The battle over working time

I think it’s fairly obvious by now that the reason why the EU working time directive, and its application in UK law, was not on Hannan’s list was that it’s so very obviously at the very top of it he hardly thought it actually needed to be mentioned.

The assertion late last week by Kwasi Karteng, Secretary of State for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, that the government had no plans to dilute workers’ rights was believed by no-one, for reasons not least of all that Kwarteng was co-author, along with a number of other leading representatives in this Vote Leave government (Priti Patel and Dominic Raab among them), of Britannia Unchained. This was a call written back in 2012 for an end to the UK’s ‘bloated state, high taxes and excessive regulation’ and (in)famously described UK workers as:

Among the worst idlers in the world. We work among the lowest hours, we retire early and our productivity is poor.

Karteng’s non-credible denial was rapidly followed yesterday by confirmation in parliament that the government is, indeed, looking at scrapping some EU labour laws, including a ‘relaxing’ of the working time directive. Another lesson in the ‘never trust a Tory’ narrative.

In the midst of a pandemic and post-Brexit uncertainty – is, of course, scrapping workers’ rights can scarcely be much of a priority. Working class families are struggling with huge numbers of issues, including insecurity at work as a result of employment laws failing to keep up with the pace of change in employers’ exploitation of them, while still (in substantial numbers of cases) occupying positions as keyworkers keeping this country going. Furthermore, ‘building back better’ post-Covid-19 requires the sorts of consensus-building exercises and extending involvement to workers’ organisations that, actually, comes as second nature in Europe proper but which is clearly entirely foreign territory to this government. By definition, scrapping workers’ rights does not embody much in the way of consensus building.

Other than that, however, I wanted to make two (main) points.

Firstly, Karteng points to ‘being struck’ by ‘how many EU countries – I think it’s about 17 or 18 – have essentially opted out of the working time directive’. This is of course rhetorical nonsense: ‘countries’ cannot ‘opt out of the working time directive’ – EU health and safety laws have general application across the EU and are not available on the pick’n’mix counter. (As indeed should social and employment rights not be either, although that is a slightly different argument.) What he does mean is that member states are allowed to deviate from bits of the working time directive where – crucially, but which is frequently forgotten – this is with the agreement of the individual worker (calling to mind here the blanket forms issued to employees, especially new recruits, and where coercion rather than ‘agreement’ has been the keyword). Alternatively, this can be done – other than in the UK – where there is a collective agreement in place. With the specific maximum 48-hour week limit in mind (the working time directive being about much more than just that), there is a qualification which must be met about the protection of the health and safety of workers being guaranteed. This is all covered summarily, and very usefully, in Opting out of the European Working Time Directive, a publication from the European Foundation from 2015 and bits of which Karteng – more probably an adviser – seems to have read.

In particular, pages 4-5 of the document summarise the positions across the then EU. Broadly, it is not possible for workers to opt (or be opted) out of the provisions across Scandinavia, southern and south-eastern Europe (other than Bulgaria) and Ireland; some, limited opt-outs are available across the swathe of central Europe; while broad opt-outs are (or were) the case in the UK, Cyprus, Malta, Estonia and Bulgaria.

Consequently, the number of opt-outs are (surprisingly) not as many as Karteng would like to portray and, actually, they encompass those among the peripheries of the EU. So, it will not be as easy as all that to remove these protections without triggering a response in kind from the EU as regards the tariffs it will be able to impose, under the free trade agreement agreed and signed before Christmas, where the UK departs from EU norms.

I suspect that Karteng knows this very well and that this exercise is a little bit of testing the waters to see who is listening (the EU will be, of course) and thus to see what he may be able to get away with. But it won’t therefore be much, except at a price: the UK can only depart from EU norms under the agreement in limited, and heavily circumscribed, ways: the price of negotiating with experienced, expert negotiators. The phrase ‘rule taker, not rule maker’ springs to mind as regards the UK’s post-Brexit future – while that, of course, for any number of reasons including among Brexiteers themselves, is simply unsustainable in anything other than the short-term. Again, I suspect Karteng is also very well aware of this. Expect therefore more war, in private of course, within the Tory Party over the next few years. This testing of the waters is being done with that in mind, too.

Secondly is the issue of the direction of reductions in working time. Historically, working time fell for much of the twentieth century but, from around 1980 onwards, such a trend has slowed and even, in some cases, been reversed. There are a number of reasons for this, explained in depth in a very useful paper – The Why and How of Working Time Reduction – written by colleagues from the European Trade Union Institute (I believe an update will also be available shortly). Again unsurprisingly, hours (of full-time workers: the key to the Britannia Unchained phrase) are not lower than elsewhere: such hours are pretty standard but the UK ranked among the highest in the EU.

The working time directive is a health and safety law. It was proposed under a particular section of the European legislative framework allowing a majority vote by member states and its aim is to improve health and safety. Nevertheless, it also improves social rights in allowing workers the opportunity to control, in some small way, aspects of their working time and, thereby, to achieve some measure of influence with the employer as regards their work-life balance. All of this is, of course, why the Tories hate it and why the working time directive is at the top of the list for removal (pro tem: restriction). It also explains very well why it needs to be defended. At a time of the deunionisation of society in general – stout battles still taking place in certain sectors – we can expect to see such gains as were made in working time during the first three-quarters of the twentieth century reversed here too, deunionisation being one explanation for the gains having come to a halt.

As Brexiteers have already implicitly observed, this issue is one that underpins huge aspects of the future social organisation of this country. It concerns not only the decoupling of wages and productivity – with gains in national income not going to workers over the last few decades – but taken instead by capital owners in the form of corporate profits and shareholder dividends. It is not just that, to quote that phrase again, ‘productivity is poor’: it is, but quite clearly wages are even poorer and, in comparison, becoming increasingly so. We know from the theory that such a decoupling leads to rises in income inequality – something in which the UK is, shamefully, among the countries already taking a bit of a lead. But also, with fresh concerns of job loss through mechanisation and robotisation (on top of those lost in the destruction wreaked in hospitality and the arts and entertainment industry during the pandemic, as well as the loss of workers who have, simply, gone away), reduced working time in compensation for the impact of mechanisation on the jobs and security of workers has again come back on the agenda, as indeed has the idea of a universal basic income.

When we emerge from the pandemic, the quality of jobs will also matter and, in this respect, a National Recovery Council, as proposed by the TUC, has a clear role in building consensus and support for a better, more inclusive society. Furthermore, if the loss of substantially younger workers as pointed to by ESCoE is correct, increased mechanisation to deal with the loss of workers is one possible outcome. That may, in turn, raise productivity – but wages, and the labour share in general in terms which also encompass working time, need to rise too. Working hours in the UK are not low – but they do need to be lowered and there are thus many pressures building in that direction.

All this is why the Tories want to knock the working time directive on the head – and, furthermore, why they want to do it now while the pandemic is causing much of a distraction and when this lends itself, at a time of prospective rises in mechanisation, all too readily to people being regarded as ‘lucky to have a job’.

As always: Join a Union. And Organise.

Book Review: Private Island

As my previous review of Stuart Maconie’s Nanny State mentioned, this one by James Meek has been sat on my to-read shelf for far too long – since 2017, in fact (and in spite of the recommendation in my comments to read it. I did get around to it. Eventually.).

Maconie quotes lengthy passages from Private Island – and no wonder since this is the product of lengthy research, detailed and time-consuming interviews, preparation and observation, and, I suspect, a certain ability not to take ‘no’ for an answer. Private Island – subtitled ‘Why Britain Now Belongs To Someone Else’ – was published in updated form in 2015 and is the product of a series of essays written largely for the London Review of Books, for which Meek himself is still a commissioning editor. It is written in an appropriately literary spirit of enquiry and seeks to explore the privatisation dogma under which this country has laboured over the entire period of the forty years since 1979, with separate chapters focused on the mail, railways, water, electricity, health care and housing alongside a look at Thanet where Nigel Farage stood for Parliament, again unsuccessfully, in the 2015 general election.

Appropriately for a book published by Verso, Private Island wears its radical heart on its sleeve – the cover portrays a vulture, beak dripping red, hunched over this green and pleasant land – although the content is far from polemic. The cover nevertheless provides a suitable introduction to the theme since the decision at least to think about it came from when Meek was living in Kiev at the time the Soviet Union came to a crashing end (in 1991) and finding himself ‘Watching the vultures come to feast on the carcass of the world’s largest state-owned planned economy,’ while beginning to wonder ‘what had been done by politicians, economic theorists, lobbyists and business people in my own country’ (p. 2).

