Friday, 30 September 2016

Gaddafi's gold

It often seems as though journalists and politicians possess highly selective memories.  Worse, they also assume that the rest of us do as well, and are quite happy for them to regurgitate old stories as if they were new, or even to completely reverse the ‘facts’ if that suits their current requirements.  I mention that as context for the ‘revelation’ that some members of Plaid Cymru went to Libya in 1976 and that the party may, or may not, have received money subsequently.
I was a member of the party’s national executive at the time.  However, it was 40 years ago, and I have no written records from that period, so I am working from memory here – and age, as they say, does not come alone.  I recall, though, that the first I knew about the infamous visit was after the event.  I don’t know how it came to be arranged or how the participants were selected, but I’m sure that it wasn’t through any formal decision-making process.  On the other hand, in those days an awful lot of things happened outside any formal decision-making processes!
The problem with the past is often that we view it through the prism of the present, but the context back in 1976 was significantly different.  At that time, Gaddafi was seen less as a despot and more as a revolutionary who had overthrown an absolute monarchy in a bloodless coup.  And the then comparatively new government of Libya was making efforts to share the country’s oil wealth more fairly, and develop the country’s education and health services.  The BBC’s report includes a quote from Carl Clowes about the reasons for the visit which are entirely true – these were interesting developments from which it was believed that Wales could learn.
One other result of the visit was an attempt to broker some sort of deal between Welsh farmers and Libya to export Welsh lamb.  I’m not sure that very much ever came of it, but the attempt was genuine and well-intentioned.  The one thing of which I am certain is that the visit was not conducted with the aim or intention of securing funding.
Most of what I subsequently learned about the visit came from one of the participants, Brian Morgan Edwards.  Brian, or BME as he was more widely known, was something of a character, to put it mildly.  And on all issues other than the core question of independence for Wales it would be fair to say that his views and mine were more than a little divergent, but we always got on well – and he could be very good company.  But like all good raconteurs, he could at times ‘embroider’ his stories ever so slightly.
(At the time, incidentally, he was not, as stated, Treasurer, but Deputy Treasurer.  The Treasurer at the time was the late Elwyn Roberts from Bodorgan on Ynys Môn.  Having subsequently taken over from Elwyn as Treasurer, I can vouch for the fact that absolutely no-one other than Elwyn would have fully understood the party’s finances at that time, not even the Deputy Treasurer, which was a post with no clearly-defined responsibilities despite having a seat on the Executive.)
Thus it was that one Saturday night in the lounge bar of the Bellevue Hotel in Aberystwyth after an all-day meeting of the Executive (early in 1977, I think) Brian regaled me with his tales of the visit.  He was, shall we say, partial to the odd whisky or six, and had a knack of speaking in a stage whisper which meant that everyone in the room could hear everything he said (including on this particular occasion the gentleman on the other side of the room to whom Brian referred as “Big Ears over there” – in the same stage whisper.  In all fairness, I could hardly blame anyone for listening in in the circumstances).
The Libyans, he told me, had offered guns as well as money, and could not understand why the group were refusing them.  According to Brian, the response to the refusal had been along the lines of “But when the Irish come here, they always want guns.  Why don’t you want guns?”  I was more than a little alarmed at this turn of events, and subsequently spoke to Phil Williams (who had led the visit) privately to express my concerns.  Phil was able to give me the assurances that I sought; the visit had indeed been about looking at what the government was doing in fields such as health and education, not about seeking assistance – and there had been a little ‘embroidery’ in Brian’s tale.
So, with that by way of background, I completely believe the statement by Carl that Brian told him that money had been received; but that is not necessarily inconsistent with believing the counter claim by Plaid that there was no money.  I certainly have no recollection of a £25,000 donation from Libya being reported to the Executive.  The party was, in those days, run on rather less than a shoestring; £25,000 would have been considerably more than 10% of the party’s annual turnover.  It was the sort of sum which only ever arrived as a result of the wills of departed members.  The party’s financial affairs were more than a little ‘complex’ at the time as well; the treasurer was always borrowing from Peter to pay Paul as the party stumbled from one financial crisis to the next.  £25,000 would have made a significant difference. 
On the other hand, in those days political parties as entities were barely acknowledged under the law, and regulation was zero.  Add to that the secretive nature of party financing in general and it’s entirely possible that any party at the time could have received money from all sorts of dubious sources with no more than a handful of people ever being aware of the fact.  For what it’s worth, I genuinely don’t believe that £25,000 was received, but I cannot in all honesty entirely rule out any possibility that some money was received via one route or another with the knowledge of only one or two individuals who are no longer with us.  I suspect not; I simply cannot be certain.
The response by Labour and Lib Dem politicians to the latest rehashing of the story was utterly predictable – seize on a claim, portray it as fact, and issue a condemnation.  It’s utterly hypocritical, as Cai has pointed out, given the links which others subsequently developed with Gaddafi.
It might be argued that it was known at the time that Libya was arming and financing the IRA, and that therefore any contact with the regime was at the least unwise.  With hindsight, that is perhaps so – but there are a lot of things that most of us would do differently with the benefit of hindsight.  And there are plenty of other governments which have funded armed groups in other countries - the US is probably primus inter pares in this respect.  We have to come back to context again.  Although Gaddafi turned out to be a despot, the despotic aspects of his regime were considerably less obvious in 1976 than they were by the 1990s.  At that time, he looked like a man who was utterly determined that all in his country should benefit from oil wealth, and that was a very different perspective on wealth from that prevalent in the capitalist economies.  I couldn’t then, and still can’t, see anything wrong with trying to learn how that was being done in practice.  Everything else about the latest ‘story’ just looks like froth and mud-slinging to me.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Following the rules

