Thursday, 27 March 2014

Messages, big sticks, and accidents

In an ideal world – for me at least – no single state would be too big or powerful to be pulled back into line when it violates international law (just like banks shouldn’t be too big to fail).  But the world in which we live isn’t ideal, and there are some states which can, as a result, get away with a great deal.
The most obvious is the US, whose willingness – often aided and abetted by the UK – to ignore any international agreements or institutions which stand in its way makes it very much harder to insist that other countries should obey the rules which it rejects.  Another is Russia, and having watched what the US has done in recent decades, it shouldn’t really be any surprise that Putin thinks it appropriate to behave in similar fashion.
This week, a former head of the army called for the deployment of more UK troops than currently planned on the European mainland to “send a message” – one of my least favourite political clichés – to Putin that he “should think twice before he considers any further expeditions and expansion”.  And perhaps we should send a gunboat or two as well, because this sounds like something from the imperial era.
Using the presence of troops to warn another state not to take a certain action is credible only to the extent that that other state believes that those troops will be sent into battle against them.  And given the difficulty that the UK Government has had in identifying even a few minor little sanctions which make it look tough without actually achieving very much, waving a big stick in the air doesn’t look terribly credible to me.  And I have more than a sneaking suspicion that it won’t look very credible to Putin either.
History should teach us that threatening military action is a course of action which can develop a momentum and a ‘logic’ of its own.  “Messages” can get misunderstood all too easily (particularly if the quality of intelligence available to those making the decisions is as poor as the example I referred to yesterday).  The challenge is to de-escalate the tension which is building, not escalate it further in response.  The idea that negotiation isn’t possible unless backed up by big sticks and threats of military action belongs to the past, but still seems rife in military circles.
International security depends on creating and strengthening international institutions and agreements, not on flouting them.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Intelligence isn't always very bright

People tend to think of ‘intelligence-gathering’ as a murky world of spies, secrets, and interception of communications.  But what gets presented to decision-makers as ‘intelligence’, neatly collated into digestible reports, can often include a great deal of gossip, which is as likely to have been gleaned in chance discussions as by devious methods.  It also seems as though some of the final reports blur the distinction between fact, gossip, and fiction – outright dishonesty isn’t the sole progenitor of dodgy dossiers.
The recent revelation on Wikileaks about the cables sent by the US Ambassador to the then Secretary of State is a case in point.  What it amounts to is that the Secretary of State was being fed ‘information’ about what was happening in Wales which would be utterly unrecognisable to many of those involved.
My favourite bit was this:
Plaid Cymru was “vehemently opposed to nuclear energy.”
The American claimed Welsh Government energy advisor Dr Ron Loveland told the embassy that “even raising the issue of nuclear energy with Welsh Deputy First Minister and leader of Plaid Cymru Ieuan Wyn Jones is ‘too sensitive.’”  Mr Jones has since left those posts.  “This negative attitude toward civil nuclear energy is pervasive in Wales, as several contacts echoed to ESTHOff similar concerns about nuclear waste.”
Given the huge difficulties that Plaid has faced over many years precisely because Plaid Cymru, far from being vehemently opposed, is unable to articulate a coherent policy on the issue, and given that a lot of that difficulty stemmed from the pro-Wylfa stance of Ieuan, this part of the feedback to the US is laughable.
On second thoughts, no it’s not laughable, it’s extremely worrying.  If they can get something as simple as this so wrong, how much more wrong information is being passed back up the line?  Worse still, how many US decisions on how to react to events in the world’s trouble spots are being made on the basis of information of such dubious veracity?

