Monday 29 April 2024

Redefining the 'success' of he Rwanda policy


The Irish government and the UK government seem to be saying much the same thing about an increase in the number of asylum-seekers entering the Republic from the north of Ireland – that it’s somehow to do with fear of being sent to Rwanda. Reliably enough, the extreme Unionists in the north have a rather different explanation, which is that it’s the fault of the Republic for demanding an open border with the north; there’s nothing that they’d like more than to build a nice big wall across the island. Disregarding the latter group – it is another reliable factor in politics that the unionists have very special spectacles for looking at events – that rare unity of interpretation doesn’t seem to have much basis in hard fact, being based more on anecdotal evidence from a few individuals who have made the journey.

Sunak’s celebration of it as an indicator of the ‘success’ of his Rwanda policy is based on redefining what success looks like. From the outset, he’s been saying that success is all about ‘stopping the boats’; now he seems to be saying that the policy will still be a success if the boats keep coming, as long as all the passengers promptly decamp to the Irish Republic. A train ticket from Dover to Liverpool would at least be a great deal cheaper than a charter plane to Kigali, but I probably shouldn’t put ideas into their heads. The Irish government is planning emergency legislation to allow the arrivals to be deported back to the UK, although it’s not exactly clear how that might work, given that the UK government will presumably decline to accept people under such circumstances. And even if they did, the lack of border controls means that they can immediately get onto a ferry to Belfast and then return to the Republic. There would be a certain circular irony, though, in the idea that the threat of being deported to the UK would deter people from travelling to Eire.

In the meantime, the passing of the shameful Safety of Rwanda Act has led to the news that the government is to institute a major round-up of asylum-seekers across the UK, with the aim of placing thousands into detention awaiting a flight to Kigali. They could be held in detention for months, even if the government succeeds in getting flights off the ground in 10 -12 weeks time as they hope, despite the unlikelihood in practice. Assuming each aircraft has a capacity of 200 passengers (we don’t know yet what planes are to be chartered), and that each ‘passenger’ requires at least 2 border guards to restrain them, that would be a maximum of around 66 migrants per flight (in reality, the chance of filling flights, given the legal and practical processes involved, to say nothing of the risks of transporting a large number of reluctant passengers and the capacity of Rwanda to accept them, is small). If there were to be three flights per week, that’s a maximum of 200 deportees each week. With 2200 held in detention at any one time, the ‘standard’ waiting time in a detention facility rapidly grows from the initial 10-12 weeks for the first recipients of the government’s ‘compassion’ (© Rishi Sunak) to at least 21-23 weeks – or five months plus – for the last of the first 2200 to be rounded up, and at least three months for all those later detainees who fill the places as they empty.

Sunak and those around him clearly believe that millions of people will be motivated to vote Tory by the sight of Border Force guards roaming the streets, swooping on people, forcibly carting them off, and then placing them in detention centres for months where they are denied full legal representation, before forcibly carrying them in handcuffs onto planes to send them to a country which they have never visited and where they have no wish to live. It’s evocative of some of the worst aspects of past history, both in Europe in the last century and the earlier use of transportation (even those convicts transported to Australian penal colonies for trivial offences had some sort of formal trial first, however unfair that trial might have been) and is a long way removed from any understanding I’ve ever had of modern ‘British’ values. I really hope that they’re as wrong as they should be about the likely voter reaction.

Friday 26 April 2024

Turning the unthinkable into the inevitable


It was reported recently that the IMF expects Russian economic growth to be higher than that of all advanced economies this year. Despite all the sanctions imposed by ‘the West’ and the costs of the war in Ukraine the Russian economy is doing rather well. It helps, of course, that ‘the West’, including the UK, is effectively breaching those sanctions on a large scale both by continuing to buy Russian oil after it’s been processed elsewhere, and by selling manufactured goods to Russian allies which then pass them on to Russia. Sanctions may be well-intentioned, but the capitalist desire for profit is, as ever, finding ways of avoiding them in pursuit of its own interests.

