Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Words, not action

Amongst the reaction to the Welsh government’s decision to blow £1 billion worth of capital expenditure on one road scheme in the south-east of Wales, questions have been raised about how the government would be able to progress other schemes, including the Greater Cardiff Metro scheme.  It’s a good question, although given the strings attached to the way in which the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition in London has “allowed” the Welsh government to borrow the money for the M4; I’m not convinced that they would ever have been permitted to borrow the money for any other scheme - perhaps not even for the 'blue route'.
The UK government has always been clear that they were only permitting borrowing because they wanted this particular scheme to proceed (which makes the Welsh Lib Dems’ apparent opposition more than a little curious, even if it isn’t exactly unusual for that party to be both for and against policies).
One option for funding the Metro scheme is the use of European funding.  Cardiff is not actually entitled to that money but it’s been suggested previously that schemes which happen to benefit a greater area might be able to tap into such funding, effectively diverting them to Cardiff.  It’s a little bit like robbing the poor to pay the rich but there’s nothing new or original about that.
On the matter of the M4 itself, Gareth Clubb has done a very effective deconstruction of the objective “evidence” (or rather total lack of) for the government’s proposed scheme.  Whilst both the government and the CBI refer incessantly to the damage which the limited capacity of the M4 does to the Welsh economy, they have no facts to back that claim.  We are all, apparently, supposed to take the claim on trust because they say it is so.
In principle, of course transport bottlenecks will negatively impact on those economic activities (and thus those companies) which depend on transport; but the leap of logic from stating that obvious truth to building a six lane highway around Newport is far from being an obvious – let alone the only – solution.  And the concentration of attention and resource on one (comparatively small) area of Wales betrays an obsession with the idea that the Welsh economy is wholly dependent on (a) what happens in one corner of the country, and (b) on the link between that corner and England.  It’s not a version of the future which offers much to those of us in the west or north of the country.  Nor does it suggest any serious intention to rebalance the Welsh economy and promote more sustainable local economic activity across Wales.
All in all it tends to confirm that “sustainability” is something to be talked about ad infinitum; something which politicians can declare themselves passionate about when seeking ‘green’ votes.  But it isn’t really anything which requires them to take any action.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Why would they?

One of the scare tactics being deployed by the anti-independence brigade in Scotland is that jobs will be lost as companies move out.  Whether it’s “true” or not is irrelevant to those using the argument; their hope is that it will scare enough people into voting no so that the proposition will never need to be proved one way or the other.
Of course, there are companies which are saying they will leave if Scotland votes yes, but this probably owes more to the political prejudices of the people running those companies that to any thought-through policy.  Whether they actually decide to leave will ultimately depend more on the policies pursued by an independent Scotland than on the fact of independence itself.  And the traffic - if such there be - is unlikely to be one way; there will be other companies attracted by the possibilities of independence.
I’ll admit that I don’t know for certain whether companies would or would not leave Scotland, although unless the new government of an independent Scotland introduced a whole tranche of policies likely to drive businesses out (and why on earth would they do that?) then it seems unlikely.  But I’m not the only one who doesn’t know for certain; none of those stating as a fact that businesses will go can actually be certain either.  They just pretend to be – it’s simply propaganda.
The point about propaganda of course is that, if it’s any good, people will believe it and act accordingly.  Truth doesn’t enter into the equation.  I don’t know how effective this particular piece of propaganda will be in Scotland.  Some will believe it; but others will see it for what it is.
It does though seem to have found a ready audience in a group calling itself the Cardiff Business Council, whose members have managed to convince themselves that a number of leading Scottish companies might be persuaded to move to Cardiff if Scotland votes yes.  They are so convinced by the propaganda that they’ve written directly to the companies urging them to come to Cardiff.
There are two things that strike me about this, quite apart from the fact that they’ve been taken in by such propaganda.
The first is that it highlights the negative side of much of what passes for economic development.  It isn’t about growth or the promotion of new jobs; it’s merely about moving economic activity from one place to another.  Whilst the result of moving a company from A to B might well be good for B, it will invariably be bad for A.  And if grants or other forms of aid are involved, it means that we as taxpayers end up paying for a net increase of precisely zero jobs.  It’s much better, for all concerned, to use our time and effort seeking real additional jobs than to compete to move those already existing.
And the second point is this.  If someone running a company is so opposed to the idea of independence that they really will move their company out of Scotland if it happens, why on earth would they choose Wales rather than England?  No matter how unlikely it looks at this stage that Wales might follow Scotland, a yes vote in September will change the dynamic, and Welsh independence will, inevitably, appear more likely (or perhaps I should simply say “less unlikely”) than it does now.  Those involved would surely avoid – almost instinctively – potentially putting themselves in the same position again?
Of course it could simply be that the group concerned are engaging in a bit of anti-independence propaganda of their own…

