Friday 31 January 2014

Economists and predictions

When the latest set of unemployment figures was published, government ministers rushed to claim all the credit for the improvement, whilst opposition politicians tried to find other avenues of attack.  It’s a sight we can expect on a monthly basis from now until the election in 2015 at least, although in any given month when the figures go the other way, the government will blame factors outside their control, whilst the opposition will shout “told you so”.
Will there really be months when the figures go the other way?  I’d bet on it; variation is a normal part of economic outcomes.  Hard and precise prediction, when it comes to economics, is a bit of a mug’s game.
I thought that one of the most revealing comments in the reporting of the latest figures was the almost throwaway comment on the BBC News that many economists were surprised by the figures.  I thought that deserved rather more attention than it got.
It could just be of course that the government figures for unemployment are actually no more reliable than those for hospital waiting lists or crime, both of which have been found to be, shall we say, “wanting” when it comes to the minor matter of accuracy.  It’s more likely though that it reveals an inconvenient fact about economic forecasting – that the term is an oxymoron.
If economic forecasts made by some economists turn out to be right, it’s more likely to be a result of the sheer number of people making predictions and the range of predictions being made, than of some economists being better than others.  It’s a bit like the hypothetical infinite number of monkeys and typewriters producing the complete works of Shakespeare.
Economics, like any other discipline dealing with human behaviour, is of its nature better at analysing the past than at predicting the future.  There are all sorts of reasons for that, not the least of which is that humans hearing any predictions can, and often do, change their behaviour as a result if they actually believe the predictions, thereby invalidating them.
But if there’s one thing that is less reliable than a prediction made by an economist, it’s a prediction made by a politician based on a prediction made by an economist.  It’s unlikely to stop them though…

Thursday 30 January 2014

Forget the apology

Comments by Michael Fabricant sparked a bit of a Labour-Tory spat this week.  He claimed in an interview that there was no need for Welsh to be used in education in Wales, and that insisting on doing so was holding us back – sentiments with more than a little hint of the infamous Blue Books.
As evidence for his view that Welsh was unnecessary, he pointed to the fact that the Welsh word for neutron was the same as the English.  Others have already pointed out that this is not something which is exactly unique to Wales.  The word itself derives from Latin, of course.  Perhaps we’ve inadvertently stumbled upon the solution to the not insignificant educational problems of England as well – insisting on using English rather than Latin as the medium of instruction is clearly holding them back.
Why anyone would expect the MP for Lichfield to have any useful expertise on matters educational in Wales (even if he does have, as he reminds us from time to time, some Welsh ancestry) is almost as big a mystery as why anyone would take what he has to say seriously.  The point, if there is one, isn’t really about him or the specific point that he made, but about what it tells us about an underlying attitude – ignorance, even – towards Wales, and the Welsh language, amongst those who still make most of our laws.
I don’t blame Keith Davies AM for picking up on that point – although, to be honest, I can perfectly well believe that a similar attitude is shared by many other MPs in London, Labour as well as Tory.  Why on earth, though, did Mr Davies have to pursue the all-too-common political ruse of demanding an apology from the Tories?  It almost invited the even sillier response from the Welsh Tories that “Carwyn Jones is the only person who should be apologising…”.
A serious point about underlying attitudes towards our language in the corridors of power was turned into a slanging match about who should apologise for what and to whom.  And they wonder why politics turns people off?
I really don’t care whether the Tories give a meaningless and insincere apology for the words of one of their members or not.  And I don’t care either whether Carwyn Jones gives an equally meaningless and insincere apology for the state of education in Wales.  I do care about changing the attitudes towards our language, and I care even more about sorting out the educational system in Wales.  I’d have a bit more respect for politicians if I thought that they cared about those things as much as they care about being seen to try and extract pointless apologies.

Wednesday 29 January 2014

Socks, gags, and red tape

A number of MPs and journalists have been getting quite excited recently about what they like to call “gagging clauses” in the agreements under which some public sector employees – notably in the health service – have left their posts.  The suspicion is that, ungagged, the ex-employees concerned would have some juicy stories to tell.
I suspect reality is rather more mundane than that.  What are more properly called “compromise agreements” are not unique to the public sector in any event; and buying the silence of those with whom they are made is rarely – if ever – the main objective (although it would be hard to draw that conclusion from the press coverage).
They are, rather, an attempt to short-circuit the processes which employees who might feel their dismissal to be unfair could otherwise follow, including of course employment tribunals.  Pay people enough, the theory goes, and you can sack them for any reason you like – even the colour of their socks. 
From the employer’s point of view it avoids the hassle and bother of the legal processes.  That’s what some of the same people condemning the practice might otherwise call “red tape” – that’s certainly a label which has been placed on the process by Tory MPs and ministers in the past.  There’s a certain amount of irony in seeing some of that party’s MPs being so vocal about the practice, given that background.
The “gagging” part is usually incidental.  Is it necessary?  In almost all cases, probably not.  Staff offered such an agreement don’t have to accept it, of course – if they do so it’s probably because they think it’s a better deal than they’d otherwise get.  Having left by “mutual consent” looks better on the CV than having been sacked.
On the other hand, if any employer really had sacked someone because they didn’t like the colour of the socks, I suppose that they probably would prefer that not to come out…

Tuesday 28 January 2014

Swords for AMs?

