Thursday 30 September 2010

Anyone for golf?

Clearly, the fact that the Ryder Cup is being held in Wales will attract publicity for Wales; and it's reasonable to hope that it will increase Wales' profile and improve our image internationally. It will also give people in Wales a chance to see world class sportspeople in action. Those are worthy aims in themselves.

I'm not convinced that it will bring the claimed economic benefits, though. And the efforts of government spokespeople to spin this in terms of £s and jobs look to me as though figures are more or less being plucked out of the air. That there will be some benefit to local businesses particularly in catering and accommodation seems reasonably certain; but whether it repays the investment looks rather less so.

But does it matter? Should we really look at events like this solely in terms of pounds and pennies? If we always took such a narrow view, then Wales would never bid for any major events, and we would be confining ourselves to the backwaters.

A confident, outward-looking Wales has a role to play in the world, and that includes hosting international events from time to time. We might need to pick and choose which we can afford, and which we think will do most for us and the people of Wales, but we shouldn't just decline to consider any such events on the basis of a simple profit and loss exercise. Neither should we seek to justify them on the basis of figures which are, at best, of dubious provenance.

My concern isn't about whether such events achieve the results which the government promise in advance (and which are ultimately pretty unprovable anyway), it's about whether we choose the right events, and whether we are able to afford the ones we select. Oh - and where the money comes from. I'm not sure that is is right or sensible to spend economic development money on such events.

Tuesday 28 September 2010

Using the wrong arguments

Last week, the Druid hosted a keen debate about Wylfa B after posting on the government’s attitude to a consumer-funded levy. It looks increasingly as though the framework being set by the UK Government for a new generation of nuclear power stations makes the proposed Wylfa B an unlikely prospect.

If the power station never gets built as a result, I’d see that as good news; but it seems to me to be the wrong reason for stopping the development – just as most of those arguing in favour seem to me to be using the wrong arguments. I suppose there’s a certain irony there, though. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with subsidising nuclear power if we think it’s the right energy policy - after all, we subsidise renewables on that basis.

But I've never understood why so many of those who support the building of new nuclear power stations do so primarily on the basis of the jobs it would create. I think I could make a much stronger case on other grounds.

It's not that it wouldn't bring good, well-paid jobs; nor that we don't need such jobs. It's more that those jobs could equally be provided on the basis of a policy of using renewable energy, so the need for jobs is not a valid argument for favouring one energy policy over another. Coal mining also provides jobs; but it's not a reason to build new coal-fired power stations.

There are a number of arguments against nuclear energy. For me the single most important one has long been that we simply don't have a worked out solution to the issue of nuclear waste. (And, associated with that, there is the little matter of economics. If we don't know what we're going to do with the waste, we don't know what it's going to cost either – and that means that we really don't know the cost of nuclear energy. I am utterly convinced that, whatever the politicians say, the taxpayer will end up picking up the cost for decommissioning and waste management.)

But there are arguments in favour as well, and if I was going to make a case for supporting a new nuclear station, I'd make it on the basis of energy security and on environmental grounds, not jobs. I still don't personally believe the case to be strong enough, mind; but I'm conscious that I'd then have to argue against the likes of James Loveluck and Sir John Houghton, both of whom have come to the conclusion that nuclear energy is something we have to embrace. And I've certainly heard Sir John make a powerful case.

What would it take to convince me?

I have to admit that I'd start to waver a little if the UK Government were to announce that it would decommission all the UK's nuclear weapons and use the plutonium therein as a nuclear fuel. That would be a real case of 'swords into plough shares'.

It still wouldn't be enough though. What I would really need is to be satisfied about the management and disposal of waste; and we're nowhere near achieving that. Without that, the abiding problem of nuclear energy is that we buy plentiful secure electricity today at the cost of leaving a dangerous and costly legacy to the future. And that's why I believe that it's still right to argue against nuclear energy.

Monday 27 September 2010

He wins - so who loses?

The Daily Mail reports on the man who earned the highest salary in the city last year. He managed to take home a cool £60 million from the profits of his hedge fund management company. According to the story, the profits come from successful betting on the futures markets.

At first reading, this is simply a story of a clever and successful man, who's turned his mathematical skills to making money, lots of it, by trading. The question that I wanted an answer to though seems not to have even been asked by the newspaper.

If he and his accomplices are making these vast amounts of money, who's losing them? Because 'hedging' is not a victimless process. As with any other type of betting, for every £ won by one person, someone else has to have lost a £; the money doesn’t just appear out of thin air.

