Tuesday 31 July 2012

Cardiff Bay Cargo Cults

The cargo cults on some Pacific islands reached their peak just after the Second World War.  Although they'd started earlier than that, the extent of contact between the natives living on those islands and outside civilisations increased so much during the war years that they gave a massive impetus to the cults.
It's easy enough to understand how people who did not understand the technologies which they were witnessing would have assumed that the planes bringing cargo were coming from the gods, and that they were summoned to bring their cargo from the gods by the strange rituals of the outsiders.  Many of them also believed that the cargo was really intended for them and had been wrongly purloined by the outsiders.
When the outsiders left, the islanders often tried to replicate the rituals which they had observed.  They built their own rough airstrips, wooden control towers, and even wore headsets carved out of wood and the best imitations of American uniforms that they could make.  The planes didn't come though.  Whilst aeroplanes needed airstrips and control towers, the mere presence of those things and the associated rituals was not in itself sufficient to bring the planes back.  (And that would have been just as true had the towers been filled with the latest fully operational technology rather than mere wooden imitations.)
In essence, the cults are just an example of a common fallacy - usually referred to as ‘Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc’.  It's a fallacy to which we are not immune here in Wales; and sometimes I wonder whether our politicians’ approach to economics is really that much different from a cargo cult, based on observing the rituals of others and then copying them.
One of the old chestnuts is the regularly repeated demand by business and opposition leaders for the Welsh government to invest more in ensuring that we have a trained and skilled workforce available.  I wouldn’t argue against having a highly skilled and trained workforce of course, but it will never be enough to bring the planes and their cargo.
Similarly, much of the debate around the electrification of the railway seemed to be based on a belief that shaving 15 minutes off the journey time between Cardiff and London would bring about some sort of economic miracle.  Again, I wouldn’t argue against electrification; but it is not a solution to anything very much in itself.
I could add superfast broadband, or city regions, an M4 relief road, or even last week’s call for reduced energy prices.  Some I'd support; some I would not, but all of them seem to be geared to a belief that performing the right rituals will bring the planes and their precious cargos to Wales.
And, just like the Pacific islanders, when our politicians do divert their attention from their ‘demanding infrastructure’ rituals, it is usually to criticise those wicked outsiders who have diverted the planes which the gods clearly intended for us, and stolen the cargo.
There’s nothing wrong with infrastructure building per se, and it’s easy to see why politicians concentrate on that.  It’s under their control, and it is (comparatively!) easy for them to control.  But it’s about facilitation rather than action; it is built on the assumption that the solution lies with others whom we need to appease, rather than with ourselves.
One of the more interesting suggestions in the Offa’s Gap paper which Plaid produced last week was the “creation of publicly-owned Welsh enterprises” to bid for contracts.  Another lies in the creation of more co-operative and social enterprises.  Neither is particularly original, although they've fallen out of favour in recent decades.  Neither is as simple or straightforward as complaining about what others are not doing.  But both are about taking some responsibility for action ourselves – and that has to be a better starting point than performing rituals or criticising others.

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Cleaning the money

It seems that not a week goes past without the exposure of another scandal by one or other of the banks.  Over the last week, it was HSBC’s turn to come under the spotlight.  I suppose it was inevitable that Labour politicians in London would go for the personal angle and start attacking Tory minister Lord Green.  He certainly has some questions to answer, and they need to be asked; but Labour’s tactics also succeed in diverting attention from the substance.  It’s become more about who did it than about what was done.
But the what deserves more attention.  The accusations are twofold, in essence.
Firstly, it is suggested that the bank went out of its way to find ways around trade embargos and sanctions in order to continue to make profit from certain regimes, notably Iran.  And secondly, that the bank engaged in money-laundering on a massive scale, assisting various drug barons and gangsters to turn dirty money into clean and untraceable money, even if only by turning a blind eye or having weak systems rather than through active collusion.
In reality, how different, in moral terms, are the bankers from the gangsters and drug barons whose money they have been laundering?  They’re all trying to make money for themselves at the expense of others.  What’s the moral difference between simply ignoring the rules and laws on the one hand and trying to find ways of subverting them on the other?
What some of the various e-mails and statements seem to be suggesting is that the bank wanted to be seen to be abiding by the letter of the rules, without allowing the rules to actually achieve their purpose – and that it was doing that in pursuit of profit.  The pursuit of profit, in short, outweighed any moral responsibility to assist the relevant authorities in achieving their clearly-stated aims.
That subjugation of morality to the pursuit of profit is something of a common factor in a number of the recent scandals, and equally common is the defence that what was done was ‘within the rules’.  From duck houses to money-laundering, the defence is the same one.  It raises the question as to whether, and to what extent, we can or should expect companies or individuals to follow any moral imperatives at all.  Or is life really just about following the rules, and not expecting anyone to make any wider judgements?
There’s a problem either way.  The problem with leaving the rules lax and expecting people to exercise a degree of morality is that there isn’t an agreed definition of what is or is not moral.  What, precisely, is the standard of morality to which we wish them to adhere?  And how do we set it?
On the other hand, ever tighter rules merely encourage people to believe that moral behaviour is anything which is permitted within the rules, and that if something isn’t specifically prohibited, then it’s OK.
On top of that, there is of course the knowledge that ‘if we don’t do it someone else will’, and competition of that sort drives people to push the rules to the limit.  In that sense, the whole of our banking system is a bit like a gigantic game of ‘Prisoners’ Dilemma’, with everyone trying to second-guess what everyone else is going to do.
Expecting those whose primary goal is to make money for themselves or their employers at the expense of others to do any more than abide by whatever rules we set for them is probably unrealistic.  If we want to change the way people behave, we need first to change their perception of what it is that they are trying to achieve.  Pursuit of personal advantage simply doesn’t do it.

