Saturday, 23 September 2017

Recognising where the power lies

Some political commentators have interpreted the Prime Minister’s Florence speech as an attempt to go over the head of Michel Barnier, the EU’s Chief Negotiator, and appeal directly to the governments of the other member states.  Since the latter are the people who collectively set the negotiating brief, that would not be an entirely misdirected strategy – the people who set the strategy are the only ones who can change it.  Whether it will be successful or not is another question; past attempts to deal directly with individual member states have been seen as an attempt to undermine the unity of the 27, and been given short shrift as a result.
But hold on a minute – I’m sure that the Brexiteers told us that one of the reasons that we needed to leave was because member states were subservient to the ‘unelected Brussels bureaucrats’ and couldn’t influence the direction of the EU.  That couldn’t possibly have been another porky, could it?

Friday, 22 September 2017

A day out in Florence

The UK Prime Minister is off to Florence today to give her important speech on Brexit, so important that negotiations were put on hold for a week to wait for her pearls of wisdom.  The EU negotiators have said that they will pay careful attention to what she has to say, although they’ve also said that they won’t actually be present when she gives the speech.
That declaration raised another question in my mind – who exactly will be there to listen to her?  When the speech was first mentioned, I had assumed that she had been invited by some organisation or other to go to Florence and that she had decided to use the opportunity to put forward her views on Brexit.  It seems that I was being too kind to her – it is becoming increasingly obvious that holding the event in Florence is little more than a political stunt.  Not only is the speaker being flown in for the event, but so is the audience – largely cabinet ministers and journalists.  Am I the only one who finds it a little strange that a Prime Minister should drag cabinet ministers halfway across Europe so that they can smile, nod, and clap in all the right places as she tells them publicly what she’s already told them in Cabinet?
This is the expenditure of our money by the government to organise a jolly to Florence for an event which could equally well (and far more cheaply) have been organised in London, but is going to Florence to add a sense of drama and import to the event.  Perhaps they believe that journalists whose employers will be paying their expenses for a few days in Florence – conveniently just before the weekend, should they wish to extend their stay – will be minded to provide better coverage as a result.
According to the hype, the speech will make an offer to the EU side in an attempt to move the negotiations – currently going nowhere fast – along a little.  But if that’s the aim, it’s megaphone diplomacy.  If she has an offer to make, why not make it directly to the EU negotiators at the talks which were scheduled anyway rather than delay those talks to make it publicly at an event where the claimed target audience isn’t even going to be present?  The answer is, in all probability, that the real target audience for this speech isn’t the EU27 at all – it’s for a domestic audience.  Hard reality is starting to bite; the UK needs to give ground in a number of areas, and ‘leaving’ is starting to look more and more like ‘remaining’, in the short term at least.  The drama and build-up to this event is all about trying to carry the leavers in a direction which they’re not going to like, and trying to give the impression that the UK is driving events rather than having to respond to those horrid European types.
Whether it works or not depends on the degree of cooperation by the journalists - and the gullibility of the electorate.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Brexit Masterchef

Yesterday, the former chief of the Vote Leave campaign told us that triggering Article 50 to leave the EU was an “historic, unforgivable blunder”.  Strong words, but they don’t necessarily mean that he’s completely changed his mind about leaving the EU at all (although some of his comments suggest that he’s never been entirely convinced about Brexit).  It’s more a criticism of the approach adopted, and particularly of the way that the government has plunged into the process without having a plan or knowing what it wants the end result to be.  He’s not the only one in the leave camp who has expressed such doubts.
The problem with that analysis is that the Prime Minister really does seem to believe that the government is working to an agreed plan.  In response to the latest statements by Boris Johnson, she told us yesterday that “We are all agreed as a Government about the importance of ensuring that we get the right deal for Brexit”.  It’s a statement that I can believe, but it’s wholly inadequate if they don’t have any sense of agreement about what that ‘right deal’ might look like.  It’s as though they’ve decided to bake that famous cake which everyone is always talking about, but without deciding whether it’s for eating or merely having.  Even worse, they haven’t decided what sort of cake to bake – some want a good old patriotic Victoria sponge, others want a nice sticky chocolate cake, and yet others – I blame their education – will be happy to accept a good dollop of Eton Mess.  Worse still, they’ve started to bake the cake without having agreed on the ingredients.
Still, as the Prime Minister keeps telling us in lieu of answering any question put to her, she’s perfectly clear that the people simply want her to get on with the baking, and not to get distracted by such irrelevant detail.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Merely eliminating the negative

The Secretary of State for Wales told us at the weekend that cutting just over a pound off the cost of crossing the Severn bridges will ‘power [a] new business boom with Bristol’.  It’s probably just as well that he made no attempt to explain how the one thing leads to the other, although it would be interesting to have seen him try.  It’s simply not credible that such a small change – or even the larger change which is in the pipeline when the tolls are abolished – will have as large an effect as he claims.
It’s certainly true that the tolls have, from the outset, been a disincentive to companies basing themselves in Wales.  It may not be a huge extra cost, but small costs repeated many times can become large sums, and it’s easy to see how that becomes a factor in deciding on location.  But the absence of a negative isn’t the same as the presence of a positive, as my old maths teacher would have said, and the removal of a disincentive doesn’t magically create an incentive.  The idea that a reduction in tolls – or even their abolition – can suddenly create new economic growth is fanciful at best.  During the years that the tolls have been in place, companies have already taken their decisions on location, and they aren’t suddenly going to change those because of this change; creating a more level playing field for future decisions isn’t the same as tilting it in our direction in respect of past decisions.
But when the promised land predicted by prophet Cairns fails to arrive, it will no doubt all be the fault of the Labour administration in Cardiff.  He seems to think that he’s done his bit now.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Brexit dividends

