Friday 28 February 2014

I'll take more than a few rules

In his Western Mail column last Saturday, Rhodri Morgan touched on the differences between independence movements in different countries.  He talked specifically about the “holding hands” demonstration in Catalunya when one and a half million people linked hands all the way from the French border to Valencia, a distance of 300 miles.
That”, said Rhodri, “is what a mass movement in support of an independence referendum ought to look like.”  In comparison, we in Wales can only dream of the time when we might have mass support for the concept of independence along with a political movement committed to achieving it.
I suspect that part of what makes the Catalan movement so strong is precisely the way that they been told that they 'cannot' have independence.  The establishment in the UK (in modern times, at least) has never been so blunt and obstinate in its refusal – tolerance is sometimes more effective than oppression.
In the mid-1970s I was the Plaid Cymru guest speaker at an SNP rally.  One of my fellow speakers was Jordi Pujol (who later became president of the Generalitat of Catalunya, a post he held for 23 years).  At the time, he wasn’t arguing for independence.  Not necessarily because he didn’t want to, but because it was a crime against the state in Franco’s Spain to even put the case, and he had served a couple of years in prison already for his political activity.  He argued instead for much more autonomy within a federal state.
With the dawning of a more democratic Spain, people have been freer and more confident in putting the arguments; arbitrary imprisonment is no longer something that they have to fear.  But one major remnant of the Franco regime remains, in this context – the legal fiction that independence is impossible because the constitution forbids it.
Laws, processes, and even constitutions put in place by people can survive only as long as the people allow them to.  The Spanish central authorities will, no doubt, continue to say “no”; but faced with a movement for independence which can mobilise 1½ million people – 20% of the entire population – in a single demonstration, they’ll need a better argument than the wording of the constitution.

Thursday 27 February 2014

More centralisation and quangoes

When I served on a planning committee back in the 1980s, no one batted an eyelid at the idea that I could talk to voters in my ward, ascertain their views, declare in advance that I’d support them, and then go along to a meeting and argue the case on their behalf.  It was sometimes difficult to find out what people thought – opinions were often divided – but representing the views of electors was part of what I thought I was there to do.
It was just after I’d retired as a councillor in 1991 that the new law was implemented turning the planning process into a quasi-judicial one, where any views expressed in advance were held to be prejudicial and to exclude the councillors concerned from speaking of voting on the issue.  It was a part of the then Conservative Government’s policy aimed at emasculating local councils in the interest of promoting development - as if the Town & Country Planning Acts weren’t already sufficiently biased in favour of developers.
Coupled with formal timescales for determining applications, the result was pretty inevitable.  More and more decisions were delegated to officers, and there was less and less room for local democratic expression.
It looks as though Labour in Cardiff are about to complete the process started by the Tories in London, taking further responsibilities away from councillors and giving them either to council officers or else to an arm of central government.
Coupled with a proposal to give the unelected local service boards power to draw up strategic development plans which will sit above the plans drawn up by local councils, it’s another huge shift of power away from elected bodies and into the hands of appointees.  When Labour pretended to be against this sort of thing in the past, they called them quangos.
It also underlines once again the disjointed and incoherent approach to local government which was also well demonstrated in the appointment of the Williams commission.  The government and the Labour Party still haven’t decided what they think local government is for, let alone what powers it should have.
What is the point of local councils – supposedly run by elected members – having a planning function at all if the plans are set elsewhere, along with all the rules for determining applications?  Why not just be honest and have a single national planning authority with a few regional offices?  That would seem to be the direction of travel for Welsh Labour.