Tuesday 24 July 2012

A perennial unanswered question

Some questions never really go away, although they can be framed in different terms as the context changes.  The statement by Cynog Dafis this week draws attention to a case in point.
I cannot remember a time when there was not an ongoing debate within Plaid about whether the party existed primarily to bring about change by gaining support, and ultimately power, itself, or whether its main purpose was to act as an effective lobby, and a sufficiently strong political threat, so that others would implement the constitutional change it sought.  (And there was also, of course, a complementary debate about the best way of achieving whichever of those aims was the most appropriate.)
In practice, up until 1999 at least, lack of electoral success meant that it was only actually capable of following the second of those two paths.  Whether it did so successfully is a moot point.  I believe that it was successful; the existence of a small and intermittently well-organised party, which had the intellectual clout and political courage to make the arguments consistently over a lengthy period was, in my view, a key factor in the journey Wales took up to the 1997 referendum.
Others might argue that Labour would have taken the same path anyway, or that having to deal with a nationalist challenge actually strengthened the hand of the anti-devolutionists within Labour, or even that Labour might have got there more quickly had Plaid disbanded itself and encouraged its members to join the Labour Party and fight from within. 
Regardless of what Marx said, we only get to live history once; we don’t have the luxury of trying it again in two different ways to see which worked best.  All of us will bring our own perspective and judgement to our interpretation of what happened and why.  But I'm convinced that it was a successful approach.
Whatever, the establishment of a national legislature in 1999, even if it didn’t look like a legislature at the time, had to be a turning point.  The context, and the way the question was framed, inevitably changed. 
Gaining power in London was never an option for Plaid; the best that could be hoped for was to gain all, or at least a majority, of the Welsh seats in the UK Parliament, in the way that Irish Nationalists had done decades earlier.  But gaining power in the National Assembly was, at least theoretically, a possibility, and the stunning and, to be honest, unexpected electoral success in the first Assembly elections in 1999 made it look a realistic possibility within the foreseeable future.
But still the party never really answered the question about what it was for.  Indeed, at one level, the possibility of forming a government within the new institution even made the question harder for the party.  A party of government needs a consistent policy platform; it needs to decide what sort of ideology it espouses, and although Plaid had adopted a broadly ‘left’ policy platform over many years, it still retained a number of members who were naturally averse to adopting any detailed policies beyond the simple demand for independence.
The deposing of one leader and the election of a new one in 2000 complicated the question further.  The members elected a leader who was clearly, shall we say, ‘uncomfortable’ with the aim of independence, whilst still themselves clinging to the notion that independence was the party’s main goal.  The only possible outcome from that was to fudge the question.
In the sense of keeping the party united, fudging worked, after a fashion, until the next turning point in 2007.  (It clearly didn’t work electorally, however.  It left people – including at times many of the party’s own members – confused as to what the party was for, and encouraged the criticism that the party was being dishonest about its own aims, or even hiding them from the public.)
Part of the problem with the decision to enter government in 2007 was the failure to discuss, let alone answer, that perennial question about what the party was for.  The members supported going into coalition on a wave of optimism (and would have done exactly the same for the so-called ‘rainbow’ had it not been for the fortunate and timely incompetence of the Lib Dems.)
I suspected at the time, however, that the fact that the party had so enthusiastically agreed to it would be interpreted by some as being an answer, of sorts, to the question.  And who can blame them?  The party had overwhelmingly decided to become a ‘party of government’ after all, even if the implications of that decision were neither spelled out nor discussed.  The managerial agenda for 2011 can be seen as almost inevitable from that perspective.
In 2007, the framing of the question had effectively been changed again, so much so that I’m not sure that it was even recognised by all as being the same question.  Supporters of coalition turned the question into “do you want to be in government or do you want to be in opposition?”.  Posed like that, which politician would not choose government?  It’s a no brainer; one can always achieve more within the term of an Assembly by being part of the government than by being part of the opposition.
It was, and is, however, an over-simplification of the question.  ‘Choosing opposition’ is not the same thing as ‘choosing not to join this government at this point in time’, and it was misleading to paint it as such, which is what proponents of both coalition options did.  And ‘within the term of an Assembly’ is a massive constraint on political horizons.  But having managed to frame the question in a way which helped to get the answer that they wanted, I repeat, who can blame them for assuming that they’d been given a rather more general answer?
Those who see Plaid as a natural coalition partner for Labour are merely following the logic of that apparent decision in 2007 to its conclusion, and are being entirely consistent in so doing.  But that leads in turn to another reframing of the question.  If Plaid’s main purpose is to influence the Labour Party on the detail of policy in the short to medium term, then isn’t the best way to do that from within the Labour Party itself?

Monday 23 July 2012

Manufacturing more armaments in Wales?

I welcome the publication of the report by Plaid’s Economics Commission (Offa’s Gap, available here).  One of the problems with debating the economics of Wales is the lack of dependable figures.  For a variety of reasons, there are no such things as definitive answers, and this report itself has inevitably had to make estimates or inferences at times.  Nothing wrong with that; it’s sometimes the only option available.  The assumptions underlying those estimates and inferences will be, of necessity, open to challenge, but they seem to me to be reasonable.
The authors make it clear that this report is aimed merely at establishing what the baseline is, rather than at suggesting solutions, but there are some hints of possible ways forward.  In this context, it’s interesting to compare the report itself with the article based on it over at ClickOnWales.  That article is obviously very heavily based on the report – to the extent that many of the paragraphs in it are lifted, more or less unchanged, from the report itself.
There’s nothing wrong with that as an approach, but for those of us with reasonable short term memories, reading one followed by the other tends as a result to highlight the differences.  And there is one difference in particular which struck me as being interesting to say the least.
Take this paragraph from the article on ClickOnWales:
“Particular thought should be given to the opportunities offered in the public sector.  These include opportunities in the defence industry where Wales is currently under-represented in procurement terms.  They also include new opportunities arising out of the privatisation policies in health and education being followed by the Westminster Government.”
Then compare what I take to be the original, from the report itself:
“Particular thought should be given to the opportunities offered in the public sector, including potential new opportunities which may arise out of the privatisation policies in health and education being pursued by the Westminster Government.”
Spot the difference?  It leapt out at me, and I then went through the report again.  The word 'defence' doesn't appear in it once.  The ClickOnWales article, however, mentioned the ‘defence industry’ again towards the end, saying “Some of these prescriptions will be controversial for a variety of reasons.  What role is there for the defence industry at a time of falling defence spending?”
Why the proposal to expand the armaments industry in Wales appears in one but not the other is an open question.  An individual – in this case, Adam Price – trying to float an idea is the most obvious potential explanation.  Whether it’s a deliberate attempt by the party to float an idea at arm’s length, whilst retaining what Nixon called 'credible deniability', or whether it’s just an individual expressing a view is another open question however.
The one thing that is certain is that the extent to which the defence industry has a future at a time of falling defence spending is far from being the only thing that would make such a proposal controversial.  A deliberate decision to expand the defence industry in Wales would be a huge change from the position held by most members of Plaid over many decades.

