Wednesday 31 July 2013

The problem isn't one person

It was entirely inevitable that holding a by-election in Ynys Môn would reopen Plaid’s self-inflicted wounds over energy policy.  However much party managers might wish that the debate could be postponed until after the by-election, it is the fact of the calling of the election which has reopened the question now.  And in the sense that Plaid, or rather its ex-leader, took the decision to force a snap election now, the date of that election is also self-inflicted.  One Welsh blog in particular has devoted some attention to the question over the last week or two, attracting the attention of the Western Mail’s fearless reporters as a result, who made another attempt to keep the story running this morning.
It is by now no great surprise to see Plaid’s "senior sources" turning their anonymous briefings on the member who supports the party’s policy rather than those who would undermine it for perceived electoral advantage, even if the supporter concerned made his comments more than a tad more personal than was entirely necessary to making the point.  But concentrating on what one candidate, whether current or past, thinks on one aspect of energy policy seems to me to be missing the deeper and more relevant points – firstly what is Plaid for, and secondly what is its energy policy?
Some have argued (Cai makes the point here) that whether or not a new nuclear power station is built is not a core nationalist issue, and it therefore doesn’t matter if some of Plaid’s members take a different view. If Plaid were to present itself as solely – or even primarily – a movement for the achievement of Welsh independence, then I’d agree that an awful lot of policy differences could be simply glossed over.  In that context it doesn’t really matter how we generate electricity, does it?
Well, actually, yes it does.
Perhaps the question of how we generate our electricity is not per se a core nationalist issue, but the economic consequences of such decisions are – or should be – very much nationalist issues.  What assets and liabilities Wales inherits at the point of independence is a vitally important question, and responsibility for decommissioning a nuclear power station, and for managing and disposing of nuclear waste, are two massive potential liabilities on the balance sheet.
The argument for independence may never have been primarily an economic one; but the argument against is very much so.  In that context, supporting Wylfa B – without even considering any of the other arguments for and against – gives a massive boost to the Unionist arguments about the alleged unaffordability of Independence.  Insofar as Wylfa B makes any sense at all, it does so only in the context of a continued union between Wales and England.  Nuclear energy makes more sense for large countries than for small ones.
But in any event, Plaid has long since stopped presenting itself as solely – or even primarily – a movement for the achievement of independence; it also seeks to present itself as a party of government.  And whilst I might not agree with those who have tried to push independence almost entirely off the agenda because they lack the imagination or the ability to do both of those things, I agree with the core assumption that a serious nationalist party which sees independence as a gradual process must be prepared to take responsibility in the short term.
Taking responsibility in the short term, however, requires a coherent and consistent policy platform on a range of issues, and as a minimum that has to include the key issues facing Wales and the world in general.  If we think that man-made climate change is one of those issues – and I do, and I’ve heard plenty of Plaid people saying that they do as well – then energy policy is a key element of any response.  And on that issue, Plaid has a serious problem of which the very public disagreement over Wylfa B is little more than a symptom.
If we imagine that a political earthquake were to take place at the next Assembly election and a majority Plaid government were to be elected, what would be that government’s energy policy?  In truth, we don’t know – it would depend entirely on which Plaid members were elected, not on how many of them.  Even if the party had a majority in the Assembly there can be no guarantee of unity over energy policy.  And as the period between 2007 and 2011 demonstrated, even what the manifesto says cannot necessarily be relied upon.
·         On nuclear energy, whether the party is for or against depends on who you speak to;
·         On wind energy whether the party is for or against depends on who you speak to;
·         On the construction of new gas-fired fired power stations, whether the party is for or against depends on who you speak to;
·         And it recently emerged that on the question of the Severn barrage, whether the party is for or against depends on who you speak to as well.
In the light of that disarray, the only way that a Plaid government could deliver any energy policy at all would be if a majority within the Plaid group could secure the support of members of one or other of the opposition parties for their position.  That hardly gives voters for whom climate change is one of their top issues a sound basis for selecting Plaid as a party of government.
During the recent spat, Plaid members have proudly claimed that in their party, members can at least debate the issues freely.  That’s true, and it’s a great strength of the party.  But it is matched by a corresponding weakness in that nobody ever accepts the result of that debate.  The debate never comes to any conclusion, because those who find themselves on the 'losing' side continue to put their case - usually in a very public fashion.  And one of the results of that has been that although in theory the party’s members control policy, in practice the policy is set by those members who are elected politicians and who decide for themselves what stance to take on these issues.  It’s one of the explanations for the shift in real power over policy from the membership to the elected elite.
Clearly the lack of unity over Wylfa B is a problem for Plaid, but in focusing the debate around the views of one candidate the wider point is being missed.  This is an institutionalised problem of a party with an inability to decide on and promote a single consistent policy on one of the most important issues facing humanity.  With all due respect to MH@Syniadau, with whom I usually tend to agree, that really isn’t simply a problem with Rhun.