Amongst the evidence given to the Welsh Affairs Committee by the Assembly’s Presiding Officer last week was the proposal that her job should be renamed as Speaker, because that was more recognisable and is used in Westminster.
Neither of those strike me as being particularly good reasons to choose a different name.  And it left unanswered the question as to what the Welsh equivalent would be, although my guess is that it would continue to be Llywydd.  I can, after a fashion, understand why so many AMs seem to want to ape what they see as a “real” Parliament doing, although it’s an attitude which disappoints me.  It’s a sign of insecurity.
Choosing a name because it is used elsewhere rather than using an accurate and meaningful description seems to be elevating the arcane over common sense.  The origin of the title of Speaker seems to be tied up with the idea that one brave MP should speak on behalf of the whole house to the monarch of the day, suitably quaking in his boots as he did so (they were all ‘he’ in those days).  In practice, however, the Crown usually got its way over who should be appointed anyway, and dispatched (in rather permanent fashion) any who brought them news that they didn’t want to hear.
It’s certainly true that large numbers of parliaments throughout the world do use the term Speaker, although it’s worthy of note that it is particularly prevalent amongst parliaments in countries which used to be part of the British Empire.  Aping ‘mother’ is catching.  I wouldn’t say it’s never used outside of that sphere, but chairman or president seems to be a much more common title outside the former empire. 
I’d be tempted to say that perhaps we should simply dispose of the English title completely and use only the Welsh, Llywydd.  It would be following the example of Ireland - although it’s not an entirely happy precedent; whilst using only the Gaelic titles, the actual use of the language itself has declined.
What was proposed may only be a minor name change, but once the Assembly starts reverting to Westminster customs and habits, where will it end?
Will we have AMs pretending to be reluctant (as if!) to take on the lucrative rôle being dragged to the chair?  Or perhaps we should keep collapsible top hats under the chair for when members want to raise points of order (after all, it’s not that long since the House of Commons got around to abolishing that peculiar practice), or provide pegs for the AMs swords, or have the AMs walking round in circles when they want to vote?
Let’s just forget Westminster and its arcane procedures and titles, and concentrate on the job in hand – building a rather more twenty-first century democracy here in Wales.

Monday 27 January 2014

Closing the gap

A week or so ago, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that Europe has “just over 7 per cent of the world’s population, produces around 25 per cent of global GDP and has to finance 50 per cent of global social spending”.
The implication was clear – this is a gap which is unaffordable and needs to be closed.  It’s the sort of view which one would expect from a conservative politician – and it has echoes in the messages from the three mainstream conservative parties in the UK.
I seem to remember that the leader of the (nominally communist) People’s Republic of China also said something not dissimilar a few months ago; Western benefits payments are too generous.
With a gap of this nature exists, however, there are always two ways of closing it.  Increasing the welfare bill in the poorest countries has the same effect on that gap as does reducing the bill in the richest.  The fact that only one of those options ever seems to be suggested by our leaders is instructive – it suggests an acceptance that the “norm” should be closer to what happens elsewhere than to what happens here.  But why do we let them get away with that?

Friday 24 January 2014

Totals, averages, and fair shares

Monday’s Western Mail carried this interesting report quoting a transport consultant as saying that it would be better on average for the Welsh economy to put all new jobs in Cardiff, rather than attempt to spread them around.  I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that he’s right.
But averages can hide a lot of important detail.  There’s a danger that governments which are focussed on ‘averages’ and ‘overall’ seize on this type of argument as justification for further economic centralisation, and for allowing ‘the market’ to do what it would like to do anyway.  It’s a lot easier than attempting to exercise some control. 
The question we face if we’re serious about building a better Wales is not simply about how we increase the country’s total wealth, nor even about how we increase the country’s average wealth.  Both of those can be achieved by economic centralisation and greater inequality.  It is rather about how we spread wealth more evenly.  I for one would prefer to have a less than the maximum possible total national wealth if that wealth was spread more evenly, and a less than the maximum possible average wealth if the variation around the mean was lower.  Otherwise we’re just mimicking the UK.

