Tuesday 29 April 2014

Hiding their true reasons

Like many others, we had a UKIP leaflet fluttering through the letterbox last week.  Whilst it claims to be from UKIP Wales, and names their four European Parliament candidates for Wales, there is not one word of Welsh to be found on it.  Perhaps the printers, in Bodmin, can’t cope with Welsh.  Or perhaps UKIP’s vision of the ‘UK’ which they wish to ‘set free’ is just a very English one, in language at least.
Central to their pitch in the election is immigration; indeed, their leaflet gives more prominence to that issue than it does to the EU - although I suppose that if you blame the EU for everything, there is a connection of sorts. I don’t doubt, sadly, that the pitch on immigration will appeal to many voters, but the logic behind what they are saying deserves and needs to be challenged.  They are appealing, fundamentally, to people’s gut instincts about foreigners, but trying very hard to cloak that by turning it into an economic argument about jobs.
In essence, one part of what they are saying is correct – ‘foreigners’ prepared to work for lower wages can and do damage job prospects in the UK.  But the conclusions that they draw from that simply don’t stand up to examination - because it has nothing to do with immigration.
(It doesn’t follow in any case, of course, that immigrants and cheap labour are synonymous; many immigrants are highly-skilled and highly-paid to go with it.  But let’s assume for the moment, purely for the sake of argument, that a significant proportion of those migrating to the UK are willing to work for lower wages than the ‘natives’.)
It is an inescapable fact that capitalists (often described these days as entrepreneurs, because that word has a more cuddly feel to it) will seek to employ the cheapest labour that they can get, in order to maximise their own profits.  But it really doesn’t matter to them whether that cheap labour is a result of immigration into the UK or a result of labour being cheaper in other countries.  That’s why we’ve seen so much of the UK’s manufacturing industries (and jobs) exported overseas.
In fact, there is an argument which says that cheap labour abroad does more to damage UK jobs than does cheap labour provided by immigration.  At least within the UK, there is a chance that we can police and enforce the minimum wage legislation (or even move to a living wage if the political will were there); prevent the exploitation of child labour; and stop the use of what is close to slavery in some other places.  We can have far less control if the alleged cheap labour simply stays where it is and our home-grown capitalists take the jobs to them instead of waiting for them to come here.
And that underlines why the real problem here is nothing to do with immigration – it is to do with the capitalist ideology and economic system which drives the economy on the basis of making capitalists wealthy rather than on the basis of creating collective wealth. Stopping or controlling immigration does nothing to change that.  And it isn’t something which UKIP have any inclination to change either.

Monday 28 April 2014

The perfect union

Sometimes, one rather suspects that some politicians get so carried away by their own rhetoric that they don’t really think through the implications of what they are saying.  That was certainly the feeling that I got when I read this report in Saturday’s Western Mail about the question and answer session with Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Wales in Midlothian.
The particular – and peculiar – sentence which struck me was this one:
“If we didn’t have a union right now the Labour party would be arguing to have one... ”
The only way that I can see of interpreting that is that, if events had turned out differently in 1706/7, and if, instead of uniting with England, Scotland had remained an independent state for the last 300 years, then the Englandandwales Labour Party would today be arguing for union with Scotland. Really?
(And if events in Ireland in had turned out differently would the Labour Party, by the same logic about the perfection of the current union, be arguing for detaching the northern six counties and uniting them with England?
It’s peculiar that it isn’t just union in a general sense that they would be arguing for – they’re not arguing, for instance, for union with Ireland, or France, or anywhere else.  It seems to be that is the specific precise union which exists, with its currently defined boundaries, which is so perfect that the Labour Party would have, apparently, invented it if history hadn’t already brought it about.  The logic is curious, to say the least.

