Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Muddled thinking

There are signs of some muddled thinking in this report today.  The report notes that the number of English students applying to study in Wales has dropped, and the usual suspects proceed to provide the customary quotes.
The Conservatives' Education spokesperson wins the prize for squeezing the most clichéd phrases (and the most hyphenated ones too) into the shortest space (‘headline-grabbing’, ‘wafer-thin’, ‘half-baked’ and ‘wake-up call’, all crammed into two sentences).  Stripped of rhetoric however, her point seems to be that the policy is wrong because it’s going to cost more than planned.
In fairness to the Government, they have admitted previously that the costings for the policy were based on estimates.  Indeed, they had to be estimates.  No-one could have known in advance what the level of applications was going to be; apart from any other factor, this was the first year with the new higher fees level – no-one really knew what the effect of that would be on applications.
We shouldn’t castigate governments for proceeding on the basis of estimates rather than hard figures, which seems to be part of the Tories’ pitch.  All governments do it; very little would happen if they did not.  If the estimate could and should have been closer to the out-turn, then there is a potential criticism of incompetence, which is rather a different matter.  But from my reading of the figures, it seems to me that the government took a reasonable and reasoned view in arriving at its numbers.
The question is what happens next.  The Tories’ position seems to be that the policy should be abandoned because it costs more than planned.  That sounds rather like a way of trying to sink it on practical grounds rather than arguing with the principle, which is what they really dislike but are afraid to say.
Clearly, it will be challenging for the government to find what looks like significant extra funding for the policy, but having taken the bold decision to go down this route, it would be an enormous shame if they decided to change tack at this stage, quite apart from the impact on the financial planning of students. 
One thing which does deserve more attention, though, is the comparison between Wales and Scotland when it comes to the numbers of students choosing to stay here to study.  There are many factors involved in this, but the difference is nevertheless stark. 
One of the advantages of the previous policy, before it was abandoned by the One Wales Government, was that there were signs of an increase in the number of ‘stay-in-Wales’ students.  Encouraging that trend wouldn’t solve the financial problems, but it would help to direct the expenditure into Welsh universities.  There’s scope for some tweaking of policy, but it doesn’t need to be abandoned.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Top salaries

There have been two main arguments advanced by those who support the payment of massive bonuses to bankers.  The first is that such bonuses represent payment for results, and the second is that the banks are in competition with each other for their top management and therefore have to pay competitive packages.
Those arguments are, however, based on two assumptions.  Those assumptions are self-evidently true to those making them; but I’m not convinced that they stand up to more objective scrutiny.  The first assumption is that the actions of the individuals concerned make such a significant difference to the performance of the organisation as a whole that it is essential to retain them, and the second is that there is a vanishingly small pool of talented people who can undertake such roles.
The question about the extent to which the performance of an organisation is affected by the performance of an individual is far from straightforward.  It’s probably true that poor decisions by individuals can wreck an organisation – and the banking industry has seen the effects of that probably more than any other sector.  It’s far less obvious that the actions of top management can make an organisation succeed. 
That doesn’t stop them claiming the credit for success when it happens – but there’s often a huge amount of luck.  They just happen to be in the right place at the right time.  And if things go wrong, there’s usually someone else to blame.  So when things are going badly it’s down to the problems of the Eurozone; when they are going well it’s due to the brilliance of the top bankers.  (And it’s hard for politicians to criticise bankers for pulling this trick when they do it so often themselves.)
Competent management teams at banks will generally do better than incompetent ones, but I suspect that a huge proportion of the factors which affect overall success will always be outside their control.  If that’s true, then the pool of people who could manage a bank competently is much larger than we are led to believe.  And if that pool is much larger, then the need to compete by paying huge salaries is correspondingly reduced.
To look at things another way, do we really believe that we couldn’t find competent people to run our banks at salaries very much lower than those being paid currently?  After all, it’s not so very long ago that the banks were indeed run by people whose salaries, in both absolute and comparative terms, were very much lower than today.  And the banks were, I recall, rather more successful too.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Only the rich need apply

It appears that some in government circles are starting to feel a little disappointed that most of the names emerging for the elections to the new posts of Police Commissioners are past or present party politicians.  Apparently, they had really hoped to see some strong independent characters coming forward, rather than simply having a traditional party battle.
I can understand that hope – after all, possible politicisation of the police is one of the main planks of opposition to their proposals.  But I cannot understand why they might have thought for a moment that there would ever be a significant number of non-aligned candidates.
Elections are the business of parties; parties are structured and organised precisely for that purpose.  They are also funded for that purpose.  And the areas covered by police forces are large, much larger than the average constituency; the chances of a one-person band ever communicating effectively with a significant proportion of the population are slim.
Why would anyone think that there would be many independent candidates who would be able to organise an election campaign over such a large area on anything like the same basis as a political party?  And how would they fund it – unless they are significantly wealthy in the first place?  I cannot imagine how anyone involved in politics could ever have expected the elections not to be dominated by party political candidates.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Friends like these...