Monday, 24 March 2014

Poles and trenches

An issue much troubling many people in this part of the world at the moment is the proposal for an overhead line to connect the Brechfa wind farms to the National Grid.  The final line is yet to be identified, but some broad corridors have been painted on maps as a basis for consultation.
As owners of land (to wit, a house and garden) which sits squarely in the centre of one of these corridors, we were invited to a session organised by Western Power Distribution recently for them to explain the proposals.  Whilst it was helpful to see the lines on a larger scale map, there really wasn’t a lot to be said.
To be honest I’m not particularly exercised either way about the prospect of a few extra telegraph poles with wires strung between them crossing the field in front of the house, and I don’t really understand the demand from some quarters for the entire route to be placed underground.  It would be visually better of course, and perhaps in some sections of the route which are particularly sensitive scenically it’s worth doing that.  But the disruption of digging a deep trench through the area is not to be lightly dismissed either.
Some of the opposition seems to be more about fighting yesterday’s battles rather than about the line itself; a sort of rear-guard action against the wind farms.  Making it impossible to connect them to the grid would certainly undermine the rationale for building them, but it’s a false hope and a misplaced campaign.
Some of the political opposition is less than honest as well; politicians who claim to be in favour of renewable energy and against fuel poverty doing their best to block renewable energy projects and increase the cost of the energy from those which are approved.
And there’s no small dishonesty either in the claims being made by some that putting the cables underground would cost no more than putting them overhead.  I don’t know who’s doing their sums or where they get their figures.  Western Power Distribution claim that the costs are £150,000 per kilometre for an overhead line and £986,000 per kilometre for an underground cable - six times as much.  It’s possible – of course – that they’ve exaggerated the difference a little, but the difference doesn’t go away just by asserting that it doesn’t exist.  And it isn’t just the installation cost which is different; digging up cables for repairs and renewal costs more than patching any overhead line.
Would I prefer that overhead lines never intruded on the view, anywhere?  Yes, naturally.  I want a nice clear view with no poles and wires.  But I also want affordable electricity when I need it, and I want it from renewable sources.  We can’t always have everything we want.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Subsidising coal, oil, and gas

This report is worth a read.  It’s not exactly recent (November 2013) but it’s one of those things that I’ve only just got around to reading.
One of the frequent refrains of the opponents of wind farms is that they wouldn’t be built if it weren’t for the subsidies.  Take away the subsidies and no one would ever build a wind farm again.  Like all good propaganda, it has the advantage of being true, as far as it goes.  It isn’t the whole truth though, and they get away with it only because the subsidies for renewable energy are more obvious than the subsidies for other forms of energy.
What this report highlights is that when the subject is looked at more comprehensively, it becomes clear that for every £1 spent to support renewable energy, £6 is spent on fossil fuel subsidies.  The total subsidy, just to the producers of fossil fuels (i.e. without counting consumer subsidies) amounted to some $523 billion worldwide in 2011.  The subsidies aren’t always obvious, and take many forms, some of which are set out in the report.  But the basic message is clear – we are paying more to subsidise fossil fuel then we are to subsidise renewable energy – it’s the complete reverse of the claims made by those opposing renewable energy schemes.
Now, of course, statistics can be selected and it’s important to compare like with like.  We also need to consider the state of development of different technologies.
So, for instance, the world uses much more fossil fuel than renewable energy; even if the subsidy per kilowatt hour were to be the same, one would therefore expect a higher total to go on fossil fuels than on renewables.  In fact, given that renewables is a newer and still developing technology, the subsidy per kilowatt hour is generally likely to be higher than in the case of fossil fuels.
That is not, however, enough to “prove” the point which the antis make.  Subsidies – any sort of subsidies – for fossil fuel encourage their continued use, and mean that renewable energy is competing with subsidised fossil fuel and that people are still being incentivised to continue using fossil fuel.  Take away those subsidies completely, and the requirement for any subsidy for developing new technologies reduces dramatically.
So why does it happen?  At its simplest, the governments paying subsidies are afraid of exposing us to reality when it comes to the cost of energy.  Energy represents such a large proportion of household and industrial costs that governments believe that paying the true cost would be an enormous price shock.  So they take all sorts of actions to reduce and/or hide the costs.  We still pay in the end of course through taxation.  We just delude ourselves.
It can’t continue indefinitely though.  Sooner or later we need to face up to the real cost of our demand for energy.  Perhaps then we’ll do what we really need to do, which is to reduce our demand rather than play games with the price.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Royal theft