But there’s more to it than that. One of the points noted by the IMF is that part of the growth is down to the very high levels of expenditure by the state. It’s not something that anyone who listened for a moment to the Labour-Tory financial consensus would expect. In the UK we are told, from the Labour-Tory shared ideological perspective, that state expenditure actually impedes economic growth and must be reduced in order to cut taxes and incentivise those paying less tax to invest in new capacity, even if it’s more likely in practice that the money will simply be transferred to offshore tax havens. But the empirical truth, as demonstrated by Russia, is that state expenditure can and does lead directly to economic growth, in some circumstances at least. It would be preferable – for the planet and most of humanity, even if not for capitalists and oligarchs – if that expenditure wasn’t on munitions. But ‘capitalists and oligarchs’ is a not insignificant caveat: in simple terms, war is good for capitalism. It helps address the problems of over-production by building large scale destruction into the economic mix. And it is almost always funded by the creation of new money by states, money which then flows into the pockets of those who own the means of production. Misery for the many leads to profit for the few.

It's part of the context for the announcement by Sunak this week that the UK will increase its expenditure on armaments to 2.5% of GDP over the remainder of the decade. Like anything Sunak says now, it’s not something that he expects to be around to deliver: making promises that he won’t have to keep costs nothing. In this case, though, it’s a promise which Labour seems keen to match, even if they caveat the timescale a little by talking about “as soon as resources allow”. There are, of course, multiple ways of achieving the stated objective. Causing a recession and reducing GDP whilst holding military expenditure at current levels would work mathematically, and I wouldn’t put it past either of them to be able to achieve that. Incompetent procurement – simply paying more for the same amount of munitions – is another; and that’s almost guaranteed, given the officially-admitted incompetent UK approach to military procurement. Purchasing armaments is not enough, though: capitalist logic requires not just their purchase, but their use and destruction so that more can be purchased, even if few will voice that sentiment aloud.

Let us suppose that, between Starmer and Sunak, they manage to sort out procurement, avoid recession, and increase military expenditure (probably by cutting expenditure elsewhere, given their joint commitment to the nonsense about balanced budgets), the question we should be asking is this: does that make war more likely or less likely?  History tells us that some wars are started entirely by design (even if the outcome is often not that which was expected) – such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine – whilst others happen more by accident. The politicians talk about ‘deterring’ enemies, but one person’s deterrent is another’s provocation; people who feel threatened can just as easily decide to get their retaliation in first rather than wait to be attacked. The danger is that talk of being in a ‘pre-war’ situation and needing to consider conscription makes a drift into war more, rather than less, likely. Individual steps which might each seem logical in themselves risk building into a disaster. They are leading us to the brink of a self-fulfilling prophecy with no obvious route back.

Thursday 25 April 2024

Post-imperial incomprehension


Posh Boy Cameron spends a lot of his time swanning around telling other countries what they must or must not do. Most recently, Israel and Iran have received the benefit of his wisdom and advice, and have particularly been urged to remain calm rather than fight each other. Whilst I can’t disagree with the sentiment that it would be better if armies and armed groups weren’t killing each other along with any civilians who happen to get in the way, or even look askance at the men with guns, I can’t help but wonder if he has the remotest idea of how such advice, coming from such a person, is likely to sound to those being advised.

It’s hard to deal with complex history in a few short sentences, but in essence, Israel is a state that was born from a terrorist campaign against the colonial power at the time – which was, of course, the British Empire. Iran’s status as a theocratic Islamic state came about as a result of a revolt against the then Shah, a monarch who gained absolute power after the democratic government was overthrown by the CIA and British-backed army in order to protect British oil interests in the country. And the successor state to the British Empire, namely the UK, has, like its predecessor, a long history of violent intervention in the wider region in pursuit of its own, largely economic, interests. In short, neither country has much reason to look back on past British actions in the region with what one might call fondness, let alone see it as some sort of role model.

The idea that a recycled Old Etonian has-been who somehow managed to accidentally lead his own country out of the world’s largest and most successful trading bloc is somehow the ideal person to act on behalf of the wider world in delivering desist messages to two former imperial possessions (or semi-possessions) would seem strange to anyone who isn’t suffering from Post Imperial Stress Disorder (PISD), with its associated requirement to give the impression of being a great power in a position to deliver instructions to lesser mortals. A category which includes all foreigners in general. He genuinely seems not to comprehend why his instructions to the natives are not being followed, but that incomprehension is just another symptom of the disorder.

