Thursday, 30 June 2016

Why would they give us the money?

I can understand why the First Minister would come out demanding that Wales doesn’t lose a penny in regional aid following Brexit, and that the UK Government should commit to making up the difference.  It’s a natural response, given the sums involved and the number of important projects which depend on this funding.  But hold on a minute – didn’t we just, effectively, vote against the whole principle of regional aid, even if wasn’t put that way?
As one of the EU’s richest member states, the UK contribution was higher than the amounts received back in payments such as the budget rebate, farm subsidies and regional aid.  That ‘disparity’ was one of the core arguments of the Brexit brigade.  No-one on the Remain side took the trouble, as far as I can recall, to explain the reasons for that, let alone to defend it.  But there are a number of reasons for the disparity, and it’s worth stopping for a moment to consider what that ‘excess’ payment was spent on before assuming that it will automatically now be available to spend.
For instance, some of it went on those apparently hated ‘eurocrats’ – you know like the people that manage the CAP, negotiate trade deals and other agreements, and manage the single market.  We won’t need them any more, will we?  Well, not exactly...  Let’s take the case of trade negotiators.  For the next two years, we will still be paying our share of the EU costs of employing such people, so that they can negotiate with the UK as well as the rest of the world – and we will also need to recruit and pay more of our own civil servants to negotiate with them, whilst at the same time, negotiating our own deals with the rest of the world.  That latter cost won’t come to an end in two years’ time either – we’ll need those skills for the foreseeable future.  Indeed, the cost of doing this sort of thing for the UK alone is inevitably going to be higher than it would be if the cost was shared between 28 states.  Bang goes part of the ‘spare’ money.  And that’s just one example.
But more importantly, a lot of the EU budget is spent on attempting to redistribute wealth, from the richer areas to the poorer.  One can argue (and I certainly would so argue) that this hasn’t always been spent well or effectively, (although that’s generally more to do with those receiving the largesse than with those dispensing it) but Wales is far from being the only poor area of the EU, nor the only beneficiary of the EU’s attempts at redistribution. 
Further, anyone who was really serious about wanting to slow migration within the single market would be arguing for more redistribution, not less.  All the talk about people moving from areas of low economic activity to areas of high activity has focussed on the impact on the receiving countries, but if there is a part of the UK which should realise more than any other area how badly such migration impacts the areas from which people migrate, it is surely Wales.  Isn’t that loss of young working people exactly what we have been suffering from for decades?
But back to the point – to argue that we should not contribute more than we get back (which is what the leavers were doing) is in essence to argue against the very principle of redistributive policy.  It is to argue against the richer helping out the poorer.
One doesn’t need to take much of a look at some of the Brexiters to understand that arguing that the rich should keep what they have and not share it is probably instinctive and natural for them.  So, regardless of what they said during the campaign, why would anyone believe that people who are against the whole concept of redistributing wealth are suddenly going to be generously in favour of it within the UK?  Worse, why do they even need to, when the people of Wales themselves have voted to support that sort of economic selfishness?

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Political Logic

Like Military Intelligence, it’s probably an oxymoron, but that doesn’t make it funny.  Both the Tories and Labour seem to be suffering from logic problems at the moment.
On the Labour side, the argument of those trying to oust Corbyn, as I understand it, runs something like this: working people need a Labour Government to protect them from the Tories, and the only way that we can get a Labour Government is to ditch a leader who is likely to try and protect working people from the Tories and replace him with someone who broadly agrees with most of what the Tories say.
On the Tory side, Crabb and his supporters seem to be saying that the best way to keep the UK united is to elect as Prime Minister a man who will be unable to vote in Parliament for any of his own party’s policies on health, education and a host of other issues because in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland these are devolved matters, and in England, his own party has introduced a rule barring him from voting.
Those of us yearning for a seismic change in UK politics should be pleased at the mess that both those parties are getting themselves into, but, outside of Scotland, I worry about the alternative.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

The start of a process?

