Monthly Archives: April 2020

Independence, YES. Nationalism, NO. The problem of “fictive ethnicity”.

As an Englishman, by accident of birth, it often causes raised eyebrows, at the very least, when people find out just how committed I have become to the cause of independence for Wales.

simplistic nationalismThis is in no small part because I have long been a vociferous critic of nationalism. I devoted a small chapter of my 2011 book, The Asylum of the Universe (now out of print), to this perspective, at a time when I was still far from convinced of the case for Welsh independence. I have to admit that this was an intellectual stumbling block to me getting my head around an unambiguous position in favour of independence.

NO to NATIONALISM

Screenshot 2020-04-27 at 18.55.11

Leanne Wood’s ecosocialist manifesto, 2011.

In my time with the Green Party, and as an ecosocialist, I found myself having large amounts in common with fellow ecosocialists within Plaid Cymru, most notably its leader at the time, Leanne Wood. She and others all took considerable trouble to try and differentiate their form of cuddly ‘civic nationalism’ from the far more distasteful ‘ethnic nationalism’. This was kinda comforting, but doesn’t actually bear too close scrutiny. Only the other day, one of my Yes Cymru colleagues was jesting that I was ok for an Englishman as I have lived here long enough to have drunk enough Welsh water!

Civic v ethnic ppt

Nicked from a school ppt.

For a full exposition of why civic and ethnic nationalisms are false opposites, and actually little more than different conceptions of one ideology and movement, I would encourage the reading of this dissertation, False Opposites in Nationalism: An Examination of the Dichotomy of Civic Nationalism and Ethnic Nationalism in Modern Europe. From its conclusions:

“What these two different conceptions do however provide is different subjective or “ideological bonds” for their members, that provides the glue by which a community of people regard themselves as belonging and sharing a feeling of kinship, solidarity and unity. Citizenship is the key to the bonds within civic nationalisms, and ethnicity within ethnic nationalisms; the cement of civic nationalisms are legal codes and institutions, but within ethnic nationalisms it is customs, myths and symbols.”

The common denominator of the two is the apparatus used to support the ideology. Louis Althusser (French Marxist philosopher who, admittedly, ended up insane) recognised two key categories of this apparatus. On the one hand, we have the “repressive state apparatuses” of the the armed forces and police, which will use coercion where necessary to maintain order and/or repress opposition to the political establishment. And on the other hand, we have the “ideological state apparatuses” of the education system, media, churches and the like, which disseminate ideologies acceptable to the political establishment. Through these apparatuses you are identified as either a member, and incorporated, or an outsider, and ostracised. If you want ‘in’ but don’t share the ideology, Blaise Pascal offered this advice way back in the 16th century:
“Kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will believe”

Whatever the prevailing balance between the expressions of civic and ethnic nationalism, not to mention all the other variants that I have no inclination to explore here, as they all are elements of the same whole, there can be little denying the role of the collective identities of nation and ethnicity in the worst episodes of history.

This is explored by Etienne Balibar ( a student of Althusser) in his influential 1988 essay, The Nation Form: History and Ideology. (Outlined here) He illuminates the common assertion that ethnic and/or cultural homogeneity is not only desirable but a necessary basis for a democratic and harmonious society, with his own concept of “fictive ethnicity. He argues that:

“No nation possesses an ethnic base naturally, but as social formations are nationalised, the populations included within them, divided up among them or dominated by them, are ethnicised.”

Human taxonomyThis is basic anthropology and ancient history. There were once no nations and no borders. Indeed there were once no people, and apart from the points of origin of our species (why stop there? Genus? Family? etc.), well, the point is that who belongs where is ALWAYS subjective and distorted by assertions of the significance of who actually was where at some arbitrary point in history. ‘Fictive ethnicity’ is therefore the idea that all the people who seek to ‘belong’ to the ‘nation’ are required to share certain characteristics, be they biological or cultural. This can be used to assert the distinctiveness of people at different scales: Coity v Wildmill, valleys v the vale, SE Wales v SW Wales, South Wales v North Wales, Wales v England, Britain v Ireland, UK v Europe, Europe v Asia, white people v the rest of the world.Screenshot 2020-04-27 at 19.05.17