The Silk commission was never going to recommend devolving everything that I would like to see devolved; or to put it another way, it was never going to recommend independence.  That doesn’t stop me being disappointed about some of the omissions, or what might be called “incomplete” recommendations.  One of those surrounds the future of the Crown Estate in Wales.
The recommendation to create a Welsh Crown Commissioner mirrors the situation in Scotland, which is probably why they thought it as far as they could go.  But it’s pretty tame compared to the more radical option of passing the management of the estate to the Welsh government.
Even that however (which is the most radical option suggested by any of the Welsh parties, apparently) looks tame compared to the really radical option which would be to vest the ownership of the assets of the estate in the people of Wales, to be exercised through the Assembly with an absolute right of ownership. 
We should end the fiction that this estate is in any way the property of the monarch managed by the state in exchange for making payments to the monarch.  It would be easy enough to do that; after all the estate only became the property of the monarchy by decree in the first place.  It was Proudhon who said that “property is theft”; in the case of the Crown estate that is literally true.  Theft by Royal dictate is still theft, no matter how many centuries ago it happened.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Back to Silk

Another of the Silk 2 proposals relates to control over the planning of large energy projects.  It’s worth noting here that this isn’t about control over energy, as it’s been billed in a lot of the coverage, it’s merely about planning control.  In fact the report makes it very clear that they’re not talking about energy policy; most aspects of energy policy would remain as reserved powers.  The right to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to proposals put forward by the energy companies is a long way short of the right to determine energy policy.
I welcome the Silk proposal, as far as it goes, of course; but I don’t really understand why the report proposed replacing one arbitrary cut-off point by another equally arbitrary cut-off point.  Why not just devolve the whole area?  The justification given is basically that the evidence they were presented with called for devolution of renewable planning consents and not the rest; but regardless of what the evidence says I’m not convinced that the logic of such an arbitrary split actually stands up to detailed examination.
I can understand why the politicians might want to keep a cut-off point of course.  Apart from anything else, it means that they can let “London” answer for the final decision on Wylfa B.  That allows our AMs to continue to claim that they have a renewable energy policy in Wales whilst supporting a proposal which actually negates that policy.  And of course, it neatly avoids the embarrassing splits in at least one party if the assembly were ever to have to vote on that issue.
One reaction to the proposal on energy which disappointed me was that of Glyn Davies, who said that this change would happen “over my dead body”.  Glyn’s opposition to exploiting Wales’ wind energy resources is by now well-known of course; and he could be expected to oppose any and every proposal to build wind turbines in his constituency.  But his reaction confuses policy with process and structure – no one who was really convinced about devolution would want to base the decision about where something is decided on what the people in that place might decide.  There are plenty of issues on which I disagree with Welsh government policy – but my response to that is to argue for a change in policy, not strip the institution of the power to make that policy.
It’s also an odd approach to democracy; tantamount to saying “I don’t trust the elected representatives of the people of Wales to make the ‘right’ decision so we must leave the final decision in the hands of the elected representatives of the English people”.  It sounds more David Davies than Glyn Davies – perhaps the differences between the two are not as great as they sometimes appear.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Wise men and politicians

A wise man once said that it must be a very strange problem indeed if the solution is “more politicians”.  It sums up the attitude which will colour the response of many to the Silk proposal to increase the number of AMs; it’s a proposal which is unlikely to prove popular except amongst those who would rather like to join their ranks.
It’s not a new proposal; Richard proposed the same some years ago.  And the current number of 60 always looked like a number plucked out of the air.  Based on the number of MPs end the extant constituency boundaries (factors which have never been static anyway) it always looked like another of Ron Davies’s fudges – what would his party allow him to get away with.
There’s a sense in which any other number suggested is equally arbitrary; any nice round number such as 80 or 100 will always appear thus.  And it probably is, ultimately, simply a matter of opinion.  For what it’s worth, I’d support an increase – I’m simply recognising that there’s a large subjective element in that opinion.
One of the reasons given for an increase is the workload of the current AMs; and another is the fact that taking the “payroll” vote out – ministers, whips etc. – leaves an excessively small pool of backbenchers to cover an increasing range of subject areas.  That in turn makes it harder for AMs to become masters of one aspect of policy, obliging them instead to remain jacks of all trades.  I have a lot of sympathy with those arguments; but I’ll admit that I'd have even more if there weren’t AMs holding other jobs outside the Assembly - whether as councillors or running businesses or whatever - and if some of them didn’t appear at times to be merely reading the scripts they’ve been given.
One aspect of increasing the numbers of AMs that leaves me cold however is the instant suggestion that any increase needs to be accompanied by a decrease in the numbers of MPs or councillors or both.  It’s not that there aren’t arguments for a change in the numbers of either or both; it’s more that the relationship between the numbers in different roles is tenuous at best and is not really being based on any objective analysis of the responsibilities or workload.
It seems to be based partly on an unsubstantiated premise that there is a “right” number of politicians in total, and partly on politicians’ fear of telling the electorate that we need more of them.  I can understand the second; but being afraid to say what’s needed simply plays to that antipathy and strengthens it.
We’re not afraid to say if we think we need more teachers or police – why be so defensive and fearful about the requirements of a properly operating democracy?