Wednesday 24 April 2024

The Nuremberg Defence


Some lawyers are saying that any civil servants who assist the government in breaching international law (in this case, by ignoring injunctions from the European Court of Human Rights) will be personally liable for their actions. The PM has responded by saying that “civil servants will be expected to follow ministerial guidance” – even if that guidance is known to be unlawful. Presumably, he thinks that the civil servants, should they subsequently find themselves up before a judge somewhere or other, will use the defence that they were ‘only following orders’. The civil servants involved would be well advised to do a little research on what has become known as the ‘Nuremberg Defence’ before relying on it. History is not on the side of those who try it.

Notwithstanding Sunak’s talk of flights within 8 – 10 weeks, and even if they’re telling the truth (which, based on experience, seems unlikely) about having lined up an airport, some charter planes, sufficient trained security guards and a load of courts and judges, the chances of any actually taking off before an autumn election, let alone deterring anyone, still look pretty slim. Supposing that they do manage it, while Sunak seems to believe that film of planes taking off will excite his diminishing target group of voters it’s reasonable to wonder whether film of handcuffed refugees being forcibly carried onto aeroplanes will appeal to quite so many. No matter how hard they try (and they will) to prevent such footage becoming public, it’s doubtful that their efforts will be successful for long, or that the public reaction will be quite as positive as he hopes. Telling us that those involved are ‘only following orders’ isn’t likely to help.

Tuesday 23 April 2024

For St George and England?


It’s possible that the Guardian has got this story wrong, and that the words “in England” have inadvertently been omitted from the sentence “Keir Starmer has written to all of Labour’s general election candidates urging them to mark St George’s Day “with enthusiasm” and to “fly the flag” across the country”. The paper is not unknown for an occasional error, although they are generally more about spelling than facts. It’s also possible that the newspaper and/or Keir Starmer are intentionally referring only to England when they talk about ‘the country’, although failing to understand the difference between England and the UK is not exactly unheard of. But, coupled with this story – also from the Guardian – in which Starmer refers to his “pride and gratitude” at being English and is directly quoted as saying, “To be proudly English means to be proudly ourselves, to hold firm to our convictions and be able to speak our mind – and be civil when others speak theirs. No, Labour is the patriotic party now.”, it somehow seems more likely that we should take the words at face value. Labour is going full English nationalist, and unashamedly so.

Presumably, sone focus group or other has told them that it’s a good way of targeting voters in those parts of England that they need to win. Given Labour’s rock solid support in Wales, support which seems impervious to anything they do or say, it’s unlikely to make much of a difference here, however much some of us will react negatively to it. I can’t help but wonder, though, how even Labour’s general election candidates in Scotland (never mind the voters) will react to the apparent suggestion that they should be flying the flag of St George today.

Conflating ‘England’, ‘the country’, and ‘the UK’ isn’t unique to Labour, of course. It’s something which seems to come entirely naturally to English politicians of all stripes, and they seem incapable of understanding why anyone might object, or feel uncomfortable. Whilst institutions don’t exactly drive political instincts, they can and do reinforce them, and part of the problem is that Labour, like the Tories, cling to the pretence that it is rational and logical for Westminster to be simultaneously an English parliament and a UK parliament, and that the cabinet can be a mix of UK ministers, England-only ministers, and ministers who are sometimes responsible for the UK and sometimes only for England with a dividing line which is at best fuzzy. It’s no wonder their brains get addled. The logic of a devolved UK is that a clear distinction between English institutions and UK institutions would necessarily clarify the dividing lines in terms of powers, and create a political space in which English nationalism could play out.

If Starmer really wants to play the English patriotism card on the day of his country’s patron saint, he could argue for the establishment of an English parliament, and for consistency in terms of what is devolved to the constituent parts of the UK and what is not. He won’t, of course – doing so would be an admission that devolution is here to stay as a core part of the UK’s constitution. And that brings us back to the heart of the problem with all mention of any sort of federalism: it necessarily means letting go of the idea that ultimate power always resides in Westminster. For an English nationalist like Starmer, England must always remain the first, and the top dog, among unequals.

Monday 22 April 2024

More of a pong than a ping


In his unwise and inexplicable desperation to get on with demonstrating how stupid and unworkable his Rwanda policy is, Sunak has been blaming the Labour Party for his failure to get the measure through the House of Lords, despite the fact that, of the 790 members of the Lords, only 173 sit as Labour peers, whilst there are actually 278 Tories. As Sunak has demonstrated on previous occasions, his grasp of basic arithmetic is somewhat shaky at best. Faced with two three-digit numbers, he struggles to work out which is the higher – he probably can’t even count his accumulated millions, what with that number containing even more digits.

