Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Logic Bypass

No-one who thought that there was any chance that Labour under Miliband would be willing to even countenance the scrapping of Trident can still be under any delusions after the little spat last week.  His commitment to the retention and modernisation of the UK’s weapons of mass destruction is as strong and unwavering as that of the Tories.
It underlines the difficulty that the SNP/ Green/ Plaid group would face if they tried to make abandoning Trident an absolute demand before giving any support to Labour to form a government – it would be a certain way of diminishing, rather than maximising, their influence.  The clear statement from the SNP’s leader that, whilst it might not be a red line in terms of some sort of loose arrangement, there are no circumstances in which SNP MPs would vote for a renewal of Trident is probably as good as it gets at this stage. 
I’m still of the view that the best hope for scrapping Trident is the second Scottish independence referendum, whenever that comes, bringing with it a forced relocation cost for a state reduced in size.  At things stand, under any conceivable election outcome, there is certain to be an overwhelming majority in favour of Trident renewal in the next parliament.  Regardless of whether the PM is Cameron or Miliband, any vote on this issue will easily pass through parliament, despite opposition from the SNP, Plaid, and the Green Party.
The Lib Dems, ever keen not to be missed out of anything, seem to have suffered something of a logic bypass on the issue, with their claim that anyone wanting a de-escalation of the UK’s nuclear weaponry should vote for them, since they are proposing only to build three replacement submarines, rather than the Labour/Tory four.  In essence, they are trying to persuade those of us who oppose Trident that instead of voting for one of the parties which is absolutely opposed to Trident but which have been forced to recognise the reality that their influence on this issue will be zilch, we should vote for a party which wants to retain Trident despite the fact that its influence on this issue will also be zilch.  It’s a very strange argument.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Froth and soundbites

I’m not sure that last week’s exchange of exposés of what two candidates in Ceredigion have written in the past tells us much more than (a) that politicians can be much too quick off the mark in responding to headlines and tweets without bothering to check the detail, and (b) that some of them don’t really care about the truth; they just know that mud sticks.  Personally, I think that there’s far too much concentration on all sides on views held or expressed in the past, when what really matters is what the individuals really think now.
The underlying issue, about racism in Wales, is a serious one, and simply exchanging insults doesn’t help to address that issue.  From personal experience, I can say that I have certainly met with racist views on the doorstep over the years.  I can remember one gentleman from the English Midlands, living in a rural village where most of the residents spoke daily a language which was incomprehensible to him, telling me that they’d moved there “…to be amongst our own people”.  Not exactly an outright expression of racism but the meaning was clear, even if the irony was completely lost on him.  And I’m certain that anyone who claims not to have encountered such an attitude on the doorstep in rural Wales has either not done very much canvassing or else not listened to what was being said.
What’s harder to judge is how typical it is, and the extent to which one can generalise.  Whilst it’s certainly true that for every individual who expresses a particular view there will be many more who hold the same view and just don’t express it so openly, it’s also true that some doorstep conversations make a deeper impression than others.  It’s all too easy to extrapolate from a few egregious examples and leap to a conclusion that a view is more common amongst a particular section of the population than is actually the case.
So, for the sake of balance, let me add that, over the years, I also met many English in-migrants who held a much more liberal view on race, and who made huge efforts to integrate with the local Welsh-speaking communities – and I met more than a few racist Welsh voters as well.  Racism is a problem; and in tackling it, it would be a good idea not to start with an assumption that it’s restricted to, or particularly prevalent in, any particular demographic.
In discussing the issue, then of course there’s a need to choose words carefully; but there’s something very wrong with political discussion which focuses more on the words chosen to discuss the issue than on the issue itself.  It’s symptomatic of a sound bite and froth attitude to politics; an approach which the way in which some politicians use social media seems only to reinforce.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Taking a step backwards

