Wednesday, 29 February 2012

All Brits really

One of the Western Mail’s more regular letter writers is Sir Eric Howells, a former Welsh chair of the Conservative Party before he went out of favour for highlighting the takeover of the local conservative association by the hunting fraternity.  He’s also a die-hard anti-devolutionist, and although something of a persona non grata with his former party, he’s probably closer to the membership’s views on many things than many of those in leadership roles today.
His latest missive (in yesterday’s Western Mail) contained two passages which struck me in particular.  In referring to the possibility of Scotland’s independence, he suggested that they should go, but that “within a few years they will be knocking on the door of number 10 asking to come back to the union”, and turning his attention to Ireland, said, “Why not offer them to come back into the Union”.
Lest anyone think that I’m just picking on Sir Eric here, there was also a counter-factual future-history article in the Sunday Times late last year written by Professor Niall Ferguson which suggested that, in the light of the Euro crisis and the conversion of the EU into the USE, Ireland might choose within the next ten years to re-unite with the UK on the basis of a slogan “Better Brits than Brussels”.
Now, of course, no-one can be certain what will happen in the future, and we can all enjoy a bit of speculation and a thought-provoking counter-factual.  But the idea that either Ireland or Scotland (if it chooses independence, which is far from certain as yet) will return to London begging to be let back in is too far-fetched to be credible.  I’m open to be proved wrong on this, but I don’t believe that there’s a single example in modern history – or perhaps even all history – in which a nation secedes from a state and then asks to rejoin it.
The fact that others can, even fleetingly, consider it remotely possible suggests a belief that there is a natural order of things under which we are all British really, and any deviation from that is just a temporary aberration.
It reminds me of the fact-finding trip I and around 10 other members of Plaid took to Brussels in 1974 or 1975, prior to the referendum on remaining in the EEC.  One evening, a Tory MEP came to sit with a group of us, on the basis that we were all Brits together in a foreign place.  The idea that we might, as Welsh people, see ourselves as having more in common with mainstream European politicians than with a Tory who happened to be from the UK, and that we might see Wales as being more akin to other submerged nations in Europe than to the ‘regions’ of England was something that he simply could not understand.
Talk of Scotland and Ireland ‘returning to the fold’ in due course, merely confirms that those of a certain perspective still don’t get it.  They probably never will.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Tuppence a bomb

The Sunday Times carried a large article (protected by their paywall) on the Lib Dems’ proposal for a cheaper replacement for Trident, under the dismissive headline “tuppenny Trident”.  Contrary to the impression which a number of Lib Dem politicians have tried to give over a lengthy period, which is that the party is opposed to nuclear weapons, it seems that they are only really opposed to expensive ones.  As long as they can get cheap ones, then they’re quite happy to support the development and deployment of a new generation of nuclear weapons.
To say that their alternative proposal would only cost tuppence is an exaggeration to say the least; their proposals would still mean spending billions of pounds on weapons of mass destruction rather than using the money for peaceful economic development; it’s just a smaller number of billions. 
For that, they’d get slower, shorter range missiles.  To the extent that such weapons actually deter anyone at all – and I certainly don’t believe that they do – it seems that the Lib Dems are setting their sights somewhat lower in terms of who they want to deter.
There is also the little matter of the illegality under international treaties of developing and deploying a new nuclear weapons system, but it seems that the Lib Dems, just like the Labour and Conservative parties, believe that international treaties are things which only apply to other people.  And all three parties appear to be convinced that possessing bigger sticks that the other kids is the way to ensure ‘influence’ in the world. 
It’s an outdated view of the world, but one which is hard to shift.  And in the meantime, our taxes will continue to be spent on unnecessary and useless weaponry in pursuit of that outmoded view, whichever of the three parties exercises power in London.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Dependent on nuclear?

