Wednesday 31 January 2024

Belated truths


When I was working for an IT company, which shall remain nameless to protect the guilty, there was a long-standing lack of empathy between the sales force and those of us charged with delivering what had been sold. One of my colleagues explained it with a joke of sorts about a delivery manager and a sales manager trapped in a hut in the arctic. The delivery manager – the practical guy, of course – said that the first thing needed was food. “Right,” said the salesman, and ran out of the house in the direction of a passing polar bear whose attention he proceeded to attract. He then ran back to the hut and in through the door pursued by the bear, before running out of the back door shutting it tight behind him. “What are you doing?”, wailed the delivery guy through the window, now trapped indoors with a very angry, not to say hungry, polar bear. “I’ve caught it, it’s your job to cook it,” came the reply.

Leaving aside the obvious comment that it helps to explain why so many IT contracts – particularly in the public sector – go so badly wrong, it’s also an analogy for Brexit, as we saw today from staunch Brexiteer, Andrea Leadsom. She is, for once, absolutely right – breaking out of a trading block with a common set of rules in order to set a different set of rules will inevitably lead to greater trading friction, which will cause difficulties for those doing the trading. It was obvious to anyone who gave the matter more than a nanosecond of thought at the time, but is only happening now as all the temporary exclusions and exceptions come to an end. It's a trade-off between economics and the mysterious concept of 'sovereignty' which was always going to have to be made. It’s just that, in order to make the sale, they denied it vehemently at the time. It was always going to be someone else’s problem.

Monday 29 January 2024

Revisiting the predictions


A little over two years ago, I noted some comments on the Commission set up by the Welsh Government to consider the constitutional future of Wales, predicting the likely outcome. In the light of the report which the Commission has now produced, it’s worth reflecting how accurate or fair those predictions were. Some have stood the test of time rather better than others, and, on the whole, the report is rather better than I expected. Of the six points I noted at the time, points c, d, and e have been broadly reflected in the report. It’s (pleasantly) surprising to see such a clear rejection of the federal option, contrary to my expectation in point f. Federalism has always been a very silly idea, depending as it does on a completely absent desire for change within England, but it’s a dead horse that has been so well and truly flogged by some in the Labour Party that I assumed that a commission set up by Labour would give it more credibility than it ever deserved. Whilst the data presented certainly does reflect my prediction a, it’s impossible to argue with the data, and it isn’t used as an obstacle to independence in principle. Indeed, in declaring that independence is a viable option (depending on one’s values and priorities) the commission went much further than I expected it to. It is, though, point b of my original predictions (“Wales is, in any event, not strong enough economically to be an independent country”) on which I will concentrate.

It's definitely not what they said, although it’s strongly implied in the idea that there are more risks associated with independence than with other options. But the extent to which that is true is highly debateable. If Wales were to vote for independence tomorrow and become independent on Wednesday, then it is absolutely correct to argue that the risks would be very much higher than the risk of remaining in the status quo – and that would probably be true for some years to come. That isn’t, though, a realistic scenario. There will be no referendum on independence at least until there is a majority in the Senedd in favour of holding such a referendum – and that, sadly, is not looking at all likely for a minimum of two Senedd elections, taking us to an earliest date of 2031. There would probably be another year at least before holding a vote, giving us eight years for parties favouring independence to spell out more clearly the implications as they see them before we get to vote. Given the need to negotiate the details and set up a whole range of institutions and processes in Wales, the full transfer of powers wouldn’t happen for some time after the vote; to achieve a smooth transfer my own expectation would be a period of three to five years, making independence day sometime between 2035 and 2037 at the earliest. None of that does away with the risks of independence – of course there are risks – but it does mean that we need to compare those risks not with the status quo as it is today, but with wherever the status quo leaves us 11 or more years from today.

