Friday, 24 March 2017

Recognising the emotional element

Speaking in the National Assembly on Tuesday, the First Minister said of independence: “The case for independence by those who make it in Wales is built not on the economy, to my mind, but on emotion.”  I’m sure that he really believes that to be true (and I’m equally sure that, for at least some independentistas, it actually is true), but to me it looks like the usual approach of politicians – present your opponents’ arguments as something which they are not, and then dismiss that.  It’s a lot easier than engaging with the real arguments.  It is, however, a hopeless over-simplification, which firstly claims, in essence, that there can only be two possible grounds for independence, and then proceeds to dismiss one as being unrealistic and the other as preferring emotion over fact.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, I don’t see things quite in those terms.
I have, in the past, described myself as an accidental independentista, because my own grounds for seeking independence for Wales don’t fit either of the categories outlined by the First Minister; and I suspect that there are many others who also wouldn’t categorise themselves in either box.  Independence has always been, for me, a means to an end rather than the end in itself as which opponents prefer to paint it.  So here are some very briefly summarised alternative thoughts on the issue of independence.
Being small is an advantage in itself.  I don’t simply mean that small countries often do better, in economic terms, than larger ones.  They do, as it happens, but it is by no means easy to draw a straight line between cause and effect, and assuming that Wales must do better by itself is far too simplistic.  What I mean is that for anyone who wants to see a more participative and localised form of democracy, smaller units are more likely to be able to facilitate that than larger ones.  There is much in the work done by people such as Kohl and Schumacher decades ago (which did more to convince me of the merits of independence than any lengthy conference speeches evoking the Welsh heroes of the past!) on the advantages of being a small country.  Putting people back at the heart of economics rather than seeing them as resources to be used is central to my own political outlook, but requires us to work on a smaller, more human, scale.
Identity is a bastion against globalisation.  Adherents of globalised capitalist ideology rail against what they refer to as ‘identity politics’.  From their perspective, turning the population of the world into identikit consumers is an entirely desirable outcome.  For those who see humans as being more than an economic resource at the disposal of others, meaning and identity are an important part of that humanity, and insisting on, and protecting, identity and culture (in the wide sense of the word) is part of resisting the forces of globalised capitalism which see us as purely economic entities.
Why Wales?  Nothing in the above necessarily mandates that the unit should be Wales rather than some other territory bounded by any other type of line on a map.  And I have posted before on the right of any group of people in any defined territory to take control of their own futures if that is what they wish to do.  My argument for treating Wales as a unit boils down, in essence, to the fact that a sufficient number of people see Wales as their nation and Welshness as their identity.  What either of those are, in reality, is a much more flexible concept to deal with (and something I’ve discussed previously), but building a polity around an existing identity has always seemed to me to be preferable to trying to build an identity around a polity. 
The break-up of the UK will be of benefit to all the parties concerned.  Even if they can’t all see it yet.  It is an oft-repeated truth that the UK is a post-imperial power seeking a new role but which has yet to find one with which it is comfortable.  This is the issue at the heart of Brexit; the UK has still not adapted to the loss of empire or understood that it is no longer the great power which once it was.  And to be honest, whilst the UK continues to exist, I do not believe that it ever will.  But the emergence of the new states of Wales, Scotland, and England seems to me to be the likeliest scenario in which all three can break free of their historical baggage; enthusiastically in the case of two of the three albeit with some reluctance in the case of the third.
Economics is about consequences not arguments.  The idea that whether Wales should or should not become and independent nation depends entirely on the economic case – which seems to be the First Minister’s position – is a curious one; and it’s even more curious that so many independentistas have fallen for it over the years.  The economic outcome of government policy within the current structures is essentially unknowable – the only reason that any individual economist has ever been able to make accurate predictions about anything is that there exist a sufficient number of economists to cover almost all the possible options (they’re a bit like monkeys with typewriters);  ‘economic forecasting’ is an oxymoron.  And if that’s true when the structures are known and stable, it’s even truer for any alternative scenario.  Of course we can make guesses and estimates about the future, but the idea that any of us can know, with any degree of certainty, what the economic outcome of independence (or the lack thereof) would be is fanciful to say the least.  All the most accurate economic forecasts and explanations are the retrospective ones; and what we can say with a degree of certainty is that those countries which have become independent have invariably adapted, and most have thrived.  A second thing that we can say is that if economics is the be-all and end-all basis for judging success of governmental structures, then the present approach hasn’t exactly served Wales well.
There’s more to identity than emotion.  People often confuse – sometimes deliberately – patriotism, nationalism, and identity.  The first of those, and to a lesser extent the second, can often be expressed and felt in terms which are highly emotional; but the third is something much more emotionally neutral.  One can be Welsh and proud of it; one can be Welsh and ashamed of it – but neither the shame nor the pride necessarily change the way in which we self-identify.  Trying to pretend that wanting to turn an identity into a polity is an entirely emotional response – which is what the First Minister was implying – is missing the point.  And probably deliberately so.
Independence is just the starting point.  Gaining independence for Wales isn’t just some dry academic constitutional obsession as often claimed by opponents; it’s about creating the conditions under which we can collectively build an alternative future for the people living in this corner of the world.  I have my ideas about what that future might look like – some of those will be clear from the points above and others have been covered on this blog over the years.  Other people will have alternative views.  The point is that it will be up to us to shape that future, not have it determined for us.  What exactly is the problem with that as a concept?
The problem that we face is that so many in Wales are, like the First Minister, so wedded to the axiomatic ‘rightness’ of the world as it is that they are unable to envision a different future.  Instead of thinking about what that future might look like and how we might achieve it, they grasp at false arguments to protect the status quo.  Having said all that, I will partially agree with the First Minister that there is an emotional element to my support for independence, based around confidence and hope.  But on that basis, there’s an emotional element to the First Minister’s position as well – it’s based around fear and timidity.  Faced with that choice, I’ll choose hope and confidence any day.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