Plaid Cymru’s leadership contest has exposed once again the difficulties the party faces over the question of nuclear energy, a subject on which I’ve often commented on this blog.  Syniadau has posted a  number of times on the issue in recent weeks, concentrating on the divergence between the views of the party as decided by the membership, and those of the current, and one potential future, leader on the other.
The debate which follows is often confused because there are two separate issues involved.  The first is the question of whether or not nuclear power is the right way to go; the second is about the problems of a party leader / potential leader unable to accept the party’s views on the issue; and they are two very different issues.  I’m sticking to the former of those today.
What is clear is that Wales has no direct need of nuclear energy.  We can produce all the electricity we need – and more – from entirely renewable sources.  It’s not just me saying that; the One Wales Government produced an excellent strategy confirming that, and all of Labour’s and Plaid’s AMs signed up to that.   And, as far as I’m aware, it isn’t really in dispute.
What we can’t do, though, (and this is likely to be true of any small country) is to produce all that electricity at the time that we need it.  Producing the total number of Mwh over a year as a whole is not the same as producing all the Mw we need at any given time.
Some have used that fact in an attempt to argue that we cannot therefore depend solely on renewables, and also need either nuclear energy or fossil-fuel energy as a backup.  However, that isn’t the only answer.  The alternative solution is that a renewables-based country like Wales needs to be able to export surpluses at some times and import at other times to replace the deficit (and that is the proposal put forward by Leanne Wood in her paper on energy).
The problem, for a country which wishes to be entirely renewables-based, is in controlling what the source of that imported electricity is.  I’m convinced that, by linking grids together across Europe and using a variety of renewable sources rather than wind alone, Europe can free itself of any need for conventional / nuclear power stations over a period if it plans so to do.  In that context, inputting into the grid at least as much electricity as we withdraw means that Wales could legitimately claim to be entirely renewables-based, the position which our Government has said it wants to be in.
There is a complication though.  What happens if one or more countries in Europe decide that they will continue with a conventional/ nuclear programme?  This is the argument that some have used about the German decision to move away from nuclear power – since their grid is linked to that of France, and since France has decided to continue with its nuclear programme, isn’t Germany effectively still depending on nuclear power, but on outsourcing its production to France? 
By the same token, if England decides on a new nuclear programme, even if no stations are built in Wales, can we claim that we are not dependent on that nuclear energy?  I think that we can.  What we would be dependent on is electricity from somewhere else; how that electricity is produced is beyond our control.  We might be using nuclear-produced electricity (we can’t easily pick and choose which bits of electricity we’re using), but it is the existence of that electricity on which we would be dependent, not on how it’s produced.
This is more than mere semantics.  England, like Wales, could (if it wishes) choose an entirely renewables-based future.  As long as that is true, and as long as Wales produces at least as much electricity in a year as we consume, I don’t believe that the decisions of another country as to how they produce their electricity can legitimately be said to undermine our claim of renewable self-sufficiency.
What would undermine that claim would be permitting, let alone welcoming, the construction of further nuclear or other non-renewable plant in Wales.

Friday, 24 February 2012

The reality is obvious

There are one or two well-used phrases which trip from politicians’ lips when they want to avoid providing any evidence in support of their views.  One of my least favourites is the phrase “The reality is…”.  Long experience tells me that it’s invariably followed by unsubstantiated personal opinion presented as incontrovertible fact.
Cheryl Gillan came out with another one yesterday.  The fact that she’s opposing the creation of a Welsh legal jurisdiction hardly qualifies as news, for all the prominence given to it.  Her reference to the devolution process as a “never- ending conveyor belt of powers transferring from Westminster to Cardiff” was at least a new sound bite – better than the more usual “slippery slope” argument.  But sound bites, however good, do not an argument make.
Indeed, making any sort of argument for the status quo was something that seemed to be distinctly lacking in her comments.  Instead, she reverted to another of those politicians’ phrases; it was, she said, “glaringly obvious” that it was a bad idea.
There we are, argument won in two words, with no need to bother with any little matters such as substance or evidence.  In truth of course, what ‘the reality is’ and what is or isn’t ‘glaringly obvious’ will vary according to perspective.  There’s more to political debate than sophistry.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Hidden subsidies

Local newspapers across Wales provide an important service to their readers and communities; they are far and away the most popular source for local news and information.  They’re well-read too; often better read within their areas than their larger cousins, enjoying a high level of market penetration.
Many are struggling financially, however, and depend heavily on advertising revenue.  The call from several politicians from multiple parties this week for the Welsh Government not to remove the obligation on Welsh local authorities to advertise traffic orders in local weeklies is entirely understandable in that context.  But, as reported, it seems as though maintaining the newspapers’ revenue is the only reason for making that call, and that makes it sound more like a back-door subsidy than a sensible advertising policy.
There’s nothing wrong with the government deciding that local papers provide such a valuable service that it justifies using public money to keep them afloat.  But it would be far more honest to do that openly and transparently.  Ordering local councils to buy advertising which is otherwise deemed unnecessary would merely serve to create a delusion that the papers are commercially successful when they’re not.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Resurrect the WDA?