Wednesday 26 February 2014

The people will decide

It’s hard to keep up with events in Ukraine.  The nature of politics in Wales is that we get accustomed to the idea that change happens only slowly and that that is the norm.  Yet events elsewhere sometimes develop a different sort of momentum, with the situation changing almost hourly.
I don’t know what the 'final' outcome will be in Ukraine, and neither does anyone else.  The only thing which is clear is that power, for a while at least, has been reclaimed by the people from the institutions and politicians which previously exercised it.  It’s a useful reminder of where power really lies; something we tend to forget.
There’s been a lot of comment about the supposed differences between the Ukrainian speaking west and the Russian speaking east.  I don’t pretend to know enough about the country to judge how accurate those comments are, so I’ll restrict myself to saying that things are rarely as simple and straightforward as that anywhere else, and I’d be surprised if they were in Ukraine either.
It’s entirely predictable though that outsiders would already be telling the Ukrainians that they “can’t” split the country into two.  It’s the sort of “advice” we’ve heard recently a lot closer to home.  It's equally predictable that some within the country see present borders as permanent and unchallengeable and are dismissive of 'separatism'. But borders and countries are a human construct; and history shows them all to be 'temporary' over the long term; it's just that some turn out to be less temporary than others.
Whether a split would be the best outcome for the country I really don’t know; what I do know though is that telling people who have just demonstrated very clearly where power lies what they can and can’t do is missing the point.  Working out 'what the people want' will certainly not be easy in the current situation there and may take some time; but trying to obstruct it is unlikely to be productive. The future size and shape of Ukraine(s) will now be determined by the people(s) who live there.  The rest of the world needs to be ready to offer help to them to build that future, not tell them what it must be. 

Tuesday 25 February 2014

Autonomy won't solve Tory problems

On Saturday, David Melding put forward an interesting suggestion for the Conservative Party in Wales, namely that it could become an autonomous party.  The idea’s been around before, in Scotland, where one Tory leadership contender proposed a similar approach.  The idea seems to have disappeared with his failed attempt at leadership.
A similar arrangement actually existed for some decades in the six counties; whilst the Labour and Conservative parties neither recruited nor organised there, both had what could be seen as sister parties in the province, which could – most of the time at least – be relied upon in Westminster votes.
Perhaps the most obvious contemporary example of sister parties co-operating in a unitary state with a large measure of devolution is in Germany.  The CDU and CSU are almost indistinguishable as a group in the federal parliament, but have drawn a line around Bavaria which neither party crosses; each leaving the other a ‘monopoly’ in its defined areas.  It’s an arrangement which can and does work for them.  Could it work here? 
I’m not entirely convinced – to say the least – that a specifically Welsh Conservative party, even with a new name, would somehow kill the antipathy in Wales towards the Conservatives and all their works.  I don’t think the electorate are quite as gullible as that.
An even bigger problem than the electorate’s lack of gullibility is probably the party’s own internal issues.  Whilst some of the Tories elected to the Assembly since it was established have looked and sounded rather more Welsh than their party’s previous spokespersons in Wales, they aren’t really representative of the party’s membership.  The members are drawn overwhelmingly from the most English and Anglicised elements of the Welsh population; they still have a visceral objection to devolution per se.  Pushing them out of the English party and into a Welsh one might end up doing more to help UKIP than the Tories, after they’ve finished spluttering over their cornflakes.
The reason for the idea coming to the fore here last week was, of course, the row amongst the Tories about who sets taxation policy.  At first sight, the proposal might resolve that sort of dispute.  If the Welsh Conservatives really were an entirely autonomous party, then it would be clear where policy is made, instead of the present situation where members can choose between following their Welsh leader or the English one.
I’m not sure that it’s as easy as that, however.  If the Welsh party and the English party were to act as sister parties at Westminster, then the ‘Welsh’ party’s representatives at Westminster would still face the same problem when it came to voting on devolution of taxation.  As long as the split of powers between Cardiff and London remains a vague and shifting arrangement, “Welsh” policy and “UK” policy will always have an inherent scope for conflict. 