Thursday 23 January 2014

Conceding ground

It was always going to be simply a matter of time before someone would put their head above the parapet and advocate charging fees for attending state schools.  This week, the headmaster of Wellington College has duly obliged.
Politicians have pooh-poohed the idea at this stage – but I seem to remember that all parties opposed tuition fees for university students at some stage or another, and now all of them support such fees.  It might just be a matter of time until this latest proposal becomes accepted policy as well.
The only thing I found surprising in the proposal is that it is more general in its scope than I expected.  I had thought that the first suggestion along these lines would be for 16 to 18 education, not for the whole of secondary education.  Insofar as there is a logical point at which to draw a line between “free” and “chargeable” education, it is surely the point at which education ceases to be compulsory.
Those who have supported the introduction of tuition fees – and that’s elected politicians from all four parties in Wales – will, on any logical basis, struggle to justify why one form of post-16 education should be treated differently (i.e. charged for) from any other.
Some of the other comments reported I found particularly depressing.
Doctor Seldon said that state schooling was "the last great bastion holding out against the principle of payment".  Sadly he’s right, of course.  Conventional politicians have conceded the principle of charging in so many different areas that it becomes hard for those caught in that mind-set to justify continued ‘exceptions’.  Indeed, the very idea that schools are an ‘exception’ underlines the mind-set.
The concept that services should be paid for by those who use them – even if on a means tested basis – has been allowed to gain the upper hand by politicians who are too timid to argue otherwise for fear of losing the centre ground.  But what they seem not to realise is that their timidity is helping to shift the centre ground.  There are few left who are even prepared to suggest that those who “cannot afford” to pay for services should simply pay more taxes.  But why not?

Wednesday 22 January 2014

How big is big enough?

In its editorial reaction to the report of the Williams Commission, yesterday’s Western Mail told us sternly that “post code lotteries are intolerable within a country of only three million”.  It’s one of those things that “everybody knows” to be true, but it begs two questions.
The first is this: what is the difference between a ‘post code lottery’ on the one hand and differing service levels based on local democratic choice on the other?  The answer, in essence, is that there is no difference; it all depends on perspective.  Centralists instinctively demand complete standardisation and conformity whereas decentralists accept that differing levels and quality of service are an inevitable concomitant – from those two viewpoints they merely describe the same phenomenon in different words.
The second question is this: if three million is too small to allow differing service levels, how many is enough?  It is implicit in any statement saying that ‘n’ is too small that there is a larger number which is not too small; in this case, what the paper calls ‘post code lotteries’ are apparently acceptable if only the population is large enough.  Why?
Hidden behind this is the way in which supporters of devolution – whom I had long thought to be instinctive decentralists – turn out to be centralists in practice in a Welsh context.  Strangely, I’ve heard some argue that they are in favour both of rigid central standards and powerful local government.  I can only conclude that they’re either confused or dishonest, because, for any given service, we really can’t have both.
Somehow, since the advent of devolution from London to Cardiff, an idea seems to have caught on amongst the politicians and media that there is no need or justification for any differences within Wales, whereas differences between Wales and England are perfectly acceptable.  It’s a valid vision for Wales, but it isn’t the one which many espoused before the Assembly was established.  And it isn’t one which ever drove me.