Friday 20 July 2012

Heat, light, power, and oppositionalism

In response to Wednesday’s post, one anonymous commenter said that (s)he was disappointed that I was so dismissive of the no confidence motion, and wrote “What other form of censure have they got?  How else can they hold the Government to account and ensure that they cannot continue to mislead the electorate?  If the opposition parties were not to go ahead with the vote of no confidence, then the minister would justify centralisation by claiming that it was an independent report”.
There are a number of interesting points there.  Let’s start with this business of ‘holding the government to account’.  It's a phrase which often trips off the tongues of opposition politicians – whether in Cardiff or in London – and it’s one of those phrases whose meaning seems obvious.  But what does it really mean?
Clearly, no opposition can actually sack, or even censure, a government unless that opposition has a majority in the relevant chamber, whether a ‘natural’ majority or else a majority based either on government rebellion or differential absenteeism.  It’s why no confidence motions are so rare in most legislatures; unless the opposition thinks it can win one, there is little point holding one, since the failure of a ‘no confidence’ motion effectively confirms the opposite, i.e. ‘confidence’.
So, if they can't be sacked or censured, ‘holding a government to account’ can really mean little more than forcing them to answer difficult questions, and making sure that the answers are given the widest possible airing.  A motion of censure or no confidence which you know you can’t win, and which, even if you did win, has no effect, doesn’t strike me as a particularly effective way of doing that.  Even more so if it’s held on an issue of process rather than an issue of substance.
Could it be, though, as the anonymous comment seems to suggest (“How else can they…”) that it was actually born, at least in part, out of frustration and impotence, as a result of a lack of any alternative options?  Possibly, but attempting to press the nuclear button because there’s no non-nuclear option isn’t a line of reasoning which appeals to me.
Is it even true that there are no other options, though?  Are the scrutiny processes in the National Assembly so weak and inadequate that tabling a certain-to-fail motion of no confidence is the only option open to opposition parties?  I would hope not; and I don’t believe it’s so either.
If we look at the Westminster model, on which AMs often seem so keen, some parliamentary select committees actually do quite a good job of exposing government failings.  That isn’t to say, however, that all MPs are good at the job.  An observation that I’d make is that some MPs go into those committees with the intention of scoring points and grabbing sound bites, whilst others develop a depth of expertise in their subject and go in well-briefed, with a mastery of the subject, ready for a forensic examination of witnesses.  The first category get the headlines; but it’s the second category which are most effective in ‘holding the government to account’.
Westminster has one obvious advantage over the Assembly in this regard.  The sheer number of MPs, and the corresponding lack of numbers in the Assembly, allows a degree of specialisation and expertise.  It also allows more backbench freedom, on both government and opposition benches, for individual MPs to follow a particular hobby horse without endangering the government’s majority.
Are there, nevertheless, any valid comparisons with the Assembly in Cardiff?  I think there are.  The most effective harrying and scrutiny of government which I can recall in the entire period since the Assembly was created was the work which Dr Phil did over European funding and Barnett.  He mastered the subject better than any minister, was always well-prepared, and challenged the government time and time again.  There weren’t many sound bites, but the centre ground on those issues moved, in large part, I am convinced, as a result of his work.  Policy changed.
It’s an example of the second type of MP to which I referred earlier.  But much of what passes for scrutiny in the Assembly seems to be of the first type.  I don’t know what actually happens, but the impression often given is of opposition AMs who have been given a briefing note, ten minutes before going into a committee, of a few key points, rather than of most AMs having any real mastery of the subject.
And that brings me back to the point raised by Anon.  ‘Holding the government to account’ needs to be about more than scoring points and grabbing headlines.  It may be easier to generate heat than it is to generate light, but generating light will achieve more in the end.

Thursday 19 July 2012

More to the olympics than gold

The opinion poll finding that most people in Wales think that the Olympics will be of no benefit to Wales is hardly a surprise.  It would be a bit like an opinion poll finding that the majority of people believe the world to be round.  Whilst there’s always a minority whose beliefs fly in the face of the objective evidence, most of us are willing to believe that which is factually evidenced.
More interesting though would have been the supplementary question which appears not to have been asked, and that is whether the UK should still be staging the Games regardless of the question of economic benefit.  There is a sort of assumption that ‘no benefit’ leads automatically to ‘don’t do’.  That doesn’t only apply to the Games, of course; but I’d challenge the assumption.
Part of the problem with the Games from the outset has been the UK Government’s obsession with trying to prove that they have a financial benefit, for the UK even if not for particular parts thereof.  But is that really the basis on which we should decide?  Certainly, there are questions about the way in which the expenditure has been treated; it is perverse that those elements of spending aimed at regenerating a particular area of London are counted as being ‘UK’ spend rather than local spend.  And there are major questions about whether staging the Games has become too big a commitment anyway as different hosts vie to outdo each other from one Games to the next.
But there is, or should be an underlying spirit to the Games.  Partly it’s about peaceful rivalry and competition between the athletes from different states, but even that seems to be a sometimes tribalistic divergence from the real spirit.  That is surely about the world’s best athletes, in a range of sports, coming together to challenge each other and compete.  Isn’t that worth doing anyway?  Most of the athletes are, I suspect, more interested in testing and proving their own prowess than in which flag they compete under; the flag is merely part of the route to the Games.
The whole event has become so big and so expensive that smaller countries in the world, such as Wales, could never dream of hosting it under current financing models.  That’s a pity; the world is so much bigger than merely the capital cities of the larger countries.  It would be more in the spirit of the Games themselves if all countries contributed an annual amount on a sliding scale to an international fund, enabling a cheaper event to be held in more places.  Who wouldn’t want to host the Games then?

Wednesday 18 July 2012

Much ado about very little

Later today, our legislature in Cardiff will be debating a motion of no confidence in the Health Minister.  Given the respective size of the party groups, it’s likely to be a close vote, but unless there is an element of “differential absenteeism”, it’s a motion which will not be passed.
There’ll be quite a lot of huffing and puffing as the various opposition AMs rise to their hind legs to express their outrage.  It’s at least possible that there will be an occasional instance of genuine outrage, but most of it will be manufactured especially for the occasion – or rather in the hope of getting a brief clip into the BBC report on the debate.
Ultimately, the vote is about one of those monumental irrelevances of which politicians of all shades seem so fond, but which are a real turn off for the rest of us.  Because they’re not debating the threat – whether real or imagined – to local hospitals, nor even the principle as to whether service configurations (the posh euphemism for changes to what hospitals do) need to be made.
No, they’re debating whether or not the government might have done what all known governments in all known countries have done on a regular basis – try to influence the conclusions of an external report to justify their own actions.  And the evidence that the Minister herself was involved, even if such an attempt was made, is rather less than flimsy.  It's a 'bubble' debate of classic proportions.
It’s just as well, of course, that they’re not actually debating the substance of any proposed or mooted changes to the health service in Wales, because the only thing that unites the opposition parties when it comes to the substance is opposition to what Labour propose - whatever Labour might propose.  (And, in the interests of fairness, I think we can say that were there to be a non-Labour Government proposing the same, or indeed any, changes, then Labour would be equally opposed).
Whilst the three opposition parties are all against Plan A, the chances of them ever agreeing on a Plan B are slim, to say the least.  (And that doesn’t only apply in the field of health care.)
In that context, one has to wonder about some of the calls recently for the three opposition parties to work more closely together in the Assembly.  To what end?  It might make for more exciting television news bulletins, and give print reporters something to write about as they try to hype up the drama around the at-best theoretical possibility of a government defeat, but what would it actually achieve?
The only obvious outcome that I can see is to confirm Labour’s narrative that everyone is either with them or with the Tories.  That certainly helps Labour electorally; and it may even help the Tories by painting them very clearly as the main opposition.  But it doesn’t obviously help either Plaid or the Lib Dems - let alone the electorate.  And it tells us little or nothing about any alternative proposals.
The hope of many of those of us who spent so much time and effort arguing for a new democracy in Wales was to build a different type of institution, not merely to ape the confrontational style of Westminster.  It seems, however, as though many of our AMs, aided and abetted by the media, who are pursuing their own need for something less anodyne to report, are intent on creating a Westminster writ small.  But even Westminster could find a better subject for a motion of no confidence than this one.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

City Regions to widen Wales GVA gap?