Wednesday 19 February 2014

Asking frivolous questions

Politicians tend to like opinion polls which give them the ‘right’ answer, and disregard those which give them the ‘wrong’ answer, usually with some vague statement about there being ‘only one poll that counts’.  Psephologists and commentators like them because they can provide some sort of information about the overall trends and direction of public opinion.  And journalists like them, because they can write stories about them and fill up all that empty space in their newspapers without too much effort (or in the case of broadcasters, fill a ‘current affairs’ slot when there isn’t much else to report).
But that last point about space-filling is not without its problems.  It seems to be leading to ever more frequent and esoteric questions being asked, all of which provide some nice statistics which can be put into tables and graphs (often with a degree of false precision which would have enraged my maths teachers – sometimes, they're accurate to the nearest .25 of a person, apparently).  The problem is that the more surveys that are conducted, the more they have to try and find different questions to ask; and the more questions they ask, the sillier some of them get.  One of the things that contributes to the silliness and pointlessness of them is giving people false choices and asking them to choose between them as though that is the way in which policy choices are made in practice.
We’ve had two classic examples in the last week.
The first was the finding that, given a direct choice between spending money on foreign aid and spending it on flood relief within the UK, the majority would opt to spend it ‘at home’.  I’m sure that they would, but it isn’t a real choice in practice.  It’s suggestive of an approach to public spending which, if carried far enough, could eliminate an awful lot of spending, as each subject area goes head to head with another, with only one surviving each round.  (I have a horrible feeling there that I might just have come up with an idea for some sort of reality decision-making show…)
The second was the one which said that ‘well over half’ of Welsh people would cut spending on the Welsh language (without, of course, defining what that actually means) when asked to pick three random areas from a list of nine.  I’m not sure that it adds much to the sum total of human knowledge though.  They don’t appear to have been given the choice to cut spending on the English language, yet most of what people think of as spending ‘on Welsh’ can actually be viewed in a different way.  Using two languages can be more expensive that using only one, for sure – but there are more ways than one of responding to that.
There are serious opinion polls which ask people’s opinions on major issues; and there are frivolous ones which are just for fun.  The boundaries between the two aren’t looking as clear cut as they used to.

Tuesday 18 February 2014

Rhetoric and reality

Listening to Barroso talking on Sunday, I wondered whether he hadn’t recognised for himself at the key point that he’d gone a bit too far, and was trying to rein things back by saying that independence is, of course, a matter for the Scots.  I wouldn’t expect him to be an enthusiast for Scottish independence; given the difficulties he faces daily in getting agreement from 27 governments, ‘internal expansion’ of the EU can only make his life a little more difficult.
But he was, ultimately, expressing little more than a personal view, even if that’s a personal view shared by many other EU leaders.  There are other countries that have their own problems with independence movements, which are hoping that the Scots won’t vote for a precedent which would increase their problems.  Whenever I hear someone saying that Scotland won’t be able to join the EU because ‘Spain won’t allow it’, I find myself wondering whether the Spanish unionists aren’t busy telling the Catalans that Cataluña can’t be independent because ‘the UK won’t allow it’.
The point is, of course, that no-one actually knows what will happen if the Scots vote yes.  It’s completely unprecedented for the EU, and not only are there no rules to follow, but the member states facing the problem would, for their own reasons, oppose drawing up any rules in advance.  Fear of the unknown works to their advantage.  However confident the SNP sound on the one hand, and the unionists on the other, neither side can really be certain what will happen.
There are some things we can make a pretty good guess about though. 
·         The first is that, once the campaign rhetoric is safely stored away and the vote over, reality will intrude, and all involved will sit down around a table somewhere and start to discuss what needs to happen.
·         The second is that the territory of Scotland is already part of the EU, and subject to the same parts of its treaties as the rest of the UK.  This is not a negotiation starting from a clean sheet as is often the case with an ‘outside’ new applicant, where much of the time and energy in negotiations concerns the applicability or non-applicability of the various rules and regulations.  The negotiation process will be much simpler, and the comparison with an external new applicant really isn’t valid.
·         Thirdly, given that the whole history of the EU has been one of regular expansion, it is probably reasonable to assume that EU members will prefer to keep Scotland in than expel it, which is what a refusal would amount to.  Whilst Scotland might conceivably go through a period when its territory is inside the EU but its government is not yet part of the institutions, I find it hard to believe that the other EU members would seriously wish to exclude the territory from the EU if negotiations are incomplete.
Both the UK and the EU have shown a remarkable capacity for pragmatism when necessary.  Where is the evidence that a different approach would be pursued, and for what reason?  Whilst, as I noted above, the SNP’s confidence cannot be backed up with absolute certainty, their view seems more likely than not to prevail.
There is one other big question which Barroso seems, sadly, not even to have been asked.  His views as expressed were predicated on the assumption that Scottish independence amounts to secession from the UK, and that the UK retains all the rights of membership.  If, however, one views Scottish independence as more a case of one equal party to a union deciding unilaterally to end that union, then both parts are ‘new’ countries, and neither ‘new’ country can claim a monopoly of the rights of the old.  At the very least, there’s an arguable legal case that RUK would need to re-apply as well.