Not all these scales will seem relevant to concepts of nationhood, but they can be. We see supposed ‘nations’ at everything from city state to United States. There are no problems in applying civic nationalism concepts at all these scales. Ethnic nationalists will have greater issues with this notion of nationhood. This can be, and often is, the starting point for fascism.Screenshot 2020-04-27 at 15.03.20

It is a surely a matter of personal choice whether I choose to identify as a Welsh, English, Polish, British or European. Most people would probably concede this. I have lived in Wales for nearly 30 years, was born and bred in England of an English mother and Polish father, who himself had some German ancestry. This would seem to give me some entitlement to that range of identities.

Screenshot 2020-04-27 at 19.07.50Strangely though, people start to have issues if I try to claim more than one and I would probably struggle to get away with claiming to be Icelandic, which would be my first choice, or Jamaican, for example, which also has some appeal. Ok, I may be getting a little facile, but my point is a serious one. Does ’national identity’ matter? Should it matter? And why?

I also agree with Balibar in asserting that nationalism, with its systems of inclusions and exclusions, can never fully coincide with national borders. In his 2002 essay “What is a border?”, he points out that borders represent only one part of a complex set of boundaries, shaped by the aspirations, and histories on either side of them. Take a look at the history of the border in Ireland, of Poland, of Monmouthshire, to grasp this point.

It is not only borders that move around, of course. Human populations have always been migratory in nature, going all the way back to our hunter-gatherer roots, with major migrations in response to resource pressures. These pressures still exist, of course, but with the invention of nation-states and borders, it has been like putting a lid on a pressure cooker. The combinations of man-made and natural calamities (oft intertwined) will never cease to crank up these pressures. The result is the ever greater refugee crises we see. The story of these crises always shines a light on the fundamental immorality of nationalism and nationhood.

It has to be recognised that all nationalisms are particular and the enemies they choose vary. Balibar does, however, recognise a competitive mimicry in much of it. Johnson, Farage, Trump, Bolsanoro, et al, all employ similar rhetoric and slogans, targeting locally identifiable scapegoats. But is it fair to label these people as nationalists rather than fascists? It is a fine line at best. Balibar’s contemporary, Alain Badiou expresses well:

“When the state starts being concerned about the legitimacy of people’s identities, it can only mean we are in a period of darkest reaction, as historical experience has shown …. This is because an identity-based definition of the population runs up against the fact that since every population in the world today is composite, heterogenous and multi-faceted, the only reality such a definition will have is a negative one.”

YES to INDEPENDENCE

Thus, I hope I have adequately laid out my position with regards to any form of nationalism. I reject it. So how can I be so committed to the campaign for Welsh independence? It’s actually pretty straightforward. It is built on a belief in certain forms of localism, rather than nationalism, and on a conviction that we need to have a far more effective form of democracy. These two things go hand in hand.

Screenshot 2020-04-27 at 20.02.25Like nationalism, localism describes a range of related political philosophies that can range from the far left to the far right. My localism comes from the more anarchic, environmentalist end of the spectrum. In general terms, localism supports local production and consumption of goods, local control of government, and promotion of local culture and identity.

It promotes deliberative democracy that seeks to engage as many people was possible in the decision making that effects them. It seeks more than just an X in a box and strives for consensus, or at least clear overall majorities. It leans heavily on the principle of subsidiarity that holds that social and political issues should be dealt with at the most immediate (or local) level that is consistent with their resolution. This in turn will lead to a general rejection of economic globalisation. Production and consumption at local level is founded on sound environmental arguments, with a drive for self-sufficiency having a range of other benefits too. This is not to deny that there are not downsides and negatives to this approach. It needs to be focused on environmental sustainability and respect of every individual (i.e. left wing priorities) rather than economic sustainability and the wishes of dominant groups (i.e. right wing priorities)