His argument that an appointed house should not attempt to subvert the will of an elected house has a degree of merit. Or, rather, it would have were it not for the fact that Sunak’s party has historically obstructed attempts at Lords reform, preferring (for reasons which escape me, although they might not be unrelated to the fact that, as a general rule, there is a natural Tory majority in the Lords, to say nothing of peerages being a convenient way of rewarding large donors) to keep the status quo. No-one who is so committed to retaining an unelected house as part of the UK parliamentary system can honestly complain if it very occasionally exercises the limited powers which it possesses. But then, I suppose the word ‘honestly’ is the most important part of that sentence. The process of shuttling the legislation back and fore between the two chambers is known as parliamentary ping pong, where the ‘ping’ part refers to the transmission of the document, and the ‘pong’ part presumably refers to the stench of hypocrisy.

Tonight, the process of pinging the legislation between the two chambers will resume, with the PM – after deliberately deciding to delay votes which could have taken place last week – making it clear that parliamentarians in both houses will be expected to stay on the premises to continue voting until the Lords back down, as everyone supposes they eventually will. In anticipation of his expected victory, Sunak is apparently holding a press conference this morning to warn peers that they must now yield to his will, although one of his ministers has said that he will also spell out quite how he intends to implement the legislation once it is passed. If getting the legislation accepted by both houses of parliament has been a fraught experience for the PM, trying to implement it looks like being even fraughter (and if there isn’t such a word, there certainly should be). With an election likely to be held in October, there’s only six months before he is turfed out. The chances of a single plane taking off in the meantime currently look remote. And the chances of it deterring anybody look even remoter.

Tuesday 16 April 2024

Tough talk isn't enough


The idea that something is a ‘deterrent’ is a regular refrain in politics and international affairs, from sentencing in the courts, through small boat arrivals to the threat of using nuclear weapons. Those in control of, or in a position to apply, the deterrent in question often have a blind faith that it will work, yet the evidence for deterrence as a principle is, at best limited. For any deterrent to work (i.e. to deter someone from taking some action or other) at least four things have to be true:

·        The would-be perpetrator has to believe that he or she will be identified and placed in a situation where the deterrent could be applied

·        Said perpetrator has to believe that the deterrent actually would then be applied in practice

·        He or she must also be convinced that the application of the deterrent would leave him or her in a worse position than they would have otherwise been in

·        He or she has to be in a sufficiently rational frame of mind to weigh up all of these factors before deciding whether or not to commit the act which is supposed to be deterred.

That final point is something of a deterrent-killer when it comes to crime. An awful lot of acquisitive crime is opportunistic rather than pre-planned, and a great deal of violent crime arises from an emotional response at the time of the crime. Even if those things weren’t true, the police forces charged with responding to those crimes are understaffed and under-resourced: for a large number of crimes, the chances of being caught are low. Preventing crime is something most of us want, but it isn’t the same thing as deterring crime, which is where Labour and Tory alike seem to concentrate their attention, instead of considering the causes. I’m sure that there was a political leader once who said something about being tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, even if he forgot the second part of that once elected.

If the government does manage to get its Rwanda Bill through parliament this week, it’s a policy which fails on at least two of the key criteria for deterrence. It doesn’t take a genius to calculate that if 40,000 people are arriving every year and the capacity for deporting them to Rwanda is somewhere between a few hundred and a thousand or so (even if they can find an airline prepared to carry them, accommodation in which to place them which hasn’t already been sold off, identify people who don’t fit into a category which will still allow some sort of legal challenge, and find enough people to accompany them – each deportee is likely to require at least two escorts to forcibly get them onto a plane and restrain them during the flight) then the probability of them actually being sent to Rwanda is somewhere between negligible and zero. And given the desperation which leads most of them to flee their home country, few are likely to see that remote possibility as being worse than the situation they are fleeing. A government which really wanted to reduce the levels of migration would be looking at the causes of that migration rather than simply punishing migrants. That isn’t the government we’ve got, nor is it the one we’re likely to have by the end of the year.

