Saturday 13 April 2024

Was it an apology or not?

 

It’s probably inevitable that anyone taking on the job of PM will end up making a number of decisions which will lead to demands for him or her to apologise. There’s no reason why Sunak should be any different. I’m not particularly a fan of demanding apologies from politicians – I’d much prefer that they got things right or, at worst, did what they could to put things right and avoid repeating the mistakes. But assuming that we want him to apologise for something, all of us will probably have our own views as to which is the most important apology to make. In Sunak’s case, my own first choice would be the ill-fated ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme during the pandemic. Launched after deliberately not seeking any expert advice on the probable consequences, there is little doubt amongst the experts that it led to a significant increase in cases, which probably led to hundreds of premature deaths. A reckless and avoidable decision which led to premature deaths, taken without even seeking expert advice; that, surely, is something for which an apology is the least that might be expected. It is, though, something which he continues to defend.

There is one thing for which he has apologised. His choice of trainers has apparently caused the bottom to fall out of the market for a particular brand, which is no longer considered ‘cool’ as a result of being worn by Sunak. It’s more than possible that he sees damaging the profitability of a large company as being a bigger sin than overseeing a few hundred early deaths; it was, after all, his concern for the financial impact of the pandemic rather than the wellbeing of the populace which led to the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme. But in saying that his apology was ‘fulsome’ it’s also possible that it wasn’t really intended as a genuine apology at all. The word has a variety of connotations, and for many, a ‘fulsome apology’ is actually an insincere one. Insincerity in a PM – who’d have thought it?

Thursday 11 April 2024

How many hours is enough?

 

It is a historical fact that, ever since the Industrial Revolution, working people have had to fight for each and every reduction in the working week, and every one of those reductions has initially been resisted by the owners of capital and their political representatives. It is an essential part of capitalist ideology that most of us exist only to serve the interests of capital, and the more input can be squeezed out of people, the more profitable output can be produced. They don’t phrase it in such terms, of course, preferring to say things such as 'work gives our lives meaning', with its whispered corollary that life without work would be meaningless. The philosophical difference between ‘work gives your life meaning’ and ‘work makes you free’, is smaller than many might think – the differences revolve around the degree of compulsion and the extent to which work is financially rewarded. Seen from this perspective, the individual exists primarily to serve ‘the economy’. Persuading people of the truth of the statement rather then employing outright physical coercion makes it easier to achieve the goal, but that’s a difference of tactics, not principle. If the slaves can be cajoled into volunteering to make their own chains, managing them requires much less time and effort.

It isn’t the only possible outlook on life, though (although looking at the current main political parties in the UK, and their obsession with the idea that everyone must work and if they can’t live on their wages then they should work more hours or get a second job) one might think that there is no real alternative. But the idea that there is an alternative is hardly a new one: one of the classic pieces of writing on the issue is “In praise of idleness” by Bertrand Russell from 1932. The alternative ideological take on work is that it’s something of a necessary evil. We need a productive economy to enable us to meet our needs, but over and above that, human society should be about giving people the time, space and resources to develop human potential. Or, in simpler terms, the goal of an economy which works in the interests of all is to maximise leisure and minimise work. That’s not a formulation which I’ve heard from many politicians. Rather than seeing the increased use of mechanisation and Artificial Intelligence as opportunities to advance the development of people, they are being used to divert ever more resources into the pockets of a small and extremely rich subset of humanity; not sharing the benefits more equally is a deliberate political choice. And the rest of us are told that the problem is with people who aren’t working, or who are not working hard enough.

The Welsh branch of the English Conservative Party has this week expressed concerns about the increasing moves to a four-day week. Nothing either new or surprising about that – if one starts from a belief that people having time to do things other than work is inherently a bad thing, it’s an entirely natural response. It wouldn’t even occur to them to ask why it would be such a bad thing if we could meet all our needs to the same extent as currently by working one day a week less. (That’s a significant ‘if’, of course, and beyond the scope of this post, although the employers moving to such a working pattern seem confident enough that it’s true.) What really took my breath away, though, was the reason that they seem to be giving for opposing it, which is that it is unfair that some people should only have to work 4 days whilst others still have to work 5 days. It’s tantamount to saying that ‘no-one should have their working week reduced until everyone can have the same’. This from the party which is usually quick to criticise what they call the ‘politics of envy’.

It overlooks the fact – presumably deliberately, since they can’t all be so ignorant as to not understand this – that every reduction in working hours has been enjoyed by some workers before others; had some groups not been able to set the pace (whether because of their industrial power or slightly more benign and enlightened employers), we would all still be working 12 hours a day 6 days a week from the age of 10 until we die. Although, on second thoughts, they probably regret that we aren’t.

Wednesday 10 April 2024

Isn't this what they wanted?

 

The government’s ‘plan’ to send thousands of asylum-seekers to Rwanda has hit another snag as it has been revealed that those houses which were being built to receive them, and which sundry Home Secretaries have visited at not insignificant public expense to inspect, have now largely been sold off to Rwandans. There is, surely, something more than a little droll about Rwanda following exactly the policy which so many supporters of the Rwanda scheme have been urging: housing ‘our own people’ before making homes available to asylum-seekers. Getting the UK to pay for it is, from a Rwandan perspective, something of a bonus.

Tuesday 9 April 2024

Using common sense depends on knowing what it is

 

To adapt the words of Oscar Wilde, to lose one parliamentary candidate due to unfortunate use of social media looks like misfortune, but to lose ten starts to look like carelessness. Unless, of course, we are talking about Reform UK Party Ltd, the mostly Farage-owned limited company standing over 600 candidates (although a currently unknowable number of those may have fallen by the wayside in the meantime) in the forthcoming election. It seems that selecting any old Tom, Dick, or Harry as a candidate and waiting for their past misdemeanours to be exposed is actually a deliberate strategy. They have, in effect, outsourced the vetting of candidates to the media, who are having something of a field day as they work their way through the list uncovering incriminating past statements.