I wonder what the reaction would be if the Assembly set up a committee to look into the war in Afghanistan, and then, when it published its report, criticised William Hague for declining to attend to give evidence.  Actually, I don’t wonder at all – I’ve got a pretty good idea what the reaction would be.
But how different is it really from a position where a committee of the House of Commons decides to look at a devolved issue – economic development – and then criticises the minister responsible for not agreeing to be grilled by the MPs?
I can understand the irritation in Cardiff at the uninvited interference.  I hope, though, that such natural and justifiable irritation will not lead to a too hasty rejection of the report.  The fact that much of what the MPs have to say is none of their business doesn’t mean that they aren’t making some very valid points.
Their call for the UK Government to extend electrification of the railways – a matter for which they still have responsibility – to Swansea and the Valleys lines is one with which many of us would agree, although I’d like them to have gone further and declared that those were merely the next two steps on a programme to electrify the entire network in Wales.  There is life west of Swansea.
Their message about the loss of the WDA echoes what many in Wales have been saying for some years.  It was a mistake at the time – both for the Government of the day and for the main opposition at the time in supporting it, as Elin Jones recently highlighted.  And there were plenty of people saying at the time that it was a mistake.
I never understood why the baby – the WDA – was being thrown out with the bathwater – the system of appointed members of the great and the good to run quangos.  The latter could have been done without carving the WDA up and incorporating it into the civil service.  Getting back the ethos and culture of that body will not be easy at this stage, but it’s disappointing to see such a lack of will to try.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Education for what

There was a report on Wales’ education problems last week (nothing new there) which had a spokesperson from one of the ‘business’ organisations saying that the education system was ‘letting employers down’.  It’s an interesting perspective on what the education system is for.
That the education system in Wales is currently letting our children down is not a proposition which many would argue against.  And since part of any education system should be to prepare our young people for what they will face after leaving full-time education, then it follows that the ‘product’ from the education system may not always be what employers want.
But it’s the presumption in the expression that leaves me uneasy.  Preparing people for the world of work is one thing; turning out people who meet employers’ specifications is quite another.  It’s a perspective which a number of people have expressed recently in relation to what they insist on calling ’soft’ degrees in university; and some have gone further in suggesting that a lot of what is taught is ‘useless’ because it doesn’t make people more employable.
Falling to give people the skills which make them employable is certainly letting them down, but over-concentration on that narrow perspective runs the risk of devaluing learning for the sake of learning.  Having employable school-leavers may help boost society’s material wealth, but material wealth is not the only thing which enriches us.
Certainly, politicians should listen to what the needs of the workplace are, but they shouldn’t allow that to define and constrain the education which we provide for our young people.  There’s more to education than providing employment fodder.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Portrait painting

Carwyn Jones’ demand for the devolution of more power over renewable energy projects is nothing new.  It’s a repetition of what Labour said in their Assembly election manifesto. It’s not a demand that I’d oppose, but it’s a very limited and unambitious demand.
In the first place, the demand seems to be limited to the issue of granting – or more probably, refusing - consent for the construction of generating capacity.  I wouldn’t suggest that all developments need to be permitted, but there is a mismatch in powers under Labour’s proposal.  Having the power to refuse certain developments with no responsibility for ensuring that we have adequate power is a recipe for following a populist agenda, and then blaming others for the lack of electricity.
Meaningful devolution in this field has to include responsibility for energy policy as well as development control.  Only a government tasked with both keeping the lights on and managing land use can take a balanced decision on the issue.
And that brings me to the second problem with Carwyn’s demand – it only covers renewable energy developments.  On non-renewable ones, it seems, he’s quite happy to let the UK Government take the decisions.  That exception – and it’s a huge exception – looks to have more to do with the needs of his party than with developing a sensible energy policy for Wales.
Taking responsibility for permitting or refusing Wylfa B would cause enormous problems for three of the four parties in the Assembly, all of whose elected representatives are seriously divided on the issue.  (Only the Tories seem reasonably united on the issue, as supporters of nuclear power).  Far easier to leave that decision elsewhere and continue to portray themselves as believers in a green and renewable future.  However, a portrait is all it is.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Mohammed and the mountain

Another thing that struck me about the Salmond-Cameron summit was the symbolism in the fact that Cameron travelled to Edinburgh to meet Alex Salmond.  One can imagine the discussions in advance, weighing up the options, and reaching the conclusion that playing Salmond's game was the lesser of two evils compared to being seen to summon him to London.  Tough call, and one he was never going to win.  1-0 to Salmond before Cameron even sat down.