I’ve long-known that politics is a business in which friendship and loyalty count for little, but I was still surprised at the candour of Peter Hain’s description of the events surrounding the replacement of Ron Davies as Labour’s candidate for First Secretary.
Hain was completely convinced, he tells us, that Rhodri Morgan was the right man for the job; right for Wales and right for Labour.  However, instead of supporting Rhodri, he ran Alun Michael’s successful campaign.  He did this, he says, because Alastair Campbell told him that it was ‘what Tony wanted’.
Perhaps Hain expects Rhodri, Labour, and Wales to forgive him, now that he’s been so candid - the repentance of a sinner, as it were.  I suspect that it will just make his ‘friends’ – if he has any left – even more wary about their backs.  With friends like Hain, they hardly need political enemies.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

What is to be done?

I quite enjoyed David Davies’ little outburst yesterday about the likely outcome from the Silk Commission.  It’s a real problem, isn't it, when opinion is moving so strongly in one direction that it becomes difficult to find anyone willing to put the opposing case.
I suspect that his suggestion – just publish the report now, and scrap the consultation and evidence taking – was born of frustration and intended to be sarcastic.  But what would he have people do?  Ban most of those supporting further powers from giving evidence so that the committee only hears an equal number of fors and againsts?  Fund some new groups to argue against to try and even the numbers out a bit?
In fact, his tongue-in-cheek suggestion may well be the best and most sensible one, even if he’s likely to be the last one to recognise that.  On those issues where there is an overwhelming consensus, perhaps moving straight to a recommendation and decision really is the easiest way to proceed.  After all, the only reason for holding long drawn-out commissions to consider matters is to appease the vociferous minority who want to stop progress.  People rather like David Davies, in fact.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Somebody must do something

The collapse of Peacocks is a tragedy for all those who work there, and a major blow to the Welsh economy, given that Peacocks is one of the few large companies to be headquartered here.  Whatever happens by way of salvage, it seems inevitable that what emerges will be a smaller and leaner company – with a much reduced workforce.
It isn’t the only company to be facing difficulties of course; many others have already been hit, and we can be certain that more will be hit in the future.  The reaction from opposition politicians (and it really doesn’t matter which party or parties are in government and which in opposition) is that somebody must do something.
The somebody is invariably code for ‘the government’; and given the essential similarity of economic policy of the government and the opposition, the something inevitably means the use of public money, since the differences in economic policy between opposition and government are too small and too long term to make a difference at the point at which a company has failed. 
As an instinctive interventionist, I don’t see anything wrong, in principle, with the use of public funds to rescue private firms and save jobs and livelihoods.  It’s the practice which concerns me, not the principle. 
It is a fundamental tenet of the capitalism whose image the UK parties are all busily trying to burnish that capital gets rewarded for taking risk, and that capital gets the lion’s share of the rewards of success.  The question is over how much risk they’re really taking if public funds are being used for rescues when a capitalist enterprise fails.  It’s another example of privatised rewards and socialised risk.  And it often looks as though the biggest risks of all are borne by those who have little choice but to work for a capitalist enterprise.
The danger in using public money to bail out private companies is that governments are usually asked to step in only after the banks have already decided that the risk of default is too great for them to loan the money.  I’m not sure on what basis anyone believes that governments are better placed than banks to predict the success or failure of an enterprise; it seems a highly unlikely proposition to me.
Perhaps rather than lending or giving money direct to the companies to bail them out, the government might think about lending or giving it to the employees for them to take a growing stake in the companies for which they work.  It would not only give them a greater stake in the success of the enterprise, but it would also start to rebalance the economy away from a pure capitalist model.  After all, Marx said that capitalism contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction.  All we need is the mechanism to give effect to that, and the failure of capitalist company after capitalist company might even be creating opportunities if we look for them.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Diverting attention

The Labour and Conservative leaders seem to be vying with each other to see which can offer the most trenchant critique of the style of modern-day capitalism.  It will never lead to any real action, though.  Once they’ve milked this one for all the sound bites they can get, they’ll just move on to something else. 
And, for all his bluster, Cameron seems either unwilling or unable even to intervene in remuneration decisions at RBS, despite the Government owning 83% of the company.  How serious can he really be about empowering shareholders?
More significantly, an argument about the style of capitalism avoids any discussion about the substance.  With capitalism suffering an enormous crisis, and the dependence on borrowing and growth shown to be unsustainable, it’s not an alternative style that we need, but an alternative model.
Sure, as its supporters regularly trumpet, capitalism has been a huge driver of affluence from which we have all benefited.  Even Marx recognised that.  But the idea that it can or will continue indefinitely owes more to faith than fact.  And to point to the benefits without discussing the disbenefits is to arrive at a very unbalanced conclusion.
Capitalism may well have driven growth and affluence, but it has also driven rising levels of inequality, and by externalising costs in pursuit of private profit has left human society as a whole with the costs of the environmental damage caused by rampant growth and exploitation of natural resources.
Criticising fat cats and boardroom pay may attract media attention, but it’s a diversion form the real issue, which is about how we move from a global competitive economic model to a local co-operative one.  It’s about fairness in allocation of finite resources rather than power and strength.  And it means the sort of changes which Tory-Labour politicians will never propose.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Funding gaps and outrage

