Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Maybe not a bus this time...

Last week, the Foreign Secretary told us that leaving the EU without a deal on the future trading relationship "would be a mistake we would regret for generations", but was forced to follow that up later the same day with a ‘clarification’ that what he apparently meant to say was that it was the rest of the EU which would regret it, not us: “it would be a big mistake for Europe because of inevitable impact on long-term partnership with UK”.  In the land of make believe inhabited by the cabinet, it seems that the smaller party to the negotiations, the one which would in the event of ‘no-deal’ be left with no agreed trading relationships with anyone, would do just fine but all the problems and regrets would be felt by the larger partner.
It’s part of a pattern in which the government of a country of 65 million thinks it can make credible threats to a trading bloc of 450 million.  Hunt has managed to excel himself with the weakness of his threat to those horrid Europeans: give us what we want, or "Inevitably that would change British attitudes towards Europe".  Take that, Juncker!  I’m not sure quite whose attitudes he believes would change, though.  Most of those on the Brexit side of the debate seem to be already convinced that the EU bosses are an unelected dictatorship which hates the UK and wants to punish us for daring to leave, whilst those on the Remain side are already clear in their own minds that the consequences we face are being caused largely by the intransigence and red lines of a UK government which has followed a policy of cakeism from the outset.  A messy divorce might harden those attitudes on both sides, but I don’t see it changing them.  His words are just another empty threat, like all the others which have preceded them.  
Meanwhile, other Brexiteers are busy urging Hunt’s predecessor to take another bus tour around the UK, encouraging grass roots Tories to rise up against the so-called ‘plan’ which emerged from Chequers.  He’s currently declining to participate.  That's reasonable enough; I find it hard to believe that even Boris would be daft enough to repeat that stunt, given how badly it has subsequently backfired.  Even he must, surely, see how open to ridicule it would leave him, even if fear of ridicule is not something that generally deters him from doing something.  
What was notable about the proposed grand tour, however, was that it wasn’t aimed at the population at large.  The target audience this time is only grass roots Tories; the rest of us are considered irrelevant in what has always been, first and foremost, an ideological battle within the Tory Party.  Purely coincidentally, these are also the very people he needs to vote for him if he is to realise his leadership ambitions.  Perhaps it won’t be a bus this time, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t find another method to travel the UK whipping up his party’s membership against the plans of its leader.  After all, for him, this has never really been about the EU at all.

Monday, 20 August 2018


Various news outlets have given prominent headlines to the fact that Adam Price is supporting independence for Wales as part of his bid to become leader of Plaid Cymru.  No problem with that at all (although I might quibble with some of the detail, such as the wholly unnecessary dependency on Plaid first winning two elections).  But am I the only one reflecting on how we have reached a situation where a would-be leader of Plaid supporting independence for Wales is regarded as being ‘news’?

Friday, 17 August 2018

Differing perspectives

It was during my time in primary school, back in the 1950s, that I first learnt about Sir Francis Drake.  He was presented, of course, as a ‘British’ hero (despite the fact that ‘Britain’ didn’t exist as a political entity in his day: ‘English’ - incorporating Wales - would have been a more appropriate description), calmly finishing his game of bowls before heading off to defeat the Armada.  I suspect that that rather one-sided view of the man and his role in history remains the perception of most people in the UK, underlining the way in which history often depends on a selective interpretation of events.
He isn’t seen that way in other countries of course.  From a Spanish perspective el despreciable pirata (the despicable pirate) is a more commonly used description.  It’s an accurate one as well; he spent many years attacking and plundering Spanish and Portuguese ports and ships, splitting the treasure thus captured with the then Queen of England, even though the countries were not at war at the time.  He was what is technically called a ‘privateer’; a pirate acting under licence from a state, in this case the crown of England.  And the stories we hear about him defeating the Armada rarely touch on the causes of it being sent towards these islands in the first place – one of which was the aim of putting a stop to the privateering of Drake and his ilk.  The man who British history tells us saved ‘England’ from the Armada was, from a more objective perspective, one of the causes of it being sent here in the first place.  He had also been a slave-trader, a fact generally glossed over when considering his role in history.
The point here is that ‘history’ isn’t simply an objective list of dates and events; events are selected and interpreted in a context and from a perspective, and the same events can be interpreted in wildly different ways.  The same is true for words and language as well.
In the context of Brexit, many of its Anglo-British nationalist supporters talk regularly about the need for the UK to foster a ‘buccaneering spirit’ in the way it faces up to the rest of the world from the position of glorious isolation in which they wish to place us.  But the words ‘buccaneer’, ‘corsair’, ‘privateer’, and ‘pirate’ are all near synonyms, and when one country talks about becoming ‘buccaneers’ we should not be at all surprised if others hear the word ‘pirates’ and suspect that what is being suggested is that the UK should revert to its traditional historical role of breaking all the rules, using underhand methods, and simply helping itself to the property of others.  The term ‘perfidious Albion’ didn’t come into use without considerable justification.  Sometimes I suspect that that is actually what the extreme Brexiteers want (especially when they start talking about tearing up the rule book by which others operate in order to gain advantage) albeit employing a little less violence than did Drake.  We really shouldn’t be surprised, though, if others are not exactly greeting the prospect with enthusiasm, let alone rushing to assist the UK in realising this particular ambition.

