Tuesday 20 December 2011

Being ourselves

I’m sure it’s very nice of Richard Branson to have spoken out in support of the Welsh Government’s proposals for a soft opt-out on organ donation, but is it really the most important thing which happened yesterday, from a Welsh perspective?  By making it the front page lead story, the Western Mail clearly thinks it is.
I’m not a fan of ‘celebrity endorsement’ in the first place.  I don’t need to know which rich or famous people support or oppose a particular proposition before making my mind up on an issue.  Indeed, such endorsement is generally counter-productive as far as I’m concerned.  It tends to lead me to the conclusion that if the best that proponents of a proposition can come up with is a series of endorsements, then the proposition can’t be a terribly good one.
There’s another aspect to today’s story though.  It plays to a peculiar trait of the Welsh character, to which even the most nationalistic of people sometimes fall prey.  In the field of politics, it affects left and right alike.  We seem to have a certain need for approval from others, rather then having the confidence just to say what we think. 
It’s all too easy to blame that on some sort of inferiority complex resulting from our history; I suspect that it’s a great deal more complicated than that.  Whatever the reason, lack of confidence in ourselves and our ideas is one of the things which hold us back.  And a media which think that getting an endorsement from Branson is of such vital importance feeds the complex rather than helping us conquer it.
It doesn’t mean that we should be ungrateful for support and praise from outside Wales, but  we don’t need to be quite so gushing about it.

Monday 19 December 2011

Don't follow London

That the UK Government spends more on transport infrastructure for London than it does on the rest of the UK wasn’t really a surprise, although the extent of the skew was higher than many might have expected.  It gives a rather different context to the oft-repeated claim that Wales benefits from the government’s largesse at the expense of the South East – here is an example of the opposite; the South East benefitting from government largesse at the expense of Wales.
I was far from convinced about some of the reasons being advanced for the mismatch, but there’s nothing wrong, in principle, with the fact that a mismatch exists.  Any attempt to share out spending on the basis of need will always lead to a differential pattern of spending in different areas; the question is not whether differentials are wrong, but whether they’re based on a fair assessment of need.  We should never expect the spend per head to be anywhere near identical across different areas and regions.
There is also a lesson here for Wales.  Before we shout too much about all the goodies going to London at the expense of the rest of the UK, we should examine the way in which infrastructure is being handled more locally.  There has been a marked tendency of late for people to call for high levels of spend in the South East of Wales – on things like the suggested metro network and the M4 relief road.
I’m not opposed to the first of those schemes, although the second is much more questionable to say the least.  But there is a danger that in promoting such grand schemes we reproduce in Wales exactly that about which we complain at a UK level, and other parts of Wales get left behind.  Just as we urge the UK Government to take a less London-centric viewpoint, so we also need to ensure that the Welsh Government doesn’t simply take a Cardiff-centric viewpoint.