The problem with the 'f' word

The manager of Labour’s Scottish branch office has cut a rather forlorn figure recently as she attempts to hoist the flag of federalism as an alternative to independence despite the obvious hostility of her party’s leader at Westminster.  In fairness to her, she’s not the only one attracted by the possibility of a federal structure for the UK; and I’ve long wondered whether many independentistas wouldn’t be prepared to settle for a truly federal UK as well.  Gordon Brown has been using the word since at least 2014, although it seems that his party is taking about as much notice of him as it does of Kezia Dugdale.
There is a serious problem with federalism, though, which I wonder if they’ve really thought through.  And the recent Supreme Court decision on triggering Brexit hasn’t helped.  A truly federal state depends on a clear separation of powers between the federal authorities and the individual member states, and stems from a recognition that the states are voluntary and equal members of the union.  Without a change to the UK’s unwritten constitution, it seems to me that this is simply unachievable; and the change required is so significant, that I can’t see the UK Parliament ever accepting it.
The whole constitutional settlement in the UK is based on the convenient fiction that god invested power in the monarch who in turn graciously shared it with parliament.  The usual phrase for the source of power and sovereignty in the UK is the quaint term “the Crown in Parliament”.  All laws stem from this source of authority, not from the people.  In historical terms, it’s nonsense, of course; the truth is that parliament gradually stripped the monarch of powers over the centuries.  But the fiction is maintained and sustained by a whole lot of meaningless pomp and ceremony, and it has one important consequence, which is that what parliament decides, parliament can subsequently undecide.  And that right is absolute.  
It’s the underlying problem at the heart of the devolution settlement – power devolved is power retained, and in terms of UK law, all the powers held by the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland parliaments are held only to the extent that, and for as long as, the real source of power permits it to be so.  That mindset came through loud and clear during the Supreme Court hearing on triggering Brexit, and it seems to be at the forefront of the Prime Minister’s mind as she approaches the repatriation of powers following Brexit. 
Above all, it marks a key difference between devolution and federalism.  Devolution is, and always has been, about lending some powers to the new parliaments, but it isn’t about giving them those powers.  Even when that split is enshrined in law, it is a law made under the same terms and the UK Parliament has the same right to repeal or revise it.  Devolution can work on this basis, after a fashion, provided that there is a modicum of good will all round.  Federalism can’t; the powers of the member states belong to those member states and to them alone, and can only be surrendered on a voluntary basis.
So, whilst a federal approach for the UK is not without its attractions, it requires, in effect, a change to the UK Constitution to accept that the monarch and the UK Parliament are not the fount of all sovereignty, and that the constituent parts have their own sovereignty, as of right, which cannot be removed by Westminster.  To be blunt, I see no chance of the Conservative Party ever accepting that, and very little chance that the Labour Party will do so either.  In practice, the individual parts of the UK would need to become independent first, and then agree to a new union based on a different principle.  The first part of that sounds like a good idea to me; but I’m really not sure why the second would then look attractive…