In his latest pitch for the Conservative leadership, Boris Johnson has returned to the ‘promise’ to spend an extra £18 billion a year (£350 million a week) on the NHS following departure from the EU.  The figure has been widely discredited many times and even most of those responsible for promoting it during the EU referendum have long since admitted that the ‘Brexit dividend’ – i.e. the amount of money available for other things because it’s no longer being sent to ‘Brussels’ would be a lot less than that.
I’d go further – I’d argue that there will be no Brexit dividend for the foreseeable future.  Perhaps there may be in the long term, if the economy really does outperform to the extent that Brexiteers believe want the rest of us to believe, although it’s beyond any reasonable or realistic forecasting window so we’ll never actually know whether we would have been better off staying in or not.  But in the short to medium term, most recognise that there will be a hit to the economy, and coupling that probable reduction in GDP, or at the least reduction in growth of GDP, with the requirement to spend a lot more on replacing all the EU agencies with UK versions, increasing the spend on managing the physical and economic borders, and the other increased costs which will come in the wake of Brexit, I believe that zero is a reasonable estimate of the Brexit dividend within any reasonable forecasting period.
Having said that, I welcome Johnson’s statement that the UK Government can spend an extra £18 billion on the NHS if it wants to.  And I agree with him; they can – it’s just that it has nothing at all to do with Brexit.  Looking at the detail of what has been said by Johnson and his supporters, that’s a truth which they come close to acknowledging themselves.  £8 billion of that total – more than 40% - has already been committed and is in no way contingent on Brexit.  What Johnson has asked for is that an extra £5 billion a year be made available in 2019 and a further £5 billion in 2022.  Given the ease with which more than £1 billion was found to buy a coalition partner, and the total government spend of more than £770 billion per annum, this isn’t much more than small change to HM Exchequer – less than 1.5% of expenditure.
However, for a moment, let’s assume that there is a relationship with Brexit.  Part of Johnson’s argument is that the UK should not honour any perceived commitments to EU budgets after the date of departure, and he wants a maximum transition period of six months.  If he’s right, then why isn’t the whole of the extra money available immediately?  Why do we need to wait until 2022?  And if he’s wrong, then where is the 2019 tranche of money coming from?  The answer to both of those questions is very simple – the initial premise is wrong, and a decision to spend more on the NHS is not contingent on Brexit; it’s a simple matter of policy.  The only reason for linking it to Brexit is to attempt to persuade us that Brexit has a short term benefit, when he knows as well as anyone else that it does not.  But then, Boris and truthfulness have been estranged for a very long time.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Tightening the bonds

I know that many independentistas in Wales and Scotland voted for Brexit.  Some argued that there was no point escaping from one union only to be swallowed up in another, although it seems to me that that view is at least partly a result of being trapped by the vagaries of language – the fact that the same word (‘union’) is used for both the UK and the EU doesn’t mean that they’re actually the same thing.  Another variant on the same theme was that membership of the EU wasn’t ‘true’ independence; it explicitly requires the surrendering of some of the independence which a country might otherwise have.  I’m not really convinced by that argument either – membership of any international or multinational body (including the UN, for example) implies a degree of sharing of sovereignty, and total independence is something of a mirage in the modern world. 
The questions to be asked are how much sovereignty we pool, in what sort of structures, and how much input we have on decision-taking.  I really don’t understand why some Welsh and Scottish independentistas insist that our two countries somehow require more independence than similar-sized member states of the EU, all of which would scoff at any suggestion that they ceased to be independent states when they joined.  The practical meaning of the word ‘independence’ changes over time, depending on the context, and in the context of European states in the twenty-first century ‘independence’ is equivalent to member-state status in the EU.
I’ve posted before that for me the question of Brexit has always been more political than economic – what is the context in which ‘independence’ for Wales is most easily and smoothly achieved?  And for me, the answer to that is clearly within the EU, where it amounts to a change in political and administrative arrangements without changing the trading relationships.  But, if that route is not available, then what?
Some in Scotland, including the former First Minister Alex Salmond, are arguing that an independent Scotland should join EFTA as a compromise.  No doubt some in Wales would make the same argument.  I can see the attractions, and if we were starting with an entirely clean sheet of paper, I’d be tempted by the possibility.  I fear, however, that from our current starting point, it would be seriously problematic for Scotland (and nigh-on impossible for Wales) in practical terms, unless England also takes the same decision.
We are already seeing, on a daily basis, how wrong the Brexiteers were in talking about a simple and swift separation of the UK from the EU.  If we assume that the UK government is ultimately going to reject the EFTA model (and all the signs are that it will, with the possible exception of a defined and short transition period) then the UK will become what is termed a ‘third country’ for EU purposes.  It’s a status which necessarily requires the creation of economic borders between the UK and the EU27.  Failure to do that leaves the UK as an open ‘back-door’ into the single market and compromises that market; something which the EU27 simply cannot afford to allow.  For Scotland and Wales to seek membership of EFTA whilst England does not would therefore, for the same reason, require the creation of economic borders between the countries of the UK.
It’s not completely impossible, of course – but we shouldn’t emulate the Brexiteers in underestimating the complexity of the task and the likely timescale for achieving it.  Moving from membership of the ‘UK single market’ to being outside that and inside the EU single market, whether through direct membership of the EU or the halfway house of EFTA, is an even bigger task than Brexit itself.  An economic union which has lasted 400 years in the case of Scotland (and closer to 600 in the case of Wales) is inevitably more closely integrated than one which has existed for only 45 years as in the case of the EU.  And there are extremely porous land borders involved as well.
Whilst all involved are still members of the EU, the pathway from being part of the UK to full EU membership as an independent state is an entirely political one.  It involves negotiations about representation and administrative arrangements, but the economic issues are minor – all the same regulations and processes apply before and after.  And whilst ‘internal enlargement’ is not something that the EU has experienced to date, ‘enlargement’, (and the inclusion of new member states) most definitely is.  It’s not an exact precedent, but it’s a sound starting point.
Many independentistas won’t want to hear this, but I can’t ignore what seems to me to be an obvious truth.  For the foreseeable future, the idea of Wales or Scotland not being part of the same trading block as England (and ‘same trading block’ includes the option of not being part of any trading block wider than the UK) is extremely problematic at a practical level.  That doesn’t mean that ‘independence’ is an impossible dream; merely that the meaning of the word changes once again.  And to a significant extent, what England decides controls that definition in a way that does not apply within the EU.  Entirely unintentionally, and for seemingly sound reasons, Brexit-supporting independentistas may have ended up contributing to a tightening, rather than a loosening, of economic ties within an increasingly isolated UK.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Escaping probation

This week has seen the twentieth anniversary of the vote to establish the Scottish Parliament, and the newspapers and television have run a number of stories around that fact.  Fair enough; nice round numbers like 10 and 20 have a resonance for us as humans, even if in mathematical, logical, and historical terms they are pretty much irrelevant.  And we can probably expect similar coverage at other equally irrelevant milestones in the future.
More interesting for me was the nature of the coverage.  Much of it revolved around what the Scottish Parliament has achieved and the sometimes implied, sometimes directly stated question about whether that list of achievements is enough to justify its establishment and continued existence.  It’s an approach which inevitably highlights the continued divisions between those who believe that such a parliament should exist and those who do not. 
But it’s an approach which is never, ever applied to the corresponding institutions in London.  The House of Lords and House of Commons emerged as separate institutions in the fourteenth century; surely a comparable assessment of what they have achieved during that time and whether their continued existence is justifiable is long overdue?  There must be a convenient round-number anniversary which can serve the purpose of raising that question – the seven-hundredth, perhaps.  Seven hundred years is surely long enough to make a proper assessment of their value and worth.  Have they achieved enough to deserve to be allowed to continue to exist?
It’s wishful thinking on my part, of course; the institutions of the UK Parliament have never felt, or been made to feel, any need to justify their existence to anyone.  It’s part of the reason that they are able to continue with arcane traditions and procedures; it’s all perceived as being the natural state of affairs despite the, shall we say, ‘eccentricities’.  But the fact that the media wouldn’t even dream of applying the same approach to Westminster as to Holyrood clearly reveals that they don’t view them in the same terms.  They don’t see Holyrood (and the same applies to the Assembly in Cardiff) as being the natural political expression of the existence of a Scottish nation and identity.  It is a subordinate body, always on probation and answerable to the real seat of power.
And in a sense, they’re entirely right.  Under the UK constitution, the Scottish parliament and Welsh Assembly have no legitimacy of their own; their legitimacy derives from laws passed at Westminster – laws which can be repealed at any time.  They’ll still be asking the same questions at the 30th anniversary of the vote – and every 10 years thereafter for at least the first century, but they’ll never ask them about Westminster.
There is a way of escaping permanent probation, but it depends on having the courage to seize it.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Keeping one's head in a crisis

