Monday 30 October 2023

Identifying the right hero


Whether Christmas is the religious celebration as some wish to see it, or some sort of re-purposed celebration of the winter solstice as others choose to see it, is a matter of opinion, albeit often strongly-held. As a question of historical fact, since no-one really knows exactly when Christ was born, choosing an existing pre-Christian feast as the time to celebrate that birth was a shrewd piece of marketing for those seeking to convert the population to the new religion.

In practice, most of us are happy to adopt a ‘live and let live’ philosophy rather than demand that others must accept our definition of the nature of the event, whichever definition we choose. That said, for historical and cultural reasons, even in an increasingly secular society, most of us are also aware of, and tend to support, the seasonal concept of ‘peace on earth and goodwill to all men’. It's an idea which is strongly associated with the Christian take on Christmas (although some of us might wish that the sentiment wasn’t confined to such a short period of the year). It’s also generally seen as a time for families to take a break and be together.

Unless, of course, we are talking about the Home Secretary. It has been revealed this week that she has cancelled all Border Force leave over Christmas, in the expectation that the Supreme Court judgement due in early December will give the green light to start flying people to Rwanda. If that is indeed the outcome, the staff will be needed to implement the decision before and during the Christmas break. It’s a strange sort of ‘goodwill to all men’ which doesn’t even apply to her staff, let alone those who they will be expected to strap forcibly into aircraft seats if her dream comes to pass.

Many of their previous statements have led me to wonder whether members of the current government really understand the ‘British’ values which they claim to espouse, because they have a curious way of showing it. In this case, I can’t help but wonder whether Braverman has read the traditional story of Christmas through her own distorted lens and somehow concluded that Herod was actually the hero.

Sunday 29 October 2023

What could possibly go wrong?


The deliberately misnamed television channel, GB ‘News’, has found itself in some difficulties recently. It  was forced to sack or suspend presenters over misogyny, and has been criticised for a lack of the balance expected of any proper news outlet, although the latter seems a tad unfair given that, despite its name, it makes no pretence of broadcasting news, merely opinion. With those difficulties as background, I struggle to imagine the internal discussions which led to some bright spark suggesting that the way forward was to hire the worst misogynist and most compulsive liar that they could find, let alone that such suggestion was then acted upon. Announcing the decision the day after it was revealed that the Covid inquiry will this week be presented with a veritable feast of misogyny and foul language in messages exchanged between Johnson and Cummings is surely just having a laugh.

Johnson has regularly managed to display his misogyny, racism and disregard for the truth in columns written for various newspapers over the years, but everything we’ve seen there has been through various stages of editing and proof-reading before it appeared. Now they’re going to give him a live television show, circumventing all that checking and editing. What could possibly go wrong? As far as I’m aware, no bookmakers are currently offering odds on how long it will be before he gets sacked from this job, but it surely can’t be long. Will it all be over by Christmas? Or will he manage to drag it out until he has laid waste to GB News in the way he managed to do for the Conservative Party?

Saturday 28 October 2023

Watching the clock


Tonight, most of us will turn the clocks back by one hour; some will inevitably forget. Those who live their lives according to what the hands of the clock say will feel obliged to stay in bed an extra hour, whilst those who follow their body clocks will just get up an hour early. In the dark. Most will just be slightly confused for a day or two.

Living our lives according to the hands of the clock brings me to the PM’s father-in-law. He has argued this week that young Indians should be demanding to work 70 hour weeks in order to boost the wealth of Indian billionaires like Mr Murty the Indian economy. His call revolves around the need for an increase in productivity.

‘Productivity’ is an interesting concept, and there is more than one way of measuring it. At its simplest, it’s just output divided by input: a widget-maker who produces 15 widgets per hour is more productive than one who only produces 10 per hour. But whilst increasing the number of hours worked will increase the total number of widgets produced, it does not in itself increase the productivity of the widget-maker. Someone who produces 70 in a seven hour day may well produce 100 in a ten hour day, but he’s still only producing 10 per hour; output divided by input is unchanged. In monetary terms, though, things might look rather different. If someone is willing to work 10 hours a day for the same pay as he previously received for working 7 hours a day, then the owner of the widget factory has 30 extra widgets to sell at no extra labour cost to himself. On that measure of productivity (number of widgets per £ of labour cost), it has obviously increased. And extra wealth flows to the owner of the widget-making machine as a consequence.

That in turn goes to the heart of why capitalists have always opposed reductions in working hours: they make most profit by keeping people chained to their machines (or their desks for many of us in the modern age). It’s the same attitude behind SirJake’s demand to see civil servants back at their desks, or Gove’s instructions to English local authorities to drop any thought of a four-day week. It should be obvious to them that what matters is output, not input, but their thought processes haven’t really advanced much since the days of the mill owners of the eighteenth century. Billionaires who have a great deal of agency over what they do, where, and when, and who see a direct financial return for their efforts, may well see 70 hour weeks as normal (although some of the activities which they class as ‘work’ may not look very much like work to the man or woman pulling the lever on the widget machine) but it is a demand which, in essence, sees working people as a resource to be exploited, as people who should only ever expect to live for their work rather than work to enjoy life.