Dr Sulien Morgan, at Cambria Nostra has some interesting thoughts on where we go from here and some pretty blunt things to say about the political expression of nationalism in Wales today.  For me, some very similar thoughts were crystalized by the differing reactions of the nationalist parties in Wales and Scotland.
We are in a position where the Conservative Party is in chaos; those who found themselves unexpected victors of the campaign don’t even have a Plan A let alone a Plan B; and the Labour Party’s MPs have responded to Tory chaos by pushing their own party into meltdown.  In Scotland, the SNP seizes the opportunity, and looks likely to achieve its aim of independence.  In Wales, Plaid Cymru’s initial response seemed to be an offer to help Labour out by going into coalition.  It would be hard to find a better example of the difference between the situation in Wales and that in Scotland.
However, things are still moving rapidly, and the later response from Plaid that it is now time to campaign for independence is a step in the right direction.  I haven’t a clue what a “new union of independent nations” is, and I suspect that Plaid don’t either, as yet – it’s clearly something that needs a bit more work if it’s to be more than a slogan.  But it’s a better response than the initial one.
It will be an uphill task to convince people that a party which said that Wales couldn’t afford to become an independent country when we were receiving large amounts of EU structural funding is seriously arguing that we can do exactly that once that funding is taken away.  At the very least, it would seem to me to require some serious backtracking on much of what has been said in recent years.
It’s true though that Thursday’s vote is a game-changer, and opens out opportunities as well as problems.  Sadly, given that Wales followed England in voting for Brexit, we’re not in the same position as Scotland in being able to argue that the people voted to stay in.  However, 42.5% of the electorate did vote to remain, and the other 52.5% voted to “take back control” – there has to be a nationalist message which can bring together elements of both of those camps to create at least a basis for an independent Wales to seek membership of the EU anew at some future date.
The real change, though, is that what people thought they were voting for – a UK outside the EU – may no longer be an option.  It would be dangerous to assume that Scotland will definitely become an independent nation; it’s far too soon for that, and there is much that could still change.  I’m sure that I’m not alone in thinking that events have pushed Nicola Sturgeon into putting a second referendum on the table sooner than she would have preferred given the choice; and those who have changed their opinion following Brexit may yet have a further change of heart as events unfold.  The situation in Ireland is also fluid.  Whilst Sinn Fein have called for a border poll, it doesn’t look to me as though the conditions of the Good Friday agreement that would permit that – in essence, evidence that opinion on the border issue has changed – have yet been met.  On the other hand, it is possible that the North of Ireland will yet seek a change in its status as the implications of Thursday’s vote become clearer.
Uncertainty reigns, but at some point, it’s entirely possible that Wales will have to face a choice between joining the world and remaining as a small appendage on the west of England, which is not at all the choice which was on the ballot paper last week.
That is a real opportunity for a nationalist movement to make the case which has not been made for so long, and to start shifting opinion in Wales on the question of independence.  The key word there, though, is ‘start’.  We’re starting a long way behind Scotland, and whilst it looks possible that Scotland will be able to arrive at an answer in time to salvage its position within the EU, it has to be at least probable that Wales will be a decade or more behind.  At a time when events are moving quickly, I’d love to be proved wrong; but we have been left with a lot of time to make up.

Monday, 27 June 2016

How final is the decision?