The Secretary of State for Exiting the EU told Parliament yesterday that anyone who voted against the government bill on withdrawal was voting for a chaotic Brexit.  In the light of events so far, and in particular his own performance to date, it’s tempting to ask whether there actually is any other type of Brexit, whichever way they vote.  Chaos seems to be the order of the day, and it’s largely self-inflicted.
It looks like another attempt to blame someone else – anyone – for the failures of a government which gives every appearance of having not a clue what it wants in any degree of detail, but continues to maintain that whatever it is, the others should give it to them, because, well, UK.  There was another example of blame-apportioning a week or so ago, when William Hague argued that the government shouldn’t blame the voters even though it was really all their fault; by not giving the Tories the bigger majority which May had assumed would follow the election, they were going to end up having to pay more to leave the EU.  The mechanism by which the size of the government’s majority affects the amount of money owed to the EU was not spelled out of course (it would be interesting to see him try), but the electorate is the latest convenient scapegoat.
In the meantime, the leader of the Scottish branch of the Conservative and Unionist Party, said last week in relation to Brexit: “My real fear is that if there’s a short-term economic hit, we don’t bounce back from it”.  It’s an interesting definition of ‘short-term’ to say the least.
However, whilst her party, government, and ministers thrash around spending more time debating with each other than negotiating with the EU27, the not-at-all-robotic Prime Minister continues to talk serenely about smooth transitions, strength, and certainty.  It reminds me of someone I once worked with who, at a particularly difficult time in a large and complex project, said to the project manager, “if you can keep your head whilst all around you are losing theirs, you haven’t got a (expletive deleted) clue what’s going on”.

Monday, 11 September 2017

It's not just about economics

On Friday, the Western Mail’s leader column pronounced in large bold letters that “Brexit must not hit our country's poor”.  As a statement of what most of us would hope for, it’s hard to argue with that.  But how widely held is that view in reality?
As part of the argument in support of its position, the opinion column went on to say “Regardless of how anyone voted in the referendum, nobody will want Wales to fall off an economic cliff in 2019 when the UK leaves the EU.”  I’m far from certain that that is a true or accurate statement.  I have the impression that a quick and total break is exactly what many want and thought they were voting for.  And it was, I thought, perfectly clear during the referendum itself that many of those arguing for Brexit wanted exactly that outcome, believing, in effect, that the ultimate gain from Brexit was worth the pain involved.  That may not have been – indeed was not - what they actually said, but there was enough information to the contrary available for people to understand the likely outcome.  But – as we all do, in our own ways – people chose to believe the ‘facts’ which supported their own predispositions in a classic real-world illustration of confirmation bias.
And from reports I’ve seen on opinion surveys since the vote, including those where respondents have said that the ‘benefits’ of Brexit are so great that they’d be prepared to see relatives thrown out of work in order to realise them, I’m not sure that opinions have changed very much.  Whether I like it or not, I cannot escape the fact that the majority of those who voted in Wales supported Brexit, nor the conclusion that by doing so they voted in favour (in the short term at least) of damaging the economy of Wales, in favour of ending the regional assistance from which Wales has benefited, and in favour of making themselves and the rest of us poorer.  The reasons for doing that are varied: perhaps a belief that ‘taking back control’, or reducing immigration were valuable ends in themselves, or perhaps in the belief that short term pain would lead to long term gain.  Whatever the reasons, they voted for leaving the EU with all its consequences, and much of what the Western Mail and Wales’ politicians seem to have been saying since amounts to an attempt to remain a member for as long as possible, but call it something different.
The desire for Brexit was never primarily an economic one; those making the case always knew that there would be an economic hit as a result.  It wouldn’t fall on the leading Brexiteers, of course; it was always going to be the poorer families, nations, and regions which would suffer.  In the same way, my own wish to remain was never primarily an economic one either; it was about Wales’ place in the world and how best to get there.  There are economic consequences, of course; there will be winners and losers, but over the long term, the economy will adapt – it’s what economies do.  Whether it will recover to the extent that it makes no difference over the very long term is an open question to which we can never really know the answer, since we only get to live through events once.  It’s a wholly unnecessary and self-inflicted pain in the interim but sadly it’s what people voted for, no matter how much the Western Mail and others may try to argue otherwise.
The real problem that I have with all the arguments about mitigating the effect and seeking a way through the mess which causes as little damage as possible is that they’re not tackling the underlying problem, and may be in danger of confirming rather than challenging the views of those who supported Brexit.  What was lacking at the time of the referendum – and is still lacking from our nation’s ‘leaders’ – was any attempt to make a positive argument for the European integration which brought the trade and economic benefits rather than a simplistic negative argument against losing those benefits.  Those who built the EU’s structures – just like those who argued for Brexit – never did so for primarily economic reasons.  It was always about a vision for the future of Europe.  There are flaws in the way that they have attempted to realise that vision, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that they had one.
Underlying the whole debate about Brexit and its consequences is a major gulf between differing views about what sort of Europe we want to see and what our role in it should be, whether as Wales or as the UK.  Treating it as solely an economic issue and concentrating the debate on mitigating the economic effects is ignoring that clash of world views.  It does no more to change the world view of those supporting Brexit than repeatedly telling them that they were duped and misled (even if that happens to be true).  But it is on the underlying conceptions of the world and the role of Wales and the UK in it that the debate needs to be centred if there is to be any chance of a change of attitude.  Changing course for solely economic reasons will only reinforce the belief that we are somehow being ‘dominated and bullied’ by ‘Brussels’ into doing what 'they' want.