Wednesday, 22 March 2017


Boris Johnson was taken to task recently by a Swedish MP for using the word ‘liberation’ in the context of the UK leaving the EU.  I’m not particularly interested in the precise definition of the words here as much as the underlying attitudes which the uses of the word display.  It is clear to me that many Brexiteers really do see it in terms of regaining liberty and sovereignty (even though the government’s own white paper on Brexit makes it clear that sovereignty was never in doubt).  It convinces me that they really don't understand what 'domination' by another country actually means, but if they truly believe that exiting the EU is about regaining lost liberty it’s easy to understand why they are so surprised that most independentistas don’t support Brexit.  And conversely, it’s a perspective which helps to explain why some independentistas are so fond of Brexit.
It’s a question of more than merely academic interest, and is particularly pertinent to the debate in Scotland on a second independence referendum.  It’s a major part of the explanation as to why it isn’t possible to draw a simple line from the 62% pro-EU vote to a majority for independence.  The problem, for the SNP, is that a significant minority of those supporting independence also support leaving the EU, seeing both as a question of ‘freedom’.
At a superficial level, it’s easy to see how the misunderstanding arises.  Why, after all, would people opposed to decisions being taken in one capital outside their country support them being taken in another capital outside their country?  Why distinguish between one ‘union’ and another ‘union’?  Part of the answer, of course, is that the comparison is over-simplistic – the fact that the word ‘union’ is used in both cases is too easily interpreted to mean that they’re the same thing.  Explaining why the two are different is challenging in a political milieu which reduces everything to simple slogans.
From a historical perspective, there is a huge difference between a union brought about by military conquest, where one particular nationality is dominant, and where sovereignty is deemed to reside in the centre on the one hand, and a union which is joined voluntarily on the basis of a mutually agreed set of terms, which recognises that sovereignty lies with the people of the member states, and which is, in its very essence, a multi-language and multi-culture organisation dominated by no one country on the other.  Although it might look like decisions are being taken in faraway capitals in both cases, there are some key differences there as well.  In the case of one union, they are taken by a government which is dominated by one ‘member’ of the union, and in the other, there is of necessity a more collective approach to decision-taking with lengthy negotiations between the partners and a qualified majority system of voting at the end.  In other words, in the one union, we get to do what we are told, whilst in the other we get the same level of input as other members before a collective decision is taken.  We will still be outvoted on occasions, of course.  But to claim that that is somehow less democratic than simply being told what to do is to traduce the meaning of the word democracy.
Even the most committed Brexiteers display through their words that they understand the difference between the two, even if that understanding is not always a conscious one.  If the two were truly equivalent, than an EU which included England, Scotland and Wales as independent individual members would be, in effect, maintaining the “union” between the countries of the UK, simply on a looser, more equal basis.  The fact that they don’t see it that way demonstrates clearly that, at some level, they understand the different nature of the two unions.  And it underlines the essential nationalism of their position; one set of borders, one set of political and governance arrangements, is axiomatically “better” than another.
Some of the strongest arguments that I’ve seen against membership of the EU are based on opposition to the capitalist ideology underlying the EU.  They are arguments with which I have a great deal of sympathy, and they mirror the arguments used by many (including myself) in the 1975 referendum.  But the option of an alternative arrangement with a significant number of other countries outside the EU no longer exists, and the idea that Wales can build ‘socialism in one country’, to borrow a not-entirely-happy slogan from the past, strikes me as wishful thinking in the twenty-first century.  I’m simply not convinced that we can build our future in isolation from the rest of Europe; the world has become too integrated for that.  The problem, in a nutshell, is that however good some of those points are as arguments against membership of the EU, they do not stand up as arguments for the only alternative on the table, which is being part of an isolationist UK (with or without Scotland) in which the ideology so criticised in relation to the EU holds even stronger sway.
I understand why some independentistas want to have no part of either union (or presumably any alternative union) – and why they therefore celebrate rather than oppose Brexit.  I understand why that looks more like ‘proper’ independence than membership of either the EU or the UK.  But how realistic is it to argue that Wales could or should be ‘totally independent’ in the modern globalised world?  Joining any international body (including the UN) necessarily requires a pooling of sovereignty with other countries; it necessarily requires that not all decisions taken will be taken unanimously, and that sometimes we will disagree.  In addition, all the other members of the EU consider themselves ‘proper’ independent states, and would laugh at the idea that they are not.  Why does Welsh independence require us to be ‘more independent’ than them?  It seems to be taking a particularly ‘British’ or ‘Brexiteer’ view of what independence is, rather than looking at it from a Welsh or European perspective.  It’s as though parts of the Welsh national movement are forgetting our long history of taking that more European outlook and are instead being sucked along in the flow of defining things in very British terms.  To me, that’s a curious position for any independentista to take.
The question is how much sovereignty we should share and with whom.  Not all unions are equivalent, and probably none will be perfect.  I’m convinced that being in an organisation which includes a number of other similar sized countries with whom we can work offers a better future to Wales than being in an off-shore island totally dominated by the neighbour to our east.  Yet the latter is, today, the default future awaiting us.  And looking to the longer term, persuading people in Wales that our best future lies in opting out of that and becoming an independent state outside both unions looks to me to be a much harder task than persuading them to opt in to membership of a European union on equal terms with other European nations.  The latter is also more compatible with the general flow of European history in the twenty-first century.  Brexit takes that second option off the table, and independentistas supporting, or even facilitating, Brexit are, in my view, pushing Wales’ entry into the world into the far-distant future as a result.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Free trade and not so free trade

Yet again yesterday, the UK Prime Minister told us that she wants a “good free trade deal” with what’s left of the EU after Brexit.  It isn’t just her, of course; the refrain about free trade has come from most if not all of her ministers repeatedly over recent months.  But when this message comes from the mouths of people who are deliberately placing obstacles in the way of free trade, it is reasonable to ask whether they are simply being disingenuous, or whether they really don’t understand what “free trade” means.
There are two types of obstacle to free trade – tariff barriers and non-tariff barriers.  But much of the discussion revolves only around the first of those; to hear them talking, one might believe that, if only we can come to an agreement on tariffs, the problem is solved.  But in reality, tariff barriers are the easiest part to overcome, and I am entirely willing to believe that, given an adequate timescale (which is almost certainly longer than the 2 years allocated for Brexit talks) and goodwill on all sides, a deal on tariffs will be possible.
It is the non-tariff barriers where the real obstacles will arise.  Free trade, as we know it at the moment within the EU, is based on the idea either of a common set of regulations across the whole free trade area, or as a minimum, a broad acceptance that regulations set by different countries can be regarded as equivalent.  This part of the agreement is the part which actually does most to facilitate the movement of goods and services across the national frontiers without checking or verification.  But the abolition of rules made “by Brussels” (in reality through negotiation between the 28 partners in a long drawn-out process which eventually reaches a position acceptable to all) is central to the aim of the Brexiteers.  They don’t want to follow the same rules as everyone else; they are seeking to gain an advantage by not having to follow those rules. 
Whilst I can see a prospect of a deal on tariffs, I see little prospect of a deal on the non-tariff barriers as long as one side is determined to  have a single set of rules and the other is even more determined to work to a different set of rules to give itself an advantage.  Yet for reasons which escape me, most Brexiteers seem to seriously believe that they will get their way on this.  The likeliest outcome is that a deal of some sort on tariffs will end up being spun as a free trade deal in order to claim a “success”.  But it is unlikely to look that way to those companies and employers who find themselves having to negotiate their way through different sets of regulations after decades of being faced with a single set.

Monday, 20 March 2017

An immigrant from another galaxy?