Screenshot 2020-04-27 at 20.07.08Independence for Wales is not necessarily going to achieve these aspirations in itself , but it is a huge stepping stone towards it. Is there anything that effects the lives of people in Wales that is inherently better decided in Westminster at a UK scale, than in Cardiff (or somewhere else in Wales – I’m not convinced that Cardiff is the most appropriate location for whole-of-Wales decision-making) for Wales or even at more local level where practicable? It is, at best, cumbersome and inefficient (a bit like that last sentence!) and at worst, prejudicial, detrimental and anti-democratic. Wales has never backed a Tory government in Westminster, yet has suffered immeasurably from the consequences of being ruled by one. If nothing else, it has created a degree of subservience and sapped the self-belief from the people of Wales. I have explored this recently in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Independence based on these principles is not insular and self-serving. It is not about denying ourselves bananas and coffee, for example. But where we do get involved in international trade it should respect and maintain the same principles in the areas we go to for trade. Cut out the big multinational corporations. Foster relationships built on fair trade principles and mutual respect with local suppliers of bananas or coffee or whatever. Utilise environmentally friendly routes and modes of transport wherever possible. Likewise, trade our surpluses in accordance with similar ethics. Recognise and celebrate the diversity that exists in our communities, with very few people in Wales having welsh roots that go back more than a few generations at best. Extend the culture of our cities of sanctuary‘ across the whole country. Equally, recognise and celebrate the culture and traditions that have evolved in this part of the world that enrich us rather than diminish us.

Screenshot 2020-04-27 at 19.33.26This is beginning to sound like a manifesto for the a new Welsh republic, and it is of sorts. I have a dream! But none of this is assured in an independent Wales. Far from it. In the hands of the far-right it would look utterly different. But the essential point is that it is all possible in an Independent Wales and virtually impossible in a Wales tied to a deeply conservative/Conservative England. Whereas ethnic and/or cultural homogeneity may be dangerous goals, political consensus must be a worthwhile aspiration. There is obviously some overlap in this, but it is patently easier to achieve in smaller countries than big ones.

Screenshot 2020-04-27 at 19.33.03The late 20th century saw the breaking up of many unwieldy, fractured blocs, such as Yugoslavia, the USSR, Czechoslovakia, and parts of east Africa. The early 21st century has seen growing pressure for independence of viable smaller countries in many parts of the world, from here in the UK, across many parts of Europe and beyond.

Screenshot 2020-04-27 at 19.21.06Few would surely argue that the breaking up of the supposed superpowers of USA, Russia and China, along with perhaps massive countries like Brazil and India, would not be of huge benefit to the whole planet. In the history of the breaking up of empires I have yet to find an example of a country anywhere, at any time, gaining independence from an imperial power that ever regretted it and asked to return.

On this basis, so long as nationalist extremism is kept at bay, it is hard to see how independence for Wales cannot be the way to go.

Screenshot 2020-04-27 at 20.16.38

 

Resignation from the Labour Party

Open letter to constituency and branch secretaries and cc’d to my blog.

Hi gentlemen,

Screenshot 2020-04-24 at 16.40.47I doubt you’ll be surprised by this, but having spent a couple of weeks reflecting and soul-searching, I have decided my time with the Labour Party is done once again.

Screenshot 2020-04-24 at 16.26.23I came back to the party, after a hiatus of nigh on 30 yrs, along with many thousands of others, once Corbyn became established as leader and it was clear that the Labour Party had finally returned to its socialist values. Except it was only ever the leadership and huge influx of new members that ever properly bought into this.

The whole time of my involvement was dominated by battling with the old guard, especially the Welsh Labour establishment, most notably in the shape of Screenshot 2020-04-24 at 16.28.00Carwyn Jones and Madeleine Moon, who did more than their fair share to undermine the new zeitgeist. But slowly and seemingly surely we were dragging things in the left direction. With Jones and Moon discarded to the dustbin of history, despite the circumstances, I still felt a degree of optimism that with new blood in the leadership of the right calibre, momentum could be regained.Screenshot 2020-04-24 at 16.33.34

Screenshot 2020-04-24 at 16.35.44I was further encouraged bay a slate of candidates for Leader that included 4 women and only one dull grey suit. When this became the final four (with Clive Lewis and the awful Jess Phillips gone), there were three acceptable women candidates, all of whom I could have given a real chance to, but no. Screenshot 2020-04-24 at 16.39.22The dull grey suit wins it. The knight of the realm wins it. The establishment lawyer wins it. The heir to Blair wins.