In the few days that have passed since Thursday’s vote, there has been some speculation as to whether the decision taken in the referendum can be reversed.  Several possible routes have been suggested, but all of them look highly problematic to me.
Most MPs supported the Remain side; in theory, under the unwritten UK constitution, referendums can only ever be consultative, and the sovereign parliament in Westminster can, if it chooses, ignore them.  However, theory isn’t the same as practice, and it would be a very brave bunch of parliamentarians who decided to ignore the wishes of the electorate after giving them the choice.  And given that under the first-past-the-post electoral system, a party only needs to gain around 35% of the vote to gain an absolute majority of seats, if they were to try it, it’s entirely conceivable that the next parliament would contain a majority for leave.  Even if large numbers of people do change their minds, I don’t see the level of support for Brexit dropping below around 35% any time soon, and I can easily conceive of them all voting for the same party in such circumstances.  We have some experience to draw on here - it would mirror what happened in Scotland after the 2014 referendum.
Another mechanism suggested is a second referendum, with more than 3 million already having signed a petition calling for one.  This particular petition was actually started before the referendum took place (in a touch of irony, by a member of the English Democrats who was concerned that the ‘leave’ side would be robbed of victory!), and tried to set a threshold for victory which was not, as it happens, achieved.  But it’s difficult to see the justification for changing the rules after the event; and not liking the result isn’t really a good enough argument for demanding a replay.  If it were, no election would ever be final!
One suggestion that has been made is that if we have another election in the autumn – which appears to be at least a possibility at present – then if all the parties stood on a platform of over-turning the result, or of holding a second referendum, then the situation could be reversed.  The problem with that is that there is at least one party which would never agree to that; and that business about 35% being enough for a majority comes back into play.  Majority UKIP government, anyone?  Frying pans and fires are the words which come to mind.
There has been talk that the Scottish parliament could block exit for the UK by refusing to agree to the necessary Legislative Competence Motion.  I suspect that would serve only to expose the reality that throughout the devolution process, Westminster has always retained the right to over-rule the devolved parliaments any time it so decides.  That might give an extra push to Scottish independence aspirations, but EnglandandWales would still be out.
The Lib Dems have already said that they will fight the first post-Brexit election campaign on a platform of re-joining the EU.  It’s a potential way forward, of course – but it’s inconceivable that the Tories would do the same, and highly unlikely for Labour either.  The terms for re-entry would be unlikely to include all the little opt-outs for the UK, making it harder to get parties to support the proposal.  And there’s still that little business of 35% leading to a majority…
It is, of course, possible that, after completing the negotiations with the other 27 members of the EU and establishing the detailed nature of the terms of the divorce, the government of the day would then decide to put those terms to another referendum in around 2 years’ time, if – and it’s a big if – there was clear evidence from polling that there had been a significant change of heart amongst the electorate.  I can’t imagine the other 27 members looking kindly on a member state which caused them to waste huge amounts of time and effort over two years to arrive at a settlement and then said, “sorry, we’ve changed our minds”.  They’d probably agree, but in their position, I’d be looking to get rid of at least some of the unique UK opt-outs which they’ve agreed to over the years.
That is, though, probably the best hope for those of us who would prefer to stay.  But even then, the key is that question of having clear evidence of a significant change of heart amongst the electorate.  And, in turn, the key to that is that those politicians who support remaining have to do a great deal more to sell the positives of European integration than they’ve done to date, something which looks very unlikely to me at present.  Oh, and because of the 35% issue repeatedly mentioned above, it would also require voting reform as a pre-requisite, so that 35% couldn’t then elect a government which would take us out anyway.
Overall, I’m pessimistic about any chance of reversing the decision taken.  Out probably does mean out.  And all this has come about because of one man’s inability to deal with an internal disagreement in his own party.  Cameron has a lot to answer for.

Friday, 24 June 2016

For Wales, see England

Thus read the 1888 version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.  It wasn’t fair then, and it isn’t fair today, but in political terms it seems to be becoming more, rather than less, true as a result of elections over the past few years. 
The full implications of yesterday’s vote will take some time to become clear.  The dust hasn’t settled yet, but as I’ve posted before, I’ve never really believed the warnings of economic doom.  The issue for me has always been about the way forward for Wales, and the context in which those of us who want to see an independent Wales can best realise our aspirations.  But that’s for another post after a lot more reflection – for today, I’ll content myself with a few comments on the nature of the ‘Welsh’ debate.
Insofar as there was a Welsh element to the debate at all, it seemed to start with Wales’ establishment politicians largely taking the result for granted and engaging in idle speculation about the constitutional implications of a Welsh ‘remain’ and an English ‘leave’.  There was never much of a basis for believing that the result in Wales would be very different from that in England, but it has seemed throughout that the politicians didn’t really understand that, preferring to cling to a vision of the political Wales of the past rather than that of the present, let alone that of the future.
For most of the campaign, that initial speculation was replaced by an argument that Wales did better out of the UK than any other part of the UK, and that Wales should vote to stay in because of the financial benefit.  It was always a weak argument, but it was based on the conventional wisdom that people would, ultimately, vote in the way that best promoted their own personal financial interest.  If there’s any good at all to come out of the vote, it is surely that it has demonstrated that people can indeed be motivated to vote against their own direct financial interest if presented with an argument which appeals to their sentiments and prejudices. 
It might not have been a particularly honest argument – worse, many of us found it downright unpleasant – but there can be little argument that it was anything but an appeal to simplistic financial selfishness.  That in turn highlights another learning point – if we don’t tackle and debate prejudices and sentiments, the unscrupulous and unsavoury can and will exploit them to promote their own agenda.  If politicians are serious about changing Wales for the better, they need to stop pandering to those pre-existing prejudices and beliefs and start trying to change them.  Positive change comes from leading public opinion, not following it; and that’s as true when it comes to the independence debate as it is in relation to immigration.
The campaign in Wales ended with an appeal from Plaid to use the vote as a test of Welsh nationhood, and to decide whether we see ourselves as a European nation or a western province of England.  Would that they had seen it as such; but insofar as the voters chose to respond to that question at all, they plumped for the latter.  The trouble with that appeal, as with so much of the campaign, seems to me to be that politicians have started out with their own preconception about Welsh voters’ political views chiming with those that they elect, and assumed it to be fact, even when the polls and previous election results were increasingly showing something very different.
At this point, I’m not sure how Wales as a political nation will move forward from here; but recognising the extent to which reality differs from perception and wishful thinking might be as good a starting point as any.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