Last week it emerged that the new Home Secretary had been involved with offshore investment funds in the past.  The report was quick to reassure us that this was not an attempt to avoid paying tax in the UK; it was simply that the regulatory regime at the time did not allow this type of fund to be set up in the UK.  So she was not avoiding UK taxes, merely avoiding UK regulations.  That, apparently, makes everything OK.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Spotting the difference

There have been two vaguely similar stories (here and here) about internal devolution within the Labour Party in recent days.  Wales, we are told is “on course to win greater autonomy”, whereas Scotland is heading for “full autonomy”.  The addition of one small word, “full”, is significant, and it’s tempting to see this as simply the Labour Party’s traditional approach of treating Scotland with rather more respect than Wales.  Perhaps if Welsh voters had done to Labour here what Scottish voters did to it there, Welsh Labour, or what was left of it, might also be on the road to "full" autonomy.  Or at least, that might be the terminology in use, because I suspect that this is as much about presentation as substance.
Some of the proposed changes for the two nations look similar – for instance over internal organisation, candidate selection, and representation on the NEC.  The one thing specifically mentioned in relation to Scotland but not in relation to Wales is the question of policy-making.  In Scotland, the newly “fully autonomous” Labour Party will be free to set its own policy not only on matters in the purview of the Scottish Parliament, but also on wider UK and international issues.  Although, to be fair, they’ve claimed in the past that they already have that freedom, so there’s at least a question mark over what’s changing.
But how meaningful is that right in practice?  One of the other changes seems to be giving the Welsh and Scottish branches of the Labour Party an input into the UK manifesto – but if there is still a UK manifesto, what is the point of there being different policies in different nations? 
The most obvious current example is Trident renewal.  As I understand it the current position is that the UK (i.e. in the new scenario that means the EnglishandWelsh) Labour Party is in favour of renewal, whilst the Scottish Labour Party is against.  (The Welsh Labour Party isn’t allowed to have a view of its own either way – a situation which seems destined not to change under the new arrangements).  But if there is a single UK manifesto, will any Scottish Labour MPs be elected on the basis of the UK manifesto or the Scottish autonomously-decided policy?  If the former, then there is no point in having the right to disagree – and if the latter, then there is no longer a single UK manifesto.  The way things are at present, in all probability it won’t matter: with only one Labour MP from Scotland it’s neither here nor there what he thinks, and he doesn’t look likely to have any companions for some time to come.
It looks to me as though this manifesto issue is either something that they haven’t really thought through, or else something which they think that they can just muddle through when the time comes.  Or maybe it’s both of those; in that sense it would only be mirroring the Labour Party’s whole approach to devolution in the first place. 
Given the Labour Party’s residual popularity in Wales (compared to either England or Scotland), one might think that trying to isolate that from the Labour Party in England would be a rational way forward, but that simply isn’t the way they work.  It’s much more likely that they’ll only come round to that way of thinking when it really is too late, as has happened in Scotland.  That might just be wishful thinking on my part of course; but for a party which was founded with the aim of trying to change the course of history, they do seem to have developed an unfortunate tendency to wait until history overwhelms them.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Playground politics