Tuesday 30 July 2013

Supply and demand

Over the years I’ve sat in a number of meetings with health service managers and professionals who have patiently explained why there is no need for anyone to worry about reductions in the number of beds in our hospitals.  Their logic has always struck me as impeccable.  Treating more people in the community, shorter hospital stays, less invasive surgery – all of these should indeed lead to a reduction in the total number of beds required.
Logic, however, isn’t enough if there are underlying problems with the data and assumptions.  And if the starting point is not right in the first place, then simply moving the goalposts in line with changes in all the factors listed simply perpetuates any mismatch between total demand and total supply.  Sooner or later such contradictions will inevitably be exposed.
This report a week or two ago that 2600 routine operations were cancelled because of a “lack of beds” should come as no surprise to anyone, in that context.  What was a surprise however – even to a hardened old cynic like me – was the way in which health chiefs explained the situation.  Even more surprising is that they appear to have got away with it.
The problem, to listen to them, is not on the supply side at all – it’s on the demand side.  There aren’t really too few beds – just too many patients.  It’s not their planning and assumptions that are wrong – it’s simply that too many of us became ill last winter.  In short, it’s our fault not theirs.
The problem with dismissing the problems of last winter as some some sort of blip as a result of too many people becoming ill is that no proper action is taken to address the underlying mismatch between supply and demand.  And unless that is done, we can probably expect a repeat at some point in the future.
How on earth are those in authority getting away with this one?

Wednesday 17 July 2013

Carwyn doesn't trust Ed

One of the problems in basing support for keeping Wales in the EU solely on the economic arguments is that those taking that view inevitably have to argue against the Euro-sceptic claim that the UK Government could give us the same money directly.  The Euro-sceptic claim that the money really doesn’t have to go through Brussels at all has an inescapable logic to it.
But economics is indeed the basis of the position taken by Carwyn Jones.  This is what he said earlier this week about a vote to leave the EU:
“Welsh farming would end, basically – £300m of support would disappear.  It wouldn’t come from London, not a hope”.
“That money would certainly be pocketed by Defra [the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs], it wouldn’t come to Wales.  It would mean the end of a substantial market for Welsh farming, and the end of support for Welsh farming.  That worries me tremendously.”
I think that he’s probably right to be sceptical about whether any UK Government would, rather than could, treat Wales as generously.  It’s interesting, though, that he placed no caveat at all on the colour of the UK Government in this context.  He didn’t argue that those wicked evil Tories would simply pocket the cash; he argued that any London Government would do so.
In short, he clearly has no more faith that Ed Miliband would stand up for Wales than that David Cameron would.  Again, I think he’s probably right.  But if he doesn’t trust UK Labour, why should the rest of us?

Monday 15 July 2013

Who's really shocked?

The Western Mail reported on Saturday what it described as a “shock” finding that more Welsh people would vote to leave the European Union than would vote to stay if a referendum were held now.  I’m not sure why that should be a shock to anybody.  As I posted in December last year, I can see no reason for believing that the results of such a referendum would be significantly different in Wales than in England.
They has certainly been some fantasising by some Welsh politicians about the constitutional crisis which would arise if the result were to be different in Wales from the result in England, but no real examination as to why one would believe that the result would be that different.  The fact that the chattering classes in Wales - politicians and journalists alike - hold pro-EU viewpoints does not and never did automatically mean that those voting in any referendum would agree with those viewpoints, yet the assumption that they would seems to have been taken as read.
According to the Western Mail report, the results were described as “reflecting people’s deep disquiet with the current direction of the EU”.  I doubt it.  I’m pretty sure that it’s not such a thought-through reaction as that; in fact, I rather suspect that in Wales, as in England, public reaction to the EU is based on far more visceral concerns, and relates to the sort of attitudes towards foreigners and immigration which are to be found in some of the tabloids.
It’s notable that the main argument used in defence of the EU is that Wales has benefited tremendously in terms of EU structural funding.  Whilst it’s true that Wales has benefited, the argument by opponents of the EU that Brussels is simply redistributing money that “we” have given them is a powerful one.  Certainly, the EU has done a better job of geographical redistribution of funding within the UK than any UK government of either party has achieved, but there is no necessary reason why that should be so. 
And if the best argument that politicians in Wales, particularly Labour politicians, can produce in favour of the EU is that the EU does a better job than they can of distributing UK funds, then the argument seems to be lost from the outset.
Whilst the arguments for and against the EU have usually been presented in economic terms, that was never the basis on which the EU was founded.  In that sense there is a direct parallel with the argument about independence for Wales – much of the debate revolves around economics, but those of us who argue for an independent Wales have never seen economics is the main reason for seeking independence.  And there’s another parallel as well – people are increasingly afraid to put any arguments which aren’t based solely on economic benefit.  Why?