Monday 17 February 2014

Is it really just about jobs?

Wales has long been a testing ground for the flying of drones.  Although a few brave individual politicians have consistently raised their voices against using our country in this way, far too many have swallowed the convenient excuse that they might also have civilian uses as a fig leaf to defend the jobs which the programme supports.
A fortnight ago, a new drone was unveiled.  This one will fly faster and higher than anything which has gone before, and is also built using ‘stealth’ technology.  It is apparently “the most advanced air system” yet, and is able to “deliver its weapons deep behind enemy lines” (military speak for killing people, although why anyone believes that there are ‘enemy lines’ any more is something of a mystery to me.)
They’re calling it the “future of warfare”; a future based on more effective killing machines with less risk to those who actually order them to kill.  Not exactly part of any future that I’d choose.  They’ve also given it a nice Celtic name, ‘Taranis’. 
One thing is perfectly clear; even if it were true that there might be some limited applications for existing drones in the civilian world, there is no requirement outside the military for stealth technology.  This is a machine which has one, and only one, use – making war.  I’d like to think that any suggestion that it should be flown from the drone testing base in Wales would be rejected out of hand, and that, just for once, the interests of peace would be placed above any possible economic benefit.  It isn’t something I’d put a bet on though.

Friday 14 February 2014

Perception and reality

In his latest contribution to the question of the constitutional future of the UK, Labour’s shadow Secretary of State, Owen Smith, talked of the Union as a way to ‘pool risk and share rewards’.  I’ve long thought that, in pragmatic economic terms, that is potentially one of the strongest arguments for union (at any level).
There is a problem, however, in moving from the theoretical to the practical.  The argument falls down as soon as those at whom it is aimed start to feel that they are getting less than their fair share of the rewards and more than their fair share of the risks.  When that point is reached, the argument neatly inverts; the very lack of fairness in a union becomes an argument against it.
Now, as things currently stand, it is pretty clear to me that those of us who believe both that risk and rewards are currently being shared unequally, and that that situation is unlikely to change, are in a minority.  I may believe – and I know that I’m not alone in this – that the majority viewpoint flies in the face of all the empirical evidence, but for whatever reason, the majority still seem to believe either that the peripheral nations and regions of the UK are getting a fair deal, or else that the best way to address the unfairness is to maintain the union. 
Actually, I suspect that it is the second of those two beliefs which is the stronger; I find it hard to conclude that people really cannot see and feel the unfairness which they are experiencing, and if that is so, it must mean that they believe that it is more likely to be addressed within the UK than in some other arrangement.
The obvious question that follows is why people can see the unfairness in the way risks and rewards are shared, and still believe that carrying on as we are is the best way to resolve that.  Two reasons in particular strike me as having some resonance.
The first is that the unfair shares of risk and reward aren’t solely – or even primarily – geographical.  They are also to do with the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few.  Those few may happen to be largely concentrated in one corner of the UK, but they aren’t exclusively so, and it is their personal control of the wealth, rather then their mere location, which is the more important factor.
And the second is that there is still a UK-wide party which is perceived to be supportive of a degree of redistribution.  For some of us, this too may fly in the face of the empirical evidence – after all, the concentration of wealth, in both personal and geographical terms, happened just as much under Labour as it has under the Tories.  It is, nevertheless, a perception which persists, and statements such as those made by Smith last week serve to reinforce that perception.
That ultimately underlines the real disservice which Labour performs - giving the impression that they’re in favour of fairer sharing of risk and reward in order to get into government, and then presiding over growth in inequality when in government.  When will people see through it?

