Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Protection and insurance

There is a mantra oft-repeated by politicians keen to spend more and more of our money on acquiring and using weapons that “the first duty of any government is to protect its citizens”.  It’s duly parroted by the media, solemnly pronouncing on whether party A or party B is actually behaving in a way consistent with the mantra.  It’s treated as unarguable truth, largely because it’s ‘obviously true’.
But one of the things that life has taught me is that truth isn’t always obvious; and that which is ‘obvious’ isn’t always true.  In this case, I’m not at all sure that the statement means anything, shorn of context and without defining what ‘protect’ means as well as ‘protection from what’.
The latest outing that I saw for the statement was in the Sunday Times, when former Labour leadership candidate Liz Kendall trotted it out in support of the proposition that it is Labour’s ‘patriotic duty’ to back Trident.  In this context, it is, in effect, a substitute for argument and debate; a sort of trump card which over-rules any objection.  That isn’t helpful to rational consideration.
I don’t disagree with the statement as such; I think that governments should seek to protect their citizens from those things which threaten them.  But I don’t see nuclear blackmail as one of the biggest threats facing me or most other citizens.  Nor, in reality, do I see terrorism – a blanket word which in itself needs a lot more definition and refinement – as being the biggest threat to citizens of the UK.
For most of the population (although I’d accept that this isn’t true for those who move in the same circles as most of our politicians) their economic situation, and concerns about health care and education are much bigger threats to their lifestyles and well being.  And it’s hard to see how diverting money away from those fields to pay for a new nuclear weapons system does anything other than increase those threats.  In essence, even if the politicians really do believe that the mantra is one by which they should govern, their actions seem destined to achieve the opposite.
Another argument which is regularly advanced for Trident is that it’s some sort of ‘insurance policy’, and that wise people don’t go around without insurance.  But that’s simply not true.  Insurance policies don’t prevent things happening; they can’t.  Insurance is about pooling risk so that those who lose are, in effect, compensated for their loss by those who don’t.  The ‘protection’ offered by Trident is more akin to that traditionally offered by the mafia than a conventional insurance policy.  Insurance is about compensation for damage, not striking back - there’s nothing in my life insurance policy about posthumous retaliation.  The comparison with insurance is nonsensical.
Trident isn’t about protection; it isn’t about insurance; and it has little to do with the threats currently facing most of the UK population.  What it is about is keeping the UK government in the big boys club, pretending that the UK is still some sort of global power, and closing our eyes to the realities of the twenty first century.  It’s no way to build a safer world.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Control of territory doesn't defeat an idea

