity and raise UK prosperity levels in the process. Or so it seemed.

In an amazing stroke of good luck, their own-goal announcement yesterday that it might actually not happen quite as quickly as they had previously claimed was overshadowed by the Tory own-goal scorer in chief announcing that he was departing in a huff because people were being nasty to him rather than accepting his lies and dishonesty as absolute truth. But Labour’s discharge of a firearm aimed unerringly at one of its own extremities deserves rather more attention than it has been given. The party could have backtracked gently, by saying that whilst the ambition remained unaltered they had always known that they could never deliver that level of spending as rapidly as they might wish, simply because, in practical terms, it would take time to set up schemes and put people and organisations in place. Instead, they chose to say that they would be deliberately deferring action on financial grounds, in order to abide by their self-imposed fiscal rules.

One of Starmer’s aides spelled it out in these terms: “If it’s a choice between the green prosperity plan and the fiscal rules, the fiscal rules would trump the former”. Aditya Chakrabortty of the Guardian has helpfully translated that as “In a choice between planetary life and some bullshit notion of fiscal credibility, we will always choose the latter.” It’s an entirely fair reformulation of what Labour are saying. The fiscal rules by which they insist they must abide are rules they themselves have written. They aren’t laws of nature or even laws of economics, they are rules which have been invented to convince the Tory press that the Labour Party will govern as though they were Tories, in the hope that the Tory press won’t be too hard on Labour in the run-up to the election. It would be nice, comforting even, to believe that it’s all a ruse and that Labour will abandon the self-imposed shackles once in government, but it appears as though they really do believe that they must abide by the rules which they wrote. They really do prefer austerity to prosperity; misery to hope. Perhaps they think that things are so bad they really don’t want to win.

Friday 9 June 2023

Whatever happened to being tough on the causes of crime?


In a post a few days ago, I referred to the post-war period when even Tory PMs took pride in the number of council houses built during their period in office. The two decades after the second world war saw the peak of council house building in the UK, and more than half of that time was under Tory governments. It all changed with Thatcher and the ‘right to buy’; there is no doubt that the decline in building new social housing since 1979, coupled with the large scale sell-offs of the 1980s and 1990s, is a huge factor in the housing crisis of the current day.

And yet… Thatcher did actually have a point; she understood the urge which many tenants felt to want to buy their homes, and I think she also (unusually for a Tory; they usually see property as an ‘asset’) understood the difference between a house and a home. I spent most of my childhood living in council houses, and can easily understand that people didn’t just want to own ‘a’ home (a desire which could have been fulfilled by buying a different house), they wanted to own ‘their’ home: the house in which those who chose to buy had often invested a great deal of their own time, effort and money. And it wasn’t just a desire for ‘ownership’, it was also a desire to be free of the paternalistic and pettifogging rules which councils often imposed, rules which didn’t apply to owner-occupiers. Worse, in some areas the allocation of houses was essentially corrupt, with ward councillors having an undue say in the process. I remember canvassing council estates in Merthyr during the 1972 by-election campaign and finding tenants who were genuinely afraid to say that they would support Plaid Cymru, let alone put a poster in the window, in case the local councillor found out. It was just one of the ways in which Labour maintained its hold on the population in parts of Wales in those days.

Wholesale sell-offs, let alone with huge discounts on the price, weren’t the only possible policy response. And sell-offs per se didn’t need to lead to such a huge shortage of social housing, but the sting in the Thatcher tail was the prohibition on councils using the funds raised from sales to build new houses. It also wasn’t the only way of responding to problems of corruption or clientelism in pursuit of political control, but it certainly achieved that. Or at least, I thought that it had, but it seems that old attitudes die hard.

In a classic throwback to those days, one Labour council leader has suggested that whole families of council tenants should be evicted from their homes if children do not inform on people committing knife crime. There can be few who would argue that those who know about knife crime (or indeed, any other type of crime), even if they are children, should not feel a moral obligation to divulge what they know, although the last time I looked there was still a right to silence when questioned by police, even as a witness, and fear of retribution is a powerful motive. But throwing their families onto the street if they refuse to co-operate – a punishment which can only be meted out to tenants, not to owner-occupiers, and therefore emphasises their perceived lesser status in society – is a return to some of the worst aspects of council tenancies of the past, quite apart from being a way of punishing people who have themselves committed no crime. It is not, apparently, official Labour policy, although espousing such a policy doesn’t seem to be a bar to being a parliamentary candidate, and it doesn’t exactly seem a huge jump from official policy which is to fine the parents of children perpetrating anti-social behaviour.