Friday, 14 March 2014


What is it about politicians and sleepwalking clichés?  Last week, it was David Davis warning us gravely that Wales was “sleepwalking into independence”, in response to Silk 2.  Labour MPs have made similar comments in the past.  Do they really believe that any changes that they don’t like are happening without any of the rest of us noticing?
Mind you, I suppose that one could argue that the apparently never-ending series of reports on commissions recommending change does indeed have a soporific effect; I’ll admit that my eyes start to glaze over when reading some of them, and I’m interested enough to attempt it.
But really – independence when most of the people are asleep and don’t notice what “they” are doing?  If only!  It looks more like hard labour than pleasant sleep to me.
There’s also something rather unpleasant and patronising about the use of the cliché as well.  The unstated meaning is that “we” know better than “you” and if “you” don’t share “our” concerns and objections, it’s because “you” aren’t paying attention.
I don’t know whether Wales will ever become an independent state, however that is defined - although it’s an outcome which I would very much like to see.  I’m certain that if it does happen, it will happen only when the people of Wales will it to be so, and with our collective – if not necessarily unanimous – consent.
I suspect that what Davies and his ilk are really worried about is that nations which start to taste some freedom almost always want more.  And what they really want is to stop us developing that taste.  Not so much a case of us sleepwalking as of him having a nightmare.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

All power to the speculators

I really don’t know where to start with the latest post from Lib Dem AM Peter Black.  One of the world’s leading speculators (described in the blog as ‘a world leading expert on currency’ – I thought it was tongue in cheek, but apparently it’s intended to be taken seriously) has said, in effect, that if the intransigence of the unionist parties in the UK forces an independent Scotland to create a new currency, it will leave Scotland open to attack by speculators who will see the new currency as weak and therefore an opportunity to destabilise a whole country in the interests of making a profit.
Well, of course, any small country with its own currency is open to the same sort of unprincipled attack at any time; it doesn’t need to be a new country.  And the “financial meltdown that swept through the Eurozone” didn’t happen by accident either; much of that was the result of speculation as well.  (Yes, of course the countries concerned had a few problems of their own making, but it only became a wider crisis because of the actions of the speculators).  Any country and any currency are open to such attack at any time, regardless of size; it’s not just a problem for an independent Scotland.
The speculators need to have a fear to play on of course – otherwise they don’t all act in the same direction, and their gambles cancel each other out.  But the story here isn’t really about Scotland at all – it’s about the power that our political leaders have ceded to the casinos which pretend to be markets.
And the political answer that we need isn’t – or shouldn’t be – “you can’t do that because the speculators will ruin you if you do”, which seems to be the conclusion of the blog post.  What we need is co-ordinated action to take speculation and gambling out of the equation; we need to curb their power not bend down before it.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