There’s no doubt that Sunak’s household would benefit directly if Indian workers were to accede to the exhortations of their capitalist masters. That wouldn’t make Sunak the first PM to benefit from overseas slavery or something akin thereto, but that’s not much of an excuse. It wasn’t that, though, so much as the impact of the corollary (all economic dictums seem to have corollaries of some sort) on Sunak which struck me. If increasing the hours spent on producing things means that more things are produced, then decreasing the time spent on destroying things means that fewer things are destroyed. I don’t doubt that Sunak ‘works’ a large number of hours, but much of his work seems to be about enriching the few by impoverishing the many. Reducing the length of his working week would therefore have some clear advantages for the many in UK society. Preferably reducing his hours to zero. He should heed the unintended lesson of his father-in-law.

Friday 27 October 2023

Forming an orderly queue

The Tories are fond of reminding us of the importance of what they like to call ‘British’ values, albeit occasionally prefaced by the counter-productive adjective ‘Great’ with its implication that Northern Ireland is excluded. They are rather less proficient at articulating what those values might be, or at least of doing so in a way which makes their actions in any way correspond to the values expressed in their words. When I try and compile a list of what I always thought were key elements of ‘British’ values, what immediately springs to mind is the way in which the current government undermines them rather than supporting them: think honesty, integrity, rule of law (domestic and international), fairness, justice and compassion, just for starters.

There is, however, one British attribute to which Tory MPs do indeed seem to subscribe in both word and deed, and that is the propensity for forming an orderly queue. It’s not a uniquely British trait, of course – Russians, particularly from the Soviet era, could teach us a lot about the etiquette of queuing. But perhaps the biggest problem with this particular element of Britishness is to do with what they are queuing for. And in the case of Tory MPs, it’s the queue to take their place in the scandal stakes. No sooner does Sunak allow himself a small sigh of relief as one of his MPs is effectively expelled from the House, than another manages to get himself arrested. It’s all very courteous, the way in which they patiently wait their turn to grab the headlines, and it’s been going on for a long time now. I’ve lost count of how many have patiently stepped up to the plate, but one way or another, the Tories are down from 365 at the last election to around 352 today. And the arrow is pointing in only one direction.

The thing is that nobody, not even – or perhaps, especially not – Sunak, knows how many more are currently standing in the queue. All we know is that as soon as the one at the head of the queue gets ‘processed’ another steps forward to take his or her (usually his) place in the headlines. The only good news for Sunak is that, at the rate of, say, one a fortnight, we are unlikely to get far enough through the queue to completely destroy his majority. Only his reputation, mental balance, and hairline. I can almost imagine that he might rather prefer that they abandoned that patient British attitude to queuing and all of the MPs currently in the queue rushed forwards at once. At least he’d then know the scale of the problem. On second thoughts, that’s probably something he’d rather not know. And spotting an empty queue would probably only encourage more of them to join it.

Thursday 26 October 2023

Future career paths


There have been some suggestions that the PM should try sacking a few senior cabinet ministers if he really wants to give the impression that he’s promoting change, since promising change without changing anything is always going to look unconvincing. His critics seem to be targeting Hunt (who was never Sunak’s choice for the job anyway, merely an unsackable hangover from the disastrous Truss regime) or Braverman (probably the most toxic minister of all, and therefore most popular with the swivel-eyed tendency and virtually unsackable as a result). The heads they are more likely to get are Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey or Party Chair Greg Hands.

Coffey, at least, seems to be taking the threat seriously and is laying the ground for a new career outside parliament. Not as a protector of the environment, of course – pouring sewage into the rivers is perfectly fine by her. No, the change of career she is eyeing up is clearly as an excuse deviser at Network Rail. ‘The wind came from the wrong direction’ is an excellent start, right up there with leaves on the line or the wrong type of snow. She should go far. The further the better in fact.

Hands, on the other hand, seems to be auditioning for the role of ventriloquist’s dummy. The chief requirement for the role is an ability to repeat the words put into his mouth by the boss, whilst keeping a straight face. Having an expressionless face carved out of wood and a void, tailored to the ventriloquist’s hand, where the brain should be, both help potential applicants. He may, however, face strong competition from the Senedd's very own Andrew RT Davies, although the proportional nature of Welsh elections means that the latter is unlikely to be coming onto the jobs market for a while yet. Unfortunately.

