Friday 29 June 2012

Not a very well-made point

Apparently, Carwyn Jones wasn’t really serious when he suggested that Trident should come to Milford Haven.  He was just making a point.  And the point that he thought he was making was, apparently, that independence would cost jobs.
It seems to me that, far from making a point, he’s actually missing one, and rather spectacularly so.  Whilst it is true that the SNP have said that they would want to remove Trident from an independent Scotland, and whilst it is true that removing Trident from Scotland would mean that Scotland lost those particular jobs, it isn’t the process of becoming independent itself which leads to that outcome.  There’s a step missing from our First Minister’s thought processes here.
What we can say is that IF Scotland becomes independent, AND IF the SNP then form the government of that independent Scotland, then the Scottish Government will ask the owners of Trident submarines to remove them from Scottish soil (or should that be Scottish waters?).  But if Scotland becomes independent and then elects the Labour Party or the Conservative Party to govern it, then the probability is that the Scottish Government would be happy to keep Trident.
(For completeness, we should also consider the theoretical possibility that the Scots would elect a Lib Dem government, in which case the government would probably be both for and against on alternate weekdays, and agnostic on weekends.)
It’s clear to me that the key event in deciding whether Scotland loses Trident jobs isn’t whether the Scots vote for or against independence; it’s what sort of government they elect if or when they become independent.  I suspect that SNP will be mildly pleased (insofar as they care at all what Carwyn Jones thinks) that such a senior member of the Labour Party is unable to conceive of anyone other than the SNP governing an independent Scotland, but the rest of us certainly can conceive of such an outcome.
The only real conclusion that Carwyn Jones or anyone else can draw from what the SNP is saying is this – if the people in a country elect a government opposed to the siting of nuclear weapons on its territory, then those weapons will be removed, and the jobs of the people involved in manufacturing, deploying, and maintaining those weapons and their delivery systems will be lost.  Well, duh! 
Of course they will.  And those of us who are opposed to nuclear weapons whether pre or post independence have always known that those particular jobs would be lost by disarmament.  But diverting expenditure from nuclear weapons into peaceful purposes will almost certainly generate more jobs in total than it loses; and will certainly be more sustainable.
There are plenty of people, even in Carwyn Jones’ own party, who understand that.  And there are plenty of people who would like to see the rest of us having the sort of choice over nuclear weapons which the SNP would give to Scotland.

Wednesday 27 June 2012

Never mind the facts

I’ve referred to the Beecroft report previously.  The Prime Minister asked Beecroft, a venture capitalist, to review employment laws and come up with some suggestions for cutting red tape, which Beecroft duly did.  The main thrust of his idea of cutting red tape seems to have been whittling away hard-gained employment rights in the name of flexibility.
From earlier reports, most people will have assumed that there was at least some basis for his claims that he was putting forward the views of ‘business’ in general; but it seems from this report that was a wildly inaccurate conclusion.  In fact, the recommendations seem to have been put forward on the basis of what he and a few of his (presumably like-minded) mates think.
He didn’t have time to do any research or investigation into what businesses in general might think, so he had a chat with a few people and then sat down to write his report.  And, on such a flimsy basis, the government is proceeding to implement the bulk of his recommendations.
But then, if you think – as he said he did – that the case for making it easier for small firms to hire and fire people is ‘self-evident’, then what need is there for any objective evidence?  And why should anyone expect the PM to require any more evidence than that?