His announcement that unspecified further devolution is on the table, but only if the Scots first reject the independence option was probably intended to try and regain the initiative.  But for those of a different viewpoint, it looks more like bowing to the inevitable.

Underlying it is a fundamental failure to understand the nature of Scottish nationalism.  I'm convinced that Cameron really does believe that a quick vote on Independence, with a clear 'no' vote, will kill the issue.  In his dreams.  Nationalists have always been playing the long game, and will continue to do so whatever the result of the referendum.

Cameron's problem – and he's far from being alone amongst UK politicians in this regard – is that he's reacting to events rather than driving them.  The agenda is being set elsewhere – and very skilfully too.  Reacting to events by offering more on a conditional basis merely underlines the extent to which he is being driven by events.

If he, and others who see the 'preservation of the union' as a worthwhile aim, really wanted to seize the initiative, they'd start to talk about reinventing the union itself.  That means looking at what changes are needed for the benefit of all, rather than just attempting to buy off the Scots.

Here in Wales, some members of his own party are showing that they understand that, David Melding being the most obvious.  Some form of federal state, with a written constitution, would be the best way of putting a positive case for the UK, and would be a difficult scenario for nationalists to deal with.  It's not likely to happen though; such voices continue to be very effectively marginalised within their party.

Failure to escape from the mindset of pragmatic response to events seems to be second nature for UK politicians.  And it will be their undoing.

Friday, 17 February 2012

"This sceptr'd isle"

Cameron didn't quite go that far in his speech urging Sots to "remain in the union", but his rhetoric was certainly headed in that direction.  I don't know whether he and his advisors will conclude that his line is being successful or not, but it just left me with the impression that he still doesn't get it.

I don't doubt the sincerity of his wish to "preserve the union"; what I doubt is his ability to make the case convincingly to anyone who starts from a different perspective to his own.

Gareth Hughes has already done something of a demolition job on the line of argument advanced by Cameron.  The extent to which it's based on being bigger than the other kids on the street, and possessing bigger sticks, came as a surprise even to me.  It's very much a reflection of the days of Empire – and of an inability to let go of that viewpoint.

For those who still yearn for days gone by, it's a message which will probably press a lot of the right buttons.  But for those who don't, it will just sound irrelevant.  And that's what I mean about not getting it.  Telling Scotland that the main reason for not becoming independent is that there are a lot of kids out there who are bigger than them, and wielding bigger sticks to boot, is talking past them, not to them.

By background and nature, Cameron is stuck in a view of the UK's rôle in the world which has long since been overtaken by events.  It is Salmond and the SNP who are understanding that the future lies not in who can wield the biggest stick (a contest which the UK is doomed to lose in any event), but in how nations and states can combine greater localism with stronger co-operation.  That is a dialogue which Cameron and his ilk cannot, in the long term, win.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Inconsistency, poll ratings, and boardrooms

I don’t quite know what to make of David Cameron’s recent evangelising on the subject of women in the boardroom.  He’s certainly right on the point of principle; the low level of female directors in our major companies represents a significant loss of potential talent if one assumes, as I do, that talent and ability are fairly evenly distributed between the sexes.
I’m not convinced, though, about his claim that this failure alone accounts for such a significant degree of economic failure in the UK, nor that putting it right will have the claimed level of economic impact.  The fact that Norwegian business, with its much higher level of female representation in the board room, is doing well is not proof that the one is the result of the other.  There are a lot of other differences between the Norwegian and UK economies.
I wonder whether his alighting on this particular issue might not have more to do with his poll ratings amongst female voters than it has to do with economics.  I also wonder how his hint that the Government will legislate if necessary to impose quotas sits with his repeated claims that businesses are already over-regulated and must be freed from state interference in the way they operate.  It doesn’t look or sound consistent to me.
I’d actually support such legislation if it were to be introduced, but I’m not expecting to see it any time soon.  And I can’t escape the nagging doubt that criticising the lack of women in the board room is a bit of a diversion from the fact that the government’s economic policies can hardly be described as successful.  It almost looks like blaming somebody or something else.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Redistribution and subsidy