Coffee and Hands are not, of course, the only current Cabinet Ministers likely to be looking for alternative employment in the, hopefully, not too distant future. Yesterday, I noted that the abolition of the cap on bankers’ bonuses shows that the PM himself is eyeing a move back into banking, for which ingratiating himself with current incumbents will do him no harm at all. Hunt, on the other hand, seems to be lining himself up for the unpaid role of election campaign assistant. For the Labour Party. Perhaps we should be scrutinising all ministerial statements in the coming months for a hint of their likely future career path. 

I’ll admit, though, that it’s currently proving challenging to guess at any conceivable future career path for a Braverman.

Wednesday 25 October 2023

Bonuses, merchants and Prime Ministers


In “The Tempest”, William Shakespeare tells us that “What's past is prologue”. For the current PM, that prologue was a period as a banker, or a merchant as a Cockney might have it. It’s a ‘profession’, using the term in its very loosest sense, which managed to wreck the economy on the back of excessive incentives for its practitioners to do what made them rich rather than what served the interests of the population at large. An unkind person might see his subsequent appointments as Chancellor and Prime Minister as being just a case of following the same career goal by a different route. He certainly understands why his fellow merchants can’t do a proper job of economic destruction unless they are properly incentivised, which goes a long way towards explaining the decision to abolish the cap on bankers’ bonuses.

He claims that the decision is not his at all, and is entirely a matter for the ‘independent’ regulators (a majority of whose members are appointed, strangely enough, by the government), although it’s not so long ago that one of his successors as Chancellor made it clear that it was very much a decision for the government to take. It might, of course, simply be a test run for an excuse which he intends to rely upon a great deal between now and the next election – “nothing to do with me, guv”. He’s already written off most of the decisions taken by his four predecessors as PM since the Tories were elected in 2010 in a similar fashion; it’s a small jump from there to include his own. Alternatively, it might be preparation for the prologue to become the epilogue, as he anticipates some sort of return to the banking sector. Career consistency in the economic destruction sector means he’s at least eyeing a job about which he knows something. And, as the saying almost goes: ‘once a merchant, always a merchant’.

Tuesday 24 October 2023

Rigging the rules


Arch-Brexiteer and current Northern Ireland Secretary, Steve Baker, has argued this week that there probably should have been a requirement for a ‘super majority’ in the Brexit referendum, despite acknowledging that his side would have lost on that basis. He said, “… the reason I say that is if we’d had to have 60%, everybody would have abided by the result. If it had been a 60-40 result, it’s inconceivable to me that we would have had all of the political difficulty which followed…”. If there had been a 60-40 majority, one way or the other, it’s just possible that he might be right – acceptance of the result might well have been more forthcoming. I’m not entirely convinced, though; people who hold a strong view about the ‘right’ way forward – people like Baker, in fact – don’t change their minds just because they have failed to convince a sufficient majority at a point in time.

The bigger problem with a requirement for a supermajority is not what happens when the vote exceeds 60-40, it’s what happens when it does not. If, say 59% had voted for Brexit and 41% against, meaning that the proposition was ‘defeated’, is there not just the tiniest possibility that the 59% would argue something along the lines of “we wuz robbed”? Once it is known, through a public vote, that 59% of the electorate support a particular proposition, stuffing the genie back into the bottle is never going to be easy. There are those who argue that some sort of super majority should be required – whether in a public vote or a vote in a parliament – for a change to the constitution. There is obviously an argument based on ‘stability’ to protect against over-frequent changes, or swings back and fore over a period, although whether that's necessarily a bad thing is open to argument. It’s not easy to apply though in a state which has no formal constitution and where whether a proposition constitutes a change to the constitution or not is itself open to argument.

Perhaps most worrying of all is that he wants to apply the rule in relation to any future border poll in Ireland. His concerns about a decision based on 50%+1 are entirely valid; reunification based on such a slim majority would leave a large part (50%-1) of the population unhappy with the new status. It would obviously be better for the idea of reunification to achieve a much greater level of consensual support. And a rejection of reunification on the same basis would have a similar effect on the other part of the population. Again, it would obviously be better for the status quo to receive resounding support. But suggesting that a vote of 59-41 in favour of reunification amounts to a vote for continued partition seems very much more problematic to me. It highlights the big problem with the requirement for a super majority for change, which is that it gives the status quo, however that was arrived at and however much it is contested, an inbuilt advantage in any vote. Whilst it’s easy enough to see why supporters of the status quo would argue that to be a good thing, it’s not clear why anyone would consider it fair. Seeking to rig the rules in favour of the status quo doesn’t seem the most sensible approach given the historical background to Irish partition.

Monday 23 October 2023

When did history start?


It’s not the simple question it appears; whilst ‘history’ in its most general meaning has no discernible start other than the Big Bang, ‘history’ in another sense started when pre-history ended – i.e. when written records started to be made – and ‘history’ in the sense of ‘our’ history (whoever ‘we’ are in this context) is often attributed to a fairly arbitrary start date. Perhaps a more interesting question is not when history started but whether our understanding of history shapes our political views or whether our political views shape our understanding of history.