There is a natural human tendency to believe that the status quo will carry on for ever. It’s an implicit assumption that we all make on a daily basis in deciding what we’re going to do and when, even for planning some years ahead. But Newton’s First Law of Motion tells us that things will only stay the same for as long as no force acts on events, and that is a wholly unrealistic assumption. It’s not just pandemics and wars that change things; even on a more mundane level, who would seriously have predicted that government in the UK would degenerate into utter chaos and incompetence as quickly as it has since 2015, a mere eight years ago? Economic forecasts, like weather forecasts, are rarely correct very far in advance. My basic point is that the undoubted uncertainties and risks associated with independence may not be so quantitatively different from those associated with sticking to the status quo, even if they’re apparently easier to identify. I don’t doubt that opponents of independence will use the commission’s words about risks and uncertainties to justify their stance, but independentistas should not be afraid of highlighting the uncertainties and risks associated with not seeking independence. As the commission points out, ultimately it boils down to a question of values and priorities. And that’s a battlefield on which independentistas should feel very confident in fighting.

Friday 26 January 2024

The plan is working?


There is an old joke which says that Marxism is like looking for a black cat in a dark room; Marxism-Leninism is like looking for a black cat in a dark room, only there is no cat; and Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism is like looking for a black cat in a dark room, only there is no cat, but every now and then you shout “I’ve got it, I’ve got it”. It made me wonder whether, deep down, Rishi Sunak is some kind of Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist. He’s following a plan, only there is no plan, but every now and then he shouts, “It’s working, it’s working”.

He recently managed to accuse Labour not only of having no plan, but of voting against everything which his government did to reduce inflation. Given that his government took precisely no action to reduce inflation – in fairness, there was no action it could have taken, since inflation caused by outside shock is outside the control of the government and it was always going to come down again in the end anyway – the idea that Labour could have voted against that action is another of those post-factual elements of modern politics largely imported from the US.

Indeed, most things that happen in the US eventually seem to get repeated here, and that made me wonder if Sunak isn’t missing a trick. To date, Trump has been charged with 91 crimes, and it only seems to send his poll ratings up. And they’re proper crimes too – insurrection, improper retention of top secret documents, fraud and so on. The best poor Rishi has been able to manage is a fine for attending a birthday party and another for undoing his seatbelt in a moving car. The man’s a rank amateur compared to Trump. If he really wants to win, he should start committing some serious crimes. Or maybe he (through an anonymous intermediary known only to the BBC, Sky News and half of Fleet Street, of course) should just encourage the Met to take a closer look at those which might already have been committed, such as the PPE contract awards, or the way in which his wife’s companies seem able to benefit from government policies. Even if he is acquitted, merely being charged with doing something might help his poll ratings, if US experience is anything to go by. ‘Promoting Great British Crime’ – now there’s a catchy slogan to stand on. Much better than repeating ‘The Plan is working’ ad nauseam.

Thursday 25 January 2024

The war drums are beating


The military mind is a strange beast, even if the phrase is not quite as much of an oxymoron as military intelligence. Perhaps it’s a necessary qualification for the job, but the top echelons of the military – and this seems to be common to most countries – start from an assumption that the ‘enemy’ (and there is always an ‘enemy’, whether real or supposed) is just waiting for an opportunity to invade and seize territory and resources. In order to prevent and deter that, we must devote an ever-increasing proportion of the world’s resources and wealth into weapons of destruction, and be prepared at a moment’s notice to fight.

The paranoia has been working overtime recently, with dire warnings about the need to reintroduce conscription, talk of putting the economy on a war footing, and even demands for the government to issue guidance on how to survive an all-out nuclear exchange. The UK is not actually at war yet, although Sunak’s euphemistic hints about a “sustained campaign” in Yemen have a certain resonance with Putin’s “special military operation” as a way of avoiding the word ‘war’. I tend to favour the duck test when it comes to deciding what is or is not a war, although I’m conscious that those killed as a result of military action were probably not overly bothered about the distinction anyway.

There are a number of possible reasons why someone might want to launch an attack on the UK, but war isn’t always about territory and resources. Insanity is under-rated as a cause of war, but must surely be a factor in the ‘thinking’ of anyone who can seriously contemplate an all-out nuclear exchange. Strange ideas about what constitutes a nation and the desire to impose a nationality on people certainly seem to have been a factor in Putin’s attack on Ukraine, although he really doesn’t seem to have given much thought as to how Russian identity could be effectively imposed on 44 million Ukrainians, especially given the differences between the twenty-first century and the time of the Tsars. On the other hand, if you ‘know’ that all Ukrainians are really Russians anyway, just waiting to be liberated, maybe you don’t need such a plan.