Some interesting figures published today by the Centre for Economics and Business Research on the mismatch between taxation and spending across the ‘regions’ of the UK.  The Centre has looked at the revenue raised in each ‘region’ and the money spent there to come to a series of conclusions about the extent to which poorer regions receive a ‘subsidy’ from the richer ones.
The most obvious headline from a nationalist perspective is the conclusion that Scotland receives no net subsidy from the rest of the UK.  No doubt the SNP will be delighted with that conclusion; I certainly would be in their position.  It’s further evidence that there is no hard economic argument against Scottish Independence.
There are caveats, of course.  As I’ve noted before when discussing this sort of statistical analysis, the most important element is understanding what the underlying assumptions are; changing those could have a significant effect on the figures.  In this case, one key assumption, from a Scottish viewpoint, is about the proportion of oil revenues which would accrue to Scotland.  The authors have used the split suggested by Aberdeen University, which gives Scotland 83% of the total.  I think that’s an entirely reasonable basis for calculation – but it’s clear that many of those arguing that an independent Scotland would be near-bankrupt are using a very different basis.
The other big caveats are that these are figures at a point in time – reflecting a single year – and that they assume that expenditure patterns for an independent Scotland would follow a similar pattern to those of the UK.  Again, that’s an assumption which is open to challenge.  Still, it’s good news overall for Scotland.
The figures for Wales make for much more gloomy reading, however.  They emphasise yet again how poorly our economy is performing.  Whilst the North East of England is not far behind Wales, only Northern Ireland is in a worse position.  We have a lot of ground to make up.
What the figures also show is the extent to which the UK’s economy is skewed towards London and the South East, with the north and west of England uniformly failing to cover expenditure from taxes raised.  I don’t like the word ‘subsidies’ in the way it’s used here to describe the way in which expenditure is redistributed to enable public services to be maintained outside the south and east of England, but it’s not an entirely unfair word.
The real question is how we stop redistributing the proceeds of uneven GDP and start redistributing the GDP more evenly.  It’s not handouts or subsidies that we need; it’s a sound economy of our own.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Regional Pay and GVA

In this post on Monday, the Bevan Foundation drew attention to one of the key reasons for Wales’ comparatively low GVA – low wages.  It’s not a surprise; it’s a point that has been made a number of times in the past, but it’s a point of which we sometimes lose sight.
There are a number of reasons for Wales’ average pay being lower than the UK average.  Not the least of them is the fact that for organisations not headquartered here, the Head Office salaries – usually the highest – are elsewhere.  In a sense, that means that economic activity in Wales doesn’t contribute to GVA as much as it would if the higher salaried jobs were distributed in the same way as the lower paid jobs.  Such distribution is not exactly a practicable solution, but the effect of an uneven distribution is worth bearing in mind.
Given the way that GVA is calculated, low wages will inevitably depress GVA in any area, just as high wages would increase GVA.  So, the proposals by the UK Government to introduce ‘regional pay’ would have a direct impact on GVA.  For any area where regional pay was set at a lower value than average, GVA would apparently drop; for any area where it was set at a higher level, GVA would apparently increase.
This happens with no change whatsoever in the work people do, in the output they produce, or in their productivity; it’s solely an effect of redistributing the same amount of pay in a different way geographically.  I think we can be reasonably confident that the introduction of regional pay would see public sector pay levels reduce in Wales compared to the average, whilst they would increase in London and South East England relative to the average.
In principle, I’m in favour of redistributive policies, but in this case, the UK Government would be deliberately and consciously increasing the GVA gap between Wales and the UK average, by taking from the poorest areas and giving to the richest.
No doubt, some will cease on the resultant increase in disparity as clear proof that Wales can’t afford to control her own affairs.  But in fact, all it proves is that the measurement of GVA is a complex business, and doesn’t simply reflect poor economic performance in Wales.
I wish it were as easy as suggesting some sort of reverse regional pay, where the highest salaries were paid in the poorest areas, as a deliberate tool of policy to redistribute GVA more evenly.  But it does underline the way in which a policy of deliberately moving high paid public sector jobs from the centre to the periphery can have an impact on relative economic wealth. 