Tuesday 21 January 2014

Another missed opportunity

A cynical description of a management consultant of the sort so popular with businesses and government organisations is “a person who borrows your watch to tell you the time”.  It encapsulates the view that the ‘independent’ ‘experts’ have been hired, first and foremost, to confirm what those hiring them already ‘know’ – but with the extra credibility that comes from being external.
Crucial to this approach is hiring the ‘right’ consultants – they need to be sufficiently compliant – and giving them the ‘right’ brief.  It’s a definition which somehow sprang to mind when I read this sentence in the foreword to the report of the Williams Commission yesterday:
“In establishing us, the First Minister made clear that the status quo was not an option.  We have found extensive and compelling evidence that that is indeed the case.”
The consultants that I’m used to don’t often make their role quite as crystal clear as that; it’s usually a bit more nuanced!  But there can be little doubt that the Commission has told the Welsh Government what it wanted to hear.  Quelle surprise.
Sadly, their brief was written entirely around “governance and delivery”, thereby absolving them of any duty to consider what local government should actually do, and concentrate instead on how they do it.  I wouldn’t argue that there aren’t problems with the how at present, but to adapt a piece of management speak, “doing the wrong things well is probably worse than doing the right things badly”.  It seems, however, that doing things well is deemed more important by the Welsh Government than doing the right things. 
Local Government in Wales is a complete mish-mash of three types of activities, with vague and imprecise boundaries between them:
·         Services where the councils really are free to decide on policy and delivery as they wish.  They can choose to spend more and deliver a better service, or to spend less and cut the council tax.  Different parties and candidates really can promise different approaches which they can then implement when elected.  This category includes things like parks, leisure centres, and libraries.  It’s worth noting that this one area where they have complete freedom is the one area where they currently seem, perversely, to be trying to divest themselves of all responsibility.
·         Secondly, we have some services where the councils have absolutely no scope to set any policy and are totally constrained by the law as to what they can do.  The limit of their scope for being different is perhaps using different and incompatible IT systems to achieve the same ends – things like electoral registration, for instance; or births, deaths and marriages.  I find it hard to see what, if any, value is added in these areas by having locally elected councillors responsible for them.  They are administrative tasks which could just as easily – and probably more efficiently – be managed nationally.
·         Then we have the services in the middle where the local councils like to believe that they have some freedom to set policy and do things differently, but in reality are hide-bound by central directives and standards.  These are things like Social Services and Education – and it’s worth noting that these are precisely the service areas in which local authorities are perceived to be failing.  The two facts might not be unconnected…
I’m not sure whether the services referred to in the third category should actually be delivered by Local Councils at all; I’m open to be convinced either way.  My starting point is that if local councillors with their own democratic mandate are to run services, they should have the freedom to set policy – and the freedom to deliver a poor service as well if they so choose, and if the local electorate choose a bunch of incompetents to run the council.  It’s called democracy.  But if a service is deemed to be too important to be left to local decision-making, then we should stop pretending that local authorities add any value and run the service nationally. 
It all depends on your viewpoint on the extent of any local democratic mandate; I tend to the view that we should maximise local control, and I accept that one inevitable result of that is that service levels and quality will vary; but if the majority believe that consistent service levels are more important, then they should advocate proper central control, as the only way of meeting that objective.
The latest report doesn’t address that sort of question at all – and the Commission is recommending a series of local government mergers on the basis of an assumption that we should simply continue as we are.  The merger process will be costly in the short term, even if we believe that there will be savings in the longer term.  Eyes will inevitably be taken off balls in the process; such problems as we currently have will continue until the process is complete.  It’s a serious missed opportunity.

Monday 20 January 2014

Being right for the wrong reasons

I find it hard to disagree with Ed Miliband’s assertion that banks have become too large and financial power too concentrated in the hands of a few.  That alone is reason enough to want to see some of them broken up into smaller banks.
I’m far less convinced about his apparent belief that the additional competition which he expects to result will bring benefits to businesses, such as more lending.  The faith in “competition” as the answer to just about everything is what gave us the marketization of the health service – perhaps he isn’t so far away from Thatcher and Blair as he’d like us to believe.
Certainly, having more and smaller banks will lead to more competition; it’s the leap beyond that to the conclusions about who would benefit that I would doubt.  Smaller banks are likely to take less risk rather than more; they’ll be competing for the safest, most profitable, customers, not the riskiest ones.  And if banks aren’t lending to businesses at the moment, it isn’t because they can’t – it’s because of their assessment of the likely levels of risk and return.
Paradoxically, Miliband’s advocacy of breaking up the banks may actually have the opposite effect of that he claims.  Insofar as breaking up the banks is one of his better ideas, it’s for completely different reasons than those he gives.

Thursday 16 January 2014

Justice for the plebs, too

We may never know exactly what was or was not said in the infamous exchange between Andrew Mitchell and the police at the gates of Downing Street.  There will probably always be at least two versions to choose between.
What we do know though is that at least one policeman lied; he wasn’t even there but gave a statement reporting what he had “heard”.  (Although, of course, the fact that he wasn’t there to hear what was said doesn’t actually conclusively prove that it wasn’t said either!)
To an extent I have some sympathy with Mitchell, who lost his job as a minister and was disgraced for something which he (in all probability) didn’t actually say: and all on the evidence of a policeman prepared to lie.  I might have even more sympathy if he’d been a little more forthcoming with his own version of events; but in legal terms it isn’t up to him to prove his innocence, it’s up to others to prove his guilt.  To date, they have utterly failed to do so.
There’s another question here though, and that’s about how and why the police came to concoct evidence (there must surely have been more than one of them involved - who told the absent witness what he was supposed to have "heard"?).  It all seems to have been done so casually – it must surely raise a question about how common a practise this is.
I would not wish to suggest that all police are corrupt and dishonest; that is patently not the case.  However the knowledge that most people are more likely to believe a policeman than a defendant in the dock – or even more so than a politician – is likely to be a temptation which occurs to more than one policeman, and in more than one set of circumstances, particularly if they “know” what happened and are merely ensuring that the miscreant gets punished.
Mitchell is in the fortunate position of having the public profile, and the support from the media, to get to the bottom of the matter.  All power to his elbow in that endeavour, but I’d be even more supportive if those less able and privileged who had suffered from a similar approach came forward and were given the same opportunity.