Friday 25 April 2014

Windy Tories

It was always understood that the subsidy regime for the wind power industry was intended to create the conditions for the industry to mature, and that, when it was sufficiently mature, the subsidies would be reduced or removed.  And that’s not a policy with which I would particularly quarrel per se.
Whether the industry has actually got to that point or not is another matter.  I don’t believe that it has, but I accept that others may interpret things differently; and it’s not a question which has a simple yes/no answer - it's inevitably a matter of opinion, not fact.  It is, though, a question which doesn’t even seem to have been asked before the Tories announced their latest policy on abolishing subsidies if they win the next election.  The announcement seems to have little to do with energy policy as such, and everything to do with what they think will be popular amongst their target electorate.
The closest that they come to serious consideration of energy policy in the announcement is to declare that, if all currently consented turbines are built, agreed EU targets will have been achieved.  That’s one of those statements by politicians which is ‘true’, but completely misses the point.  The objective of using renewable sources is to reduce carbon emissions, not simply to achieve a negotiated EU target which is, by its nature, inadequate to achieve the necessary level of carbon reduction; but as so often happens, the target seems to be being treated as an end in itself.  Achievement of the agreed target is obscuring the objective which the target was meant to promote. It's a common problem with a target-based approach.
I don’t doubt that the abolition of the subsidies to onshore wind will be welcomed by shire Tories, in Wales as in England, who want all the benefits of clean electricity produced ‘somewhere else’.  But the subsidies (and massive ones at that) paid to keep the cost of producing energy from fossil fuels low will continue unabated – basically because the subsidies are not so visible to the end consumer, and the environmental costs of production are elsewhere.  They are effectively proposing to switch the balance of support to more carbon-intensive sources of electricity.
Time will tell whether this is really the election-winning strategy that they hope; but it is certainly not much of a carbon reduction strategy.
(As an aside, it’s interesting to note that, having declined to devolve planning control over wind turbines to the Assembly in the interests of maintaining a ‘national’ strategy for EnglandandWales, they are also proposing to devolve all control over all wind projects to local authorities.  There’s nothing like consistency in politics – and this is indeed nothing like consistency.)

Thursday 17 April 2014

Keeping Wales tidy

Back in the 1970s, one wag produced a poster which read ‘Keep Wales Tidy – Dump your rubbish in England’.  It was intended to be humorous, although the extent to which it actually raises a smile probably depends on your sense of humour.  I didn’t think, though, that anyone actually took it seriously.  Perhaps I was wrong on that after all.
The question of Wylfa B and nuclear waste is one that I’ve referred to before.  One of the problems that supporters of Wylfa B have is that the construction of a new nuclear power station will inevitably lead to the production of more nuclear waste.  We can’t have new nuclear stations without generating more waste, and that waste has to be stored and handled somewhere.
Trying to wash their hands of any responsibility for the consequences of their support for a new nuclear station means that supporters of Wylfa B are following the advice of that spoof poster – keeping Wales clean by demanding that someone else takes our rubbish.  But wanting the (alleged) benefits with none of the downsides is an irresponsible and selfish approach; hardly the sort of approach which would make an independent Wales a good world citizen.
My nationalism is based on wanting to see Wales taking her place in the world, taking our own decisions, and accepting both the consequences and the responsibility for them.  There’s something very odd to me about nationalists seeking to avoid responsibility for the consequences of the policies they espouse. 
I remember hearing Gwynfor arguing that Wales will be free when the people of Wales start thinking and acting as a free people.  Assuming that someone else will deal with our problems on our behalf falls more than a little short on that score.