I don’t share the near-unanimity with which the report of the Task and Finish Group on City Regions (available here) seems to have been greeted, but then I’ve never particularly been one for going with the consensus.  When I read the report, it reminded me rather of the saying that I remember once seeing on the back of a box of England’s Glory matches – “he drew an unwarranted straight line all the way across from an invalid premise to an unjustified conclusion”.
My biggest problem is that the report starts from the clear beliefs that, firstly city regions work and that secondly, there is a critical mass which makes them work (although the basis for placing that critical mass at any particular level is not obviously evidenced).  Any failed attempt at a city region is then ascribed to ‘parochialism and tribalism’ (evidence in support of that, beyond anecdote, once again not being entirely obvious), and any success by cities which are not ‘city regions’ is explained by saying that “some [cities] are perfectly capable of thriving economically without recourse to the concept”
But if not all cities need the concept, and if some of those that do adopt it fail anyway, where is the hard evidence that says the concept ‘works’ and can thus be applied successfully elsewhere, or that identifies in advance which cities need the concept and which do not?  'Knowing' that the concept works and then dismissing any counter instances looks more like an act of faith than evidence-based policy making.  Correlation and history aren’t the same thing as cause and effect.  And without satisfactorily evidencing the basic premise, it’s hard to accept the conclusions drawn from it.
Even where success is demonstrated, the report highlights the different things which different city regions have done to achieve their success.  It surely has to be at least possible that it is those particular approaches which have led to the success, not to the fact that they were undertaken by something called a city region.  Perhaps the same approach by a smaller city, or by a larger nation would have been equally successful.
For sure, there are statements such as “OECD research has shown that the common feature of poorly performing areas is a population with a high proportion of low qualifications”.  But which is the chicken and which is the egg?  Is the area performing poorly because of low skills or have all the highly skilled people left because of the poor performance?  The answer to that question is highly relevant to Wales, many parts of which lose their most highly-educated young people; but if the exodus follows poor performance, then increasing skill levels won’t necessarily improve performance.  Indeed, if it leads to a larger exodus, it could even make things worse.
Then we have the statement, with which I have no quibble at all, that “in Wales, our cities generate only 33% of our income/wealth which is significantly the lowest proportion of all UK nations and regions”.  Where I would quibble, though, is with the very next sentence, “It is a reasonable assumption that this is a key factor in explaining Wales’s relatively weak performance on productivity and average wages.”  I’m not at all convinced that one flows from the other.  If a smaller percentage live in cities, then cities will generate a smaller proportion of income and wealth; that's simple artithmetic.  What matters is not what proportion of Wales’ wealth comes from cities, but what the total level, and level per head, of that wealth is.
So, I’m not convinced.  I am concerned, however, at some of the policy suggestions which stem from this report, given my doubts about the premise.  Take, for instance, this sentence from recommendation number 20: “if city regions are the engines of growth, they must be the principal beneficiary of transport, housing, inward investment and funding”.  Am I alone in seeing something of a chicken-and-egg argument here as well?  If the only way that the city regions are going to provide the growth is by diverting investment from the rest of Wales, then isn’t it just possible that it’s that concentration of investment which makes the difference rather than the establishment of the region per se?
It’s a statement backed up by a not particularly subtle suggestion that the EU funding being allocated to the parts of Wales which are designated as being the poorest should be spent in a way which maximises the benefit to those areas considered the richest.  That sounds like a sort of inverted Robin Hood approach to economic development in Wales.  And it seems calculated to lead to a situation where the GVA gap between England and Wales is reduced, but at the expense of increasing the GVA gap between different parts of Wales.  It’s a Cardiff- and Swansea-centric approach which mirrors on a Welsh scale the London-centric approach which many of us have railed against for decades.
As if to, albeit unintentionally I suspect, underline that point, Rhodri Morgan said this in his column in Saturday’s Western Mail: “it doesn’t make sense to tell potential punters exactly where within the city-region you want them to put their new jobs.  Keep it simple.  Just come to Wales.”  And if I substitute ‘the UK’ for both ‘city-region’ and ‘Wales’, doesn’t it still say much the same thing?  If we want to see more geographical equality across Wales, we won’t get it by putting all our eggs in the Cardiff-Swansea baskets.

Monday 16 July 2012

Off the line

As was widely-trailed in advance, common sense has prevailed on the issue of rail electrification, and the project will now terminate at Swansea rather than Cardiff, and include the Valleys lines.  It’s good news, as far as it goes (pun intended).
Transport expert, Mark Berry, was quoted as saying that “Without electrification [Swansea] would have been perceived as being off the end of the line”.  True, of course.  And, even with electrification, what will be the perception of Llanelli, Carmarthen, and Pembrokeshire?  The statement, surely, is just as applicable.  And the additional danger is that the need to change train at Swansea will increase as the proportion of electric services to Swansea increases, thereby also increasing the perception that we are somewhere beyond the end of the line.
It would have been unreasonable and unrealistic, of course, to expect today’s announcement to have included the electrification of our lines down here in the far west.  It would have been nice, though, to have seen today’s announcement placed in the context of a wider ambition to electrify the whole network, and to see some sort of outline timetable for achieving that.  It isn’t just West Wales that’s left out; the north is largely ignored as well.  And nor are the forgotten or ignored limited to Wales either.
I accept that it would be some years before the work could be carried out, and that there are real opportunities for us to get more, and improved, rolling stock as the hand-me-downs from those areas lucky enough to be electrified are redeployed.  Existing diesel rolling stock has probably got up to 30, maybe 40 years of useful life; so the timescale that I’d like to have seen put on completing the electrification of the network would be one which enabled the government to proclaim that ‘all new rolling stock will be electric’.  That lack of a strategic view of rail investment is one which has dogged the UK for decades, and it’s still lacking today.
I’m still unconvinced by the claim that saving 15-20 minutes off journey times to London will make a huge difference to the economic prospects of Wales.  The benefits of electrification as I see them are more around increased reliability, lower cost, and the environmental benefits (provided that the electricity is generated from ‘clean’ sources).  In that context, the announcement that it will be partly paid for by above inflation fare increases is rather less welcome.  The idea of investment in rail as a way of encouraging a switch from road to rail for environmental reasons still doesn’t seem to have been fully understood.