The howls of outrage from those more interested in having a stick with which to beat the government than they are in either statistics or education are hardly a surprise.  The Lib Dems, in particular, have been obsessed for years with the alleged 'funding gap' between schools in Wales and schools in England (although both Plaid and the Tories have been known to join in from time to time as well).

The lack of information this year can hardly have come as a surprise to anyone, however - not if they'd read beyond the headlines last year, at any rate.  Because last year's report (available here) clearly stated:

What happens next year?
If England are able to provide education outturn expenditure for 2010-11 on a comparable basis with the new local authority responsibilities removed then the outturn data could be compared.
The position of comparability of budgets for 2011-12 is not yet clear due to further changes in the way education is funded in England but we will be exploring this with the Department for Communities and Local Government.

I would have hoped that the absence of a meaningless high level comparison of the Welsh average and the English average might lead people to start to concentrate on the substance of the education problems in Wales instead.  Hoped, but not expected.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Graduate premiums

This report from an investment advice company makes for interesting reading.  It’s long been claimed that possession of a university degree leads to a boost in lifetime earnings, but the level at which this report sets that boost is much higher than previous estimates.  Government ministers have talked in the past about the premium being around £100,000, but this report suggests that it’s at six times that level – a cool £600,000.
Now, assuming that the recipients of this extra salary manage to avoid higher rate tax throughout their working lives, and that the whole amount is therefore ‘only’ to be taxed at the UK basic tax rate of 20%, that means that the average graduate will pay £120,000 more in income tax over his working life than the average non-graduate.
One of the main arguments for tuition fees is precisely that graduates earn more and should contribute more as a result; but these figures show the extent to which they already do that through the tax system.  Those of us who’ve argued that from the outset will feel vindicated by such a finding; why charge them an extra £27,000 on top of the extra £120,000 they’re already paying?
There’s a sting in the report as well though, because the figures I’ve used so far are based on averages over a working life.  The report also says that, unless a graduate starts his or her working life on a salary of at least £50,000 (and the average first year graduate salary is a mere £19,653 by way of comparison), then the terms of the student loans are such that the graduate is unlikely to earn enough to pay off the loan and added interest, and the government will end up writing off the greater part of the debt.
So, after saddling graduates with debts for the first 30 years of their working life, the government will end up writing off somewhere “between £30,649 and £64,935 for every full-time university student who graduates in 2015”.  That’s more than the three year cost of fees at £27,000, because of the interest added.  Far from transferring the cost of Higher Education from the state to the individuals, the Government will, to a significant extent, merely have deferred the expenditure for 30 years.
This isn’t so much reducing the deficit as putting part of the debt off balance sheet; hiding it away as an unstated liability for the future.  It may not be on the same scale, but it’s not too far removed from some of the accounting practices which Greece used to hide the true extent of its deficit.
I’ve never been convinced that the policy made sense educationally, or that it was fair; and I’ve also been concerned that it would deter bright students from less privileged backgrounds from studying.  If the figures in this report are anywhere near accurate, it suggests that the policy doesn’t even stack up in economic terms either.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Internal funding gaps

I’m always a little wary of any newspaper stories where the lead-in uses the words ‘we can reveal’.  It’s usually followed not by any great revelation of something secret, but by a story on a widely-available report.  So it was with this story in Monday’s Western Mail.
It shows that the differences in amounts per pupil passed to different schools in Wales – even within the same authority – are bigger than the headline gap between the Welsh average and the English average.  But this is no revelation; it’s not even a surprise.
It’s a point that I made on this blog some months ago; the obsession with comparing overall Welsh averages with overall English averages in order to score a political point has been blinding people to the much greater internal differences, although at that point I didn’t have figures to the same level of detail.  It also underlines another point that I’ve made a number of times on this subject – there is no obvious causal link between amount spent per pupil and the level of educational success achieved by a school.
Looking at the detail of the figures, they do suggest that smaller schools spend more per head than larger schools; some might see that as economies of scale, others as an urban/rural split in the cost of providing education reasonably close to home.  They certainly do not suggest that simply increasing the amount of money passed to schools across the board is going to solve any of the problems facing the education system in Wales.
That’s not to say that schools couldn’t do more with more money; merely that it doesn’t necessarily follow that they would.  If we want to sort out education in Wales, we need to do a lot more analysis than simply dividing budgets by numbers of pupils and highlighting the ‘gaps’ which result.  That is just a diversion from getting to grips with the real problems.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Terms of the divorce