Thursday 13 February 2014

Watching the pronouns

I don’t know how sincere Cameron really was in saying to the Scots that “we want you to stay”.  He may have been as sincere as he looked and sounded – one can never tell with politicians – or he may just have been saying what he (or more probably his advisors) felt that he needed to say.
It’s hard – perhaps impossible – to find the right words which will resonate with the target audience for this sort of message.  I’m probably not part of that target audience, of course, but there was something about the use of the two pronouns in that one short, simple sentence which underlined the gulf in thinking between the two sides of this particular debate.
The very use of ‘we’ and ‘you’ actually succeeds in emphasising the differentness between ‘Scots’ and ‘the rest’ in a way which was probably entirely unintended.  And it may well, at a subconscious level, actually strengthen the will for independence as a result.
And where does it leave those of us who feel that we’re neither part of the ‘we’ nor the ‘you’?  I can’t identify with either the subject or the object of Cameron’s statement, and I’d guess that there are quite a few more like me.  I suppose that makes us disconnected bystanders from Cameron’s perspective; again, unlikely to be a productive approach in the long term.
The other words which are interesting in the statement were “to stay”.  I don’t think that Scotland is actually ‘going’ anywhere, but again, the verb reveals more about Cameron’s perspective – and the perspective of those who think like him – than it adds to debate.  Just as in the question of ‘allowing’ Scotland to keep the pound, it starts from an assumption that ‘we’ own the UK, and ‘you’ are thinking about opting out.
I can’t help thinking that the case for the union would be better served if its supporters made at least an effort to recognise that the assets of the union are jointly owned; but the language they use suggests that the thought hasn’t even crossed their minds.

Wednesday 12 February 2014

Hope vs experience

Estyn’s ‘excellent’ report on Ceredigion’s education system looks like good news for the county’s children and parents, and the county council is well in order to be celebrating the success.  There may be one or two devils hiding in the detail, and I’m always at least a little dubious about whether comparisons are as meaningful as they’re made out to be, but at least we now have a series of county by county reports produced by the same body on, one assumes, the same basis and criteria.
Whilst the fact that Wales’ 19th largest authority has done better than the 18 larger ones above it doesn’t disprove the notion that smaller authorities find it harder to deliver consistent high quality services, it very much disproves the notion that size is the sole or even the main determinant of performance.  Yet the wholly subjective argument that Wales’ local authorities are ‘too small’ has been one of the key arguments of those wanting to rush headlong into an arbitrary reorganisation of local government.
Where does it leave the proposed merger of Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire?  Pembrokeshire is the 14th largest authority – that doesn’t sound too different from 19th, but by population, Pembrokeshire would represent around 60% of the new county.  Pembrokeshire’s Estyn report was, shall we say, rather less glowing than that received by Ceredigion.
That means that there are some other questions which need to be asked: When two organisations of different size merge, which culture is likely to be dominant – that of the smaller or that of the larger?  And when it comes to amalgamating the staff and management posts, which authority is likely to predominate - the larger, or the smaller?  And where will most of the councillors making the appointments come from – the larger or the smaller?
I know which I think is likeliest to happen – believing that the smaller will prevail would be to elevate hope and optimism over logic and experience.