In the ensuing pages, none of these groups are spared, but all are speared with the calmly-stated wrath of Meek’s cool, factual analysis of the venal, self-interested, naive plays of which all were successively guilty at one point or other, coming together in a cabal of fundamentalist opposition to the public sector and, indeed, of the welfare state. Meek wonders not just why but how this was allowed to happen and, in lessons that also echo those of Britain’s failed relationship with the EU, the answer is not complex. We have been – deliberately – blinded to things that are of value but which are easily castigated because they are not obviously valuable, are sometimes guilty of egregious errors and are all too easily the butt of jokes (or jokey analysis which becomes a version of the truth). We have, as a result, had the wool pulled over our eyes by governments of all colours (including vaguely pinkish ones) and that has led us to where we are: an underclass getting further and further left behind as those that have gone ahead pull the ladder up behind them (about which Thatcher was astute in one critical respect), increasingly needing the benefits of the welfare state but ignored by political parties maintaining the illusion that the free market is the only answer. And to Brexit. Privatisation has been an utter, colossal failure both in terms of public policy and in terms even of its own agenda, as Meek sets out for example in the chapter on housing. Calling an end to it is thus long overdue.

The trick, however, is how we build back to what we have lost. The year zero fundamentalists of the Vote Leave illuminati now in control of the government might provide a few opportunities in this respect, as might the similarly corrosive economic effects of the pandemic. It would clearly be wise not to overstate the case – many of the Vote Leave fundamentalists see themselves as the true heirs to the Blessed Margaret while economic fundamentalists are still in charge of the Treasury (Sunak has ties to the small government economic liberalists at the Centre for Policy Studies, set up by Keith Joseph, one of Thatcher’s gurus) and the road ahead is firmly uphill, whatever the Pink ‘Un might have been saying this morning about the futility of austerity (the full original lies behind the FT‘s paywall). Too many of those in power are still in thrall to Thatcher’s legacy; and forty years plus of antipathy to the public sector is tough to overcome.

Current events, as always, provide game-changing points and there can be none clearer than this week’s social media-led furore over the free school meal ‘hampers’ provided (to children in England) by private firms, substantially Tory donor Chartwell UK. Charging the UK taxpayer £10.50 for items costing – at retail price – £5.22 is shameful profiteering in the first place. In the second, as Meek would point out, neither should it be surprising to any of us: this is what private firms do. They are there to make money and, by searching out the cheapest and the lowest cost, will thereby maximise the gains to themselves from profit that is already built in. It is no wonder that the ‘hamper’ looked so anaemic and processed to within an inch of its life: it might have fitted in with advice in which the government itself is absolutely complicit (the original food guidance is here, by the way) but it looks a long, long way away from the Eatwell Guide which inspired it. Child Island, indeed.

This particular story seems to have ended (for now) with the restoration of vouchers, but how many of us think that the public sector – freed from the profit motive – would have produced on its own account such a paltry ration? My friend and colleague Keith Flett is entirely right to point to the workhouse origins of poor law relief – and the notion of the ‘undeserving poor’ lingers in modern day parlance, too: check the comments of Ben Bradley MP (I’m not linking) – and it’s clear that we are likely to see a return to Victorian Britain (days of the sun never setting on the Empire etc. etc.) as a consequence of the current direction of government policy, if indeed we are not already there in several respects. The welfare state – against which privatisation was the response – was set up to do better than this: and it still would if given the chance. There should be no way in a rational society for private companies to be anywhere near providing free school meals for vulnerable children. It is a scandal that they are. Furthermore, we need to call it what it is: a private company charging the taxpayer £10.50 for something that taxpayers can buy themselves for half that is not just extraordinarily inefficient: it is guilty of ripping people off. Vouchers might be the obvious point of return – giving people dignity but also, critically, £10.50 of value for £10.50 of cost – but, otherwise, I’d have worked with a new poverty ‘czar’ that I’d appoint to come up with a proper hamper: Jack Monroe knows a thing or two (or even three), from own, hard-lived experience about eking out low incomes and still providing nutritious food. Hell, for the difference between £10.50 and £5.22, someone could even throw in a copy of one of her books.

This fairly lengthy digression illustrates well one of the three main points to emerge from Meek’s analysis: that the private sector should not be involved with things that are a matter of policy concern. This perhaps needs bottoming out a little – a positive sport-for-all policy probably shouldn’t imply a desire to nationalise the Premier League – but things like green energy, environmental health, public healthcare and housing, to name some other examples on top of children’s free school meals – are all, being matters around which public policy has an interest, issues that should rightly be reserved in principle to a rejuvenated public sector.

Secondly, that there has never been a proper debate about alternative ownership patterns is indeed a shame. There is a wealth of options in between a nationalised, dusty government department on the one hand and rapacious private ownership on the other; and these need to be explored (and in ways that, unlike the history of much of employee share ownership initiatives, has longevity) as a result of a desire to take things back public. And here I don’t mean the nonsense of it being fine for state agencies from countries other than the UK to take ownership of large swathes of our public services, a fact to which Meek also points.

Thirdly, the notion that taxes are lower when the costs of financing, for example, new power plants have been simply shifted on to the bills we pay for electricity is clearly the pursuit of a chimera (albeit one that has been remarkably convincing to large numbers of people – though there leads another lengthy digression). Proper accounting of what we, as citizens, are paying the state (or its privatised agents) to do on our behalf needs to be correctly done and then, perhaps, we might be in a better position collectively to undertake the critical evaluations that we need to make which will allow us to call this failed experiment what it actually is.

It is not too late to avoid the return to the evils of Victorian Britain which the welfare state sought to end. Buy Meek’s book (and don’t leave it lying a-mouldering on a book shelf for three years or more!) or pick up his analysis via the LRB website (links as above). But do choose to get angry about the facts about which the slightly dispassionate, matter-of-fact telling deployed here can sometimes mitigate against.

In closing, I note that December next year is the eightieth anniversary of the Beveridge Report which, during wartime, paved the way for the welfare state which the Labour government coming to power in 1945 chose, despite all the other calls on public finance at the time, to implement. If I was a young SPAD unable to believe my luck at being in Westminster (or in Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast for that matter), I’d be keenly pitching a report which, in commemoration, sought to identify the five giants preventing people from escaping poverty and bettering themselves in 21st century Britain and on which governments coming to power in the years to come might build. After we are done with Covid-19, we are again in a position of needing to construct a future fit for heroes. The road from here might be uphill but, if they can do it, then so can we.

Book Review: The Nanny State Made Me

I received Stuart Maconie‘s The Nanny State Made Me as a birthday present back in September (thanks, Tracy!) and, of course, it therefore jumped to the top of my reading list not least owing to the title.

Part-autobiography, part-paean to Stuart’s own upbringing and development within the arms of the Welfare State, this was written during 2019 and published, following a revision which took account of the results of the general election (the anniversary of which is of course a year ago next week), in early March. This was, quite clearly, an inauspicious time to be publishing a book about public policy; Covid-19, like the internet, having changed everything.

Following introductory chapters setting out the remarkable immediate post-War timing of the introduction of the Welfare State, and the sustained attacks on it during the Thatcherite years in which we have been living since 1979, each chapter then takes young Stuart through a stage of his life through birth (in 1961, in an NHS hospital), early education and teenage years to the worlds of work and the dole queue, housing, public transport, and BBC and the media; before, eventually, winding up with a few thoughts on getting back what we have lost.

Fans of Maconie’s work (and I am one, as my book-giver clearly also knows!) know what to expect: wry observation drawn from contemporary interviews illustrating his theme; a sprinkling of sharp epigrams drawing attention to the absurd (Maconie continues to have a sharp eye for a well-turned phrase); and a clear and engaging writing style mixing a patient, but quizzically frustrated, tone with occasional righteous anger at the absurdities of modern day living. Describing him as a ‘man of the people’ sounds somewhat pejorative, but Maconie is clearly interested in people and the combination of that and the ability to translate such interest into warm, affectionate writing detailing (or referencing) brief encounters and events, some contemporary, some historic, makes him always worth reading (or listening to, as his BBC 6Music shows also prove).

On top of that, there is also a very touching dedication which says a lot more – about theme and about author – than its 19 words allow; while it commences with a lovely anecdote involving a landmark famous on the London skyline, Tony Benn and an anonymous operative of a long-privatised business. And there is the – by now obligatory – puntastic title whose phrasing is capable of a dual meaning while also being inspired, at a deeper level, by the honourable member for the 18th century.