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Shock horror and outrage

The ‘Trojan Horse’ letter concerning the alleged attempts to take over schools in Birmingham and change their religious ethos has caused something of a stir.  Although the letter seems to have been in the public domain for a while, little seems to be known about its provenance so far, which made me wonder whether there isn’t something a little Zinovievian about it.
Genuine or not, it’s given the press, and not just the tabloids, something to be outraged about, and it’s an opportunity they’ve seized with gusto.  Hopefully, the extent of the problem, if there is one, will become a great deal clearer as a result of the formal investigation – and then we can properly decide whether to be outraged or not.
One aspect of the ‘Islamification’ of some schools which has caused particular ire is the idea that boys and girls should be to some extent segregated in schools, accompanied by pictures of boys on one side of the room and girls on the other.  In 2014, it does indeed seem a strange concept to us, but we forget that it’s not that long ago that it was entirely normal in the state system for a degree of such segregation to take place.
I remember that my primary school had two entrances; one for boys and the other for ‘girls and infants’.  And the secondary school that I attended had, according to the teachers, an imaginary line running from the school buildings to the far end of the school field, and girls had to stay to the left of it, whilst boys remained on the right, under threat of lines or detention for daring to commingle.  And unless my school was somehow unique,  wasn’t it thought perfectly normal for the boys to sit on one side of the classroom whilst the girls took the other?
It all sounds very old-fashioned now, of course – and I would neither suggest nor defend returning to such practices.  They’re in the past and we should ensure that they stay there.  It's just seems that, on this specific at least, whilst I oppose what seems to be happening, I find it hard to work up a great deal of outrage about something which would have seemed perfectly normal to our parents or grandparents. A little bit more perspective would be helpful in dealing with the situation.

Tuesday 15 April 2014

Inconsistently consistent

Yesterday’s news coverage of events in the Ukraine included a brief comment from one of the pro-Russian participants, claiming, basically, that united, Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine would be large and powerful, but that separate, Ukraine was small and weak.  It struck me that there was something of a parallel there with much of what the Scottish “Better Together” campaign has been saying.
Consistency, however, isn’t one of the strongest attributes of UK politicians, and the Foreign Secretary was resolute in demanding international support for the continued independence of the Ukraine.  Unity and size are only important ‘domestically’, it would appear.
Boundaries between states in Europe have changed continually over the centuries.  States – not always contiguous with nations, of course – have emerged and disappeared, and been carved out and carved up as empires have been founded and destroyed.  Usually, the process has been a sad and bloody one, although in recent decades, we have at last started to see some peaceful changes reflecting popular will.
Two things stand out for me as being consistent.  The first is that change is always happening.  Boundaries and states are human constructions, and there is nothing permanent or inviolable about any of them.
The second is that, at any given point in history, those in power act and talk as though permanence of ‘their’ world is the natural order of things, and history can be frozen at a moment in time.  In that context, the position adopted by Hague and the rest of the UK Government isn’t as inconsistent as it might otherwise appear.  The Ukraine exists as an independent country and must continue to do so; Scotland doesn’t and shouldn’t.  All arguments about size and strength – like much else which is said by “Better Together” - are really just about rationalising and defending the status quo.
I don’t know whether Scotland will vote ‘yes’ or not at this stage.  At the outset, I rather expected that the first independence referendum would fail, to be followed by a second in a decade or two; but it now looks increasingly possible that it might just happen this year after all.  European history is on the side of change, not permanence.  Whether in Scotland or the Ukraine, merely arguing that what is must continue to be will never be enough.

Monday 7 April 2014

Please sir...

Sometimes, the people with the grandest job titles turn out to have the least power and influence.  It’s almost as though those bestowing the titles feel that those receiving them can be bought off with a fine-sounding name as a substitute for money or power.
I’m not aware of many cases, however, where the original request was for a grand title instead of money or power.  The question of the name given to our National Assembly seems to be one of those rare exceptions. 
Last week, it was reported that Plaid are submitting an amendment to the Wales Bill currently wending its way through the House of Commons, seeking a change in the name of the National Assembly to the “National Parliament of Wales, or Senedd Genedlaethol Cymru”.  The desire for a name change isn’t restricted to Plaid of course; the (Labour) Presiding Officer has expressed a similar view in a personal capacity, and the leader of the Conservative group has put forward the same suggestion on behalf of his group (although, as we have learned recently, everything that he and his group say is purely a personal opinion unless it’s been agreed by the Secretary of State in advance).
Clearly, it’s important for any nationalist that Wales has a ‘proper’ parliament; but when I talk about a ‘proper’ parliament, I mean one with proper powers, not just a proper name.  The name is ultimately an irrelevance; what matters is what it can do, and the very fact that we have Welsh politicians beseeching London politicians to change the name merely serves to underline that lack of power.  I rather suspect that, if and when the Assembly has the power to decide for itself what it should be called as part of a more wholesale transfer of power, the name would be seen as the irrelevance which it is.
Besides, there’s nothing wrong with ‘National Assembly’.  A quick look at the names given to national legislatures across the world reveals that it’s actually a very common name.  Only a blinkered UK-centric view would lead anyone to the conclusion that there is any significant difference between a parliament and an assembly.
But, when the Assembly can decide for itself what it should be called, and if the politicians still think that it’s of any great import, then the aspect of a name change which is of greatest psychological importance isn’t the difference between an Assembly or a Parliament – it’s whether the name of the country needs to be included at all.  Most nations don’t feel the need to include the name of their country in the name of their legislature – why should we?  There’s something very insecure about feeling that to be necessary.