Wednesday 15 January 2014

Selling planning consents

Some of what Cameron said this week on fracking is surely indisputable.  It would undoubtedly create jobs, it would undoubtedly lead to major capital investment, and it would undoubtedly increase UK energy security.

His claim about lower energy bills is rather less certain, and has already been disputed by some of those involved in the industry. I don't doubt his sincerity in claiming that steps will be taken to try and ensure minimal direct environmental damage - although the extent to which any of us can be certain that there will not be damage is another question entirely.  He may turn out to be right, but I don’t currently share his apparent supreme confidence.
However, all of that is about the pros and cons at a practical and economic level; the point he did not make was that an all-out commitment to fracking commits us, effectively, to another century of dependence on fossil fuels.  Gas may be the cleanest (although I prefer the term “least dirty”) of the fossil fuels, but it is still a fossil fuel, and it still produces greenhouse gases.
We should also be concerned about the financial deal suggested this week, in which councils in England will get to keep the whole of the business rates from any fracking site (the Welsh Government has yet to decide whether to follow suit).  I can’t argue against the principle that local communities should gain from any such developments if they do go ahead – after all, I have argued in the past that the same should be true for windfarms.  But tying those benefits into the planning process is another matter entirely.
Some have already called it a “bribe”, and giving local authorities a direct financial incentive to grant planning consent certainly seems to be flying in the face of the (allegedly) quasi-judicial planning process.
For decades, local councillors have been told that they must set aside any personal views about developments, avoid taking any view prior to hearing the report of the planning officers, and then judge planning applications purely on their merits as compared with agreed planning policies, almost as though they were in a court of law.  So – is it actually legal to offer local authorities a direct financial incentive to grant planning consent for a development which they would otherwise refuse?  I’m sure that it would not be if I tried it.

Tuesday 14 January 2014

Benefits and foreigners

As far as I’m aware, the threatened horde of Romanians and Bulgarians who were (according to Conservative politicians and tabloid newspapers) going to flood into the UK in their hundreds of thousands following the relaxation of the rules on 1 January has yet to happen.  I don’t really expect it to happen either – I suspect that this impending ‘crisis’ was manufactured from the outset.
That “stopping immigration” is a popular policy is undoubtedly true.  Immigration is an issue about which people do often express concerns, and vote-hungry politicians are only too happy to seize on those concerns.  But where do the concerns come from in the first place?
I can – after a fashion – understand how they might arise in areas with high immigrant populations.  But from personal experience of many years of canvassing and campaigning in areas with very low levels of non-UK residents (internal migration within the UK is a rather different issue, which I’m going to park, for today at least), concerns about immigration are much more general than that.  Opinion polls seem to confirm that view.
It’s tempting to blame the politicians themselves, or the tabloid press, but although both of them should take some responsibility for fanning the flames, I don’t see any evidence that they were responsible for striking the match.  They are “merely” reflecting back and exaggerating existing fears for their own purposes, be that winning votes or selling newspapers.
So where did the fire start – and why are so few trying, apparently, to extinguish it?  I’m afraid that it starts from a place deep inside the human psyche; an instinctive tendency to distinguish between “us” and “others”.  It gets rationalised around economics – jobs, housing, benefits – but none of those things are the root cause.  It is so deeply ingrained in our nature that I wonder if a distrust of “others” will ever be entirely eliminated.  It presumably served our species well over its long evolution, but whether it serves the needs of an overpopulated, resource-limited, and heavily armed modern world is another question entirely.
But if we can’t eliminate it, we can do more to counter its most pernicious expressions, by dealing in fact rather than myth.  Instead of that however, Cameron and his party seem to be determined to try and outbid UKIP – which has, incredibly, managed to turn itself into the “moderate” anti-foreigner party, when compared with nastier elements – in pandering to prejudice, with talk about stopping benefits for migrants and so on.
One of the most perceptive reactions to Cameron came from the Polish Foreign Minister, who asked “if Britain gets our taxpayers, shouldn’t it also pay their benefits?”  I found that a very fair question indeed – and on two levels.
Firstly, at the level of the immigrants themselves: if they are earning money and paying taxes in any country, why indeed should that country not be responsible for funding their benefits when necessary?  It seems pretty irrefutable that the UK Exchequer has gained more in total income from taxes on the salaries of Eastern European immigrants than it has paid out in benefits, although one would never know that from listening to the likes of Cameron or Duncan-Smith.
But on a more general level, an insistence on only accepting those who have a job to go to and will “make a contribution”, to use the euphemism so beloved by the government, means that the source country loses those most able to earn money, sees their taxes flow into the coffers of another government, and still has to pay the benefit bill for those who remain.  It is not exactly a very fraternal action to take in relation to our European partners, is it?
The stigmatisation of benefits claimants is a worrying feature of modern politics; but seems to be becoming increasingly common across parties.  The double stigmatisation of benefit claimants who happen to be immigrants is doubly concerning. The history of identifying and excluding “others” may well be based on a deep human instinct, but it is not a happy history.  Encouraging it, for whatever short term and selfish purposes, is a dangerous course of action.