Friday, 11 July 2014

Business as Usual

A month or so ago, Barack Obama, at Cameron’s urging, made an intervention in the debate on Scottish independence, making it clear that he saw advantages to the US in having a strong united partner.  (That’s an argument that might work for some, although whether providing the sort of strong united partner that the US might want is a good argument against independence depends a great deal on one’s perspective.)
It seems that Obama had previously declined a similar invitation from Spain’s PM, Mariano Rajoy, but the US ambassador to Spain, James Costos, did comment on the question of Catalan independence last week.  His comments were, however, rather more equivocal.  Even so, he subsequently tried to backtrack a little to appear, if possible, even more equivocal.
The key point he made was a very simple and obvious one, which is that if things change, then companies adapt to those changes.
He’s right, and Independence, whether for Scotland or Catalonia, is inarguably a change in circumstances which would call for adaptation; but actually, independence itself isn’t really going to be much of an issue for most companies.  More important for them will be the taxation and regulatory policies pursued by the independent governments after independence.
Whilst the leaders of some companies – as we’re seeing in Scotland at present – are making bold statements about the implications for independence and what they’ll do in response, much of this is hot air based on using the companies which they lead to provide a platform for expression of their own political prejudices.  What any company which seeks to be successful will actually do after independence will be based on a much more careful and rational assessment of the nature of the new regime under which they’ll be working.  And given that Scotland is certain to remain in the EU with all the same rules about the single market, the likelihood has to be that they’ll carry on as though nothing has happened.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Who's the silliest boy?

Requesting that civil servants provide financial details about payments made to named individuals who just happened to be opposition AMs was a pretty silly thing for Alun Davies to have done.  His resultant sacking as a Minister was inevitable, particularly given the way in which he’d been ‘let off’ another misdemeanour just hours beforehand.  As the First Minister more or less said, it’s hard to see his request as other than a clumsy and stupid attempt to misuse his position to instigate personal attacks on other politicians, however much he may try to make out that it was just for 'background' purposes.
Having said all that, I’m less than impressed with some of the opposition response to events, with politicians of the other parties ‘baying for more blood’ as the Western Mail put it in its headline yesterday.  It’s an intensely personalised approach to political debate, which probably results from two factors.  The first is that the politicians are cooped up in the hothouse in the Bay, and the second is that there is so little real difference between them on policy that all they can do is argue about each other’s personal merits and qualities.
A minister tried to do something improper and quite rightly got sacked for it.  Most of us – probably all of us – do silly things from time to time, although the consequences are not always so severe.  And silliness in politicians has never been demonstrated to be party political in nature; foot-in-mouth syndrome can and often does affect politicians from any party.  So can a tribalistic desire to do down one’s political opponents whenever the opportunity presents itself.  But there is – or should be – more to politics than that.
This isn’t what some of us hoped devolution would be about.  It was supposed to bring about a more mature and adult approach to political debate in which different futures for Wales could be laid out and examined, not just an amateurish copy of the pantomime nonsense that we see daily from Westminster.  For sure, demanding blood generates news stories and headlines, but it adds little to the sum total of knowledge and understanding.  And it has even less to do with building a new Wales.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Choosing the right article