Probably one of the biggest potential causes of mass conflict in current times is a belief that the ‘other side’ is about to invade ‘us’. That is, of course, precisely the justification being used by NATO countries to drive military expansion and locate troops and equipment along the Russian border in response to perceived threats from Russia. But, and without wishing to create any sort of false equivalence, is it really wholly unreasonable for Putin to see such a build-up as an indication that NATO might be preparing to invade Russia? I don’t believe that NATO has any such intention, by the way (its leaders surely can’t be quite that mad) but it’s the perception which is important here, not the fact. “Use it before you lose it” is a powerful motive for getting your retaliation in first.

The political mind, like the military mind, seems to see the large scale use of high explosives as the answer to all conflicts, despite the overwhelming evidence in recent decades to the contrary. But, as the saying goes, if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The question is how we can de-escalate from an increasingly dangerous situation. There are no easy answers – and probably no answers at all if the underlying problem is that many of the actors are simply not rational. It’s said that generals always fight the last war, and that might well turn out to be true in some respects. One of those relates to conscription; whilst the patriotic fervour at the commencement of the first World War meant that it was two years before conscription became necessary in the UK, the probability of a repeat lives only in the minds of the deluded. And the successful implementation of a conscription programme to fight in a massive land war looks dubious not just in the UK, but in much of Europe. Conscripts on both sides have more interests in common with each other than they do with those sending them into battle, and modern communications technology makes them more likely to realise that than they were at the time of the last two large-scale European conflicts. That ought to be a reason for optimism, but the danger is that it makes the early use of weapons of mass destruction more likely. The times we live in are dangerous – and the UK government and military seem bent on making themselves part of the problem rather than the solution.

Tuesday 23 January 2024

Chaos and normality


According to the last person but one to become a disgraced former PM of the UK, what the world really needs is another four years of a Trump presidency in America. For context, and to help establish the degree of credibility which his words should be accorded, it’s worth noting that he almost certainly also believes that the UK needs another decade or two under his own leadership, although he didn’t actually say that on this occasion.

His logic, to the extent that the word can ever be applied to any of Johnson’s utterances, is that he simply doesn’t believe that Trump will do what he says he will do. In itself, given Trump’s somewhat loose relationship with truth, that’s not a wholly unreasonable assumption; and given Johnson’s own passing acquaintance with the truth, it’s easy enough to see how he might believe that saying one thing to get elected and then doing the opposite is an entirely normal political process. The problem, though, is that he is assuming that, in departing from what he says on the campaign trail, Trump will back down rather than double down. Nothing, so it is said, is impossible, although the idea of a truthful statement emerging from the mouth of either Trump or Johnson might come pretty close to that.

Johnson’s faith in the idea that Trump will agree a trade deal with the UK which favours anyone except the USA at the same time as launching a trade war with the EU may be touching, but it is surely the stuff of fantasy. The only thing that we can prophesy with any degree of confidence about a second Trump presidency is four years of chaos. And given his reluctance to leave office last time, coupled with his disregard for the law and determination to take virtually absolute power to himself, there’s no certainty that it would only last four years either. Still, I suppose ‘chaos’ is what Johnson would regard as normality.

Monday 22 January 2024

Less believable than fiction


Older readers may remember the popular radio series “The Men from the Ministry”, which aired between 1962 and 1977; it was a sort of radio precursor of “Yes, Minister”. In one episode, a civil servant told his boss that they’d received a request from another department to borrow the ‘Permission Refused’ stamp and asked what he should do about it. The answer, of course, was “Stamp it 'Permission Refused' and tell them we haven’t got one”.

It was on the edge of the believable, unlike the story last week about the real-life Home Office in 2023. It seems that, in the PM’s haste to claim that the asylum backlog has been cleared, one part of the Home Office has simply deleted all asylum claims from people who it can no longer trace. Another part of the Home Office is then visiting those people in the Home Office provided accommodation where they are staying and serving them eviction notices on the grounds that they have absconded and can no longer be contacted. It’s life imitating art, but I doubt that such a story would ever have got past the script editors of that radio programme. They preferred to keep their stories almost believable.