Take Wales, as an example. Many modern-day nationalists point to the year 383 when the Romans left Wales (or, as Dafydd Iwan puts it in ‘Yma o Hyd’, “Pan aeth Magnus Maximus o Gymru, yn y flwyddyn 383). Does that view of the start date of Welsh history stem from a political outlook, or does the political outlook stem from the historical idea of an ancient people? It’s not a unanimous view, either way. Neil Kinnock infamously 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"; which sounds as though ‘meaningful’ Welsh history only began with the Industrial Revolution. Does this view of the start date of Welsh history stem from the opinion that class differences are more important than national differences, or does a belief in the importance of those class differences start from a conviction that history really did start with the Industrial Revolution? Sometime in between those two dates, Wales became part of England, by dint of military conquest rather than any form of consent. The opposition of many to the idea of Welsh independence often carries an implicit belief that ‘our’ history started with that conquest – and that we should forget what went before.

The conflict about when history starts and the demand to forget what went before often derives from the fact that at different times, different tribes or peoples have occupied a particular land area. Take Palestine. For the people who today call themselves Palestinians, the defining event of modern history seems to be the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, and the often violent expulsion of Palestinians from their homes and lands. But the Israelites (not exactly the same as Israelis, but sufficiently similar for the purposes of argument) were living in ‘Palestine’ in biblical times, until they were driven out (or worse, slaughtered): sometimes by Muslims, sometimes by Christians, as during the Crusades. Only a few decades before Magnus Maximus left Wales with his legions, the (then probably in a majority) Jewish people in Palestine were revolting against Christian rule and anti-Jewish discrimination. So which was the more important expulsion – that of the Palestinians in 1948 (being continued today with ever more encroachment by settlers on the West Bank) or that of the Jews centuries earlier? Go back even further, and the inhabitants would have seen themselves as neither Muslim nor Jewish; neither Israeli nor Palestinian. When, in short, do we consider that the history of Palestine, and therefore the right of one people or another to occupy the territory, started? And the corollary, as with Wales, is: from which point in time do we expect people to forget what went before?

The series of events which constitute ‘history’ are often undisputed; but their interpretation and relative importance can give rise to very different views about the present. In ‘Palestine’, we have two groups each apparently dedicated to the effective expulsion (or even extermination) of the other, both determinedly ignoring one of the main lessons of their own history which is that unresolved grievances never die with the individuals; they simply continue to fester, sometimes for centuries. What the rest of the world can do to help them realise that, and learn to live in the same space on the basis of mutual respect is not a simple question, and neither side seems to be in any great rush to make the concessions which would be required of both to end the cycle of killing. But whatever it is that we should be doing, it is most definitely not to take one side or the other and encourage the chosen side to believe that it can ‘win’; ethnic cleansing is ethnic cleansing, whoever does it and to whoever it is done. Taking one side is, though, where the UK finds itself. And there doesn’t seem to be a lot of difference between government and opposition on the question. Securing peace requires nuance, not absolutism.

Saturday 14 October 2023

Will Sunak call an election for next month?


Not because he thinks he’s got any chance of winning it, obviously. That ship sailed and sank a long time ago, and is now lying in pieces at the bottom of the ocean somewhere. The attraction of a snap election lies elsewhere, in the slow-moving but ever more incriminating Covid-19 inquiry. The long-awaited appearance of Sunak and Johnson before the judge leading the inquiry was delayed once because of the party conference season, but it will take another significant factor to delay it a second time, and in the absence of such an event, both men are currently slated to appear during November. In the meantime, the inquiry has had a chance to see and consider some highly incriminating emails, which reveal, amongst other things, that the UK’s top civil servant thought that the government looked like a tragic joke, and that Sunak’s ‘eat out to help out’ scheme was launched with no consultation with the scientists and experts, whose opinion was that it would only help to spread the disease. It’s hard to see how either man can face the judge and KCs without having what remains of their reputations shredded, very publicly. Calling a snap election would be like pushing the pause button. Again.

It's probable that Johnson believes that he can bluster and obfuscate his way through any difficult questions, just as he used to do at PM’s Questions in the House of Commons, blaming Labour, the Civil Service, the media – anyone but himself. He is, quite possibly, stupid enough to think that a judge whose sole task is to get to the truth can be treated like a Speaker whose main task is to referee a bun fight, and that eminent KCs asking precise and difficult questions can be batted away by calling them names as though they were opposition politicians. Maybe Sunak even thinks the same way – his approach to PMQs certainly seems to mirror that of his former boss, albeit minus the snobbish classical references, and without the confidence born of complete and utter shamelessness. But what about the people around them giving them advice? Do they really have so few functioning neurons between them that they cannot see the train crash which awaits their bosses in just a few short weeks?