Friday, 8 September 2017

The people will decide

I can’t remember the exact date, but sometime in the late 1970s I once met the founder of Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya, Jordi Pujol, who later became the leader of the Generalitat in Catalunya.  It was not long after the death of Franco, and it was still illegal for anyone even to advocate the idea of independence from the Spanish state.  That, he told me, was the reason that Convergència at that time argued for more autonomy, rather than for independence.  However, others always saw him, until the latter part of his period in government at least when he gave up on the idea of progress within the Spanish state, as more of a natural federalist than an independentista.  So, whether his commitment at that time, and for many years thereafter, to building a federal Spain was down to principle or pragmatism may well be open to debate, but it has become largely irrelevant in the context of the twenty-first century.  Things in Catalunya have moved on (in large part because of the actions of the Spanish central authorities in amending the statute of autonomy in 2010) and independence, rather than federalism, is now the mainstream of debate.
As Syniadau posted yesterday, the Catalan Parliament – in which an overall majority of the members were elected on a platform calling for independence – voted on Wednesday to proceed to hold a referendum on 1st October.  The central authorities in Madrid have been quick to denounce this as an illegal act and have promised to prevent it happening.  Whether they will succeed or not is an open question – Syniadau argues cogently that they are unlikely to be able to prevent it taking place, and that the likeliest outcome, as things stand, is a declaration of independence within days after the votes are counted.
Strictly speaking, there is no doubt that the central authorities are correct in arguing that the move is contrary to Spanish law.  The Spanish constitution makes it clear that Spain is a single and indivisible whole and that no part has the right to secede.  Things have improved since that meeting with Jordi all those years ago, in the sense that it’s no longer illegal to advocate independence, but the only legal way to achieve it involves first persuading the rest of Spain to approve a change to the constitution.  It’s an impossible barrier – but that was always the intention.  That leaves a political movement which has won the argument in Catalunya itself, and has an electoral mandate to move forwards, with little choice.
I’ve argued in the past that I can devise no satisfactory objective definition of nationality.  Nationality is in essence both subjective and fluid; it changes over time.  And sometimes people can feel that they are members of two or more overlapping nations at the same time.  Some independentistas deny that – despite it being the everyday reality of most of the people around us – and demand that everyone choose one, and only one nationality.  That seems to me to be a futile and self-defeating quest.  But there is another point to this as well – whether defined objectively or not, is nationality the only basis for deciding whether the people living in a defined geographical area have the right to govern themselves or not?  I don’t see why it should be, and in the context of Catalunya, it doesn’t matter whether the people see themselves as Catalans, Spaniards, or a bit of both – if they decide on self-determination, who has the right to stop them?
It’s an issue which goes to the heart of what ‘sovereignty’ is and where it resides.  For those of us who believe that it belongs to all of us, the right to self-determination is one which cannot be denied once the majority desire it.  The Spanish authorities start from the perspective that ‘the law is the law’, and as a result, no part of the whole has any rights unless the rest of the whole agrees to them.  It’s an unbridgeable gulf in perceptions, which is why all attempts at negotiating some other way forward have failed.  It doesn’t look like it will be an easy ride, but the decision is now going to be taken where it should be taken: by the people of Catalunya themselves.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Migration and economics

One of the most over-used words in contemporary debate is ‘sustainable’.  Part of the problem is that it means different things to different people as they define it in ways which enable them to do what they want to do; and another part of the problem is that it’s become one of those fashionable words without which no report on anything is ever quite complete.  So in discussing the question, I start by pinning my colours firmly to the mast of the Brundtland report; it’s about using resources in a way which does not compromise future generations.
Currently, developed countries are a very long way from meeting that definition – it has been calculated that the earth’s population would require the resources of three earths to sustain its current level of resource consumption if every person on earth enjoyed the average living standard of the average person in the UK.  And some have argued that the US lifestyle would require four earths.  It’s not an exact calculation, of course, and some would argue about the detailed elements of it, but the basic conclusion – that current lifestyles in the developed world require the use of resources at an unsustainable rate – is a reasonable starting point. 
One thing that we can say with a high degree of certainty is that those people and countries which don’t currently enjoy the same standard of living as we do in Europe or the US aspire to achieve that standard of living.  That aspiration is one of the prime drivers of migration – faced with a choice of waiting until their own countries catch up or taking a short cut by moving to a country with an already existing higher standard of living, many in the world’s poorer countries are choosing the latter.  And who can blame them?
It’s a mechanism which doesn’t only operate between the world’s poorest countries and the richest; it also operates ‘regionally’ within both poorer areas and richer.  So, for instance, within the EU, those countries whose economies are lagging are seeing an outflow towards those countries with higher average incomes and better job availability.  Poles, Romanians, Bulgarians etc. come to the UK first and foremost because they feel that their prospects are better here than they are in their countries of origin.  And they’re not wrong about that.  We in Wales should be only too aware of the phenomenon – the cause is exactly the same as that which has, for generations, led so many of our own young people to head towards London or even further afield.
We perceive it differently though, partly because the line on the map between England and Wales is seen to be entirely different in nature from the line between the UK and ’the continent’, and partly because immigration and emigration appear to be two completely different phenomena.  Whilst I understand why the perceptions are different, the objective reality is that there is no real difference on either score.  For us here in Wales, both types of migration are part of our lived experience – but emigration is actually the bigger issue.  It’s only because the perspective from which the issue is usually examined and reported is a very ‘British’ one (in which movement from Wales to England doesn’t count as ‘migration’ at all because it’s seen as ‘internal’) that we end up with politicians discussing the question as though the problem is controlling who comes in.  Actually, we could gain more insight if we were to look at the problem from the perspective of those countries in Eastern Europe which are losing so many of their young people to places like the UK, Germany, or France.
That brings me to the paper launched today by the Welsh Government, talking about controls on immigration post-Brexit.  The report talks about the problems Wales faces from an ageing population and the need for immigration in order to sustain services and communities, and suggests an approach to managing immigration which is dependent first and foremost on the need for the skills of the immigrants.  In effect it focuses overwhelmingly on one-way migration (inwards) by a specific demographic (people of working age), and specifically refers to the need to avoid the working-age population decline which would otherwise occur.  I found that a very narrow and short term perspective on a much more complex issue.  That’s understandable, to an extent, in the context of the short-term problems likely to be caused by Brexit, particularly to a country like Wales which is already suffering from an outflow of qualified young people.  In that sense, it looks like an attempt to balance a response to tabloid-driven xenophobia and the immediate needs of the Welsh economy, but what it doesn’t even touch on is how we get to a situation where population and resource-usage are in balance over the long term – and not just in Wales.
The underlying economic model is broken; it depends on an ever-growing population of working age to support an ever-growing population of pensioners.  It owes more to Ponzi than to sustainability.  There’s a difference in emphasis, but the approach being taken to freedom of movement by the Welsh government differs little in principle from that of the UK government – it’s all about the economic self-interest of the country receiving migrants, and has little to say about the interests of migrants or those of their countries of origin, let alone about our wider collective interests.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Understanding the options