Thursday, 9 February 2012

£170 million of lost opportunity

The Welsh Government announced this week that it is working with the 22 local authorities in Wales on a scheme to use local authority borrowing powers to boost infrastructure investment in Wales.  This looks, in principle, very similar to the proposal floated by Gerry Holtham some time ago, and effectively circumvents the restrictions which prevent the Welsh Government from borrowing.
To that extent, it’s a welcome departure from the usual approach of simply blaming the Tories for everything.  I do have three reservations though.
The first is the scale of the plan – or rather the lack of scale.  Gerry Holtham suggested that it would be possible to use this approach to borrow around £2billion for spending over the five year life of a government.  In comparison to that, £170million looks remarkably unambitious.  It’s significantly less even than Plaid’s rather more modest Build4Wales, which suggested borrowing a mere £500 million from the private sector.
The second reservation is that it seems to be restricted to spending on highways projects.  Whilst I’m sure that at least some of those schemes will be worthwhile, investment in road schemes wouldn’t be my top priority.  And it appears as though the schemes haven’t even been selected yet – local authorities are being invited to come forward with proposals.
And that brings me to my third reservation – the lack of an obvious strategic driver behind the scheme.  Obtaining a large capital sum for infrastructure investment should be a real opportunity to take a strategic view and decide on the most important projects to boost GVA.  Instead of that, we have a bid-driven allocation of resources to local authorities – the availability of the money is driving the spending, rather than the infrastructure needs.
It’s what we’ve seen far too often from successive Welsh Governments.  It’s the same curse which afflicted Objective One funding and Convergence Funding – an attempt to please as many people as possible and share the cash around rather than use it to drive a step change.
Sadly, it isn’t that the Welsh Government doesn’t have strategies – those they have aplenty.  They’re all carefully written, consulted on, amended, approved, and filed somewhere, with all the right boxes duly ticked.  What they are not, however, are drivers of government action.
In going down this route, the Welsh Government was in serious danger of getting something right – it’s a pity that the implementation is another missed opportunity.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Double-edged deficits

As well as reporting on the latest opinion poll, Friday’s Western Mail had a leader column on the subject of Welsh independence.  It included the following paragraph:
“There are strong economic arguments against independence.  No serious economist has yet published a convincing case on how a nation which spends more than it raises in tax could adapt to going it alone in a world heading towards more interdependence not less.”
I’ve rarely read such nonsense.  As far as I’m aware, no ‘serious economist’ has ever argued that a country which is ‘spending more than it raises in taxes’ is therefore unable to enjoy the same degree of independence as any other country.  It’s simply not true.  Indeed, if it were true, then the UK, the USA, and any number of other countries would have to be added to the list of failed states.
Lots of countries spend more than they raise in taxes, and some do so year after year after year.  Running a deficit per se does not make Wales unviable, any more than it makes the UK or the US unviable.
The issue for Wales isn’t the fact of a deficit; it’s the size and duration of that deficit.  But even then, there are no hard and fast rules.  The proportion of GDP which the national debt represents doesn’t have some magic number below which all is well and above which states fail.  Nor is there any set period beyond which a debt cannot continue.  These things are matters of judgement; judgement by the government setting tax and spending levels, and judgement by those lending the money as to the likelihood of them getting it back.
But more importantly, is the fact that Wales has a high current account deficit which is persistent over the long term an argument against independence, or is it an argument for?  At first sight, it’s very easy to see it as an argument against, but that’s a simplistic response.  The questions we should be asking are: “What is the means by which we bring tax and spending into balance, and what is the decision-making structure most likely to achieve that?”
In theory, the argument that the best way out is through membership of a larger union where the government actively follows redistributive policies, and ensures that GDP is more equal across the ‘regions’ is a powerful one.  It is, I think, the argument which supporters of the union are trying to make, albeit not very well.  The reason that they’re not very good at making the argument is obvious - in practice, it just hasn’t happened, and still isn’t happening.  The theory is at odds with the practice.
Without an effective redistributive economic policy, all Wales gains from the union in financial terms is a handout; and all we can ever do is ask for a bigger one.  That simply is not where I want to see Wales, and I don’t understand why anyone else would.  I’m convinced that the best way (even if not the only way) of getting Wales’ GDP to the level it needs to be to bring taxes and spending into line is by taking the decisions ourselves, here in Wales.
The much-vaunted deficit is a double-edged sword – for me, the fact that current structures and approaches are not reducing it is a reason to support change, not oppose it.  A government solely focused on Wales stands a better chance of taking the right decisions for Wales than one for which Wales is peripheral.  If supporters of the UK want to use economic arguments, they’ll need to do better than this.