Friday 13 July 2012

Even Commoner than the Commons

This is quite an old story, but I’ll admit that it had passed me by.  The UK Coalition is introducing a new stage in the legislative process called the ‘public reading’ stage, which creates a formal mechanism for members of the public to comment on, and suggest amendments to, parliamentary bills.  It’s been piloted on the rather Orwellian-named “Protection of Freedoms” Bill, but will in due course be introduced as a formal stage for all legislation.
I can’t imagine that many of us will take advantage of this process, or that the Government would pay very much attention to anything we did say.  It is likely, however, to be used by a range of interest groups, often people who have a degree of expertise and knowledge which is lacking in the average MP.  The sort of expertise and knowledge which supporters of the continuation of a second chamber argue that chamber should provide.
At the heart of the debate about the future of the House of Lords is the desire of some to have a mechanism by which someone else can do the job which MPs seem patently unable or unwilling to do, namely to scrutinise badly drafted legislation and suggest amendments.  At the same time, however, they want to avoid giving those scrutineers any real power or influence which might enable them to challenge the right of the House of Commons to pass badly-drafted legislation any time it the government so wishes.
This new legislative stage might provide an alternative way of doing that; and the scrutineers wouldn’t even need to be paid, let alone provided with an elegant club house in Westminster with nice red benches upon which to rest their backsides.  It’s not a bad idea, although I have a preference, whatever other changes are made, for those sitting on the green benches to do the job for which they are elected rather than behave as slaves to the whips.

Thursday 12 July 2012

Saving Private Jones

The attitude of nationalists towards the armed forces has long been ambivalent at best.  There are those who see the armed forces as being something very ‘British’ and therefore to be opposed per se; but there’s a much stronger element of anti-militarism as well.
It hasn’t always been as strong as the avowed pacifism of Gwynfor, but pacifism has long been a strong thread in the national movement in Wales.  Opposition to WMD comes naturally to most of us; but it’s stronger than that.  Even amongst those who are not outright pacifists, there has long been an opposition to foreign military adventures, including most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a demand for a reduction in military expenditure.
Until comparatively recently, one of the core arguments put forward by nationalists was that an independent Wales would spend much less on armaments and armed forces as a proportion of GDP, and therefore have more resources available for peaceful purposes.
More recently, however, the apparent support given by MPs from all four parties to the proposed Defence Academy at St Athan, and the support apparently offered by the Welsh Government for both that scheme and the expansion of UAV testing at Aberporth were something of a surprise and a disappointment, as was the argument put forward by some in 2010 that Wales should have its ‘fair share’ of military expenditure.
The ambivalence has come to the fore again over the past couple of weeks with the discussions over cuts to the size of the UK’s Armed Forces.  The outcome seems to have been opposition to any cuts to ‘Welsh’ units.  That seems to me to be mistaken, and a result of some confused thinking.
There is inconsistency here.  If we want to spend less on ‘defence’, then job cuts are inevitable.  Preservation of all historic regiments cannot be reconciled with a reduction in the total number of those regiments.  It’s no use calling for swords to be turned into ploughshares if we then oppose the closure of the sword factory because it will lose jobs.
The challenge is not to protect what is but to build what should be; the demand should be for the savings to be used to create new jobs and industries, not for the preservation of remnants of an imperial past.

Wednesday 11 July 2012

Centralising health care

When organisations engage consultants to tell them what to do, they usually already know the answer; they just need an outsider to boost their credibility.  It’s why consultants are often referred to as people who borrow your watch to tell you the time; as often as not, they simply write down in black and white exactly what you want them to write.
Those paying the outside consultants inevitably have a degree of influence over what they write; and those who have the most influence are those who choose the consultants and write their brief.  In all of this, governments and public sector bodies are no different from private sector companies; he who pays the piper calls the tune.
No-one should be surprised that the report on the Welsh Health service written for the Welsh Government comes down in support of the Government’s changes; that was pretty much guaranteed from the outset.  The danger is that politicians get so involved in trying to discredit both the report’s author and the minister, for largely political reasons, that they lose sight of the underlying arguments.
As far as I can see, there is a high level of consensus (albeit not unanimity) amongst health professionals that there needs to be a shift in the balance between what is delivered locally from a number of generalist units and what is delivered more centrally from a smaller number of specialist units.  That is being driven by a number of factors, including the increasing specialisation of practitioners, the need to maintain specialists’ skills through them seeing an adequate number of cases, the increasing cost of some treatments and equipment, and recruitment difficulties. 
None of those factors have a terribly high level of respect for the rurality of Wales.  But neither is there anything in any of those factors which undermines the argument for most of the more routine cases to continue to be dealt with locally.  The problem is where to draw the line – and what happens when, as many of those believe is now the case, the line needs to be moved?
There is a natural tendency for people to want to retain as many services as possible in their local hospitals – and there is a natural tendency for politicians who want their votes to support them in that desire.  (And it isn’t limited to opposition politicians; some Labour AMs have been equally quick to make the same arguments, even if it’s their government behind the changes.)
So far, the government has simply not been getting its case across effectively.  When opposition AMs – and even government AMs – denounce any and every proposed change as a ‘downgrading’ of one hospital or another, the rational argument for some change quickly gets lost in the shouting and demands for resignations.  The government hasn’t always helped its own case; the concentration has always seemed to be on what’s moving from a hospital rather than on what’s staying; but then, that which is changing is always more interesting than that which is staying the same.
Faced with such difficulties, it’s hardly a surprise that the government sought some outside help to examine the situation and shore up its position.  Nor is it surprising that the expert selected is sympathetic to the government’s position; the majority of other experts in the field would have been equally sympathetic.  So why are they in such a mess now?
I suspect that it’s partly because the move to make changes is to some extent anticipatory rather than reactive.  The search for the ‘killer’ arguments about how the current system is letting patients down is a vain search if the problems being addressed are those of the future rather than the past.  The danger is that waiting for the killer arguments is likely to mean that they become exactly that – killers.  Waiting until there are a sufficient number of excess mortalities to prove the case isn’t really what I want of government.
And yet, without those arguments, it can, and frequently does, look as though the government is acting for financial rather than clinical reasons.  And the e-mails released this week give the appearance of a degree of selection of relevant facts and statistics to support a pre-determined outcome.
Whatever the outcome of this week’s hoo-hah, the underlying problem will not go away.  We need a sensible and rational debate about what local hospitals can or cannot continue to do, safely and effectively – and what requires a degree of specialisation which simply cannot be provided locally.  I’m not seeing much of that debate at present.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Abolish their lordships

