Monday 31 July 2023

Free speech and values


There seems to be a general consensus amongst politicians that banks should not be allowed to refuse to serve customers on the basis of their views, but I wonder how robust that consensus is, and how general its application. We know, for instance, that Nigel Farage certainly believes that businesses should be allowed to refuse to provide services to those who offend his own particular sense of morality, since this was actual UKIP policy when he was its leader. Can we really draw such a clear distinction between views on homosexuality and views on politics as supporters of Farage would suggest (the former being, in their eyes, purely a ‘moral’ rather than political standpoint)? If staff or owners of some companies providing services to the public were to have the legal right, as he suggested, to refuse to provide some of those services on the basis of their interpretation of their religion, should staff in other companies really be obliged to deal with racists and misogynists? At what point do political views diverge so far from socially accepted norms that it becomes reasonable for staff to refuse to serve those who hold them? At the risk of finding myself in breach of Godwin’s Law, would Coutts (in an admittedly completely hypothetical situation) be justified in refusing an account to a Hitler, or a Stalin?

It suits Farage and his supporters, of course, to paint this as a simple issue of freedom of speech, in which Farage, rather incredibly, emerges as the victim. In truth, it’s rather more nuanced than that. If a company is allowed to subscribe to a set of values (and most of them claim to do so these days, apparently) rather than simply being compelled to serve anyone and everyone who meets a set of strictly commercial criteria, then expecting that company to facilitate those who seek to undermine or negate those values defeats the objective. There is a case for compelling any organisation providing services to the public to use only commercial criteria and forget about ‘values’ – but that isn’t the case that Farage and his ilk are making. And nor, I suspect, is it what many would want. He has – not for the first time – succeeded in dominating the news agenda on a completely false prospectus.

Friday 28 July 2023

Playing games whilst children suffer


There are varying estimates as to how many children in the UK are impacted directly by the ‘two-child-limit’ on benefits. This report suggests that the number is around 1 million. Whatever the number is – and a million is as good a starting point as any that I’ve seen – one of the increasing number of policies on which the Tories and Labour are agreed is that those children must remain in relative poverty for the foreseeable future (whilst they both, utterly incredibly, purport to support a levelling up of life chances). Their reasoning isn’t exactly the same, of course. In the case of the Tories, it’s a bit of performative nastiness, aimed to appeal to those voters who regard anyone receiving any benefits as being scroungers; those impacted are just collateral damage. They’re not people who are very likely to vote Tory anyway, and the few who do have already demonstrated that they don’t care what the government does to them, they’ll still vote for it. Labour’s argument is slightly different: it’s not that they don’t care (although I’m not sure they really do), it’s that deliberately keeping a million children in a state of relative poverty is a way of showing that they can take tough decisions contrary to their claimed core values in order to prove themselves fitting successors to the Tories in the eyes of the Tory press and media. Which of the two is the most immoral stance is one for the philosophers of ethics to debate: but in a choice between not caring on the one hand, and caring but deciding to do nothing on the other, it’s not at all clear to me that Labour are taking the more moral stance of the two.

Whatever, the effect of the different approaches is that it’s actually easier for the Tories to reverse their position than Labour. Populism with no great principles involved makes it easier to change direction if the alternative is more popular. It occurred to me that, if he so chose, Sunak could play a blinder here, by simply announcing that he would drop the policy if re-elected. Labour might bleat about unfunded spending commitments, but the Tories understand (rather better than Labour in terms of their actions, if not their words), that insisting on spending commitments being fully funded is a stick with which Tory governments beat opposition parties, not some great rule which needs to be obeyed. It would leave Labour floundering, forced to either reverse their previous reversal, adding to the Tories’ accusations of flip-floppery, or stick rigidly by their stupid and unnecessary fiscal rule, and defend the current policy. It would, of course, be an unprincipled, dishonest, cynical and opportunist ploy by Sunak, but all of those attributes only increase the probability that he would do it. It would also be a clever political move, and that’s the real obstacle. Clever politics is not an attribute of which Sunak has shown a great deal to date. Either way, the games that they are both playing aren’t doing much for a large number of children. We need to escape from them both.

