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. 

Friday, 20 May 2016

Avoiding differences

I’m not sure that the ‘compact’ between Labour and Plaid lives up to the hype surrounding it.  Whilst Plaid seem to be playing up the headline policy gains, I suspect that the most important part of the agreement will be the setting up of three liaison committees.  This ability to influence government proposals before they become public looks likely to have more impact than the headline policies themselves, and may well do more to advance the national project.  If Plaid is to have more influence than the sole Lib Dem will have as a result of being appointed to the cabinet, it will probably be through these committees rather than as a result of the policies announced so far.
One of the policies which has been announced was the new treatment fund, but it has always looked to me like something of a gimmick.  It will no doubt be popular with those who benefit from it, and with the pharmaceuticals industry.  It’s not clear yet how it is to be funded (is it money diverted from elsewhere in the health service and then ring-fenced, or is it additional funding which is ring-fenced?) but there are two problems with ring-fenced funding like this in the health service.
The first is that whilst the ‘winners’ are easily identifiable, the ‘losers’ are much harder to identify, but losers there will be; and the second is that the funding available will never actually be enough to satisfy all of the potential beneficiaries, given the continued advent of new treatments and their very high cost.
However, it was the Plaid claim that this will end the “postcode lottery” which means that people in Wales and England are subject to different rules when it comes to access to certain drugs which caught my eye.  The phrase “postcode lottery” is one I’ve posted on before; it suggests that people are treated in a random way based on where they live, and that there’s an element of luck involved.  That is a complete misrepresentation of the truth. 
The reality is that the differences in approach stem from different administrations adopting different policies and setting different priorities.  Whether either or both of the administrations are setting the ‘right’ priorities is an entirely proper subject of debate, but this isn’t a question of ‘luck of the draw’.  Differences are a direct consequence of devolution, leading to the election of governments of a different hue.  Advocating identical outcomes is, in essence, an argument for more centralisation, not devolution, and sounds strange coming from a party with a theoretical vague long term aspiration to increase the policy divergences between Wales and England.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Geographically challenged?

The language used by UKIP’s leader in the Assembly yesterday was certainly unacceptable, and it’s not the level of debate to which the Assembly is accustomed.  From what I’ve seen of Australian politics, however, it might be considered fairly tame; the bar down under seems to be set much lower than it is in Wales.  Maybe people are being a little harsh on UKIP in the early days of the new Assembly – after all, South Wales and New South Wales sound very similar.  Surely it’s unfair to expect UKIP’s commuting AMs to know the difference this soon in their term of office?

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

War, peace, hyperbole, and Euro-poker

Perhaps it’s something to do with the nature of their education, but it seems in recent days as though Cameron and Johnson have been trying to reduce the debate about the EU referendum to a game of common-room poker in which they try to outbid each other with horrendous consequences if we take the ‘wrong’ decision.
Cameron started it, when he said something along the lines of “I bet World War Three.
Johnson: “I’ll see your World War Three and raise you a Hitler and a Napoleon.
Cameron: “I’ll see your Hitler and Napoleon, and raise you an ISIS.
It might be mildly amusing to watch if they were just playing cards, but they’re not – the real stake here is the future direction of a continent, and it would be reasonable to expect all of those involved to try and keep a sense of perspective in laying out their arguments.
It’s certainly true that part of the vision of those involved in setting up what has become the EU was that the major European powers should never go to war with each other again, and that the best way of preventing that would be to enmesh their economies irrevocably.  It’s also true that, for the last 70 years, the peace has held between countries which spent large parts of the previous few centuries at war with each other.  Whether there was cause and effect here is rather harder to determine.  If countries have reached a point where they recognise that they need to stop invading each other on a regular cycle, perhaps they no longer need the formal institutions to prevent it.  Perhaps; we can never be certain what might otherwise have happened, yet the certainty with which politicians pronounce on this point is alarming.
The comparison with Hitler and Napoleon is a ludicrous one.  A Europe united by conquest by one state or another – such as France or Germany in this case – is not at all the same thing as a Europe united by discussion and agreement between partners, and it’s nonsense to suggest that it is.  The ‘unifying’ intent of Hitler or Napoleon is better compared with the process by which the individual ‘unified’ current states of Europe – such as France, Germany, and, yes, the UK – were themselves created in centuries gone by than with the process by which a united Europe has been built.
As for ISIS welcoming Brexit – well maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t.  The aim of a united caliphate which they are pursuing by bloodshed and fear certainly puts them more in the Hitler and Napoleon camp than the Monnet camp of history; but merely avoiding doing what a perceived enemy might want us to do doesn’t strike me as a particularly brilliant line of argument.  Trying to do the opposite of what someone else wants us to do because he’s not our friend is more kindergarten stuff.
It would be nice to think that the standard of debate might improve as the referendum approaches – but it seems more likely to degenerate further.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Boasting about failure