Outsourcing candidate vetting is a novel approach to a difficult issue. The more cynical might even wonder whether Reform are quite happy to be associated in the mind of potential voters with some of the racism and misogyny being spouted by their candidates whilst also hoping to get some sort of credit for acting quickly to sack them when their words are exposed. Both selecting candidates and subsequently sacking them are definitely easier for a hierarchical company where one man has effective total control than for a democratic party where members might, wholly unreasonably, expect to have an input. Abolishing concepts such as membership and democracy is not without its advantages. For a control freak or would-be dictator at least. And for a party which has, according to the polls, zero probability of having anyone elected, maybe they really just aren’t that worried. The company’s puppet leader, Richard Tice, said that “Every party has their fair share frankly of muppets and morons”. From the horse’s mouth, as it were. But I almost agree with him; it’s just that some have a ‘fairer’ share than others.

He does make the entirely correct point that the vetting process is “valid the day you do it, but if the following Friday night someone has a glass or two too much and puts something out on social media they permanently regret, in a sense it never stops”. Well, yes. Although quite how that applies in the case of the candidate for Orpington whose offensive words date from 2019 is an unanswered question. A date 5 years ago is hardly between one day and the following Friday night. Not without a Tardis, anyway.

Candidate vetting is a difficult process, and can be sensitive. I recall one case of a Plaid candidate who was outraged to discover that party officials had looked at their (public) social media accounts, and claimed it was an invasion of their privacy. We thought that it was an extreme reaction, but it highlights the fairly common belief that social media accounts, even if visible to the world, are somehow also private to the individual and his or her online friends. Understanding the way in which social media can broadcast and amplify throwaway comments is still slow in developing in some quarters.

And even when candidates have been vetted, and nothing incriminating has been found, one can never be entirely sure that the individual won’t, as Tice put it, have a glass or two and say something silly. It’s not only a problem for Reform, although to date they’re the only group that have tried to turn a problem into a ‘feature’, as a software developer might describe it. Whether it’s just bad luck, or whether there is a particular propensity on the political ‘right’ to say silly things, it is the Tories who have, in recent months and years, suffered some of the biggest problems. Some of them seem to think that they are just voicing aloud ‘what everybody thinks’ and that makes it just common sense. That was, for instance, a major part of Lee Anderson’s defence. Indeed, returning to Toms, Dicks, and Harrys (and especially the second of those) it turns out that the MP who sent pictures of his body parts to a man through a dating app, and provided the contact details of other MPs so that they could also be targeted, is a fully paid-up member of the so-called Common Sense Group of Tory MPs. But then, ‘common sense’ as defined by Tice’s ‘muppets and morons’ is always going to look a bit strange to the rest of us. An inability to agree on a common sense definition of common sense is one of the reasons why vetting is so hard to do.

Monday 8 April 2024

It's all a bit too eclectic for me

 

Whether it’s entirely reasonable to describe the leader of the Conservative group in the Senedd as an idiot, as Martin Shipton has done on Nation.Cymru recently, is a matter of opinion. There is plenty of evidence to support the hypothesis, and some might regard it as simply a ‘harsh but fair’ judgement; but there is a broader question as to whether direct insult is ever a worthwhile tool in political debate, even if the evidence is both categorical and overwhelming. That again is, of course, a matter of opinion. True and fair or not, it’s unlikely that Lenin would have seen him as a ‘useful’ idiot, and not just because there is no evidence that Lenin ever actually used the phrase.

What is less contentious is that Andrew RT Davies and his not-so-merry band do seem to be somewhat obsessive about some issues, most recently about the widespread introduction of 20 mph speed limits in Wales. It’s an obsession which has led them to brand it as part of a ‘war on motorists’ (a war which, apparently, also includes ‘eclectic’ vehicles, and it wasn’t even April 1st).


They’ve even invented a few policies which Labour aren’t proposing to implement (such as reintroducing tolls on the Severn crossings) in order to inflate the extent to which Labour hates anyone who drives a car. In fairness, in doing this one might point out that the Welsh branch of the English Conservative and Unionist Party are merely aping the approach of their supreme leader, who has himself axed a good number of policies which never existed either.

Given their own previous support for the introduction of 20 mph limits, it would be hard to describe their current opposition as being in any way principled, but then that’s not something which one would really expect of them. They have interpreted the result of one by-election as an indicator that voters will support pro-car measures and are trying to apply it more widely in the forlorn hope of avoiding a wipeout; but the evidence that it will work is sketchy to say the least. They are, though, (last time I looked) still in favour of 20mph limits outside schools, hospitals and playgrounds in order to protect users of those facilities from the dangers of vehicles. Presumably, it is assumed either that people will get close to those locations by car rather than on foot, or else will have to just take their chances on pavements further from said premises where there are fewer of them to get run over.

And that leads me to wonder: if it is fair to describe Labour’s approach as a war on motorists, it is surely equally justifiable to describe the Tory approach as a war on pedestrians – and the environment. A demand for more road-building and fewer traffic control measures necessarily implies a degree of environmental damage and a change in the balance of priorities between vehicles and people in our villages, towns, and cities. If changing the balance in favour of pedestrians is equivalent to a war on motorists, isn’t changing the balance in favour of motorists equivalent to a war on pedestrians? The truth, of course, is that it’s a silly argument. Either way. It isn’t a simple question of balancing conflicting interests, even if such dramatic language added anything to rational debate. Most of us are sometimes motorists, sometimes pedestrians, and sometimes users of public transport. Striking the right balance is a good deal more complex than the simplistic Tory obsession suggests, but a party which stands no chance of ever having the responsibility for implementing its policies in Wales can feel free to ignore that. It’s hardly as though anything they do or say can do much (more) damage to their future prospects. Whether the leader is an idiot or not.