One of the more persistent lines taken by opponents of Scottish independence is that an independent Scotland would find itself outside the EU and have to apply for membership as a new state.  Some of those using the argument go further and say that other countries (they usually cite Spain) would then veto any Scottish application.  The Spanish government takes much the same line in respect of Catalonia, only rather more honestly tells the Catalans that it might decide to veto their application itself, rather than shifting the potential blame onto some other state.  There seems to be little doubt that, if Scottish (or Catalan) membership depends on Article 49 of the treaty, then the legal argument for that position is probably correct.
The SNP and the Scottish Government argue, on the other hand, that the situation could be covered by Article 48 of the treaty, which would make the whole process much simpler, and need not require a period of being outside before readmission.  There is no direct precedent for such a situation, so the question of which route would apply will not be finally established unless and until one or other country actually votes for independence.
There was a report earlier this week on some work done by an academic at Oxford University on the subject, which in essence came down on the side of the Scottish Government’s interpretation.  Whilst recognising that there is no precedent, and no specific provision in the treaty to handle such a situation, which always leaves an element of doubt, the professor concluded:
“Despite assertions to the contrary from UK lawyers, EU lawyers and EU officials, any future independent Scotland's EU membership should be assured, and its transition from EU membership (as a) part of the UK, to EU membership (as an) independent Scotland relatively smooth and straightforward.”
Interestingly, she drew a parallel with the reunification of Germany, where a state which was a member effectively enlarged itself by taking in territory and population previously outside the Union.  This was dealt with on a very pragmatic basis, and it is reasonable to ask why Scottish or Catalan independence would be treated any differently, particularly given the EU’s history of seeking to expand. 
I can accept that the other member states would have the potential to make the negotiations difficult and protracted either way if they wanted to, but what ‘Better Together’ have failed to explain is why they would want to.  It’s clear why they want to use the threat of doing so in order to deter people choosing independence, but what exactly would be their motivation for driving an area of territory and millions of people out of the EU once the decision had been taken?  Spite?  Revenge?
If Scotland or Catalonia decides to opt for independence in one or other of this autumn’s referendums, is it really credible that the UK or Spain would then deliberately seek to make their lives difficult for such base motives?  I don’t find that in the least bit credible.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Journalistic licence

Last Friday’s Western Mail contained this little story which included the paragraph:
John Dixon, who was Plaid Cymru’s chair from 2002 to 2010, told Wales Eye the fresh controversy showed the party’s policy on nuclear energy was incoherent.  He said: “On nuclear energy, whether the party is for or against depends on who you speak to.”
It’s obviously based on this posting on Wales Eye, from the 27th June.  However, the Wales Eye story doesn’t actually say either that this was something which I had “told Wales Eye”, or that it was in response to the “fresh controversy”; both those little fictions (or should we say “journalistic embellishments”?) are entirely the property of the Western Mail.  I don’t know who runs Wales Eye, but as far as I’m aware, I’ve never had any communication whatsoever with those running the blog; and certainly didn’t speak to them or anyone else about this story.  Apart from anything else, I was out of the country at the time.
The words attributed to me, though, are undoubtedly mine.  They’re lifted from this blog posting in July last year, but I’d have needed to be very prescient to comment on a trip to Japan almost a year before it happened.
Does it matter?  After all, the comments were made on a blog which is in the public arena even if not particularly widely read.  And I haven’t changed my mind about what I wrote a year ago.  Whilst Plaid’s de jure policy is to support renewables and oppose nuclear energy, the party’s de facto policy is that its members are free to take whatever stance that they wish on energy policy – and no party taking that position can claim to have an honest or coherent energy policy.
Context is important though.  The story in which the quotes were used was really nothing to do with energy policy at all.  It was about two other matters entirely – one overt, the other less so.
The overt focus of the story was a criticism by a Labour politician of a Plaid politician for accepting hospitality from a company which is seeking to gain and maintain political support for its proposed development.  The words which came to my mind were pot, kettle, and black.  A brief glance through the register of interests of AMs or MPs will reveal that many of our elected members – of all parties – are only too happy to accept the generous hospitality of companies in many fields.  Only the politically naïve could believe that the companies concerned spend money in this way with no ulterior motive in mind.  I’d prefer that our elected representatives maintained a greater distance from capitalists on the make, but I have no great expectation that that will happen any time soon.
The less overt aspect of this story was the quote from a “senior Plaid Cymru figure”, which was clearly a knife aimed at the back of Rhun ap Iorwerth.  This sort of unattributable briefing has become a pernicious problem for the party since the establishment of the Assembly, and owes more to internal personal rivalries and ambitions that it does to a debate about energy policy or any concern for the future of Wales.  It’s one of the less savoury practices which some party members have learned from observing New Labour in action.
So, whilst I don’t and can’t object to either Wales Eye or the Western Mail quoting selectively from this blog, it strikes me as unprofessional to present an old quote on an issue of policy as though it were a quote on either the question of accepting hospitality or an intervention in the internal rivalries of a party.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Was he right or was he wrong?