Somewhere, in a galaxy a long, long way from Earth, there may be a planet on which the pronouncements of Liam Fox make sense to someone other than himself.  Maybe he even came from there and is merely struggling to escape the linguistic and political norms of his home world.  As explanations go, it may sound incredible, but it’s probably less incredible than trying to square his words with the norms of this planet.
Take this gem from his speech in Cardiff: “We want to realise a new relationship with Europe, based on free trade and prosperity."  Obviously, that is a relationship which is different to the one we currently have, which is based on working together to ensure … er … free trade and prosperity.  A relationship which he and others told us we should opt out of.
Or this one: "We know that when we leave the EU, we will not have an EU commissioner, MEPs or a seat at the European Council.  That is a political decision that we have consciously taken following the instruction from the British people at the referendum.  It is a political response to a political decision.  But it would surely be wholly inappropriate if our political decision was to be met with an economic response…”.  Only on another planet could taking a deliberate decision not to be involved in setting the rules governing the operation of a free trade area be seen as a solely political decision, and nothing to do with economics at all.
But perhaps the best bit of all is his claim that if “…barriers to trade and investment were introduced across Europe, that would damage the economic potential of all European citizens and those well beyond Europe too [and] would ultimately be self-defeating ...”.  At least, on this one, I can agree with him, in principle at least.  After all, the idea that introducing barriers to trade and investment might just possibly be economically damaging was, as I recall, fairly central to the arguments of those campaigning against Brexit.  But just remind me a moment – whose decision was it to opt out of membership of the organisation which was trying to guarantee that there would be no such barriers?  To read his words, once could almost believe that it was those 27 wicked European states which had conspired together to expel the UK rather than the UK taking a conscious (albeit misinformed) decision to opt out.  (Although I’m not sure that I’d really blame them if they had considered an expulsion…)
Like so much which comes from the Brexiteers, much of what he says is ultimately a demand for more British exceptionalism; for the right to enjoy more of the privileges of club membership than the members themselves whilst rejecting the club’s rules and declining to pay a membership fee.  And it’s all done without a touch of irony or self-awareness, and an assumption that everyone else will fall into line.  I’m not normally one for repatriating immigrants, but in his case, I am wondering if his home planet would consider taking him back?

Friday, 17 March 2017

Stupid or very clever?

Half a century ago, I remember my Chemistry teacher telling me that she was struggling to work out whether I was as stupid as I appeared to be, or very clever and trying to hide the fact by pretending to be stupid.  I thought that she was being very perceptive in her second interpretation, but that's not a proposition which would necessarily gain unanimous support. What brought the thought back to me yesterday was Theresa May's interview in which she was asked about the second Scottish independence referendum, when she followed her now customary approach of ignoring every question and just restating the same thing over and over again (in this case that "now is not the time").

It is, to follow the theme with which I started, entirely possible that she believes that to be an adequate answer to the question "when, then?" after the first iteration, however it is formulated. Or perhaps she believes that the rest of us will accept it as an entirely adequate response because she's the boss and she's said it.  In either case, I'd have to conclude that she really is as stupid as she appears to be. But what if we give her the benefit of the doubt and postulate that she is actually very clever, just pretending to be stupid? (And I'd really like to be able to do that; assuming that the Prime Minister really is as stupid as she seems to be is not exactly a comfortable position for any country to be in.)

Is there any way in which we might we be able to conclude that there's some underlying cleverness at work? Well, I suppose that if she really believes that the Brexit negotiations are doomed to fail (as she apparently thought was the case before the vote itself) and has turned the whole exercise into a trap into which Johnson, Davis, and Fox have unwittingly rushed and are in the process of hoisting themselves by their own red white and blue petards, that might be quite clever.  She could just be waiting until they're all absolutely tied up in knots before reinventing herself as the white knight riding to the rescue of the UK to save us from ourselves by cancelling the Brexit project.  Or perhaps she has a cunning plan to allow Scotland to stay in the single market after all, thus revealing to the Scots that she's had their best interests at heart all along, but couldn't say anything for fear that those evil Europeans would be able to use her words against her.  That might turn out to look rather clever too.

Sadly, try as I might, I can't believe either of those.  In fact, I simply can't find any scenario which works better than the simplest assumption of all.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Time and war

Responding to an SNP MP yesterday, the UK Prime Minister made it clear that there is a huge difference between membership of the EU and being part of the UK.  And she's right, there is indeed; it's just that the important differences aren't the ones she highlighted. But what she said provided yet another indication (as if we needed one) of British nationalist thinking.

The first difference she highlighted was one of time.  She pointed out that we've only been in the EU for 40 years, but the union between England and Scotland has existed for over 300.  As a simple statement of fact, it's incontrovertible; but what is it about the passage of time which makes the difference?  And how much time, exactly, is enough for something to become 'permanent'?

I doubt anyone will give me a sensible or logical answer to that second question, precisely because setting any particular time limit, no matter how short or long, is self-evidently arbitrary. Well, it is to me; it clearly isn't to May, but doubt that she would have a clue about how much time is 'enough', even if she had stopped to think about that before making her statement.  I suspect that the real underlying answer is simply that it's another version of the usual fallback on British exceptionalism - in essence "because UK"; no more detail required.

She did though give us a clue as to the first point, about why the passage of time makes things more 'permanent'.  And the first part of that was the tried and tested "We have fought together". Whatever the question, this always seems to be the first line of defence of 'Britishness' and of what makes us 'British'; for jingoistic British nationalists like May, the unifying factor always comes back to the perceived glorious military might of the UK.  Wars, apparently are what unite us.  Perhaps, in some twisted form of logic, that's why the UK has started and fought so many of them.  

Precisely because it's one of the unwritten laws of Britishness that fighting wars together is central to our identity, it never occurs to these people that, actually, this attitude to war and the rest of the world, and Britain's place in it, might be part of what drives some of us to want not to be part of the UK any more.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Responding to Scotland

To the great surprise of precisely no-one,  I disagree with the response of Carwyn Jones to the announcement by Scotland's First Minister that she is going to take the first step towards calling a second independence referendum.  But in saying that the nations of the UK are stronger together than apart, he is at least recognising the alternative possibility.  I take the opposite view on the desirability of independence, but despite what some may say, I don't see anything particularly unpatriotic about arguing that perhaps a country can be independent if it wants, but that it should choose not to.  It's a stance which betrays an utter lack of confidence in the ability of the nation he purports to lead, and in the capacity of his own party and government to improve things, but none of that makes it unpatriotic or anti-Welsh.