There is, of course, a lot to be angry about when it comes to what has happened to our public services in this now 40-year experiment of privatisation and liberalisation. The NHS is still – just about, perhaps – hanging together but public transport is a disaster and the nonsensities of trying to introduce competition into the supply of essential services like energy has been, at best, a failure and at worst, a scandalous scheme under which the public has been ripped off with a deliberate view to the enrichment of those few who are already well-off. The current controversy over NHS data contracts being sold to Peter Thiel, the shadowy billionaire behind the Cambridge Analytica data mining operation, and over the cronyism with which this government views its public service obligations during the current crisis, add to the frustration – as well they ought. Some of this is quite familiar – albeit that the decades-long failure to do much if anything about it means that to repeat the message is not, by definition, over-stating it. In particular, it is ground well-trodden in James Meek’s London Review of Books essays collected together in Private Island. Maconie’s quotes from this make me realise that this has also languished, in its 2015 (though still current) edition, too long on my to-read shelf.

What underpins the arena of Maconie’s theme is the growth of inequality in the UK. The post-war welfare state was, ultimately, inspired by the need to deliver a more equal society in which the resources of the state would be invested deliberately and practically to address sources of inequality. Any attack on the welfare state can thus be read quite easily – whatever mealy-mouthed arguments made on behalf of doing so by whichever vested interest is mounting them – as an attempt to undermine the perception of that need and, thereby, the goal of reducing inequality itself. It is clear from a look at the Gini coefficient (a flawed, perhaps, but clear yardstick against which a state’s progress in overcoming, or otherwise, inequality can readily be measured) that the UK has become a much more unequal society in these years. The bulk of that growth occurred the 1980s while little has happened in the last thirty post-Thatcher years to address that: the coefficient has, with some volatility as a result of some of the recent circumstances of our times, bumped around the same level ever since. This includes during Labour governments which, despite the good things that they did do, failed to address the growth in inequalities that the welfare state was set up to deal with and which had risen so sharply during the years of Thatcher:

Indexed series; 1997=100. Break in series in 2001. Source: Office for National Statistics

In this context, the arguments made by leading Brexiteers on the far right of the Tory Party of the opportunity which Brexit gives (and which indeed drove Brexit) to ‘complete the Thatcher revolution‘ need careful attention since they clearly herald a further rise in inequality.

The earlier, more autobiographical chapters of Maconie’s book work rather better than the later ones. In particular, chapter 2 on schooling, in which Maconie’s arguments on behalf of comprehensive education shine with undimmed passion (I write as a grammar school boy who did actually benefit from the social mobility arguments – though of course exceptions don’t prove the rule), is a marvellously sustained piece of writing. The later chapters suffer, in a lengthy section on the BBC by appearing a little defensive (and there’s a lot to defend, I know); as well as in arguments for the nationalisation of the internet appearing a little illiberal (and, also, would you really want a crony appointee of this government in charge of erecting garden walls around your internet? Better to regulate the abuses/abusers, I think – and there are many of both – and to break up the over-mighty and the anti-democratic among the giants of those that have exploited the ‘net. That quite clearly encompasses Amazon, Google and Facebook. For that, of course, we need a stronger hand than ‘global Britain’ alone.)

In particular, I feel he pulls his punches in the final chapter which sets out the ‘how to save it’ mission described on the cover but which is, unfortunately, episodic and indeed a little unformed. There are some useful conversations around the Norwegian example; and the references to the extraordinariness of ordinary, heroic people are timely (even if our essentially conservative nature and belief in sweet moderation means we keep on electing Conservative governments whose wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing disguise proves of apparently perennial value). But, aside from a call to ‘bring the Nanny State back’, just precisely how to do that proves a rather elusive target around which Stuart boxes well but on the practicalities of which he never really lays a glove.

Those farther to the left will identify a possible reason for this; while, as I said at the outset, this also reflects a timing problem of publication and deadlines: Covid-19 has laid bare that the priorities of the governments we elect, in what they choose to do in office, are very much a matter of choice – and especially at a time when interest rates are low enough to mean that borrowing money is not only extremely cheap but actually financially attractive. In this way, the rather public noise over the economic illiteracy of ‘maxing out the credit card’ – Thatcher’s Grantham grocer-shop ‘economics’ written for the 21st century – is a very welcome add to the public debate.

In short, the practicalities behind Maconie’s desire to bring back the Nanny State – kicking out the private sector from the NHS; achieving a comprehensive nature to the education system; restoring democratic power to local councils, not least as regards the building of homes; ending the farce and rip-off pricing of bus and rail privatisation; putting control of energy supply back in the hands of the nation as opposed to abiding by a figleaf of market economics (not least with green, sustainability goals in mind – this week’s collapse of BiFab proves that green jobs need to be worked for); and freeing the BBC from the straitjacket of the much-abused concept of ‘impartiality’ to abide by its Reithian objectives of public entertainment and education – are now more, perhaps oddly, a little visible than they were when he was finalising his draft. Maconie hints – strongly, even – at all this, but is missing a few of the ‘action words’ set out above.

If we can have the vision to develop a Welfare State in the midst of a war; what might we do now to develop that vision to restore it in the middle of a pandemic? If the country is to emerge from its mishandling by the over-promoted bunglers we’ve placed in charge, that manifesto needs to be put in place now. In retrospect therefore, this is something of a missed opportunity for Maconie to be this generation’s Beveridge – but, on the other hand, I might, therefore, look forward to a 2021 edition with a re-written final chapter which identifies the ‘how’ a little more explicitly. If the pandemic has been good for anything, it is at least that it has facilitated the ground for such thinking.

The Russia Report, politics and the corruption of democracy in the UK

The Russia Report was, after significant fanfare following the (mis-)handling of the process of the election of the chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, finally released yesterday. On a first read through, there might indeed not be a lot of explosions in it, but that’s not to say that there’s no dynamite been planted. Indeed, and contrary to my earlier prediction, there was more than just embarrassment for the current UK government in its pages.

Remarkably, the text was released outwith the auspices of parliament.uk, which handles the publication of parliamentary business. After some searching, I found the page for the Committee on parliament.uk – but it is more or less blank, apart from listing the members of the committee (having been updated following the election of the chair). Indeed, this is a screenshot of what confronted me yesterday evening:

ISC page 21-7-20

Instead, the ISC has its own, entirely plain text website, including its history and publications, whose back-to-basics appearance initially made me wonder whether this was some spoof, malicious or otherwise. Furthermore, and remarkably, the report itself has been released through Google Docs. This I find quite extraordinary. A report on the highly sensitive question of interference in UK democracy, authored by a ‘joint other committee’ of parliament, having interviewed key witnesses some of whose evidence needs to be redacted, and seeking action from the UK government not least on the specific question of online harm, being released on Google Docs is, quite literally, incredible. More or less immediately on opening the report, Firefox informed me that it had blocked a pop-up window.

Perhaps there was not time, especially during the pandemic, to get the official parliament.uk webpages updated in time, and perhaps the page is already being updated (it hadn’t as of 2.45 this afternoon); or perhaps the Committee has chosen deliberately to emphasise its independence – the word is, after all, contained in the URL of its site – from the government (although all such committees are independent of the UK government: they have to be, to do their work properly in holding the government to account). But to release a report of this nature and dealing with such an issue as this through the medium of Google Docs is both astonishing and remarkable.

[EDIT 28 July: one week later and the ISC page on parliament.uk still looks the same – although of course the Report has been laid before parliament.]

The main points of the conclusions of the report are clearly now well into the public domain so I won’t waste any time in documenting them, other than simply pointing to the clarity of Foreign Policy‘s quick take; and to the Committee’s own press release (also on Google Docs…). I want here to explore just a couple of the implications.

First, this is clearly incredibly embarrassing for the current UK government. To have any independent criticism of its actions as being ‘asleep at the wheel’ while the democracy of the country that you govern is potentially interfered with ‘as the new normal’ is embarrassing enough. But – more than that, and of course the reason why we have a bystander government in the area set out by the report – is that it has been captured by one, or more (see below), foreign government(s). Russian oligarchs have been welcomed ‘with open arms’ as investors with tier one visas into the ‘laundromat’ of London (actually since 1994) and they have grown close to this government (and, indeed, to leading figures in previous ones). It is no coincidence that Johnson celebrated the 2019 election result the following day at a party hosted by the Lebedev family; the Tory Party has, over a period of time, accepted significant donations from Russian oligarchs seeking to build patronage and extend influence but to do so covertly. There is, of course, a reason that these oligarchs have become very rich and are able to live long enough to enjoy the wealth they have been given. And, if your state aim is to invest in disinformation and to further the goal of disruption, who better to invest in than today’s Tory Party? It’s not as though as it’s come particularly expensive.