Europe isn’t the only question on which the Tory Party is in danger of tying itself in knots; they seem to have a similar urge for self-inflicted damage when it comes to reforming the House of Lords.  And there seems to be at least a degree of overlap between those who regard reform of the Lords as a dry irrelevant constitutional issue, not to be embarked upon at a time when the economy should be the central consideration, and those who regard reform of the UK’s terms of membership of the EU as being an absolutely vital and urgent question.
It made me wonder whether they’re not both to do, at least to a degree, with the question of where power lies, or is perceived to lie.  The fear of the opponents of reforming the Lords is that an elected chamber would have a democratic legitimacy which would make it a rival to the Commons; and those who want to turn the UK into some sort of associate member, at best, of the EU are forever talking about ‘repatriating powers from Brussels’.
The common thread is that, in both cases, they want to see all power residing in one place, the Commons.  It’s no coincidence that some of them are also strong anti-devolutionists.  There’s an irony of course.  It’s certainly true that the Commons has lost a lot of power in recent decades.  But most of it hasn’t gone to the Lords, to Brussels, or to the Welsh and Scottish parliaments, however – it’s gone to the Executive.  And it’s been ceded by the legislature to the executive by the MPs themselves, who have allowed successive governments to take more and more power away from them.
The problem with the government’s proposals for reform of the Lords is that they don’t go far enough.  If we didn’t have a second chamber, I can’t believe that anyone would suggest that we needed one (there is, for instance, no serious suggestion that either Wales or Scotland need an additional chamber).  The role of the second house has evolved largely by accident, from a place where the aristocracy were represented to a place where laws can be revised or delayed (but not too much). 
All of the proposals for reform seem to take its existence as a given; they only deal with how its members are selected.  But if the Commons did its job properly, and was less beholden to the Executive, we wouldn’t need a second chamber at all.  The logical position for those who fear an elected chamber is to call for abolition, and to make the Commons more independent of the Executive.  They seem, though, to want to pretend that they have the real power rather than actually seek it.

Monday 9 July 2012

Poverty and wealth are two sides of the same coin

Abolition of poverty is a worthy aim, and the Welsh Government’s Action Plan for Tackling Poverty (available here) published a fortnight ago is clearly based on the best of intentions.  I wouldn’t disagree with any of the proposed actions in themselves, and given the limited powers available to the Welsh Government, it’s probably unrealistic to expect much more.
I was left a little uneasy by some of the references to people having ‘problems’ with which they needed assistance; not because we shouldn’t be helping people to overcome difficulties, but because of the implicit suggestion of dysfunctionality and fault.  Whilst there’s no doubt that some low-income families suffer from some of the problems referred to, so do some families in other income groups, and it’s that apparent association of dysfunctionality and poverty which left me uneasy.
The real question, though, is to what extent the measures in the plan, even if all implemented successfully, will actually reduce poverty.  Given that it’s fairly easy to improve the lot of those marginally below the line, it’s probable that any figures produced will show some improvement, but that may not reflect a significant improvement for the remainder.
The main reason for my doubt is that there is a difference between mitigating the effects of poverty and eliminating poverty itself, and it seemed to me that most of the actions proposed fall into the first category, not the second.  That doesn’t negate the value of the actions proposed, but it does lead me to challenge whether they will eliminate poverty or merely redistribute it.
Take educational attainment for instance.  There is a clear relationship between poverty and attainment, and improving the levels of attainment of the poorest will help to close that gap – or even eliminate it.  But even if every child attains the level of educational success needed for entry into higher education, the government’s other announcement last week of a cap on the number of university places means that the proportion actually receiving such an education will not increase.
And unless the balance between well-paid jobs and low-paid jobs in the economy changes, then the same number of people will still be employed in low-paid jobs.  There may be more mobility between income groups – but every opportunity for someone from a poor background to take a high-paid job means an equal ‘opportunity’ for someone from a high-income background to take a low-paid job.
What that in turn underlines is that any real attempt to tackle poverty has to deal with the levels of income and wealth inequality; the cake has to be shared more equally.  That’s outside the remit of the Welsh Government, of course.  But they don’t even seem to be acknowledging the problem.

Friday 6 July 2012

Union jackery

The Sunday Times reported at the weekend that the UK Coalition Government is proposing to change the basis of the citizenship guidance and test for new immigrants.  Amongst other things, they’re proposing that new immigrants should demonstrate that they know the words of the first verse of the UK’s National anthem.  The ability to sing it in tune is presumably optional, as is any knowledge of anything beyond the first verse, particularly, one suspects, any unfortunate references to crushing rebellious Scots.
The government’s definition of the vital elements which new immigrants require to know will also include Shakespeare, Brunel, Elgar and the publication of the King James Bible.  Excised from the previous government’s version of the same document will be any references to benefits, human rights, and Thatcher as a ‘divisive’ figure.
(As an aside, the fact that a change of government can lead to such a change of emphasis also tells us that the identity being portrayed does not perhaps have the timeless and unchanging character which one might think, listening to the way some politicians talk.  It’s not something objective and apolitical at all.)
We’ve also seen something of an outbreak of what some have called ‘union jackery’ recently, what with the Royal Jubilee and the procession of the Olympic flame around the kingdom, and it’s easy to see some sort of conspiracy to impose a particular straightjacket of identity, in the context of growing national sentiment in Wales, and even more so in Scotland.  That seems to be an over-simplistic response, however; I'm not convinced that the 'establishment' is sufficiently organised or cohesive to run such a conspiracy.
In any event, I'm not sure that it would worry me over-much if they were.  After all, there’s nothing at all unusual about any state seeking to reinforce a sense of belonging and loyalty amongst its populace.  It helps to legitimise the status quo.  As far as I can see, it’s something that every country does in one way or another, and I don’t for a moment doubt that Wales and Scotland, were they to become independent, would do much the same, even if the official identity being promulgated were to be rather different.  States use symbols, institutions, events, and history to attempt to reinforce a sense of identification which then legitimises the state.
What’s more interesting for me is which symbols etc. they choose.  The anthem is an obvious symbol.  (I wonder, though, what the reaction would be to a suggestion that anyone moving to Wales should demonstrate that they know Hen Wlad fy Nhadau.  On second thoughts, I don’t really wonder at all – I think I have a fairly good idea how that suggestion would be greeted…).  Celebrating the achievements of individuals who are outstanding in their field is another obvious one.  And what’s wrong with celebrating national history?
But once we go beyond such (comparatively!) uncontroversial symbols as flags and songs, people start to make choices about what to stress and what to gloss over, and those choices tell us something about the ‘establishment’ view of what identity is.  One feature which immediately strikes me is the overwhelmingly 'English' feel around the selections made.  Inevitable, probably, given that England makes up 85% of the population.  And almost certainly not conscious or deliberate - but obvious anyway.  But what it means is that the symbols etcetera used to express 'British' identity today could, by and large, simply be relabelled and used to express 'English' identity were Wales and Scotland to become independent.  It's part of the reason why 'English' and 'British' are interchangeable for many in England.