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Tired arguments

In launching the Scottish campaign against Independence, the campaign chair, Alistair Darling, claims that the campaign will be a positive one.  And in fairness, much of what he is quoted as saying reflects that positive approach, concentrating on the links between Scotland and the rest of the UK, and reflecting the name of the campaign group itself, ‘Better Together’.  (Good name, by the way – it encapsulates the message that I’d be trying to convey if I wanted to retain the union.)
It seems to be hard for any politician to stay positive for long, however, and his claim that Independence is like buying a “buying a one-way ticket to send our children to a deeply uncertain destination" is a case in point.  It’s a nice piece of rhetoric, but it’s open to challenge in at least two ways.
The first is the assumption that independence is a one-way, once and for ever decision.  Whilst it’s true that the number of countries who have voluntarily ceded their independence once gained is vanishingly small (I would have said zero, but a commenter on a previous post managed to come up with one almost comparable example…), it doesn’t have to be that way.  But the fact that it is that way in practice tells us not that reversing the decision is impossible, merely that it’s not something that any nation actually wants to do – not quite the point that Darling wished to convey, I suspect.
And the second is about the question of ‘uncertainty’.  Of course, there is some degree of uncertainty about how independence will turn out; that’s undeniable.  But there’s also a degree of uncertainty about how continued participation in the union will turn out.  On what objective basis can either be said to be more or less uncertain than the other? 
Then there’s this little gem:
"We're positive about all of the identities that we share - Scottish, British, European, citizens of the world - and don't see the need to abandon any of them."
The implication is that choosing Independence means abandoning one of those identities, the British one.  In saying that, he’s reflecting the rather ill-thought-out comments of his party’s leader a week or so ago, because implicit to both is the assumption that ‘identity’ is somehow dependent on governmental structure.  However, it’s an assumption which is fatally wounded by his inclusion of the phrase ‘citizens of the world’; if that identity isn’t dependent on structure, why should any of the others be?
The BBC also shows examples of two of the leaflets being produced by the campaign, both of which left me thinking that they’ll have to try harder if they want to appeal beyond the ranks of those who already support them.
The first implies that the fact that 1 in 5 Scots is employed by companies based in England, Wales, or Northern Ireland is somehow an argument for the continuation of political union.  It seems to me to be a very dubious conclusion to draw – would it mean that if we ever got to the position that 1 in 5 in the UK were employed by companies based in the USA or Germany, say, then we should apply for union with one of those countries?
And the second was that the UK has the 2nd largest aid budget.  I’m certainly pleased that the UK is in that position (although there are quite a few devils in the detail), but why is that a reason for the continued existence of the UK?  The Scots could continue to donate aid at exactly the same level per head if they wanted to (and I hope that they would), so why is this particular statistic relevant to the debate?
Much of what has been said by the pro-union side in the lead-up to this launch seems to have been based around the assumption that bigger is better.  If the assumption is true, then the argument stands; but the assumption seems to be taken as a given and becomes axiomatic.  There seems to be a consequent failure to be able to understand that not everyone thinks that size and clout are the most important things in the world.
The result is that it looks as though the SNP is increasingly in tune with a new way of thinking, whilst the pro-unionists are stuck in the past.  I’m still not convinced that the SNP will win, this time around; but with counter arguments like this, the probability surely increases.