Saturday 6 April 2024

Avoiding rules made by foreigners

 

Rishi Sunak continually refers to the European Court of Human Rights as a “foreign court”, despite the UK’s honourable role in creating it and writing its rules, and its equal say in appointing the judges. This week, he was asked why by an SNP MP. His brief reply was to say “Because it is based in Strasbourg”. As a statement of fact, it is unusually honest; as an argument for distancing the UK from it, or even withdrawing entirely, it’s on the weak side of pathetic. It’s probably reasonable to assume that he believes that the voters to whom he is trying to appeal regard the very fact of its being based outside the UK as being sufficient grounds for having nothing to do with it. And there are certainly a lot of those dreaded foreigners in Strasbourg.

He might even be right, but if he is, he’s surely missing a trick here politically. If withdrawing, or threatening to withdraw, from an international body based in a foreign country on the grounds of its very foreignness is a vote-winner, there are plenty of other organisations from which withdrawal might be even more popular. The one which immediately springs to mind is FIFA. To start with, it’s based in Zurich, and it would be hard to identify anywhere more closely associated with internationalism than Switzerland. As everyone (well, everyone in the Conservative Party, at least) knows, the city is fully of peace-loving leftie foreigners, some of whom even have the effrontery to be lawyers, and none of whom can be trusted further than they can be thrown.

On top of that, FIFA demands that Ingerland use the same rules as everyone else, and even has the gall to make the Ingerland team play against assorted foreigners in a tournament, rather than simply being awarded the World Cup in perpetuity as they are entitled to expect. If half a pledge to withdraw from a court which merely stops the UK government deporting a handful of people to central Africa is as popular as he thinks, imagine how popular a pledge to withdraw from FIFA might be. It would enable Ingerland to choose who they play as well as setting their own rules: winning could become the norm rather than the exception.

I don’t understand what’s holding him back. It’s not as if this is any less honest than the Brexit prospectus, and that worked well for his party at the time. He could even hire a bus and put a slogan on the side pledging to spend the UK’s (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland would all be instructed to follow Ingerland’s lead, naturally) contributions to FIFA on the NHS instead. Or even use the simple but meaningless slogan so beloved of Ingerland fans: Football's coming home. It would give him a better chance of saving a few seats than anything else he's tried so far.

Friday 5 April 2024

The pleasure is likely to be short-lived

 

One of the many things on which government and opposition are agreed (effectively confirmed in a speech by the Shadow Chancellor a few weeks ago) is that the ‘solution’ to the UK’s problems revolves around economic growth. Rather than debate whether the current pie is fairly distributed, the answer, they say, is simply to bake a bigger pie.

The first and most obvious question is whether economic growth is really as desirable as this approach suggests. Whilst the abstract numbers might suggest so at a macro level, if current levels of economic activity are making unsustainable use of resources then more of the same simply means that we will run out sooner. Whilst it is possible to imagine types of economic growth which are not resource-dependant, that is a much more nuanced objective; and that nuance seems to be missing from both Labour and Tory analyses.

The second question it raises is how to ensure that the extra pie doesn’t simply accumulate in the hands of those who already have the biggest slices. This has, after all, been the default outcome of economic growth in recent decades, leading to increased levels of inequality. Without taking specific actions to control the way the pie is allocated, it will be the default effect of future growth as well. It’s another aspect which neither party seems to be willing to address.

But bigger and more important than either of those questions is the issue of how that growth can be ensured. And here we come to another aspect of shared ideology – both parties share an absolute faith that the answer lies in reducing taxes and regulation, especially on businesses. Empirical evidence for this proposition is 'limited' (and that's being charitable), but one of the features of blind faith is that it doesn’t need any evidence. They don’t usually spell out what they mean in any detail, preferring to hide behind neutral-sounding jargon such as ‘supply-side reforms’, but what they mean is tax cuts and less regulation. And the regulations which they usually want to cut are things like health and safety and environmental protection – cuts which, if people are asked more directly about, they are more likely to resist. And, for all the apparent logic behind the idea of helping businesses to retain more of their profit so that they can invest in new capacity, the economic reality is that most new investment is funded by borrowing, not out of profit. Yet the parties have no other plan.

There have been a number of polls recently, one of which suggested that the Tories could be reduced to fewer than 100 seats. Whilst my first reaction was along the lines of, ‘come on people, we can get them closer to zero than that’, a more considered response was ‘so what?’. Whether the balance is 350 Labour to 250 Tories, or 450 Labour to 150 Tories, or even 600 Labour to 0 Tories, we would still have 600 MPs committed to the faith-based policy of reducing tax and cutting regulation. We would also still have 600 committed to a form of austerity, and 600 committed to the folly of Trident replacement. Even if all of the other 50 MPs were to take a different view (and that’s unlikely: Sinn Fein refuse to take their seats and the DUP are even more of a faith-based cult than the Tories; and then we have the Lib Dems – who knows where they stand on anything? – leaving only the SNP, Plaid and the Greens with any possibility of taking a different view), the chances of a significant policy reset are vanishingly small. A Labour government might be more competent – they could hardly be less so – but the idea that competent austerity based on blind faith is better than incompetent austerity based on blind faith is not exactly the killer argument as which some seem to see it.

The undoubted pleasure which many will feel at the forthcoming near wipeout for the Tories is likely to be rather short-lived.

Thursday 4 April 2024

Targets against which one can never fail?

 

Sometimes governments choose the targets that define their success or failure, sometimes the indicators of success are chosen by others, and often they just somehow become part of the collective consciousness as if by magic. One of the most potent of current indicators in that last category is that the UK government is considered a failure because it is led by Rishi Sunak. However, if Sunak is replaced in a coup by another member of his party, it will be judged a failure because it is led by someone other than Rishi Sunak. None of that is either fair nor rational, but collective consciousness is no slave to either fairness or rationality.

The man himself is keen to choose his own indicators of success or failure, although to date he’s shown that his success rate in choosing targets that he can actually achieve is somewhat wanting. Unless his objective was to mirror Cnut, and demonstrate the limits of his powers, he’s succeeded in showing only how bad his judgement of what he can do really is. It could be a cunning plan to turn himself into the underdog. He’s probably read somewhere that ‘the British’ love an underdog, but failed to understand that it’s one of those claimed values which really is no longer true, even if it ever was. In the real world, more people mock underdogs than sympathise with them; that’s just one of the cultural ‘successes’ of his party since the 1980s.