Calling an election wouldn’t prevent the train from crashing, of course; it would merely delay it – and by not much more than a few weeks at that. And a shredded reputation is still a shredded reputation. But holding an election before it gets shredded might just save a few more seats than waiting until after the shredder has finished its work. There must surely be someone advising him who can see what’s about to happen. Or is it time to order additional stocks of popcorn?

Friday 13 October 2023

Ultimately, they must negotiate rather than kill


The reaction of the UK’s two largest parties to the past week’s events in the Middle East has been instructive in terms of their attitudes and priorities. Firstly, they were in competition to see who could issue the strongest condemnation of the BBC for calling Hamas militants rather than terrorists, as though the most important thing is the label used; and they followed that up by competing over who could take the hardest line against any show of support for the Palestinian side. They were, of course, in complete agreement that Israel should be supported in whatever way might be necessary. There was little room for nuance or debate: in this battle there are good guys in white hats and bad guys in black hats. Presumably, they think that it makes for good politics, but it does nothing to aid understanding, let alone reconciliation.

History, as ever, is complex. Whilst events are generally indisputable, their significance is always open to multiple interpretations. There is no doubt that Jews have suffered centuries of persecution and discrimination, including the attempt in parts of Europe in the last century to eliminate them as a people. Sympathy for a people who have suffered so much is natural, but it cannot give the state of Israel a free pass from any criticism when it comes to its own actions against others. Criticism of Israeli actions is not, in itself, anti-Semitism. Palestinians have been forced from their homes and land and, even today, Israel continues to encroach on land internationally recognised as being outside the boundaries of Israel and the property of Palestinians. But the grievance of Palestinians, in turn, cannot justify the sort of random killings that we saw last Saturday. A cycle of atrocity, counter-atrocity and counter-counter-atrocity ends up as a never-ending cycle of death and grief on both sides, from which there is no obvious escape.

Applying the label of ‘war crime’, whether to the random violence delivered by Hamas last weekend or to the retaliatory denial of food, water, medicines and power to millions of citizens in Gaza may be technically accurate, but it overlooks the fact that the real crime is war itself. The idea that a war – any war – can be fought according to a set of gentlemanly rules is to ignore the reality, which is that people – mostly, but not exclusively, young men, whether regular soldiers or less organised bands of fighters – are sent to kill or be killed, a situation in which they will feel fear, anger, and hatred towards those they are trying to kill, added to which the inevitable raised levels of adrenaline and the sight of comrades being killed can all too easily result in actions which few would call civilized being perpetrated by ordinary, average human beings.

The total elimination of Hamas – Israel’s stated objective – may buy a period of relative ‘peace’ to the extent to which it is successful. But experience suggests that it will come at a heavy price in lives and will last only until the next generation are old enough to pick up arms, when they will be driven by an even greater sense of grievance and injustice. Ultimately, the only lasting settlement will have to be a negotiated one, and the rest of the world has a responsibility to drive both sides in that direction, using whatever (peaceful) means it has at its disposal. Picking one side, and giving that side unconditional support, is not living up to that responsibility. Yet that’s where the UK is choosing to be. Regardless of which party is in power. Global leadership it most definitely is not.

Thursday 12 October 2023

Magical economic growth


One of the many areas of agreement between Labour and the Tories when it comes to economics is their unshakeable belief in the Great God Growth as the solution to all economic problems, to say nothing of other problems such as health and education. There is, it seems, no need to consider further taxing, or redistributing, accumulated wealth or disproportionately high income because the Great God will magically make the cake bigger, and a bigger cake goes further. To the extent that there is a difference between the parties, it relates only to the question of which particular rites and ceremonies need to be performed by the devotees of the Great God before (s)he performs his or her magic. The problem with this whole belief system is that it depends on some unstated and very dubious assumptions.

The first of those is that the government itself has no direct role in making growth happen. Government’s job is simply about providing a bit of infrastructure and slackening a few rules, and suddenly growth will just happen. It’s an approach which, incidentally, treats government expenditure as though it is a drag on the economy and therefore to be avoided rather than something which can itself directly stimulate growth, and undermines its own aims in the process.

The second is that a bigger cake means that everyone benefits. But without any consideration or control of the way in which the extra cake is shared out, what stops those who already have the biggest slices from simply grabbing all the extra cake for themselves? After all, recent history of growing disparity suggests that that is the most likely outcome.

And the third is that, as the cake grows, the government’s tax income grows in proportion. It’s a belief which rather overlooks the fact that those taking the biggest slices of the cake are also those who are best at avoiding paying tax, and most likely to be able to conduct their financial affairs in such a way as to take their income in the form of (lower-taxed) capital growth rather than taxable income, and/or shift their wealth and income into off-shore havens.