Saturday 17 December 2011

To lead or to follow

MH at Syniadau attracted a lot of attention with his recent blog post on the issue of prominent Plaid members apparently distancing themselves from the party’s aims.  I don’t often disagree with him, but I’m not convinced that attempting to address the issue through the party’s internal disciplinary procedures was the best way to go about it.  Firstly, it was never likely to succeed, and secondly, it focuses attention on the individuals concerned rather than on the views expressed.  And it is the views expressed which are the more important issue; and they go much wider than the individuals named.
Plaid has long struggled and agonised over the use of the I-word.  At different times, it has tended to formulate its view of the ‘right’ status for Wales in the vernacular of the age (Dominion status, anyone?).  But the party – or most of it, anyway – eventually came round to the acceptance that it was the word in common use which most accurately reflected its objective.
It is entirely honest, and intellectually reasonable, to challenge whether ‘independence’ is a wholly accurate description of the status of member states of the EU.  Opting out of the UK to join the EU is a case of leaving one union for another.  In either case, there are restrictions on the right of the Welsh Government to act independently.  So I can understand why some people are still reluctant to use the word.  It’s an honest and intellectually consistent position to take – but it’s an utterly irrelevant one.
The point is that ‘independence’ has an accepted meaning in common use.  Like other words, it has changed its meaning over time.  Independence is the word which EU states would use to describe their status.  In effect, the modern definition of the word, in the context of the EU, is “that degree of sovereignty enjoyed by EU member states, and required of any applying member”.  And as a definition, that is the status to which I aspire for Wales.
But the extent to which some Plaid members continue to distance themselves even from that definition underlines the fact that this is not a debate about mere semantics.  There are some who seem to be arguing that they’re in favour of that status as a long term objective, but that it isn’t really relevant to the immediate issues of the day, whilst there are others who seem to be rejecting it even as a long term objective.  In the latter case, it’s hard to disagree with the view of some Plaid members, such as MH, that such people may be in the wrong party.
The ‘softer’ distancing from the aim, however, is a position which needs to be engaged with.  It’s not always clear to me whether those who take that view really believe that achieving the degree of sovereignty which goes with EU membership is irrelevant in the short term, or whether there are other drivers behind that position.  I suspect the latter, and that there are two main drivers, one of them entirely honourable and the other considerably less so.
The first is a desire to ‘normalise’ Welsh politics, by framing the debate around and within the institutions which exist.  It’s what one would expect of any national movement once a sufficient degree of sovereignty has been achieved.  My only disagreement with it is that I consider it premature; that sufficient degree of sovereignty has not yet been achieved. 
Without it, the limited powers available, even after March’s referendum, mean that the context in which that normalisation takes place is a narrow one, which gives little opportunity for the expression of a wide enough range of political opinion.  That leads to the situation which we saw last May, with four parties saying much the same thing, and any changes to policy as a result of changing government will be limited in the extreme.  If such minor changes are really the limit of one’s aspirations for Wales, then the best and most logical place to be to argue for them is inside the Labour Party.
The second, and rather less honorable, driver is about electability.  Some people are unwilling to put the case for independence because it will not be popular with the electors.  Their assessment of the popularity of the idea is entirely correct, of course – all the polls tell us that only a small minority support the idea.  But that actually goes to the very heart of the issue which Plaid has been fudging since the establishment of the Assembly in 1999 and the subsequent change of leader in 2000. 
Is the party a party with a mission seeking to win the support of the people of Wales for its aims, or is it primarily an electoral force seeking to gain power to make much smaller changes?  Is it a party which seeks to lead public opinion, or is it a party which seeks merely to follow public opinion?
For decades, it was the former, and much of the progress which we have seen in Wales results from having a party which was willing and able to perform that role.  Its influence was always greater than its numbers, and it has helped to shape the Welsh agenda.  But a party which merely follows public opinion will look little different from any other party.  More importantly, the absence of a party actively seeking to change public opinion will inevitably slow any further progress.
That debate is a lot more substantial than the question of a few mavericks expressing discordant views, and in that context, MH is right to be concerned about the direction being taken by some Plaid members.

Thursday 15 December 2011

All about perspective

Today’s education section in the Western Mail contains a lengthy report of an interview with the Tories’ Shadow Education Minister.  It covers a host of education issues – including the matter of tuition fees.
On that particular subject, there was one sentence in particular which struck me as especially revealing – and indeed, it was one of the quotes which the Mail itself chose to headline in the little box at the bottom of the page.
Ms Burns said, “I don’t believe in this current climate we can have a universal benefit like this”.
That goes right to the heart of the difference in perspective which clouds any debate on the issue,  It is clear that, from a Conservative viewpoint, payment of higher education fees is a ‘universal benefit’, something which puts it in the same class as the state pension.  For me, it is an investment in the future of both our young people and our nation.  There’s an enormous gulf between those two perspectives.
But it goes further than that.  It is entirely legitimate to ask at which age paying from education starts to become a ‘benefit’ rather than an investment.  Does such an attitude only apply to higher education?  I can see no logical basis for distinguishing between higher education and further education – or even between higher education and sixth form education.  Indeed, the growth of ‘dual-sector’ institutions means that all three types of education post statutory school leaving age will be delivered by the same institutions.
Perhaps it goes even further than that.  Perhaps deep down at least some Conservatives see all education as a ‘benefit’; part of the benefits system.  In that context, tuition fees are just the thin end of a very large wedge.
I pick on the Tories here, because the statement came from them.  But the underlying attitude – seeing the payment of tuition fees as an unaffordable ‘universal benefit’ permeates all four parties to a greater or lesser degree.  Even some of those arguing for free tuition “when we can afford it” are effectively accepting the basic premise.
There is a real ideological difference here, and that point is not made often enough or strongly enough.  Education is not part of the benefits system and should never be seen as such.  There are two very different world views here, but for too long, politics has glossed over that fact.  Glossing over it is allowing one of those world views to win.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Half a cheer for the Lib Dems

