Tuesday 17 June 2014

Was he right or was he wrong?

Members of the Labour Party haven’t exactly been rushing to agree with Blair following his comments about the situation in Iraq this week.  And I can imagine that Miliband and chums aren’t exactly best-pleased to hear a voice from the past resurrecting a ghost that they have been trying to lay to rest.
In essence, Blair’s claim, which has astonished many (to put it mildly) is that the latest events in Iraq are in no way a consequence of the war which on which he and Bush so enthusiastically embarked, and that the situation would have been even worse had they not taken the action which they took.  He’s also calling for more resolute action now (a curious position for a ‘peace envoy’ to take, but let’s leave that to one side).
I suspect that history will ultimately judge Blair to have been wrong, even over the long term, but in truth, none of us can know for certain.  The point is that we can never run history twice to see what would have happened if different decisions had been taken.  If the latest events demonstrate anything, it is surely that the whole situation is far more complicated than most of us realise, and it’s extremely difficult to decide who are the good guys deserving of support and who are the bad guys needing to be dealt with.  Indeed, it’s increasingly the case that yesterday’s bad guys are becoming today’s good guys (or perhaps ‘not-so-bad guys’), and alliances are shifting, largely on the basis that our enemy’s enemies are now our friends, whatever we may have said about them yesterday.
What I do know is that it was always less than honest to try and present a very complex situation as a simple case of good vs evil, in the way that Blair and Bush did.  And what concerns me even more is the possibility that they might have genuinely believed that to be the case.  There’s something more than a little dangerous about any politician who has such unshakeable faith in his own rightness that he cannot even conceive of the possibility of being wrong.

Monday 16 June 2014

Voting for the sake of it

The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, attracted some criticism last week for declaring his support for run “in/out” referendum on the European Union.  Apparently, in some sort of throwback to the past, he supposed to pretend not to have an opinion on anything, so that no one will think he’s biased when chairing debates.  I tend to think that it’s easier to judge whether actions are biased or not if people are open about their views; but let’s leave such arcane issues to one side.
What interested me more was the grounds on which he took such a view, pointing out that no voter under the age of 57 has ever had a chance to vote on the issue.  As a statement of fact, it’s inarguable – the last referendum was 40 years ago.  But as a reason for holding a referendum, it strikes me as utterly fatuous.  How long is too long  for people to have been unable to vote in a particular referendum – and does every referendum therefore have to be rerun every 40 years or so, just so that a new generation can decide whether to stick by a previous decision? 
Why 40 years and not 20 or 30 or – well any number you like really?  I can understand the rationale of those who think that a significant change in arrangements which were themselves the subject of a referendum ought to trigger a further referendum.  I can also understand why some might argue that there’s enough evidence of a change in public opinion to justify a new vote on an issue.  But the mere passage of time since the last vote strikes me as a particularly silly reason for rerunning past arguments and revisiting past decisions.
Arguing against holding a referendum on anything will always be difficult – it can look like an attempt to deny people their say; but there’s no clear consensus about what should or should not “require” the consent of the people in a referendum, and calls for referendums are made on all sorts of issues.
I tend to the view that they’re best used on simple questions of principle rather than on the detail.  So a referendum on membership of what was then the EEC should have been held before entry rather than after the event; but holding a new one every time the terms change is another matter – how do we determine which changes are matters of principle rather than detail?
In the same way, it seemed utterly reasonable to me that the establishment of a National Assembly for Wales should be the subject of a referendum.  Equally it seems entirely appropriate that the question of independence should be decided by a referendum in Scotland.  But I’m not convinced that changes in the detail really require further referendums, any more than changes in the EU really require further referendums.  And holding one just because there are people who were too young to vote last time looks like a complete waste of time and effort.