It was disappointing, although hardly surprising, to see that Plaid have watered down the party’s opposition to the building of new nuclear power stations in the election manifesto.  I don’t actually know whether Plaid has changed its policy on nuclear energy; I only know that the policy appearing in its General Election manifesto isn’t the one that the party held when I was involved.  Perhaps it has been formally changed with the consent and involvement of the members; perhaps those writing the manifesto have simply decided to ignore the formal policy in favour of a rather more honest statement of the party’s position.  But “We continue to oppose the building of nuclear power plants in new locations” is a step back from opposition to any new nuclear build, which was the party’s formal position until very recently.
It is, of course, more honest than claiming to oppose something which a number of the party’s candidates and elected members are actually campaigning for (although it’s still not as honest as stating the party’s actual de facto policy on energy, which is that individual elected members and candidates are free to take any stance they like).  Gareth Hughes was rather less than entirely kind to me in his report on the last Plaid conference which I attended in 2010, when he reported that I had suggested that Plaid was in danger of opposing nuclear power stations only on those sites where no-one wanted to build them.  My comment was intended as a criticism, not as a suggestion for future policy; but since, as far as I am aware, no-one is suggesting that any new nuclear power stations should be built in entirely new locations, it now seems to have become formal party policy.
Does it matter?  At one level, then of course, the question of how Wales meets its needs for electricity is a mere question of detail; it’s not a core nationalist issue.  And a party which first and foremost seeks support for independence could probably avoid having definitive policies on a whole range of issues.  (Although there is a question to be answered about its impact on the asset and liability balance sheet if independence is ever achieved.)
But that isn’t the stance which Plaid has taken.  And in an election where it has clearly been attempting to promulgate the message that there’s no need to vote for the Green Party in Wales because Plaid is already filling that slot, the absence of a coherent energy policy makes that claim untenable.  In addition, building a new nuclear station in Wales renders much of the renewable capacity which the party’s manifesto also claims to support irrelevant other than as a means of exporting electricity; it has nothing to do with meeting Wales’ needs.
And the biggest hole of all in the resulting policy is that on nuclear waste.  Nobody supporting the building of new nuclear power stations can, with any honesty or credibility, oppose the siting of the waste storage and treatment facilities which are an inevitable concomitant. 

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Changing attitudes

On Tuesday, the Western Mail carried an article reporting an interview with Professor Patrick Minford of Cardiff Business School which neatly – although perhaps unintentionally – encapsulated one of the main problems with the way in which UK politicians talk about the EU.  It talks about building a new relationship between the two partners – the EU and the UK – as though those two entities are in some way equivalent.
That is not the way the world looks from the point of view of the other members states of the EU.  From their perspective, this ‘them and us’ approach looks very strange, not to say semi-detached.
Around 40 years ago, I was one of a group of Plaid members who went on a fact-finding trip to Brussels and Luxembourg.  It was largely funded by the EEC itself, as part of a clear attempt to persuade various groups and parties in the UK to start liking the institution.  (It didn’t work at the time, but that’s another story.)
One of my abiding memories is of two visits made in quick succession; the first to the office of the UK Permanent Representative, and the second (after they’d obtained special permission from Dublin) to the Irish equivalent.  The contrast was striking.
We were welcomed to the first very formally by a man dressed in a three-piece suit and bow tie with a very posh accent who politely offered us tea before asking “Now gentlemen, how can I help you?” and waiting for our questions.  At the second, an Irishman in a sports jacket and open collar said “Come on in boys.  Would you like a drop of whiskey?”, before expounding on the advantages of membership as seen from an Irish perspective.
That difference in approach was more than just superficial; it was clear that the UK saw the EEC (as it was then) as an external body with which we had a relationship; the Irish saw it as an association of which their country was a member.  That underlying UK attitude has changed little, if at all, over the past four decades.
Worse, it shows no sign of changing any time soon.  Wales is still being represented, badly, by people who seem not really to want to be there.  If the Tories remain in government, and if a referendum is subsequently held, the result will depend more on whether the people of the countries of these islands share that mindset towards the EU than on whether we get more out than we put in.  But all political debate seems to revolve around the latter rather than around the former.  Who's putting the positive case?

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Chaos, confusion, lies and enlightenment

On Monday, the first full day of formal electioneering, Miliband and Cameron each accused the other of promoting policies which would lead to chaos.  It didn’t add a lot of light to anything, but it did remind me of the old story about the engineer, the architect, and the politician debating which was the oldest profession.
The engineer pointed out that God had created the whole universe in just seven days, saying that “this was a marvellous feat of engineering – God is obviously an engineer.”
“No, no, no,” said the architect.  “The bible says that God created order out of chaos – that required design and planning – God is surely an architect.”
“Ah,” said the politician, “but who do you think created the chaos in the first place?”
I don’t believe that either Miliband or Cameron are capable of creating chaos on that scale, but what they clearly are capable of is deliberately lying about the implications of each other’s policies, creating confusion and avoiding sensible debate.  And there’s still five weeks to go.  Still, I suppose that all of that is marginally better than the total chaos of the story.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Man or mouse?