Last week, the First Minister treated us to his views on the question of bombing Syria.  The first point he made – that there is no possibility of negotiation with ISIS - was entirely sound.  At the heart of their worldview is the certainty that they know what God’s will is, and that God wants them to impose his will on others.  It’s hard to see how there can be any scope for negotiating with divine will.
Carwyn Jones also called for a ‘plan’ for dealing with ISIS as a context for deciding on what if any military action should be taken.  Again, I entirely agree with that view.  A major part of the problems which the world faces in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan is that military intervention took place without any sort of a plan for the longer term. 
He didn’t tell us, though, what such a plan might look like.  In fairness, I can’t really blame him.  Although I’m equally certain that we need a plan, I don’t know what it might look like either.  But those of us who want a plan but won’t have much idea of what such a plan might be are far from being alone in the world.  The bigger problem is not that no-one really has a plan or knows where to start; it is that some people pretend they have a plan without being able to articulate it, whilst yet others, faced with the frustration of not knowing what to do simply fall back on military action as the ‘solution’.
For what it’s worth, I don’t actually doubt the sincerity of those arguing for a bombing campaign to attack ISIS in Syria as well as in Libya.  What I do doubt is the efficacy of that as an approach.  It seems to conflate military ‘victory’ with winning a war against an ideology.  There is no question in my mind that bombing ISIS can and will degrade their military capability on the ground; there is evidence already that the bombing campaign has helped the non-ISIS groups engaged in the war on the ground to regain territory.  But the battle isn’t really about territory at all.
A former director of the CIA was quoted in the Sunday Times as saying that “Their claim is that they are acting out the will of God … and nothing cuts against that narrative more than defeating them.”  I’m not sure that that actually displays very much understanding of the mindset behind ISIS, and without understanding their perspective rather better than that, progress is likely to be limited.  From their perspective, it isn’t a “claim”; they have an absolutely certain knowledge that they are implementing God’s will.  And from that perspective, military losses and setbacks are more likely to be interpreted as God testing their resolve than as a sign that they might be in any way misinterpreting God's will.
Yesterday, Cameron referred to ISIS as a ‘death cult’; others have talked about an ‘ideology of hate’ and used various other similar phrases.  It might be good for sound bites, but none of this shows any understanding of just how different a worldview we are dealing with.  Name-calling may help to justify sending in the bombers, but it doesn’t do much as a way of countering the ideology.
Over the last week, far too many politicians trying to appear responsible have said that they will “listen to” what Cameron has to say before deciding whether they will support a bombing campaign or not.  To an extent, that serves to legitimise the principle; the decision on whether to bomb or not becomes merely a matter of considering the detail.  No matter how careful or precise any campaign of bombing is, there will inevitably be civilian casualties.  And although the ideology which is the target will end up controlling less territory, it will probably emerge with a strengthened resolve and a more diffuse and even harder-to-tackle structure.  Not for the first time, we will end up failing to learn the lesson that the use of military might against an idea never really resolves anything in the long term.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Unity of purpose

In his visit to Wales yesterday, Labour’s new leader said that his party was united, a statement which has caused some raised eyebrows, given the recent shenanigans within the parliamentary party.  But in one important sense, he’s right.  There is a high degree of unity within the Labour Party in wishing to win elections and form the next government.  The only areas of disagreement are about how they will achieve that and what they will actually do if they achieve it.  In the grand scheme of what politics has become, those are only minor little matters.  Aren’t they?

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Comrades in arms?

The report that Wales’ First Minister will no longer be extending an invitation to base the Trident nuclear weapons submarines in Wales is welcome, albeit belated.  It’s not entirely clear whether his change of heart is a reflection of the views of his new boss, or merely a recognition that an off-the-cuff remark in a debate in the Senedd, intended merely to score a political point in debate, came to look rather silly after the event.  It always looked more like a case of foot-in-mouth disease than a thought-through policy pronouncement.
At UK level, the Labour Party is still struggling with the whole issue.  Silly and wholly uncomradely remarks made by Ken Livingstone didn’t help, of course.  But some of the Labour Party’s own MPs have succeeded in giving the impression that they are quite happy to have a review of the party’s policy as long as the review is conducted only by people who agree with the current policy and doesn’t include anyone who might actually want to question it.  Sir Humphrey would be proud of them.
Whilst Livingstone’s comments were quite rightly turned upon, his silliness and his subsequent apology have unfortunately diverted attention away from the substance of the views being put forward by the MP he attacked, Kevan Jones.  As the BBC reported, Mr Jones said “I'm not sure Ken knows anything about defence.  It will only damage our credibility amongst those that do and who care about defence”.
Whilst he did not deserve the personal attack to which he was subjected, his view does need to be challenged.  It’s a very dismissive view to adopt towards any alternative viewpoint – in effect, he’s saying that ‘credibility’ means agreeing with him.  It’s a classic example of the way in which conservative politicians of all parties attempt to close down debate and restrict the range of opinion which can be discussed – and it avoids the substance of the issue completely.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Looking for needles in haystacks

