Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Being outvoted

Owen Paterson is not a fan of the EU; that’s been clear for some time.  But I was fascinated by the latest argument that he has put forward, as a reaction to statistics showing that the majority of the UK’s MEPs are frequently outvoted in the EU Parliament.  He said:
“The fact that the UK is constantly outvoted shows that we need to renegotiate our terms of membership.  I want to see a new relationship based on trade and friendly co-operation with the ability to make our own rules in our own parliament.”
To me, that sounds like an awfully familiar argument heard regularly in Wales and Scotland about decisions made in the UK Parliament.  But the standard response from people like Paterson is that the UK is a single entity with a single parliament, and that we should stop whingeing about the results of democracy.  Why is unhappiness about being outvoted by our neighbours ‘narrow nationalism’ only when expressed by the Welsh or the Scots?

Monday, 12 October 2015

Blair, Brown, Major and Cameron. Really?

The original stated premise of Cameron’s promise of a referendum on the EU was that he would first conduct some sort of renegotiation of the terms of membership and then put the result to a vote.  Perhaps he genuinely intended things to work that way, although exactly what was to be ‘renegotiated’ was never very clear.
It’s increasingly irrelevant though.  Both the ‘in’ camp and the ‘out’ camp are gearing up their campaigns already.  The ‘negotiations’ have barely begun, but the results – if there are any – will have no effect on the make-up of the campaigns.  Cameron’s fig leaf is looking decidedly dodgy.
In a sense, it’s not really a bad thing that the debate centres on the principle rather than the detail; I find it hard to believe that many electors will make up their minds by looking at the details of any Cameron package and carefully weighing up the impact.  It’s much more likely that they will be voting on issues such as immigration, or even just a desire to give a kicking to a government mid term, which all serves to underline the folly of getting into this position for short term internal party reasons.
I do wonder though about the strategy of the ‘in’ camp in the names that they’re putting forward.  It looks like the product of some sort of bubble-think to me.  I fear that an unholy alliance of Blair, Brown, Major and Cameron might actually end up having quite the opposite effect of that intended.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

What sort of Europe?

A former Secretary of State for Wales claimed yesterday that Wales, far from being worse off if the UK were to leave the EU, could actually be better off.  For what it’s worth, I actually agree with him – it is entirely possible that Wales could indeed benefit economically from leaving the EU.  I can’t be certain, though – and neither can he.  There are too many unknowns for anyone to be certain.
Part of the problem with the whole debate about Wales and the EU is that the pro-EU side seems to be trying to frame it in purely economic terms.  They argue that Wales would lose all the European funding that we currently receive.  It’s true, but it’s an essentially negative argument.  In fact it’s not dissimilar to the Project Fear approach of the anti-independence campaign in Scotland last year, concentrating on what Wales would lose financially by leaving – rather surprising, when you look at some of those making the argument.
The anti-EU side can quite rightly counter that argument by pointing out that the EU money can be considered to be UK money simply passed through Brussels and recycled, and there’s no fundamental reason why the UK couldn’t simply pass the money directly to Wales.  Whether they would or not is a rather different question, but an argument based simply on trusting Brussels more than London isn’t exactly an inspiring one.  And it is, again, in essence a negative argument.
But the economics of the situation will, I suspect, turn out to be a sideshow.  Those arguing for or against continued membership based on who’s right about the sums will probably get most of the media coverage.  But the motives which are likely to sway voters are much darker issues such as migration - matters of the heart rather than of the head.  Cameron, in an attempt to appease people in his own party, is taking the UK to the brink of a decision made more on the basis of xenophobia than on a hard-headed economic analysis, and the forces he has unleashed are unlikely to be countered by arguments about grants.
There is a sense in which the problem stems from the mindset of the UK from the outset, and the gulf between that and the mindset of the original founder members.  The EU’s architects saw the EU as a way of integrating the economies and polities of Europe to ensure that there could never be another war like the two which ravaged the continent in the 20th century.  UK politicians have, from the outset, seen it as a simple trading arrangement.  Perhaps De Gaulle had a point in twice vetoing the UK’s bid for membership.
What we are missing in the UK in general, and Wales in particular, is any wider debate about the objectives of the EU.  Peace, stability, and prosperity in a continent bound together economically was the original objective, and it’s not a bad starting point.  Many Welsh nationalists, me included, were highly sceptical of the idea of membership from the outset.  Whilst I haven’t changed my mind about all the reservations that I had, I have, like many others in Wales, come to see the EU as potentially a bastion against the dominance of a particular language and culture, and a context in which smaller nations can play a part in a wider whole on their own terms – i.e. the argument long ago stopped being primarily an economic one.
From that standpoint, I’m actually keener than Cameron on some form of renegotiation of the underlying treaties (although I accept that isn’t difficult – I’m not really convinced that he wants any serious change).  The change that I want, however, is a very different one.  “Internal enlargement” is a key issue for the future, and a change to the treaties which formally recognised that as a possibility would facilitate a move towards the sort of Europe that I’d like to see.  I don’t see it as a likely outcome of any negotiation though; too many of those participating in the discussions are bitterly opposed to it, and I don’t see any country likely to argue for it.
That doesn’t mean that internal enlargement won’t happen.  I’m not sure at this stage who’ll be first to try it, although Catalunya looks to be the front-runner currently.  But it’s the sort of change which will happen as a pragmatic response to events rather than through any up-front negotiation.  And once the door has been opened...
The question for nationalists in Wales is whether we see our future as part of a Europe which is inevitably headed towards both greater federalism and greater autonomy for historical nations and regions, or whether we want to see ourselves in some sort of “fortress Britain” which is likely to be the political, as well as economic, result of a decision to leave the EU.  A forward-looking European nation, or a part of a backward-looking British state.
All of my instincts lead me to the former of those options, whilst the latter fills me with horror.  But the 'nationalist' argument to date seems to concentrate on which is the best place to hold out our begging bowl - Brussels or London. If we follow that path, we are en route to the second option.  If we want to avoid that fate, we need to be making the arguments for the first option much more coherently than has happened to date, and largely forget about the details of European funds.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Forgetting who did what