I know that I really shouldn’t be surprised or shocked by anything our politicians do or say, but I was still taken aback by this report in Saturday’s Western Mail.
In essence, the outgoing MP for Neath has told us that, from the outset, he was convinced that the best person to lead Welsh Labour and become First Minister in 1999 was Rhodri Morgan and that nothing that happened in the following 16 years was enough to change his mind.  But in fact, he actively organized the campaign for Alun Michael instead … because Alistair Campbell told him to.
A key element of Labour’s pitch in Wales is that the party will “stand up for Wales”.  Yet here we have a man who claimed to be representing Wales at the highest level in the cabinet happily admitting that he did what he thought was the wrong thing for Wales, and did it with enthusiasm and energy, because a spin doctor told him to.
How to undermine a party’s campaign in one easy book launch.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Riding the wave?

A strong and clear part of Plaid’s appeal for electoral support over the last week or so has been the fear hat Wales will get “left behind” if there is a large group of SNP MPs in the new parliament, and only a small group from Plaid.  The fear of getting left behind is entirely valid, and an electoral appeal based on truth ought to be a good starting point.
There are, however, two important factors to consider, and unless both of those apply, then the argument will only ever have any traction with those who are already minded to vote for Plaid.  There is a danger that it will be a case of preaching to the converted.
The first of those factors is this: are voters sufficiently convinced that being left behind is necessarily a bad idea?  Much as I’d like that to be the case, I’m not convinced that it is.  Yes, I know that opinion polls tell us regularly that there is a widespread feeling that Wales should have parity with Scotland, but they don’t tell us how strongly that view is felt.  In particular, they don’t tell us whether, or to what extent, that widespread view is one of the top factors in deciding how people will vote.
In the absence of hard data on that, we can only guess, based on our own prejudices and what people around us think and say.  And my personal view is that, much as I’d like to believe otherwise, it isn’t a top issue for most, and there’s some wishful thinking behind the assumption that it is.
The second factor is this: even supposing that the support for parity with Scotland is a strong motivating factor in deciding how to vote, is it sufficiently clear to people that there is one clear option on the ballot paper which delivers that result?  Again, I fear that this is being taken as read, when to those on the outside it is by no means as clear as they seem to be assuming.
Wales is not Scotland, as people are fond of reminding us.  We didn’t start in the same place, we haven’t got to the same place, and we haven’t followed the same processes in between.  Reading across from one country to the other is always dangerous.  But, having said that, there is one clear difference which needs to be highlighted, and which is, in my view, a significant factor in the very different electoral position in the two countries in the run-up to the UK General Election.
In Scotland, the voters have heard a clear and consistent message in support of independence over decades, and that simply isn’t true in Wales.  Particularly since the advent of the Assembly, the Welsh case has been put intermittently at best, and Plaid has often seemed to fear the issue.  And it’s only a year or two ago that the party told us that Wales was too poor to be independent at present.
It’s only possible to ride a wave if that wave exists; and the big question in adopting this strategy is whether enough has been done to create the wave.  Internal groupthink doesn’t necessarily come to the same conclusion as a more objective analysis.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Only watching the plebs

According to Peter Hain, it is “constitutionally an outrage” that Special Branch continued to keep files on him and 9 other MPs after they were elected to the House of Commons.  It seems to me that he’s outraged about the wrong thing here.
There will always be different opinions about whether, and to what extent, the security services should be keeping an eye on what political groups are doing.  Personally, I think it’s outrageous that they should ever do so unless they have clearly evidenced grounds for suspicion of criminal activity.  Others will disagree; and I accept that.  But using that definition, I really don’t see why anyone’s status as an MP should affect that.
If there’s suspicion that an MP is involved in criminal activity (and recent events over expenses etc. surely prove that MPs are no different to the rest of the population in this regard), then why should they be exempt from the attention of the security services? 
The real outrage here is that any MP should apparently think that it’s OK for the security services to keep files on anyone they like - except MPs.  One rule for them, and another rule for everyone else.  His call for the enquiry to look specifically at the surveillance of MPs misses the point entirely; it’s the fact of the surveillance being undertaken at all which needs review, not who was being watched.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Just keep digging