Perhaps the biggest assumption of all is that growth is, in and of itself, always a ‘good thing’. It is at best arguable and at worst a potentially disastrous approach to the utilisation of the Earth’s resources.

Maybe they believe that their Great God will add a magic ingredient to the cake mix which ensures that baking a bigger cake doesn’t need any extra resources; maybe the same ingredient turns greedy hoarders of wealth into altruists keen to share the cake more evenly. Maybe the moon really is made of green cheese, and revolves around a flat disc called Planet Earth. Or maybe, in the real world, we actually need government to take deliberate action to ensure greater fairness in the allocation and use of resources. That’s an option which currently looks unlikely to be on any ballot papers come the election. Seen solely in terms of the choice of a future UK government the question is very much simpler: which colour disillusion do we prefer?

Tuesday 10 October 2023

So stupid, it's almost clever?


It is a feature of the UK’s electoral system that one party gets absolute power on the basis of a minority of votes, whilst opposition parties are rendered impotent. Occasionally – very occasionally – however, circumstances conspire to place a certain amount of power in the hands of the opposition.

The possibility of a future resurrection of HS2 is a case in point. In an attempt to not merely kill the project, but to drive a stake through its heart and garland the coffin with garlic, Sunak is rushing to try and cancel contracts and sell off the land already purchased. But land sales can take time, and in all probability there are less than 12 months to go before an election which all the polls and pundits predict will usher in a Labour government. If Starmer really wanted to resurrect the project (as most of his party colleagues north of Birmingham seem to be demanding), then he could announce that he will immediately reverse any land sales as soon as he gets into office. It wouldn’t stop land being sold, of course; but if people really believed that the time, effort, and money that they would need to put into acquiring the land would, in all probability, be wasted, most of them would think twice before rushing into any deals. The government could respond by selling off the land cheaply (rather than at a higher price as some have predicted), but any valuer looking at a repurchase by the government would presumably take that lower price into account when assessing market value. Instead of which, Starmer is standing on the sidelines bleating about the Tories tying his hands by selling off land, and using that as an excuse not to commit. It’s possible, of course, that he doesn’t want to build HS2 – a respectable position, even if large swathes of his party disagree with him – but he’s choosing to hide behind the Tories instead.

Meanwhile, it turns out that, despite what he said and what most of the media reported last week, Sunak most emphatically did NOT announce the electrification of the north Wales mainline. Not only is the figure he placed on the cost little more than a finger in the air estimate, he’s now saying that nothing on the long list published last week was intended to be taken seriously, it was just a list of illustrative examples. A bold attempt to counter the fact that he had p***ed off large swathes of the north of England by pleasing a larger number of people elsewhere has ended up p***ing them off too. Perhaps he was just insufficiently clear about the actual status of his little list, but it looks more like a wholly deliberate intention that people would be so delighted at his ‘announcements’ that they wouldn’t scrutinise the detail too closely. Or maybe he’s enough of a realist to understand that nothing he can or say do will avoid the looming defeat and that his best strategy is to make things as difficult as possible for an opposition which has committed to accepting his policies and budgets as a starting point, no matter how unrealistic and incoherent they might be. He might almost be so desperately incompetent as to be clever: perhaps the stupidest one is the one who accepts unrealistic budgets and incoherent policy as a valid starting point and tries to work from there.

Monday 9 October 2023

Yet more union-jackery


The near ubiquitous presence of the Union Jack at the Tory gathering last week was little surprise. They have long been Anglo-British nationalists, even if the stridency with which that nationalism is expressed has increased dramatically over the past decade or two. They don’t always seem to understand the difference between British and English, but it really doesn’t matter – they don’t participate in electoral politics in Northern Ireland and their appeal in Wales and Scotland is largely limited to fellow British-identifiers.

In this week’s gathering, Labour seem determined to out-do the Tories’ union-jackery, with the flag appearing everywhere. The wish to be seen to be every bit as patriotic as the Tories is perhaps understandable given their obsession with pleasing the increasingly nationalistic media in England, but given that we know here in Wales that a large proportion of Labour voters support Welsh independence, and that in Scotland Labour see independence-supporting SNP voters as a target group (a point expanded on by Mandelson this morning), it’s reasonable to wonder whether they’ve thought through the extent and potential implications of their union jack waving enthusiasm. From a non-English perspective, it can look as though they have the same difficulty as the Tories in distinguishing between British and English.

Legally and constitutionally, of course, the union flag is ‘our’ flag whether we like it or not, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a flag with which we all identify to the same degree, and it's not so very long ago that England fans would see the union flag as their symbol. Clinging ever more tightly to it whilst actively seeking the support of those least attached to it doesn’t look like the smartest of moves. And, solely in symbolic terms, it somewhat undermines Labour’s claim to be seeking to reform the union in a way which better reflects modern reality. It gives the appearance that Starmer is every bit as much of an Anglo-British nationalist as Sunak. And it isn’t always true that appearances are deceptive.