Members of the Labour Party haven’t exactly been rushing to agree with Blair following his comments about the situation in Iraq this week.  And I can imagine that Miliband and chums aren’t exactly best-pleased to hear a voice from the past resurrecting a ghost that they have been trying to lay to rest.
In essence, Blair’s claim, which has astonished many (to put it mildly) is that the latest events in Iraq are in no way a consequence of the war which on which he and Bush so enthusiastically embarked, and that the situation would have been even worse had they not taken the action which they took.  He’s also calling for more resolute action now (a curious position for a ‘peace envoy’ to take, but let’s leave that to one side).
I suspect that history will ultimately judge Blair to have been wrong, even over the long term, but in truth, none of us can know for certain.  The point is that we can never run history twice to see what would have happened if different decisions had been taken.  If the latest events demonstrate anything, it is surely that the whole situation is far more complicated than most of us realise, and it’s extremely difficult to decide who are the good guys deserving of support and who are the bad guys needing to be dealt with.  Indeed, it’s increasingly the case that yesterday’s bad guys are becoming today’s good guys (or perhaps ‘not-so-bad guys’), and alliances are shifting, largely on the basis that our enemy’s enemies are now our friends, whatever we may have said about them yesterday.
What I do know is that it was always less than honest to try and present a very complex situation as a simple case of good vs evil, in the way that Blair and Bush did.  And what concerns me even more is the possibility that they might have genuinely believed that to be the case.  There’s something more than a little dangerous about any politician who has such unshakeable faith in his own rightness that he cannot even conceive of the possibility of being wrong.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Voting for the sake of it

The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, attracted some criticism last week for declaring his support for run “in/out” referendum on the European Union.  Apparently, in some sort of throwback to the past, he supposed to pretend not to have an opinion on anything, so that no one will think he’s biased when chairing debates.  I tend to think that it’s easier to judge whether actions are biased or not if people are open about their views; but let’s leave such arcane issues to one side.
What interested me more was the grounds on which he took such a view, pointing out that no voter under the age of 57 has ever had a chance to vote on the issue.  As a statement of fact, it’s inarguable – the last referendum was 40 years ago.  But as a reason for holding a referendum, it strikes me as utterly fatuous.  How long is too long  for people to have been unable to vote in a particular referendum – and does every referendum therefore have to be rerun every 40 years or so, just so that a new generation can decide whether to stick by a previous decision? 
Why 40 years and not 20 or 30 or – well any number you like really?  I can understand the rationale of those who think that a significant change in arrangements which were themselves the subject of a referendum ought to trigger a further referendum.  I can also understand why some might argue that there’s enough evidence of a change in public opinion to justify a new vote on an issue.  But the mere passage of time since the last vote strikes me as a particularly silly reason for rerunning past arguments and revisiting past decisions.
Arguing against holding a referendum on anything will always be difficult – it can look like an attempt to deny people their say; but there’s no clear consensus about what should or should not “require” the consent of the people in a referendum, and calls for referendums are made on all sorts of issues.
I tend to the view that they’re best used on simple questions of principle rather than on the detail.  So a referendum on membership of what was then the EEC should have been held before entry rather than after the event; but holding a new one every time the terms change is another matter – how do we determine which changes are matters of principle rather than detail?
In the same way, it seemed utterly reasonable to me that the establishment of a National Assembly for Wales should be the subject of a referendum.  Equally it seems entirely appropriate that the question of independence should be decided by a referendum in Scotland.  But I’m not convinced that changes in the detail really require further referendums, any more than changes in the EU really require further referendums.  And holding one just because there are people who were too young to vote last time looks like a complete waste of time and effort.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Random anniversaries