The response of Plaid Cymru hardly displayed any more confidence.  Brexit might prompt calls for "greater control of our own affairs" is a statement which looks like it's either trying to say independence without using the word or else threatening to maybe perhaps ask for a few crumbs.  It's not the confident approach of a party which knows what can be done and is ready to lead; it's the approach of a party afraid of losing votes by taking a clear and unequivocal stance.

The Tories have shown their usual inability to deal with the substance of the question, as well as their total failure to understand why anyone in politics would want to have an aim, let alone try and achieve it.  And UKIP have resorted to their usual nonsense of claiming that membership of the EU is equivalent to surrendering all power to Brussels.

The decision taken by Nicola Sturgeon is high-risk for the long term cause of independence for Scotland.  The result is by no means as certain as many independentistas seem to be assuming, and there'a s long hard road ahead.  Failure for a second attempt in such a short timescale would set the cause back by decades.  Much of the news coverage is suggesting that yesterday's announcement caught the UK Government on the hop.  Perhaps it did - but it should not have.  There is no excuse for not seeing what was about to happen, even if the precise timing was not so clear - it should have been obvious to the UK Government that the course on which they have set themselves was going to create a situation in which the Scottish Government was left with no credible choice; the fact that they seem not to have realised that speaks volumes.  

But the point that the UK Government doesn't understand it is no reason for the rest of us not to understand it - the SNP Government were left with little choice or room to manoeuvre.  Any sensible timing for the referendum, for all the reasons outlined by Nicola Sturgeon, is severely constrained by the decisions already taken at Westminster.  Many independentistas are naturally enthusiastic for the forthcoming campaign, and optimistic abut the result.  But the scale of the challenge is greater than some seem to think.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Avoiding broken promises

In this story last week about the Chancellor’s little local difficulty over the increase in National Insurance, the Tory MP for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire came up with a real humdinger of a suggestion; or at least it would be if he followed it through to its logical conclusion.  In essence, as he sees it, the problem isn’t that the Chancellor broke a promise, it’s that the Tories were silly enough to make the promise in the first place.  Matters such as taxation policy are best left vague, so that the government can respond to changes in circumstances.

That needs to be followed through, though.  Clearly, without knowing what any putative government is going to do on taxes, it’s difficult to make any spending pledges either.  And it isn’t only financial circumstances that might change, so perhaps all policies should be left unstated in case the government feels it needs to do something different.  It’s an approach which would lead to very short manifestos.  One sentence would be quite enough:

“We will do whatever we think needs to be done at any point in time.”

I’d like to think that it’s an approach which would never catch on, but it actually strikes me as a refreshingly honest statement of the current government’s approach.  I’ll bet that the PM won’t be overjoyed at seeing the cat let out of the bag.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Identifying what's actually broken

Yesterday’s news was full of accusations that the Chancellor broke an election promise by raising the level of National Insurance payments for self-employed people.  I think, though, that people are aiming at the wrong target.
In the Conservative Party, policy is made by the leader; the leader is ultimately responsible for the content of the manifesto; and the leader is responsible for keeping any promises.  So the ‘promise’ which Hammond broke yesterday wasn’t one made by him, nor by his boss, the Prime Minister.  It’s a promise made by a man who is no longer involved in politics and is in no position to either keep or break any promises he made.
Cameron may well have been elected on a manifesto containing the said promise, but we no longer have a Cameron government.  We’ve had a change of government, and under the UK system, it’s a fundamental principle that no government can be bound by its predecessor.  Neither can any Tory leader be bound by anything his or her predecessor may have said.  New leader = new government = new policies; any expectation to the contrary flies in the face of the whole history of the Conservative Party and the UK constitution.
Now some might object that all the Tory MPs were elected on the basis of that same manifesto and they should all be bound by it.  Actually, no they weren’t.  Under the UK constitution, people don’t vote for a party and they don’t vote for a set of policies.  They vote for one person in one constituency, and once elected, that person has the constitutional right to vote for or against any issue, solely as he or she pleases.
What’s my point?  This whole issue shows that something is indeed broken, but it isn’t a throwaway pre-election promise.  What’s broken is a constitution and electoral system which allows a change of personnel to become a change of government and a wholesale change of policy and direction with no elector input at all.  I’m not even sure that ‘broken’ is the right word for this – it was unfit for purpose in the first place.  Either way, in fairness to ‘Spreadsheet Phil’, he isn’t the one who broke it.  And I’m absolutely certain that hounding him for it isn’t the way to fix it either.  But then, who of those attacking him really wants to fix the underlying problem?

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Why not do the job properly?