Tuesday 11 February 2014

Unfulfilled expectations

The more time passes, the more the local government non-reorganisation proposed by the Williams Commission appears to be dead in the water.  The all-party consensus which Carwyn Jones hoped for evaporated before it formed, and the arbitrary “decide by Easter or else” deadline has been shown to be just that, entirely arbitrary.
The First Minister must be wondering how on earth this has happened.  After all, he included representatives of all four parties on the commission and must have expected that their, apparently unanimous, conclusions would be rubber-stamped by their parties.  Was that expectation really so unreasonable?
It seems to me that there are two factors which come into play here.  The first is the extent to which the party representatives were chosen by their parties rather than selected by the First Minister, and the second is the extent to which they kept in touch with their respective parties during the commission’s deliberations.
On the first it was never entirely clear.  It’s part of the way of doing things in the UK – and another of those habits which the Assembly seems only too keen to ape – that appointment processes for such commissions are anything but transparent.  Whether the individuals were nominated “through the usual channels” by their party leaders, or arbitrarily selected by the First Minister is obscure to say the least.  But even if we assume the worst case, that he alone made the decision without consultation, he must surely have expected that in choosing an ex-leader of one-party, an ex-special adviser to the leader of another when in government, and an ex-director of policy for the third, he was choosing people who would, at the very least, have a good “feel” for the likely response of their parties.  That strikes me as a not entirely unreasonable starting point.
On the second, it is hard to believe that the party representatives would have come out so unanimously for their proposals if they had any inkling of the likely reaction from their parties.  One can only conclude that communication has been minimal.  I suppose that the Lib Dems can, almost, be forgiven – it seems that “their” man left the party during the process.  But I’m not sure what excuse the other two can offer.  The whole “all-party” exercise ends up looking like a charade.
For whatever reason, the First Minister’s reasonable expectation has not been realised.  He must surely be left wondering what was the point of the exercise, and where he went so wrong.

Monday 10 February 2014

Changing the right behaviour

Once again last week, Gove emphasised the need for more testing of children in schools in England; and the lack of testing has been blamed by him and those who think like him for the relatively poor performance of the education system in Wales.  His party in the Assembly seem to share his views on testing, but where is the evidence that testing improves performance?  What is the mechanism by which that might happen?
I can think of two possible mechanisms by which testing might help to improve results, one of which works in a generally positive way, and the other rather less so.
The first is that regular testing of pupils’ knowledge and understanding can help teachers identify problems – whether class-wide or restricted to individuals – and adapt their teaching methods as a result, including targeting extra help at those who need it. 
The second is that the data underlying the tests on which the results of national published league tables are based is analysed to identify that small number of pupils who, with targeted help, can make the small improvement needed to move from one band to another and thereby improve the school’s apparent performance for the minimum expenditure of effort.
The first of those is an entirely positive approach to teaching, and it’s something that many teachers do regularly and informally in their classes anyway.  The second is about managing to targets, and changing behaviour in order to secure a particular outcome in terms of the public perception of the performance of a school or LEA.  It doesn’t deliver for the majority of pupils.
The difference between the two isn’t the nature of the testing as such (although tests used for producing league tables need to be more standardised, formal, and rigid than those used more informally), it’s the way in which the data is used.  League tables, ultimately, encourage behaviour by those running our education system which leads to apparent improvements in the performance of schools.  What those behaviours don’t necessarily achieve, however, is improving the educational outcome for the many; the same result can be achieved by simply ignoring the majority of pupils.
League tables based on testing give politicians and managers nice graphs and statistics; they can be used to chart apparent improvement or decline, and even to reward ‘successful’ teachers and schools, and punish the ‘failures’.  It’s much harder in a complex top-down system to ensure that the behaviour and approach of individual teachers in individual classrooms delivers the best results for all pupils – but that’s what we actually need. 
It seems to me that the Welsh Government, with its increasingly complex banding proposals, is closer to the Tory approach than they like to claim; for all the rhetoric about “systems leaders” and collaboration, they are still coming back to national comparisons and tables because they can only think in terms of centralist top-down approaches.

Friday 7 February 2014

Learning lessons or ignoring them?