It is remarkable, though, that all the targets he chooses against which he wants to be judged share one amazing characteristic, which is that when the numbers are moving in the ‘wrong’ direction it’s all a result of global trends and matters outside the government’s control, but when they’re moving in the ‘right’ direction it’s down to firm and resolute government action, following a ‘plan’ which does no more than state the desired outcome with no actions identified to achieve it.

Take his oft-repeated mantra of ‘stop the boats’. In June last year, when the number of people crossing La Manche in small boats was temporarily lower than in the previous year, the PM was quick to claim that it was nothing at all to do with the bad weather at the time, it was all down to the actions being taken by the government – actions which basically consisted of trying and failing to deport a random small selection of people to central Africa. This year, with the numbers going up again, suddenly it seems that it is the weather which is to blame after all.

Then there’s inflation. When it went up, it was all about war in Ukraine and other far-away events, but when it came down again, it was all down to government action, although one would be hard pressed to find a government minister prepared to identify precisely which government actions led to reduced inflation. ‘Sticking to the plan’ when the plan consists only of a desired end point hardly counts as ‘action’ for most users of language.

Or economic growth. In the few recent months when there has been any, it’s been a result of unspecified government actions, but when there hasn’t been any – or even when it’s been negative – it’s a result of global factors which allegedly affect every other country as well, just as long as no-one looks too closely at the figures.

One could see this as an example of Sunak’s brilliance in selecting measures against which he can only ever succeed, because any and every failure is down to things outside his control. Occam might suggest a simpler and more plausible explanation which doesn’t require this mystical property to exist at all, merely the identification of mendacity.

Tuesday 2 April 2024

Is lack of imagination also to become a crime?

 

It’s a funny old world. Prior to this morning, I would have been hard pressed to think of any circumstances in which cabinet ministers would find themselves obliged to take to the airwaves to issue reassurances that people would not be arrested because they were a bit smelly. But then I would also have found it difficult to imagine circumstances in which a UK government would actually write down draft legislation which enabled the police to arrest anyone who ponged a bit. The current government have excelled themselves (and rendered satire irrelevant) by doing both. They haven’t so much lost the plot as torn it up, put the pieces through a shredder and come up with a new plot line so utterly incredible that the relevant authorities must have assumed it was an early parody for April 1st and published it as though it were a genuine parliamentary Bill, chuckling quietly as they did so. The problem is – it is real, very real.

For anyone who gives it more than a moment’s thought, homelessness is a complex issue with no single or simple cause. But the idea of giving anything a ‘moment’s thought’ is a major problem for members of the twenty-first century Tory Party, for whom what passes as thought processes are currently rather more reminiscent of chickens after suffering an unfortunate incident with an axe. It’s just a few months ago that Suella Braverman brought opprobrium down on her head by suggesting homelessness was simply a lifestyle choice, a statement which opposition parties – to say nothing of charities working in the field – were quick to criticise. She probably saw that reaction as a plus, polishing her already substantial credentials as one of the nastiest people ever to have been elected to parliament. It’s not entirely impossible that a thorough survey of all rough sleepers might indeed find one or two who prefer to live that way, but the idea that it’s the norm is as divorced from reality as Braverman herself. Clearly, mental health issues are also part of the problem, but even that isn’t straightforward – those issues themselves are often the result of a range of other factors. Inadequate levels of benefit are another. Lack of suitable housing, in the right places and at an affordable cost are also part of the mix (although it’s easy to understand why people who think that £100,000 a year is difficult to live on might struggle to understand the abject level of poverty in which some end up living).

Any government which was serious about tackling rough sleeping and homelessness would be looking at all those factors and identifying methods and resources to tackle them, rather than treating the people involved as just a nuisance to be criminalised and dealt with by the police. Those resources aren’t always simply financial either, although properly funding services would inevitably be a part of any solution. But criminalising people isn’t a zero cost option either: it requires time and effort from the police and the criminal justice system, two more services already under considerable stress.

Perhaps they’re privy to some private polling data or focus group outcomes which have led them to believe that creating a new offence of being malodorous whilst in possession of a sleeping bag, and issuing all police officers with official smell-o-meters to objectively assess the pong factor, will net them millions of votes which might otherwise go to that Farage chappie’s party. And if they have, then they may also have a list of other things which they’ll get round to criminalising, given half a chance. The first part of that seems unlikely to me, although the idea that they’ll find a way of criminalising anyone who doesn’t vote Tory is no longer as absurd as it should be. But then what do I know? I am clearly insufficiently imaginative: I never imagined that anyone would seriously attempt to criminalise BO.

Saturday 30 March 2024

Representing who to whom?

 

According to some Tories, the best way of preventing Nigel Farage from getting elected to a seat in parliament for a five year term is to give him a seat in parliament for life, by sending him to the institution for sufferers of Post Imperial Stress Disorder. The logic is curious, but then logic has long ceased to be their strong point. Others think Farage should be made the official representative of the UK in Washington. And some of the most desperate actually want to do both.

It’s true, of course, that if Trump were to be re-elected in November, he would be quite keen on the idea of having Farage as the UK ambassador. Doubtless, Farage would be well-placed to suck up to him on behalf of the UK to form a close working relationship with him, but supporters of the plan seem to be rather overlooking the fact that the main job of the ambassador is to represent the UK in Washington, not the USA in London. Assuming that Labour win the UK general election sometime between now and November, it seems highly unlikely that Farage could successfully represent the views of a Labour government, even under a not-so-lite Tory like Starmer. And even less likely that he’d try. Further, since the objective is to deter Farage from standing in the UK election, he’d have to be appointed very soon. That in turn means that, in the meantime, he’d be dealing with the Biden administration. It really is hard to conceive of a better way to p*ss off Biden, and damage UK-US relations, than to appoint a cheerleader for his opponent, an ambassador whose idea of tact and diplomacy invariably involves the use of the biggest megaphone he can lay his hands on.