Friday 21 July 2023

Perhaps we really are doomed


One of the less endearing traits of politics, in Wales as much as in England, is the habit some politicians have of campaigning against their own party’s policies in order to get elected. In Wales, it’s commonplace when the Labour government wants to make changes to the NHS to see Labour candidates and elected members purporting to ‘lead’ the opposition to their own government’s proposals; more locally, Labour councillors are more than happy to ‘lead’ campaigns against school proposals put forward by their own authority. For some strange reason, it seems to work – voters really are bamboozled into thinking that members of the ruling party can indeed be relied upon to stop their own party’s proposals.

We saw a variation on that yesterday in the by-election in Boris Johnson’s old seat, which the Tories largely succeeded in turning into a one-issue campaign against the extended Low Emission Zone (ULEZ). They presented it as though it was all the fault of that evil mayor, Sadiq Khan; but as Richard Murphy has pointed out today, that simply isn’t true. The original idea of the zone was born under the mayoralty of a certain B. Johnson, and the extension of the zone to include areas such as Uxbridge was imposed on Khan by the Tory Transport Minister, Grant Shapps (other names for the same person are available), with the very specific aim of raising cash for Transport for London, as a condition of a grant. So when the Tories attack the ‘anti-car’ policies designed to raise money from motorists, they’re actually attacking their own policy. And it seems to have worked.

It's probably no surprise that the likes of Jake, Frosty and Deadwood have leapt onto the bandwagon and demanded that the Tories abandon all net-zero policies because they are unpopular. I’m pretty certain that uncontrolled climate change will be unpopular too, but unfortunately the inexorable changes being caused by human activity are stubbornly refusing to submit themselves to the UK’s electoral cycle. Within the Tory Party itself, they’re pushing at an open door – short term profit will always be seen as the priority. The more worrying aspect is that the increasingly probable next government is also frightened by the prospect of electoral damage as a result of supporting net-zero policies. Starmer has already back-tracked significantly on the issue, as on so many others. What we need is leadership; politicians prepared to spell out the consequences of not acting. What we’re getting is politicians who are willing to say whatever makes them popular today, and hang the consequences. We really do seem to be doomed.

Thursday 20 July 2023

Labour present themselves as the continuation nasty party


“Tough decisions must be made” is one of those phrases trotted out regularly by politicians as some sort of cover for either backtracking on promises made or following what they individually believe to be the best policy, whilst knowing either that the policy will be unpopular or else that many in their party strongly disagree, in the generally correct belief that, most of the time, their party’s members’ desire for power will outweigh any considerations of mere principle. It’s not unique to any of the main UK parties – and not even specifically Welsh or Scottish parties are entirely immune to it. In recent weeks, it’s been mostly the Labour Party who are hiding behind the excuse at every opportunity, seeking to blame the current government for the completely fictional ‘lack of money’ as their excuse to reverse just about every policy position that they have taken to date.

In the case of Labour’s latest U-turn – on child benefit for more than two children – it’s hard not to see it as performative toughness for its own sake. I don’t know whether Starmer genuinely believes that it’s ‘right’ to deny the benefit to third and subsequent children (although I also don’t really know whether he genuinely believes anything any more), but I tend to suspect not. That hasn’t stopped him scrapping the pledge. He could have said that he remained committed to the pledge but might not be able to implement it immediately, but he chose not to. It’s as though he’s decided to make an arbitrary stand on an entirely arbitrary policy just to prove that he can be tough. Prove to whom? Presumably, the Tory press pack obsessed with the idea that Labour might dare to increase either spending or taxes and needing to deter them from doing so.

Starmer argues that this is all about discipline and adhering to “iron-clad fiscal rules” as though those rules are written on tablets of stone and imbued with some magic properties. The truth, however, is that the UK managed to get along without any fiscal rules until Gordon Brown started the trend in 1997. All governments since have insisted on having them, and no government has ever completely managed to keep to the rules which it itself set for more than part of its term in office. In practice, they’ve ignored the failure to abide by the rules, changed the way compliance was assessed, or else changed the rules in an attempt to make the rules reflect what they’re actually doing. And then failed again. A rule which can be changed every time it’s broken is not a rule at all – it’s just a guideline. Whether, and to what extent, such guidelines are useful will be a matter of opinion; but they can never be ‘iron-clad’, because the future is essentially unknowable.