Second, the report is, so far, a little short on recommendations, although the Committee may see this as the target of its future, continuing work. Nevertheless, it quite clearly identifies the lacuna which has been government action as regards the UK being a target for disinformation and influence campaigns going back at least as far as the independence referendum in Scotland in 2014. It is a disgrace that this report – which does not appear to have been added to under the new Committee – was not published prior to the last election: although, of course, there is a reason for this. That all parties – government itself, as well as the intelligence agencies – see the potential for external influence in the UK’s electoral processes not so much in the balloting but in the campaigning as too much of a ‘hot potato’ is damning enough. That no-one cares sufficiently about democracy is, ultimately, the reason why it dies – but it is astonishing that none of the agencies seems to have wanted to take some initiative in this area.

Partly, of course, this is because the agencies have come to see defending democracy as a political task. Astonishing as this, it is of course a product of the polarisation and the intensity of feeling that our referendums-based politics of recent years has engendered, and it is also a product of the opprobrium that official bodies – including, of course, the Electoral Commission – receive when they seek to go about their job. Here, as a sidenote, our democracy is lucky to have campaigners and whistle-blowers such as, for example, Carole Cadwalladr prepared to take the abuse to get some of this stuff into the open. For, make no mistake, the leaders and financiers of mobs such as these have, at the very least, no interest in preserving democracy.

At the same time, the reason for lack of action on the government side, apart from it being in hock to vested interests, is quite simple. It would be easy to state that, as a Vote Leave (Continuity) government, it has no interest in looking at the potential for disinformation campaigns to succeed since it has no reason in encouraging anything that might discredit the outcome for which it fought. That’s true, of course, but the truth is also a little deeper that that: this is, in style, a campaigner government, and on a single issue, and one that is, therefore, singularly ill-equipped to grasp the thorns of the detailed policy development work that is required of governments. It is not interested in doing the hard yards of a trade deal with the EU; it is not interested in the tough slog of developing a practical response to a pandemic; it is not interested in taking action when its senior adviser breaks rules which apply to all, or in its ministers dining with donors before planning decisions or engaging in pork barrel politics; and it is simply not interested in objective criticisms of its bystander nature.

This is not only because the government adopts the disinterested, lazy, irresponsible and fatuous character of its leader, or because its leading ministers are appointed not because of their actual capabilities but on the basis of their essential adherence to the One True Faith and their ability therefore to be co-opted into going along with anything which doesn’t disrupt that objective. This government is only interested in, and only capable of achieving, the campaign-based objective which brought it into office and in facilitating as much anarchic disruption as it can. Brexit now having been achieved, and the free trade deal with the EU either having been scuppered or else realised in only a minimal silhouette of an agreement, there is actually no reason for it to be any longer in office. As a Labour supporter, committed to social and economic justice and in redistribution to achieve those aims, and in facilitating a just transition to a sustainable, green economy, I would say that, I guess. But, objectively speaking, this government’s job under our current electoral system is done and it needs to get out.

Third, the Committee has done invaluable work in pointing out that:

The UK Intelligence Community should produce an analogous assessment of potential Russian interference in the EU referendum [i.e. to that in the US conducted by the Director of National Intelligence] and that an unclassified summary of it be published. (para. 47)

Given the careless approach of this government, as well as its immediate reaction in reiterating that it has seen no evidence of interference and that no such enquiry was necessary, it will need to continue to hold the government’s feet to the fire on it and to commit the necessary resources so that the agencies can make such an assessment. This is, by the way, a requirement of all select committees for as long as this particular government stays in office, and not only because it has a ridiculously large majority. Holding the government accountable within parliament is not only an essential pillar for democracy in ordinary times, it is, at this time, a vital task in keeping that democracy alive. Making it ‘illegal’ for spooks to be in the country unless, ludicrously, they have identified themselves as such spectacularly misses the point of the problems to which the Committee is pointing, i.e. of (dis)information activity having moved online. What action is required is to think more closely and much less casually about the use of social media platforms, particularly during plebiscites, in undermining democracy and in achieving the aims of foreign governments. It is good that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee is pressing the government on online harm; and it needs to keep on doing so.

Do I think that such an enquiry should lead to the 2016 referendum being re-run? No, I don’t – and that is of course not what the Intelligence and Security Committee is calling for. Digging in on this, as the government did yesterday, simply reveals that it fears it has something to hide. We are already out of the EU and so re-running the referendum is not only pointless, it is practically impossible. The issue of the UK’s membership of the EU is dead for a generation – much as I deeply regret this, we can’t now revisit it. Furthermore, this is not only now a question for the UK – it’s one for the rest of the EU, too. But the issue is also bigger than this partisan issue – we are all, on whatever side we stand, damaged when our democracy is attacked. If it requires an acknowledgment that there is no revisiting 2016 to make this government order an enquiry to assess how potential interference can – and should – be combated in the future, then it is a price worth paying.

I would like to see the closing of the Pandora’s Box of the use of referendums in ‘settling’ issues of national importance but, more than that, what has become clear from the Committee’s work is that we need to reform our electoral system to rebuild democracy. We probably do need state funding for political parties. We probably do need electoral reform: I was never particularly committed to this – indeed, I voted against in the 2011 referendum, albeit mostly because I was not in favour of the Alternative Vote system being proposed – but it is clear that our current, tribal winner-take-all politics is incapable of handling the nuances of modern political life and the task of rebuilding the country post-Brexit and post-pandemic, as well as in the face of the external pressures being put up against it. We can’t again have an extremist government elected with a sweeping mandate but whose actual capability is so poor; and neither again can we have the position where the leader of one small opposition party can block the efforts of all opposition parties to work together in the national interest, as was the case last autumn. And certainly we need to abolish the House of Lords and replace it with an upper chamber which evenly balances representation from all the countries of the UK and in which the voices of all the other countries can be heard and respected.

And, one final point, neither is this just about Russia. The Russian state might have had much to benefit from the disruption of the UK, in 2014, and then the EU as a result of Brexit (and, we might add, in extending war in the middle east when the migrants that action produces head for the EU); and certainly the hands of its agents are all over the Tory Party. But, to analyse the source of the funding of the campaign to leave the EU and the benefits this has, for some, and all the other tentacles of the Tufton Street network – the source of that is quite clearly the other side of the Atlantic. Our democracy needs protecting from the US, too.

Care and its opposite

Like many others, I’ve been appalled at the UK government’s reaction to the covid-19 crisis, watching on in horror as a rotating combination of the incompetent, the over-promoted, the keen but under-prepared and the downright nasty take centre stage at the daily Downing Street car-crash briefings. The lack of surprise that this is the case, given the Brexit ultras that are in charge, does not subtract from the horror of the show.

The gap between competence and need in terms of public policy is rarely more evident in the aspect of the crisis over social care, i.e. care provided outside the NHS. Care workers have always been at the frontline of the advance of the virus, both more exposed to it as a result of needing to travel to work and unable to observe social distancing rules while doing their jobs, as well as potentially playing a key role in the spreading of the virus. Yet this week we learn that people have been transferred into care homes, including from hospitals, without being tested as regards whether they have been exposed to the virus; and that social care providers are still among the desperately forgotten when it comes to PPE and, crucially, what little testing is being done. Giving out badges is indeed not enough in days like these.

In both cases, this is entirely symptomatic of a situation in which the image of a care sector that is ‘well prepared’ for the crisis is the product of presentation, news management and spin rather than on-the-ground reality. It is also reflective of the fact of casual racism towards black and minority ethnic people being more likely to catch, and die, from the virus not because of some or other genetic factor but because they are more likely to be key public service deliverers, both in a care context and in a public transport one, and because our policy-making process remains substantially indifferent to their needs.

The other reason why this situation has been allowed to go on is because it reflects the herd immunity policy that marked the early days of the UK government’s approach and which still does, albeit now by stealth – and which also accounts for the planned indifference to social care providers: herd immunity requires the young and the resilient to catch the disease and build resistance to it, and care workers are found often among this part of the population. The outcome of such a policy – social care workers, and indeed the BAME population, being expendable and the more numerous deaths of elderly people which result being regarded as collateral damage – represents a truly abhorrent government at work. Make no mistake, the government and its policy advisers who are exploiting the confounding lack of intelligence among UK government ministers see the deaths of substantial parts of the population as mere by-products in its eugenics project.