On the other hand, Sunak seems to have given up trying to avoid upsetting anyone other than the extremists in his own party. Appointing Farage is a suggestion that the Tory high command have apparently rejected, but that’s only what they’re saying this week. Given the extent to which consistency has become an unfamiliar and unwanted virtue in the Tory Party, who  knows what they’ll say next week if Reform’s poll ratings continue to climb? Given the increasing likelihood of some sort of reverse takeover of the Tories by Reform after the election, keeping on the right side of the probable next, or next-but-one, leader might even appeal to the PM, at least until he can escape the nightmare and take up a new and better-paid job in sunny California.

Offering someone a direct bribe not to stand in an election is, of course, illegal under electoral law, but mere legality is, like consistency, another discarded value for what used to be known as the party of Laura Norder. It’s not an insurmountable barrier anyway. All they need to do is to present membership of the Lords as a punishment rather than a reward – and that’s not exactly an unrealistic assessment. Ennobling Farage might even help to prod Labour into reversing its previous U-turn on abolition of the Lords: Farage might yet turn out to have some useful function after all. The thing that still makes it all highly unlikely, however, is that it would require Sunak to make a decision rather than prevaricate. So probably not going to happen unless the desperate supporters of this mad proposal depose him in May.

Friday 29 March 2024

That Venezuelan trip

 

A couple of weeks ago, it emerged that Boris Johnson had undertaken what was described as a ‘private’ trip to see the president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro. The extent to which this was genuinely an ‘unofficial’ trip seemed to me at the time to be doubtful, given the reports that the Foreign Office had ‘supported and briefed’ the disgraced former PM before the visit, even if it was really true that the Foreign Secretary knew nothing about it until Johnson was already en route to Caracas. It still seems unlikely to me that he would have been briefed and supported without the knowledge of Cameron, and it does seem as if the Foreign Office are less than forthcoming over what advice and support they did or did not give.

Doubts about the idea that Johnson would have paid for the trip himself were entirely well-founded, since it turns out that it was being paid for by the boss of a hedge fund. Classic Boris Johnson. Better yet, it turns out that he was actually being paid by the hedge fund to undertake the trip. Again, classic Boris Johnson. And that it was part of a job which he’s taken on without going through the normal vetting process for former ministers. Classic Boris Johnson squared.

It's easy to understand why the president of Venezuela, the hedgie, and Johnson would like to normalise relations between Venezuela and the West – in the first case because poor relationships are damaging to his country, in the second because poor relationships reduce the opportunities to make money, and in the third because he was being paid to attend the meeting, and he can’t resist the pull of being thought important. It remains a lot less clear why any of those involved thought that a meeting with a disgraced former PM, with no influence over anything, would help to achieve any of those aims except those of Johnson himself. If nobody had given Maduro the impression that Johnson still had some influence, why on earth would he have agreed to meet him?

The Labour Party seem to be concentrating their fire on Johnson’s apparent breach of the rules, but that’s just Johnson being Johnson. He’s never believed that any rules apply to him, so of course he breaks them. And given that he has form on precisely this particular rule, it’s reasonable to conclude that the breach was entirely conscious and deliberate. So what? Another breach of the rules is just business as usual for the man. The bigger question is about what the Foreign Office were up to. Did they really brief and support Johnson for the visit, and do so without informing the Foreign Secretary? Did they really believe that Johnson was a suitable person to carry out a potentially delicate diplomatic task? And put their resources to work in support of a hedge fund’s profit aspirations? Did they really lead Maduro to believe that Johnson was acting in at least a semi-official capacity in order to facilitate the meeting? It seems unlikely that the meeting would have taken place otherwise. Helping to organise and prepare for a meeting whose main aim is to further the accumulation of private profit for a hedge fund that happens to employ an ex-PM seems to me a much bigger scandal than Johnson merely breaking a few rules. Again.

Tuesday 26 March 2024

Finding PISD sufferers an appropriate home

 

Parliament suffered an outburst of outrage yesterday as the dinosaurs who still don’t recognize that the UK no longer rules the waves fulminated against the audacity of the Chinese for daring to engage in illicit hacking activities. They’ve even dared to hack their way into the publicly available electoral registers. In the olden days, the response would have been to send a gunboat or two up the Yangtze river to teach the natives a lesson, but an aircraft carrier which struggles to get out of port without breaking down somehow doesn’t really cut it. Post Imperial Stress Disorder is, apparently, a thing. And it seems to be quite widespread, even amongst those who never knew Empire. It’s easy to understand how PISD sufferers might feel frustrated when the serious and dramatic UK response is a few meaningless sanctions against two named individuals and a small and obscure company.

The demands to be told exactly what the Chinese have been up to are reasonable, up to a point – but it raises a question about reciprocity. Does anyone seriously believe, for instance, that the UK’s security services are not hacking their way into Chinese computer systems with malicious intent? (If they’re not, that is probably an even bigger scandal.) Should the demand for openness and honesty be applied to the UK’s nefarious cyber activities as well? It’s a silly question, of course. We all know that the UK is special and unique, and therefore entitled to use whatever means are appropriate to protect its interests, including breaking international law whenever the fancy takes it. And not just in a ‘specific and limited way’ either.

The demand that others be held to a higher standard than ‘us’ is one of the main visible symptoms of PISD, but the disorder itself is incurable, sadly. The best we can do is try to isolate sufferers from the rest of society, and let them see out their days in comparative solitude. Somewhere they can rant to their hearts’ content and influence very little. That may, in fact, be the best justification anyone has ever come up with for the existence of the House of Lords. Seen as part of the selection process for membership of that institution, yesterday’s performance in parliament might even start to make sense.

Monday 25 March 2024

When 'winning' isn't the best outcome

 

The ideal issue for a campaign by opposition politicians is one which affects lots of people, lasts a long time, provides plenty of good photo opportunities, and has little chance of success. One of the worst possible outcomes is when a campaign actually succeeds, especially if it’s just months before an election: suddenly, they have to step up to the mark and say what they will actually do. And that is precisely where Starmer and the Labour Party now seem to find themselves in relation to the issue of women’s pensions.