I seem to remember, though, in those far off days when Labour was merely Thatcherite rather than Farage-lite, one prominent leader talked about being ‘tough on the causes of crime’ (such as inequality) as well as on the crime itself. That’s been forgotten, as Starmer's Labour almost seems to be trying to make Blair and Thatcher look like bleeding-heart liberals.

Thursday 8 June 2023

Leading the world?


A little over half a century ago, I sat in a seminar in which my then Psychology lecturer invited us to define ‘intelligence’. After we’d had a few tries, he put us out of our misery by telling us that the working definition is that ‘intelligence is what intelligence tests measure’. That is to say, people have developed tests to measure their concept of intelligence but there simply is no satisfactory all-encompassing definition of the word. Rationality – the ability to look at facts and data and reason a way to a conclusion is clearly part of it, but there is also such a thing as emotional intelligence, and it’s far from clear to me that that aspect is currently informing much of the thinking around Artificial Intelligence. Whether the dangers posed to mankind by AI are as serious as some are making them out to be is an open question. There are, however, plenty of scientists and experts in the field lining up to warn us of the dangers, and I can certainly empathise with the idea that any truly intelligent entity which looks at the current state of the earth is likely to conclude that the planet’s future might be better ensured if the plague of one particular species could be eliminated.

Let’s assume that the experts are right, and that AI poses a real and present danger to humanity. The proposed solution – greater regulation of those working in the field – seems to me highly unlikely to address the issue. If there’s one thing we know about the currently most intelligent species on this planet, it is that there will always be someone willing to break any rule that is made. There are, after all, laws against murder, but they don’t prevent murder, merely set out the process and punishment for handling the murderer after the event. Telling the world in a deep, profound, and multinational voice that they must not do certain things doesn’t really solve the AI problem, nor does having a process for punishing the transgressors after their products have destroyed humanity. In theory, the capacity of any computing processor to act should be limited by any parameters set by its programmers, but most people’s conception of true intelligence would obviously include an ability to consider the validity of those parameters and override them as necessary. Even Asimov’s famous laws of robotics don’t really seem to overcome the problem, because a truly intelligent machine would also necessarily have the capacity to challenge those. Perhaps it’s already too late: the attempt to put controls in place is an impossible quest. Or maybe we just need some AI help to solve it.

In the meantime, the UK’s Prime Minister, a man whose usual solution to all problems is to claim that they don’t exist and repeat his five doomed priorities, is busily presenting himself as the world leader on the matter. The basis for such a claim is dubious, to say the least. And whilst claiming to be world-leading in every field may play well to a home audience, I do rather wonder what impact it has on other world leaders when Sunak turns up at their meetings claiming to be setting the agenda and leading the rest of them. Probably not the impact he thinks he’s having.

Tuesday 6 June 2023

Swallows, chickens and an occasional cuckoo


One swallow, or so they say, does not a summer make. Unless you are a Prime Minister desperate to see success wherever you look, in which case even half a swallow will do. Yesterday, Sunak was busily proclaiming the success of his attempts to ‘stop the boats’, by drawing attention to the drop in the number of crossings that we know about so far this year compared with the same period last year. Some unkind souls have pointed out that last year’s numbers were at a record high, and that other factors, such as the weather, or people finding other routes, may just have had a little influence. Time will tell whether rushing to claim ‘success’ on the basis of a snapshot will turn out to be like greeting a false dawn.

It wasn’t the only dodgy use of numbers in his speech. He also drew attention to the fact that the French authorities prevented 33,000 crossings last year. The wording is important – it’s ‘crossings’ that they’ve prevented, not ‘migrants’. One of the things we know is that those prevented from crossing once will make multiple efforts to cross, which raises the question – if a single migrant makes 10 attempts to cross and is ‘prevented’ on the first 9, how many times is he counted in that 33,000 total? I rather suspect that the answer is that 9 ‘crossings’ have been prevented, but that 0 migrants have been stopped, making that number of 33,000 a rather meaningless statistic. Except for the purposes of Prime Ministerial speeches determined to count chickens whilst they are still inside their shells.