Monday, 6 February 2012


According to the Western Mail on Friday, that’s how I and other supporters of Welsh independence should be feeling after the latest opinion poll showed that only around 10% of the people of Wales support independence.  I’m not at all devastated, and I’m not really sure what they expect me to feel thus.  I’m not even feeling surprised; the result is in line with many polls published over many years.
Clearly, independence has received more public attention in recent months, in the light of the stunning success of the SNP in Scotland, but in the absence of much specific discussion about the pros and cons in a Welsh context, no-one should expect discussion of what may or may not happen in Scotland to shift opinion in Wales. 
Perhaps opinion in Wales will change; perhaps it will never do so.  It certainly won’t do so in the absence of the case being put.  I’ve never known any argument to be won by not making it.  The question is about how and when the argument should be made.  To listen to some politicians talking – even some who claim to be nationalists – no-one should even try making the case until the people already support it. 
That seems to me to be a curious way of setting about things.  It does, though, go to the heart of what I see as a major political question.  Are politicians there to follow public opinion or to lead it?  Politicians who want real change fall into the second category; those who fall into the first category are merely offering us a different bunch of politicians to implement the same policies.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Legal Obligations and Sustainability

I’ve seen a few references recently to the fact that the National Assembly has a legal obligation to put sustainability at the heart of its work.  Indeed, it seems to be the only legislature in the world which has such an obligation, and the inference is that it’s therefore something to treasure and take pride in.  I’m not so sure.
I don’t disagree with the idea that putting sustainability at the heart of our government’s work is a good thing.  Nor am I arguing for a moment that the government should change this policy.  On the contrary, it’s something on which I’m delighted to see Wales taking a lead.  But it’s the legal obligation part which concerns me.
Had the government and Assembly freely chosen to make sustainability central to its work, I’d have been entirely supportive.  Indeed, I’d even have been prepared to lobby and campaign for such a decision to be taken.
But the legal obligation is contained in the legislation setting up the Assembly, and as such, it underlines the subordinate nature of our legislature.  Its central guiding principle has not been defined by the Assembly itself, nor by the elected government of Wales, but by the UK Parliament which has placed an obligation on Wales which it has not been prepared to place on itself or on the UK Government.
I’m happy to take a degree of pride in the principle itself; but not in its provenance.  I’m uncomfortable with the idea that any government should have its central guiding principle handed down to it by another government, and with no ability to change it.  I’d be much prouder if the Assembly had adopted the principle for itself – or even been handed the power to change it and then decided not to.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

The unknighted

I’m not a fan of the British Honours system.  The awarding of honours, often related to a long-defunct empire, to ‘ordinary’ people acts as a veneer for an archaic system of power and patronage.
I’m not a fan of Fred Goodwin either.  He was one of the greedy bankers whose poor decision-making caused the collapse of some institutions, made the financial crisis worse, and caused misery for millions.
Add the two together, and I’m hardly likely to shed a tear for him over the removal of his knighthood.  There are, though, some aspects of what happened which leave me with an uneasy feeling.
The first is the pretence that the decision was made by the monarch on the recommendation of some independent committee of senior civil servants who assessed his case and found it to be so severe that he, and he alone, should be unknighted (or perhaps deknighted?).  If there was ever a political decision, this was it.  Politics was of the essence here, with the need to respond to the outrage whipped up by the tabloid media.  The idea that this decision was made in an entirely unbiased way by civil servants is simply not credible.
The second is the arbitrariness of the decision.  There seems to be no sense of careful weighing of the pros and cons, considering precedent, or looking at other, equally – if not more – undeserving cases.  Even rich and greedy individuals are surely entitled to some sort of due process which doesn’t single them out on an arbitrary basis in response to the baying of the mob.
The third is the feeling that he’s been scapegoated; sacrificed on the altar of public opinion to atone for the sins not only of himself but of others too.  It’s as if the Establishment somehow believe that by throwing one of their own to the wolves, the wolves will be sated and will not come after the rest of them.
And the worst aspect of all is that I have a horrible suspicion that  the Establishment will be right to think that, they’ll get away with the sacrifice, and the cosy little system will then carry on as if nothing had happened.