I have a feeling that the answer to my question is actually “the rest of us”.

Friday 24 September 2010

Hidden decisions

The Lib Dems are seeking to hide their acquiescence in the Trident replacement programme behind a suggestion that the 'final decision', which is currently due in late 2014 or early 2015, may be delayed until after the next General Election in May 2015.

It's a nice try, but it'e believable only to those who want to believe it. Delaying a decision isn't the same as delaying the programme; work on the replacement programme is following a schedule agreed by the previous government, and includes design and pre-contract activity. The 'in principle' decision to replace has already been taken, and the government is spending our money on progressing the scheme on the basis of that decision.

The fact that there's no major 'decision point' in the programme between now and 2015 doesn't mean that no work - or expenditure - is taking place. And neither does it mean that a decision to halt the programme could not be taken now.

The absence of any decision to halt the programme is effectively a decision to continue with it. In this case, not saying 'no' is the same as saying 'yes'. The Lib Dems in government, like their Conservative colleagues - and their Labour predecessors - are party to the continuation of the programme. They should stop trying to pretend otherwise.

Thursday 23 September 2010

Lib Dems and Marxism

I was surprised to see that Vince Cable is strenuously trying to deny that he is a Marxist after his speech to his party's conference. I've long believed that Marxism is integral to the Lib Dems' ability to say different things to different audiences in different areas - they've just got their Marxes confused.

It was, after all, Groucho, not Karl, who declared that "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them, I've got some other ones".

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Back to the future

Conservative-leaning think tank, the Policy Exchange, have published some proposals for railways in the UK. They claim to be looking to the future - what I read was a series of unfortunate echoes of the past, most particularly the Beeching era.

The problem with their proposals is that they’re starting from what is, for me, completely the wrong place. Their basic premise seems to be that the railways are a drain on the public purse which needs to be stemmed, whereas I start from the premise that a switch to rail travel is something to be encouraged on environmental grounds.

Do we want to reduce capacity so as to service only commercially-viable demand, or do we want to add to capacity and stimulate demand? The first approach leads to a switch from rail to road, the second encourages a switch in the opposite direction.

Because they are starting from economics, rather than transport or environmental policy, some of their recommendations look positively perverse to me. For instance, heavier and faster trains cause more wear on the track, so if we use shorter and slower trains, track maintenance costs can be reduced. Another is to allow train companies to run fewer services, or stop at fewer stations if by so doing they can reduce their costs by only carrying the most profitable passengers.

Services from Aberystwyth are amongst those specifically mentioned by them as being ones where "niche operators may be willing to fill the gap..."; but if no-one wants to run such services without subsidy, then 'local people' should be free to decide what happens. "They can have a rail service, with the subsidy paid for locally, or they can choose to keep their cash and the line closes". It is a recipe for undoing the work of the last 20 years to rebuild rail services and encourage people out of their cars – and for removing rail services from much of Wales.

I wouldn’t argue that we should be running empty, or near empty, trains ‘just because’; and the report does make some sensible suggestions about flexibility in franchising and the disincentives that can exist within the franchising approach. But we do need to think about what we want the railway system to achieve – and profitability is not at the top of my list.

The report makes what I consider to be a wholly invalid comparison between the railways and low-cost air services, claiming that those air services "separate the essentials from the nice to have", and yet "still offer a product that people want to use". And that really sums up the huge difference between the approach that they adopt and the approach I think we should be adopting.

The railway system shouldn’t be seen as simply a commercial exercise in responding in the cheapest possible way to a demand for rail travel; it should be seen as something that we positively encourage people to use as an alternative to other forms of travel. And that means that we deliberately need to make it more attractive than the alternatives, not reduce it to the same level.

Attempting to run the railways as an entirely commercial operation was what led to the loss of so much of our rail infrastructure in the past. It’s a step backwards which we should reject.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Misleading arguments

I understand why some people feel that wind farms are unattractive to look at, and can spoil the view. Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder; but some beholders consider them an ugly intrusion. I'm also aware of the problems which local communities can face during construction - we saw that for ourselves during the recent construction of a wind farm just up the road near Alltwalis. And I know that there are some unresolved issues surrounding noise in some cases which can cause major problems for some residents.