Friday 19 January 2024

Magic cure-alls


There is a time in the history of these islands which the English, in particular, like to refer to as the Dark Ages, a time when the culture and practices of the Angles, Saxons, Jutes etc gradually displaced those of the Romanised Celts and much learning was lost. Seen from the perspective of those who lived in what the same people like to refer to as the ‘Celtic fringes’, and most especially Ireland, those ages were not as dark as they have been painted by those who relate the Anglo-centric history of the British Isles. But, whatever we call that period, medical practice at the time often resorted to a single ‘cure’. Whatever the ailment, the answer was invariably a course of blood-letting by the application of leeches.

We generally like to think that we’ve moved on from those simplistic times, and have a more sophisticated approach to medicine, but vestiges of that approach still linger when it comes to economics, particularly in the Tory Party. For economic conservatives (and the small ‘c’ is deliberate, since this particular affliction infects the Labour Party as well as the Tories, and is not entirely unknown in other parties either), the solution to all problems is tax cuts. If the economy is doing well, then the government can afford to cut taxes; if it is doing badly, then it will be improved by cutting taxes. There is, in fact, no combination of economic circumstances in which cutting tax is not the solution (even if they can’t fully define the problem – although that lack of definition never worried the purveyors of leeches either). They can’t justify or explain how the cure works, it boils down to an assumption that if you only believe something strongly enough, then it will become true. As I recall, it’s an approach which worked for Tinkerbell in the pantomime, but I’ve yet to encounter any real life evidence of its efficacy. It reminds me a bit of that other pointless debate, which may or may not have happened during medieval times, about the number of angels who could dance on the head of a pin.

Cutting taxes isn’t necessarily what they actually do, of course; it’s more about what they say they’re doing or going to do. It’s not easy to achieve record levels of taxation whilst actually cutting taxes, although no-one would understand that from listening to what Sunak et al repeatedly claim is happening. It’s more of a theoretical treatment than an actual one. I guess that means that we have moved on in some ways at least: there were probably more than a few medieval patients who ended up wishing that the application of leeches was as theoretical as a modern-day Tory tax cut.

Doctor Hunt was at it again yesterday, prescribing a course of theoretical tax cuts which he will announce later this year mostly to take effect after he’s been voted out of office, at which point any Tories left après le déluge will feel free to criticise Labour either for letting down the patients by not implementing them, or else for letting down the patients by recklessly implementing a policy which they know to be utter folly. Given the reaction of Labour in saying that they’ll support any tax cuts in the budget as long as they don’t break Labour’s entirely arbitrary fiscal rule (which, at a guess, means that they’ll also support the spending cuts needed to pay for the tax cuts), it’s more likely to be the latter. And that other well-known panacea, austerity, worked so well last time round.

Thursday 18 January 2024

Giggling as a deterrent


What’s in a word? In one of the most powerful and memorable political speeches of my lifetime – perhaps of all time – a true giant of politics told us, “I have a dream”. Today, in perhaps the most forgettable of a series of eminently unmemorable press conferences, a tetchy and soon-to-be-forgotten politician told us, multiple times, “I have a plan”. Articulating the detail of the plan, beyond putting the entire effort of the government machine into sending a tiny number of people to Rwanda whether doing so is lawful or not, has, once again, eluded him. His ‘plan’, such as it is, is so badly flawed that it would never have passed were it not for the support of those who went to such lengths to make it clear that they already know that it will fail.

He now fears that the unelected House of Lords, an institution which has always been known as a bastion of traditional conservatism which is why the Tory Party has long resisted reform (even if they're not all Conservatives in the party political sense), might actually act in accordance with those traditional values and defend the rule of law. The result is that he has been reduced to begging those conservatives to follow him by ditching all that they have previously believed and capitulating to the lawless right of his party. He seems blissfully unaware of the fact that at least some of those ‘loyal’ MPs who did not rebel over the last two days of debate voted for the final bill with a degree of confidence that it would be well and truly mauled by their lordships with no need for said MPs to put their own heads above the parapet. Cowardice comes in many forms.

Yesterday’s events also revealed that there is a secret weapon which can deter at least some of the extreme right-wingers who have so successfully cowed Sunak into submission. Giggling. It seems that one of the self-styled leaders of the revolt backed down at the last moment because Labour MPs were giggling and taking the mick as the over-hyped rebellion turned into an impressive demonstration of the willingness of Tories to vote in favour of that which they had so vigorously opposed just hours previously. The only question is ‘who’s weapon is it?’. Whilst Starmer’s ridicule of Sunak earlier in the afternoon proved to be effective against the PM, Labour’s fit of the giggles seems to have worked to Sunak’s advantage. Perhaps he should ask Starmer to organise more of the same the next time the certifiable tendency of his party - a much more accurate description than the rather grandiose and self-important, 'five families' - threatens a revolt.