Whilst the laws and unwritten constitution of the UK clearly support the view that Scottish (and the same applies to Wales) Independence is a matter which the UK Parliament would have to ‘allow’, I’ve never been in any doubt that the decision belongs to – and will be taken by – the people of Scotland.  Ultimately, ‘sovereignty’ can never be withheld from a people who wish to reclaim it, no matter what any law may say.  (I suppose that the use of military force might provide an exception to that, in the short term at least; but it’s not a realistic option in the UK context.)
Some have tried to compare independence to a divorce, arguing that that makes it a matter for both (or even all) parties.  It’s not a wholly unfair comparison; but those using that argument should bear in mind that whilst the terms of any divorce are indeed a matter for negotiation – or even acrimonious argument – the fact of the divorce can be decided by one partner acting alone.
Clearly, those opposed to independence have every right to seek to persuade the people of Scotland that divorce is a bad idea.  They even have a right to be awkward and petty about the terms of the divorce, although I’m not sure that it would be the wisest thing for them to do.  But arguing about the right to a divorce is an irrelevance; it’s missing the point.
If we start from the premise – as I do – that ‘sovereignty’ belongs to all of us, individually and collectively, rather then being bestowed miraculously on the head of state, then it follows that we can change the way that we choose to exercise that sovereignty.  We can choose how much to share or pool at community level, at national level, or at international level; and we can change those decisions as and when we like. 
It’s a very different model from that under which the laws and constitution – and those who enjoy power under them – currently operate; but those laws and constitution only operate as they do with the consent of the governed, even if we don’t always realise that.  (Perhaps if we did realise it more often, the governed might withhold consent more often as well.)
Thus far, I suspect that most nationalists would agree with what I’ve said, even if ‘unionists’ (perhaps ‘constitutionalists’ would be a better term here) might disagree.  How far do we take it though – because I’d go a lot further.
Part of my difficulty is that I find it hard to define a ‘nation’ in terms that are not, in the final analysis, based on subjective self-identity, which also means that I reject the idea that people can have one and only one ‘nationality’ in an exclusive and neatly packaged way.  For me, Wales is a nation because sufficiently large numbers of Welsh people believe it to be so.  For sure, place of birth, history, territory, descent, community, family and language all come into the process of arriving at that self-identity, but nobody can have that self-identity forced upon them.
It follows from that that I’d challenge the idea that ‘sovereignty’ is something which can only be exercised at a ‘national’ level.  What if the people of Ynys Môn (I pick on them because of their neat island status – I could equally have picked on the ‘down-belows’ of Pembrokeshire, or even the inhabitants of Upper Cwmsgwt) were to decide that they wanted to exercise full sovereignty – independence for Ynys Môn?
I can think of lots of reasons why it might not be the brightest idea ever, but I cannot think of any reason why anyone else should be able to refuse it, if it was what the people wanted.  And that has surely to be the driver for what power we individually and collectively cede to which institutions at the different levels – the will of the people.  If sovereignty truly belongs to the people, there can be no argument against them exercising it at whatever level they choose.
There is another side to sovereignty though, and that’s about accepting the consequences.  The relationships between sovereign states can only be decided bilaterally or multilaterally; not unilaterally.  It’s back to the question about the terms of the divorce.  Scotland, Wales – even Ynys Môn – can become independent if they wish, but there are consequences to that.
To date, those consequences have often been discussed in axiomatic terms.  For as long as it was little more than a theoretical possibility, it’s been possible to make sweeping statements about the economic consequences with little solid basis in fact.  The developing situation in Scotland will inevitably shed more light on the detail, and lead to more rigorous challenge of some of the underlying assumptions and high level numbers which have been thrown around – on both sides.
That can only be a good thing.  I remain as convinced that ‘small is beautiful’, and that the advantages of exercising more power locally outweigh the disadvantages, as I was in the 1970s.  The trend to increasing globalisation since then has only served to reinforce that view.  Welsh self determination is a step along that route rather than an end in itself, but it has often felt as though devolution has diverted attention from consideration of that step.  The debate in Scotland brings it very much back into focus; we need to have the courage to follow where they lead, not continue to hold back.

Monday, 16 January 2012

The time isn't right...