It’s likely that Labour’s promise to force all those earning over £1 million a year to publish their income tax returns will prove popular, although the likelihood of them being called on to implement this promise any time soon is low, and based on past performance, no promise given by a politician before an election can be relied upon to become fact once the people have voted.  They are, though, appealing to a general feeling that the richest in our society are not paying their fair share, and that they are using clever accountants and advisors to come up with ways of paying less than they should.
The problem, however, is that most of what they do is perfectly legal – there is an oft-stated distinction between legal tax avoidance and illegal tax evasion.  And if people are doing something entirely legal, it leaves me with an uncomfortable feeling that Labour is, in effect, arguing that the media and public should be allowed, nay encouraged, to hound them into doing what’s morally right rather than simply what’s legally right.  It’s almost encouraging an outbreak of mob rule.
That doesn’t mean that I support the idea that anything goes as long as it’s legal.  I don’t agree that people should be allowed to use the fact that something isn’t actually illegal as a defence for doing something which offends the public sense of what’s ‘right’.  But I know, even as I say that, that I’m making some assumptions about what public morality is, and about who has the right to define what is, or is not, acceptable; let alone take enforcement of such morality into their own hands.  And let’s be honest, based on the utter dishonesty of some sections of the press in the UK, do we really want to put that definition into their hands?  Yet that could be the effect of what Labour are proposing.
None of that means that Labour don’t have a point.  But here’s an alternative suggestion: instead of using legislation to force people to undergo a semi-random process of ritual public humiliation for doing things which are entirely legal, why not legislate to make those dubious practices illegal?  Why not simplify and reinforce the UK’s hopelessly over-complex tax code, and employ adequate resources to ensure compliance with the law?  That would seem to me to be a better and more consistent and evenly-applied use of government power than reinstating the medieval practice of “hue and cry”.
But then, perhaps it doesn’t make for such an easy headline.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Defining nationality

Hot on the heels of the PM’s visit to Scotland, there was a piece by Melanie Phillips in yesterday’s Times setting out why Scotland has no valid claim to independence.  The piece itself is behind the paper’s paywall, but here’s a link to an archived copy, for which I thank Wee Ginger Dug, who was one of those commenting on it yesterday.  My first reaction was to check the date; but April 1st is still some way off, so I suppose we have to treat it as a serious statement of her views.  If I’d tried to parody the position of some unionists, I doubt that I’d have done better.
In essence, her argument seems to be that only ‘nations’ have the right to seek independence, and since Scotland (like Wales and Ireland) is not a nation, it has no such right.  ‘Britain’ is the only ‘nation’ in these islands, and no-one has the right to seek to split that nation into two or more parts.
She has a clear notion in her own mind about what constitutes a nation, although what exactly that might be is not actually articulated.  But given the detail of her comments, it is obviously highly dependent on history (Ireland’s nationality is dismissed as tenuous largely because the republic has existed for less than 100 years).  I have a number of problems with such a definition, even leaving aside the fact that her grasp of the history of these islands seems to be a bit, shall we say, shaky.  (And the idea that the peoples inhabiting these islands in Roman times, and even before that, saw themselves as being in any sense of the word a ‘nation’ invites ridicule.)
However, the question of what is or is not a nation is far from a simple one to answer, and I say that as one who has spent decades trying to arrive at a definition which satisfies me.  Of course, history, territory, language, place of birth, and institutions can all be factors in leading people to a perception of nationality, but the key words there are “perception of nationality”.  People believe themselves to be Welsh, English, Scottish, British, or whatever, and it seems to me impossible to escape the conclusion that nationality is ultimately something subjective.  If different people can look at the same range of factors and come to different conclusions about their own nationality, then the idea that the nation is some objectively definable construct becomes impossible to sustain.
Ultimately, a nation exists because people believe that they are part of it; all the external factors mentioned above may strengthen or weaken that perception, but it is the perception that gives existence to the nation.  From that perspective, nationality is also fluid; it can change over time.  As evidence for that view, polls have consistently shown a trend in Wales for people to move away from self-identifying as solely British towards identifying as solely Welsh – with plenty of people in between those extremes who consider themselves to be both, to a greater or lesser degree.
It can also be complex; I’ve known independentistas over the years who have tried to argue that everyone must choose to which nation they belong, because they cannot be both Welsh and British.  My reaction is to ask simply “why not?”  If there are people in Wales who consider themselves to be both Welsh and British (and there are – I know plenty), then who are we to tell them they’re wrong, or not allowed to be what they consider themselves to be?  That is to seek to impose a definition of nationality on people, which seems to me to be counter-productive, even if anyone were actually to believe it to be desirable.  And that wish to impose a definition seems to me to be part of what Phillips was seeking to do in the article.  A unionist telling people that they are British, whether they like it or not, is as futile as an independentista telling people that they are Welsh whether they like it or not.  If the only way a nationality can project itself into the future is by seeking to impose itself on all those who live within its territory, then it’s probably already doomed.
However, my second disagreement with the article is perhaps even more fundamental – who decided that only ‘nations’ can govern themselves?  For those of us who believe that sovereignty is a bottom-up phenomenon rather than a top-down one, any group of people living in a defined area always have the right to determine how they should be governed.  It’s a viewpoint which can lead to conclusions which are uncomfortable to many independentistas, I know, but it’s at least based on a clear principle, which is about the rights of peoples inhabiting an area.  What is the principle that allows anyone to determine which groups of people have a right to self-government and which do not?  What is so sacred about ‘nationality’ as to make it inviolable?  (And that latter question is as much a challenge to independentistas as it is to unionists.)
The question as to whether people should choose to exercise their right to self-government is a separate one to deciding whether the right exists.  There are practical issues which are likely to deter individual groups or communities from seeking to exercise such a right, of course.  And it is always far more likely people will choose to exercise that right if they feel that they have a shared identity or nationality: that is why most movements for self-determination are built on a concept of nationality leading to a common desire to shape their future.  But it isn’t the only conceivable basis, nor can it be.
The article by Phillips seemed to me to be, in a way, another slant on the idea of British exceptionalism, a concept which underpins the established order in the UK.  But in trying to give an artificial and unique historical validity to one particular nationality, and one particular conception of nationality, it also exposes the sheer lack of real substance supporting the whole edifice of British nationalism and exceptionalism in the 21st Century.  For that, we should surely be grateful.  

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Can anyone be wrong all the time?