Bankers are not generally the most obvious or reliable source of political truth, and I’m not sure that I place a great deal of faith in the prediction from Morgan Stanley that the current UK government will fall during 2018.  On the other hand, the chances of the government lasting for the full term seem unlikely, so 2018 is as good a guess as any.  On the basis of pure guesswork, there’s at least a 25% chance of it being correct.  But I was more interested in their succinct summary of the options for the outcome of Brexit talks:
“We expect the EU to offer a choice between a close relationship in which the UK can participate in the single market and customs union but will be bound by the EU rules of the game, and an arm's length relationship in the UK, in which the UK achieves full sovereignty over borders, courts and laws, but does not participate in the single market and the customs union.”
That struck me as a fair and realistic appraisal of the only two possible outcomes – continued membership in all but name, or a complete break.  And it puts the Prime Minister’s call to speed up the talks – to say nothing about the Brexiteers’ repeated insistence that the whole process is really amazingly simple - into perspective.  All it takes to bring about a speedy and certain conclusion is for the UK government to understand that there are only two realistic options possible, to decide which one it wishes to pursue, and to concentrate their negotiating efforts on tweaking the details of the chosen outcome to get the best of it.
The obstacle to progress is, in essence, a failure to understand that there is no third option under which the UK has an arm’s length relationship, is not bound by the rules, but continues to participate in all the bits it likes.  I understand the arguments for achieving ‘full sovereignty’ as defined by the Brexiteers, and I understand the arguments for retaining membership of the single market; but it’s obvious that for any country to have both would signal the beginning of the end for the EU, and is something to which the EU27 will never – can never – agree.  It should surprise me that that is not as obvious to the government as it is to Morgan Stanley.  Somehow, though, the current government has lost the capacity to surprise me when it comes to the EU – they can and will say anything, no matter how unrealistic or delusional.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Mistake - or simply disinterest?

Blair told us over the weekend that he’d made a mistake over devolution, because he “failed to do enough to ensure Welsh and Scottish devolution did not undermine the UK's national identity” and “did not understand in the late 1990s the need to maintain cultural unity between the different parts of the United Kingdom”.  An admission that he might have ever got anything wrong is something of a departure for him, but it seems to me that what it really tells us is that he did not understand at the time, and still does not understand now, why people in Scotland and Wales wanted devolution in the first place.
At the time that devolution was enacted, he – like many others in his party – saw devolution to Wales and Scotland as just the first step in the regionalisation of the UK, to be followed by the creation of regional assemblies across England.  They saw it, primarily, as being about better governance and administration rather than having anything to do with identity.  The regionalisation plan got as far as a referendum for the North-East, but came to a sudden and abrupt halt when the idea was overwhelmingly rejected. 
One might have thought that a rational response would be to ask why the idea was so popular in Scotland, and managed a small majority in Wales, but was so clearly rejected in England – but that seems to be a question Blair never asked himself.  Had he done so, he would have understood at the time that identity was at the heart of the demand for the creation of national elected bodies for Scotland and Wales.  If it were purely about the regionalisation of the UK and good governance, why would anyone choose those particular boundaries, particularly in the case of Wales?  The answer is because they mark the boundaries of perceived nations containing within them people who identify with a nation other than simply the UK.  It doesn’t follow that all those who voted for devolution were or have since become independentistas, but had it not been for that sense of identity and belonging, and a desire to see that expressed in political terms, there would never have been a majority for devolution in either country.
It follows from that that it was always inevitable that giving political expression to that perceived sense of nationhood would lead to differences in policy (there’s no point otherwise), and a probable strengthening of those different identities.  None of that necessarily leads to a demand for independence, as the different paths trodden by the two devolved nations shows, but the belief that it would have no effect on the way in which people choose to identify (or not) with the UK, let alone that it could have been prevented by taking stronger action to promote UK identity, shows a surprisingly naïve side of Blair.  Or perhaps it merely confirms that he never saw the issue as important or took much interest in it.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Agreeing with the Tories

Last week, the Tories in the Assembly returned to one of their all-time favourite themes – high salaries in the public sector.  This time, it was the health service which was the subject of their ire, and they seem to have a particular fixation about any salaries which are higher than that of the Prime Minister.  The Labour government responded in the traditional manner of those who support paying high salaries, talking about the need to ‘attract the best’ to fill the top jobs.  In some ways, this is almost the reverse of the position one would expect the two parties to take.  Traditionally, Labour would oppose high salaries, and the Tories would talk about needing to attract the best. 
I can understand that, for someone who genuinely believes that high salaries attract the best candidates rather than simply the greediest, capping those salaries at an arbitrary level (‘the salary of the Prime Minister’) would be a damaging interference in the employment market, and would lead to the people in the top jobs being sub-optimal for the performance of the relevant organisation.  It follows that the Tories cannot believe that the way to attract the best people is to allow market forces to operate (although I accept that that statement does discount the possibility that they might actually not want the best people to run public services anyway – but they couldn’t really want those services to fail, could they?).  And the reaction of the Welsh government suggests that Labour really do believe that paying higher salaries attracts better candidates, and that good talented people cannot be found at a lower price.
The good news in all this is that I’ve finally found an issue of principle on which I can agree with the Tories and disagree with Labour – I really don’t believe that there is a direct relationship between how much someone is paid and how good they are at their job.  When it comes to salaries of top earners, there is a distorted market in operation in which a self-perpetuating group of rent-seekers push salaries ever higher to serve, ultimately, their own best interests.  What I don’t understand, however, is how it’s possible to believe one thing in relation to the public sector whilst believing that the complete opposite rule applies in the private sector.  So perhaps I don’t agree with the Tories very much after all.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Non-voting membership?

As the official Brexit negotiations continue at a pace which would appear on the slow side to a snail, the contradictions within the ‘leave’ side become increasingly apparent.  This post has already been widely shared as a word of warning from a leaver about the direction that things are taking.  Some have interpreted it as a sign that leavers are changing their mind, but I think that what it actually shows is that ‘leave’ means – and always did mean – different things to different people.  The campaign may have managed, by fair means and foul, to amass a slender majority in favour of the simplistic concept of leaving the EU, but there was never any real agreement about what that would mean in practice.  I read the article less as an expression of regret about the fact of Brexit and more as laying the groundwork to say that those in charge got the detail rather than the principle wrong.
Laying the groundwork for blaming someone else is what the Brexit minister seems to be doggedly trying to do as well.  Demanding ‘flexibility’ from the EU27 sounds more like an attempt to blame Brussels inflexibility than make any sort of breakthrough in the negotiations.  Looking at the detail of the ‘flexibility’ that he’s asking for, it seems that it’s just a continuation of the ‘have cake and eat it’ dictum of the Foreign Secretary.  It amounts to a demand that the UK should continue to enjoy all the benefits of membership (and even retain an input to the regulations) whilst not being a member and reserving the right to do all sorts of things which members are not allowed to do.  In practical terms, it’s not far short of asking the EU to more or less disband itself and turn itself into a much looser relationship solely to accommodate the UK.
That’s not as stupid, in principle at least, as it might appear – I’ve argued before that the one context in which Brexit starts to look like a coherent policy is the context in which it is the first brick to fall in a process of pulling down the entire edifice.  The Brexiteers might say, repeatedly, that they want the EU to remain as a strong and united partner, but that’s the last thing they really need.  The problem is that there are no signs that the expected collapse is going to happen any day soon; in fact, quite the reverse.  If anything, Brexit appears to be provoking more, rather than less, unity among the 27.
But Davis is right on one important thing: if a deal is to be done, there will be a need for a lot more flexibility.  It’s just that it needs to come from the 1, not the 27.  The question is whether he prefers to stick to the ideological view of many within his party, and allow the talks to fail whilst blaming someone else, or whether he’s prepared to be flexible to the point at which non-membership looks increasingly similar to membership, but without a vote.  That latter is gaining in credibility as a likely outcome, as this piece suggests.  The potential political consequences are very far-reaching.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Selfishness isn't always the driver