The PM’s desperation stems from the obvious fact that his pledge to ‘stop the boats’ by the end of this year is unachievable. He knows it, and everybody else knows it. A more sensible and humane policy would be to create proper legal routes, and to start trying to explain why migration isn’t such a bad thing anyway for an economy short of labour in a number of key sectors. Some might see that as showing leadership rather than following prejudice, but he’s trapped in a net which his party has made for itself, and where their success in ensnaring the Labour Party alongside themselves is more important than getting themselves out.

So we get ever stronger rhetoric, daft and meaningless statistics, and increased efforts to make life as undignified and unpleasant as possible for some of the world’s most desperate people. Whether it is reasonable or not to expect migrants to sleep four to a room in a hotel depends on a lot of factors, not least whether they are related or at least known to one another, how many beds are in the room, and for how long the arrangement will last. Demanding that people share with complete strangers in a cramped room for an indefinite period just because they are migrants who have arrived by an unapproved route doesn’t meet the criteria which a civilised society would use; saying that it’s reasonable (as Jenrick did) is deliberately dehumanising those involved. The history of dehumanising identifiable groups of people is not exactly a happy one.

Whether migration is a good thing or a bad thing is ultimately a matter of opinion. The economic impact is clearly positive, but the social and community impact is rather harder to assess and is ultimately highly objective. But to the extent that anyone would wish to control it, the problem isn’t about controlling borders to keep people out, it’s about the reasons why people decide to leave their homeland in the fist place. War, disease, oppression – and above all poverty – these are the problems which need to be tackled. Desperate people in small boats is just a very obvious symptom of the failure to tackle the causes. When I hear Sunak and his rhetoric, the bird that comes to mind is neither a swallow not a chicken; just a cuckoo. Sadly, it isn’t the first this spring.

Monday 5 June 2023

The centre is a movable feast


For long periods in British politics, the differences between the two major English parties – Labour and the Tories – have been more imagined than real, and it has sometimes felt as though the smaller the differences become, the more fire and fury surrounds them. Last week, Larry Elliot in the Guardian analysed this phenomenon, suggesting that what used to be called ‘Butskellism’ is back, and the differences between Starmer and Sunak are rapidly diminishing, making the next election more about managerial competence than serious policy disagreements (not that a bit of managerial competence would be exactly unwelcome). Much of his analysis rings true; Butskellism continued, one way or another, through the Wilson/Heath years, until the arrival of Thatcher and a clear break with the broadly social democratic consensus of the previous decades.

His suggestion is that a form of consensus is re-emerging under Sunak and Starmer. There did seem to me, though, to be a missing link in the process: Thatcher’s real success was not so much in breaking the old consensus as in establishing a new one, with Blair largely picking up where she left off. Not for nothing did she once proclaim that her greatest achievement was New Labour. The ever-closer alignment of policy between Sunak and Starmer is simply a reversion to the post-war norm of British politics, where elections are fought out on the centre ground between the two parties. The point to note, however, is that the ‘centre’ is not, and never has been, a fixed point. Whilst it’s arguable that the immediate post-war consensus was based on the Tories moving towards the left and taking the ‘centre’ with them, the trend since then has been for the Tories to move to the right and for Labour to follow them, taking the ‘centre’ along with them.

For those involved in the immediate post-war consensus, which included an acceptance that certain major industries (coal, steel, gas, water, the railways, the post office) belonged in public ownership (although steel was an ongoing bone of contention), the idea of a properly-funded NHS providing free health care for all (even if imperfectly implemented), a social security system which protected the weakest (although, again, far from perfect), the government taking responsibility for a massive programme of social housing (with Tory PMs taking pride in the number of council houses built under their governments), and the UK finding a new role in the world rather than hanging on to pretensions of Empire, today’s consensus would be unrecognisable. Whilst a growing consensus around Brexit, demonising refugees and asylum-seekers, and fiscal rectitude might be a fact of political life, Butskellism it certainly is not.

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with ‘centrism’. It is not the fixed point as which it often appears in political discourse, it’s more the point at which politics stood at the last change of government. Whilst oppositions will move towards that centre to fight an election, once in power they tend to start moving away from it. Or, at least, some of them do. The reality is that, apart from a brief blip in the aftermath of the war when they succeeded the reforming Attlee government, the Tories are rather better at shifting the centre than are Labour. It’s a history which Starmer seems destined to repeat.