On no better basis than that the political silly season has started early this year fifteen years is an exact multiple of 5, that five is half of a number ending in zero, and that numbers ending in zero represent whole decades, the Welsh media have taken to indulging themselves in wall to wall coverage of the first fifteen years of the National Assembly’s existence.
One of the emerging themes has been that ‘people had high expectations’ of the Assembly at the outset; the inference being that it has not lived up to said expectations.  It’s stated as though it were fact, but I wonder what evidence there is to support the assertion, outside the ranks of those directly involved.  I’ve never seen any evidence – even anecdotal – for the claim that the people of Wales ever really expected radical and rapid change from the new body.  Healthy scepticism about how much difference any group of politicians would ever make seems to me to be much more of a common thread.
Certainly, the limited economic powers devolved to the Assembly always meant that any differences made in economic terms would – could – only ever be at the margins.  Insofar as any high expectations were mentioned, they were coming from politicians who believed that they would win votes by talking about change which they knew that the Assembly could never deliver; but I suspect that most electors – unless they had an axe to grind either in favour of more powers or else of abolition – would have discounted these because of their source.
The most noticeable and important change hasn’t been anything which the Assembly has done at all; it’s merely a concomitant of the Assembly’s existence.  Whilst its establishment was the result of a close poll on a low turnout, the idea of abolition is now confined to the fringes of politics, and there is more confidence in Welsh institutions.  It’s hard to divine cause and effect though – does the existence of the Assembly boost confidence, or does a growth in confidence boost support for the Assembly?
It’s easy to blame Labour for the slow pace of change over the last fifteen years; they have, after all, been in power continuously over that period.  But, although the opposition parties – particularly Plaid – have come up with some eye-catching policies for implementation within the powers of the Assembly at election times, it would be hard to argue honestly that these were so radical that things would be very different today had Labour not been in power.  It’s hard to be certain, of course: what would have happened under a Welsh Government of a different hue can only ever be speculation, but given the Assembly’s limitations, I just don’t see what would have been so very different.
The fact that there is no credible alternative to continued Labour Government in Wales is a problem in itself.  An alternative became credible, briefly, in 2007, although I know that I’m far from alone in believing that such an alternative, had it come to pass, would have been a disaster for all concerned, and would probably have lasted only a few weeks or months before collapsing.  With the further fragmentation of non-Labour politics in Wales, and the current probability of a UKIP presence in the next Assembly, the idea of any coalition not led by Labour is simply not credible at present.
I’ve seen some criticism of Labour for this; but it really isn’t their fault that people continue to vote for them in such numbers despite all their failings.  There may be more of us unhappy with Labour than are happy with the party, but there is no hint of a consensus around any alternative. 
Gerald Holtham suggested recently that the answer is for Labour to provide its own opposition, and to have more open internal debate about future direction.  But effectively, that’s the way politics has been in Wales for a very long time – the discussion which actually has most impact on what happens is that discussion (such as it is) which happens internally to that party, even if it isn’t always very public.  The problem with that as an approach is that the motivation for such internal discussion is usually about what’s best for Labour, not what’s best for Wales (although, in fairness, that’s often because those involved in such discussion don’t or can’t see the difference between those two things).
We are left in a position that things will continue as they are unless and until an alternative vision for Wales is articulated in such a way that it gains more support than Labour’s ‘vision’ (or lack of).  In the absence of electoral support for radical change, we are left with the sort of small, timid, incremental change which is all that is on offer; and it’s difficult to argue that the best way of achieving that is other than through the Labour Party.  The Assembly facilitates such an approach, with no Tory governments to reverse policies – and perhaps that’s enough to justify its first fifteen years.  It’s not a very exciting future to look forward to though.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Whose values?


The proposal by the Education Secretary for England, Michael Gove, that all schools should “promote British values” is one of those glib statements which politicians make which initially sounds obvious but actually needs a lot more examination.
There’s one immediately obvious anomaly: he can only insist on teaching “British” values in “English” schools - he has no authority over those in Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland.  It’s tempting to assume that he really means “English” values but simply hasn’t thought about it (although given the context of his announcement, he might simply be looking for a euphemism for “non-Muslim” values).
Leaving aside anomalies and nomenclature, it still leaves open the question of “what are these values to which is referring” – let alone the question about who decides what are “British” values.
Chris Dillow has done a little analysis of British values here – and has come up with mediocrity, drunkenness, laziness, obesity, criminality, and inequality with a small dash of environmental friendliness thrown in.  Somehow I doubt there’ll be much in common between his list and Gove’s, although his is the more empirically based.
Gove’s list - which includes the primacy of law, religious tolerance, and opposition to gender segregation – is all very worthy; but what makes it specifically British?  It sounds very general to me; the sort of thing which any European country could equally say.  "Promoting European values” doesn’t have quite the same jingoistic ring to it, and is not a phrase likely to escape the lips of many UK politicians.  But it seems to me to be a great deal closer to what he is trying to suggest.
More generally, are “values” a “national” trait at all?  There are certainly cultural differences between nations; particularly in the widest definition of culture to include practices and habits.  But I’m not convinced there’s much to distinguish between values at a national level.  Values are much more generic – it’s more meaningful to talk about values in terms of European, Christian, or Muslim values (although far from straightforward even then) than in terms of British, French, or German values
Gove isn’t the first – and won’t be the last – politician to try and articulate something which he thinks of as a somehow uniquely British set of values.  Such attempts often seem to be based on a romantic and Anglo-centric notion of the sort of superiority and world domination which spawned an empire, but which bears little relationship to modern day reality. One might have hoped that the more time which passes between the end of Empire and the current day, the less our politicians would cling on to outdated notions.  Instead of that, some of them seem to be clinging onto old perspectives with ever more determination.
But there’s one thing that concerns me even more than Gove harking back to the past or being unable to understand the generality of the values he refers to, and that is his apparent belief that telling teachers to inculcate his values in schools is somehow a coherent response to Islamic extremism amongst some governors and teachers.  The connection isn’t an obvious one to me.