Those campaigning for the UK to remain in the EU have consistently warned that Wales would lose EU funding if we were to leave, whilst those arguing in favour of exit have countered that, if the UK did not need to pay large sums of money to ‘Brussels’, the UK government could pass the same funding directly to Wales.  There’s an element of truth to both of those positions, but I’ve always thought that the first, which amounts to telling us that we can trust the EU more than we can trust the UK Government, was a curious line of argument for anyone in the UK Government to take.
At least one member of the ‘out’ brigade has changed tack somewhat in recent days.  Priti Patel has pointed out that there’s no guarantee of EU funds for Wales after 2020 even if we remain in the EU.  Whilst elements of her argument strike me as stretching credibility (Turkey a member by 2020?  I don’t think so.), her basic point is sound; there can no more be any guarantee of continuing support fro EU funding than there can be of support from the UK Government. 
However what really struck me was the response of the Labour MP, Stephen Doughty, who said “… that no other part of the UK benefits as much from EU membership as Wales does and there is no real reason for us to believe that will change.”  That displays a remarkable lack of ambition, not to say a lack of faith in the Welsh (Labour) Government.  The whole purpose of EU funding is to help Wales reach a similar level of economic activity and success as other parts of the EU; the funding is not supposed to be open-ended.
I want Wales to get to a position where we no longer need such EU funding; I want governments in Wales and the UK to use the funding effectively and productively to bring about change.  It’s clear that all the parties involved in spending EU funding have failed on that score to date, but when members of the governing party are telling us, in effect, that they see no reason at all to believe that they can ever achieve that, it merely underlines, yet again, the extent of their own failure.

Friday, 13 May 2016

Honest arguments

This argument, from a backer of Brexit, is one of the most honest that I’ve seen from that camp.  I’ve never been in any doubt that leaving the EU would lead to a period of uncertainty and insecurity as the economy adapts to the new context.  I can understand why supporters of leaving would want to play that down, but their denials, in the face of all the evidence, have never impressed me.  It’s much better to be honest and play up the potential advantages of that uncertainty; this is, after all, the way capitalism is supposed to work.
That doesn’t mean that I support leaving the EU – and nor does it let supporters of the Remain camp off the hook.  They argue that the uncertainty surrounding the immediate consequences of exit is sufficient cause to stay; but they are making the implicit assumption that the economic future within the EU is somehow more certain than the economic future outside.  It’s a natural human tendency to assume that ‘what is’ is somehow more secure than the alternative, and the remain camp are using that faith in continuity as a cornerstone of their campaign.
But is that faith really valid?  Membership of the EU doesn’t provide its members with immunity to economic storms and crises; the recent travails of the Eurozone surely underline that.  And sometimes, unexpected events can bring about sudden change; long term stability is more elusive than it appears at first sight.  For sure, more economists are lining up in support of remain than exit, but the oft-missed truth is that economists, as a profession, are much better at explaining what happened in the past than they are at predicting the future – not least because economics is about human behaviour, and humans modify their behaviour in the light of experience rather than following economic ‘laws’ derived from past events.
For me, the economic arguments between remain and exit are finely balanced; there are more uncertainties in either route than either side is generally admitting.  The decision is more political than economic.  I believe that Wales will stand a better chance of expressing itself as a nation in a context which is inherently and necessarily multi-national than in an insular, and essentially English, state.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Accident or design?

Perhaps over the coming days it will become clearer whether Plaid in the Assembly really intended to have their leader elected as First Minister with the support of the Tories and UKIP, or whether they were just trying to make a point, and were as surprised as outside observers to receive the unanimous support of both of those parties.  I’m prepared to believe that there was no deal done in advance, which makes the second theory more credible than the first.
What is clear is that if the sole remaining Lib Dem had voted the other way, we would now have a Plaid First Minister, even if that result was more by accident than design.  How workable would it have been for a party with 12 seats out of 60 to govern effectively without a coalition or some other less formal sort of arrangement with the other parties?
Well, there’s a great deal that a government can do without needing to win a single vote on the floor of the Assembly.  Once the First Minister has been elected, then in essence, government only needs to avoid defeat on its budget and on any vote of no confidence tabled by the opposition.  As long as it’s prepared to negotiate on the budget, and as long as the other parties which put it into power are prepared to support it in any confidence vote, a government which avoids any contentious legislation can exercise power within existing legislation quite easily.  What it could not expect is to be able to implement any manifesto pledges which do not attract the support of other parties.  It would be a change of management, but probably not much of a change of direction.
In reality, however, even that limited level of co-operation between Plaid, Tories, and UKIP would be seen as being exactly that – co-operation – and it is likely that there would be a political price to pay.  Who would pay that price is an interesting question; certainly Plaid would suffer (initially at least), but I also wonder what grass roots Tories, never mind UKIP members, would think about their party backing a Plaid Government without any formal participation in it.  And who knows, perhaps seeing that there is an alternative to Labour might lead to other voting changes as well.
The bigger question is whether the price would be worth it.  And by that, I don’t simply mean in terms of the next election or two, but in terms of the longer term.  I’ve posted before that I thought Plaid were making a strategic and tactical mistake in ruling out options in advance of the election (and having ruled them out so firmly, being seen to be apparently doing the opposite once elected, whatever the real truth may be, isn’t the brightest start).  I don't believe that nationalists should ever have any objection in principle to working with any or all other parties if that advances the cause of Wales.  The question is about weighing up whether the long term gain for the national project outweighs the short term pain for one or more parties, and that’s a much bigger question than deciding whether to be in government or opposition.
I’d really like to believe that someone had done that thinking and calculation before yesterday’s vote, and had thought through the implications.  But I rather suspect not.

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

What a stroke of luck

I find it hard to imagine that any sovereign parliament, anywhere in the world, would allow someone who doesn’t live in the country, and who has no intention of moving to live there, to be elected as a member, to draw a salary of £84,000 a year for the privilege, and to appoint his spouse to run his office on another generous salary.  Aren’t we lucky in Wales that those nasty nationalists haven’t succeeded in making the Assembly a sovereign parliament?