And then we come to nuclear deterrence, aka the expenditure of vast sums on weaponry that no rational person would ever use, but whose possession depends on an assumption that ‘the enemy’ is both irrational enough to want to use them and rational enough to be deterred from so doing, and that said enemy will, in turn, believe that ‘we’ are irrational enough to want to use them and rational enough to be deterred from so doing. Rational irrationality or irrational rationality: both sound like they’ve emerged from the troubled mind of Donald Rumsfeld. We are regularly told that the ‘evidence’ for the efficacy of the nuclear deterrent is that the Soviet Union/ Russia hasn’t attacked the NATO alliance. Whilst it’s true to say that they have not attacked NATO (and, come to that – and in the interests of balance – neither has NATO attacked them), the ‘proof’ that the possession of large armouries of nuclear weapons is the thing that has prevented it is distinctly lacking. And inevitably so – we only live history once, and the only way of categorically proving it would be to live history over again, changing just that one factor. I suspect that the reasons for a lack of war would be shown to be rather more complex than simple fear of one particular type of weapon. The one case where we can be fairly unequivocally certain that nuclear deterrence has ‘worked’ is Ukraine, where Russia’s vast arsenal, accompanied by a threat to use it, has effectively deterred the rest of the world from going to the aid of a country unlawfully invaded by a larger neighbour. That, however, makes nuclear weapons look more like a facilitator of aggression than a deterrent to war. To say nothing of an encouragement to proliferation. And even more recently, Israel’s nuclear weapons have demonstrably not ‘deterred’ Iran.

The thread running through all of this is an assumption that the best or only way of preventing that which is undesirable is to deter potential perpetrators from doing it. In all three cases, however, what is really needed is to address the underlying causes of those actions or potential actions. It’s harder to address the causes rather than the symptoms, but our ‘leaders’ prefer to talk tough and make macho threats than to be effective. In all three scenarios.

Monday 15 April 2024

Top priorities


One of the mantras often used in management training courses and business schools is that anyone who has more than three priorities effectively has no priorities at all. Whether ‘three’ is the right number, rather than, say, two or four, is a matter of opinion, but the key message is that setting too many priorities means that each of them gets insufficient attention to be meaningful. It’s one of the reasons for the problems in a large organisation like the NHS – management and staff have so many priority targets that it’s impossible to give appropriate focus to all of them. It’s a mistake that Starmer and Labour are apparently keen not to make, by being clear about their top priority.

Whether they’ve chosen the right priority to make number one for this week is another question, as is whether they’ve thought through the implications. Starmer told us on Friday that his absolute top priority is to increase spending on armaments and military personnel, including especially the renewal of the UK’s weapons of mass destruction. His words left little room for misinterpretation as to the meaning and their implication. If one policy is the number one priority, all other policies must, by definition, have a lower priority. If push comes to shove, weapons will have priority over the NHS (where we’ve already been told that there will be no new money without further use of the private sector reform), education, housing and reducing poverty and inequality. And threatening to massacre millions of citizens elsewhere (and although there are conflicting views on the matter, there are considerable doubts as to whether the UK even has the ability to use the weapons without US say-so) is more important than ensuring the wellbeing of citizens in the UK. Despite the fact that even some in the military have long doubted whether the possession of nuclear weapons is the most effective use of resources. Perhaps Starmer genuinely believes that having the means to incinerate millions of foreigners is more important than eliminating poverty at home. Perhaps he doesn’t believe that, but believes that he has to say that he does in order to win an election. It’s hard to decide which of those two possibilities is the most depressing.

Starmer’s statement has aroused the ire of many in his party who still cling forlornly to the notion that Labour is an internationalist party supporting solidarity amongst workers of all nations rather than an English nationalist party harking back to the days of empire and ruling the waves. It’s just wishful thinking. Starmer has made his choice, and been clear about it.

Or has he?

In February 2021, Labour’s top priority was ‘financial responsibility’, code for more austerity. In October 2023, there were five priorities, none of which related to defence or the military. In November 2023 Labour’s top priority in foreign policy (and defence is surely at least partly about foreign policy) was closer ties with the EU. In December 2023, the top priority was economic growth. Or maybe Wealth Creation. In January 2024, it was knife crime. I’m sure that I can half-remember other examples over the last couple of years as well. You pays your money and you takes your choice, as the saying goes: every audience will find that Labour has a number one priority tailored to its own desires. But if an organisation with more than three priorities effectively has none at all, where does that leave a man and a party with at least 10, and counting?

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.