As some journalists have spotted, there is a link between Brexit warriors and those who are trolling on Covid-19 in the name of liberty and personal freedom and agitating for the earliest possible end to the lockdown. That link lies in ending the demand for carers, many of whom come from overseas – and including from central and eastern Europe – and who have managed to find work in the care sector as the result of free movement of labour. Ending free movement causes evident problems for such sectors – except, of course, where a virus happens to come along and, where unchecked as a result of the application of ‘herd immunity’ policies, reduces the labour requirement as a result of the decline in the elderly population.

The policy outcomes of ending free movement lie most evidently in public perception in terms of raising wages – though the impact of free movement on wages, even in ‘semi-skilled’ and ‘unskilled’ areas was always marginal – about a penny off the hourly rate, according to the NIESR research. The bigger, but less well-understood, desire to end free movement lies in the argument that it is low productivity that is holding the UK back as a global leader in innovation and technological development. Only by ending free movement and thus the source of labour for low-productive sectors, so the theory runs, will productivity gains accrue to the economy: confronted with shortages of labour, employers will be required to automate tasks thus raising productivity and establishing technological advantage. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this doesn’t actually turn out to be the case: research into robot automation in manufacturing highlights the key role for public policy – in terms of national strategies, taxation policies, availability of subsidies, etc – in explaining the incidence of robotisation after relative wages are controlled for. The answer – as always – lies in a more sophisticated analysis of the problem than can be supplied by simple demand-and-supply economics alone. And, unsurprisingly, strong public leadership on this issue isn’t exactly , going on the record of neoliberalism over the last forty years, listed among the UK’s strengths.

Regardless of the semantics at today’s political lobby briefing about whether the UK would accept a extension of the transition period (@13.12) [and now confirmed that it won’t] or whether, in the circumstances, the EU, with its mind on other priorities, is simply tired of the whole process and no longer cares either way, the issue remains that the UK’s response to Covid-19 remains intrinsically tied to its policy on Brexit. That’s not a surprise since the adviser himself – now apparently back at work after ending a period of self-isolation – is one and the same. Back to business, indeed.

When all this is over, there does need to be a public inquiry into the government’s actions in response to covid-19; specifically its indifference to the unnecessary deaths of thousands of UK citizens in the pursuit of a dogmatic policy supported by a minority of enthusiasts the goal of which becomes ever smaller in the light of the major health and social care concerns that now face us. Further than that, however, the reckoning (I’m increasingly of the view that there is a Billy Bragg quote for everything!) that we need to have as a nation needs to take stock of the need to do things differently and expressly that the politics we espouse must be better focused. Neoliberalism has long had its day; but, if anything good can come out of the current existential crisis, a revitalised democracy, green economics and policies that put the achievement of people’s potential first must be in the driving seat.

[Edit: 19/04. Interested to see the Sunday Times‘s Insight team has produced a story today documenting the mis-steps of the government in addressing the virus (£) in February. It’s behind a Murdoch paywall, so I haven’t read it, but I’ve read enough reportage on it to understand something of the negligence it raises. The question remains one of whether that negligence was simply lazy, careless incompetence or whether something more malevolent was at work. Both at the same time are, of course, entirely possible outcomes given the different personalities involved.]

The Immigration (Health) Surcharge: another subscription to populism

One of the, perhaps, lesser items in this week’s budget was the 56% hike in the annual Immigration (Health) Surcharge, from £400 to £624. The new amount is curiously precise. Its (currently) stated purpose is to ensure that migrants pay the ‘full cost of use’, although the government stated this only last October as being £480. The only reference to a figure of the order to which the IHS will rise is, curiously*, an article in the Mail on Sunday quoting £625. I don’t want to drive traffic there, so here’s the Full Fact briefing on the issue which also cites it.

The somewhat unchristian origin of this particular IHS is the 2015 Coalition Government’s moves to ensure that ‘temporary’ (note carefully, with regard to the hostile environment) migrants ‘make a proper financial contribution to the cost of their NHS care’. As the accompanying Press Release went on to document, the surcharge was part of the 2014 Immigration Act whose aim was to deliver an immigration system that ‘works in the national interest’ specifically, amongst others, as regards ‘reducing the pull factors which encourage people to come to the UK for the wrong reasons’ – i.e. ‘health tourism’. Given the dates, we can see this very much as part of clumsy official government rhetoric which turned out only to feed the 2016 referendum vote – and which, of course, still continues.

Now, according to the government itself, ‘health tourism’ costs the UK c. £100-£300m/year – an interesting figure in the light of the Budget’s estimates of a gain of £335m/year from the measure (although this is presumably additional to the sums already being raised) – but pretty small beer, really, in the light of the annual NHS budget. And against which we should also offset the costs of the health tourism engaged in by UK citizens ourselves – it being cheaper to have your teeth sorted by Lithuanian dentists, for example, was one of the major areas of interest in Tom Chesshyre’s look at budget airlines in How Low Can You Go?

But the surcharge of course has only a tangential relevance to the NHS. In a hospital, if you encounter people from other countries, they’re far more likely to be treating you than sat waiting in the queue with you: as regards the ‘consumption’ of health services by people from the European Economic Area, it’s worthwhile recalling at length the exhaustive work of the government’s own Migration Advisory Commission into this issue (para 22):

EEA migrants contribute much more to the health service and the provision of social care in financial resources and through work than they consume in services. EEA workers are an increasing share of the health and social care workforces though these sectors employ greater numbers of non-EEA migrants. There is no evidence that migration has reduced the quality of healthcare.

The NHS is of course funded out of taxes, also paid by migrants – who, we should remember, don’t get to vote in general elections on how their taxes are spent. When all new migrants – including those coming to work in the NHS – have to pay both the Immigration Surcharge and taxes, this is really taxation without representation (x2).

The Surcharge is paid, as part of the process of applying for a visa, into the Treasury from which it goes to any number of spending projects. The sum is paid, up front, and for the full length of the visa, by all those seeking a visa and regardless of whether or not they use the NHS during their stay or even, critically, if they have private medical insurance anyway, thus meaning that – outside of the arrangements between private medical insurers and the NHS – they would have no call on the NHS during their stay in the UK. It is most emphatically not, therefore, a ‘charge on people using the NHS’. Though that is, of course, the shorthand which the government would like people, including the commentariat, to use. The citation of the NHS in its context is simply to use the NHS as a political tool against immigration, to play on people’s fears as part of the hostile environment and to turn us against each other.

Furthermore, it’s not paid by those in the UK on visitor visas or in the country for less than six months – so it’s pretty clear that it doesn’t actually even do the main job required of it to ‘stop people abusing the system’.

The Immigration (Health) Surcharge is instead, essentially a tax on people coming to the UK to work – and one which, according to the Institute for Government, makes the UK already a more expensive destination than any of Australia, France, Germany or Canada. For a single person, a three-year visa, including all fees, now costs some £5,250 before you even step into the country. On top of the unwelcoming, anti-migrant nature of much of our political discourse, and over an extended period now, the stated aim of the new immigration policy to attract the ‘brightest and best’ seems likely to stand simply instead for welcoming ‘those who can afford to come’. And there is, perhaps, not necessarily any link between being able to afford to come and ‘brightest and best’.

And, more seriously, given pay rates in the public sector, neither is there any link between skills and ‘brightest and best’. Any sort of rise in tax on people coming to the UK to work will, inevitably, lead to staff shortages in critical services. The universality of the English language, at a time when the UK is becoming less welcoming, is, in this context, quite clearly our enemy. And ‘the brightest and best’ who could come here will, most likely, choose instead to go to Canada, or Australia.

None of this should surprise about a bystander government whose budget aims to inoculate the UK economy, but not its people, against the effects of coronavirus and whose aims – in respect of the virus itself – seem to be to let it ravage through and take the hindmost, according to Peston, or in the words of the Telegraph, that it might even be ‘mildly beneficial in the long-term by disproportionately culling elderly dependents’ (sic). Neither should that be a surprise given Johnson’s kite flying on the issue while sat on the GMB sofas last Thursday morning. The Cabinet has clearly seen papers floating this very approach and the source of those, even post-Sabisky, is quite clear. And unelected.

Who was it who once warned people not to fall ill, or grow old, under a Tory government?