Monday 25 June 2012

Jobs based on a different future, please

Last week’s news that the Labour Party in Wales would support the move of Trident to Milford Haven if Scotland becomes independent caused a flurry, but was hardly a surprise.  It’s entirely consistent with Labour’s position on nuclear weapons over many years.
But the underlying reasoning behind the move by the First Minister is really nothing to do with the argument about nuclear weapons per se.  It is, rather, based on a much simpler logic which runs something like this:
·        Wales needs jobs
·        ‘This project’ provides jobs
·        Wales should welcome ‘this project’.
One could substitute almost anything for ‘this project’; and in that sense, Carwyn Jones’ position on Trident isn’t that different from the position of many other politicians on other projects – such as Wylfa B or the Severn Barrage for instance.  The logic is exactly the same.
There is scope for debate, of course, about how many real jobs ‘this project’ provides.  The only certainty is that the numbers will be overstated by supporters of the project, and will inevitably include a number of jobs to be filled by those relocating with the project.  And whilst the debate about the number of jobs is far from irrelevant, it has more to do with whether any particular project represents value for money than with the underlying principle.
And it’s the consideration of the principle which is missing from the logic above.  It’s easier to see a principle in relation to Trident than it is for a number of other projects, but that simply underlines the fact that different people draw the line in different places.  Rather then admitting that the real issue is where to draw the line, most politicians seem to fall back on criticising anyone who opposes ‘this project’ as being anti-jobs – and it was notable that that was exactly what Jones did last week, in his side-swipe at Plaid over Trident.
I’m clear that I want to see a demilitarised Wales (and world, come to that, but let’s start with that part for which we bear the most direct responsibility), and that Trident, or any other variety of WMD, doesn’t fit with that view.  (Just as I’m also clear that I want to see an energy policy based on renewables, and that Wylfa B doesn’t fit with that view.)  That means that there are some projects to which I would be opposed, no matter how many jobs they would bring.  Ultimately, I want to see employment in Wales based on creating a new future, not on simply perpetuating the status quo.
To argue that we should ignore such questions – and all the strategies produced by government – in pursuit of jobs, in whatever field, is to avoid taking responsibility for building a different kind of future for our country and the world.  Politicians who argue otherwise are simply reacting to and managing ‘what is’ rather than building ‘what should be’.

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Flogging a dead horse

Charles Hendry, the UK Government’s Energy Minister displayed rather more confidence in the prospects for Wylfa B than any publicly available facts can justify during his visit to Ynys Môn yesterday.  The statement from the opposition group, PAWB, that the project is ‘dead in the water’ looks like an understatement, if anything, to me – it never got as far as the water before dying.
The companies behind the project have abandoned it and put the consortium up for sale, and a number of other countries are busily abandoning their nuclear energy programmes, yet the UK government seems determined to continue to swim against the tide.
It’s possible, of course, that Hendry already knows something we don’t.  Perhaps there is another company, or companies, which really are ready to take over the scheme and build a new station.  Two things seem clear however if that is the case.
The first is that the only companies likely to be interested are those owned by the Russian or Chinese states, and the second is that “The Government’s plans to reform the electricity market and how far these offer subsidies to the nuclear industry” will be a key consideration.  Whether they’re actually called subsidies and how open and transparent they are is open to doubt – but new nuclear power stations will not be built in the UK without a massive financial commitment from the state.
If, on the other hand, he has no insider knowledge on which to base his optimism for the project, then he is simply misleading those to whom he is speaking.  Worse than that however is that for as long as politicians like Hendry continue with their unwavering commitment to nuclear energy, the greener alternatives do not receive the same level of backing.

Monday 18 June 2012

Fig leaves and WMD

Both the Telegraph and the BBC carry stories claiming that the UK Government is about to order nuclear reactors for the submarines which will carry the replacement to Trident, and that this will cause problems for the Liberal Democrats. 
Peter Black, on the other hand, is clear that the UK Government has not yet committed to the Trident replacement and that the Liberal Democrats will continue to oppose the simple replacement of Trident.  Technically, he’s correct; the final decision on Trident replacement has not yet been taken and will not be taken until conveniently after the next UK General Election. 
And of course, for a government building aircraft carriers with no aircraft, there’s probably nothing at all strange about building submarine nuclear reactors with no submarines in which to fit them.  It still looks like a strange decision to me though, and it makes the ‘main gate’ timetable of 2016 look increasingly like a fig leaf to cover for Lib Dem complicity in an unpalatable decision.
There is something odd about the Lib Dems position anyway.  Although presented as opposition to Trident replacement, they are not actually opposed to the continued possession of nuclear weapons, or even to the upgrading or renewal of those weapons.  Their opposition is concentrated on the means of delivery – their objection is to the submarines which would carry the warheads, not to the warheads themselves.
In short, they want to retain the weapons, but develop a less effective way of delivering them.  There’s something very Liberal Democrat about that position.