One of the more inevitable responses to terrorist attacks has been to talk about reintroducing border controls.  It is, it has been said, too easy for determined people to obtain weapons in one part of the EU and travel across the whole of Europe without ever being challenged, whereas with border controls, there would be more chance of stopping people sooner.  It’s a viewpoint which is not without a degree of logic, but it is far too simplistic, and I suspect that it hides a rather different motivation.
It is, of course, true that the shorter the distance between borders and checkpoints, the harder it would become for people to carry weapons and explosives from one end of the continent to the other.  But it is equally true that having border checks on every county boundary – or even every parish/community boundary – would provide even more security.  Nobody – at least, as far as I’m aware – is proposing either of those suggestions; it is only ‘state’ boundaries which some would like to see closed.
And that tells us something about the mindset of those calling for reintroduction of stronger border controls across Europe.  Whatever their motivation is, it really is not about finding the most effective way of controlling the movement of terrorists.  Some European Union members have small land masses, but others are very much larger.  Merely imposing controls on one arbitrarily selected set of lines on a map regardless of the size of the territories included within those lines doesn’t look like a targeted response to a problem.  Controlling the movement of millions to try and identify the tens doesn’t look like a terribly efficient approach either, even assuming that it could actually succeed in identifying all the ‘targets’.
So what’s it really about?  It looks like a knee-jerk reaction that ‘something must be done’ and the something that is proposed just happens to fit with the existing prejudices of those proposing it.  The concept of ‘open internal borders’ is one of the achievements of the European project, although sadly the UK chose to opt out.  Demands for the rest of Europe to follow the UK lead look more like an attempt to justify the UK’s stance than a rational response to a particular problem.
Open borders do not come without problems, of course.  But a state the size of the US manages without any internal border controls – why should they be needed in Europe?

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Nuclear chickens and eggs

Yesterday, Baron Kinnock demonstrated his commitment to internal Labour Party democracy by telling the party’s duly elected leader that he will never win power promising unilateral nuclear disarmament.  Three things struck me about this.
In the first place, there is a serious question as to whether it’s actually true.  It’s one of those things that can never be known until it’s tested; so I can no more be certain that it isn’t true than he can be certain that it is.  I do seem to recall, however, that there is some empirical evidence to the contrary, albeit a long time ago.  I’m sure that the Labour Government elected in 1964 had a manifesto pledge to scrap Trident – it was one of the things that excited me at the time about the possibility of a Labour Government.
(They didn’t actually implement the promise of course.  But whether any government would ever implement such a promise is a rather different question from the one which Kinnock has raised.)
Secondly, even supposing that it were true, what does it really tells us?  At best it would tell us that if leaders of all the three major parties reiterate consistently and in unison for fifty years (with one brief, minor – albeit welcome – aberration under Michael Foot) that possession of nuclear weapons is essential, and manage to convince the electorate that it's true, then it’s unlikely that the public will change its opinion overnight.  That wouldn’t be an unreasonable conclusion to draw, but it’s a long way short of what he said.  Which came first - public opinion or the insistence of politicians?
There’s a fundamental logic flaw in the conclusion that he did draw, namely that no party can ever propose scrapping nuclear weapons because of the climate of opinion which politicians like himself have done so much to normalise.  It amounts to little more than saying that after telling people one thing for fifty years, you can’t simply tell them that it wasn’t actually true, and must continue to peddle the same line indefinitely, because you can only be elected by telling the same old lie. 
And thirdly, he didn’t even mention the question of whether the UK needs or should have nuclear weapons at all.  It’s as if that is entirely a secondary question to the Labour Party’s need to win elections.  Still, I suppose that saying we must build new nuclear weapons so that Labour can win the election is at least a bit more honest than the Labour Party’s official position, which is, if I understand it correctly:
1.    Nuclear weapons are bad
2.    No country which doesn’t currently possess them must be allowed to develop them
3.    Those countries which do possess them must negotiate to get rid of them
4.    The UK needs to spend £100billion on new nuclear weapons so that it has something which it can negotiate to get rid of
Trident renewal is thus either a £100 billion fling to get Labour elected, or else it’s a very expensive bargaining chip.  Or maybe both.  It’s a depressing lack of leadership and vision, an inability to imagine that politicians might have any responsibility to lead rather than follow.  And the issue is a classic example of what went wrong for Labour as a would-be party of peace, progress and justice.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