I heard it argued again last week that, at a time of economic difficulty, people are only interested in economics, not in constitutional change.  In the sense that people whose jobs are under threat aren’t queuing up to demand independence, it’s true, of course.  It doesn’t follow, however, that debating constitutional change at a time when people are only worried about their jobs is the ‘irrelevance’ which some claim it to be.
Presenting the constitutional debate and economic policy as though they are alternatives, only one of which can be discussed at any one time, is a false choice.  I can understand those who do not want more fundamental change arguing this way, but it seems completely incongruous to me for anyone who claims that they want to see fundamental change in the long term to be trying to argue that such change is irrelevant in the shorter term. 
There are three major flaws with such an argument.
The first is that, if independence for Wales does nothing to address the economic problems faced by Wales then what is the point of Independence?  There would be little point all in having independence if it is not part of the solution to those economic problems.  I certainly would never have advocated it as the way forward for Wales unless I was convinced that relocalising the economy and taking the decisions ourselves was more, rather than less, likely to resolve the issues.
And if it is part of the solution to those economic problems, then times of economic difficulty are precisely the times when the case for more fundamental change should be put more forcibly, not kicked into the long grass.
The second, and probably more serious, flaw is that any politicians who argue that constitutional change is not relevant to the immediate economic situation are of necessity constraining themselves to proposing solutions to the economic problems which can only be implemented under current structures – which effectively means in Westminster.  And it means that the solutions which they propose are never going to sound – or be – very different from those put forward by HM Government and HM Loyal Opposition.
The third flaw is that the proportion of people holding the view that we need change in the way we are governed, not just change in the policies being followed, will never increase if the argument is not put.  I’ve never known any argument to be won by avoiding it.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Boundaries and protests

The howls of protest from some quarters about the proposed new constituency boundaries were entirely predictable, and had probably been rehearsed for weeks if not months.  That doesn’t mean that they’re entirely unjustified, of course.  Some of the boundaries look highly artificial to me, and seem to ignore geographical and community links.  It’s not a problem unique to Wales, though; merely more acute because of the greater proportionate change here.
The outcome is a more or less inevitable result of giving primacy to the argument that MPs should have, as nearly as possible, equal numbers of constituents.  It’s a difficult argument to counter, but it does depend to some extent on what we see as the primary rôle of MPs.
If they are there, first and foremost, to make laws on behalf of the UK as a whole, then the argument for parity of constituencies is a strong one.  But if they are there, first and foremost, to be representatives of the people and communities in their constituencies, then the extent of geographical spread and homogeneity (or lack thereof) in constituencies becomes a more important one. 
It’s clear which of those two drivers is uppermost in the government’s mind – MPs are there to support (or oppose) the government’s legislative programme, and do as they are told.  But the reality is that we expect them to do both.  In a sense, the second element has become less important in Wales and Scotland as much of the representative work is now done elsewhere, so perhaps we should be less worried.
There is another aspect, though, and it is the extent to which Wales’ voice is lost in a parliament where the overwhelming majority of MPs come from English constituencies.  There are still plenty of issues of concern to Wales being discussed and decided in London, and the size and clarity of the Welsh voice is important in that regard.
Whether the difference between 30 and 40 out of 600 is really significant is another question entirely; and the inability of most of Wales’ MPs to find a specifically Welsh voice rather then being simply the Welsh wing of their UK parties undermines their argument for Welsh over-representation.  The argument for deliberate over-representation of the smaller nations in the UK Parliament is, in essence a ‘nationalist’ argument.  It is rooted in the idea that Wales is a nation which needs to have its voice heard, rather than a region to be treated on the same basis as the regions of England.
It’s fascinating to hear that argument, albeit not in quite those terms, being put by politicians in the UK parties.  The problem is that given their track record it simply sounds like an altruistic cover for protecting their own personal and party interests.  Labour, in particular, have long had a tendency to conflate their party’s interests with those of Wales, but it’s no more credible on the issue of constituency boundaries than it is on a host of other issues.
It’s also fascinating that some nationalists at least seem to be welcoming the reduction in Welsh representation.  If I could be certain that it is just another step on the road to independence than I might be tempted to join them.  But there is no guarantee that it is, and as long as Wales is part of the UK, I really don’t see why anyone would argue against the idea of maximising our representation.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Preparing for the next step