Thursday 14 June 2012

A rather different referendum

Cameron has been rather more unequivocal about the proposed referendum in the Falkland Islands than he has been in relation to Scotland.  It is, he says, entirely up to the people of those islands to decide their future, and he will respect their choice.  It’s probably easier to be clear when everyone knows in advance what the result will be.
The referendum might allow people to think that they’ve ‘won’ something in the short term, but in the longer term it will resolve little.  Argentina is not about to simply renounce its claim, and with the inevitability of further defence cuts in the future, the UK is not going to be for ever in a position to guarantee the status of the islands.    

Sooner or later, negotiation is inevitable.  Given recent history, that's a particularly difficult thing for a Conservative Prime Minister to face up to.  But burying his head in the sand won't help.
Many nationalists have tended to support the claims of Argentina.  I suspect that to be in minor part because of a romantic attachment to the Wladfa in Patagonia, but more generally because of a strong and natural anti-colonialist stance.  There’s nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes, but the history is complex, to say the least, and there’s more to the situation than simply British colonialism.  Support for Argentina’s claim is over-simplistic.
Argentinean claims to the island owe more to Spanish colonialism than they do to any historical relationship between Argentina itself and the Islands; the Islands were long disputed between the two major colonial powers and were uninhabited before the British and the Spanish took turns at attempting to colonise them.  And the desire to possess the Islands seems to be more to do with territorialism and economic resources than with freeing colonial possessions.
The days when territory and the people living on it could simply be transferred between two countries at the whim of those countries with no heed paid to the wishes of the people themselves are long gone, thankfully; but that leaves a problem.  However unrealistic for the long term is the idea that such far away islands can sensibly remain ‘British’, there seems little doubt that that is the preferred choice of the people themselves.
And however much we might feel that the UK should be divesting itself of its remaining imperial possessions, there is as big a problem in granting independence to people who don’t seem to want it as there is in trying simply to pass ownership to another state.  Nevertheless, it seems to me that Independence, backed by some sort of international guarantees and negotiated agreements with other parties, is the only logical long term solution.
In that context, touting the inevitable result of the referendum as a clear indication of the will of the people and encouraging them to think that no change is required, as Cameron seems to be doing, is likely only to increase tension and prolong the stand-off.

Wednesday 13 June 2012


There are times when I find myself agreeing with both sides in an argument and end up scratching my head as to whether they’re arguing about the right thing.  Today’s extensive coverage in the Western Mail’s Business section of the GVA vs. GDHI argument is a case in point.
The Welsh Government has chosen to adopt GDHI as its headline economic measure and the Western Mail set about finding people to explain why that was the wrong measure to adopt.  They half succeeded.
The Welsh Government argues that GDHI is a better measure of people’s real wealth, whereas a number of economists argue that GVA is a better measure of economic performance.  It seems to me that they’re both right.  The argument isn’t really about what the ‘best measure’ is, but about what it is we’re trying to measure and why.  It was a question which was skated round, rather.
If we are setting out to measure the relative wealth of people in Wales compared to the UK average, then I’d agree that the Welsh Government has probably selected the best measure to do that.  What it is not, however, is an effective measure of Welsh economic performance.  Because it includes all household income, it includes the fiscal transfer which results from the taxation and benefit system, which to some extent hides or disguises underlying economic performance.
That highlights an interesting point in itself.  It is theoretically possible for Wales to reach 100% of the UK average for GDHI with absolutely no underlying improvement in the Welsh economy, simply by increasing the redistributive impact of taxes and benefits - and without any action at all from the Welsh Government.  I can’t conceive of any UK Government actually doing that, but that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be done.  It might even satisfy many people in Wales that we were getting a ‘fair deal’; but it wouldn’t really mean that the Welsh economy was successful.
On the other hand, if we want to measure underlying success, then GVA is a much better measure.  It tells us the extent to which we are paying our way rather than depending on fiscal transfers.
The question that needs to be asked – and really doesn’t seem to have been probed in any depth – is why the Welsh Government feels that measuring household wealth is better than measuring the state of the Welsh economy.  Why measure equality of wealth rather than equality of performance?  Surely anyone concerned about the Welsh economy would be more interested in measuring to what extent we are economically self-sufficient – even if we never actually decide to turn that into political independence?
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the measure has been chosen primarily because it makes the numbers look better.  That would make it another victory for spin over substance.