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Being a good neighbour

Increasingly desperate Brexiteers have resorted recently to accusing the EU of breaking its own treaties by not accommodating the UK’s demands, on the basis that those treaties require the EU to "develop a special relationship with neighbouring countries, aiming to establish an area of prosperity and good neighbourliness”, and some have even suggested that failure to do this leaves the UK open to follow Trump’s advice to the Prime Minister and sue the EU.  Leaving aside the irony of the PM trying to use an institution which she has said the UK wants to have nothing to do with (the European Court of Justice), to say nothing of the question as to whether taking legal action would help or hinder the negotiation of any agreement, there is an even more fundamental problem with the idea.  In effect, the UK would be trying to sue someone else for the consequences of its own actions, and it doesn’t take much of a legal brain to come to a conclusion about the likely prospects for success in that endeavour.
It’s true, of course, that the EU does have a treaty obligation to be a good neighbour, but demanding that the EU gives in to each and every demand from the awkward and obstreperous bloke next door is going well beyond neighbourliness.  Helping someone out is one thing; doing whatever he says is quite another.  The UK’s stance at the moment isn’t so much asking for a helping hand as refusing to step into the lifeboat unless the captain and crew first agree to repaint the boat, replace the engine, and change direction; and it’s backed up with the threat that if the captain doesn’t agree it will drown itself and blame the lifeboat crew.  The UK isn’t asking for neighbourliness, it’s asking for submission.
The Brexiteers don’t see things that way, naturally.  They portray the UK as a victim being punished by those horrid Europeans for daring to want to leave, and they start with a belief that the UK has an entitlement to unique treatment, because – well, because it’s the UK and is therefore special.  The idea that the UK is just another third-party state on the fringes of Europe (which is the logical outcome of Brexit) and can be treated with the same degree of good neighbourliness as other states such as Norway is anathema to them.  It doesn’t fit their world view.  The Anglo-British nationalists driving the Brexit project are stuck in a view of the UK and its place in the world which pre-dates the second world war, and probably the first as well.  It’s a world of empires and dominance, where others are there to be divided and ruled; a world in which the English language is pre-eminent and those countries which use that language form a natural set of trading partners for what they still fondly see as the mother country.  It's a world in which others may be our neighbours, but we are never mere neighbours to anyone.
It’s also a world which disappeared more than half a century ago; they just can’t see it.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Facing two ways at once

I agree with those campaigning against the dumping of ‘nuclear mud’ off the cost of Wales that we should not allow Wales to become a dumping ground for waste created by others.  There’s some question over the extent to which the waste is, in fact, radioactive, but whether it is or isn’t is irrelevant to the question of whether we should be accepting it or not.
We need to be wary, though, of double-edged swords.  If the starting point is that a country or territory creating toxic (including nuclear) waste needs to find its own method of disposal within its own territory, then it follows that anyone supporting the construction of a facility likely to create such waste must be willing to retain and dispose of the waste created once that facility is completed and operational.  Assuming that the waste is a problem for ‘somebody else’ to resolve is simply hypocrisy.
In Wales, and in the case of nuclear waste, this is a particular problem for Plaid.  Whilst some members of the party are actively campaigning against the dumping of mud from Hinkley off the coast of Wales, others are openly arguing for the construction of new nuclear power stations in Wylfa and Trawsfynydd, without ever seeming to say anything about what happens to the radioactive waste which will be produced.  But if it is wrong for England to dispose of its problem in Welsh waters, it is surely equally wrong for Wales to assume that the waste arising from any new nuclear power stations in Wales can simply be exported – whether to England or to anywhere else.
Those who support the construction of new stations – and I include in that category those who try to argue that extra facilities built on new sites are somehow not ‘new’ at all – need to be prepared to explain to people how and where they intend to dispose of the waste.  Anything else is just dishonest.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Agreeing the definition is a side issue