We all knew it was coming some time ago, of course, and plenty of good socialists have been debating amongst themselves as to whether they should stay or should they go. I didn’t want to make a hasty decision, for sure, and plenty of people were saying he would build bridges and unite the party.

However, the shadow cabinet appointments along with the revelations of the full extent of the treachery in the Governance and Legal Unit have totally alienated me. Screenshot 2020-04-24 at 16.41.24I can no longer bear to have my name associated with the Party that so actively undermined and destroyed the possibility of a Corbyn government today. I cannot countenance another penny of my money or a minute of my time being used and abused.

I hear the arguments that it will all be thoroughly investigated and put to rights, but I have absolutely no faith in that happening. If it does, then maybe, just maybe I can be tempted back.

I hear the arguments that we need a Labour government more than ever, and Starmer should be better placed to do that. That is a given, but will be the case with or without my contributions. And to be honest, unless the manifesto remains a close approximation to that shaped by Corbyn and McDonnell, as a bare minimum (which again I have no faith in happening), then it is pretty much a choice of the lesser of two neoliberal evils. But again, if I’m wrong, I may be tempted back.

I hear the argument that this will all be more likely if people like me remain within the Party. But as I intimated earlier, it was hard enough work achieving progressive change in a party with a progressive leader and a progressive membership. It is going to take a Herculean battle to achieve anything remotely progressive with a resurgent Blairite wing. I have never enjoyed pissing in the wind.

What is the point of winning for winning’s sake? If it doesn’t allow you to do what is necessary, it is a Pyrrhic victory at best. It is largely pointless, save for the few people around the fringes that may be saved . That may be enough for me to still vote Labour. Absolutely anybody would be a significant improvement on the vile Wallis that Moon managed to lose to. Anybody but a Tory is certainly as true as ever it was.Screenshot 2020-04-24 at 16.23.37

Anyway, enough. Let me thank you gentlemen personally for your support and encouragement during my time in the party. I wish you luck in the pursuit of some of the goals we share. I’ll be pursuing them through other channels from now on.

Na zdrowie,
Andy Chyba.

Covid-19 and the Case for Welsh Independence

Straight away let me respond to those who may be tempted to try and criticise me for politicising this crisis to advance a political agenda. You are absolutely right and I do so unashamedly. If nothing else, this crisis has shone a light on everybody’s political choices. Few come out of it looking good, which is one reason they want to close down such discussions. The variations in response, and the success of those responses around the world, are entirely in the hands of political decision makers. Thus, every single decision has to be seen and understood in a political context.

It is the political context that we find ourselves in here in Wales that I want to focus on. It is my contention that the half-baked, halfway house of a devolution arrangement we have here in Wales is no happy compromise and leaves us in the ridiculous situation of not knowing who to hold responsible for successes and failures in, well, just about anything. This is, of course, a highly agreeable state of affairs for the establishment politicians, especially where we have Tories in Westminster and Welsh Labour in Cardiff Bay. Screenshot 2020-04-22 at 21.39.16Carwyn Jones made a very nice career for himself using the Tories in Westminster as the ready-made excuse for failing to achieve the bare minimum you’d expect from Labour after 20 years of supposed-government; the eradication of poverty and homelessness, substantially less inequality, the restructuring of industry and employment for the 21st century. We can and should still have these aspirations.

The reasons for these failures are pretty simple. Unless they are the goals of the UK government as well, they cannot be achieved until Wales has FULL control over taxation, monetary policy, public expenditure and infrastructure investment. That would take us to at least 90% of full independence. The other 10% would be cultural things like Olympic and Eurovision status, along with aspects of trade and foreign policy- such as, dare I say, EU membership. I don’t want to go into the tiresome debate over whether Wales would be economically viable, if independent, here. Check that out elsewhere if you still need convincing. But I do want to look at how being umbilically tied to Westminster has impacted on the response to Covid-19 here in Wales.