But most of the other reasons used by those campaigning against wind farms - particularly when they attempt to stray into technical areas - seem to be exaggerated, wilfully misinterpreted, or else just plain wrong. It's a pity, because it can mean that genuine and valid concerns about specific sites can end up getting lost in an ill-informed debate about the principle.

Today's letter in the Western Mail (Danish lesson) is a case in point. To read it, one might conclude that both the Danish Government and its power company have decided that building onshore wind farms was a huge mistake which they have now come to regret.

However, as this report shows, that is significantly at variance with the truth. But why let mere facts get in the way of a good piece of rhetoric?

Monday 20 September 2010

Sharing out the rewards

I’m not sure that I’m really terribly worried about the fact that there are thousands of people in the public sector paid more than the Prime Minister. Superficially it may seem odd that there should be any, but it’s nothing new; senior civil servants have long been paid more than their political bosses.

It’s very often the people working in our public services, rather than the politicians, who have the real expertise. Although there are politicians who have detailed knowledge and expertise in a range of fields, the only formal ‘qualification’ that they need is the ability to persuade people to vote for them. Or perhaps more accurately, get themselves selected where people are going to vote for their party anyway.

I don’t see anything intrinsically wrong with paying experts more than politicians; so the real question for me isn’t how many people are being paid more than the PM, it’s whether they have the relevant expertise and skill to justify their rewards.

The element of the story which interested me more was the comments by Francis Maude. He said that it should not be necessary to offer "stupendous amounts" of money in the public sector, and went on to add:

"You can square the circle of having really good people not on telephone number salaries and massive built-in bonuses. That public service ethos is very important. People will come and work in a public sector for salaries that aren't competitive in a private sector sense."

Up to a point, I agree with him. People who are committed to the ethos of the organisations for which they work, or the services which they are providing, will not necessarily be forever seeking the highest possible level of personal rewards. But what does that say about the private sector?

Are the high rewards of some therefore correspondingly justified by their lack of commitment to what they are doing? Is it right that the highest rewards go to those who place their own personal acquisitiveness above the wider needs of society?

Maude seems to be saying that the most selfless amongst the most able should reap the lowest rewards, whilst the highest rewards go to the most selfish, even if, in pursuit of their own interests, their actions are directly detrimental to the interests of the majority.

At its heart, it's a statement of an ideological position about the nature of human society, where resources are distributed on the basis of competition, but it doesn’t fit my own view of what attributes ought to attract reward. And it is certainly not an approach based on any evaluation of the contribution people make.

Sunday 19 September 2010

To infinity and beyond

It looks like Nick Clegg got a bit carried away with his own rhetoric during his launch of the campaign for a 'yes' to the AV system yesterday. Considering that it's a system that the Lib Dems have never argued for, I suppose he was always in for a tough time convincing his own troops, but this quote is a classic.

"I know AV may not be the favourite voting system of everyone here, but ... we all agree that AV is infinitely fairer than what we have at the moment."

How much fairer than 'infinitely fairer' does he think STV can be, I wonder?

Friday 17 September 2010

Assessing Value

The report that David Cameron remains committed to replacing Trident was hardly a surprise. The conversion of the Lib Dems during the last election campaign to support for nuclear weapons was rather more of a surprise; probably especially so to many of their members.

What interested me in this report, though, was that the MoD will try and "ensure that the renewal of the deterrent provides value for money". It's a worthy aim, of course, and something which should apply to all government expenditure. Calculating the monetary cost is one side of the equation, and is probably the easy part, although based on most MoD procurement exercises, the final cost will no doubt be many times the initial estimates. But how will they assess 'value'?

If the 'deterrent' ever has to be used, then its 'value' could presumably be assessed in terms of the number of people killed and amount of damage caused, but the whole point of a 'deterrent' is that it is never actually used.

However, it isn't enough to argue that because it has never been used, that must prove it deterred people who might otherwise have attacked the UK. It could equally be the case that they wouldn't have attacked anyway, in which case the actual value delivered is a big fat zero.

So, where is the evidence that the UK's possession of a nuclear weapons capability over the past 60 years has ever actually deterred an attack on the UK? I understand the argument that the nuclear arsenals of the US and USSR were so massive that any nuclear attack by one on the other would result in the utter destruction of both (and an extreme case of 'collateral damage' for the rest of us). It meant that only a lunatic would ever launch such an attack, thereby making it less likely (although I have to confess to occasional concerns about the sanity of certain occupants of both the White House and the Kremlin during the cold war).