Godwin’s Law states that "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1".  I don’t know whether online discussions have ever been rigorously investigated to determine the truth of the law, but casual observation suggests that it conveys at least a degree of truth.  And I’m not sure that it’s limited to online discussions either. 
There is a corollary to the law which states that “when a Hitler comparison is made, the thread is finished and whoever made the comparison loses whatever debate is in progress”.  The truth of that one is rather less certain in my mind; it more often seems to be the case that those involved simply double down on the positions that they take.  What is perhaps truer is that once a debate reaches that point it changes direction; it loses focus on the original question, whatever that was, and starts to turn around whether the comparison is fair or reasonable instead.  That in turn makes it a poor argument to use in most - perhaps all - circumstances.
Part of the fuss around antisemitism in the Labour Party revolves around whether the Labour Party should accept the internationally-recognised working definition of antisemitism; and one of the disputed clauses at the centre of that debate is that “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” is, by definition, antisemitism.  I find myself in sympathy with those in Labour who doubt whether this should really count as antisemitism at all.  At a purely rational level, comparing the actions of two different governments in two different epochs and finding some apparent similarities is not at all the same thing as taking a hostile position against a whole people or religion.  I can understand, though, why accusing the descendants of those who most suffered the consequences of a particularly evil regime would be considered by them to be exceptionally insulting, and that alone should make people very wary about either drawing such a comparison or arguing about the detail of the wording.
Coupled with Godwin’s Law, it’s a wholly counter-productive line of argument as well; it diverts the debate away from the reality of the effects of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians and into questions of semantics and the fairness of the comparisons drawn.  The real issue is not whether Israeli policy is or is not similar to that of the Nazis, nor whether drawing such a comparison is or is not antisemitism: it is about the way that the Israeli government is treating Palestinians on a daily basis.  I don’t need comparisons with what someone else did in another place at another time to be able to see brutality and inhumanity in action, and such comparisons don’t add anything to my perceptions of what is happening.  And I really don’t understand why the Labour Party is allowing others to divert it into a row about definitions rather than the substance of the Palestine issue.

Monday, 13 August 2018

Devolution as EU plot

The new leader of UKIP in the Assembly has made clear his belief that his victory in the internal election was a direct result of his policy of abolishing the Assembly and that he now expects the whole party to fall into line behind him and support that policy line.  In a party with so few members, his 269-vote mandate is probably enough to carry the day and revert to the anti-devolution position that the party long maintained.  The real surprise is not so much that the party is swinging back towards hostility to devolution as that it ever made its fragile peace with the concept in the first place.  Still, as individuals and as a party, they have every right to campaign for the abolition of the Assembly, and indeed for the elimination of the Welsh language and all signs of Welsh identity if they wish.  It’s up to those of us who disagree to make the positive counter arguments, something which necessarily involves rather more than name-calling.
It’s not so long ago that UKIP were arguing that devolution in Wales was all part of an evil plot by the EU to divide and conquer.  Indeed, just two months ago, UKIP Scotland was still arguing that Brexit would expose “… the Scottish Parliament and devolution for what it really is. An EU plot to by-pass National Parliaments and create a Europe of Regions”, and that “Outside the EU there is no need for the devolved assemblies” because “All the assemblies have ever done is administrate and implement EU legislation”.
Their basis for this strange belief has always been a complete mystery to me; it’s as though the history of campaigning for domestic parliaments in Wales and Scotland before the EU was even established is somehow completely erased, and the national movements only sprang into existence at the instigation of the EU in order to help those horrid Brussels bureaucrats implement their dastardly plans.  It also somewhat glosses over the less-than-helpful response of ‘Brussels’ to the campaign for Catalan independence – if they really wanted to create a ‘Europe of the Regions’, an objective observer might suppose that they’d be actively supporting a movement for independent membership of the EU by a ‘region’ like Catalunya.
As another line in the statement by UKIP Scotland makes clear (“For the first time in 40 years, people are realising that sovereignty and legislative supremacy lies in the UK Parliament”), the party’s outlook is based very much on a centralist Anglo-British nationalist perspective.  From that perspective, the idea that anyone could ever espouse an identity which is any way different is anathema; it is the state which defines and gives identity, and the people must accept that.  And the British state is the only ‘natural’ unit of government - there should be nothing above and nothing below that level; independence and sovereignty are absolute and indivisible and belong to the centre.  We should remember though that it’s not only in UKIP that we find this dangerous form of nationalism; UKIP is merely the party which displays it most clearly.  There are plenty in the Conservative and Labour Parties whose core beliefs differ little when it comes to the question of where sovereignty lies.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Some big boys did it