I haven’t always been entirely kind to the MP for Monmouth in this blog.  Well, actually that’s something of an understatement – I don’t think I’ve ever been kind to him.  There’s something about him which provokes an instinctive antipathy in me, and it hasn’t been helped by things such as his call for dental checks on refugee children and his persistent attempts to raise devolved issues in the UK Parliament and for Big Sister to intervene to sort out the Welsh.
On the latter point, he was at it again last week in relation to the Circuit of Wales project, expressing his concern that the Welsh Government might be about to be taken for a short and very expensive ride.  There’s something very shifty about recording a conversation without telling the other participants, but it does make it harder to contradict what he has said about the content of that conversation, and I can’t help thinking that he might actually have a point this time.  It really isn’t a matter for the House of Commons where he raised it, and his comment that someone who can’t make a success of a company with a turnover in the hundreds of thousands can’t be trusted to run a company with a turnover in the millions shows a lack of grasp of the nature of entrepreneurialism, where multiple failures are the norm.
But his core point, that this project is something of a pipe-dream looks to me to be quite possibly right.  One of the things that has become clear over the years is that ‘business plans’ written to be submitted to government agencies and bodies which control the allocation of grants and guarantees often owe more to creative writing skills than to accountancy.  They are written to tick the boxes for the funders or guarantors rather than as an accurate reflection of what will actually happen and the more unique and – dare I use that dreaded word – ‘innovative’ the project, the harder it is to make accurate predictions.
I can understand the desperation of communities where jobs are short and deprivation rife, but this whole project looks to me like clutching at a straw because it’s there rather than because there’s a solid case underlying it.  I can understand the drivers which might lead the Welsh Government to back it with huge sums of public money; they need to be seen to be doing something to help the local communities, and this is, after all, ‘something’.
Sometimes though, tough as it might seem, governments have to have the courage to say when a project is the wrong one at which to throw large sums of government money – money which will not then be available for other and better projects which may come along later. 
Even someone who arouses as much antipathy in me as David Davies probably can’t be wrong all the time.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Closet independentista?

The UK Prime Minister took herself off to the Scottish Tory conference at the end of last week to deliver her profoundest thoughts on the future of Scotland to the assembled handful, in an event held in a hall with inverse Tardis-like properties.  (Those booking it must surely have assumed that it would be smaller on the inside than it appeared on the outside.)  The main point in her speech seems to have been an accusation that the SNP have tunnel vision because they are continuing to argue for independence rather than concentrating on managing the decline in Scottish services which her government has mandated through its approach to setting the Scottish budget. 
In fairness to her (and to many other UK politicians), I can understand why the idea that a party sets out a goal and then tries to achieve it must appear a very strange one.  Having an aim and trying to realise it is not a concept which much troubles the UK parties, for whom the only objective is to get elected, and for whom policy is what you say to achieve that aim, not what you actually intend to do after the election.  For the SNP to try and do what they have always said they wanted to do is clearly not playing by the accepted rules, and thus inherently unfair.
She repeated the usual guff about the UK being the bestest and strongest union ever known to mankind, which has created a land of milk and honey across the whole of Scotland, whose people would be begging from each other in the streets were it not for the munificence of the UK Government.  Or something like that.  (There is just the teensiest possibility that she may have over-egged it a bit by telling the Scots that one of the great ‘benefits’ of the union is that they get to host the UK’s nuclear weapons systems.)
What she understands, but those SNP types seem completely unable to comprehend, is that the UK is a part of the natural order of things.  It was created by divine intervention; a beneficent intervention which also gave us the Windsors to rule over us, as well as the right to tell the rest of the world what to do.  That simple fact is what explains not only why the UK is so much stronger by being a single united whole but also why the UK is so much weaker as part of a greater whole.  Anyone who thinks that there is the slightest possibility of contradiction in that is obviously mistaken.  It isn’t about being bigger or smaller, it’s about being the UK; no further argument is required.
To cap it all, just for good measure, she added that the Scots might be labouring under the delusion that matters such as education are devolved, but she’s still Prime Minister of the UK, and education in Scotland is as much a matter for her as is education in England.  

During the EU referendum, she managed to give the impression that she was a supporter of the Remain camp, albeit a very quiet one.  The enthusiasm with which she’s embraced doing that which she predicted would be a disaster suggests to me that she was actually a closet Brexiteer.  I wonder if she’s trying the same trick in relation to Scotland – her speech certainly makes a great deal more sense if we assume that she secretly wants to see Scotland independent.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Irrelevance in ermine

Despite all the ferocious warnings that they were given not to get above their stations (and there’s a curious thing for commoners to tell aristocrats, isn’t it?), their lordships decided to go ahead anyway and pass what most of us would see as an eminently reasonable amendment to the Brexit Bill.  But treating foreigners as people rather than as bargaining chips in a negotiation isn’t the style of the UK Government, so they will be seeking to reverse it, as is their right - in constitutional terms, even if not in moral ones.
I found the remarks of the Tory MP for Monmouth in the report on the stern warning that he gave their lordships interesting in what it told us about his mindset (and presumably the mindset of many of his colleagues).  He told us, in effect, that he’d never previously given a moment’s thought to whether the House of Lords performs any useful function or whether it needs to exist at all. 
At one level, I’m not really surprised; the acceptance of ‘what is’ as the natural order of things is a central belief to those whom he describes as ‘true blue conservatives’.  But at another level, the lack of critical thinking and analysis of the way in which the UK is governed, and the blind adherence to the way we’ve always done it, goes to the heart of the problem in the way we are governed.  Are the honourable member for Monmouth and his colleagues about to stumble, by accident, on an important truth?  I suspect not; there will be a stamping of feet and some over-the-top rhetoric, and then things will return to normal, with their lordships told to stop trying to behave as though they’re a meaningful part of the legislative process.  And they'll dutifully obey, won't they?  They know their place.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Missing the detail