Tuesday 12 June 2012

Selective devolution

According to the BBC, a report due out shortly is likely to recommend that full control over business rates should be devolved to the National Assembly as a move to help businesses in Wales.  The implicit assumption behind that, of course, is that the result of devolution of control would be a reduction in the level of business rates, although that is not the only possible consequence.
As one who favours full devolution of all taxation to the Assembly, I’m hardly likely to oppose the proposal in principle.  And I’ve argued before that reducing taxes on the operation of businesses and taxing the money through Income Tax and CGT when it is taken out of the businesses would help to boost GDP in Wales.  (With the proviso, naturally, that there are no loopholes which allow the money to be transferred to an alternative tax regime before being withdrawn.)
There are, though, two aspects of this proposal which concern me.
The first is that calling for power over one form of taxation, and then for a reduction in that tax, without the power to increase taxation elsewhere to recover any lost revenue is tantamount to calling for the Assembly Government or local councils to cut spending elsewhere.  In effect, it means transferring available funding out of fields such as education in order to give Welsh businesses a competitive advantage over businesses elsewhere in the UK. 
That implication doesn’t seem to have been spelt out at all clearly.  But it’s the reason that I would always argue for devolution of a range of tax-varying powers rather than a single tax; taxation needs to be considered in the round.
The second concern is the suggestion that business rates should be retained by individual councils rather than paid into the centre and then dispersed on the basis of some formula.  The idea is not without merit; after all, the businesses concerned receive their services from the council in whose area they are situated – why should the revenue not go to that authority?
However, the current system allows for a degree of geographical redistribution.  It may not be the right way, or even the best way, of managing that redistribution, but merely removing it without putting some sort of replacement mechanism in place is a recipe for widening geographical disparities in Wales.

Monday 11 June 2012

Pot, kettle...

I’m not one of the Independent’s regular readers, but I do pick up a copy from time to time.  On Saturday, Rhondda’s MP, Chris Bryant, writes a column for the paper, and here is last Saturday’s effort, in which he holds forth on four different issues of the week.
In the first two, he gives us his views on why ‘nationalism’ is such a bad thing, saying
“All of which makes me realise that I'm no nationalist. I detest the exaggerated belief in one's own cultural heritage, the puffed-up, arbitrary and unmerited self-confidence, the swift denunciation of all that is alien or foreign, the desperate desire to support anyone from the home team, however lazy or hideous. Nationalism is a nasty creed and the path from well-meaning nationalism to xenophobia and racism is slippier than the luge track in the Winter Olympics.  It's the scourge of politics around the globe.”
“I don't care for nationalism here in the UK either. UK nationalism and Welsh and Scottish nationalism repel me equally. No, British isn't always best. I love the NHS but other national health services perform just as well. Shelley is just as dull (or poignant, take your pick) as Pushkin, or Goethe, or Neruda. Welsh cakes are very moreish, but paella and tabbouleh are equally delicious and there's a reason hummus and pizza have invaded our fridges. I'm Welsh, but the very thought of Shirley Bassey, … Tom Jones, Bryn Terfel and the Stereophonics played on a permanent loop makes me ill.”
After reading such strong condemnation of that which he defines nationalism to be – a definition which most nationalists would not recognise – he goes on to his third story with gusto in his attack on Louise Mensch’s claim that “Labour never liked business success”.  According to Bryant, “This is Aunt Sally politics. You pretend your opponent holds ludicrous views and attack them for it. But it's so dishonest.”.
See what he did there?  I agree with him that ‘pretending your opponent holds ludicrous views and then attacking them for it’ is dishonest.  But it isn’t only dishonest when it comes from one side of any debate.