From a UK perspective, the one part of yesterday’s announcement on HS2 that I don’t really understand is why the Government has decided to terminate HS2 at Euston, rather than at St Pancras which is virtually next door, and which would allow through-running to continental Europe without having to change train.  Even if through-running were not to be an immediate feature of services, it should certainly be a longer term objective.  After all, it was what we were promised right at the start of the building of the Channel Tunnel.
From a Welsh perspective, the proposals are far from ideal, with a danger that we will be left behind in a world where reliable high speed surface transport is increasingly seen as the norm, and preferable to aviation.  It’s time, though, to stop arguing about the detail of HS2 and start the debate about HS3.  Continued argument about HS2 will only further delay the Welsh connection.
HS2 will initially connect London and Birmingham, with connections to Manchester and Leeds – and a possible spur to Heathrow – seen as being phase 2 of the scheme.  The timescales are lengthy, and if we wait until HS2 is finished – or even well under way – or if we try and continue the argument, rather than widening the issue out, we run the risk not only of further delaying HS3, but also that the ‘competition’ will get there first.
There are two obvious candidates for HS3.  The first is to continue HS2 north to Glasgow and Edinburgh, and the second is to build on westwards from Heathrow to Cardiff and Bristol. 
I’d prefer that we didn’t have to be in competition with our Scots colleagues, but they should gain significant benefit from HS2.  There is no inherent reason why the rolling stock purchased to run on HS2 cannot continue over existing rail infrastructure, albeit at slower speed, all the way to Scotland once HS2 is completed.  This is exactly the approach taken by the TGV services in France, which serve many more towns than are actually on high-speed lines, providing direct rather then merely connecting services.  It just requires foresight and commitment.
We need to make sure that it’s our turn next.  A far sighted, strategically-thinking Welsh Government would now stop all whingeing about HS2, and start lobbying and making the case for an early decision on what follows.  And on getting the right decision.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Losing territory

I’m sure that Cameron is technically and legally correct to say that only Westminster can organise a binding referendum on Scottish Independence.  But being technically correct isn’t always good politics, and in this case it seems to show a certain disregard for a clear electoral mandate.
There’s an element of gambling about his approach, of course.  I can’t believe that he doesn’t understand that trying to take control of the timing and the question will probably increase the size of the vote for independence, but I’d guess that he takes the view that the result will be a ‘no’ vote to independence whenever the vote is held. 
And in contrast to many other nationalists, I suspect that he’s right on that point, no matter how much I might wish otherwise.  Whilst there is clearly an appetite in Scotland for a further significant transfer of power from Westminster to Holyrood, my own gut feeling is that the Scots are not ready, as yet, to vote for moving to independence in a single step.  Time will tell.
Cameron’s biggest misunderstanding, however, seems to me to lie in his use of the words ‘settle’ and ‘binding’, as in his suggestion that only a ‘binding’ referendum can ‘settle’ the issue. 
In the first place, I’m not convinced that any referendum at this stage actually needs to be binding.  Even if the Scots voted for independence, there would be a period of negotiation and discussion over the detail before the final shape of the divorce settlement was known, and it is not inconceivable, surely, that a further referendum would be considered necessary at that time.
But more significantly, I’d challenge the idea that any referendum can ever ‘settle’ any issue finally, or be ‘binding’ for any longer than it takes for public opinion to change.  We’ve seen that in relation to the devolution referenda in the past – and in relation to membership of the EU.  The losing side will continue to argue for another referendum at any time when they believe that they can win it; the probability that they’d just say ‘oh well, that’s it then’ and go away is vanishingly small.
In the case of independence, there’s an asymmetry, certainly – a ‘yes’ vote will be harder, much harder, to reverse than a ‘no’ vote.  Whilst a ‘no’ vote would unquestionably not settle the matter ‘for ever’, even a ‘yes’ vote wouldn’t necessarily do so either.  Institutions and structures built by humans can always change, and always will.
Cameron, though, is talking and behaving as though there is a symmetry about a decision; an expectation that nationalists will quietly accept a ‘no’ vote and shut up.  It’s a quaint perception, which I have as much difficulty understanding as he seems to have in relation to Scottish nationalism.
I was reminded of the gulf in perception that sometimes makes it hard to establish a basis for rational argument by the piece that Rhodri Morgan wrote in the Western Mail just after the death of Vaclav Havel.  Rhodri said that one of Havel's regrets would be that, during his presidency, he lost a third of his country.
Now I had thought that it was one of Havel's triumphs that he had presided over the largely amicable divorce between two countries which had been somewhat artificially stitched together in the first place in 1918, as older nations re-emerged from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Two very different perspectives on precisely the same event.  I hadn't really thought about it in quite those terms before but perhaps I should have.  Perhaps when the UK Prime Minister says that he’ll fight for the union with every fibre there is, he is motivated, at least in part, by not wanting to 'lose' part of ‘the country’.  (English history would presumably see it that way; I’d guess that Scottish history would be written from the ‘amicable divorce’ standpoint.)
Perspective is all.  To some of us, it seems that Cameron is being naïve, stupid even, in his approach to Scottish politics.  But it must seem entirely rational to him, and leave him struggling to understand why we can’t simply agree with the logic of his position. 
The gulf in perception is probably unbridgeable, and the two sides will continue to talk at, rather than to, each other.  There will be a vote, and the Scottish people will make a decision.  It's unlikely to be the 'final' one though.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Drains and brains