Monday 13 January 2014

Clubs, rules, and expulsions

I’m sure that the idea put forward by almost 100 Tory MPs, that the UK Parliament should have the right to refuse to apply any EU rules which it doesn’t like, will prove to be popular in the current anti-foreigner climate which seems to be taking hold in the UK; and the fact that it’s completely unrealistic will only make it more so.  I’m equally sure that the MPs involved (well, most of them anyway!) possess sufficient nous to know that what they’re proposing is a complete non-starter.
Telling the other members of a club that you will unilaterally decide which club rules to follow and which to disregard is a recipe for expulsion from the club – and perhaps that’s their real aim.  The separatists of the Conservative Party (and I rather suspect that there are more of them in parliament than the near 100 who’ve signed this latest little letter) are determined to remove the UK from the EU; their letter probably has more to do with establishing a casus belli than with setting out a realistic way forward.
In essence, however, what they’re asking for is not actually that much different from the formal policy of the UK Government.  Cameron has made it clear many times that he wants to change the rules to allow more decisions to be made at state level rather than at EU level.  The key difference between his position and that of around half of his back-bench “supporters” is that he wants to negotiate such a change, whilst his troops want to just do it unilaterally.
Perhaps Cameron is actually the real target here.  For all the bluster, the likeliest outcome of any “renegotiation” (assuming for a moment that the Tories are elected in 2015 with a sufficient majority to even open such a negotiation – no small assumption in itself) is a rerun of 1975, with a set of minimal changes, presented as more than they really are, which will allow Cameron to claim a great victory and recommend a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum to which he has managed to get himself committed. 
His “supporters” can see that coming, and fear that it would be a huge defeat for their separatist position.  They’re not confident of achieving their objective by that route, so they’re looking for another.  Whether Cameron would get the referendum result he wants is another question entirely. It’s just possible that he’ll be unable to put the genie back in the bottle by then, but the separatists are unwilling to run that risk. 
Pandering to the separatist elements in his party – who are running scared of the even more separatist elements in UKIP - might have bought Cameron some breathing space in the short term, but yielding ground to them is only compounding his problems in the longer term.  With around half his backbenchers taking an impossible position on the EU issue (and who knows how many of those ‘on the payroll’ take a similar view?), it may well not be Cameron’s problem after 2015, even if his party wins.

Friday 10 January 2014

Straw men

Over the Christmas period, the Shadow Governor General of Wales, Owen Smith, treated us to his considered views on the subject of the constitutional future of the UK.  There are parts of his analysis with which I can almost agree.
For instance if he’d said “The Labour Party is one of the great uniting institutions of 20th century Britain and our mission at the start was to bring people together and build with them a more equitable society and a just economy” instead of “The Labour Party is one of the great uniting institutions of 20th century Britain and our mission from the start has been to bring people together and build with them a more equitable society and a just economy”, and made it clear that any such commitment was of the past, then I’d find it hard to disagree.  But political parties have a habit of trying to pretend that they’re still about the principles and aims which led to their establishment, even when they’ve moved on to be mere vehicles for ambitious career politicians, so perhaps we can forgive him that one.
However, when he gets to “... nationalism, in Scotland as elsewhere, is all about the selfish gene”, I have to completely part company with him.  It’s a sweeping and unsubstantiated assertion of a sort which enables him to proceed to demolish the straw man which he has created without ever admitting that he created it in the first place.
I don’t doubt that there are some nationalists who take a very narrow and selfish view – what he describes as am I’m alright Jack philosophy.  I’ve seen some dismissing some issues as ‘not our concern’ or ‘that’s England’s problem’.  Asserting the view of a few to be the view of all is too big a jump, however convenient it may be to his argument.
There are not a few unionists who hold what I’d regard as selfish views in that context as well – wasn’t it a Labour Prime Minister who talked about “British jobs for British workers” for instance?  And aren’t all of the UK parties also queuing up to condemn economic migrants – effectively saying that they’re ‘someone else’s problem’.
He also condemns ‘nationalism based on blood and soil’.  That's another straw man which is all too easy to demolish – but it isn’t what most nationalists are arguing for. 
Destroying arguments that no-one is making is easy, but it isn’t really debate.