In yesterday’s post, I referred to the response by a group of LSE economists to the suggestion made by a group of economists led by Professor Minford of Cardiff University that a so-called ‘hard’ Brexit would boost the UK economy substantially.  Part of the LSE group’s critique of the report by Minford et al was that “Minford uses a 1970s style trade model in which all firms in an industry everywhere in the world produce the same goods and competition is perfect. There is no product differentiation – a German-made car is identical to a Chinese-made car. Importantly, trade does not follow the gravity equation – everyone simply buys from the lowest cost producer”.
This idea of a ‘perfect market’ where everyone acts in accordance with his or her own best financial interest, seeking to maximise income and minimise spending, is at the heart of a lot of thinking on what is often referred to as the ‘right’ of politics.  Many of them really do believe that we are all motivated by one and only one factor, and that our behaviour in response to events can be predicted from that.  It helps to explain the bemusement of many of the Brexiteers when they discover that the EU27 are considering factors other than exporting cars from Germany or Prosecco from Italy.  I think that they generally don’t get the idea that people might just be considering other factors rather than solely economic ones.
It isn’t just in relation to Brexit that we see this tendency.  We’ve seen it time and time again from the Tories in the Assembly who argue – and seem genuinely to believe - that increasing income tax rates will lead to an outflow of wealthy people whilst reducing them will lead to a corresponding inflow.  There is, as has been discussed before on this blog, no hard evidence of which I’m aware to justify this belief, but the theory says it should be so, so it must be so.  Empirical evidence is not necessary to justify or support beliefs derived from theory, from their perspective.
Today, there was another example of the same sort of thinking.  The Adam Smith Institute has come up with what they see as a wizard wheeze to persuade young people to vote Tory – scrap air traffic duty on flights to Ibiza.  Seriously.  OK, there are a few other suggestions as well – including one to make it easier for young people to travel to ‘English-speaking countries’ to replace the lost European opportunities post-Brexit, and another to legalise cocaine – but the basic underlying point is an attempt to appeal to what they see as the naked self-interest of young people.  Or, perhaps I should say, a certain type of young people, since some of the suggestions make me wonder whether they’ve ever spoken to any young working-class people at all.  But then, they don’t need to speak to anyone; their theory says that people will act in their own selfish interests at all times, and the theory must be right, no?
At one level, I find it deeply depressing that anyone could believe that selfishness is the sole motivation of all humans, but at another level, the fact that they are so divorced from the complex reality of modern life in the developed world shows the extent of the opportunity available to present an alternative vision for humanity’s future.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

The answer really isn't in the stars

There was a report published last week by a group of Brexit-backing economists suggesting a significant economic boost for the UK following a so-called ‘hard’ Brexit, whilst suggesting that a so-called ‘soft’ Brexit would leave us no better off than we are now.  This report stands out from the crowd in that most other economists suggest that the reverse is likelier to be true; and another group of economists has drawn attention to what they see as the flaws of the pro-Brexit report.  All the various predictions are based, obviously, on models and assumptions, including assumptions about how all of us as consumers and spenders will respond to various events.
That question of assumptions and models is at the heart of the reason why economic forecasting has a bad name.  That is the underlying truth which gave rise to Galbraith’s claim that: “The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable”.  Sometimes an economist gets it right and gets feted for doing so; but whether getting it right is a tribute to the correctness of the model used or a result of simply having enough ‘monkeys with typewriters’ is another question.  Based on historical experience, the safest assumption is that both sides in this particular debate about the consequences of Brexit are likely to be proved wrong in the long term.  (As I’ve posted before, the argument was never primarily an economic one for me.)
There is also a sense in which both sides could be regarded as being right, despite the wide variation in their conclusions.  What I mean by that is that their answers are probably ‘right’ in terms of the application of the assumptions and models: an argument which follows logically from a given set of premises isn’t in itself illogical just because those initial premises are wrong.  It’s just not very useful in real life.
This doesn’t just apply to Brexit, of course.  A recurrent theme of any discussion of Welsh independence is a demand that those of us supporting independence provide a definitive set of figures spelling out the economic consequences, with the implicit assumption that failure to do so means either that we have something to hide or else that the numbers will never stack up.  But, with a little effort, I could produce a range of numbers showing a range of outcomes, from Wales as a land of milk and honey to Wales as a complete economic basket case.  And any of those sets of numbers would be entirely valid and correct (discounting any simple arithmetic errors!) in the context of the assumed starting point, the assumed policies of an independent Welsh government, the assumed responses to those policies, and the assumptions made about external events.  And all of those sets of numbers would, in all probability, prove to be wrong after the event – not because of any errors in the process of deriving them, but because of the invalidity of the assumptions made, and the sheer impossibility of knowing in advance which assumptions are the correct ones to make.
What we can say, with a high degree of confidence, is that countries which become independent usually end up better off than they were beforehand, invariably set economic policies to suit their needs rather than the needs of the larger entity of which they were previously a part, and don’t ask for their independence to be reversed after the event.  But the reasons for seeking that independence are rarely, if ever, primarily economic in nature.  In the same way, whilst much of the argument about Brexit has been about the likely economic consequences, and whilst both sides seize on reports produced by ‘their’ tame economists to justify their position, their real motivation is rarely about economics. 
There’s something apparently inherent in British politics which demands that we pretend that everything comes down to economics, and that the debate revolves around that question, but the result is that the very different world views which really drive the debate are insufficiently scrutinised and challenged.  The selection of economic forecasts which fit the initial belief is more to do with a rationalisation of that belief than anything else. 