Screenshot 2020-04-22 at 12.44.17This story needs start well before the onset of this pandemic. The last pandemic we encountered was the 2009 H1N1 ’Swine flu’ pandemic which saw Wales escape with relatively few confirmed cases, but a higher death rate than the UK average, even if that did amount to just 28 deaths (if just is ever an acceptable word to describe multiple deaths). As a consequence there was a flurry of post-pandemic reviews across the UK and attempts to update pandemic preparedness and response guides. The most recent substantial document I can find from Welsh Government is this one, published in 2014.

Screenshot 2020-04-22 at 12.51.07I have no inclination to pore over this and dissect it as I’m not even sure it is the most up-to-date pre-Covid-19 advice in Wales. But It is essentially a supplement to UK guidance rather than a stand alone document, as acknowledged on pg 2:
“Further detail on pandemic preparedness and response can be obtained from the UK Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy. This can be downloaded from the Department of Health website

It kowtow’s to UK level decision making at many points. Is this a problem? I think so. More on this shortly.

We do know that Theresa May’s UK government undertook a comprehensive review of Britain’s pandemic response capabilities in October 2016; Exercise Cygnus. It involved all major government departments, NHS England , Public Health England and many big local authorities, but I have not yet been able to ascertain whether there was any involvement of any of the devolved administrations. It seems probably not. This showed gaping holes in the government’s Emergency Preparedness, Resilience and Response (EPRR) plan. Did Welsh Government even see it? Did they emulate it? Did they do anything at this time? Was it even on their radar?

What we see in far too many spheres, but in the current coronavirus crisis in particular, is a tendency for Wales, even where it has theoretical freedom to make its choices in devolved areas like health and education, to hang onto the coat tails of UK decision makers and rarely have the confidence to take the initiative or take a separate path. That is arguably fine so long as Westminster is on the ball and a reliable source of wisdom, but could that ever be expected of any Tory government, let alone one led by Boris Johnson?!!

With this deference comes tardiness. For example, the decision to shield the elderly and vulnerable by instructing them to remain at home for a full 12 weeks minimum led to letters being issued within a week or so in England, but a week to 10 days later in Wales (with thousands being sent to the wrong addresses to exacerbate things). It is not as if Wales doesn’t have its own Chief Medical Officer who could have issued such guidance potentially a lot sooner. But no, we have to wait and see what England is doing and follow suit pretty much to the letter. Our people deserve better surely.

To be fair, the devolved administrations did take some initiative by announcing school closures at a time when Boris Johnson was still dilly-dallying on the issue. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all announced the school closures on Wednesday 18th March, with immediate effect in Northern Ireland and from the end of school on Friday 20th in Wales and Scotland. On 18th March, the official Government advice remained that all educational institutions should remain fully open in England. But with up to a third of staff missing due to illness or self-isolation measures this was untenable and England fell into line by the 20th.

What is not clear in this is who was pushing the school closure agenda in the devolved administrations. It seems implausible that they all took the decision on the same day completely independently. There was clear co-ordination in the announcements.

Screenshot 2020-04-22 at 22.20.46

Kirsty Williams doing what she does best.

Knowing what we do of Kirsty Williams (the only Lib Dem AM, made Education Sec in Welsh Government in order to give Welsh labour a workable majority) it seems unlikely that she or anybody in Welsh Government was the prime mover. Both Scotland and Northern Ireland have significantly different educational arrangements than England and Wales. In typical Welsh deference, education in Wales is essentially exactly the same as in England but with a Cwricwlwm Cymraeg addendum bolted on.

On top of this, and probably more significantly, both Scotland and Northern Ireland consistently show more confidence and inclination to diverge from whatever the English do. They don’t even have the same political parties in Northern Ireland, whereas Scotland’s very own SNP has far more presence and resultant confidence, on the back of mass popular support, than Wales’ very own Plaid Cymru can currently dream of having.

Thus, we have a situation whereby the majority in Wales seems to be content with seeing itself as little more than an annex of England, led by an essentially unionist party, unlike their Celtic cousins. It is little wonder, in this context, that doing anything radically different to England seems nigh on impossible and as rare as hen’s teeth.