Another feature is the strongly militaristic element to the UK establishment’s view of identity, which we see not only in a selective view of history which often concentrates on wars and battles, but also in the prominent role of the military when it comes to ‘national’ ceremonies and events.  The comparatively recent introduction of Armed Forces Day is a case in point.
Perhaps that militaristic element is part of what makes me react against the establishment view of Britishness.  It’s not a particularly nationalist perspective, but for those of us opposed to militarism, it’s easy to feel excluded from, and alienated from, an identity which seems to insist on emphasising past military glory to such a significant degree.
Identity is a complex business, based on a whole range of factors, and with more movement and migration, it’s becoming more complex, not less so.  Allowing politicians to seek to define it in ways which suit their purposes or reflect their perspectives inevitably leads to over-simplification, and that’s reflected in the Sunday Times’ headline, which read “God Save the Queen test for migrants”.
But there’s a second reason for being relaxed about the whole thing.  The idea that identity can be imposed on anyone is very much in the past.  People have more exposure to a range of influences than they did when the UK’s anthem was written.  Loyalty to queen and country is no longer as automatic as it was, nor does failure to demonstrate such loyalty have the dire consequences which it held in the distant past.  Identity can still be reinforced to some extent, but you can only 'reinforce' what already exists to at least a degree.  I suspect that attempting to promulgate and impose a particular view of a particular identity is now more likely to be counter-productive than effective.
One small example of that was the question raised when the Olympic torch passed through this neck of the words as to why the organisers were giving out Union Jacks but not y Ddraig Goch for people to wave.  It doesn’t mean that everyone's gone nationalist, merely that attitudes have changed.  The days when such a question wouldn’t even have been asked are long gone.
National identity these days is much more bottom-up than top-down; people can and do choose their identity (or even identities – there’s nothing odd to me about having more than one).  The attempt, by both the last and the present UK Government, to define identity in a very narrow fashion is backward-looking.  It makes those who promote it look rather Canute-like, except without the wisdom to know that failure is certain.

Thursday 5 July 2012

Weak Wales

I may not like some of the comments made by Gerry Holtham in his evidence to the House of Lords, as reported yesterday, but it is hard to disagree with those relating to the economic situation of Wales, even if some of his comments about Welsh, Gaelic and the Highland Clearances seem to be somewhat outside his usual sphere of expertise.
The Welsh economy is indeed a great deal weaker than that of Scotland, and we do indeed have a problem with a deficit budget.  And we certainly don’t have any oil – well, none that has been proven yet anyway.  He may even be right that the departure of Scotland will not improve the prospects for a renegotiation of Barnett, although that is more political opinion than financial analysis.
He’s very blunt about Wales’ negotiating position; we have no cards to play, so can expect nothing.  And his line that we’ll get what we’ve always got, “which is nothing”, is similar to a point made by many in their critique of the current relationship of Wales with the UK.
With all of that I can, more or less, agree.  I’m not so convinced about the conclusions drawn on the basis of the analysis however – mostly because they offer no constructive way forward.  They seem to assume that this is the way things are, this is they way they’ve always been, and this is the way that they’ll always be.  It’s a depressing prospect.
It would be too easy simply to blame the current set-up for Wales’ position.  Of course the situation in which we find ourselves is a result of the policies followed over a lengthy period.  It isn’t, though, that those policies were designed to do Wales down; it’s more that policies which only look at the bottom line for the UK as a whole have allowed the variation in prosperity to remain and grow.  It’s a result of policy, not an intention of policy, although that’s little consolation to those on the wrong end of the policies concerned.
The question is how we bring about change, and simply carrying on as at present seems to be the least likely way of doing that.  Apparently, despite popular belief, it was not Einstein who said that “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results”, but the misattribution takes nothing away from the relevance of the quote.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that doing something different will bring a different result, of course; but surely doing something different at least deserves some consideration from the sane.
Greater autonomy for Wales carries no guarantee of a solution for Wales’ economic problems, but not having that autonomy seems almost to guarantee that we will be forever seeking mitigation of effect rather than solution.  My conclusion has long been that taking responsibility for our own future has to be a better alternative than waiting for someone else to do something – at the very least, it gives us the focus on the problem which is currently lacking. 

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Dangerous separatism

The Tory Party under Cameron seems to be determined to get itself into the same sort of mess over Europe as it managed to do under Major.  Cameron himself looks increasingly like the prisoner of his party rather than its leader; forced into a position of conceding that there will be a referendum, even if to date he doesn’t really know when or why.
It’s an issue with which Glyn Davies seems to be having some difficulty, although his problem seems not to be with the question of holding a referendum or even of leaving the EU, but with the consequences of holding a vote and getting the ‘wrong’ answer.  I suspect that there are a lot of Tories who really want to leave the EU, but are, like Glyn, afraid that a vote might go the wrong way from their perspective.
I agree with Glyn’s analysis that a ‘yes’ vote would probably strengthen the hand of integrationists, but I’m less certain than he is that the answer would indeed be a ‘yes’.  It’s a golden rule of referendums that people don’t call for them unless they think they have a good chance of winning them.
A lot has changed since the 1975 referendum; at that time, the entire UK political establishment was lined up in favour of entering the then Common Market, backed up by the entire mainstream media.  It would be different in any new referendum; I have a sense that isolationism is in the ascendancy within the Tory Party as well as in sections of the media.  The full extent of that ascendancy within the Tory Party in particular is probably being hidden at present; but it would become more obvious once any referendum was called.
I was opposed to entry in 1975, and spent the campaign period delivering leaflets and talking to people on doorsteps; and there is much about the EU about which I am not exactly enthusiastic.  I’m convinced, however, that the best place for Wales – and the UK – to be is in, rather than out, and the separatist views being expressed by many Tories seem to be more about harking back to an imagined glorious past rather than about looking to the future.
The UK has long looked like a reluctant – even recalcitrant – member of the EU, and that hasn’t always maximised the UK’s influence at the negotiating table.  Why would anyone listen to the member who looks like he doesn’t really want to be there?  In that sense, I hope that Glyn’s view is right.  No issue like this can ever be settled ‘for ever’, but a more specific and enthusiastic commitment would be a step forward, for a while at least.