Wednesday 17 January 2024

Following the people's priorities


“How will you pay for it?” is one of those standard questions asked of opposition politicians whenever they propose a different policy to that being pursued by the government. For reasons which have been discussed here previously, it’s actually a very silly question, depending on the assumption that government finances are like those of a household, but it’s a question which is effectively deployed not just by government politicians, but by supportive – or merely lazy – journalists who either don’t want or else can’t be bothered to delve more deeply into the question.

It’s not a question which has been much asked about the vast amounts of military aid being sent to Ukraine, despite the fact that none of that aid was ever budgeted for at the time it started to be sent. It’s not a question which has been much asked about the strikes on Yemen, where millions of pounds’ worth of ordinance has been expended on trying to take out a few cheap drones. And whilst ‘the cost’ is apparently an entirely valid obstacle, in Tory eyes, to expanding the membership of the Senedd, it’s not an issue which seems even to have been raised about the government’s plan to appoint an extra 150 judges to deal with the surge in immigration cases. Although, interestingly enough, when the Tories told us what Wales needed more than more politicians, they only referred to  "…more doctors, dentists, nurses and teachers…". No mention of judges there.

Given the backlog of criminal cases, it’s hard to disagree with the government’s conclusion that we need more courtrooms and more judges to hear cases, but for those waiting for cases against those who have burgled or assaulted them, giving priority to the surge in immigration cases in an attempt to deport a tiny number of people to Rwanda buy off opponents within the Tory Party may not be a precise match with their own priorities. It turns out, however, that even if the government do fund more judges, and even if the processes for recruiting them can be sped up from the normal glacial pace of such matters, the government have no power to direct which cases they will hear. That, it seems, is a matter for the Lady Chief Justice, who takes a dim view of the government trying to tell her what to do. (On the other hand, judges taking a dim view of their actions is hardly a new experience for the current government, for whom abiding by the law is not considered to be something about which they need to worry themselves unduly.)

Still, it means that Sunak might actually achieve something he’s always boasting inaccurately about. If he finds the money, and if the judges are recruited, and if the Lady Chief Justice deploys them as she sees fit rather than as the government might wish, it might actually help to reduce the backlog of criminal cases. In which case, Sunak would, indeed, be acting in line with ‘the priorities of the British people’. Even if it’s by accident.

Friday 12 January 2024

Equality and equity are not the same thing


This week’s speech by Plaid leader Rhun ap Iorwerth has been presented by some as a move “…away from the emphasis on future independence that became predominant during the leadership of his predecessor”. Maybe; at first reading the words certainly give the impression of a leader and a party determined to improve the position of Wales within current structures rather than one committed to changing those structures. However, given that two of the five points in the plan ('Scrap the Barnett formula and enshrine into law an Economic Fairness (Wales) Bill to rebalance the wealth of the UK'; and 'Give Wales the ability to set its own tax bands and rates') depend completely on legislation at Westminster which Plaid acting alone has no hope whatsoever of delivering, and which neither potential future UK government shows any inclination to deliver, it sounds like a way of emphasising the weakness of devolution as much as working within its constraints. And what is that, if not an argument for independence?

Whatever, there was nothing with which I could disagree in four of the five points. However, the fourth point of the five point plan concerned me rather more. “Bring forward legislation that ensures an equal share of public spending across Wales” is entirely within the powers of the Senedd (at least, insofar as it relates to Welsh Government expenditure – UK expenditure is, again, outside of that remit), but is potentially something of a double-edged sword. There is – in the speech as reported at least – a certain lack of detail. Is this to be based on spending per head (in which case, the lion’s share will inevitably continue to go to the south east)? Over what time period would it apply – per annum, per decade? If it’s tied to annual spending, that’s a major obstacle to large localised projects.