On the specific question of child benefit, there’s a reasonable debate to be had about whether the benefit should exist at all. What used to be called ‘family allowance’ was a useful instrument of policy when it was devised, but times have changed. For non working households, a decent rate of Universal Credit ought to supplant the need for a separate payment, whilst for working households, any benefits being paid are effectively subsidies to underpaying employers, and that problem of low pay ought to be solved at source. The best justification for continuing the payments – sadly, because this really shouldn’t be necessary – is that it has traditionally put money directly into the hands of stay-at-home mothers. It’s a good argument, although it’s a social argument rather than an economic one. However, if the benefit is to exist, the cutoff after the second child is, and always has been, an entirely arbitrary piece of nastiness by people who see the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Starmer is presenting his decision in purely economic terms but the effect (whether intentional or not) is that, for as long as any Starmer government leaves the rule untouched, it would effectively be supporting and justifying the continuation of that nastiness. It’s a consequence out of which he should not be allowed to wriggle by using weasel words.

Wednesday 19 July 2023

Is education as worthless as Sunak thinks?


The course leader on a training session I attended many years ago explained the difference between education and training in roughly the following terms: “If your daughter came home from school and said the class had had sex education, you’d probably be quite relaxed, but if she said they’d had sex training you might be a little concerned”. The English government, it seems (and there will be knock-on effects in Wales, in funding terms at least) has effectively decided that all university courses are to be designated training rather than education, in the sense that if they don’t make students fit for a particular job, they are inherently worthless. The English education minister went so far as to say that there were some students still earning less than £18,000 a year, five years after graduating, and that this was not acceptable.

Leaving aside the question about the acceptability of any employer paying low wages, whether to graduates or not, what exactly is wrong with a graduate ending up in a comparatively low-paid job? There are a number of reasons why it can and does happen – it doesn’t mean that the education is worthless or the course pointless. Sometimes, the jobs aren’t available, and sometimes people deliberately choose to work in jobs which happen to be low-paid, not because the pay is low, but because there are other attractions to the job. Whilst the chief executives of some charities earn very high salaries, most of their staff do not, to look at only one example. Social care is another. Are we (or the government acting on our behalf) really saying that there’s no purpose educating people who work in those jobs beyond the level of training strictly required for the job?

It highlights one of those ideological differences which those who espouse something called ‘post-ideology politics’ deny exists: is the role of the education system to be limited to fitting people to the work which needs doing, or is there some intrinsic value, both for society as a whole and individuals, in having an educated population? Looking at the current level of political debate in the UK, I can understand why having an educated population might be considered dangerous to a Conservative Party which depends on prejudice and hatred for its electoral support. But Labour aren’t much different, and not just in terms of fishing in the same electoral pool. It was, remember, a Labour government which introduced student fees in the first place, beginning the process of marketizing higher education. Winnowing out courses which provide a ‘poor return on investment’ when looked at on a strictly cost-benefit basis is a pretty obvious outcome from that process. The tendency towards seeing all state spending in terms of investment and return, measured only in monetary terms, is a feature, not a bug, of the two parties’ shared ideology.

In purely practical terms, there is something very strange about having civil servants (or an outside agency contracted by the civil service, which amounts to the same thing) examining each individual course at each individual university to determine whether the university should be allowed to run the course at all, and if so, with how many students. It’s a short step from there to each new course requiring ministerial approval before it can start – a level of interference in the activity of ‘autonomous’ universities of which any dictatorial regime would be proud. Presumably, Sunak thinks that this will be a ‘popular’ decision amongst his target audience – that seems to be the only factor driving his decisions on policy. Perhaps he’s right, although it seems to me unlikely that those who are vociferously opposed to immigration are also deeply concerned about the nature of courses being taught in universities. It is a blow, though, against the idea that ‘life-long learning’ has a value, both to individuals and the wider community.

Monday 17 July 2023

Thinking through the messaging


According to the UK government, the main objective of the policy of sending migrants to Rwanda is to act as a deterrent. In this scenario, sending a couple of hundred people a year to central Africa will have the effect of deterring 40,000 other people each year from attempting the trip across the Channel from France. An unkind soul might point out that this effect depends firstly on desperate people being deterred by the prospect of being sent somewhere they consider undesirable, and secondly on them being unable to calculate that the mathematical probability of them actually being sent to Rwanda is, shall we say, on the low side, even if the policy is eventually ruled to be legal.