One of the problems with opinion polls is that, although they usually provide a snapshot view of the way the public is thinking at a point in time, they frequently don’t have enough data to explain the results.  Yesterday’s BBC poll was a case in point.  Some of the findings are very interesting, but not immediately explicable from the information given.
What do we make of the finding, for instance, that significantly more people (44%) believe that Brexit will have a negative economic impact on Wales than believe (33%) that it will have a positive impact?  Despite that finding, the indications are that the majority still wants the government to press ahead with Brexit.  There are those who argue that voting habits are always driven by people’s view of their own best economic interests, but at first sight this finding seems to run counter to that interpretation.  One obvious possible interpretation is that some people believe that it’s a price worth paying for the other perceived advantages which flow from Brexit.  Alternatively, in the case of those opposing immigration, it might be that they believe that stopping the perceived dis-benefits to them of what they see as uncontrolled immigration may make up for the losses due directly to Brexit.
And, on the subject of immigration itself, how about the finding that 74% agree that only those EU citizens with the “right” skills or qualifications should be allowed entry?  My first thought was to wonder what they think the “right” qualifications are for fruit pickers, but then I suppose fruit-picking isn’t a core industry in Wales.  More generally, how do we fill those jobs which EU immigrants are currently filling where the “right” skills and qualifications are, effectively, no skills or qualifications?  Or does having no qualifications in such circumstances count as having the “right” ones for the specific jobs?  If it does, it makes the response meaningless.
I wonder, though, if part of the problem is that people have a perception about immigration which is significantly at odds with reality.  It would help to explain why some of the areas showing the greatest hostility to immigration are areas which have the lowest incidence of it.  It certainly appears that there are people who, based on what they’ve read and heard, are living in fear of the hordes of immigrants who they think are coming to steal their jobs, homes, school places, and hospital beds.  Yes, the whole idea is at odds with their own direct experience, and they usually don’t mean that they want to get rid of the immigrant family next door, or the doctor who looks after their children, or that nice young man in their son’s class at school, or the people who re-opened the corner shop after it closed, or…  It’s just the ‘other’ ones who are the problem.
The response of people when individual cases are highlighted is often warming; but the reaction to the identified specific seems to be at odds with the reaction to the unidentified general.  It would be interesting to explore this apparent dichotomy further; it might just be that a significant part of the antipathy towards immigrants owes more to a fear of the unknown than any antipathy to the real people involved.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Foot in mouth disease

The British Labour Party seems to have scored two spectacular own goals in Scotland over the weekend, by despatching both its leader and the Mayor of London up to Perth to put the SNP in its place to address the Scottish branch conference.  As is often the case when British (or English – they’re much the same in this context) nationalists try to put down Scottish (or Welsh) independentistas, their remarks tell us more about them and their attitudes than about the subject matter of their words.
Corbyn merely managed to undermine completely his branch manager’s pitch for a rethink over the nature of the union between Scotland and England, and in the process probably destroy the only slim chance his party had of salvaging something in Scotland.  But that as almost as nothing compared to Khan’s success in equating Scottish nationalism with racism and hate, a comparison which all his subsequent ‘clarifications’ did nothing but confirm.  Between them, it was quite an achievement.
It isn’t only Saddiq Khan who sees Scottish nationalism as being about hatred and division, of course.  The idea that the whole idea is based first and foremost of a hatred of England and all things English is the standard assumption of most metropolitan commentators (and, when they can be bothered to think about Wales at all, they make the same lazy assumption).  I don’t think that it’s true (but then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?), and I don’t see any good evidential basis for it.  That’s not to deny that there are some people who do display such an irrational hatred; of course there are – just as there are some people in England who display a similar irrational hatred of the Scots and Welsh.  But extrapolating from a few examples to the axiomatic assertion that the SNP’s whole rationale is based on such hatred is equally irrational.
Some of the people making this assumption are far from stupid – so why do they do it?  Clearly one reason is the very cynical one that painting people as racists and haters is a lot easier than engaging in adult debate about options and alternative futures.  And there’s quite a lot of evidence that playing to prejudices works as a political strategy, more’s the pity.  But I think that there are other factors as well, and I’ll touch on two.
The first is that very English sense of superiority and exceptionalism.  When you “know”, with no scintilla of doubt, that the “British” way of doing things is the very best and most successful in the whole wide world, it can be very difficult to understand why anyone would ever want to do anything different.  Clearly, anyone who does cannot be motivated by logic or reason, and must therefore be driven by emotion.  And the only emotion that can cause anyone to reject the ultimate perfection of Britishness must be hatred.  From a certain perspective, that is blindingly obvious.
The second is that their own nationalism (you know, the one that they always deny possessing, even when Corbyn is making his appeals to British patriotism) is inherently driven by a sense of superiority and difference.  As often as not, they subconsciously define themselves by what they are not, rather than by what they are.  And if their own variety of nationalism is driven by such factors, it is entirely reasonable for them to assume that any nationalism in Scotland is driven by the same factors.
And once they “know” that Scottish nationalism is driven by hatred of the English and an innate feeling of Scottish superiority, it’s easy to explain why they talk as they do.  The result, of course, is that the scope for debate with people who already know that anything you say is so motivated is so limited as to be worthless.  The only thing left to do is to ignore them and get on with the task of building the case from within.  There is, though, one other thing that independentistas could usefully do – and that’s stop referring to these people as possible allies in some sort of ‘progressive alliance’.  All that does is hinder the exposure of their real beliefs.