It's NOT the economy that matters

According to this report in today’s Western Mail, Cardiff Professor Patrick Minford is telling a House of Commons committee that leaving the EU will not lead to the economic disaster which many politicians are claiming.  Whilst I don’t agree with everything that he says, I do agree with his basic message.
Whether an EU exit would leave Wales much better off as he claims is another question entirely – that depends on a lot more than the simple decision to leave, including the not insignificant question about the regional policy which any UK government would follow in those circumstances. But in essence, the economy of the UK in general, including Wales, would adapt over time to the new circumstances.  That’s what economies do.
I find it strange at times that some of those who claim to believe that Wales could and would adapt to life outside the UK are so reluctant to accept that the same is true for the UK vis-à-vis the EU.  In principle, it looks like a very similar argument to me.  In both cases, there would be a period of transition as changes are made; but in both cases, all the experience of others suggests that the economy would adapt.
It underlines the dangers, yet again, of an argument for and against EU membership based first and foremost on economics.  Such an argument is essentially unwinnable for either side.  Those for staying in are forced to resort to the sort of scare tactics used by Project Fear in Scotland, and those for coming out are forced to make untestable assumptions about the policy decisions which would follow and their consequences.  Voters end up having to decide whose set of assumptions to believe – or else make their decision on the basis of other factors.
And that’s the real point here.  The UK’s continued membership of the EU is fundamentally a political decision, not an economic one.  It’s about the role we see for the UK in the wider world; and from a Welsh perspective, it’s about how we see the future development of Wales in either scenario.  We can and will adapt economically to either future path, but they represent two very different futures.  We can choose to be part of a multinational Europe-wide project or part of an isolationist UK.  And that choice has very little to do with mere economics.

Monday, 2 November 2015

By accident, not design

In the wake of the UK Government’s defeat in the House of Lords last week, there has been plenty of comment as to whether the behaviour of the lords is or is not in line with what the lords are ‘meant’ to do.  The implication is that the second chamber has a clearly defined role and purpose as a revising chamber.  That is, of course, complete nonsense; its current role was never ‘designed’ by anyone.
The original intention was that the chamber was there to represent a particular class interest, and to have at least equal power with the chamber representing the rest of society.  Indeed, at the outset, it was the more powerful of the two houses – it isn’t referred to as the ‘upper’ house for nothing.  Over a period, that power has been whittled away, piece by piece, as the elected chamber asserted its authority, and placed ever more restrictions on what the unelected lords could do.
It now has a role as a revising chamber not because anyone ever sat down and thought about whether we really need a second chamber or what its role should be, but simply because revising and delaying are the only powers which haven’t yet been stripped from it.  I’m far from convinced that any rational process for designing a parliamentary system would ever produce anything remotely resembling the House of Lords, nor assign to it the curious vestige of powers which it exercises.
The problem with all proposals for reform is that they never start from first principles; the innate conservatism of the UK state means that they all start from what is and try to propose different combinations of roles, responsibilities and methods of selection.  The very existence of the second chamber is rarely challenged.
It should be.  The most rational way of dealing with the House of Lords is to strip it of all its remaining powers.  Plenty of countries manage with unicameral parliaments, and there’s absolutely no reason why the UK couldn’t do the same. 