For almost a decade, for the entirety of which the Tories have been in government at UK level, the WASPI women have fought a strong and determined campaign to get a just settlement for the incompetent way in which the government announced and implemented the changes to the pension age for women. Conveniently ignoring the role of the last Labour government itself in the process of changing the pension age, a whole host of Labour politicians, including Starmer himself, have made statement after statement supporting the campaign, and demanding those vague and indefinable things called justice, a fair deal, and restitution. Last week, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman issued a formal finding that there had been maladministration and recommended that compensation should be paid. They haven’t recommended as much compensation as was being asked for, but it is, nevertheless, a significant victory. From the point of view of the WASPI campaigners at least.

From the point of view of Starmer and the Labour Party it looks to have been something of a disaster. After all their fine words, the time has come to deliver, and it looks as though it will be a Labour government which has to do the delivering. To call their reaction feeble would be an understatement. That thing for which they have been calling for almost a decade now has the force of an official ombudsman’s report and they are about to find themselves in a position where they can actually do something instead of demanding that someone else does it. And they’ve completely bottled it.

It’s an outcome which seems to have taken them completely by surprise. They seem to have given no thought at all to how they would respond to a recommendation for compensation, nor how they would fund any such compensation, despite having demanded it time and time again. Instead of a response welcoming the report and promising to act, they’ve come up with mealy-mouthed variations on the government’s own mealy-mouthed response, talking about the need to consider it carefully before coming to a conclusion. The Tories’ response has been no better. It’s not that anyone would have expected that it would be, although it’s at least a little surprising that they haven’t immediately leapt onto an opportunity to please what is for them a key voter demographic. We seem to have reached a point where neither wants to move first for fear that the other will accuse them of another ‘unfunded’ spending commitment. In other words, both of them regard their arbitrary and silly fiscal rules, and the opportunity to accuse the other of breaking them, as being more important than the millions of women who have lost out as a result of government incompetence.

It certainly sends us a clear message – but that message is about whether they are really committed to justice and fair play, or are just playing silly games about money. ‘Winning’ the campaign turns out not to be what they wanted at all.

Saturday 23 March 2024

Is this what we deserve?

 

The Labour and Conservative parties have each had their own little financial scandals in recent weeks. The Tories have taken £10 million (or perhaps £15 million) from a man who makes casual racist remarks which he apparently thinks are merely ‘rude’, whilst Labour’s new leader in Wales took £200,000 from a man twice convicted of environmental offences. At first sight, there seems to be no comparison – it doesn’t require more than a very rudimentary command of basic maths to understand that £15 million is bigger – a lot bigger – than £200,000.

But that comparison is over-simplistic – we also need to think about the differing electorates involved here. Hester’s millions were intended to help Sunak appeal to the entire UK electorate. At 46.6 million, that equates to about 32p per target voter. The donations to Gething, however, were intended to help him win an internal Labour Party election. Whilst the party seems to have avoided publishing detailed numbers, some estimates put the total eligible to vote at around 100,000, meaning that the donation was worth about £2 per target voter. The egregi-ometer no longer points so unswervingly in the direction of Sunak and the Tories.

One could attempt to argue that there is some sort of moral difference between a man with previous convictions and one who is merely under police investigation, or even that casual and unthinking racism is in some way less serious than environmental crime; but they’re not arguments that I’d like to try making in their position (although that doesn’t mean that they won’t try). I’m more interested in the similarity of their responses. Both men have effectively said something along the lines of “I’ve followed all the rules on donations”. It’s not a statement that I’m in a position to dispute. It does, though, raise two big questions. The first is whether rules which allow this sort of behaviour when it comes to political financing are fit for purpose – and many will probably conclude that they are not. The even bigger question is whether we are prepared to accept that the only responsibility we place on politicians is to follow the letter of the law at all times. Should we really never expect them ever to take a step back and think about morality, and whether what they are doing complies with some sort of sense of right and wrong?

They are both acting and talking as though the fuss will soon blow over and this particular scandal will be laid to rest alongside all the others. The worst part of it is the horrible feeling that they might be right. Along with Thomas Jefferson.

Friday 22 March 2024

Wielding the hammer. Again.

 

For those who have been battered by the rise in the cost of living recently, the report that inflation is slowing down is good news of a sort. It’s usually better to get poorer slowly rather than quickly, even if that isn’t quite the way in which the government has presented it. Given the unshakeable belief of the Bank of England, and the government, that this fall in inflation is all down to interest rate increases, it means that we should be able to look forward to some interest rate cuts later this year. That will, of course, help the main target group which the government hopes can thus be bribed into supporting it, namely those with mortgages. It won’t necessarily help the poorest of all, but then they tend not to vote Tory anyway.

Economic theory tells us that high interest rates deter people from spending and therefore remove upward pressure on prices, rather ignoring the fact that they also further impoverish those who have little room for discretionary spending in the first place. The problem with the theory is the implicit assumption that inflation is always caused by too much money chasing too few goods and services, but that really wasn’t the cause of the most recent bout of inflation, which had rather more to do with the war in Ukraine and profiteering by energy companies who never let a good crisis go to waste. Still, when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, and the Bank of England has bashed away with great enthusiasm at that nail. It now seems to seriously believe that inflation with external causes which would have gone away eventually anyway has actually been vanquished by their demented hammer-wielding rather than by the passage of time.

And that brings us to the sting in the tail. Alongside the half-promise of interest rate relief at some unspecified later date came the warning that inflation might not have gone away yet because the hostile acts of the Houthis in Yemen against shipping in the Red Sea may yet cause a further bout of price rises, as goods either become scarcer, or the cost of shipping them increases. In terms of the threat of inflation, it’s a reasonable fear – but it doesn’t follow that the answer is to continue using that hammer. The mechanism by which high interest rates impact inflation caused by hostile acts at sea is, being charitable, less than entirely clear. It’s not as if the Houthi leadership is looking to buy houses in the UK, and will be deterred from launching rockets by continued high mortgage costs. High interest rates aren’t going to affect the scarcity of goods or the price of shipping them either, merely help to ration them on price. It doesn’t take a genius to work out who loses most from rationing by price.