Thursday 3 April 2014

Self-inflicted problems

Another aspect of the debate on devolving income tax powers to Wales was the concern expressed by both the Shadow Secretary of State and the Lib Dems that it would lead to “tax competition”.
I’m aware that the Tories genuinely seem to believe that reducing income tax by a few pennies in the pound would somehow attract hundreds or thousands of entrepreneurs to live in Wales and to set up their businesses here, although I’m not aware of any serious evidence which supports what looks like an axiomatic belief in the virtue of low taxation rather than a coherent economic policy.  And I’m aware that many business supporters of devolving various taxes to Wales support it not out of any commitment to devolution, but because they have a rather touching – and I suspect misplaced – faith that the Welsh Government would respond by cutting all these taxes.
But that is all just rhetoric.  Any government which wants to make significant cuts in some taxes would ultimately have to do one of two things – either cut expenditure or else raise other taxes to compensate.  And it is the latter of the two which exposes the real problem in any Welsh Government being able to make any creative use of the proposed powers.
‘Proper’ governments – those which really have true responsibility for raising as well as spending money – have a wide range of taxation weapons in their armoury.  They can cut some taxes and raise others – or even abolish some and invent new ones – in order to change the balance between the different types of taxation in use.  The extent to which taxation changes actually affect economic behaviour is an open question, but assuming for a moment that they do, it is precisely the ability to tailor the overall tax regime to different or changing circumstances which enables governments to influence economic policy.
The problem with all the proposals and debate currently is that only a very narrow range of taxes is proposed to be devolved; and there is only one really significant tax included in the proposal.  It is hard to see how devolving the power to vary the rate of income tax without being able to amend other taxes correspondingly can do other than create a degree of tax competition between the countries of these islands – which is part of what makes the power difficult to use.
Ultimately, it seems to me that those complaining about the dangers of tax competition are really complaining about the limitations of their own policy.

Wednesday 2 April 2014

A curious belief

Plenty of others have already drawn attention to the twisting and turning of Labour politicians as they attempt to explain how they all hold the same view on devolution of tax, particularly income tax.  It isn’t pretty, and they’re deluding themselves if they think that their unity is in any sense credible.
The reason given by the Shadow Secretary of State for supporting the so-called lockstep struck me as a curious one.  He said:
“We agree with the Government that the principle of progressivity ought to be retained, which is why we agree, broadly speaking, with the notion of the lockstep, tying together those bands.”
I suspect that a Labour politician’s public agreement that Tory policy on income tax supports progressivity will come as a surprise to many, not least within his own party.  Perhaps my memory about the disagreement over whether the highest rate of tax should be 40p, 45p, or 50p is just an illusion.
But the basis of his argument seems to go further than that.  It is implicit in supporting the lockstep on that basis that he believes that the wicked evil Tories in London (which is a rough translation of the usual Labour description of them) are more likely to maintain progressivity in income tax than any conceivable government which might come to power in Wales.
It’s a very curious thing to believe.