No real surprise

I really don’t understand why anyone in Welsh politics would be in the least surprised at the strength of the leave campaign.  This particular writing has been on the wall for several years now.  The European election of 2014; the UK general election of 2015; the Welsh general election of 2016 – three successive elections where the level of support for UKIP has been at a high level, and all the while we have also known that many of those voting Tory shared many of the same views. 
It feels somehow as though the Welsh political establishment has been ignoring the facts; viewing Welsh politics not through the prism of what is actually happening, but through the prism of an attachment to the old idea of Welsh radicalism and internationalism.  It would be true, of course, that not all of those voting for UKIP in three successive elections actually agree with UKIP on everything; and no doubt, there are even some who disagree with the idea of quitting the EU.  But the growth in support for that party surely suggests a growth in support for its key aim as well – this isn’t a surprise which has somehow crept up on us.
In the same story, Chris Grayling claimed that he’d spoken to many people in the valleys of south Wales “who face the consequences of migration into this area”.  Really?  I don’t doubt that hostility to immigration is driving much of the leave campaign, but still, this looks like another made up sound bite – because immigration into that part of Wales is close to zero.  And that highlights another interesting factor – some of the highest votes for UKIP in recent elections in Wales have come from the areas where the level of immigration is at its lowest.  Whatever is driving opposition to immigration in those areas, it isn’t direct exposure to it or its effects.
There may be a general truth here – what people oppose and fear is precisely that with which they are unfamiliar; there seems to be more tolerance and acceptance of immigrants when they actually appear.  How else can we try to explain why hostility is at its highest in areas where there is least to be hostile towards?
Perhaps I’m being unduly pessimistic; perhaps come Thursday, the result won’t be as close as the polls suggest.  Perhaps.  But whatever the outcome, we all need to recognise that Welsh politics, like UK politics, has changed over the last few years, and not for the better.  Dark forces have been unleashed, and we need to start addressing that, not pretending that Wales is somehow ‘different’ or immune to this type of change.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Unremitting negativity