Thursday 9 January 2014

Viewing the past through a prism

As targets for a political attack go, one of the most popular comedy series in recent decades doesn’t seem to me to be the wisest choice for any politician to make.  That little consideration didn’t deter the UK Education Minister, Michael Gove, from making a direct criticism of the way in which “Blackadder Goes Forth” portrayed the events of 1914 to 1918.
Leaving aside the wisdom of the way in which he tried to make his point, he does have a point, of sorts, in suggesting that a comedy programme might not have been the most accurate portrayal of the nature of the First World War - but then it never set out to be.  If I wanted an accurate portrayal of history, I wouldn’t go to a comedy writer.  On the other hand, I wouldn’t go to a politician either.
Gove’s point that the way in which events have been shown owes not a little to the political and philosophical outlook of the writers is entirely valid – the problem is his own inability to accept that his own view may be similarly skewed.  He seems to start with an assumption that there is a single “correct” way of interpreting and recounting the events of that sad period in human history; whilst he can see possible subjective bias in others, he struggles to perceive any in himself.
All history is, ultimately, a matter of selecting the ‘important’ facts and ‘interpreting’ them; and all history is necessarily provisional – subject always to the emergence of new information or alternative interpretations.  Without interpretation, history is meaningless.  Even the endless sequence of dates and events which it seems that Gove would like us all to be able to recite will have to be selected by someone.
Gove is, of course, as entitled to his opinion about the interpretation of a particular series of events from a century ago as I am to mine, but I find the idea that any politician should define the “correct” interpretation for the rest of us to be particularly worrying.  It smacks a little of Russia under the totalitarian regime, where it used to be said that “only the future is certain; the past is always changing”, reflecting the way in which those at the top regularly rewrote history to ‘big up’ the role of new leaders, or delete all reference to the disgraced, even to the extent of doctoring photographs to confirm the ‘truth’ of the new version.
Blackadder and “Oh What a Lovely War” may not be to Gove’s liking, but the fact that they are not the whole truth doesn’t mean that they don’t contain some element of truth, and a perspective worthy of consideration.  There’s more than one way of seeing the ‘war to end all wars’; we shouldn’t allow the politicians who want to spend the next four years ‘celebrating’ the events of 1914 to 1918 hide the alternatives for their own purposes.

Wednesday 8 January 2014

Boxing Day fudge

Boxing Day brought the hunting fraternity out in force, and with them came the now traditional annual calls for the repeal of the hunting legislation.  Here in Wales, politicians representing three of Wales’ political parties supported the calls – only Labour was noticeable by its honourable absence from the list.
Whilst it’s clear that politicians from three parties have signed up to demand change, what’s a good deal less clear is how many of those are doing so from any conviction, or whether they’re just saying what they think a particular section of the electorate wants to hear.  A desire to win votes – or at least, to avoid losing them – can lead some to forget any hint of principle or conviction.
Conventional wisdom has it that farmers and rural communities in general are pro-hunting, and that any politician who wants their votes has to reflect that view and be seen to support it.  Given the extent of opposition to repeal shown in a series of opinion polls, I’m far from convinced that ‘conventional wisdom’ should go unchallenged.
Certainly, there is a strong feeling in agricultural areas that fox numbers need to be controlled.  I have no illusions about them being cute furry little creatures, and in a managed countryside can see the need for control measures when problems arise.  But the jump from “we need to control foxes” to “we need to allow groups of people in fancy dress on horseback to follow packs of hounds chasing a single fox for an hour or two before watching the hounds tearing it apart” is a very large jump indeed.  There are a few missing steps in the logic – and they’re missing for a good reason.
I wonder about the honesty of any politician who can so easily jump from the one statement to the other.  I rather suspect that many of them know as well as I do the scale of the non-sequitur involved, but are prepared to fudge it or the sake of their own political careers.
The other fudge used by politicians in Wales is to call for the issue to be devolved to the National Assembly to decide, usually with the sort of nod and wink which implies that a decision taken at a Welsh level would somehow be different.  That idea – that the subtext of devolution is repeal – seems to me to be even more disingenuous.
It’s less conceivable to me that the Assembly would repeal the legislation than that the House of Commons would do so.  It would require two things to happen; firstly that the three opposition parties together could muster more votes than the Labour Party within the Assembly, and secondly that the three opposition parties would all be unanimous in their support for repeal – turning it into a party political issue of Labour vs. the rest.  Whilst the first is a credible scenario, the second, as the English bard might have put it, “stands not within the prospect of belief”; it’s much less likely than an English Tory majority at Westminster overturning the ban.  Perhaps the nodders and winkers are secret opponents of hunting after all – knowing that what they propose would effectively kill the issue in Wales.
There are some, of course, who see the question of repeal as some sort of question of principle, based on the inalienable right of the unspeakable to continue chasing the inedible, largely because they’ve been doing so for centuries.  I don’t think that there are actually many in that category; unprincipled vote-seeking is a much more common motive.  And doing something purely because “we’ve always done it” doesn’t stand up to the more rational scrutiny of the modern era, thankfully.
No doubt the calls for repeal will be repeated fro a few more Boxing Days yet; but the issue has probably been settled permanently by now. It just needs the politicians to stop pretending otherwise, and misleading people in the process.