The Bloomberg Editorial Board produced an opinion piece a few days ago, urging the cancellation of Brexit, arguing that “It isn’t too late for the U.K. to change its mind about this whole misbegotten venture”.  The suggestion that Brexit is a ‘misbegotten venture’ isn’t exactly uncommon in the rest of the world, although there are always those, such as Trump and Putin, who see it as an opportunity.  For them, if not for the UK.  But there have been a series of thoughtful articles in recent months in overseas publications wondering exactly what Brexit tells us about the UK – and the answers never seem to agree with what the Brexiteers tells us.
Bloomberg did acknowledge that reversing Brexit would require a second referendum and that that isn’t exactly a straightforward proposition, but suggested that the other EU members could aid the process by making it clear that they’d prefer the UK to stay and that the Article 50 notice could be withdrawn and/or the date extended if that would assist the UK government in arranging a new vote.  Some EU governments have already made encouraging noises in that direction, and I’m confident that the EU would be willing to agree on both those points if there were any signs that the UK government wanted such an outcome.  But there aren’t, and any suggestion that the EU were attempting to prompt such a move would be immediately portrayed by Brexiteers – with their usual complete disregard for mere facts - as an attempt to ‘force’ the UK to vote again until ‘Brussels’ gets the answer it wants.  The idea that the EU ‘forces’ countries to re-vote has, after all, been a basic mantra of the Brexiteers from the outset.
Bloomberg does offer another alternative, which is “… offering non-voting membership of the single market, with all its rights and obligations, for as long as it takes to arrange a limited free-trade agreement of the sort that Europe has reached with other non-EU countries”.  It’s a reasonable suggestion, although there’s no obvious reason why it should be restricted to circumstances in which “… EU governments have come to think Britain is more trouble than it’s worth, and would now prefer it to go”.  It’s equally applicable if they would prefer us to stay, but recognise the unlikelihood of that and simply want to ensure an orderly exit.  It’s an obvious, sound and sensible interim approach which makes more sense than an immediate rush to the door.  It’s never going to be as good, in economic terms, as continued membership, but as a halfway house it would buy the time to work through the implications properly.  I’m not sure, though, that the EU actually needs to make such an offer – it seems to me that it’s an option that has been on the table from the outset.
And that brings us to the nub of the issue.  It’s not the EU which has ruled out such an option; it’s the UK - by insisting that it wants all the rights but none of the obligations implied by such an option: a form of super membership better than that enjoyed by any other member.  And the fact that the EU27 won’t allow the UK better terms than they themselves enjoy is all down to the 'intransigence' of those 27 EU members.  That’s the basis on which the new Foreign Secretary has warned the EU that if they don’t back down, the UK is walking towards a no-deal ‘by accident’.  It’s not an ‘accident’ at all – it’s the probable outcome of deliberate UK policy.  In similar vein, the Trade Secretary has now talked about ‘no-deal’ being the likeliest outcome as a result of the EU’s 'intransigence'.  There’s certainly a lot of intransigence around, but it’s coming from the Brexiteers with their continued demand for free unicorns or else.
As the pound slumped on Monday, some ‘senior Whitehall sources’ were quoted as saying that if the UK crashes out with no deal “we will make it clear whose fault it was”.  And there, in a nutshell, we have the Brexiteers' latest core strategy exposed: ‘It wasn’t me, Miss, some big boys did it and ran away’.  It's no wonder that the rest of the world is scratching its collective head in amazement.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Determining lunacy

According to the Sunday Times (paywall), David Cameron concluded during the run-up to the EU referendum that the then Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor, Michael Gove was ‘mad’ and ‘behaving like a lunatic’.  I’m not in a position to judge – the fact that he sometimes looks a bit mad is far from adequate grounds to draw any conclusion.  But Cameron appointed him to the job, and should have been in a better position to make a judgement than I.
Mildly amusing though it is to see Tories falling out amongst themselves, not just over policy but in such a highly personal fashion as well, it surely raises as many questions about Cameron as it does about Gove.  After all, if the Prime Minister had really come to the conclusion that his Justice Secretary was as mad as a box of frogs, why on earth did he leave him in charge of the Department of Justice?  It doesn't look like the action of a responsible Prime Minister.
Perhaps Cameron wasn’t preparing to sell an otherwise boring book back then…