A lot of hot air has been expended in recent days about the difference between ‘access to’ and ‘membership of’ the single market, and about the fact that Labour’s AMs ‘voted with the Tories’ in response to a Plaid Cymru-tabled motion.
In general, I’m singularly unimpressed with the various parties’ regular practice of accusing everyone else of ‘voting with X’ on a particular issue.  It always strikes me as being a way of avoiding discussion of the substantive issue by resorting to simplistic insult rather than a way of throwing light on the issue.  In any situation where there is a binary choice of voting for or against a proposition, politicians can only choose one of those options (or, of course, they can abdicate all responsibility, and choose to sit on their hands and abstain).  One would hope that politicians would be mature enough to decide how to vote on the basis of the proposition itself, rather than on the basis of who else might be voting on which side.  Being on the same side as another party in such a binary situation isn’t the same as forming a coalition with that other party, or even agreeing with them on policy – it’s perfectly possible for two parties to oppose any given policy on totally different grounds.  To hear some of them talk, one might think that voting the same way as party X – usually, but not invariably, the Tories – is equivalent to forming a pact with the devil himself.
Returning to the question of ‘access’ or ‘membership’, whilst it could be argued that ‘membership’ is simply a special case of ‘access’ and is therefore included within the broader term, there clearly is an important unresolved question about the nature and extent of access by UK, and therefore Welsh, businesses to the single market post-Brexit.  I agree with the thrust of the Plaid proposal in the Assembly that membership is preferable to any lesser form of access in the interests of economic continuity and stability, but I’m also convinced that full membership without accepting a lot of other rules and regulations, including free movement of people, is an unattainable goal.
The political question is about how we respond to that contradiction.  It’s been depressing to see Labour AMs and MPs lining up to declare that free movement is no longer acceptable because we have to accept and adjust to the ‘legitimate concerns’ that people have about immigration.  What these ‘legitimate concerns’ are is never spelt out; the position of said AMs and MPs looks more like capitulation to a vague and prejudiced xenophobia than a thought-out policy position.  It’s increasingly clear, though, that Labour, like the Tories, is moving to a position of accepting that full membership of the single market is an impossible goal, as a result of the conditions which they themselves are seeking to impose.
Part of the Labour response to Plaid’s motion was to describe it as a motion whose main aim was to be the basis of a press release afterwards.  I think they’re right to say that, but don’t see anything wrong with doing that if the purpose of the press release were to highlight the issue itself and the dangers that we face if we damage our trading position simply in order to secure more control over EU migration.  The bigger problem for me wasn’t using a motion and a press release in that fashion; it was that the publicity which the party sought was more about the playground politics of who voted with whom than with the real and important issue of the economic impact of having to leave the single market as a direct result of demanding controls over migration.
If we are to convince people that arbitrary reductions in migration will be economically damaging, we need to address and debate that question directly and make the link clear, rather than indulge in simplistic point-scoring.  To date, few politicians – in any party – seem willing to do that.

Monday, 26 September 2016

We are not them

According to one Labour MP, John Mann, Owen Smith’s leadership campaign failed largely because it “boiled down to one key message: I am not him” (i.e. Jeremy Corbyn).  Whilst I have considerable sympathy with the idea that such a campaign message is unlikely ever to motivate anyone, I can understand why so many in the Labour Party would think that it was entirely suitable and adequate.  I thought Mr Mann's verdict was, in context, more than a little harsh; after all, doesn’t the whole party’s key message in election after election boil down to simply saying “We are not them” (i.e. the Tories)?

Friday, 23 September 2016

How much has really changed?