Railway telecoms – what goes around comes around…

Many of my readers will be aware that I have a regular column in Stage, Screen and Radio, the quarterly magazine of BECTU, the media and entertainment sector of Prospect. The aim of the column is to reflect on issues in the communications industry – broadband, smartphones, mobile coverage, etc. – and their relationship with the policy-making process. Rightly, you have to be a member of the union to read the columns as they appear but the text does appear at some later date on this website: you can read them directly on a separate page on this site by following the direct link to the left (or, otherwise, here).

Production lead times being what they are for a professionally edited and produced print magazine, I wrote the column for the March issue at the start of February. The text of that will appear here (too) in due course, but I had a couple of choices of issues to cover this time around, and this post broadly follows one of the themes that (just) missed out.

The spark for some further research was provided by an item in a telecom news feed just before Christmas which referred to Deutsche Bahn, the German railway operator, deciding to open up its 18,000 km fibre-optic communications network to telecoms companies seeking a core network over which to deliver consumer services. In a subsequent conversation with the sharp members of the union’s organising team, we wondered whether there was a similar system applying across the UK’s rail network and, if so, whether this might face demands to be opened up in a similar way as a means of developing the UK’s communications fibre infrastructure.

Network Rail does indeed have a communications infrastructure – it’s actually an operational necessity in terms of running the signalling on which safe rail travel depends and which, in an emergency, provides secure and complete trackside communications for workers in the industry.

But there is a history here, too, which speaks more broadly of the failures of public policy over the past forty years based on privatisation, the desire to make money by selling off assets developed in the public sector and an over-reliance on ‘market’ solutions and competition, not least when it comes to infrastructure provision. A summary of the details of this ‘somewhat traumatic’ history has been provided (as of 2015) by Clive Kessell, a career-long inhabitant of railway telecoms, and it’s well worth a read (and see others at the same site (Rail Engineer) under the ‘signalling and telecoms’ news section, some of which have been linked in this post).

The story in short is that the railway telecoms network in the UK had been developed piecemeal between 1972 and 1993 under public ownership in pursuit of various signalling and electrification projects. Consisting by then of some 17,000 km of fibre optic and copper cable, it was the largest private telecoms network in the country. The network was parcelled up in the 1990s as part of the privatisation of British Rail and then, later, sold off firstly to Racal Electronics (in 1995, for £140m) before being split up with the main network being sold on (in 1999, for £1bn) to Global Crossing (which ultimately, and after bankruptcy recovery, was taken over by Level 3 in 2011. Level 3, a US company, has also since been bought by CenturyLink, another US operator). We ought, by the way, also to wonder at the valuations of assets which lay behind those prices.

Essentially, therefore, the privatisation of rail telecoms – as with the wider railway – was a botched process in which, as Kessell comments in a key section:

None of these private companies really understood what they were buying… At the same time, the privatised train companies were tempted to acquire telecom services from order-hungry sales people in a myriad of companies intent on cherry-picking the easy bits and ignoring the more important operational comms. The result was communication chaos with ignorance as to who was responsible for what and with serious doubts as to the integrity of the services being supplied.

Network Rail – by then back in public ownership following the failure of Railtrack – therefore took the decision in 2004 to recreate what had been destroyed by private hands in the mid-1990s by agreeing a £1.2bn investment plan for a fibre-based nationwide transmission network, based on GSM-R, a radio-based system whose use was being harmonised across the EU under legislation on interoperability. After securing agreement from the Treasury in 2006, this was instituted between 2007 and 2015 with the outcome that Network Rail – once again – now has access to a UK-wide communications structure. Subsequent investment has resulted in the development of an optical network to support the usage of IP-enabled devices, and will need to continue at a high level as GSM-R comes to the end of its natural life in the next ten years or so and as the industry’s need for bandwidth continues to expand.

The lesson – that there is no valid reason to privatise a core public asset which the private sector does not understand and will not see as intrinsically valuable other than in a commercialised way – ought to be clear.

It’s just possible that we might be making the mistakes again, however. Network Rail Telecom – which currently has some 600 staff – was formed in 2011 to own and manage the new asset on behalf of the whole industry. NRT’s asset base is sizable and encompasses some 18,000 km and 22,000 km respectively of fibre and copper backbones with an architecture based on hundreds of interconnecting rings to obtain a large amount of resilience, as well as 2,500 GSM-R base stations and 3,500 data nodes. The decision has been taken to merge operational and business telecoms, with many systems being used for both – a cross-over which external telecoms providers may not understand. This may provide some element of a ‘poison pill’ against the threat of outsourcing-based private rapacity, as indeed might railway congestion and the need to have trains running at speed and closer together – a solution in which reliable and comprehensive, not to say absolutely dedicated, communications networks have a key role to play.

Nevertheless, as indeed in Germany, the questions have already arisen about the use of the network ‘to benefit wider society’ – to whit, looking at it hungrily from the perspective of the government’s (2017) Digital Strategy for the UK, which (re-)raised the question of publicly-owned and funded networks being opened up to increase the fibre connectivity of homes and businesses. Various trials are underway, and envisaged within NRT’s Strategic Plan, and, while it is clear at least to existing senior industry personnel that the operational needs of the railway are paramount, this may not be at all clear to a Conservative government recently elected with a thumping majority, acting in a populist fashion (£) and allied to a complete lack of moral compass and a ‘year zero’ approach to public policy in the post-Brexit era. Back in 2016, Network Rail had considered a(nother) sale of its telecoms company, as part of plans to raise £1.8bn towards the Railway Upgrade Plan and under government pressure to reduce debt, but then ruled out a sale – though not, critically, any sale of access to spare infrastructure capacity.

But, even if it is good that wider counsels have prevailed (this time), who has the handle on deciding what is ‘spare’, alongside the level of priority to be enjoyed by digital rail where infrastructure is shared and in the context of the expansion of the industry’s own bandwidth requirements, is clearly the key question that will remain outstanding as policy develops.

Ultimately, it seems that this fiendish play – of national assets being sold off (under a Tory goverment) to a private sector which engages in a wanton destruction of value, only for the owner (back under a Labour government) to have to re-build that utility and then facing pressure to sell off that utility again after a change of government – may have a season or two to run yet.

A world away from Brexit – Up Helly A’ 2020

I spent Brexit Day in Lerwick, up above 60ºN and some 760 miles from London – further from the carnival in Parliament Square than any other place in the British Isles; and, travelling eastwards from London, you’d have reached Poland before you got as far again.

I was not only escaping Brexit, of course, but attending the 2020 Lerwick Up Helly A’, which pays tribute to Shetlands’ Norse origins, proceeding from pageantry (with costumes of the main squad taking literally years to work up and build because of the intricate details worked into the designs), to the drama of the torchlit parade through the darkened streets of Lerwick, to one massive all-night party, if you’re lucky enough to get a ticket to one. The history lies in marking the end of Yule, with the days visibly beginning to stretch out after the winter darkness, and in youths returning from the Napoleonic Wars with an appetite for doing things with gunpowder and, later, barrels of burning tar around Lerwick’s narrow, steep streets. The Lerwick Up Helly A’ – one of 12 fire festivals taking place around Shetland from January-March, is the second in the season and, with (this year) 845 marchers (‘guizers’) in fancy dress, it’s not only Shetlands’ but Europe’s biggest fire festival. It’s always held on the last Tuesday in January and, famously, is never, ever cancelled for the weather – the only time it has been cancelled was when it coincided with Winston Churchill’s funeral. Perhaps this explains why the Proclamation – traditionally posted at 6am on a giant board at Lerwick’s market cross – lists this year’s Guizer Jarl (Liam Summers) as the 100th such, although he actually appears to be the 101st named.

If you’re looking for a video which explains what Up Helly A’ is all about, this Shetland.org video is an excellent explanation – well worth 23 minutes of your time (and for a number of reasons, one of which is that the young woman presenter is a former Jarl’s Squad member (in the South Mainland Up Helly A’)). Though she ought also to have mentioned the magnificent beards on display.

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Up Helly A’ is a stamina and endurance event, not least for the Guizer Jarl’s squad – this year numbering 55 people and the only guizers to be dressed as Vikings. Their day starts before breakfast and they’re in costume all day (and then literally all night) – no mean feat when a dose of the ‘flu had affected much of the main squad this year and when Liam’s costume weighed some 30kgs (66lbs), plus axe and shield representing probably an additional 12-15kgs. To get to the end of the night and be as fresh for the last hall as you were for breakfast takes some doing.