Decentralism and the EU

Yesterday’s post about the EU and structural funding actually goes to the heart of one of the issues which I’ve always found hardest in terms of political philosophy.  It also relates to one of the issues which Plaid Cymru has found difficult for decades, and never really got to grips with, as the recent report of the party’s review identified.
What exactly is decentralised socialism?  It’s not that there aren’t definitions around, of course there are.  It’s more that, in some ways, the two concepts (decentralism and socialism) don’t always mesh together very well.  And the reason that I’ve found it difficult is that I consider myself to be both a socialist and a decentralist, and whilst it’s comparatively easy to support both positions in theory, it can be difficult when it comes to specifics.
As a result, to an extent, those of us who advocate decentralist socialism have got away with it for years without really having to put the flesh on the bones.  Plaid’s review has recommended doing some work on that – I look forward to seeing it, but suspect that it will be easier to recommend than to achieve.
I remember Phil Williams once saying that decentralised socialism is an oxymoron – socialism requires by its nature a strong central authority to ensure redistribution and fairness.  It doesn’t stop at European level either; how are we to achieve global fairness in access to the earth’s resources without strong global institutions?
That need for a strong central redistributive policy is really the reason for supporting the continuation of EU structural funding.  It doesn’t make the EU a socialist organisation; far from it.  But it’s hard to see how a fully decentralist model works to enable fairness without such supranational structures.  And that creates a dichotomy.
The question thrown at myself and others over the years – how can you argue for both devolution and the EU; you’re just swapping one remote central government for an even more remote one – is far from being an unfair one.  The answer depends less on what the institutions are than on what powers we cede to each of them.
The problem is that to get where I want to go, I wouldn’t really start from where we are, but if change isn’t going to be sudden and revolutionary, then it is going to be slow and evolutionary, based on where we are now.
In practice, support for devolution to and within a Wales which enjoys full membership of the EU is something of a compromise, and I recognise that.  But it’s a compromise which represents progress from where we are now.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Winners and losers

Yesterday’s report about Jack Straw’s little faux-pas echoes the report from last Friday about Wales’ contributions to, and receipts from, the EU.  Last week’s headline suggests that Wales pays more into EU structural funds than it gets back and is thus getting a bad deal; Straw’s case yesterday was that the UK is getting a bad deal.
Superficially, Jack Straw has a point.  If the UK did not contribute to the EU’s structural funds, the UK would have more money to spend on regional assistance within the UK.  I can’t argue with that; but it isn’t that simple.
The first complication is that the fact that the UK Government ‘could’ do something doesn’t mean that it ‘would’ do something.  ‘Regional’ assistance policy has been inconsistent at best within the UK over the decades, and I think we can be forgiven for suspecting that the UK Government might simply trouser the cash and use it to fund tax cuts, or wars, or whatever.  There’s absolutely no guarantee that we’d see any of it, which is the basis of much of the argument against what Straw said.
That raises another issue, though.  Is the fact that we might trust one government – the EU – more than another – the UK – really the best way to decide where regional policy should be made?  I don’t think it can be or should be.  It isn’t radically different from the argument put forward by some anti-devolutionists – they trust the UK government more than the Welsh one and therefore want power to remain there.  If we’re consistent, we should surely separate the issue of where policy is made from the substance of that policy.  We need a better reason than distrust of London to want the decisions to be made in Brussels.
Nor is it good enough to decide whether participation in the EU structural funds is worthwhile on the basis of a simple comparison of how much we put in and how much we get back.  On that basis, only the poorest countries would want to contribute – but there’d be nothing left for them to withdraw.  And that’s ultimately the whole point of the EU structural funds – the most well-off put in more and the least well-off get more back.
It’s fundamentally a question of whether we support redistribution or not – looking at it in terms of what we get is a much narrower viewpoint.  We tend to forget sometimes that the UK is one of the wealthiest countries in the UK; it is inevitable that the UK will therefore be a big net contributor. 
The problem for Wales is that we’re a poor region within a wealthy state.  We only get Convergence Funding (like Objective One funding before it) because of some creative work drawing a line across Wales in order to invent a region which didn’t exist before, and which exists for no other purpose than to qualify for the funding.
That shows the complexity of the issue of redistributive policies – drawing the right lines in the right places (and not necessarily following accepted regional or national boundaries) can make a huge difference to the perception of wealth and poverty without making any difference whatsoever to the actual wealth or poverty of the people affected.
There was one other point raised by the Open Europe report which has received little attention.  That is the extent to which the whole process is managed efficiently and effectively, and whether the same amount of funding could deliver more effect on the periphery with less bureaucracy at the centre.  I think that they have a point there; I just don’t agree that dismantling the whole policy is the best way of resolving it.