And what about the entirely valid critique of the Barnett formula (that it doesn’t take account of need): isn’t there a danger here of replicating that approach within Wales? Perhaps the intention is to talk about an ‘equitable’ share of spending rather than an ‘equal’ share. It’s a harder concept to explain, and it isn’t such a simple sound bite, but it is what Wales actually needs. Given the historic under-investment in parts of the country, any attempt at ‘levelling up’ necessarily requires a deliberately unequal pattern of spending if cash is to be directed at the areas of lowest GDP per head, for instance. It is, of course, precisely that requirement (to redirect spending from the wealthiest areas to the poorest) which has been the rock on which the Tory government’s commitment to ‘levelling up’ has foundered. It might have gone down well in the so-called ‘red wall’, but it went down badly in Tunbridge Wells. In Welsh terms, diverting resources to Gwynedd might go down well in the north and maybe not so well in Cardiff, but that's not a good enough reason not to do it.

It is not enough to talk – as Labour in England are doing, for instance – about ‘growth’ as the magic ingredient which resolves the problem. A rising tide, as the saying goes, does indeed lift all boats, but it doesn’t change the relative size of those boats. An uneven distribution of wealth and opportunity is never going to be solved by increasing the levels of wealth and opportunity for everyone; that requires a redistributive element as well. There is plenty of scope within the other four points of the plan for there to be a plan for redistribution across Wales; but a target of ‘equalising’ spending will undermine that. We need equity, not equality.

Thursday 11 January 2024

Pursuing justice and fairness


As others have pointed out, the furore over the Post Office Horizon scandal has demonstrated that government can act quickly (well, comparatively quickly – even now they’re talking of passing an act of parliament ‘by the end of the year’) when the level of outrage reaches a sufficient level. What it has also demonstrated – to rather less attention – is the converse: if the outrage does not reach a sufficient level, then the default position (regardless of the colour of the government) is to drag feet, obfuscate, and hope that the issue goes away when the campaigners get fed up or die waiting for action. Of course no two scandals are the same. They all differ in scale and impact. But Horizon is not the only long-running scandal where people have lost their financial security – closer to home, one which immediately comes to mind is the Allied Steel and Wire Pensions case, where those affected have run a persistent campaign for years, including regular letters in the columns of the Western Mail. And, no matter the nature of the differences, an injustice is an injustice.

It raises the question about what level of outrage is ‘sufficient’ to make government act. Clearly an effective drama-documentary helps a great deal, as does unfavourable coverage of politicians in the media, particularly the media usually regarded as supportive. Being in an election year is another advantage, as is the fact that those affected are spread across the UK impacting many constituencies, not just a few in what looks to London like far-away Cardiff. But one of the measures that politicians use to judge the extent of what they like to call ‘cut-through’ is the size of their postbag on an issue. It is a remarkably unsophisticated and misleading measurement, however. As an example of its use as a measure (not related to an injustice in this case), I seem to remember Mark Drakeford saying recently that whilst he received a large volume of correspondence in the immediate aftermath of introducing the 20mph speed limits, that had now dropped off, with the implicit suggestion that people were now accepting the change. Now, as it happens, I agree with the new limits (although the government could and should have done more to persuade and inform people in advance), but leaving that aside, let’s consider the proposition that reducing postbags reflect reducing concern. I may be willing to write an occasional cross letter to a minister, elected member, local authority, or even newspaper, but most people are not. Social media makes it easier to sign petitions, but it’s still, generally, a minority sport. Inevitably, the number of letters received will peak at some point, usually immediately after the proposal receives attention and/or gets implemented. But (unless the same people keep on writing, in which case they’ll get labelled as persistent complainers), once people have signed the petition, or written their cross letter, there is an inevitability about a decline in the number of complaints which is nothing to do with increased acceptance of the situation, whatever that might be.

Even more important than assessing whether the level of outrage is sufficient to provoke action is the wider question about whether action should depend on the level of outrage in the first place. An injustice doesn’t cease to be one just because the affected individual is the only one raising it. For sure, some MPs and MSs are quite good at pursuing matters on behalf of constituents, but many are not, especially if the number affected is low and there are no good photo-ops available. Or their seat is a safe one. Should we, in any event, really be dependent on individual elected members to provide such a service? After all, it isn’t really what legislators are elected for – the clue is in the word. We have a plethora of ombudspersons for various bodies and sectors, but they are not always easily accessible, and seem to work at an incredibly slow pace. There is a gap which Citizens Advice Bureaux attempt to fill, but should we really be dependent either on volunteers/charities or political figures and their staff to act as tribunes for citizens? Politicians frequently talk about ‘holding people to account’, but there should be more to that than public criticism after the event. The Post Office scandal underlines that we haven’t got it right yet. It’s still far too difficult for individuals to ensure that they are treated justly and fairly.