But 'mutually assured destruction' never really applied to the UK's stockpile; it was never big enough for any other hostile nuclear power (with the possible exception of France, with whom the UK hasn't always been the best of friends!) to feel certain that they couldn't 'win' a nuclear exchange. So, what have Polaris and Trident actually deterred? If, as I suspect, the answer to that is nothing at all, then the 'value' of possessing them is also zero. And the 'value' of the proposed replacement is likely to be of the same order.

Thursday 16 September 2010

Mixed Messages?

Last week, Dylan Jones Evans posted on an internal WAG document which seemed to be indicating that grants would, after all, still be available for inward investment projects, which is not quite entirely in accord with the impression given when the ERP was launched. Having seen the document to which he was referring (thanks to Dylan for sharing that), it seems to me that it backs up the interpretation which he placed upon it. That interpretation is given further credence by the article by David Rosser in yesterday’s Western Mail.

Leaving aside the issues of politics, spin, and mixed messages (which are unfortunate to say the least), the real question surely has to be whether what is proposed is right or not. When I gave a broad welcome to the ERP, I made the point that, whilst in principle the withdrawal of grants for businesses seemed to be the right thing, we do need to be careful about whether Wales will lose its edge as a result, particularly in the case of those businesses which have a choice of location. That’s exactly the point which the CBI make, of course.

It’s an issue on which I’m something of an agnostic. On the one hand, using grants to attract jobs carries the danger of different parts of the UK (and the wider world) getting into a bidding war to see who can give most public money to a private business. On the other, we want the jobs, and not being prepared to engage in the realities of the market place might be short-sighted.

And it still leaves the question of whether inward investment will therefore get a better deal than indigenous investment. Or even worse, whether local companies will threaten to locate any expansion plans elsewhere so that they too can be treated as ‘mobile’.

The basic principles underlying the ERP still seem sound to me, but ultimately it will be judged by results.

Tuesday 14 September 2010

Managing expectations

Plaid Cymru are extremely fortunate in having the redoubtable Eurfyl ap Gwilym to do the sums for us. Not for the first time, his analysis of the numbers has come up with an answer which differs from the 'official' one.

Betsan suggests that the Government have deliberately taken a gloomier view, on the basis that it will be easier to put money back into the budget than to take more out. That would certainly be one way of reconciling the two sets of numbers.

I have long suspected that the noises coming from many local authorities in Wales are based on a similar principle - play up the scale of the necessary cuts now and then give people a pleasant surprise, rather than play them down and deliver an unpleasant one. At its simplest, it's a way of managing expectations so that they can eventually be exceeded – and it's something with which an awful lot of managers and salespeople in the commercial world will be very familiar.

It is not, though, a very transparent way of considering the future budget, or of having a rational discussion on the scale of cuts actually needed.

Monday 13 September 2010

Conference reflections

We had a well-attended and up-beat few days in Aberystwyth. It was good to have some genuine debate this year as well. It's something that I've been arguing for over the past few years, since I felt that Conference was getting a little too bland. It was hard to do much more than urge others in the past though; this year, I had an opportunity to do what I've been urging others to do. And I took it.

Martin Shipton suggests that there is something novel about delegates having the freedom to debate controversial motions. Actually, the freedom has always been there at Plaid conferences – we've just been through a somewhat exceptional period where no-one has put any forward.

Heledd Fychan seems to think I was being mischievous, and breaking the rules I set for others. Not so – I've never tried to suppress debate or disagreement in Conference; that is exactly the place where we should have it. It's the anonymous briefings, the fake discussion documents, and the public undermining of the party's position between conferences that I've always opposed.

Plus, I have to say, that with one possible exception, I think I can honestly say that every intervention that I made on policy issues during the conference was either actually in support of existing – often long-held – policy against proposals from others to change it or water it down, or else making the case for more consistency of approach.

So I argued for retention of the party's existing policy on tuition fees rather than for accepting the Assembly Group proposal to consider alternatives, and I argued that we couldn't say in our manifesto that we are calling for an end to subsidies to air transport and then support giving a subsidy to an air service.

One of the debates which has received attention was that on nuclear energy. Although actually the debate wasn't really about nuclear energy at all – all the contested amendment said was that if Wylfa B is given the go-ahead, then we should ensure that we derive maximum economic benefit from the decision. It sounds obvious, so why did I oppose it?