They say that the first law of holes is that, when you’re in one, you should stop digging.  Faced with the impending SNP landslide in Scotland in the coming election, both Miliband and Cameron seem not only to be ignoring that law, but digging with gusto to see which one of them can get himself into the deepest hole.
The statements being made by the SNP - that they would veto a minority Conservative Government, and expect to have a degree of influence over the budget in exchange for supporting a minority Labour Government  - may not be to the taste of either of the two main UK parties.  But they are an accurate reflection of the reality of the Westminster system, in which any government is expected to be able to command a majority in the House of Commons for a small number of key votes, including the Queen’s Speech and the budget.
There have been times in the not-so-distant past when the Conservatives have actually done very well in Scottish elections, but in the light of a string of poor performances in more recent years, they have been reduced to a rump.  Their tactics to date suggest that they’ve completely abandoned all hope of recovery, and don’t really mind if they get completely wiped out in Scotland.  Their cartoon of Miliband dancing to Salmond’s tune was obviously designed to appeal only to voters outside Scotland – given that the most popular choice amongst Scots for the next government seems to be an SNP-influenced Labour minority government, the cartoon can only have helped the SNP.
Their latest statement, that a decision by the SNP to vote against the Queen’s Speech of any minority Tory Government would be “trying to sabotage the democratic will of the British people”, can only be interpreted as confusing British with English, and treating the Scots as outsiders with no business involving themselves in UK politics.  Again, it will do more good than harm to the SNP.
Meanwhile, over on the Labour side, Miliband is doing no better.  Suggesting that a minority Labour government would attempt to behave as though it had a majority and dare anyone other than the Tories to vote against its policies may play well in those parts of England where they are trying to out-Tory the Tories, but seems calculated to frustrate any efforts by his Scottish branch manager to recover the situation in Scotland.
There’s a hint in what some commentators have suggested that the SNP are somehow ‘cheating’ by only standing in Scottish constituencies, so that their representation in Westminster will be out of proportion to their vote across the UK as a whole.  Whilst Miliband and Cameron haven’t quite said that, their current approach seems to suggest that they at least half-believe something similar.
All the polls could be wrong; there could still be a massive swing back to the Labour-Tory parties in the next few weeks, however unlikely it looks at present.  But somehow, I don’t think that merely repeating the same mantra time and again is likely to do other than harden the resolve of Scots to reject both of them.  There’s been a change of paradigm in Scotland since last September, and neither Miliband nor Cameron seem to be able to comprehend that or adapt to it.  Still, as long as they have their spades…

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Two dubious truths, and one whopper

The Sunday Times treated us to an essay by David Cameron this week.  There’s much in it with which I’d disagree (so what’s new?), and I won’t attempt to go through the detail.  There was one passage though which particularly struck me as a classic example of the way in which a politician can select ‘truths’ which suit him, and by an apparently logical process arrive at a wholly unsubstantiated conclusion.
Talking of Ed Miliband’s wish to follow the example of the French president on economic policy, Cameron said, “Unemployment over the Channel is almost twice what it is in the UK.  Our economy is growing seven times faster than France’s.  Imagine if Miliband had been free to pursue his French dream: the fallout would be felt in catastrophic job losses, falling living standards, eye-watering debt, and fast-diminishing hope in our future”.
Now the first two statements of that passage are ‘true’, up to a point.  They depend on a snapshot comparison at a point in time, of course.  And whether that comparison is valid depends on a range of factors.  What we can say, with rather more certainty and validity, is that, over the long term, the growth trajectory of both economies bares a remarkable similarity.  However, I’m prepared to accept that, in the very limited short term context of a snap shot view at a point in time, both statements are true.
Whilst the third sentence appears to follow on from the other two, it simply doesn’t by any process of logic or rational argument.  It’s like an answer to a maths problem in an exam; without showing the workings, it’s impossible to see where exactly he went wrong.  There are though at least three unstated and almost certainly invalid assumptions being made, namely:
·         that the differences between France and the UK are the result of government policies,
·         that Miliband’s economic policies are more similar to those of the French president than to those of Cameron himself (especially bearing in mind Balls’ statement that there is nothing in the budget that he would change), and
·         that the consequences listed would have been replicated in the different circumstances of the UK had the same policies been followed.
Still, who needs truth or logic?