Monday 8 January 2024

Square one sounds like a good place to start


As long as you’re only playing Snakes and Ladders, being returned to square one is indubitably a bad thing. Real life is rather more complicated; for anyone who feels that they were happier and/or better off when they were on square one, being returned there is potentially an attractive proposition.

In his latest attempt to convince the rest of us that letting him carry on would be better than allowing Keir Starmer a turn, the PM has today said that, “The choice is whether we stick with the plan that is starting to deliver the long-term change our country needs, or go back to square one with the Labour party”, as though Starmer is some sort of Pol Pot, determined to drag us back to year zero. In truth, the idea of a year zero seems to have more in common with the swivel-eyed tendency in the Tory Party than with Keir Starmer. And it probably comes in pints.

Sunak doesn’t actually define where square one is, but anybody reading his words would be entirely reasonable in believing that he is referring to the time before the Tories came to power in 2010. The problem with his statement is that most of us felt better off then than we do now. Whilst it wasn’t exactly heaven on earth, most public services worked better than they do today, and most of us were more financially secure than we are today. And no-one has to take my word for that; at least some Tory MPs are saying exactly the same thing. Here, for instance, is Danny Kruger: “The narrative that the public has now firmly adopted – that over 13 years things have got worse – is one we just have to acknowledge and admit.”

A return to square one has a lot going for it. If there were any truth in what Sunak said, then he has just done a good selling job on behalf of Starmer and the Labour Party. The problem, though, is that (as ever) what Sunak says makes little or no sense and bears little relationship to the truth. Just about the one thing that Starmer has never promised (so, in fairness, it’s at least one promise on which he hasn’t reneged so far) is a return to how things were; everything he says is predicated on an assumption that current levels of government expenditure are all that can be delivered, and that there is no room for a return to the days when health and other public expenditure were boosted year on year.

In truth, even the bit in Sunak’s comments saying that the choice is “…whether we stick with the plan…” or not is a lie. It’s not a choice that Labour are presenting. The very best that Starmer is offering is to deliver that plan (insofar as it can even be dignified with that title) with a degree of competence and integrity which has thus far eluded the Tories. Maybe competent austerity is better in some unexplained way than incompetent austerity, and integrity is certainly an under-rated commodity; but a transformational programme it ain’t. And it offers no hope of a return to what almost looks like an idyllic square one after the last 13 years. Starmer seems to be Sunak’s greatest asset, even if he doesn’t really understand how to exploit it.

Friday 5 January 2024

Weird mathematics and losing the plot


When he says that the Rwanda Bill will “get the job {of stopping the boats} done”, Lord Cameron may just be saying what he knows that he has to say in order to display loyalty to the PM and keep his job. Unprincipled and cowardly, for sure – but we already knew that about him anyway. Alternatively, he may even believe what he says, which would merely make him too stupid to hold high office. But I think we already knew that too. There is no explanation for his words which is going to leave him looking good, but that, again, is hardly something new. The only reason that he isn’t widely known as the worst UK PM ever is the four who have followed him in the job.

Back in the real world, whilst we don’t know exactly how much capacity Rwanda has for taking asylum-seekers from the UK, all the reports suggest that the total is in the low hundreds annually. Even if we assume that the reduction to around 30,000 last year in the numbers arriving by small boats is a ‘real’ reduction rather than largely a product of weather conditions, knowing that a maximum of around 1% are likely to be sent to Rwanda seems unlikely to be the all-powerful deterrent as which the government present it. Not for those who have a basic understanding of arithmetic anyway – which is a considerably higher proportion of asylum-seekers than it is of government ministers. And, to the apparent surprise of those ministers, many of the asylum-seekers can and do read news reports which suggest that more than 80% of them are likely to be granted asylum status eventually, whilst the Home Office will simply (and conveniently, if the objective is to reduce the numbers) lose track of many of the remainder, who will quietly disappear into the UK’s black economy. Unless they're planning detention camps on a large scale. Working out whether ‘80% plus’ is a higher number than ‘less than 1%’ isn’t exactly what my maths teacher used to call a ‘hard sum’ for most of us, but government ministers are clearly trained in some form of alternative mathematics. Presumably to complement the alternative facts which they brandish so readily.