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Gaining influence in the world

The Prime Minister of Slovenia warned on Sunday that the UK position on Brexit is unrealistic and that negotiations are likely to take longer than the UK is assuming. 
Slovenia is a small country on the fringes of the EU.  Its surface area (20,273 km2) is remarkably close to that well-known universal measure ‘the size of Wales’ (20,799 km2), although its population (just over 2 million) is only two-thirds of that of Wales (a little over 3 million).  Its GDP per head is rather lower than that of Wales.  (Contrary to the oft-asserted ‘fact’, Wales isn’t the poorest country in the EU; that belief appears to arise from confusion between countries and EU regions.  Wales is actually a middle-ranking EU country in terms of GDP per head.)  All in all, therefore, applying the criteria normally used in discussions about Wales, Slovenia is ‘obviously’ too small and too poor to be an independent country.  Unfortunately for the Slovenes, they didn’t have a ‘national’ party pointing that out to them, and the country became independent anyway.
Its Prime Minister will, as a result, have more influence and a bigger say over the terms of Brexit than the First Minister of Wales.  Isn’t independence a terrible thing?

Monday, 21 August 2017

Counter-productive arguments

The reaction of the Tories to the tweet by Plaid’s leader last week about the attack in Barcelona was a little over the top for me.  But given the propensity of Plaid politicians in recent years to demand apologies, resignations, and sackings whenever a political opponent says something that offends their sensitivities, they can hardly complain when other people want to play the same game.  It’s all just part of the froth which passes for political debate.
The underlying point of the tweet has a degree of validity when looked at objectively; much of the ISIS ideology does indeed overlap with the ideology of other groups such as those demanding white supremacy in America.  So, as a statement of fact, it’s hard to disagree.  I wonder though what is the purpose of drawing a comparison, and I find it hard to avoid the conclusion that it was intended as a means of lumping together a number of disparate groups under a single label, and claiming guilt by association.  It’s disappointing that a party like Plaid, which has suffered from similar attempts at guilt by association over many decades (along the lines of ‘you’re a nationalist, Hitler was a nationalist, therefore you’re a Nazi’) should be playing the same game rather than trying to maintain a higher standard of debate.  Those who have attempted for years to smear Plaid in that fashion really have no right complaining when the boot’s on the other foot, but two wrongs never make a right.
The real issue for me is about using such a simplistic approach as pinning labels on political opponents.  Oh, I know they all do it, and I’m singling out Plaid only as the most recent transgressor here, but what exactly does the label ‘far-right’ add to meaningful political debate about the aims and objectives of all the groups so labelled?  Labelling is invariably a substitute for analysis rather than a part of that analysis; a short-hand way of dismissing arguments without needing to debate them.  But it’s extremely imprecise; there are people who are socially very conservative whilst holding what might be called left-wing economic views, and there are people with what might be called right-wing economic views who are socially liberal.
Winning people over, or changing their minds on specific issues, requires a degree of engagement with those details rather than dismissing them with a label.  Labelling may feel very ‘right-on’ to the in-groups in politics (and the Labour support for Leanne is relevant in that context), but ordinary voters who feel that they have, in effect, been told that they are little different to ISIS are unlikely to be well-disposed to listen for very long to those who they feel have told them that.  It’s not a reason for demanding apologies, resignations, or sackings, but I do seriously question whether it’s an approach which is likely to advance the cause of those using it.  It basically just seems counter-productive.

Friday, 18 August 2017

What is the basis of the alternative?

On Monday, the BBC reported on Neil Hamilton’s call for Plaid to work with UKIP; yesterday there was an article on Nation.Cymru calling for a coalition between Plaid and the Tories.  It’s obviously August, and the traditional dearth of hard political news is being replaced by the equally traditional speculation, which is unlikely to lead to anything at all once 'proper politics' recommences in September.
That’s not to say that there isn’t a serious point underlying all this though.  There is a perception that Wales, and Welsh democracy, have a problem.  We are eighteen years on from the founding of the Assembly and one party has either formed, or led, the government for the whole of that time.  Only once, and then only briefly, was there a serious possibility of an alternative, but since then the possibility has disappeared and currently seems further away than ever.
I’ve talked before about the question of the so-called rainbow alliance in 2007, and I’m not going to rehearse all the arguments here.  For a variety of reasons, some of which I’ve mentioned before and some I have not, I was opposed to that proposal, but my opposition wasn’t based on some vague ‘principle’ about never dealing with the Tories; it was more to do with whether such a government was viable, and to what extent it would advance the cause of independence.
Those latter questions go to the heart of my reaction to the idea that Plaid should be prepared to work with the Tories.  Any party of independentistas should be judging and responding to that question on the basis of an assessment of whether, and to what extent, such a government would be a step towards or away from achievement of that goal, and an assessment of the political costs and benefits to the national movement over both the short term and the long term.  It says a lot about the stage that Plaid has reached that the reaction is more to do with a refusal to work with evil baby-eaters than about making such an assessment, predictable though such a reaction is.  Plaid, as I’ve commented before, seems unable to decide whether Labour are pink Tories, little different from the real ones, or a progressive force which should be supported.  It frequently seems that they believe – and want the rest of us to believe – that both of those things are simultaneously true.
I don’t entirely share the analysis in the Nation.Cymru article, but neither do I believe that basing the entirety of Welsh politics on an assumption that the Tories are inevitably and immutably toxic is showing any understanding of the reality of political trends in Wales.  For sure, the threatened Tory surge in the June General Election didn’t happen, but the fact that – however briefly – the polls suggested it as a serious possibility underlines, yet again, that Welsh politics (at Westminster level at least) is converging with, rather than diverging from, the mainstream of English politics.  Any party which bases its whole approach on an assumption that the Tories and their ilk are forever beyond the pale is likely to find itself being overtaken by events.  It’s simply a question of time before such an essentially negative approach fails.  And there’s a danger that Labour take Plaid down with them.
The bigger problem that I have with the suggestion of such coalitions is the assumption that having an alternative government is, axiomatically, a good and necessary thing for Welsh democracy, and that, if the people don’t choose one themselves when they go out and vote, it’s down to party political manoeuvring to create one.  After all, we have a Labour-led Government in Wales, and have had one since 1999, because that’s what the people voted for under the electoral system which is in operation.  One could (and I do) criticise the electoral system for not adequately representing the range of opinions amongst the Welsh electorate, but even under my preferred option of STV, I’m certain that Labour would have emerged from the Assembly election as far and away the largest party.
The so-called ‘problem’, in short, isn’t that there is a lack of an alternative government, it is that the government we have is the one that the electorate chose; and any post-election stitch-up between parties which claim to be fiercely opposed to each others policies, with the sole aim of displacing Labour, lacks any obvious legitimacy.  I agree with the perception that continuous government by one party is leading that party to be complacent, timid, and lacking in vision.  But the solution to that is to do with persuading people that there is a better alternative and getting them to vote for it, not some back-room deal.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