The renewed radicalism within Welsh Labour since the rise of Corbyn to lead the UK Labour Party has to be acknowledged. The Corbynite group ‘Welsh Labour Grassroots’ wrote to Mark Drakeford (First Minister) on 5th April to raise concerns about responding to the Covid-19 crisis “largely in lock step with the UK Government”, and raising specific concerns over how this has impacted on testing and PPE, lack of clarity in messaging, lack of protection for vulnerable groups, such as private renters, and a failure to address the gaps in income support schemes for the self employed in particular.The also took him to task for closer adherence to UK guidelines and actions than to those advocated by the WHO, where those differ.

Screenshot 2020-04-22 at 22.24.21

Drakeford demonstrating the grip Johnson has on his prime assets

Drakeford didn’t rush his reply, taking until 8th of April to respond. He conceded that, while the virus is no respecter of boundaries, it is indeed incumbent on WG “to shape the response in Wales”. He then went to highlight the things Wales’ had chosen to do differently to England, namely:

  • Suspending routine work in the NHS sooner than England in oder to get better prepared
  • Put into actual law that exercise away from home can only be once a day, along with the 2m distancing rule
  • Restricted fines for breaking social distancing rules to £200, instead of the £900 in England
  • Different funeral rules
  • Quicker to close camping and caravanning sites

While each of these is commendable enough, it amounts to very little if these are the best examples he can come up with. Its resonant of the claims of success for 20 yrs of Welsh labour government in Wales. Lots of tiny gains that help small groups of people (free prescriptions, reduced tuition fees, carrier bag charges and the like), but that add up to no substantial benefit for the entire population.

And these tiny gains need to be set against the various ways the people of Wales have lost out directly due to Welsh Government kowtowing to Westminster. For example, there have been the complex shenanigans of PPE procurement. Drakeford’s letter clearly states that all 4 UK Governments had agreed to pool their purchasing power and share procurement capacity rather than try to compete against one another. Sounds fine in theory. Indeed, imagine if such a collaborative venture was tried across the whole of Europe…. But I won’t digress down that avenue here!! Save to say, this has quickly unravelled as English companies with contracts with Public Health England have taken that to mean they cannot supply Wales and Scotland.

The situation with the all important testing capabilities is an even worse case. I happen to be good friends with a senior academic, who actually trains the biomedical scientists who perform these sorts of testing services in the NHS. Some of his students will be employed on vaccine development programmes and others in other medical fields relevant to this crisis. He had this to tell me just a few days ago:

“As soon as this happened I contacted the WG and also colleagues in my university. Next thing I knew they had taken our testing capabilities to Milton Keynes to set up a super testing facility. I know the testing method inside out. I offered my services and signed up to an online standby service but I’ve heard nothing.”
“Wales always follows England. As an academic in two welsh universities for 30 years I can say that Wales has never made independent decisions and has always followed England’s lead. So, nothing new and I’m not surprised we are following their lead.”

Add this to the Roche debacle, whereby Public Health England was effectively allowed to gazump Welsh Government’s order for 5,000 Covid-19 tests per day. This led to Whitehall effectively taking control of test procurement across the whole UK and dishing them out pro-rata. However, this looks like being pro-rata by population, not pro-rata by need, and Wales has had more than its ‘fair share’ of cases for most of the crisis. Thus, Wales is not likely to be well-served by this arrangement, especially since the transfer of University testing equipment appears to have happened across all academic institutions in Wales, leaving Wales as the only UK nation without a large testing facility.

Screenshot 2020-04-22 at 22.27.41

Gething showing the size of his faux pas.

Thus, having given up all control for testing in Wales, it is little wonder that Welsh Government has had no option but to abandon all pretence at being able to even work towards a testing target. That is entirely in Westminster’s hands now. So now we have to put up with Wale’s Health Minister, Vaughan Gething, trying to spin this as not a problem as he reckons we don’t need to be testing right now!!

As if that wasn’t confidence sapping enough, he then went on to say that Welsh Government were working with those well-known biomedical experts at Amazon to produce a coronavirus testing web-portal! Priority will no doubt go to those with Amazon Prime accounts! Screenshot 2020-04-23 at 18.15.34This probably also explains the nauseating Amazon adverts currently running where Amazon tries to pretend it is a lovely caring company that cherishes it workers, rather than arguably the worst employer on the planet. Not a good look for a Labour Party association.