Tuesday 7 January 2014

The Prime Minister giveth...

… and the Chancellor taketh away.

Sunday’s news gave a great deal of prominence to Cameron’s pledge on pensions.  It was presented as a significant commitment which will give other parties problems if they fail to match it.
It was certainly headline-grabbing, as intended.  Whether it will be as effective as the PM hopes in attracting the votes of the retired and the soon-to-be retired is another question.  As one in the latter category, I can say with certainty that it won’t affect how I vote, but it’s just possible that I’m not a typical voter.  Maybe others – or at least “enough” others – are indeed motivated, as Cameron seems to be assuming, by naked short term self-interest when it comes to voting.
They’d be well-advised to look at the small print, though.  The amount of money involved is not exactly enormous – more like two pieces of silver than twenty – and the older the voter is, the less benefit that he or she will derive from the pledge, based simply on a realistic assessment of life expectancy.  (Indeed, Chris Dillow posted an interesting piece yesterday, pointing out that, counter-intuitively, it is the young, not the old, who will actually benefit more from the policy if sustained for the long term – they’ll just have to wait a long time to see that benefit.)
I’m sure that I wasn’t alone in seeing something of a contradiction, however, between the Prime Minister’s statements that one form of welfare (looking after older people who vote and may even be persuaded to vote Tory) is an essential element of a civilised society, whilst his Chancellor denounced another form of welfare (affecting those who either don’t vote or else are highly unlikely to vote Tory) as unaffordable.  It was a bit like a ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine, but with the sole objective of serving the interests of the Conservative Party.
What the juxtapositioning of the two statements revealed more than anything is that there are always choices which governments can make – something which both the PM and Chancellor have been at great pains to deny to date.  There’s nothing inevitable about any decision on spending, if the will is there.
It’s a pity though that the will seems to relate more to the need to buy, or attempt to buy, electoral support than to meeting needs.

Thursday 2 January 2014

Self-defeating arguments

According to the Sunday Times, “senior Tories” have been warning David Cameron that they fear the opinion polls may turn out to be wrong, and the SNP may snatch victory in the independence referendum after all.  Few of them seem willing to repeat their concerns on the record – indeed, some of these referred to in the report have denied the concerns attributed to them.
Talk about the dangers of complacency and the negativity of the ‘Better Together’ campaign seem to me to be entirely credible, however.  It’s always a problem with opinion polls showing a large lead for one side or the other that those benefiting from said lead can become complacent, whilst those struggling can become desperate.  But recent elections in Scotland have amply demonstrated that the unexpected can, and sometimes does, happen.
It may be, of course, that the Tories are less concerned, in reality, with the future of the union than with the future of their party.  Whilst any rational appraisal of election results over many decades would suggest that the removal of Scottish MPs from the House of Commons would benefit the Tories more than anyone else, I can understand their fear that, in the shorter term, Tory voters in the shires of England – many of whom are what we might call ‘traditionalists’, wedded to ‘what-is’ – might decide to punish any Tory PM who presided over the break-up of the last remnants of empire.
Whatever their underlying motivations, a realisation that the increasingly lurid claims of the campaign led by Alistair Darling that independence would lead to pestilence and plague (well, they haven’t quite got round to that one yet, but they seem to be heading in that general direction) might change the tone of the debate, assuming that those responsible for the negativity start to listen.
Somehow, though, I doubt that they will listen.  They’re too set in a particular mode of campaigning, based on a failure to understand the nature of the desire for independence.  It was a prominent Tory politician around half a century ago, Iain McLeod, who said that people tend to prefer self-government to good government.  He was talking about the break-up of the Empire rather than the Union, and it was rather a patronising way of expressing himself.  It was, though, a recognition of the mood of the time, and an understanding, of sorts, of the desire which can drive independence movements.
It’s an understanding which seems to be completely missing from the ‘no’ side in the Scottish debate.  I’m still not confident that the Scots will vote yes in their first independence referendum.  It is, though, entirely clear that there is a clear demand for more self-government.  The failure of unionists to articulate how the UK should change to reflect that may yet lead to exactly the result that the “senior Tories” most fear.