Thursday 21 March 2024

Devolution is fine as long as Wales always copies England?

 

This week, we were the ‘lucky’ recipients of a 12 page newsletter from the soon-to-be-former Government Chief Whip, Simon Hart. Amongst other things, he tells us that he campaigns against the Labour-Plaid Welsh Government “who are adamant in their desire to downgrade and shut down the hospital”, without specifying to which hospital he is referring, although the leaflet is more explicit when it comes to his plan for Carmarthen, which claims that the Welsh Government “wants to close Glangwili Hospital”. It’s a sort-of-truth, although a more balanced account would point out that the intention is to replace it with a bigger, better, and brand new facility further west. The merits or otherwise of that proposal are fair game for political debate, of course, but presenting it simply as a ‘closure’ isn’t entirely honest.

We are also told that the 20mph default speed limit (or ‘blanket’ limit to use the inaccurate term so favoured by the Tories, including in this leaflet) isn’t working and that “half a million people have said so” by signing a petition. The pedant in me says that the petition may indeed demonstrate that the policy isn’t exactly the most popular ever, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t working. Policies can be both unpopular and effective. Unless, of course, the only determinant of the ‘success’ of any policy is its popularity – but only a confirmed cynic would accuse a Tory politician of believing that.

More generally, both of those items reflect the fact that the most striking thing about this leaflet for a Westminster election is the extent to which it concentrates on devolved issues over which the MP (whoever he or she might be) will have little or no influence. I suppose, given the record of the UK Government, fighting the election on the record of a different government of which he has not been part makes a certain amount of sense. The attempt to portray the current government’s record on the economy as a success simply underlines the extent to which such a campaign would have to depend on ‘alternative facts’.

In the same vein, we come to the section on ‘free’ childcare, where he bemoans the fact that Wales is not precisely aping the English scheme, but is instead introducing an income threshold. The first problematic aspect of this is the claim that it will be ‘free’ in England whilst it is means-tested in Wales. In fact, the English government is underfunding the scheme to such an extent that nurseries are going to be charging parents top-up fees, because they are not going to be paid enough to cover their basic costs of staffing and premises (even if we assume that there will be enough places available, which is far from being certain). They’re not allowed to call them top-up fees of course, so they will be billed as things such as “consumables” (and, whilst it’s not wholly unreasonable to charge for things like food, there will be, we can be sure, an element of creativity to maximise the opportunity to make up for the government funding discrepancy; and for the poorest of working parents, it does less than it could to help people back into work). Most parents are likely to understand that a charge of around £2 per hour might mean that the childcare is cheaper, but it won’t fit most people’s definition of ‘free’. Claiming to have delivered the equivalent amount of cash to enable Wales to underfund childcare to the same extent might be ‘true’, but it doesn’t overcome the basic problem of underfunding.

But the hypocrisy in this is that the party which has previously argued that prescriptions should be means-tested so that hypothetical Welsh millionaires can’t get hypothetical free paracetamol is now arguing that those same hypothetical Welsh millionaires should be able to get hypothetical free childcare. I’d like to think that it was a Damascene conversion to the concept of universality in the delivery of public services, but I suspect that this – like much of the other criticism of what the Welsh Government does – is much, much simpler than that. They simply believe that the Welsh government should always use its powers in ways that deliver the same policies as England. Still, the good news is that the soon-to-be-former Chief Whip won’t have to worry about any of this for much longer.

Friday 15 March 2024

The exercise of forgiveness

 

As Michael Gove demonstrated yesterday, defining ‘extremism’ isn’t as easy as some might think. He, presumably, thinks he’s got it right, although the range of views and arguments deployed against him suggests otherwise. But there was also another aspect to what he said yesterday when challenged about extremism coming from the direction of his own party’s supporters. Sir Paul Marshall, the man behind the increasingly misnamed GB ‘News’ which gives a platform to the swivel-eyed entryist tendency in the Tory Party, has something of a record when it comes to making or supporting extreme statements about Islam, LBGQT+ issues and migration. Gove attempted to defend him by referring to his record of ‘educational philanthropy’. The underlying issue here is whether, and to what extent, ‘doing good’ in one field is enough to get a free pass to support and promote hate speech in another.

It's not the only recent example. The Leader of the House of Commons defended the Science Secretary over her rash and unwise decision to accuse an academic of Islamism, which led to a law suit for libel, by referring to an entirely unrelated matter as an indicator of her ‘character’, as though that could somehow excuse using public funds to ruin someone’s reputation and pay the associated legal costs. And then, of course, we had Gove himself calling for ‘Christian forgiveness’ for a man who donated £10 million (plus a currently unconfirmed extra £5 million) because he’d apologised. (The idea that ‘forgiveness’ is a ‘Christian’ trait and therefore implicitly not shared with those of a different persuasion is a pretty telling remark and might even be regarded an ‘extremist belief’ in itself.) They haven’t (not yet at least) gone as far as Trump who told his chief of staff that “Hitler did a lot of good things”, although he apparently didn’t spell out what they were. (Things like locking up or even executing political opponents, invading neighbouring countries which didn’t spend enough on defence, and taking what some might see as a ‘hard line’ on people that he didn’t really think were German would all fit the Trump playbook, but all that’s off the point here.)

Maybe it’s true that there are very few people who never did a good thing in their lives, and that we should consider the whole rather than just a part, but the question is one of balance. Which people should be shown forgiveness (whether Christian or not), and which should not? And for which sins? The very cynical might think that the de facto deciding factor is just how much help someone has given to the government or governing party in terms of cash donations or merely a platform to spout their ideas. The more common or garden cynic might see it as more generalised – those who promote the governing party’s ideas are allowed to get away with more than those who don’t. It doesn’t take a lot of observing to note that apologies by Tories seem to be assumed to carry more weight than apologies by members of other parties. Genuine atonement and contrition are – or should be – about more than a mumbled half-apology and a donation to Tory coffers. But there – I’m just showing the extent to which I’ve fallen for the extremist idea that people should, as a general rule, avoid hate speech in the first place rather than atone for it after the event.