The problem with it, as I see it, was this. Firstly, there's a question of timing. Passing such a motion after a decision on Wylfa B had been taken would be stating the obvious – a complete no-brainer. But passing it whilst a decision is still pending looks like accepting that decision rather than opposing it.

Secondly, it was clear to me that others would interpret the decision as being something other than it is – and this rather misleading report from Golwg serves only to confirm that point. It didn't help that several of those speaking in favour of the change clearly saw it as an opportunity to support the building of Wylfa B, and they did so.

There is a danger that we give the impression that we're completely opposed to building any new nuclear power stations only in those locations where no-one wants to build one anyway. But for the record, the policy as passed means that we are still against Wylfa B – or any other new station – but if we lose that argument, then we will seek maximum local economic benefit. We've had the debate, and we've come to a democratic decision. I can and will support that policy. And continue to put the case against nuclear energy.

Update: I note that the Golwg report to which I linked has completely changed from the original earlier report, which stated pretty categorically that Plaid had decided to support Wylfa B. The description of the report as 'rather misleading' above refers to the original, not the amended version.

Thursday 9 September 2010

Following the trail

On Monday, the Western Mail caught up with the story about an oil tycoon who is also one of the former bosses of a mercenary army giving £5,000 to the Tories in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, on top of the £50,000 he had given to Conservative Central Office.

As quoted, I found the reaction of the local Tories both interesting and inadequate on three counts, and it perhaps deserved the asking of a few further questions.

Firstly, the response by the MP was to say that he didn't know the donor. Well, no, and I agree that he couldn't be expected to know everyone who contributes a few bob to his funds - although £5,000 is hardly a run-of-the-mill donation. The issue, however, isn't whether he knows the donor; it's how the money was made - an issue which both he and his party have simply ducked.

Secondly, they denied that the money was going on election campaigning, saying that "It will be used to meet the day-to-day running costs of the association". So that makes it OK, then, does it?

And thirdly, the money was apparently received through a personal friend of Mr Buckingham, a certain Stephen Crouch, who is a former chair of the constituency association. I sort of wondered what the connection is. According to the MP's website, "Stephen is currently working in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq as an advisor to governmental, non-governmental, and economic institutions". Iraq, of course, is another country where Mr Buckingham's company has major interests and where 'private security firms' are in regular action. It's probably just one of life's little coincidences though.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

Sharing it out

I'm not sure that we'll ever know exactly how and when humanity moved from seeing the earth's resources as being something available to all of us in common to something which was owned by individuals. But once the process started, it was inexorable, with any resource which could be 'owned' becoming so, and ownership being increasingly unevenly distributed amongst the population, to such an extent that we take it for granted today that access to most goods and services is on the basis of ability to pay.

But not everything can be owned, and there are still some things which are shared on a more equal basis. I was on a time management course once, and the lecturer made a comment which I found particularly memorable. Time, he told us, is the one thing that is shared out entirely democratically.

We all get the same number of seconds in a minute, minutes in an hour, hours in a day and so on. We can't steal someone else's time, or put it aside for another day; we can't use it before it comes. (In context, his point was that the difference between being effective and ineffective was about how we use the time we have, not about how much we get, but that's an aside to my point here.)

The analogy is limited in some ways – we may all get 365 and a bit days every year; but we don't all get the same number of years. It's a useful analogy, nevertheless.

Another democratically shared resource is the air that we breathe; the amount we use is the amount we need, and there's no way - not that anyone's thought of yet, anyway – of giving more access to the rich than the poor (although the quality of the air might not be so fairly shared).

Most of the things we have or use are not shared in the same way; they are shared on the basis of wealth or income. That may not always be true within a country, but it's certainly true between countries. (It might be argued, for instance, that access to health care is fairly evenly available within Wales; but the difference between Wales and third world countries is dramatic.)

But how about access to environmental resources? For instance, if the earth has a given capacity to deal with CO2 emissions, that capacity has to be shared somehow between the inhabitants of the planet. At present, it's exploited on the basis of ability to pay; and for all the talk of reducing our carbon footprint, our economy works on the basis of an implicit assumption that the capacity is effectively unlimited. That assumption is clearly invalid, and needs to be changed.

I'm increasingly attracted to the idea of a personal carbon quota, issued equally to all on an annual basis, with the allocation reducing over a period until it reaches a level which is sustainable for the long term. Not only would it allocate one of the Earth's most valuable resources on an equitable basis, but coupled with a trading scheme it could also be highly redistributive.