I found last Thursday's headline story in the Western Mail, about the “brain drain” from Wales both confused and confusing.  The academic report to which it refers was a complex one highlighting a number of different factors, not all of them necessarily bad, and it seemed to me that the Western Mail was having some difficulty in distilling that complex report down to a simple headline story.  I thought the report deserved a more analytical and in depth approach to coverage than the newspaper gave it.
The one common thread seemed to be that "something must be done", although what that "something" is was pretty vague and undefined - largely, one suspects, because there was no clear agreement on what the problem really is; only on the symptoms.
I thought the approach in Dylan Jones Evans's blog was more incisive, highlighting as it did one of the key issues which the Mail seemed to have completely missed, namely that where people choose to study is a key determinant of where they go on to live and work after graduation.  Dylan goes on to highlight the Welsh government's tuition fee policy as a key factor in that decision.  I was with him on the first part but thought that he was stretching the point a bit on the second.
The tuition fees policy pursued by the One Wales government between 2007 and 2000 was much more focused on encouraging students to stay in Wales to study, and there was, as Adam Price forcefully pointed out at the time, some indication that it was having precisely that effect.  Sadly, the then Labour-Plaid government scrapped the policy on grounds of affordability, only to replace it with what looks like a much more expensive policy a year later, after the change in government in London finally allowed Labour in Wales to disagree with the policy of the UK government.
There are a number of issues which drive Welsh students to study in England rather than in Wales, but they go well beyond the tuition fees policy.  Students take into account their perceptions about comparative "quality" (although whether those perceptions are justified is another matter entirely) of universities in Wales and England.  There are also questions about the range of subjects available – the sheer number of universities in England compared with Wales makes it all but inevitable that there will be a greater range of subjects available.
There was an assumption underlying the way that the story was presented that it is inherently a “good" thing that Welsh domiciled students stay in, or return to, Wales after graduation.  That's certainly a point with which I would agree; as a nationalist I want to see a Wales where young people wish and are able to live and work and enjoy rewarding and fulfilling careers in their chosen fields.
(In pure economic terms, however, it isn't as simple as that.  If Welsh students studying and then living elsewhere are replaced by English students studying and living here, the economic effect of the so-called brain drain is far from clear-cut.)
That in turn raises the perennial question of what higher education is for.  Is it to provide the right number of graduates in the right disciplines to meet the current and future economic needs of Wales?  Such an approach undervalues the idea of more abstract learning having an intrinsic value in its own right, but it did seem implicit in some of the comments being made.  Concentrating simply on meeting the economic needs of Wales is surely an inadequate mission for our universities.
One other point struck me as being relevant, and it’s to do with the “internal” brain drain. 
Concentrating merely on net loss from Wales to England ignores the significant net movements happening regionally within Wales.  Areas such as Dyfed and Gwynedd lose a high proportion of their most well-educated young people to Cardiff and the south-east every year.  A concentration merely on the net movements between England and Wales completely loses sight of this fact.
Far from being the dry and irrelevant issue as which some want to paint it, I see greater autonomy for Wales and greater devolution within Wales as being key issues in developing a more balanced and dispersed economy internally.  Re-localisation is what will provide opportunities to young people to live and work in their own communities.  It doesn't guarantee of course that they take them, but giving them the choice would be a good start.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Reward and Punishment

There was an interesting juxtaposition, time wise, of two stories around the New Year, which highlighted for me the different standards applied to different groups and interests in society.
The first story was about the plans of the UK Coalition to crack down on council tenants who sublet their houses, by making it a criminal offence.  The detail was a bit hazy – I can’t see what’s wrong with taking in a lodger, for instance – but I think that they were really targeting people who move out of their council houses into alternative accommodation and then rent out the council house at a profit.  It’s a way of using someone else’s property to make a profit.  ‘Our’ property, in a sense, because the houses are publicly owned.
It was accompanied, of course, by a lot of guff about how council rents were subsidised by the rest of us (not really true these days), and how council houses were really only ever intended for those who could not afford their own homes (again, something of a re-writing of history).  It will have struck a chord, however, with those not entirely familiar with the details of the financing of social housing, and striking a chord is what such announcements are all about.
The second story was about the New Year Honours list, and more specifically about the honour given to the head of a hedge fund who had donated large sums to the Conservative Party.  He’d made large sums of money by betting that Northern Rock would collapse.  The techniques used by hedge funds, though, are a little more nuanced than gambling – this is the sort of gambling where the act of betting influences the outcome, if only you can bet enough money.
And, of course, the short sellers didn’t have enough money or shares to cause a collapse themselves, so they borrowed other people’s, and bought and sold things that they didn’t own.  Some might see that as using other people’s property to make a profit.  ‘Our’ property in a sense, because many of the shares ‘borrowed’ for the casino were owned by pension funds and other large financial institutions, usually on behalf of many of us.
But here’s the point.  In principle, the two actions seem to me to be quite similar, and there is no obvious argument that one is somehow more moral than the other.  So why do we criminalise the small scale abuse but honour and reward the large-scale abuse?  Which one causes the greatest misery for the greatest number?