I’m more than a little confused about the education policy of the Conservatives in Wales.  At one level, I welcome the statements made this week that they don’t want to follow the policy of the English Government in reinstating grammar schools, and that selection at 11 is divisive.  But how much of a change in policy is this in reality?
In 2013, they proposed reintroducing the “best elements” of the old grammar school system into Welsh education, but without re-introducing the 11+ exam.  The meaning of “best elements” wasn’t spelled out as far as I can see, but in essence, they were proposing a “dual education system” where children were split into two streams at 14.  “Best elements” seemed to amount to “selection at 14”; if that isn’t what they meant, then I don’t know what they were saying.
According to a BBC report, this was a proposal which didn’t find its way into their manifesto for the 2016 election.  However in the leaders’ debates prior to the election, Andrew RT Davies was still making the same vague and unspecific argument for incorporating the “best elements” of the grammar school system into the Welsh education system.  Again, if that did not mean splitting pupils into two streams in some shape or form, then I really don’t know what he was talking about. 
What they did say in their 2016 manifesto (albeit by implication rather than outright statement) was that they were still wedded to one key element of the 2013 proposals, namely that there should be a new post 14 phase in education allowing the promotion of a more skills-based approach.  It sounded to me then, and still does re-reading it today, as though they still intended to introduce some sort of differentiation into two streams at 14, although it wasn’t made clear whether their intention was to achieve that by pupil choice or through some form of selection.
Nothing in their statements this week says that they’ve backtracked on their post 14 proposals.  My suspicion is that the apparent opposition to an 11+ exam isn’t the change of heart as which it’s been presented, and certainly isn’t actually opposition to selection at all.  Merely changing the age at which selection occurs or the form which that selection takes isn’t the same thing as opposing selection in principle. 
There is an underlying ‘truth’ behind the argument for grammar schools, and that is that not all children respond well to a particular approach to learning and not all children have a natural aptitude for all subjects.  However, the jump from that to a selective system (or “dual system” to use the Welsh Tories’ preferred euphemism) depends on accepting a number of other much less well-evidenced assumptions, namely:
·         That there is a particular age for all children at which this difference becomes apparent
·         That it applies to all subjects
·         That it cannot be coped with in a single learning institution and requires that children be split into two distinct categories.
What the evidence inescapably shows is that, however ‘objective’ the tests used to split children into groups may be, one of the prime determinants of where children in a selective system end up is parental income.  It’s not a 100% correlation, of course – a fact which supporters of selection twist into a suggestion that selection supports ‘social mobility’.  But for those who are not selected, it actually entrenches social immobility, and it invests more in the education of the selected.  I’m not convinced that the Tories’ position this week actually moves them very far from their traditional stance in support of that.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Ready for what?

During the campaign for the Scottish Independence referendum two years ago, one of the arguments used by opponents of independence was that Scotland would be ‘too small’ to defend itself against any aggressor intent on seizing its territory.  The way it was presented, there were enemies out there (usually assumed to be Russia) who were just waiting for such a sign of weakness in order to invade.  One of the problems with that argument is that almost exactly the same could be said for the UK. 
As a retired general told us at the weekend, the UK’s armed forces “are ill-prepared to defend the UK against a serious military attack”.  But if the test of any defence capability is the ability to withstand an all-out attack from Russia, then the chances of the UK ever being able to afford an adequate level of armed forces are close to, if not actually, zero.  The logic of the general’s argument is surely that the countries of the EU would need to combine their armed forces in to a single organisation (as indeed, some in the EU seem to want).  I somehow doubt, however, that that was what the general had in mind.
The underlying question is about how realistic it is to assume that there are enemies out there just waiting for an opportunity to invade and occupy the UK.  It seems to be axiomatic for the military that such is the case, but is it really?  The point is that any government has to decide on the probability of a particular scenario before deciding how much to invest in preparing for it. 
The old saying that “Generals are always preparing to fight the last war” seems relevant here; although in this case, the general’s view seems to overlook the last half dozen or so military adventures which have been of an altogether different type.  Perhaps they just don’t count as ‘real’ wars between proper armies, of the sort that the military mind can more easily comprehend.  But it’s a strange world indeed where stating that “Counter-terrorism is the limit of up-to-date plans and preparations to secure our airspace, waters and territory" is seen as a criticism that the government is unprepared, when for most of us it might look as though there is actually a degree of refocussing on what are the greater current threats.
Insofar as there is a logic to the demand that we should always be prepared for another major European war, it is based on an assumption that some or all other states are inherently aggressive and seeking to expand their territories, and an assumption that the best way to avoid such a war is to be always prepared to fight it.  That’s one reading of history; but there is an alternative reading which is that when enough states prepare for war against each other for long enough, such a war is ultimately more likely to happen.
My bigger concern is not that the UK is not ready to engage in a defensive conventional war against largely imagined enemies; it is that the UK is far too ready to engage in offensive wars, and too unwilling to engage in sensible disarmament processes.  