The select few and the toiling masses

I’ve never had really had a great deal of time for this self-appointed organisation calling itself the “Taxpayers’ Alliance”.  I can’t argue with their right to put forward their views, but their name implies – entirely deliberately – that they somehow represent the views of taxpayers in general.  And the media seem to have fallen for it in a big way, giving them a platform for their views on just about anything, without ever seeming to question for whom they actually speak.
They certainly don’t speak for me, and I’m a taxpayer – according to my payslips anyway.  They’ve never asked this taxpayer what I think, nor any other taxpayer of my acquaintance.  And to hear them talk, one would conclude that the only matter of any interest to taxpayers is paying less tax; the services which those taxes pay for what all appear to be superfluous.
They excelled even themselves last week in their comments in response to Gwynedd Council’s proposal to move towards a living wage. Their Campaign Director said “The best way for politicians to help the low paid, whether they work for a council or in the private sector, is to cut their taxes, not increase taxes on low and middle earners to fund a pay rise for a select few”.
The paper’s lack of challenge to this statement was disappointing to say the least.  In essence, the Alliance seems to be saying that the best way to help those who are so low paid that they pay little tax anyway is to reduce the tax of those on middle and higher incomes rather than increasing the pay of those at the bottom.  Worse, they went as far as to describe the low paid as “a select few” (as opposed, presumably, to the millionaire masses who inhabit their world).
As I say, I can’t oppose anyone’s right to express a view.  I just wish that before reporting it as though it was a general statement on behalf of all taxpayers, our fearless reporters would do a little more to make it clear who this organisation is and for whom they actually speak. 

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Markets and unions

Last week, the UK Energy Minister described the new subsea electricity interconnector running from Scotland to the Wirral as “the perfect symbol of the UK’s single energy market”, accompanied with the now customary warnings to Scotland about how badly they’d lose out if they became independent.
Apparently, independence could mean that English consumers will simply take their electricity from Belgium and France instead.  Well, yes, of course they can get their electricity through other interconnectors, such as the one between the UK and France, the one to the Netherlands, or the ones to the different parts of Ireland.  Interconnectors between grids are rapidly becoming the European norm – and as should be obvious from the fact that the UK mainland already has four of them, three linking to other sovereign states, the existence of a single state is not a prerequisite by any means.
What’s driving the construction of these interconnectors has nothing to do with sovereignty; it has everything to do with increasing resilience of the supply network as more of our electricity comes from variable sources.  It’s an approach which reduces risk.
The trading of electricity across these cables isn’t driven by sovereignty issues either; it’s driven by a combination of market pricing and the obligation to reduce the carbon cost of electricity generation.
What the minister singularly failed to explain is how exactly independence for Scotland changes any of those factors.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Good quango, bad quango

Carwyn Jones’ comments on the WDA last week were nothing if not forthright.  I don’t rcall anyone else being quite as blunt in their criticism of the now-defunct body.
I’m not sure the comments are all entirely convincing however, although the suggestion that the organisation “lost its way” after the LG debacle has a ring of truth to it, as does the other comment about it becoming less effective when the money ran out.
Perhaps he thought all of this at the time but was simply reluctant to say so.
Total abolition, however, seemed to be a bit like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  The earlier success of the organisation led to a certain amount of jealousy from other parts of the UK; so it must have been doing something right for part of the time at least.  I never really understood why the choice of a way forward had to be quite as binary is the way it was presented – either an arm’s-length quango run by the great and the good appointed by the government, or full integration into the civil service.  No effort was made to try and keep the successful elements whilst closing the democratic deficit – a compromise which could have been a better way forward than drowning the organisation in the civil service culture.
(As an aside, it was interesting to read on the weekend that Plaid are looking to create a new body to fill the gap left by the WDA.  I remember being surprised, and not a little disappointed, a few years ago when Plaid’s leader in the Assembly announced the party’s full support for merging the WDA into the civil service.  I knew that I wasn’t alone in that surprise, although it was only several years later that I discovered that the party’s spokesperson on the economy had, apparently, been equally surprised.)
Abolition of quango-land – a system of government where the great and the good are appointed by mysterious processes to run major aspects of our national life – is something I’ve long supported.  So I have a lot of sympathy with Carwyn’s position when he says “I do not agree that setting up a quango for your mates is the best way of dealing with the Welsh economy”.  I do wonder though whether he’s told the other Carwyn Jones about this – you know: the Carwyn Jones who recently set up new quangos to run Wales’ two “city regions”?

Friday, 7 March 2014

Democratic centralism?