Faced with the possibility that it will be found to be illegal anyway, to say nothing of the probability of losing three by-elections this coming Thursday, the geniuses of the New Conservative group have resurrected a discarded old Priti Patel idea of sending migrants instead to remote Scottish islands. Their aim is to win or retain the votes of those who have been persuaded that migrants are responsible for all their woes, and should therefore be treated as inhumanely as possible, but is also, presumably, intended to have a deterrent effect: people will be so frightened of being sent to these so far unnamed remote islands that they will decide not even to attempt to enter the UK. I can’t help but wonder, however, whether these geniuses have thought through all the implications of their message. Taking such a decision without asking Scotland doesn’t seem to be treating Scotland as a valued partner in ‘this great union of ours’, and taking it as read that the prospect of living in parts of Scotland will put people off the idea of becoming UK citizens doesn’t exactly sound like extolling the virtues of Scotland remaining part of the UK. Whilst it’s obviously true that the policy is aimed at English voters rather than Scottish ones, admitting as much would merely compound the problem.

Tuesday 11 July 2023

Those British Values at work again

It turns out that the cartoons on the wall of the detention centre in Kent which a minister ordered removed were originally installed by contracted support workers. The ministry has stated that the artwork was ‘unapproved’, a statement which at the least raises questions over the extent to which the daily activity at the detention centre requires detailed ministerial involvement in all decision-making. It’s arguable that making ministers take difficult decisions on the colour schemes at various buildings might be better than allowing them to spend their time taking more serious decisions, but a system which requires reference up to ministerial level for decisions on decor is a system which is essentially broken.

Many people, including a number of Tories, have expressed their outrage at the removal of the cartoons as a petty and cruel action directed at the children, but they’re missing the point. The real target of the decision isn’t the children, but the staff. As history teaches us, effective and efficient operation of detention centres requires the staff to distance themselves from their charges; to treat them as numbers not people. In this specific case, it requires them to look at vulnerable children and see only undesirable aliens; treating vulnerable children as though they are vulnerable children impedes their ability to do that. Bear in mind that the logical and necessary outcome of current government policy is that the staff will be required, by law, to be willing and able to forcibly place those children on a bus, and then forcibly remove them from the bus to an aeroplane, using whatever physical restraints are necessary in the process. That requires a degree of detachment, not to say brutality, on the part of the staff which needs to be inculcated and maintained. Drab paintwork is just a small part of creating a culture and an attitude which enables that.

The real shame which we should feel here isn’t about the painting over of a few cartoon characters, but about the policy and its implications. To the extent that government ministers will feel any regret, it’s about the decision being made public, not about the decision itself; the policy is one that they are still pursuing with gusto, knowing and understanding the implications in terms of the physical removal of those children. The values of a country which can treat children in this way are alien to me, and the enthusiasm with which so many support the policy of deportation aggravates that alienation. These are British values of which I want no part.

Friday 7 July 2023

The inescapable shadow haunting the Tories


It was probably predictable that the Tory campaign in Boris Johnson’s former constituency would seek to distance itself as much as possible from the former MP, although it was rather less predictable that they would also seek to distance themselves from the current PM and the entire Conservative Party itself. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and that is exactly what they have done, producing a leaflet which manages to avoid all mention of both the former MP and the party of which he (and presumably the new candidate?) is a member. I can’t really say that I blame them for giving it a try – last roll of the dice and all that. And honesty isn’t exactly what they are best known for anyway.

But the other thing that struck me was that the leaflet refers to the candidate instead as the ‘Stop ULEZ candidate’ and the election itself as the ‘Stop ULEZ by-election’, in an overt attempt to turn the by-election into a referendum on the expansion of the ULEZ scheme in London. Now my memory isn’t what it used to be, and I could be wrong on this, but I’m sure that I remember the Tories telling the SNP that they could not claim that the next Scottish election was a referendum on a new vote on independence. I could have sworn that there were words along the lines of ‘it’s not for one party to determine what an election is about’. Perhaps that was a different Conservative Party – there seem to be so many of them co-existing under the same label these days that it's hard to keep track. Or maybe it’s just another example of their standard modus operandi – honesty and consistency, like dignity, are grossly overrated commodites. That Johnson-shaped shadow is not as easy to shake off as they might wish - his approach to the truth has become deeply ingrained in his party.