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Controversially, however, the Lerwick Up Helly A’ has always excluded women and girls from participating as guizers; it is the only one of the twelve that does. Recently, there have been campaigns to change this which have attracted increasing media attention (see here for a Scottish perspective on this year’s event; and here for a UK one) as the festival has become more and better – and internationally – known. This year, ‘Reclaim the Raven’ brought ‘artivism’ to the existing information gathering and letter writing campaign of the more long-standing ‘Up Helly Aa for Aa’, with the group designing their own proclamation and, guerilla-style, attaching it at 5am to the market cross, on the opposite side to where the Proclamation is erected. This was removed (anonymously) at 8am and has not since been recovered even though those responsible were caught in the act on camera.

Whatever the weight of tradition, the reasons for not excluding women from a public space on the grounds only of their sex are surely stronger. Whatever happens next is clearly for the campaigns themselves to decide, but the Guizer Jarls’ motto – (‘We axe for what we want’) surely has something to commend it in the context of the typically expressed change mission of educate-agitate-organise. The spectre of people genuinely applying to participate as mixed squads but being met with point blank refusal – as happened this year (‘Activists attend London event’, Shetland Times 31/1/20, p. 6) – and teachers at Anderson High School having to inform the lads, and only the lads, in their classes about where to go to sign up for the Junior Up Helly A’ squad is appalling. It is unjustifiable and completely unsustainable to continue to exclude women and girls from the biggest fire festival in Europe, and it sends a completely wrong, and unhealthy, message to young girls in particular. Equality must be everywhere – or there is no equality, as the slightly surprised tone of the newspaper editorials linked above emphasise. The Lerwick Up Helly A’ Committee needs to change; and it needs to decide whether it wants to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 2020s or whether it wants to gain some credit, even at this late stage, by choosing to reform itself in line with the really quite modest, and certainly low key, demands of the local campaigners.

Senior level change will take time: with the new, and already magnificently bearded, member of the Committee being elected to take Liam’s place having to wait fifteen years for his shot at being Guizer Jarl, the earliest a woman could head the Lerwick procession would, at this point, be 2036. The world will have changed substantially by then – and hopefully the Committee will not at that point still be fighting the battles of the 1970s – while small (but significant) change can be accomplished immediately by allowing mixed squads into at least the ranks of the rest of the guizers from the 2021 Lerwick event onwards. When even the Shetland Times – not apparently a particular champion of change in this respect – points to the problems to Shetland society of the divisiveness of the debate, and expresses its hopes for Up Helly A’ to continue ‘in a way the whole community can celebrate it’, you know your time is up.

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Men dressed as women are a frequent sign in the skits put on by the squads during the night-time partying in the 11 halls around Lerwick which act as party venues – 47 squads were in this year’s event and their routines are likely to be more than recognisable to the squads in 1920, all featuring a mix of music and singing, dance and the lampooning of local and national figures and events, with each taking months to plan, write and rehearse. It was a hugely enjoyable night, not least in the sights of men quite clearly enjoying the liberation of wearing a dress and in the oddball costumes in which some spent large parts of their night. I spent my night at the Mareel arts centre, courtesy of tickets obtained by my nephew, Igor – and, despite the lack of progress on women’s participation, there were other positive signs compared to my last Up Helly A’, back in 2013:

– no act used blackface this year

– one squad (23: ‘Slantiģirt does Oz’) did a thoughtful routine based on the Wizard of Oz and included two men clad in rainbow suits.

Top of the pile for me was Squad 42, whose ‘Swine Lake’ – men in pink tutus and lycra and wearing pig masks dancing to Swan Lake – was a thing of style and no little grace. Honourable mentions, among others, also to Squad 38 (‘London Calling’); Squad 33 (‘Still Game’ and including a spot-on Slosh to ‘Beautiful Sunday’, of course); Squad 32 (‘Post Office Redirection’); Squad 43 (‘Sister Act’); and Squad 30 (‘Man’s Event in Lerwick’).

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8.20am and the scene at bedtime.

I went on to spend part of Brexit Day itself at a town hall commemoration in respect of Holocaust Memorial Day, held over from the Monday perhaps as a result of the preparations within the Town Hall for Up Helly A’. The call of HMD to ‘Stand Together’ being made on that day was certainly not lost on the Bulgarians and the Poles present at the event.

Other links can also be made: not only does Up Helly A’ symbolise Shetlanders’ Norse heritage, but the drama of the burning of the boat has symbolic relevance, too. In some Up Helly A’s, the burning galley is launched into the sea, in reference to the suggestion that the galleys of deceased Norse warriors were turned into funeral pyres and put to sea – but not in Lerwick, where the Up Helly A’ burning takes place in a small public park. Here, the symbolism of boat burning, leaving people unable to get home but, instead, having thus exercised the choice to stay, is one that speaks firstly to the settled immigrant that is present in most of us Brits but also in the reference of Up Helly A’ Day to a community coming together to celebrate those same traditions of migration.

The Brexit withdrawal bill and ‘healing’

The conclusion of the Commons stages of the Brexit withdrawal agreement in just three days last week, with a majority of 99, gives the impression of a government in a hurry to deliver. Which it clearly is, in the sense of its self-imposed deadline of 31 January – though it seems in a little less of a hurry to deliver the ‘healing’, which cause Johnson espoused immediately post-election and then repeated in his New Year message. Though his wouldn’t, of course, be the first government to preach reconciliation and practise division – Thatcher did something similar in, and then following, 1979.

While the election has settled the principle of Brexit for, er, a generation, there remains a number of problems about what Brexit looks like which will continue beyond 31 January and as the future trade relationship is settled. Chief among these is that, while the 2016 referendum was, as Chris Grey has continued to argue, a vote against something, there has, opinion polls and politicians’ assertions apart, been no attempt to define what it might have been a vote for. Labour’s stance of seeking a fresh deal and then putting that to the electorate remains, in this context, the right stance to have taken in principle, however much it turned out to be electorally unpopular – though that is a battle now lost. In seeking that definition, there is a number of battlegrounds set out in last week’s passage of the Bill through the Commons which indicates the government’s general direction compared to the previous version (full list here):

– workers’ rights being removed from the Bill and re-located to a suggested new Employment Bill. The concern remains that this will be used to drive workers’ rights downwards in a race to the bottom

– a clause giving ministers the power to direct the courts on the interpretation of EU law and to allow lower courts the power to overturn rulings by the European Court of Justice, something of particular concern to those of us worried about workers’ rights

– a removal of the right of unaccompanied child refugees in the UK to be reunited with their families

– a rejection of a series of clauses to improve citizens’ rights and a potential withdrawal of teeth from the ‘independent’ monitoring authority, which has already attracted the attention of the European Parliament, whose role in approving the final withdrawal agreement remains critical

– a rejection of the attempt to impose in the Bill a requirement to seek continued participation in Erasmus, the EU programme facilitating study abroad

– a refusal to consider mitigating the impact on firms in Northern Ireland of the volte face over the presence of a border down the Irish Sea and checks on goods crossing that border east-west, together with the inclusion of ‘Henry VIII’ powers on the parts of the withdrawal agreement focusing on Northern Ireland

– a refusal to countenance a block on the negotiation of future trade deals until parliament had approved an overall mandate. Taking back control did not, it seems, encompass much of a vision for the role of parliament vis-à-vis the government.

The Lords are, given the outcome of the election and the super-majority that the Johnson government now possesses, unlikely to mess around with any of this too much, although Lord Dubs certainly isn’t giving up and the Lords Constitution Committee is sounding the alarm on lower courts being able to overturn ECJ decisions.

On any one of these issues, a government in possession of a desire to effect some actual reconciliation, and even ‘healing’, could have made some moves towards meeting the demands of the MPs sponsoring amendments and to limit the extent to which people not only working but building their lives in this country could be viewed as people rather than as an economic resource with all the division and rancour that entails – but, no.

The response to some of these is that further legislation will be brought forward – but there are no guarantees on that and the content is inevitably currently unknown. The response to others is that meeting such demands would have ‘weakened the hands’ of negotiators and that progress may still be made on them, presumably via trade-offs. That highlights that such issues as workers’ rights continue to be seen as potential bargaining chips – a matter of disgrace. In others, we need to remember that meaningful negotiations, outside the area of a free trade agreement, have all but finished. Furthermore, in terms of understanding, it represents a failure to understand that modern negotiations is based on conversing about the achievement of mutual gains in which your strategy remains hidden but in which your aims are very much disclosed – and, frequently, strengthened by demonstrations of extensive popular support.