I’ve long nursed a healthy dislike for the Taxpayers’ Alliance and all their works.  The very name suggests that they are somehow a cuddly little organisation looking after the best interests of all those who pay tax – which is most of us.  But they are not; they are an ideological campaign against the public sector, and for the interests of the wealthiest few.
There’s been plenty of evidence of that in the past, but yesterday’s report on their meeting at the Tories’ conference was a gem even for them.  They don’t just think what is unthinkable to most people – they say it out loud.  They’ve called on the government to cut pensions now, and not to worry too much about the fall-out because many of the pensioners will have died off before the next election so can’t retaliate at the ballot box.  (And they didn’t add this bit, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were thinking it – the more the government cuts benefits for the elderly, the more of them will conveniently die off before they can vote.)
Mind you, there was one thing that he said that I can’t help but agree with.  Those who survive to vote in 2020 may well have forgotten by then which party cut their benefits – not because of age or feeble-mindedness, but because Labour and the Tories have been so similar for so long that it's become credible that anything done by one could have been done by the other.

Monday, 5 October 2015

My heart bleeds for the lawyers

The Secretary of State set out in some detail last week his reasons for pessimism about achieving agreement on the proposed Wales Bill.  No surprise at all that the fault for this is being placed squarely on the Labour Party’s reluctance to submissively sign up to exactly what the Tories offer rather than on any reluctance by his own government to negotiate seriously, or even honour the promises that they’ve made before.
His real objection to establishing a legal jurisdiction for Wales is probably based on his previous statements that he will do nothing which might conceivable make it easier for Wales to become independent, at some distant future point, if Wales ever had a political party arguing for such a step to be taken. 
But one of the reasons he gives is even sillier – it seems to boil down to a few lawyers from Wales who’ve had a successful career in London feeling that lawyers might not do so well for themselves working solely in Wales.  I suspect that it is probably true – but I also suspect that the career prospects for lawyers are not the top reason which many people would put forward as a basis for deciding how Wales should be run.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Mixing the missions

Jeremy Corbyn's mission to Scotland to try and recover his party's position there, coupled with the enthusiasm of so many of his party's MPs for possessing and being willing to use weapons of mass destruction must surely raise an interesting conundrum for him.  On the one hand, he wants Labour to defeat the SNP in Scotland, and on the other he wants rid of Trident.  But paradoxically, achieving the first of those makes it considerably less likely that he can ever achieve the second.