Thursday 6 July 2023

Lowering the bar. Again.


Just when I start to think that the Tories have gone as low as they can, up pops another one to prove me wrong. This time it’s Jenrick, with his order to staff to paint over cartoons and pictures of animals, designed to provide a degree of reassurance to frightened and traumatised children held in detention centres for migrants, and instead paint the walls in the plain drab colours expected of penal institutions. It’s a declaration that the children are not supposed to be reassured; their fear and trauma is to be increased as a deliberate element of creating a hostile environment.

It's a mistake to see this as being aimed only at those being detained, however. For those of us who’ve ever looked at history and wondered how ordinary people can so easily end up perpetrating cruelty against defined groups, this is part of the answer – the deliberate creation of an environment and culture which is devoid of any measure of care and consideration for those groups. It’s an attempt to remind the staff that they aren’t there to care for those people detained in the facilities, they are there to process them. The detainees are numbers and statistics, not human beings. It sets expectations as to how the staff are expected to behave, and care forms no part of that. History tells us how that can end – staff behaving in accordance with expectations eventually normalises brutality. It’s even possible that Jenrick himself is merely doing the same thing: trying to fulfil what he assumes are his boss’s expectations of him.  But living down to his understanding of that which is expected of him doesn’t get him off the hook – ‘I was only following orders’ has long been discredited as an excuse for anything.

The nearest thing to a bright spot in all this is that the staff are apparently resisting his demands and finding excuses to avoid implementing his order. How long they’ll get away with it remains to be seen; challenges to authoritarian regimes are not often tolerated for long. The episode exposes, once again, the idea that what they like to call ‘British values’ aren’t exactly what they are claimed to be. In practice, deliberate cruelty and inhumanity is part of the current government’s philosophy – and they obviously believe that it’s an approach shared by those who vote for them. It also makes me think that Aneurin Bevan’s description of Tories wasn’t far wrong. We don't have to remain part of this.

Tuesday 4 July 2023

Polishing the excreta


Referendums don’t sit easily in the UK constitution. Unlike in some countries which have a formal written constitution, there is no formal definition of when and whether a referendum should be called, and no agreed criteria. The result is an ad hoc approach where politicians who believe that there is popular support for their position demand that the issue be put to the people in a simple yes/no vote, despite the fact that most such questions are far more complex than that. Sometimes they are proved right, sometimes they are proved wrong – opponents of devolution certainly believed that requiring a referendum was a not particularly cunning way of killing the proposals. And sometimes they promise a referendum because they think the promise will attract people to vote for them, with no real expectation that they will ever have to call one, let alone go on to lose it. David Cameron and his accidental Brexit is the most obvious case in point.

The Tories seem to be flirting with the Cameron approach again. There is no obvious legal or constitutional requirement to hold a referendum on membership of the European Convention on Human Rights. They just believe firstly that the sort of people who vote for them will be incensed about the lack of deportations to Rwanda, and secondly that an offer of a vote to abolish all connections to the ECHR will motivate their supporters to go out and vote. It is, of course, asking people to vote to abolish their own rights, but what better way to remove rights from citizens than to have those citizens themselves demanding it. It worked on freedom of movement, where many of those involved genuinely seem to have thought it was only other people’s freedom they were removing; there’s no obvious reason to believe that they can’t be fooled into voting against their own rights and freedoms a second time.

Like Brexit, it’s a sort of proxy vote, not really about the ostensible subject at all. The question they really want to ask is something along the lines of ‘do you agree that we should be as cruel and inhumane as possible in our treatment of refugees in particular, and foreigners in general?’, but even the most extreme Tories are neither brave nor honest enough to phrase it in those terms. Instead, they phrase it in terms of the sovereignty of UK courts, knowing that their target audience will understand that that’s just applying a veneer of polish to the turd of a policy, in order to try and make it look like a respectable position to hold. I’m not even convinced that Sunak and his pals actually care a jot about how many refugees come to the UK anyway; they care only about winning the votes of people who don’t like foreigners, and who believe that keeping foreigners out is more important than providing care to those who need it. I’d like to think that the good news is that, even if they do decide to include such a pledge in their manifesto, the chances of them being in a position to implement it are small. Trouble is, that’s what most people thought about Cameron and his Brexit referendum. And in the meantime, Labour are so afraid that their own potential voters share the hatred of foreigners that they can’t even point out the practical flaws, let alone the moral ones. As ever, those suffering most from the faux war between the UK’s two leading centre-right parties will be the weakest and most vulnerable.