Friday 6 October 2023

Could Braverman be right?


The Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, has been roundly criticised for recent speeches in which she has argued that immigration threatens the UK’s identity and values. But there are two possible ways in which her claim that immigrants and their descendants are “not embracing British values” may not be entirely inaccurate.

If we look at a few prominent second and third generation immigrants, there is indeed some evidence that they are not embracing traditional British values. Take, for example, er, Suella Braverman. This is someone who believes that lawyers should not be allowed to use the provisions of the law to aid their clients, that the UK should renege on its international treaty obligations, that people should be detained without trial in camps, that homophobia is normal and widespread, that British values include hostility and cruelty to distressed people arriving on our shores, and that racists are afraid of expressing their views for fear of being labelled as racists. Or take Priti Patel, who believes that British values allow the UK to use wave machines which would probably overturn small boats, with an accompanying risk of drowning people as a result. Then there’s Kemi Badenoch, another advocate for reneging on international treaties. Or how about Rishi Sunak, the man who appointed all of these people to high office, validates their positions and words on an almost daily basis, and for whom dishonesty in his words is second nature. Oh, and who also believes, somewhat bizarrely, that British values revolve around the use of the private motor car. (Maybe he’s forgotten where he is, and is referring to his preferred home in California?)

The argument that this provides evidence for her thesis that immigrants are not embracing British values falls down however, because these values aren’t restricted to immigrants and their descendants. The values held by all of these individuals may not be the traditional values which many of us thought were widely held in Britain, but they’re not out of line with the ‘new’ British values of the Conservative Party. That brings us, however, to the second sense in which she may be right after all.

I have no figures or hard evidence to back this up, but observation and experience lead me to believe that many immigrants and their descendants are more firmly wedded to what one might call ‘traditional’ British values than the modern Conservative Party. Things like the rule of law, tolerance, fair play, honesty, a sense of justice, welcoming others. And immigrants and their descendants may well be more resistant than others to swapping those for the ‘new’ values of intolerance, dishonesty, disregard for the law, and cruelty to others which have taken hold in the Conservative Party. If by “not embracing British values” she really means that most immigrants and their descendants don’t share her values, then she may have a point. Her error is in seeing that as a bad thing.

Thursday 5 October 2023

An extract from the recollections of Sir Humphrey


The dying months of the Sunak administration were a curious time. In the lead-up to his first (and last) party conference as leader, I recall that he told us he was going to make a speech in Manchester and asked us if there was a major Manchester-specific announcement that he could make. Somewhat tongue in cheek, I suggested that it would be a very brave decision to say that he was going to cancel the new railway line to Manchester. To our utter amazement, he seemed truly delighted.

The PM wondered aloud whether there was anything he could announce as an alternative which might please the audience, so I proposed that he could make a bold announcement by packaging up a series of announcements which we’d previously made and already put into long term budgets for road and rail improvements across the country, brand them as ‘Network North’, and claim that they were being funded by the £36 billion previously allocated to the railway line, thus giving him a £36 billion saving in the process. It would never actually have been £36 billion, of course – the estimates for all those schemes were drawn up by the same people who’d prepared the estimates for the railway line, and there was no chance of delivering them at that price. I explained to him that the budgetary process was such that they were really just lines in a spreadsheet the main purpose of which was to deter the Chancellor from making tax cuts, but he was so enthusiastic that I think he’d stopped listening. Bernard pointed out to him that the package included schemes in places like London and Exeter, which not everyone might agree were in ‘the North’, but after a momentary doubt he was reassured when I explained to him that, in Civil Service speak, ‘the North’ is a concept, not a place.

I fear that the alacrity with which the PM accepted this explanation served only to encourage Bernard, and when the PM asked what he could do to confirm his reputation for taking long term decisions, Bernard told him that whilst the cancellation of the biggest long term project which we were undertaking would help, if he wanted to add to that, he could promise to establish a fund to repair potholes in roads. As Bernard explained to me later when I spoke to him privately, he was being entirely honest – it would indeed ‘confirm’ the PM’s reputation in relation to long term decision-making, which is exactly what he had asked us to do.

Shortly after the decision to axe the railway line was leaked, the PM asked us how he could best demonstrate his decisive nature. Bernard, by now carried away by his own enthusiasm, suggested that the PM should deny that a decision had been taken and say that he didn’t know when he would take the decision, adding that he would take all the time he needed to think about the matter very carefully. Then, when he did stand up and make the announcement only a couple of weeks later, he would look very decisive indeed. As Bernard explained to me later, a few short weeks of prevarication is what decisive looks like in the Civil Service.