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Big boats for rich people

It has seemed from the outset that many of those arguing for Brexit were harking back to what they see as the ‘good old days’; a time when Britannia ruled the waves, natives elsewhere were suitably deferential, and if all else failed, then a gunboat or two could be deployed. 
But it’s hard to think of a better example of that sort of thinking than this story about those who are seeking, in a very literal sense, to get Britannia back on the waves.  The call for the UK to either recommission the royal yacht, or else commission a new one, has it all.  Symbolism of global Britain and a good dose of nostalgia; these are key elements of the Brexit mindset.  The USP for this little proposal is clear – ‘do business with us: we can’t offer you access to the single market, but we can offer you a chance to sign the contract on a very big yacht and maybe even meet one of our royals’.  That obviously trumps the mere economics of any deal, doesn’t it?
It will be costly, but not to worry; one of the instigators of the scheme doesn’t want the taxpayer to fund it, oh no.  Instead, an appeal will be launched for donations from across the Commonwealth (another throwback to the imperial past) from people who will be only too happy to contribute large sums to provide a new boat for one of the UK’s richest families.  Can’t you just feel the genuflection oozing through the population as we all joyously contribute our few penn’orth as well?
These people really do dwell in the past, a place which has rightly been called ‘another country’.  They can happily spout the utterly meaningless phrase that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ without understanding the rather more meaningful statement that ‘the past is in the past’.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

When only one answer is permissible

Not for the first time, I’m struggling to make any sort of sense out of a statement by the First Minister on Brexit.  What seems indisputable is that he has said all of the following:
a.    all four of the UK's parliaments and assemblies should have to "agree to any deal the UK government comes to"
b.    he could not "envisage consent being given by Wales" [without access to the single market]
c.    he "never called for a veto" [for the Assembly]
Whilst all three of these statements make some sort of sense individually, when put together they are self-evidently contradictory - unless… 
The one explanation that does make sense is if it were to be a requirement that the Assembly has to agree the deal, but with the condition that the Assembly has no right not to agree it.  It’s just a question of placing the correct interpretation on the words ‘the Assembly should have to agree’; it’s not a pre-condition for the outcome being accepted, it’s a statement of fact about the option being given to the Assembly.  It’s democracy, Henry Ford style: ‘You can vote however you like, as long as you vote the way Westminster tells you to vote’.
The sad thing is that it seems to fit quite well with the Labour Party’s notion of what home rule should look like.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Whose Broadcasting Corporation is it really?

In reporting on the proposed new charter for the BBC, the Western Mail chose to lead with the proposal that Wales would be guaranteed a place on the new BBC board.  How nice for Wales – another opportunity for a Welsh voice to participate in discussions before being over-ruled by the majority from England.  (Unless, of course, the chosen representative is carefully selected to be the sort of person who won’t make waves in the first place.)
It’s an obvious attempt to find a ‘safe’ Welsh angle on the news by another organisation not particularly well-known for making waves either.  But I didn’t think that it was the most significant element of the announcement from a Welsh perspective.  For that, we have to go further down the report, until we reach the part where the UK Culture Secretary said that one of the BBC’s “many responsibilities” was to “bring people together” and support “greater cohesion, not least among the nations of the United Kingdom.”
Now the quaint idea that many have that the BBC is somehow an ‘impartial’ reporter of events has never been true; it has always been the tool of the establishment, presenting all news from an establishment viewpoint.  But it seems to me that this is taking that lack of impartiality one stage further; this is giving the BBC an explicit responsibility to act as a tool for one particular outlook, and promote the idea that the nations of the UK are a homogeneous whole.  It says a lot about the self-styled “national newspaper of Wales” that it treats that as almost an addendum to the glorious news about us having a representative who can always be outvoted.
We need a better media than this in Wales; and in the field of broadcasting, the BBC needs to be broken up into an EBC, a WBC, a SBC and a NIBC, each with its own charter decided by the relevant devolved parliament.  And the sooner that happens the better.