Monday, 6 August 2018

The change we need

On Friday, Nation.Cymru carried an article by Plaid’s leader, Leanne Wood, arguing that the choice facing Wales is between independence and an increasingly right-wing, centralised British state.  I can’t disagree with the underlying assumption that those driving us to Brexit are instinctive believers in a return to a more unitary, centralist and authoritarian state in which British patriotism and deference to authority become once again the norm.  It’s a perspective from which the economic crisis which they seem determined to precipitate is probably viewed as a plus in order to rekindle that famous ‘wartime spirit’ for which they are so nostalgic.  Nor do I disagree with the assertion that one way of avoiding that future is by seeking independence for Wales.  But I do nevertheless harbour a number of doubts about posing the choice of futures for Wales in such terms.
Firstly, there’s a question of nomenclature.  The terms ‘hard right’ and ‘hard left’ are regularly used by politicians, but what do they mean?  As a general rule, politicians use such terms as a substitute for debating ideas and policies or as a way of insulting other people rather than engaging with their views.  When the Telegraph or Mail refer to Corbyn as ‘hard-left’, their intention is to portray him as a villain, and it probably works with a large part of their target audience.  It’s not that the target audience necessarily understand exactly what it means – they just know that it’s a bad thing to be.  But outside that target audience, it probably just annoys people.  Similarly, calling people ‘hard right’ works with a different target audience, but not outside that audience.  Both are pretty much meaningless other than as insults.
Secondly, there exists, in the Welsh electorate, a hard core of Tory voters.  While swing voters can boost the party’s performance to anything up to 33% of those voting, the party has almost never attracted less than 20% of the votes in a Westminster General Election in Wales.  And that 20% can be considered to be composed of people who identify their political affiliation as Conservative, and who will vote for the party almost regardless of the specific platform being put forward.  It doesn’t matter how ‘right-wing’ (whatever that means) the party becomes, they are likely to continue to support it, because it’s ‘their’ party.  It’s probably true that many of those voters are, currently at least, opposed to independence for Wales (although we know from past opinion polls that even some Conservative voters do support independence), but presenting independence as a direct alternative to their party is more likely to confirm that tendency than to change it.
Gaining independence requires at least 50% support of the Welsh electorate (and personally, I’d want to aim much higher than that: the experience of Brexit surely indicates the problems of trying to implement such a significant change with the support of only a bare majority of those voting).  Potentially alienating at least 20% of the available voters makes that harder to achieve.  It is, perhaps, inevitable that a party which seeks to combine support for the long-term aim of independence (and as an aside, the reiteration of Plaid’s previous position that Wales’ economic position needs to improve before seeking independence was disappointing, but that’s off-topic here) with positioning itself in a particular part of the political spectrum will end up alienating those who do not place themselves in that part of the spectrum from that longer-term aim; but it isn’t always helpful in terms of furthering that aim. 
I would not argue, however, that an independence-minded political party which involves itself in electoral politics can or should avoid any ideological positioning.  That’s fine for an extra-parliamentary campaign, such as Yes.Cymru, but a political party represented in a parliament will need to be willing to vote on a range of issues (and even participate in government); and those voting for it need to know where it stands.  I would argue, rather, that what Wales needs is the normalisation of the debate around independence as being something which people on all parts of the political spectrum can support, albeit whilst holding different visions of the sort of Wales which would emerge.  That requires the existence of other credible parties of independence, which can present the aim in terms that welcome, rather than exclude, the support of those on what is loosely called the political right.  I wouldn't vote for such a party, but there are people who would, and whose views have no current home.  A situation where there is only one party even nominally supporting independence can also allow that party to ‘park’ the issue, almost with impunity, because they calculate that independence supporters have nowhere else to go.
The blockage which prevents the expression of alternative visions for an independent Wales is an electoral system which not only militates against a multiplicity of political parties but also gives a huge inbuilt advantage to one party in particular.  The real ‘change Wales needs’ (to steal a phrase) in order to remove that hegemony and facilitate a more representative form of politics in Wales is a move to STV for Assembly elections.  I cannot think of any change which would do more to change the nature and direction of Welsh politics.  The irony is that the only route that I can see to achieving that in the foreseeable future is by a level of joint working between non-Labour parties which one party has emphatically ruled out. 
It may well be, as some would argue (although I'm not convinced), that there would be a high political cost in the short term to any such collaboration.  But without such change, does anybody really see any way out of a stagnant and ossified politics in Wales?