Given the statements he's been making in Scotland, and the extent to which he's already been equivocating over Trident to appease his MPs, it seems to be increasingly clear which way he'll jump.  A victory for Labour is more important to him than getting rid of nuclear weapons.  Sadly, but not unexpectedly, he'll turn out to be less different from his predecessors than many have been assuming.  Too many people are being taken in by his rhetoric - when push comes to shove, it will always be party over principle.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Attacking the wrong target

Jeremy Corbyn seems to have upset some of his shadow cabinet colleagues by saying openly and honestly that, if he were Prime Minister, he would not authorise the use of nuclear weapons.  Both Labour and Tory MPs - ably aided and abetted by the BBC who seem to have swallowed their argument hook, line, and sinker - have jumped on his words as an indication that the result will somehow be to weaken the UK’s defences.  The whole point of a ‘deterrent’, they argue, is that the unspecified ‘enemies’ out there have to believe that they would be used, otherwise they’re useless.
Some of us think such weapons are useless anyway.  It’s impossible to conceive of a situation where any rational person would authorise their use.  (But perhaps that’s my problem - expecting rationality in a politician?)  Possession seems to be more about being one of the big boys in the school yard than anything else – but it’s an awfully expensive way of getting one of the biggest sticks.
Seriously, even if Corbyn had answered the question in any different way, would he have been credible?  Labour’s warmongers seem to want him to say something like, “I’ve campaigned against nuclear weapons all my life, I believe that the use or possession of such weapons is morally indefensible, but of course, if I were Prime Minister, I’d be willing to use them”? 
One has only to ask the question to see the flaw in the argument that he could or should have answered other than as he did.  He would not have been in the least bit credible.
What would be far more useful and meaningful would be to ask all those who are now criticising him to explain, or to give one hypothetical example, how and when they would be willing to authorise the mass slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians in some distant cities.  I’m sure that they’d all respond by saying something along the lines of ‘not wanting to let the enemy know in advance what he could or could not get away with’.  But the fact that they’d all say that there are circumstances in which they would be willing to use such weapons tells us all we need to know about their moral compasses.
Corbyn isn’t the one who needs to defend his stance.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

They just keep on digging

There’s a detailed analysis of the results of the election in Catalunya on Syniadau.  In essence the parties in favour of UDI won a majority of the seats but not of the votes; although if the votes of the pro-independence but anti-UDI parties are added in, there’s a small but clear pro-independence majority, even if there remains disagreement as to how it should be achieved.
The reaction of the Spanish central government has been disappointing, even if hardly unexpected – Spain is an indivisible whole and no change can ever be contemplated.  Formally, the judiciary and the executive in Spain are entirely separate, and the government deny any involvement in judicial decisions, but the announcement that the leader of the Catalan Government, Artur Mas, is to be charged and tried for organising last November’s ‘illegal’ referendum has come within days of the election results.  It may just be coincidence, but it doesn’t look that way.
The Spanish government’s position has been clear throughout.  The law about the unity of Spain (which dates from the days of Franco) is part of the constitution of Spain.  It is unchallengeable and irrevocable.  There can be no referendum on independence, nor can parties use an election victory on an independence platform to claim a mandate.  All routes forward are blocked, legally and for ever.
There are echoes there, albeit centuries later, of the way a small country much closer to home was incorporated “henceforth and for ever” into its larger neighbour; and the same problems arise.  Nothing, in the context of humanity, can ever be ‘for ever’; change is an essential element of human culture.  The rich and the powerful have always pretended that they can fix things in a certain way and keep them like that in perpetuity – but they simply can’t.  It’s an attitude which depends, ultimately, on the fiction that power belongs to the centre, not to the people.
In Spain, the view of the centre is based on an axiomatic statement that Spain is a nation and Catalonia is a region of that nation – a region with its own language and history, to be sure, but no more than a region nevertheless.  From that perspective, Catalans who believe otherwise are simply wrong.  But the fact that that that would still be ‘true’, even if every last one of them voted for pro-independence parties, underlines that such a position is ultimately unsustainable in a modern democracy, because there is no way of maintaining it against the will of the people other than by the use of force.
In the short term, I don’t doubt that the Spanish government will continue to use all the legal powers it can muster to resist and disrupt the independence movement.  That includes the use of criminal proceedings against people who dare to take a different view and try to pursue their objectives in a peaceful and democratic fashion.  But it’s ultimately counter-productive.  Winning a court case here or there might look like a victory at the time, but it simply builds the momentum for the change which now seems to be inevitable.
Could a more enlightened approach have built a negotiated settlement which led to more autonomy within a continued Spanish state?  Possibly.  Just as including a third option on the ballot paper in Scotland might have seriously blunted the independence movement there.  But that goes to the heart of the reason why the centralists will ultimately fail.  They only seem capable of taking a short term view.  Today’s victory is always enough, and they’ll worry about tomorrow’s battle when it comes.  The Catalans have always been playing a much longer term game.  And the end game is now approaching.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