There is a long-standing convention in the UK that all members of the Government should support the government’s position on all issues, and should resign if they are unable to do so.  Backbenchers are not bound by this convention, but the job of the whips is to try and ensure that they vote as if they were as often as possible.
It’s the sort of convention that governments like, and when all ministers are chosen by the Prime Minister, who can dispose of those who dare to disagree, it’s a powerful tool for motivating the ‘payroll vote’ to support government policy. 
It’s a convention, though, which is better suited to one-party governments than to coalitions, and the fact that it has been so rarely challenged has as much to do with the unusualness of coalitions as anything else.  And it’s a convention which has been adopted – unthinkingly as far as I can see – by the National Assembly in Cardiff as well.
I can understand why coalition partners would be expected to support the government position on all matters covered in the formal coalition agreement, but I cannot understand why the convention should apply to all decisions taken by the government, even if those decisions are both outside the formal agreement and contrary to the stated policy of one of the coalition partners.  I certainly did not understand why the junior partners in One Wales found it necessary never to disagree in the Senedd with anything that the senior partners said or did.
In that context, the decision of the Lib Dems in London to abstain on a motion welcoming Cameron’s removal of the UK from the negotiating table in the EU is a very welcome challenge to the convention.  I hope that we will see more of them.
So why only half a cheer?  Because I’m completely convinced that if the same thing had been done by a party other than the Lib Dems, then the Lib Dems would have been the first to condemn such an outrageous breach of convention.  Consistency of argument has never been one of their strong points.  But having put down a marker in this way, I’d be delighted to see them showing a bit more consistency from here on in.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Fiscal Union

Staying on the European theme, the latest conventional wisdom seems to be that the difficulties of the Eurozone prove that the UK’s decision to stay out was the right one.  I’m not so sure – the problem is that we only get to run history once, so it’s impossible to be certain how things might have turned out if a different decision had been taken.
It is surely at least possible, however, that the currency itself would have been stronger and more able to resist speculative pressure if the UK had been part of it from the outset. 
It’s not just that the UK is the third largest economy in the EU, and that having one of the biggest players staying outside was inevitably going to cause continuing doubt about the project.
It’s also that, by staying outside the Eurozone, the UK did two other things which were less than helpful.  Firstly, it provided a home within the EU itself for the financial speculators who have done so much to undermine the Euro in particular and the global economy in general.  And secondly, sterling provided an alternative currency to use in financial trading on those markets – credible alternative currencies are a key element in the operation of the financial markets.
I doubt that such considerations will affect for one moment the view of those who have been hostile to the single currency from the outset; and as I noted above, I cannot be certain that things would have panned out very differently.  My point, though, is that those who are claiming that the UK Government’s decision was the ‘right’ one cannot really be that certain either.
One other point, almost as an aside.  If it is true – as many are now claiming – that monetary union is impossible without fiscal union, where does that leave the idea – proposed by some nationalists – that an independent Wales could continue to use sterling? 
It’s not an exact parallel, of course, but neither is it a completely irrelevant one.  Being part of a monetary union implies similar fiscal policies; the lack of that has been the Euro’s weakness, and the need for it the justification of many for staying out.  Those fiscal policies can either be set jointly, in some sort of club or federation, or be set by the larger partners and imposed on the others. 
That’s the choice facing the Eurozone; it would also be the choice facing members of any sterling zone.