 

 

IN CONCLUSION

The current constitutional arrangements have not freed Wales anywhere near enough to achieve its potential. Beyond this, it also ties us too often and too closely to an English establishment and all its shortcomings.

Covid-19 has shown the extent to which the Welsh Labour Government is happy to be beholden to Westminster. It is a relationship that has served it well, giving it excuses for its own conservatism and lack of radicalism.

Wales needs its own resources to do its own due diligence in these circumstances so that it could emulate other small independent countries like New Zealand and Iceland, rather than follow meekly the path trodden from Westminster. In the current context it would have given us the potential to save hundreds of lives to date and thousands more yet to come.

Screenshot 2020-04-22 at 22.30.33The neoliberal sociopathy of a deeply Conservative England really ought to be anathema to the people of Wales, built as it is on richly diverse working class communities. The NHS was, after all, born in Wales through Nye Bevan. It was Tredegar Medical Aid Society that gave Bevan the model and inspiration for the entire NHS.

Thankfully we have just about sufficient devolution currently to mean that we can sidestep Boris Johnson’s megalomaniacal moves to take over at the running of the NHS in England and hasten its dismantling and privatisation. But without the freedom and control of resources from full independence, the Welsh NHS will continue to be strangled from afar.

Screenshot 2020-04-23 at 18.22.57A common mantra emerging from this crisis across the world is that there can be no return to normal, as what we had as ‘normal’ was very much the essence of the problem. Such a crisis has enabled everyone (well, all those that will look up and see at least) to see the full evil of disaster capitalism – which is not really any different than everyday capitalism in that it promotes the welfare of capital and capitalist elites above the needs of the common people. It will no doubt lead to the biggest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich since, well, the last global disaster (the banking crash of 2008) via the con that was ‘austerity’.

Wales needs to wake up and smell the coffee. It can stay meek and subservient and remain grateful for the crumbs tossed its way from the top table. Or it can boldly take control of its own destiny; develop the bountiful natural and human resources to create ample sustainable wealth and security for all people living here. Many argue that we don’t have the visionaries or the talent to pull this off in Wales. I find that deeply insulting. I know it is not so. And where does such pessimistic resignation lead us? Into the arms, or even the nooses held by the arms of ‘visionaries’ of the calibre of Johnson and Cummings. I rest my case.Screenshot 2020-04-22 at 22.32.52

 

Lies, damned lies & statistics – understanding graphs

This posting has been prompted by a number of people failing to understand what the graphs the government keeps showing in its daily press briefings actually show and mean. In particular, there is one graph, that they feature updated most days, that seems to be giving a misleading impression of what is going on. I will get into teacher mode and endeavour to explain the issue as clearly as I can, and leave you to decide whether it is a cynical deception or not.

This is the graph in question:Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 20.47.07

This is a screenshot taken directly off the televised briefing to the nation this evening. I have done my best not to distort either axis, so as to leave it exactly as the government presented it. (However, it may be distorted a little in one or other axis by the device you are viewing on, but this is not significant overall).

It has become a familiar feature of the daily briefings and I,  and many others no doubt, take a close look to see how we are doing compared to other countries. But I wonder how many have looked at and then understood the axes labelling and small print.

The small print tells us that Day 0 is NOT when the first death occurred, which is what I have found people assuming (not unreasonably), but, as you can see above the graph, Day 0 is the first day 50 deaths were reported. In the UK’s case, this was on 16th of March, when we saw a rise from 35 on the 15th to 71 on the 16th. It was, in fact, ELEVEN full days after the first death occurred (on 5th March).

The axis up the left hand side of the graph, showing the total deaths, goes up in a rather odd looking way (50/100/200/500/1000/2000 etc) and the spacing between the lines looks pretty random too. For example the gap between 5000 and 10000 (an increase of 5000 deaths) looks pretty much the same as the gap between 1000 and 2000 (an increase of just 1000 deaths). This is what is known as a logarithmic scale and is a common enough device in statistical analysis, especially graphing data that explodes in values, as is surprisingly common in science and nature.