One of the proposals from the Silk Report part two was that policing should be devolved to Wales.  It’s a proposal which makes eminent sense, by putting all three emergency services under the same government.  (I’m not sure why the fourth emergency service – the Coast Guard – was not also included, though, particularly given the recent concerns over the downgrading of that service in Wales.)
Devolution of policing, however, is one of those areas where an apparent “decentralisation” will probably turn out to be centralisation in disguise.  Whilst one of the police commissioners has already started the defence of his turf, it seems inevitable to me that passing policing to the Welsh government will eventually result in the merger of the four police forces into one single national force.  It’s one of those curious proposals which a number of Welsh politicians will instinctively oppose when suggested by London, but support if proposed from Cardiff.  What’s a little inconsistency between friends?
As a general rule, I tend to oppose the centralising tendencies of our AMs in Cardiff, but in the case of the police, the lines drawn between forces, and the geographical areas covered, have little to do with localism; and there is no real democratic accountability to be taken away.  I’d like to hope, though, that the Welsh government will think a lot more laterally about policing than simply creating a single national version of what we currently have. 
Why is “policing” seen as necessarily being a single whole rather than a diverse series of different functions which don’t all need to be run in the same way?  A single unified police force doesn’t seem to be the norm elsewhere; it’s only the norm here in the UK because of the way it’s developed over time.
In the US for instance, the Highway Patrol, local sheriff’s office, state police, and FBI are completely separate organisations, enabling a degree of local democratic control where appropriate, and the development of more central and flexible expertise in other fields.  What about using a bit more imagination in Wales by looking at a much more localised approach to some aspects of policing on a similar model?  That would do more to protect and enhance local democracy than treating the existing police areas as though they were set in stone.
The devolution of policing may not happen any time soon, listening to the mood music from London; but it will happen at some point.  Once we accept that, the significant issue is not whether we have the powers, but what we do with them.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Numeracy in the media

Maths, and numeracy more generally, is not everyone’s strongest suit, to say the least.  It’s an area of education which is – quite rightly – causing a great deal of concern in Wales at present; and one which journalists and reporters often cover.  Sometimes though, they don’t display much of an understanding of the issue themselves, leading to alarmist statements based on numbers, the statistical significance (or lack of) of which is rarely explained.
Take the headline earlier this week about a huge increase in immigration (exclusively referring to immigration from outside the UK of course) into Wales.  Merthyr Tydfil, we were told, had the second largest increase in immigrant numbers of any local authority in the UK.  Between 2001 and 2011 the increase was an enormous 227% conjuring up an image of hordes of foreigners flooding into the town and its surroundings. 
Gareth Hughes has already pointed out some of the failings in this use of the figures.  In 2001 there were 807 foreign-born residents in Merthyr Tydfil, by 2011 that that had increased to 2641.  That amounts to only 9% of the total population, and as Gareth points out, gives a completely different picture of what’s happening.
The question is whether this is deliberate scaremongering by those writing the headlines or whether it displays the very problem which they often refer to when dealing with mathematical and numeracy issues in education.  I’m afraid that I tend to the latter interpretation.  Still, at least it justifies their concern about the nation’s grasp of numbers.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Keeping a straight face

Comics, of course, are experts at it.  Jokes delivered dead-pan mean that the observer can never be entirely sure when the punch line is coming.  Some politicians are quite good at it, as well, but in their case, it’s usually to cover their dishonesty.  They must know they’re doing it, surely, and I wonder if they have a good laugh at home later thinking about what they think they’ve got away with.
It’s hard to find anything to laugh at as the tragedy in Ukraine continues to unfold, but the UK Foreign Secretary and former Governor General of Wales, William Hague, managed an absolute classic yesterday.
He gravely announced to the world “We have to recognise the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of Ukraine has been violated and this cannot be the way to conduct international affairs”.  No flicker nor hint of any suggestion that this might be, at the very least, a trifle ironic coming from the government of a country with centuries of experience of violating other people’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Threatening one of the world’s most heavily armed countries with dire consequences for daring to “do as I do rather than as I say” is not only disingenuous, it’s potentially downright dangerous.  If history teaches us anything it is that people uttering bellicose words often find themselves following it up with bellicose action.
The odd thing is that, in essence, he’s right – “this cannot be the way to conduct international affairs”.  If only he was serious…