Thursday 14 March 2024

Living dangerously

 

It was, apparently, Emo Philips, an American actor and comedian, who came up with the joke that, “When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realised that the Lord doesn't work that way so I stole one and asked Him to forgive me.” But it is the English Conservative and Unionist Party which has decided to adopt a variation on this approach when it comes to dealing with racism and misogyny. Instead of trying to eliminate racist language by Tories, their response to the outrageous (and, to date, undenied) remarks attributed to their biggest donor has amounted to saying that a rich Tory donor can say whatever he likes as long as he apologises afterwards. And pays the party enough money. It all seems a bit reminiscent of medieval popes selling indulgences.

The linguistic acrobatics being performed by those who want to keep hold of the tainted £10 million are a wonder to behold. The miscreant himself claims that there was no racist or sexist intent in the words used as though the words ‘black’ and ‘women’ were meaningless and added nothing to what he said. Then there’s the claim that he can’t be racist because he does business in Jamaica. On that simplistic basis, neither were the slave owners; they were simply businessmen trying to turn a penny or two. The suggestion by number 10 that his words were wrong, but he’s given an apology for ‘being rude’ and we should all just move on sit oddly against a background where the government is determined to ‘crack down’ on anyone who breaks the Conservative consensus about what it is to be British. It invites us to consider that being racist is an entirely acceptable part of their definition of British values as long as an insincere apology is issued later by anyone whose words somehow leak into the public domain.

The reluctance to part with £10 million, especially after it’s already been spent, is, I suppose, understandable for a party obsessed with the financial value of everything, but principled it is not. Faced with the obvious car crash which was coming his way the moment the words leaked out, Sunak had two political options open to him. The first was immediate condemnation, accompanied by the return of the cash. Decisive, even if untypical, action would have wrong-footed the opposition, but the story (as a source of political damage to the Tories) would have gone away after a few days. Sunak seems incapable of instant reaction, so his default option was the second. That is to delay reacting as long as possible, and then try to brazen it out in the belief that the news media would move on. Consciously choosing the second option inevitably brings a third option into play, but it’s one that politicians only ever fall into by accident. Starting out by trying to brazen it out and then buckling under pressure is the worst of all in political terms: not only does it look weak, unprincipled, and indecisive, it also concedes that the original decision was wrong and the opponents were right all along. And it looks at least possible that pressure from his own side from people who have a genuine and entirely legitimate fear of being brought down along with him may yet push him that way. Living dangerously may be a lifestyle choice for some, but for Sunak it’s entirely accidental.

Monday 11 March 2024

Officially unofficial

 

The reports over the weekend that Boris Johnson has been engaging in some ‘unofficial’ diplomacy by meeting the president of Venezuela raise a number of questions. The first, but probably least important, is who paid for the private jet to take him there and back? His spokesperson said that the travel was privately funded and that neither government contributed to the cost. That might be true (although we know from other recent news that the UK government is not averse to funnelling funds through third parties to disguise the source). The one thing of which we can be certain is that Johnson didn’t pay himself. He is a man who has achieved the minor financial miracle of earning ludicrous sums of money for doing very little, getting other people to pay for everything he wants, and still being perpetually broke.

A more significant question is how the meeting came to be arranged. I don’t know whether Johnson and Maduro had ever met before, but they don’t exactly look like the sort of bosom buddies who would pick up the phone and agree to meet for a conversation which ‘sources close to the former PM’ (according to the Sunday Times) described as “one-way traffic”, with Johnson laying down the law to Maduro. So who initiated the meeting between a busy head of state and a disgraced former PM with no role in foreign policy who just happened to be on holiday a mere 1,000km away? Was it Johnson: “Nicolás, old chum. Boris here. I happen to be staying in the Dominican Republic just up the road from you, and I have a private jet at my disposal for the day. Why don’t I nip down to give you a little lecture about democracy and your role in the world?”. And if that sounds unlikely, consider the alternative: “Boris, mi amigo. A little pájaro tells me that you are staying just an hour and a half away from here by plane. Why don’t you blag a private jet from one of your rich friends for the day and nip down to give me a little lecture on democracia?”. I don’t buy either.

And then we’re told that Lord Cameron of Chipping Bollocks didn’t know anything about it until Johnson texted him en route: “Dave, old boy. Boris here. Just flying down to Caracas to give that Maduro chappie an earful about his responsibilities to democracy and the world. Thought that the Foreign Secretary might want to know about it. Toodle-pip!” None of it adds up – it’s far more likely that there was some discussion at a diplomatic level to set up the meeting, implying that both governments are keen for a restoration of some sort of normality in relations. If Maduro really thought that Johnson had absolutely no status with the UK government, why on earth would he ever have agreed to meet him? He can’t have been expecting a friendly fireside chat. In short, this ‘unofficial’ visit looks about as unofficial as a tax demand from HMRC. And if Cameron really didn’t know about it sooner, then someone in his department has been freelancing big time.

But, if it was an official 'unofficial' visit, that brings us to the biggest question of all. Who, in his or her right mind, thought that it would be a good idea to entrust a disgraced former PM, who is also a compulsive liar with a predisposition to saying the first thing that comes into his head, with acting as the conduit for sensitive discussions with a foreign government? The chances of him accurately relaying the UK government’s position to Maduro, and then accurately relaying Maduro’s response to the UK government are not exactly high. He's much more likely to deliver an insult or three in the belief that it’s just banter and good humour. And whether Cameron knew about the visit in advance or not, is it credible that the current PM would not have known that his predecessor but one was being deployed on an ‘unofficial’ diplomatic mission of a certain delicacy? Jobs for failed ex-PMs is becoming a Sunak speciality. Next up? Theresa May as head of an initiative to welcome new citizens? Liz Truss as next head of the Office for Budget Responsibility? If he’s given up on all hope of turning things around, Sunak can at least spend the next few months having a laugh.