Because they are relatively complicated to design and understand properly, it is not something encountered in school before ‘A’ Levels at the very least (and only then by maths and science students). Most people will have never learned anything about them at all.

When looking at the graph above, intuitively most people will interpret it as suggesting a steady increase for every country, with South Korea clearly having lower deaths than everywhere else, and Spain noticeably the worst. This is only partly correct. Yes, Spain is substantially worse than South Korea, but rising steadily?  Sorry, that is far from the truth. 

If you look closely at the graph, again intuitively, most people notice the line starting to flatten for most countries around about Day 14 or 15. This they assume must be good news. Looks like the start of a downturn, many think. Some are savvy enough to notice that the line for the UK actually steepens a bit around Days 14 and 15 and wonder if this is cause for concern. We are told to not read too much into this as we need to see trends over longer periods. That is fair enough. But the reality of what those slightly less steep lines means in the upper part of a logarithmic graph comes as quite a shock to most once it is shown to them! Prepare for that shock.

So what sort of line graphs have people seen in school and have relatively little trouble understanding? That would be arithmetical graphs. This is a big word for a simple enough idea.

With an arithmetical graph, you would expect to see the axes going up in perfectly equal steps. They don’t always start at zero, that is a somewhat different trick of the trade, but basically each even gap up the side will go up the same amount. So instead of the odd sequence of numbers listed above we might find 1/2/3/4 etc or 10/20/30/40 etc or 50/100/150/200 etc. Any even step up will work.

So how would the above graph for the UK look on an arithmetical graph, one that truly represents the day to day change in the figures? I have produced it here using Excel. This starts at the same point, day 16 when the total burst through the 50 barrier and is up to yesterday, as is the graph above. Shocked? Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 22.09.47

Dramatically different, isn’t it? All the other countries would have a very similar shape. Where the COBRA Government graph above suggests a flattening off, this one, more accurately would show a slightly less steep curve at best, because really big numbers do not get squashed down dramatically on this sort of graph. On this graph the same amount of deaths each day shows the same size step up in the graph each day. On a a logarithmic graph the same size increase each day gets shown as a smaller step up each day. Deceptive! It will, and does, mislead the unwary!

Now, pedants out there will point out that these graphs can be further distorted by playing around with the axes to make it look flatter or steeper. Both of these are accurate and truthful versions of the same sets of data:

Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 22.24.30

Squash the death axis down; stretch the date axis out. Result is a much flatter line.

Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 22.25.13

Stretch out the deaths axis; squash the dates axis. Result is a much steeper line.

To the uneducated eye these would look like they are telling very different stories. See what I mean about lies, damned lies and statistics. You certainly have to be very wary when politicians start bandying statistics about, and even more so with graphs. 

So, for the sake of fairness, I’ve attempted to line up the two graphs next to each other so that the date axis is the same. and the deaths axis takes up the same space on the page. (This may not come out too well, depending on the device you are viewing on, but at least I’ve tried!). Remember, I’m only lining up with the UK line on the COBRA graph. Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 22.40.59

So why has the government chosen to present the data using a logarithmic scale and starting from 50 instead of zero? Well, Spain and Italy would be way off the top of any practical arithmetic graph some time ago, so this method is far more manageable for the data (but only beyond, say, day 20 or so). Below 50 deaths would not really register as much other than a flatline at the bottom. So it is not entirely unreasonable to use this technique as a statistician. But without proper explanation and understanding it can be very deceptive to the general public. 

The lesson I want to leave you with, is that only an arithmetical graph that starts from zero is a totally ‘honest’ representation of the data, that doesn’t manipulate the patterns shown beyond what the average person in the street would understand. Yet they are surprisingly rare. Whenever you see scales that are not evenly spaced and not starting from zero (unless its dates) then ask yourself what is being hidden and why. If you cannot work it out for yourself, ask a friendly scientist or mathematician!

Talking of which, for those that want to explore this topic little further, I highly commend the Minute Physics Youtube channel, and this short 7min video in particular:Screenshot 2020-04-03 at 18.46.54