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Creating bigger problems

One of the recurrent themes of the whole process of devolution has been the ‘quick fix’.  Time and again, the politicians responsible for taking decisions have taken a decision which ‘solves’ the immediate problem, with very little consideration being given to the new problems which will be created as a result.
The statement by the UK and Scottish leaders of the Labour Party over the weekend looks like yet another in a long line of poorly thought-through changes.  The problem that it seeks to address is clear enough, and that is that Labour in Scotland is perceived as being subordinate to Labour in London.  I can’t put that any better than a former leader of the party in Scotland, who said that the Scottish party was being treated like a “branch office”.  At a time when even many of those Scots not yet convinced by the arguments for independence are seeking a strengthening of the Scottish dimension in politics, this has been a major handicap.
The solution proposed is that the Labour Party will become more of a federal party, with the party in Scotland free to determine its own policies.  It sounds like a simple and obvious solution, but it raises more questions than it resolves.  It’s easy to see how the Scottish party could hold different views on devolved issues discussed in the Scottish parliament.  Having English MPs in Westminster saying one thing whilst Scottish MSPs in Edinburgh say the opposite may not be an overly elegant approach, but it could probably be made to work.
The problem arises however with any Labour MPs who are elected in Scotland.  Currently, with only one of them and no immediate prospect of that changing, it’s probably not an issue.  But since the intention of the proposed change is, I assume, to secure the election of more Labour MPs from Scotland, we should at least consider the theoretical possibility that the electoral results might be as the party desires.
So would Labour candidates standing for election in Scotland be standing on the Westminster party’s manifesto or the Scottish one?  In the first case, they could find themselves saying the opposite of their own party’s members in the Scottish Parliament; and in the other, how could they then be whipped into supporting the Westminster leadership’s programme?
The proposal may yet, of course, come to nothing.  It certainly seems as though many of the Labour party’s centralists are up in arms at the idea and will do what they can to block it – although making such a proposal and then not following it through is probably just about the worst possible outcome for Scottish Labour.
A federal party can work in organisational terms; but I find it hard to see how it can work in policy terms if the policies ever diverge to any significant extent.  Perhaps what the Labour party needs isn’t a federal structure, but a sister party with a much looser relationship.  It’s something that works for them with the SDLP in the north of Ireland.  The SDLP is a completely autonomous party, Irish nationalist in outlook, which shares some of the values espoused by Labour and can work with them in loose alliance on some UK wide issues.  I wonder how such an arrangement might be arrived at in Scotland?

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Not as different as they sound

Sometimes, the MP for Monmouth makes it too easy for people to treat what he says as something of a joke.  His comment yesterday, talking about the publication of the draft of the latest Wales Bill and saying that Wales is edging towards independence fits into that category.  I wish it were true, of course; but the idea that this paltry concoction is any sort of a step towards independence is laughable.
Some of his other comments need to be taken a bit more seriously however.  For too many of those for whom the establishment of the Assembly is an unchallengeable given, his comment that devolution is a one-way street and that “No-one is talking about taking powers away from the Welsh government in areas where it is performing badly” may be dismissed in the same way. 
But, thinking about it, is this attitude of an MP towards the Assembly so very different from the attitude of many AMs towards local councils in Wales?  Much of what our AMs say about local councils seems to be predicated on the assumption that ‘if they don’t do as we tell them, we’ll take the power away from them’, because they see local councils as being simply agents of government rather than having any real mandate of their own.  The two positions sound very similar to me.
Both are, ultimately, based on a very simple premise – that there’s a ‘right’ place for power to live, and any power exercised at a 'lower' level exists solely with the consent of that ‘right’ place.  I don’t doubt that many nationalists and devolutionists would argue that there’s a difference, but I’m not sure that there is.  And constitutionally, David Davies is right – the UK constitution quite clearly defines power as being in the gift of the centre, acting on behalf of the monarch whose power was bestowed on her by God.
At the very heart of Davies’ comments is an axiomatic belief about the right of those who hold power to retain it.  It’s a belief shared by many of those who are only really disagreeing with the way he applies it.  Anybody who wants to disagree with him needs to start by accepting that power belongs to the people, not the centre, and that the people have the right to decide where it should be exercised.  Merely moving the ‘right’ place for power to reside from London to Cardiff will never be enough.