Barely a week to go until the Tory Party leadership contest EU referendum and the negativity continues apace.  The best argument that the remain campaign can come up with, apparently, is that leaving will cost us too much.  The effect may not be quite what they intend – every time I hear someone saying that, the subliminal message for me is that “we’d like to leave really, we just can’t afford it”.  Uninspiring is too modest a word.
It’s been clear from the outset that the main issue for many was always going to be immigration, but as the campaign moves on the issue has increasingly blatantly been brought to the forefront by the leave campaigners.  Never mind that the issue is only marginally to do with the EU; underlying distrust of those strange ‘foreigners’ is something to which the unscrupulous can play in order to advance their own agenda, which in many cases is nothing at all to do with immigration as such.
Labour’s role in the campaign has been almost invisible until this week; they have allowed the whole issue to be played out largely between the Tory Government and the Tory Opposition.  And when they do finally try and get some sort of campaign going, what do we get?  Blind – and almost certainly misplaced – faith in the ability of Gordon Brown to persuade anybody of anything, and an almost complete capitulation to the anti-immigration theme of the outers.
Yesterday, Labour seemed to want to stress that, even if the UK votes to remain, free movement of people has to stop.  No attempt at all to discuss the positive aspects of free movement of people, from which many in the UK have benefited.  Free movement is seen, by all concerned, as a one-sided ‘problem’ of people being drawn into the UK, and not as something which also gives freedom to all of us.
Where is the attempt to rebut the claim that immigration is changing the nature of the country?  Most immigrants to the UK seem to want to integrate rapidly; they want to learn English and become part of the communities in which they live.  (It’s interesting to contrast that with the approach of many people from the UK who move to the Costas or the Dordogne – or English people moving to north and west Wales, come to that.  There are object lessons there for anyone who really wants to see how ‘immigration’ can change the culture of a society.)
There has been an almost complete lack of a positive case for pan-European co-operation and unity, virtually no discussion of how the EU might develop and change, and a lack of a specifically Welsh debate around the best future for this small nation.  Sadly, momentum is moving in the direction of the outers, and it looks as though the result in Wales will be little different from that in England.  Scotland may yet save us from ourselves.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

So what changed?

In 1975, the last time we had a referendum on membership of the EU (or the Common Market, as it was called then) I was very much on the losing side, spending a lot of time leafletting and campaigning against membership.  Plaid’s slogan at the time was “Europe Yes, EEC no”, as I recall.  It was an attempt to put a pro-European case against the EU as an institution, but it failed miserably.  Part of the reason was that the nationalist case for a different type of Europe was drowned out by the Little Englander case against ‘Europe’ in general, but it was also because it was difficult to separate ‘Europe’ from the ‘EEC’; a difficulty facing campaigners still.
There were a number of reasons for supporting the ‘out’ campaign at that time.  Some of those are still valid today, which I suspect is one of the reasons why some supporters of ‘remain’ are having difficulty making their case as positively as they might wish.  The Treaty of Rome, which was the basis of the organisation back then, was seen as being a basis for a ‘capitalist club’; an organisation which would work in the interests of capital rather than working people.  Some of us saw the whole concept of ‘free movement of capital’ as being a dangerous one for the interests of working people.  And of course, for those seeking Welsh independence, the idea of committing to an even bigger union, with an even more distant centre, turning Wales into a periphery of the periphery, was deeply unattractive.
There are echoes of all of those arguments still being heard today, but there are a number of crucial changes which have led me, over the years, to change my opinion.
Firstly, and most importantly, there is the question of the alternative.  Back in 1975, the rather looser organisation known as EFTA seemed to offer a credible alternative.  It seemed rather more likely to many of us that an independent Wales would be able to join that organisation than to become a full member of the EEC from within.  But that alternative no longer exists.  EFTA has, effectively, been swallowed up by the EU, and the alternative to membership of the EU now is to be part of an offshore island state.  It’s not a position from which independence is likely to look attractive.
Secondly, the EU has itself changed.  From a group of six states it has become a continent-wide organisation, including many more nationalities and minorities.  Multilingualism is the norm, along with respect for difference.  It looks and feels like a much more natural home for Wales to be able to express itself as a nation than does a monolingual offshore state.
Thirdly, the tensions between ‘state’ and ‘nation’ are not limited to the UK.  From the insular perspective of the early 1970s, the Welsh and Scottish battles for independence looked and felt like a part of UK politics; apart and separate from what was happening ‘over there’ on the continent.  Today, the fight for an increasing degree of national autonomy looks and feels like part of a much wider European movement; the concerns and aspirations of nationalists in Wales are shared in a number of other places within the EU.
There are other points that I could make; and none of the above means that I’m happy with all aspects of the EU as it stands.  In particular, I’d like to see more ‘regionalism’ in action, and a clear path towards ‘internal enlargement’ rather than an apparent determination to protect and defend the state boundaries and structures which currently happen to exist.  But overall, I’ve become convinced that Wales’ future as a nation will be better served by working towards formal direct membership of the EU than by abandoning the whole concept and returning to the island state for which so many of the ‘Leavers’ yearn.  For me, the EU is, at its simplest, a better ‘context’ for Welsh independence than a stand-alone UK.
It is, in essence, a nationalist perspective on the issue; starting from a consideration of which of the only two alternatives on the table seems to offer the best chance of Wales joining the world.  But it’s a perspective which is, sadly, hardly being mentioned in the campaign.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Not as 'progressive' as it appears