Meanwhile, Farage’s limited company, pretending to be a political party called Reform, has come up with the suggestion that the answer to controlling the numbers of immigrants is to impose a policy of “one in, one out”, under which no-one would be allowed into the UK until after someone else has left. The implications for care and health services, to say nothing of fruit-picking, are not spelled out, but it wouldn’t be at all surprising if the ‘success’ of this policy depended on an approach similar to that outlined by the Deputy Chair of the Tory Party a few years ago: rounding up those declared to be a nuisance, putting them in tents and forcing them to harvest vegetables and fruit. Others have suggested that pensioners should be obliged to do community or care work, or else lose part of their pensions. Directed or forced labour coupled with detention camps would seem to be the logical conclusion of the policy, but given past history the reluctance to say so is understandable.

Some Tories have suggested that, rather than allowing immigrants to fill job vacancies, the government should be encouraging people to have larger families to provide a future source of labour. Leaving aside any sustainability considerations surrounding population increases, to say nothing of the minor inconvenience that there is at least a 20-year lead time on this approach to solving labour shortages, it does nothing to answer the basic problem – as repeatedly outlined by the government – that immigration is leading to a shortage of houses, places in schools and health facilities. Whether the population increases because of migration or an increasing birth rate is irrelevant – an increase in population requires more facilities. And that is the lie at the heart of the anti-migrant rhetoric: it isn’t migration which causes the shortage, but government failure to plan for and provide the resources to match the needs of a growing population. Blaming migrants is just misdirection.

Perhaps Sunak has some polling data which hasn’t been made more widely available; maybe there really is a large number of people who will suddenly return to the Tory fold if they can see a tiny number of migrants being manhandled in chains onto aircraft destined for Central Africa. But it doesn’t seem to match publicly available data. And pinning so many of his hopes on a policy which seems destined to fail, even if it doesn’t destroy his own party first, looks like the action of a man who has completely lost the plot.

Tuesday 2 January 2024

Drowning slowly rather than quickly


There was a time in UK politics when a report that Rishi Sunak was consulting Dominic Cummings about how to win the next election would have been treated as some sort of joke. It appears, though, to be true, and some of his own people are worried that Sunak could even have considered the possibility of bringing back so toxic an individual. What struck me, however, was the sheer arrogance of a man who seems to have convinced himself that he is such an expert in electioneering that he can take the wreck of a party – a wreck which he himself did so much to bring about – and turn it, in a few short months, into a party which can present itself as a credible future government. That, and the gullibility of a PM who seems to have swallowed the same idea hook, line, and sinker. Perhaps the PM can be excused, to an extent, for displaying classic symptoms of ‘drowning man syndrome’, although that merely serves to underline the point that many others have made, which is that he’s a politician who simply isn’t very good at politics.

We may never know the full details of the conversation; or rather, we may be left trying to judge which of the two men’s stories is most likely to bear a passing resemblance to truth. It is, of course, possible that Cummings knows a bullet when he sees one heading in his direction, and is secretly delighted to have had enough of a reason to say ‘no’ to Sunak and thereby avoid having to demonstrate his mastery of the impossible, although there’s nothing in his words which suggests such a degree of self-awareness, let alone any understanding of the depth of the problems which he did so much to help create. As for Sunak, he surely ought to have realised from Cummings’ statements and behaviours in the past that the idea that he could have a secret meeting where such matters were discussed without Cummings revealing enough of his own version of the event to act as self-justification and self-aggrandisement was the stuff of fantasy. But then again, ‘not very good at politics’ is not a description which has been used lightly.

In a way, I’m almost disappointed at the outcome. As long as there remains a chance that Starmer will somehow manage to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory (something which he seems, at times, to be doing his very best to achieve), an election upset remains a possibility. Cummings’ ‘assistance’ would have made for an interesting spectator sport; and allowing him to finish the demolition job on the Tory Party which he has done so well to date would have finished him off, as well as the party. Two birds with one stone, as it were. Sunak will just have to continue drowning slowly by his own efforts instead.