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Deciding who's the best

Just before Christmas, Gareth Hughes posted on his view that Ieuan Wyn Jones is Plaid’s nost successful leader.  It’s an opinion which some will share, and with which others will disagree.  It’s inherent in the issue that a large element of subjectivity comes into play, but it’s worth considering some of the factors that lead to such a judgement on any leader, in an attempt to take a more abstract view.
The first factor is about defining some criteria on which to judge 'success'.  Gareth seems to base his conclusion largely on the fact that after 80 years of being an opposition party, Plaid first entered government under the leadership of Ieuan.  But that isn’t the only possible criterion for judging success as a leader – and given that there was no Assembly in which to form a government, it’s not something which any of his predecessors could ever have achieved anyway.
If I may diverge to consider the Labour Party for a moment, there is surely no doubt that Tony Blair was the most electorally successful leader that that party ever had.  Unfortunately, that success was achieved by abandoning much of what the Labour Party had traditionally stood for.  My personal favourite Labour leader was Michael Foot.  He was not only a great orator, but also a man of principle, who never feared putting the difficult and unpopular arguments.  He was an electoral disaster, though.
And that’s the point.  How do we measure the ‘success’ of any leader of any political leader?  Is it in electoral terms, in being in government, in achieving aims, in behaving with principle and integrity, or in putting the difficult arguments?  All are relevant, but any assessment of ‘success’ in a leader owes more to the weightings attached to the different elements than to the inherent qualities of those being judged.
The second factor is to do with attribution.  There is a tendency to attribute success of an organisation to the nature of its leadership, but it ain’t necessarily so.  Indeed, Gareth himself recognises that when he points out that Plaid’s best-ever election result was in 1999 under Dafydd Wigley – and then goes on to attribute the success not to the leader, but to the campaign manager, one Ieuan Wyn Jones.  It fits Gareth’s own position, of course, but it also opens the door to other interpretations.
Over-attribution of success to individuals is extremely common in the corporate world.  Sometimes, indeed, business managers do achieve success for their organisations, although there is some variety in the way that they do that.  Some are simply inspirational leaders, others are superb facilitators who create space in which the talents of the workforce can shine through.  But there are others who run their organisations by creating a climate of fear.
Far more common, in my experience, are those who just happen to be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, and are able to claim the credit for events over which they had little real influence.  And it’s not uncommon for organisations to succeed in spite of, rather than because of, their leadership, as motivated people who know what needs to be done simply ignore the titular leader.
I can think of nothing there which applies in the business world which does not also apply in the world of politics.  Some leaders are regarded as 'successful' because of what they do and say, others regardless of what they do and say, and some in spite of what they do and say.  Mis-attribution of success, and over-attribution of success, to the person who happens to be at the top at the time are natural tendencies.  The main difference that I can think of between business and politics in this sense is that political parties - or at least those claiming to be run democratically rather than hierarchically - should probably expect the personal influence of the leader on outcomes to be lower than it would be in companies.
So, in judging whether a particular leader was or was not a successful one, we need not only to decide on the criteria, we also need to judge how far the leader was actually personally responsible for meeting those criteria – and that’s much harder to do.
And that brings me to the third factor – timescale.  Looking back, it seems to me to be quite rare that the initial judgement made of any political leader stands the test of history.  Some get re-evaluated upwards, others downwards.  Two reasons for that immediately strike me.
The first of those is that more information, facts, and opinions emerge over time.  History, rather than hagiography, requires that more rounded set of inputs.
But the second, and the more important, is that the passage of time provides context.  And any period of political leadership needs to be judged in the context of what follows it as well as what precedes it.  It is only the passage of time which can provide that context.
To return to the specific subject of Gareth’s original post, namely a judgement on the 12 years which Ieuan Wyn Jones will have spent as the leader of Plaid Cymru, there are a number of possible sequences of events which can follow from this point on.  I choose two not because there are only two, nor because they are necessarily the most probable, but because they illustrate the importance of historical perspective in making a judgement.
In scenario 1, Plaid simply continues from where Ieuan leaves off.  Its official core aim is regarded as nothing more than a ‘long term aspiration’ to be mentioned as infrequently as possible, and the party becomes a party of government based on an appeal to the same middle ground as the other parties in Wales.  In that context, the last 12 years would be seen as a turning point in the party’s history.
In scenario 2, Plaid rediscovers a sense of historical mission and sets out to shift the focus of political debate towards its own position.  In that context, the last 12 years would be seen as something of an aberration.
Neither approach would necessarily lead to success, of course; but the way in which IWJ came to be regarded in each would be very different indeed.  History is neither kind nor cruel, it just is; and perspective is all in interpreting events.
I don’t agree with Gareth’s conclusion, but I recognise that it’s at least partly a result of looking at the same facts and events and applying a different interpretation to them.  I simply don’t know which view history will eventually uphold.