The Tyndall Centre have done a lot of work on the idea, and a cross party committee of the House of Commons produced a broadly favourable report on the idea in 2008, but the then government killed any future work, largely on the basis of a fear that it might prove unpopular. I understand that concern, but if we only ever consider popular options, I somehow doubt that we will ever really get to grips with carbon emissions. Or inequality.

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Bizarre and misguided?

I'm not convinced that today's attacks by some politicians and lobbyists on the Technium programme are entirely fair or balanced. Finding the flaws in a programme after the event is always easy and makes for a good press release; it's spotting them in advance that's the hard part. Hindsight is a wonderful planning tool, I've always found. The criticisms of the Lib Dems sound particularly hollow in any event, given that, as Jaxxlanders point out, they were part of the government which launched the programme.

It can take time for a venture like this to bear fruit as well. Some of the centres seem to be doing better than others, and it would be interesting, to say the least, to see how that compares with the length of time for which they've been up and running.

There's nothing wrong in principle with the government taking an occasional risk with our money, particularly if the sums involved are comparatively small - and £5.4 million over eight years, or just under £760,000 per year, isn't what I'd call a huge sum out of the government's budget for economic development. Attacking the cost of £1,500 for a meeting which seems to have involved the managers of ten centres seemed a little gratuitous as well; it doesn't look like a hugely excessive cost to me, and it's peripheral to the core issue.

I can't agree with the suggestion made by the Tory spokesman, David Melding either, namely that support should have been focussed on developing ideas with commercial potential. In the first place, politicians and civil servants trying to second guess what does or does not have commercial potential doesn't sound like a recipe for success to me; and in the second, the nature of innovation is that a fair proportion of ideas are going to fail. If governments are going to take the risk of underwriting innovative schemes, they need to understand that some will fail; the question is whether they are getting an adequate return on the ones which succeed.

None of that means that we cannot and should not learn some lessons from the whole programme. My own feeling is that the basic idea – providing modern well-equipped premises and facilities for innovative start-ups – was a good one. I confess, though, to having wondered whether all the locations were selected for entirely the right reasons, rather than simply spreading them as widely as possible across Wales. Most importantly, was there enough liaison with universities in particular to match the locations and subjects closely enough to the academic work happening there?

We shouldn't allow a bit of political point-scoring based on an FoI request to force us to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The government has announced a review anyway, as part of the ERP; we should see what that has to say before drawing premature conclusions.

Monday 6 September 2010

More figure fiddling

I noted in passing a month or so ago that we cannot simply export our carbon emissions by shifting manufacturing to China or India. The emissions cost of the goods and services we consume must still be counted as part of our total, even if the actual emissions occur elsewhere.

It seems from this report, however, that the government has been trying to fiddle the figures by only counting emissions which actually occur in the UK. And on the basis of that little conjuring trick, they've announced that the UK is succeeding in reducing its carbon footprint.

It's good to see that their own chief environment scientist is challenging them on this. Exporting our manufacturing industry, increasing our consumption of manufactured goods, and then claiming that China and India are responsible for increasing global levels of CO2 whilst we are achieving a reduction is downright dishonest.

I accept, as the report notes, that counting 'embedded' carbon costs is not going to be a straightforward exercise, but if we are to be really honest about the true size of our carbon footprint, it's an essential step to take. Saying, as the government has, that we don't have jurisdiction over the carbon content of imports may be a true statement, but it misses the point. The issue isn't jurisdiction, it's responsibility. And we all have to take responsibility for the resources we use.

There is another aspect to the way in which our carbon costs are artificially reduced as well, of course. The carbon cost of overseas military activity is completely excluded from the figures. So all the fuel and high explosive being used in Afghanistan is counted at zero carbon cost as far as the UK Government is concerned. Another way of avoiding our enviromental responsibilities.

Friday 3 September 2010

Questions, questions...

It should surely be no surprise to anyone that the Electoral Commission has concluded that there were problems with the proposed referendum question, and has proposed an alternative of its own. I'm not sure how much of an improvement it really is, though.

The real problem isn't with the question at all; it's with the mess created by the 2006 Act itself. Trying to explain the implications of moving from Part 3 to Part 4 bearing in mind the restrictions of the various schedules means, I fear, that there is no simple way of asking the right question without a complex preamble of some sort; and the longer the preamble, the more scope for disagreement about it.