It isn’t just Cameron’s arguments in support of remaining in the EU which have disappointed me.  I’m also more than a little sceptical about the so-called ‘progressive’ case for the EU.  One of the most succinct expressions of that case was a statement by Plaid’s leader, Leanne Wood, when she said yesterday “Because of our membership of the EU, we have laws on equality, the environment, on workers’ and consumer rights, on farming and food quality, laws to tackle climate change and much more”
Now, I don’t dispute that we have laws on all those issues, or that the EU has been instrumental in ensuring that those laws are consistent across the whole of the EU, but is the fact that we have laws covering all those fields really “because of our membership of the EU”?  I believe not; I’m reasonably convinced that we’d still have laws on all those fields even outside the EU (which is why the claim by the Brexit camp that we would abolish all the EU regulations after leaving is pure baloney).  The question is whether they’d be the same laws, or whether they’d offer less – or more – protection than the laws as they currently exist. 
It’s no coincidence that many of those campaigning for Brexit would like to weaken the protection in all of those areas, but Brexit in itself doesn’t guarantee that they’d be in a position to do so.  By and large I accept the argument that the laws are probably better than they otherwise might be, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that what we are really being told is that we should place more trust in EU politicians (or bureaucrats as everyone else seems to prefer to call them) than in UK politicians.  The ‘progressive’ argument seems to amount to saying that we need to be part of the EU so that someone else can over-rule the UK and set higher standards than the parties that we vote for here would ever do.  It’s not an argument which particularly inspires me, and it is, in essence, rather defeatist.
I’d certainly accept that there are advantages for trade across the EU from having a consistent set of rules and laws to which all have to work.  Consistency for trade purposes might be a more positive argument for the EU, but it’s one which the supporters of the EU seem to be very unwilling to make.  

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Another day, another wild claim

It’s beginning to look as though neither side in the debate about the EU referendum can allow a single day to go by without producing more inflated and sensational claims about the effects of either remaining or leaving.
Today we have a warning from Cameron about the cost of European family holidays.  Reading the headlines, one could be forgiven for believing that this is a proven fact – which is, of course, what Cameron wants us to believe – but in fact it’s little more than a back-of-an-envelope calculation based on an unsubstantiated assertion about the impact of Brexit on the value of the pound in the immediate aftermath of an exit vote.  So how valid is the assertion?
It does seem probable that Brexit would lead to an immediate short term drop in the value of the pound on international markets.  That’s partly based on those people trading in currency believing the gloomy predictions, and partly on them seeing the gloomy predictions as an opportunity to bet against the pound and make some money.  Whether such a fall in value would be sustained is a much more difficult question to answer.
But if indeed, it turned out that the new ‘normal’ value of the pound was indeed lower for an extended period, then the claim that it would increase the price of holidays would be a valid one.  But not just in Europe, of course; a lower pound would increase the cost of holidays anywhere where people need to pay for things in a currency other than sterling.  And indeed, Cameron could legitimately have gone on to say that, assuming his guesstimates are right, any goods or services purchased from ‘abroad’ would be more expensive. 
That’s only half the equation, though – because whilst a cheaper pound would make foreign purchases more expensive, it would also make foreign sales more competitive.  A fall in the value of the pound isn’t necessarily a wholly bad thing, and as well as exaggerating on the basis of broad unsubstantiated assumptions, Cameron is also guilty of gross over-simplification of a complex question in an attempt to appeal to people to vote on the basis of a very narrow interpretation of their own self-interest.
As a supporter of the 'remain' campaign, I find the arguments being made in favour to be increasingly disappointing.  I almost wonder if some of them might actually want to lose.