There was a potential win – or even series of wins – for the government here which it has simply chosen to ignore.

Instead, we have the spectacle of Brexit ultras in parliament, whose numbers have increased as a result of the election and the deliberate selection of Tory candidates committed to Johnson’s approach, and who are little more now than lobby fodder, seeking to grind its victory humiliatingly into the faces of opponents. Furthermore, we have the ludicrous, time-wasting spectacle of a public debate over whether Big Ben should strike at 11pm on 31 January, with at least the early crowdfunding of the requisite ‘bungs’, i.e. ahead of Mark Francois’s donation appearing to fall somewhat flat (‘bob a job’ has got expensive these days, although it’s probably marginally more cost effective than Francois climbing up there to do the job himself). Not only that, but there is the approval (from the Mayor of London) for a ‘Leave Means Leave’ event in Parliament Square on 31 January, whose triumphalist tone and nature can only be imagined at this stage but which also just chances to coincide in the same place with a gathering of far-right street thugs being planned by the English Defence League. Likely to be a joyous occasion, I’m sure. But, if they want to celebrate it, then they can own what happens in its wake.

Healing it’s not. But then, healing is far from the minds of the ultras and, by definition, this government. Offering anything to the 48% of us who voted ‘in’ in 2016, or to the majority of the electorate which voted for remain parties in the 2019 general election, or to the probable majority of people who would now vote ‘in’ (currently the same as the general election outcome, incidentally) – such as dynamic alignment of rights, the Norway model, Canada+++ or, heaven forfend, single market membership – would be seen as a betrayal of the one true Brexit. Thus, the call for reconciliation is entirely superficial. The ‘People’s Government’ is just for Leavers – or, at least, that section of Leavers which also voted Tory, given that the Tories’ electoral base has become predominantly Eurosceptic.

Oh – and #ReleaseTheRussiaReport. We all know at this stage of Brexit that it’s more embarrassing (probably most of all for Johnson himself) than revelatory. Even were it the latter, it won’t now stop Brexit; as Brittany Kaiser’s (otherwise extremely useful) whistle-blowing revelations that Robert Mercer funded both Leave.EU and Vote Leave campaigns will also not do. Unfortunately. Nevertheless, people being defrauded and then having the wool pulled over their eyes is never an edifying spectacle – and prolonging the period in which the report is not released is just compounding it.

Election 2019 (2)

Disappointed, bruised and sore.

That a manifesto seeking to tackle social and economic injustice was rejected in favour of empty slogans; that lies, and the practise of lying, have been rewarded; that our democracy is incapable of dealing effectively with obfuscation and the deliberate avoidance of scrutiny; and that the healing which these nations which make up the UK need has been cast aside, to be replaced by further division, hatred and exploitation.

It was indeed a ‘grim’ night in which the balloon of my hope and optimism was punctured at about 22:01, before I finally called it a night just after 04:00. The only bright spot all night (there were two, really, but the failure of The Brexit Party to gain any seats, especially in Hartlepool, is rather meaningless in the circumstances) was the success of Matt Rodda in Reading East, the constituency of my birth. Rodda has been around for a while and his Tory opponent was new, and this might provide a partial explanation to his increased majority. However, a marginal drop in the Labour vote share seems to indicate that, whatever the situation nationally, Rodda – surely confronted with the same issues on his doorstep – is doing something right from which Labour might learn once its – essential – review gets underway.

Here’s a few initial thoughts about the implications of what happened last night.

1. Brexit will happen on 31 January 2020. There’s no way that this will not now take place. This was, after all, a Brexit election and Johnson’s determination to talk about nothing else than ‘get Brexit done’ – when he elected to speak at all, that is – clearly permeated into people’s consciousness, at least in key Tory target areas. Ultimately, this was a successful strategy, pains me though it does to say it. ‘Brexit, stupid’, as someone else might once have said, and keeping it simple, clearly worked.

However, we should note that Brexit remains a democratically-unpopular option. The votes cast for ‘leave’ parties added up to 14.98m, according to my quick calculations from the BBC election results website this morning, compared to a vote for parties committed to a re-negotiation/second referendum or remain of 16.63m (among the 16 largest parties attracting votes of 10,000+). So Johnson’s sloganeering was, across the UK as a whole, not successful. In the meantime, this therefore remains an utterly divided nation (note: the breakdown in favour of re-negotiate/remain is 53:47).

2. Labour’s pivot to re-negotiate to provide a Brexit which hit jobs and living standards less, and then to put this to a second referendum, was clearly not a success. It was either not understood or else it was dismissed – it doesn’t really matter at this point which. In hindsight – though some will claim foresight on this – this was perhaps only likely to work as part of a coalition (or understanding) between ‘remain’ parties. That was never going to happen and there is an argument that, looking at Brexit in isolation, Labour would consequently have been better on a platform that was, at least audibly, closer to one which ‘respected’ the 2016 referendum.

3. In the absence of any such understanding, tactical voting to keep the Tories out was a clear failure. The notion that tactical voting had more traction that it evidently did underpinned my optimism in my post below, as well as my anticipation of the fall of some big (Tory) guns. Neither happened. Evidence published only on Monday this week that people were quite attracted by the idea, though had little idea of the online tools available, ought to have provided sufficient warning (not least of the need to escape your own social media bubble once in a while). Nevertheless, it was not even close for any of the big guns – Raab, Duncan-Smith, Redwood and Johnson himself – and this looks a failure of the MRP technique which, at constituency level, had given gaps to the nearest challenger in these cases as low as one percentage point, whatever its apparent success at UK-wide level in predicting the scale of the Tory majority. In short, MRP got a little lucky.

4. We are heading for a constitutional crisis sometime in the life of this (up to) five-year mandate, once Brexit occurs. Neither Scotland nor Northern Ireland voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum; yet Northern Ireland now has more Sinn Féin/SDLP MPs (the former of course not taking their seats in Westminster) than unionist ones, while the SNP’s share of the vote in Scotland was 45% (a rather interesting figure in the light of the 2014 outcome of IndyRef1).

Much here depends on just what sort of government Johnson actually leads – and it is, by the way, a disgrace to democracy that Andrew Marr, the BBC’s former political editor, can post on the BBC Live pages this morning, and having interviewed Johnson only a week last Sunday, that ‘The biggest question in British politics this morning is, who is Boris Johnson politically?’ (at 07:34, currently p. 5/21). A ‘softer’ Brexit than the one envisaged under the previous government would, to some degree, head off some aspects of this challenge, in the sense of minimising the impacts of a Brexit which left us isolated from the EU. Were we to end up at the end of the transition process without a sensible free trade deal with the EU – i.e. one which protected jobs, working conditions and environmental standards – then Brexit will increase these constitutional pressures.

In that context, there would be a clear argument under which lending a vote to a nationalist project, where the focus was a re-joining of international social and economic structures in the face of a disastrous Brexit, may well have merit in terms of protecting the Scottish working class against such impacts. The SNP has a platform of seeking IndyRef2 in 2020, but that’s not incompatible with the timetable under which a free trade deal with the EU would need to be approved. It’s also quite clear that the only free trade deal with the EU which can be negotiated in that timescale is one which effectively minimises the impact of Brexit. Whether Johnson can cast aside his erstwhile buddies in the ERG to deliver that remains to be seen. So, ‘wait and see’ before making any such pivot would be a wise move – but, for me, it remains a more substantial possibility than hitherto.

5. A rather thin Tory manifesto contained a particular hostage in its promise to ‘look at’ judicial review from the perspective of ‘ensuring that [it] is available to protect the rights of the individuals against an overbearing state, while ensuring that it is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays‘ (p. 48; emphasis added). This is a clear reference to the – evidently embarrassing – cases brought by anti-Brexit campaigners this summer (Gina Miller and Jolyon Maugham. That the cases were won against the government is evidently troubling were any such ‘look’ now to emerge with restrictions on the courts’ capacity to hold the executive to account. This is one of the essential checks and balances in any democracy and, where these are cut back, democracy will suffer. Any look at the example of Poland, where the governing party is attacking the judiciary, much to the consternation of at least the previous European Commission, is clearly illustrative. A UK outside the EU would, clearly, mean no such censure were the government to embark on such action after January 2020. This is clearly not the reason for Brexit, but a government that turns out to be hardline will see it as one of the bonuses of leaving.

In the meantime, I’m off to listen to some Smoove. Loud, I think.