We are, in reality, having the wrong referendum about the wrong issue, and we're doing it because firstly it was the only way that Hain could get the Act through Parliament, and secondly, because he believed that the referendum would not actually be triggered for a decade or two. And, as if that wasn't enough, it looks increasingly likely that one or both sides of the campaign will find themselves campaigning on questions which are not on the ballot paper anyway.

Whilst the outcome of the referendum certainly matters, does it matter how we get there? For those of us who believe that referenda can and should play a part in politics, of course it does, but there are times in life when we have to accept that "we are where we are".

Hopefully, some lessons will be learned about when we do and when we don't need a referendum. To be a meaningful part of our political life, they need to be clear and focussed in a way that this one can never be.

Thursday 2 September 2010

Blair off-message

It's not unknown for me to read political memoirs written by members of other parties, but I'll be giving Blair's a miss. Paying good money for 700 pages of self-justification is surely too much to ask. It means that I'm relying on the press coverage of what he did or did not say, with the inevitable danger of selectivity implied by that.

But in his comments on devolution, he does seem to be uncharacteristically off-message in his use of terminology. Specifically, the quote about "You can never be sure where nationalist sentiment ends and separatist sentiment begins" is in direct contradiction to the usual approach of many members of the Labour Party in Wales which assumes that 'nationalist' and 'separatist' are one and the same thing.

Worse, in terms of tearing up the script, is his apparent assumption that devolution was about pandering to nationalist sentiment. It was always my understanding that devolution, from a Labour perspective, was supposed to be about improving the government of Wales (and indeed the UK as a whole), and that, insofar as it dealt with nationalism at all, the intention was to defuse nationalist sentiment, not to pander to it.

And actually, I've always feared that Labour's analysis on that was correct – a properly thought-through and worked out scheme of devolution could indeed have created a more stable long-term future for the UK, and frustrated the ambitions of those of us who think that not to be the best future for Wales. That line of thinking was part of the reason why two members of Plaid (the other being the late Dr Phil) argued in a Plaid National Council meeting in 1978 that Plaid should campaign for a 'no' vote in the 1979 referendum. (Not for the first time in my life, I was on the losing side in that debate...)

Fortunately for Plaid's long term ambitions, the Labour Party's inability to deal with its own internal tensions, misunderstandings, and disagreements on the issue led to a compromise which satisfied almost nobody. It now looks as though that confusion over what they were trying to achieve and why went right to the top.

Wednesday 1 September 2010

Self-government dividend

We all know that salaries in Wales lag behind the UK average. The Welsh average is about 87% of the UK average. It's another indicator of the relative underperformance of the Welsh economy compared to the UK average. Low wages and low GVA per head are not exactly synonymous; but there's a clear relationship between the two sets of figures.

Those who are implacably opposed to any degree of Welsh autonomy will no doubt see it as yet another indicator that Wales cannot survive without 'subsidies' from across the border; but we need to look deeper than that. There's nothing inherent about being Welsh or living in Wales which dooms us to a lower level of salaries, a lower level of economic activity, or a lower GVA.

One of the usual responses has been to suggest more training provision, but it's not immediately obvious to me how continually upskilling the Welsh workforce actually addresses the issue. It might prepare Welsh workers for jobs in the future, but I have a feeling that we've already spent quite a lot on training people for jobs which somehow never seem to arrive. And I detect a growing feeling that people are turning against some training schemes, seeing them more as a means of hiding unemployment than of preparation for employment.

More relevant to me was the CBI comment some months ago that "We have insufficient head offices located here and there are not enough big corporations headquartered here." That's certainly one of the factors which keeps wages in Wales lower than the UK average. Far more companies choose to locate their higher-paid head office staff in England – predominantly the South-East of England – than in Wales. Changing that would certainly give us a higher proportion of high paid jobs; but is it really realistic?

It's been much talked-about for many years, but I don't see many footloose multinationals - or even UK corporates - being likely to move their headquarters to Wales any time soon. In fact, I think that the One Wales Government has got it right in saying that it intends to build future strategy around the development of indigenous companies rather than around attracting inward investment.

The nay-sayers like to claim that companies would head east over the border if Wales had more powers or even independence; I suspect the opposite. If Wales became a self-governing nation, with its own legal jurisdiction, wouldn't at least some companies see some benefit in creating at least a 'regional' presence in Wales as a result, with the knock-on effect of increasing average pay? And wouldn't self-government also mean that we'd have more senior public sector employees in Wales from all the organisations currently run from England?

Perhaps we could call it the 'self-government dividend'.