The terms used by Hamid Karzai to describe the effect which foreign troops have had on his country were never going to endear him to anyone in the UK.  The reaction of the families of the UK’s dead was entirely predictable and understandable.
There is a problem here though.  Hard though it is to do this in the light of so many deaths, there is a need for a rational and considered appraisal of the effect of the intervention.  Without that honest and thorough appraisal, no lessons will be learned, and mistakes will be repeated.  Every single death has been a tragedy for the families affected, but we simply cannot afford to allow sympathy for those losses to prevent us discussing sensibly whether the intervention has been worthwhile or not.  And we cannot allow those who query it to be simply condemned out of hand as being disrespectful to the dead. 
Cameron is clearly trapped by precisely this conundrum.  I find it hard to believe that he really does not understand the true position, but he feels constrained by the losses which have been sustained to insist that the whole campaign has been successful, and that the mission has been accomplished.  He knows full well, of course, that things are likely to unravel once foreign troops withdraw, and he’s probably simply hoping that a decent enough period will elapse after the withdrawal before that happens.
If it has been a failure, no fault or blame attaches to those troops killed or injured in the country – or to those who returned safely, come to that.  The question of responsibility is entirely a political one, and it’s a pity that Karzai seemed to be choosing to criticise the soldiers rather than those who sent them.
There are many lessons which need to be learned from recent Western intervention in a number of countries, but surely the prime lesson is that a country and its people cannot be forced to adopt a different way of doing things at the point of a gun.  The very worst thing about that particular lesson is that it isn’t a new one.  Whilst military force can appear to resolve issues in the short term, it is, almost invariably, really only hiding or deferring problems which will eventually surface again; ultimately, it is human, and particularly political, will which resolves issues, not military might.  History is littered with wars which support that view, but we never seem to learn from that history.
Karzai claimed that the intervention was leaving his country in a worse state than it had been before the intervention.  That’s an extreme way of putting it, and I doubt that it’s immediately true – but I rather suspect that it will turn out to be more true than false in the long term.  The fact that saying that is, apparently, unacceptable in the view of many only makes it harder to learn from mistakes.

Thursday 6 February 2014

Goldilocks and BP

The American boss of BP has gone where many British company leaders have apparently feared to tread, and expressed very publicly his concerns about Scottish independence.  It’s his right to do so, of course, although whether having bosses of multi-national corporations telling Scots what they should do will turn out to be productive or counter-productive remains to be seen.
His “concerns”, such as they are, seem mostly to boil down to the fact that there are – inevitably at this stage – some uncertainties about the consequences.  As far as it goes, that’s fair enough; those planning investments will always prefer certainty to uncertainty because it reduces their exposure to risk.  However, one doesn’t need to get far into Rumsfeld-speak about the knowns and the unknowns to realise that the future without independence isn’t as certain as he might think.
We all have an inbuilt tendency to see the status quo as having a “forever” quality to it, but as the song says “It isn’t necessarily so”.  The status quo itself is always changing.  Worse still, in this particular case, since a ‘no’ vote in the first referendum on Scottish independence won’t make the independence issue simply go away (and I’m still surprised at how many people don’t seem to understand that), it might merely prolong the uncertainty.  In that sense, independence is a more certain and long term outcome than the result of a ‘no’ vote.
More generally, although not directly voiced by the head of BP, multinational capitalists prefer what are to them Goldilocks-sized states.  They want them to be big enough so that they don’t have to deal with too many different sets of laws, regulations and taxes, but small enough so that they can be played off against each other, and so that economic power can be retained in the hands of the corporations rather than governments.  For BP, the UK probably looks about the right size.  And having a government which is a bit of a pushover when it comes to protecting the interests of multi-national capitalism is a bonus.
But ultimately, the only thing that really matters to them is profit.  They can’t move the oil and gas deposits, so as long as they can cover the costs of dealing with whatever rules a country – whatever its size – throws at them, and still make an acceptable level of profit, then they will continue to invest.
The ‘noes’ will seize on this latest intervention as ‘proving' their point; but I’m not convinced that the ‘ayes’ have much to worry about.

Wednesday 5 February 2014

Trying to lose?