How long is long enough?

One of the leaders of the Conservatives in Wales has told us this week that five years is too long a term for the National Assembly.  But Andrew Davies hasn’t, as far as I can see, enlightened us as to how long the term should be.  Perhaps he hasn’t made his mind up on that one yet.  Or perhaps Stephen Crabb simply hasn’t told him the right answer yet.
It’s true, of course, that the extension from the previous norm of 4 years to the new one of 5 was more accidental than intentional, as an unthought-through consequence of the decision (by his own party) to move to fixed term parliaments for the UK, and the perceived need to avoid holding elections on the same date.  He’s not arguing with that decision, it appears, even though the effect of a move to a fixed term at Westminster has probably increased the average length of a Westminster parliament from around 4 to 5.  And he doesn’t seem to be arguing that the elections should, after all, be held on the same day.
I wouldn’t object to a shorter term, as it happens.  After all, from what I remember of history, ‘annual parliaments’ was a core demand of the Chartists.  Now that would be a neat way of keeping them on their toes, and getting rid of some of them a bit more rapidly.  It’s an entirely honorable demand to make – but something tells me that it isn’t what he means.
My real questions are:
(a)  how do we decide how long the term should be – he’s come up with a negative with no real justification to back it up and no argument for any alternative; and
(b)  why, if the issue is relevant for the Assembly, it isn’t also relevant for the Westminster and European parliaments.  What’s the difference?
It would be nice to be able to believe that he and his party see the Assembly as being the most important level of government; so important that we need to vote on its membership more often.  I rather suspect, though, that he’s coming at it from the opposite perspective.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Supporting British jobs

There seem to be few people in Wales supporting the construction of the HS2 rail link, most of them preferring to argue that Wales should have its share of the money and use it for other purposes.  I disagree – not because I expect Wales to get any benefit from HS2 itself, but because, unless we are going to prevent people from travelling at all, the alternative to better and faster rail links is more runways and aeroplanes.  So I’d prefer to see Wales making the case for HS4 (we’ve already missed the boat for HS3 which is likely to serve Scotland) so that we become part of the high speed network rather than whinging on the side-lines.  And the only way that HS3 and HS4 will happen if they are treated as part of a UK network rather than seeing the three projects as entirely self-contained.
Where I find myself more in line with mainstream opinion in Wales is with the idea that infrastructure projects (of which HS2 is one) are a good way of boosting a flagging economy, and that investing in them can create economic growth and jobs, as well as boosting skills and knowledge in the economy.  It was in that context that I was astounded to see that on his trade mission to China, the Chancellor has urged Chinese firms to bid for construction contracts on the project.
‘Scope creep’ is one of those things which can all too easily happen on any project, but for it to lead to the mission becoming the opposite of the original intention is a rare achievement.  Osborne went to China to drum up business for British companies, with the stated aim of China becoming the second biggest customer for British companies.  There is currently a significant gap between the level of the UK's exports to China (at around £16.7 billion), and imports from China (t around £37.6 billion) - see Figure 2 here, so his aim of increasing UK exports to China is a wholly reasonable one.   But, instead of that, he’s ended up trying to drum up business for Chinese companies in the UK.  Even if the Chinese companies would employ local workers to carry out the work, the profits (and the tax on them) would still end up being syphoned out the UK economy rather than reinvested here.
It’s another take on being ‘business-friendly’ I suppose – it’s just other countries’ businesses that he’s supporting.