The obvious continues to elude them

The stated aim of the UK Government in publishing ‘position papers’ in relation to Brexit is to start providing some clarity about what the UK actually wants.  On the basis of what they’ve come up with so far, it appears that they’re really no clearer now than they were 14 months ago.
Amongst their proposals to date are:
·       There should be a customs union which mirrors the existing one in all important respects except that the UK uniquely should be free to negotiate different trading arrangements with non-EU countries than those negotiated by the EU itself, because ‘obviously’ a country with a market of 60 million and no trade negotiators will get better deals than a market of 450 million with a host of experienced negotiators.
·       There should be something called ‘regulatory equivalence’ under which the UK basically mirrors all the EU regulations except that it also retains the right to vary them as and when it chooses.
·       There should be completely frictionless trade between the EU and the UK except that the UK should have the right to opt out of all the mechanisms and costs involved in managing that trade.
It amounts to little more than an elaboration of what we already knew – the UK still expects both to have its cake and eat it, and any attempt by the EU27 to prevent that will be portrayed as a deliberately punitive response.  The Brexiteers continue to believe in the fantasy that ‘they need us more than we need them’.
Yesterday, we had the latest thinking (although that may be too grand a word) on the question of the border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.  According to the Northern Ireland Secretary, the proposal is entirely reasonable and should be accepted because of the trade involved on all sides.  This seems to be repeating the same mistake that the UK Government has made from the outset – they have a deeply ingrained mindset that tells them that trade is the only factor to be considered.  Once again, they show themselves incapable of understanding that for all the other EU countries there are a range of other factors to be considered – it isn’t only about trade and economics.  It’s a transactional approach to international relationships which fails to grasp the wider motivations.
One essential element of the proposals on Ireland appears to be a heavy dependence on IT as a way of managing and controlling border crossings.  The UK Government – of all colours and over many decades – has an appalling record on delivery when it comes to large new complex IT systems.  They almost never come in on time or budget (and closer examination of those that do claim to have met the time and budget would almost certainly reveal that it’s often a result of ‘descoping’ – delivering a lesser system than that original envisaged).  That in itself doesn’t augur well; but in this case, they’re talking about delivering a complex system the scope of which has not yet been defined, let alone agreed, within a fixed and immutable timescale.  Still, it will generate some good revenues and profits for one or two large IT companies, whose directors are likely to be laughing all the way to the bank.
There is, though, a cheap and easy way to maintain frictionless trade with the EU27, to maintain regulatory equivalence, to retain a customs union, and to avoid a hard border across Ireland.  I wonder how more position papers need to be ridiculed before they work out what that might be…

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

What's the question?

Someone once said that if the answer is ‘more politicians’, then the question must be a very strange one indeed.  A similar feeling struck me over the past few days as I read about the speculation over the next Tory leader and Prime Minister.  If Jacob Rees-Mogg is the answer, then what on earth is the question?

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

A price worth paying?

Many years ago, I remember one independentista telling me that he would be willing to eat grass if that were to be the cost of Wales becoming independent.  It’s rather a fundamentalist position, and not one that I share.  And it’s certainly not a case that I’d ever be willing to put before the people of Wales in an attempt to persuade them to support independence.  There is a price to independence of course – just as there is a price to not choosing independence.  And much as I might wish it were otherwise, neither of those prices can ever be fully known in advance; there is an element of faith on both sides.  Both sides can produce their own numbers ‘proving’ the truth of their prior beliefs, but neither can ever actually be certain that they are right.
That underlines the point that there is a more general truth underlying that grass-eating argument; most of us are willing, in principle, to pay a price of some sort for something which we believe to be of greater overall good than mere material wealth.  For example, I don’t doubt that democracy costs more than dictatorship, and can often be more decisive, but few of us would actually choose to live in a dictatorship purely for a small reduction in taxes.  In principle, that idea that some freedoms are worth having even if they come at a price is an entirely reasonable and honourable political position to take.  The extent to which others can be persuaded to support it will depend on how much they value those freedoms and how large the price is, and both of those factors are legitimate issues of political debate.
I detect an increasing tendency amongst those who led us down the Brexit path to adopt a similar position, arguing in effect that freedom from what they portray as ‘interference’ from ‘Brussels’ is of value in its own right, even if it involves taking an economic hit in the process.  It’s certainly more honest than their previous position of arguing that we were all going to be better off, despite all the evidence to the contrary.  The problem is, though, that it’s being honest after the event.  It also omits spelling out that those taking that hit will not be themselves, but the rest of us.  Honesty now is not enough to make up for previous dishonesty, and the ‘people have spoken’ mantra is a wholly inadequate defence.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Big lies and bigger lies

There has been widespread coverage today of the release by the UK Treasury of its estimate of the amount of money “sent to Brussels” each week (£156 million), and the comparison between that and the headline figure on the side of that infamous bus, which was £350 million.  The i newspaper has an opinion piece by John Redwood in which he makes a number of points in response.  He glosses over the figure by saying that everyone was aware “that a large sum of money was at stake”, and that “the two sides disagreed about just how large a sum it was”.  Well, yes, they did indeed disagree about the sum involved, but I’m not at all sure that the fact that the £350 million was an outright and blatant can be glossed over by calling it ‘a disagreement about the figure’.

Anyway, he (like others) makes the point that the real issue was that “taking back control of our money”, and “being able to spend our money on our own priorities” were key issues for the Leave campaign.  And in a related story the Director of Get Britain Out makes the rather fluffy point that even £150million per week “is clearly still at too much” without advancing much by way of argument to explain why, or how much exactly would have been acceptable.  The problem with all of this is that the assumption is being generally made that, after Brexit, the UK will be free to spend this money – whatever the actual figure – on things like the NHS and social care.  Put in simplistic terms – give the money to Brussels, or spend it on the NHS – the attraction to many is obvious. 

It’s not an honest choice, however, unless we first consider what else we lose by not paying that money ‘to Brussels’ – because it isn’t simply some sort of membership fee which simply disappears into the so-called bureaucracy in the UE.  Firstly, the UK will need to replicate all the bodies which we currently share with the other members of the EU on a collective basis; and the cost per head is likely to be higher for unique UK institutions than it is for shared agencies.  Then there are little matters such as payments to farmers, and regional aid, the continuation of which the UK has conspicuously declined to guarantee.  Rather than 'NHS vs Brussels', a more honest choice would be NHS vs Regional aid and farming subsidies.  Perhaps people would still choose cuts to both of those in preference to EU membership, but at the moment the reality of the choice that they think they've made isn’t even being made clear to them.

And, in reality, that’s no surprise.  People like Redwood and Farage never suddenly developed a deep commitment to paying for the NHS and social care; they merely latched on to an argument that they thought – rightly so as turned out – would persuade people to vote for something which would otherwise be seen to be against their own best interests.  And that’s the real issue about the infamous £350 million for the NHS.  It’s not just that the sum was a complete lie, it’s also that the whole line of argument was a lie.  The choice was never a real one, just a ploy to achieve the aim of Brexit.