It all turned out to be a great success. We got a railway project which no-one in Whitehall had ever wanted cancelled, and replaced by a whole series of alternative projects all of which could be (and were) quietly cancelled later. As for the PM – well, PMs come and PMs go. Only the Civil Service goes on for ever.

Tuesday 3 October 2023

The problem isn't the birth rate, it's inequality


It has been calculated that the population of Earth is currently consuming natural resources at a rate which requires 1.7 planets to sustain it; that if everyone lived like the average European we’d need three planets; and that a US lifestyle for all would require the resources of five planets. Now there are many problems with such calculations, because they inevitably depend on a lot of assumptions and estimates. They also hide a multitude of differences within countries as well – not all US citizens live a five-planet lifestyle, and some are probably living a ten planet or more lifestyle.

For the purposes of debate, it’s reasonable to ignore the arithmetical detail of the calculations and concentrate on the key message which is that, given that the natural resources of the Earth are finite, there is an unavoidable relationship between two factors: the size of the population and the lifestyle which that population can sustainably live. To the extent that that circle is currently being squared, the ‘solution’ is in two parts: inequality of access to resources, both between and within countries: some must live in poverty so that others can enjoy a wealthy life; and a willingness to use resources at an excessive rate, thereby denying them to future generations. A situation where many live in poverty isn’t some divinely ordained outcome, it’s a necessary condition for the few to be wealthy. It is inequality of access to resources which largely drives those euphemistically referred to as ‘economic migrants’ to seek to escape poverty by going to where the wealth is or, to use a corollary, the desire of some to hold on to their unfair share of the Earth’s resources is a major driver of population movements.

At a global level, it appears likely that the birth rate will stabilise by the end of the century. It is likely that longer lifespans will mean that the total population continues to grow, albeit slowly, even if the birth rate falls below the replacement level, but that growth will not be universal. Europe’s population, for instance, is projected to start falling by then. Looked at globally, a falling population is probably a good thing overall; whilst a stable, or even falling, population does not in itself address the inequality of access to resources, it does create a better opportunity to adopt a fairer approach. The question, in political terms, is how to respond to a situation where the population of a country is stable or falling but in which the age profile is changing, with the average age increasing. It’s an issue which needs a great deal more discussion than it's currently receiving.

The one thing that we definitely do not need is the sort of response put forward yesterday by Robert Jenrick at the Tory conference, which is to encourage more people to have more children so that there are more younger people to support the continuation of the giant Ponzi scheme which passes for the UK systems for care and pensions. Predicating the whole economic structure on an assumption that if more people live to be older we need to grow the population to support them, and do so indefinitely, may be viable for one country in the short term (although even that viability depends on a willingness to invest in homes, schools, hospitals to support an increasing population, something which his government is noticeably unwilling to do, preferring to blame immigrants for any deficiencies), but is, in global terms and in the long term, utterly irresponsible. The alternative necessarily involves looking at total available resources and how they are shared, both within and between countries. It’s easy to understand why those (like Jenrick and his colleagues) keen to defend and maintain huge disparities in wealth will recoil from such a suggestion. It challenges their whole outlook, to say nothing of their privilege and wealth. But it’s the only way forward in a resource-constrained world, even if it’s going to take some time before enough of us realise that fact.

Monday 2 October 2023

Yes, they really can be this incompetent


Over the weekend, Sky News reported on some leaked messages from a What’s App group run by the Conservative Democratic Organisation. This is the organisation founded by supporters of Boris Johnson with the repeatedly denied aim of restoring him to what they see as his rightful position as Prime Clown and First Lord of Chaos. To say that many of those commenting are making rather unfavourable remarks about Rishi Sunak would be something of an understatement. Others buy in to sundry, and fundamentally antisemitic, theories about globalists and the World Economic Forum.

When it comes to talk of conspiracy, my own favourite was the one who argued that, “No party can be this incompetent on purpose. It's got to be by design”, thereby proving that the author, at least, really can be that incompetent by accident, given that he or she either thinks there is some fundamental difference between “on purpose” and “by design” or has failed to transcribe his or her thoughts accurately. Actually, however, I wonder if he or she might accidentally have hit the nail on the head – perhaps the party and its leader really aren’t as incompetent as they look and are actively trying to ensure defeat in the next election. Given that Labour are so busy trying not to rock any boats that they’re signing up to changing very little when they get into government, it might make sense for the Tories to legislate for a whole series of incoherent and damaging policies, locking Labour into implementing them. Meanwhile, they can change leader again and criticise the Labour government for implementing the very policies that they themselves have passed. It might even be their fastest route back to power.

It would be a very cunning plan. Unfortunately, I tend to side with Occam on this: the simplest explanation is that they really are as incompetent as the person writing the comment thinks, and that it’s neither on purpose nor by design.