I almost feel sorry for Andrew RT Davies over the problems he’s having with his own party’s Secretary of State over the devolution of income tax.  Trying to pretend that your party’s policy is somehow different from what your party is doing in government isn’t at all easy.  I tried it a few years ago on the question of student tuition fees, but eventually concluded that it’s an untenable position.  The public will simply not believe any political party which says that what its elected members are doing in government is not the party’s policy.  Voters will – quite rightly – believe what politicians do, not what they say.
So, the de facto conservative policy on income tax is that it will only be devolved with the so-called lockstep.  And unless and until the Conservative-led government does something different, voters will assume – entirely correctly – that that is what Conservative policy is, and that is what they will get if they vote Tory (although, whatever Davies says, it’s probably a policy which appeals more to most members of his own party than that which he is promoting...).  In that sense, the Secretary of State is surely right to say that any alternative view expressed – even if by his party’s entire Assembly group – is just a personal view.
It may be of course that Davies is trying to change his party’s policy, and doing so in a very public way.  The problem he has is that there is no democratic way of changing policy in the Conservative party.  “Conferences” are just that; talking shops.  They cannot and do not set policy.  Party policy is, ultimately, determined by the party leader, not by the membership.
One of the problems with current day politics, however, is that that isn’t only true of the Tories.  Whilst the other three parties currently represented in the Assembly all claim, to a greater or lesser extent, that their policies are decided by their members, it is also true that when in government all of them allow policy to be set or changed at the whim of the leader.  Only when in opposition does the pretence of democracy have any kind of credibility.
It follows that it's only when the Conservatives are out of government in London that Davies stands any chance of gaining credibility for his views.  Perhaps his very public disagreement with his own party’s leaders is part of an attempt to bring that about.

Tuesday 4 February 2014

Using stealth to avoid tax

“Highly paid people oppose extra tax for highly paid people” isn’t exactly what I’d call news, but given the dominance of highly paid people amongst those who make news and define it, the prominence given to Labour’s pledge to reinstate the 50p tax rate is hardly unpredictable.
There are two elements to the criticism however which strike me as valid - up to a point anyway.
The first is that the amount raised by the extra 5p would be small, partly because the number of people affected is small, and partly because they will find ways of avoiding it, using the convoluted rules of the UK tax code.  All that is true, but surely the best approach to tax avoidance is to prevent it, not to allow it to constrain taxation policy, which seems to be the Tory position. 
And anyway, since when did the fact that a given tax raises only a small amount become a bar to it as a source of taxation?  As we’ve seen in the debate over devolving tax powers to the assembly, there are a range of taxes which raise miniscule amounts when compared to total government expenditure – but that is not in itself adequate reason to abolish them.
The second apparently valid criticism is that the proposal has more to do with politics than economics.  Well, yes – but so what?  The proposal has come from a political party seeking votes.  Given that their economic policies are virtually identical to those of the government, it’s inevitable that they will be looking for a bit of gimmickry to try and present themselves as being in some way different.
But if those two criticisms have some validity, what about the more central claim that taxing the 1% of the population a little more heavily will result in some sort of mass exodus of entrepreneurial talent from these shores? The evidence in support of that proposition is scant.  A few vague threats and a couple of anecdotal examples – but there will always be some who choose to go elsewhere, whatever the tax rates.  Three points in particular strike me as pertinent here:
·         Even at current tax rates, there are other countries and economies with lower tax rates.  If tax rates, or small differences between them, were the main determinant, wouldn’t we be seeing more of a flow in the direction of those countries?
·         Most entrepreneurs, even fairly successful ones, earn less than the £150,000 at which the proposed tax rate would apply.  Some might well aspire to cross that boundary, but by number, most new and developing companies are small to middling.
·         Many, probably most, of those earning over £150,000 aren’t “entrepreneurs” at all.  That target group will include bankers of the speculative kind, and chief executives and senior managers, as well as a not insignificant number of people in the public sector.  Whilst the worst of the bankers, certainly, could take their questionable activities elsewhere, the mobility of many of the rest is limited by factors which have nothing to do with taxation.
It is not through ignorance of the facts that the opponents of Labour’s proposal deliberately conflate two different things here.  “Entrepreneur” is a nice cuddly concept; it’s easy to persuade people that we want to keep "entrepreneurs".  But glossing over the fact that most of the people affected are not entrepreneurs at all is an attempt to protect wealth, privilege, and rent-seeking by stealth.
It is part of the ideology which capitalism builds around itself that those at the top are somehow special and unique rather than merely lucky; they are to be revered and rewarded for their talents, even as they suck our wealth into their hands.  The biggest problem that I have with Labour’s proposal is that it doesn’t really challenge that ideology at all.