Monday 12 December 2011

Memberships and relationships

I can’t remember the exact date, but I think it was sometime in 1974, just before the referendum on continued membership of the Common Market.  Plaid Cymru was invited to send a delegation to Brussels and Luxembourg to learn more about the institutions.  About ten of us went, on what was obviously an attempt to persuade us not to campaign for a ‘no’ vote.  On that, it failed.
We had talks from the office of the Commission, as well as visiting the Parliament.  But perhaps most instructive, to me, were the visits to the offices of two of the Permanent Representatives.
As well as visiting the office of the UK Permanent Representative, Dublin gave special permission for us (there was some concern about being seen to be interfering in the affairs of another state) to visit the office of the Irish equivalent to get an Irish perspective on the same issues.  The contrast between the two was stark.  It certainly helped me to understand why the Irish had a different attitude to the European project.
At the office of the UK Rep, we were very formally ushered into a room where a senior civil servant with a suit, a bow tie, and a very posh accent politely offered us tea before asking how we thought they might be able to assist us.  At the Irish office, the host wore an open-necked shirt and a sports jacket, and said something like “Come on in boys – would you like a whiskey?”
That’s superficial stuff, of course, but it reflected for me the underlying current of the subsequent discussions that the Irish were into enthusiastic membership and collaborative working; the UK were more about maintaining a ‘relationship’ with the institutions.
The way in which people use language often reveals a lot about the underlying attitudes.  The language being used by politicians and commentators alike about the current situation in the EU is a case in point.  Time and time again, we hear the phrase (or variations upon it) that there should be a renegotiation of “the relationship between the UK and the EU”. 
The very words serve to frame the context.  They convey a message that the EU is somehow something different and separate; there’s an implicit externalisation.  It puts the UK in a different position to the ‘Europeans’.  It’s perhaps a reflection of a long insular history.  (I’d like to be able to say that it’s an English problem, and that Wales is different – but anyone who believes that attitudes in Wales are very much different on this question is probably delusional.)
It reflects the observation that I made all those years ago about ‘membership’ vs. ‘relationship’; no UK Government has never quite made the jump from the latter to the former.  Cameron is merely carrying on where his predecessors left off.  But he’s taking us down a very dangerous road.  It might suit the speculators in the City, but it will not help areas such as Wales.  Rhodri Morgan’s point in Saturday’s Western Mail about looking after the interests of Airbus rather than the interests of the City is a very valid one.
I campaigned for a ‘no’ vote in 1975, and still think that was the right position at the time.  (Actually, our slogan – ‘Europe yes, EEC no’ - was rather more sophisticated than that.  Probably too sophisticated to be able to communicate it effectively).  But after that vote, the facts changed, and I, like others, came in time to accept the changed context.
The EU is far from perfect.  There is much that I would like to change.  But we cannot, as some of the cheering Euro-sceptics seem to think, turn the clock back – being outside the EU now would be a very different prospect to remaining outside in the 1970s.  Europe and the world have changed and isolation is not a good place to be.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

In whose interest?

In response to sustained pressure from his own backbenchers, David Cameron has strongly stated that whilst his top priority for the Euro summit is to find a solution for the Eurozone, he will veto any changes which threaten the UK’s interests.  So far, so good; it’s difficult to argue against that in principle.
What’s a lot harder to see is how a failure to achieve a solution to the crisis can possibly be more in the interests of the UK than being prepared to yield a little.  And for the Prime Minister even to talk in the terms he’s been using almost invites the speculators to continue betting on a failure to reach an agreement.
But what’s least clear of all to me is how he is deciding what is, and what is not, in the interests of the UK.  It seems to boil down to protecting the rights of the speculators and gamblers to continue the sort of activities which have done so much damage over such a lengthy period.  And protecting their interests is not at all the same thing as protecting the UK’s interests – in fact, there are plenty of people who might suggest that the two are actually in direct conflict.
It makes for good rhetoric, and cheers up his own supporters (including those people in the City who make such generous donations to the Conservative Party), but it will surely look to many as though he is prepared to go on sacrificing the interests of the many so that the few can continue to enrich themselves at our expense.

Saturday 3 December 2011

Massaging the picture

Peter Black shows a neat little graphic on his blog comparing the actual level of spending cuts being made by the coalition government with the level of cuts pledged by the various parties in advance.  It is, like so many Lib Dem graphics, simple, clear, effective - and utterly misleading.

The first way in which it misleads is by starting the scale at around £75billion.  Shortening the scale in this way gives the impression that the difference between the figures is much larger than is actually the case.  A scale which started at zero would give quite a different impression - it would show all the figures tightly bunched together around one point on the scale.

And if the figures being compared were those for total expenditure rather than simply the extent to which that expenditure is being reduced, then the bunching effect would be even more pronounced.

The second way in which it misleads is that it gives the impression - without actually saying so - that because the actual total is closer to the Lib Dems pledges than to the Tories' pledges, then the Lib Dems can take the credit.  That would be a wrong conclusion on two counts.  

The first count is that the actual figure isn't what the government was actually aiming it - it's come out lower than planned because the government has got its figures wrong, not because the Lib Dems have been clever and influential.  And the second count is that the reason that the government has got it wrong is because their underlying assumption - that the private sector would take up any slack - has been proved to be utterly wrong.  In effect, the government is simply switching public expenditure from productive - paying people to do things - to unproductive - paying the same people to do nothing.

There are two lessons which can be drawn, however.  The first is that the debate about different levels of public expenditure is concentrated - in London, just like in Cardiff - on a very narrow range, with very small differences being greatly exaggerated.

And the second is that government can't really control either the economy or the total level of public expenditure to the extent that they claim.  (Chris Dillow had a good piece yesterday about some of the reasons that they claim more influence than they actually have.)

Spin and fancy graphics are no substitute for substance.