Monday 3 July 2023

"Make it so"


It is a cornerstone of the English constitution that Parliament has absolute sovereignty over all things, and was granted that sovereignty by the monarch acting in the name of god. The unshakeable belief in the truth of that proposition can lead feeble-minded MPs into a mindset where parliament merely has to declare something to be so for it to become so. As an example of that, the last-but-one Prime Minister has come up with what he clearly thinks is a wizard wheeze to unblock the route to deporting people to Rwanda. He’s suggested that parliament should simply deem Rwanda to be a safe place, and that the judges will then be obliged to agree. The relevant legislation already contains a list of countries deemed to be safe, and adding Rwanda to the list will suffice, in his view, to over-rule those judges who keep insisting that the government should abide by the law requiring the UK to ensure the safety of any deported asylum-seeker.

If he’d given it a moment’s thought (admittedly, not one of his known strengths), he’d have realised that that will never satisfy the judges. All the countries on the list currently have had some sort of assessment before reaching the conclusion that they are safe, and it’s at least probable that judges would expect to see evidence of a similar process (rather than simply parliamentary arbitrariness) for any additions. Most people would understand that adding, say, North Korea or Belarus to the list wouldn’t magically make them safe countries, whatever parliament says; Rwanda may be slightly more arguable, but the principle is the same. And being safe at the time that a country is added to the list cannot, in any event, absolve the judges from making an assessment as to safety as and when they consider an individual case – it’s why we have judges and courts to consider individual cases rather than mechanistic rules. Still, oversimplistic solutions to complex issues and a detached-from-reality belief in the exceptional nature of the UK are not exactly unknown when it comes to Johnson (see, for example, Brexit). And it’s another stick with which his acolytes could beat the judiciary.

Saturday 1 July 2023

Getting the 'right' answer is all that counts


According to Wikipedia, a kangaroo court is “…a court that ignores recognized standards of law or justice, carries little or no official standing in the territory within which it resides, and is typically convened ad hoc.” Since none of those three criteria applies to a standing committee of the House of Commons operating in accordance with pre-existing and well-established processes, and recognised within parliament as having the authority to carry out its work, it is clear that allies of the former PM are using a different definition – probably one which says that any process which finds the perfect human being known as Boris Johnson guilty of anything is by definition flawed and unfair. Faced with criticism of their comments, which clearly go beyond the obvious right to express an opinion as to the correctness of actions and decisions taken, and which directly impugn the reputations and integrity of those taking them, their response has been to double down on those comments. Even the non-apology from Goldsmith yesterday seemed to be more about the fact that he was a minister when he said what he said rather than any sort of retraction of his words.

There is, though, a valid point lurking in there somewhere – a committee of politicians judging other politicians has an innate flaw built in. Every single member of the House of Commons has been elected on a political platform of some sort; holding and expressing political views is what they do. And they’re paid to do it. Finding 7 members of the House of Commons who have not only never expressed a view on Boris Johnson, but who also don’t even have a view on Boris Johnson is an impossible ask. The whole system depends on the members of the committee being trusted to leave their opinions outside the door and make a judgement purely on what evidence is presented to them, whilst forgetting everything they know about the man and his past. It’s an inevitable consequence of parliament regulating itself that the people making the judgements will have strong political views.

The logical consequence of a situation where politicians no longer trust each other to be honourable and fair is to take the decision out of their hands and give it to an ‘independent’ body. Somehow, I think that the Jakes of this world would be horrified at any such prospect, and in any event, the fact that the ‘independent’ members of an ‘independent’ panel have not previously expressed an opinion doesn’t mean that they don’t have one. What they really seem to want is a system which produces the ‘right’ answer – i.e. the one that they want to see. There are methods of achieving that, but they don’t have a lot to do with honour, justice or democracy. But those qualities, like dignity, are grossly over-rated commodities to an increasing proportion of the Conservative Party.