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Verbal gymnastics

There is a lot with which I can agree in the report (available here) on Energy Policy and Planning published last week by the National Assembly’s Environment and Sustainability Committee.  I was surprised by their apparent faith in the future viability of Carbon Capture and Storage, however.  That faith does not seem to be justified by the evidence at this stage, but that’s a comparatively minor disagreement.  My real disagreement is with what they have to say about nuclear energy and in particular with the support of a majority on the Committee for the construction of Wylfa B.
I tend to agree with the views expressed by Gareth Clubb of Friends of the Earth in the report in the Western Mail, who referred to a lack of evidence presented to the committee which would support their conclusion that there are “strong economic arguments” for Wylfa B.  It looks, rather, as though the supporters of nuclear energy on the committee had pretty much made their mind up before even considering the evidence.
It’s clear from the report’s wording that the committee sees nuclear energy as both a “low cost” form of energy and a “short term” solution.  Unless they are using some very odd definitions of those terms, it’s hard to see how they can make either of them stand up.
The most optimistic estimates of timescales for new nuclear build suggest that it will be at least seven years before any new stations will be exporting power to the Grid.  And given previous experience both in the UK and elsewhere, the most optimistic timescales are unlikely to be achieved.  Short term solution it most definitely is not.
Back in the 1950s / 1960s, it was claimed by the proponents of nuclear energy that the electricity produced would be ‘too cheap to meter’.  It wasn’t true then, and it’s not true now.  The construction costs of new stations are enormous, as are the decommissioning costs, and it is clear that new stations will only be built in the UK if the government stumps up massive subsidies.  The subsidies may be disguised in terms such as underwriting waste management costs, but subsidies they will be.  Low cost?  No chance.
The report’s conclusion that nuclear energy is an essential part of the energy mix is rather fatally undermined by the attempt to claim that it is only so if new stations are built at existing sites.  This is simply verbal gymnastics; if nuclear is an essential part of the energy mix, then whether it is built at new or existing sites is irrelevant.  And if the location outweighs other arguments, then it cannot be an essential part of the mix.  (In any event, the proposed Wylfa B isn’t really ‘on an existing site’ anyway – it’s alongside it, which is why the consortium was busy purchasing additional land for the construction.)
Given that Wales is already a net exporter of electricity, and has a number of other new projects in the pipeline already, there is clearly no need in terms of Welsh energy policy for new nuclear capacity.  Such capacity can only be aimed at consumers elsewhere.  And that brings us back to the “strong economic arguments” to which the report refers.
Nowhere in the report are these arguments spelled out, but given that the overall economics of nuclear energy are open to debate, to say the least, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that this is simply a euphemism for the jobs which such a development would provide.  It’s a pretty narrow view of the economics of nuclear energy.
There’s nothing wrong, of course, with the idea that we should produce a surplus of some products and services for export in order to purchase those things which we cannot supply ourselves.  That’s as true for electricity as it is for widgets.  It’s a sensible approach and provides unemployment.
There’s a non-sequitur here though, if that’s the basis of the argument.  There is no necessary or obvious link between a decision to over-produce electricity in order to provide gainful employment, and a requirement to build a new nuclear power station.  In fact, quite the opposite – there are other, better ways of achieving the same objective.
The obvious one is investment in renewable capacity.  Less obvious is investment in energy conservation and insulation – reducing our own demand is as effective a way of producing a surplus as is generating more.  But the key thing is that either of those approaches would almost certainly generate more jobs at lower cost than the nuclear option.  It could be argued, of course, that that’s all very well in theory, but where are the developers proposing to provide those alternative jobs on Ynys Môn?
It’s a valid question, but it betrays an underlying mindset that energy policy is really about government reacting to proposals put forward by private developers rather than driving policy on the basis of what’s right environmentally as well as economically.  And that’s an abdication of responsibility for setting out an energy policy rather than merely tinkering with planning control policy.
One of the problems with the “jobs trumps all else” argument is that it ignores qualitative judgements about what sort of future we want to build in Wales.  And it can be very open-ended.  But there’s surely more to these decisions than that. 
Wales is rich in potential for renewable energy, it gives us a huge advantage over a lot of other countries in decarbonising our economy.  Ignoring that and pursuing a technology on which so many others are busy turning their backs,  for the sake of a smaller number of jobs than we could gain by exploiting our advantages, shows a remarkable lack of vision for an institution which prides itself on having sustainability at its core.

Monday 2 July 2012

More than beheading required

It’s not so very long ago that we were being told that the UK’s top bankers had such ‘scarce and sought-after’ talents that they had to be paid huge salaries and bonuses for fear they might take those talents and abilities somewhere else.  It turns out that the immense talents being rewarded amounted, in some cases, to an ability to win when gambling with dice that they themselves were able to load.  It’s the sort of talent which, in any other walk of life, would be rewarded by a spell as a guest of Her Majesty rather than by a large bonus.
The spectacle of the big cheeses at the top of Barclays trying to hang on to their positions when everyone outside the banking sector can see they have become untenable is unedifying.  Their behaviour is not unusual, however – we’ve seen often enough in the past that people can have difficulty taking a sufficiently objective view of what they’ve done.  And that hasn’t been restricted to bankers - it's not dissimilar to some of the noises that we heard from MPs when the expenses scandal was at its height.
I’m sure that heads will be rolling before too long, and no doubt some will take pleasure in seeing them roll.  It’s not enough though – and there’s a danger that seeing off a few miscreants will be enough to remove the matter from the front pages.  Part of the problem is that the heads that roll will be replaced by other heads, and the probability is that the new heads will be drawn from the same small pool.  (After all, all those involved believe that the necessary talents are ‘scarce and sought-after’, don’t they?)
Does anyone really believe that the practices exposed last week were confined to one bank?  I, for one, don’t - and the news today that RBS had sacked some staff involved in similar activities confirms that it's more widespread than a single bank.  Staff in the banking sector move effortlessly between employers – at its worst, this means that those who screw up for one institution simply get appointed by another.  And the language in which some of the published e-mails were couched makes it clear that those involved thought that what they were doing was perfectly normal, and could see nothing wrong with it.
The Governor of the Bank of England has called for a culture change in banking.  That’s a bit better than merely removing a few heads, but I doubt it will be enough either.  Chris Dillow suggested last week that banking, by the nature of the beast, attracts precisely the sort of people who are likely to chase the money, regardless of morality.  Even were there to be an influx of new people coming in, it's more likely that they'll be swept up by the existing culture than that the culture will change.
In an editorial on the subject last week, the Western Mail suggested that it is ‘human nature’ to exploit weaknesses in the system for personal benefit.  I’m not convinced about it being the nature of all of us; but certainly for those driven first and foremost by personal greed, it’s a fair comment.
In any event, neither chopping off a few heads nor standing on the sidelines demanding culture change is likely to have anything other than a very short term effect.  The sector needs tighter and stronger regulation to ensure that it behaves in the interests of the economy and society as a whole. After all, if 'we didn't break any rules' is part of the line of defence, then changing those rules has to be part of the response.
We’re unlikely to get that, though.  It was notable that Cameron claimed a huge victory last week when he kept the UK out of the proposed new EU banking regime; a regime which might actually have helped by setting some common standards across the EU.  He'd sooner keep the UK out of tighter regulation in order for the bankers to make money at the expense of those who impose tighter regulation.  He, and his friends and donors, have more to gain by a bit of moral condemnation now followed by a swift return to business as usual.