Thursday 12 June 2014

Random anniversaries

On no better basis than that the political silly season has started early this year fifteen years is an exact multiple of 5, that five is half of a number ending in zero, and that numbers ending in zero represent whole decades, the Welsh media have taken to indulging themselves in wall to wall coverage of the first fifteen years of the National Assembly’s existence.
One of the emerging themes has been that ‘people had high expectations’ of the Assembly at the outset; the inference being that it has not lived up to said expectations.  It’s stated as though it were fact, but I wonder what evidence there is to support the assertion, outside the ranks of those directly involved.  I’ve never seen any evidence – even anecdotal – for the claim that the people of Wales ever really expected radical and rapid change from the new body.  Healthy scepticism about how much difference any group of politicians would ever make seems to me to be much more of a common thread.
Certainly, the limited economic powers devolved to the Assembly always meant that any differences made in economic terms would – could – only ever be at the margins.  Insofar as any high expectations were mentioned, they were coming from politicians who believed that they would win votes by talking about change which they knew that the Assembly could never deliver; but I suspect that most electors – unless they had an axe to grind either in favour of more powers or else of abolition – would have discounted these because of their source.
The most noticeable and important change hasn’t been anything which the Assembly has done at all; it’s merely a concomitant of the Assembly’s existence.  Whilst its establishment was the result of a close poll on a low turnout, the idea of abolition is now confined to the fringes of politics, and there is more confidence in Welsh institutions.  It’s hard to divine cause and effect though – does the existence of the Assembly boost confidence, or does a growth in confidence boost support for the Assembly?
It’s easy to blame Labour for the slow pace of change over the last fifteen years; they have, after all, been in power continuously over that period.  But, although the opposition parties – particularly Plaid – have come up with some eye-catching policies for implementation within the powers of the Assembly at election times, it would be hard to argue honestly that these were so radical that things would be very different today had Labour not been in power.  It’s hard to be certain, of course: what would have happened under a Welsh Government of a different hue can only ever be speculation, but given the Assembly’s limitations, I just don’t see what would have been so very different.
The fact that there is no credible alternative to continued Labour Government in Wales is a problem in itself.  An alternative became credible, briefly, in 2007, although I know that I’m far from alone in believing that such an alternative, had it come to pass, would have been a disaster for all concerned, and would probably have lasted only a few weeks or months before collapsing.  With the further fragmentation of non-Labour politics in Wales, and the current probability of a UKIP presence in the next Assembly, the idea of any coalition not led by Labour is simply not credible at present.
I’ve seen some criticism of Labour for this; but it really isn’t their fault that people continue to vote for them in such numbers despite all their failings.  There may be more of us unhappy with Labour than are happy with the party, but there is no hint of a consensus around any alternative. 
Gerald Holtham suggested recently that the answer is for Labour to provide its own opposition, and to have more open internal debate about future direction.  But effectively, that’s the way politics has been in Wales for a very long time – the discussion which actually has most impact on what happens is that discussion (such as it is) which happens internally to that party, even if it isn’t always very public.  The problem with that as an approach is that the motivation for such internal discussion is usually about what’s best for Labour, not what’s best for Wales (although, in fairness, that’s often because those involved in such discussion don’t or can’t see the difference between those two things).
We are left in a position that things will continue as they are unless and until an alternative vision for Wales is articulated in such a way that it gains more support than Labour’s ‘vision’ (or lack of).  In the absence of electoral support for radical change, we are left with the sort of small, timid, incremental change which is all that is on offer; and it’s difficult to argue that the best way of achieving that is other than through the Labour Party.  The Assembly facilitates such an approach, with no Tory governments to reverse policies – and perhaps that’s enough to justify its first fifteen years.  It’s not a very exciting future to look forward to though.

Wednesday 11 June 2014

Whose values?

The proposal by the Education Secretary for England, Michael Gove, that all schools should “promote British values” is one of those glib statements which politicians make which initially sounds obvious but actually needs a lot more examination.
There’s one immediately obvious anomaly: he can only insist on teaching “British” values in “English” schools - he has no authority over those in Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland.  It’s tempting to assume that he really means “English” values but simply hasn’t thought about it (although given the context of his announcement, he might simply be looking for a euphemism for “non-Muslim” values).
Leaving aside anomalies and nomenclature, it still leaves open the question of “what are these values to which is referring” – let alone the question about who decides what are “British” values.
Chris Dillow has done a little analysis of British values here – and has come up with mediocrity, drunkenness, laziness, obesity, criminality, and inequality with a small dash of environmental friendliness thrown in.  Somehow I doubt there’ll be much in common between his list and Gove’s, although his is the more empirically based.
Gove’s list - which includes the primacy of law, religious tolerance, and opposition to gender segregation – is all very worthy; but what makes it specifically British?  It sounds very general to me; the sort of thing which any European country could equally say.  "Promoting European values” doesn’t have quite the same jingoistic ring to it, and is not a phrase likely to escape the lips of many UK politicians.  But it seems to me to be a great deal closer to what he is trying to suggest.
More generally, are “values” a “national” trait at all?  There are certainly cultural differences between nations; particularly in the widest definition of culture to include practices and habits.  But I’m not convinced there’s much to distinguish between values at a national level.  Values are much more generic – it’s more meaningful to talk about values in terms of European, Christian, or Muslim values (although far from straightforward even then) than in terms of British, French, or German values
Gove isn’t the first – and won’t be the last – politician to try and articulate something which he thinks of as a somehow uniquely British set of values.  Such attempts often seem to be based on a romantic and Anglo-centric notion of the sort of superiority and world domination which spawned an empire, but which bears little relationship to modern day reality. One might have hoped that the more time which passes between the end of Empire and the current day, the less our politicians would cling on to outdated notions.  Instead of that, some of them seem to be clinging onto old perspectives with ever more determination.
But there’s one thing that concerns me even more than Gove harking back to the past or being unable to understand the generality of the values he refers to, and that is his apparent belief that telling teachers to inculcate his values in schools is somehow a coherent response to Islamic extremism amongst some governors and teachers.  The connection isn’t an obvious one to me.

Tuesday 10 June 2014

Yes Scotland

Just before Easter, an opinion poll suggested that most people in Wales want Scotland to vote against independence in September.  Given the low level of appetite for independence in Wales, and the almost complete absence of anyone actually putting the case, that was hardly a surprise (although it would have been nice to see some more detailed analysis as to why people took that view).  Ultimately, of course, it’s a matter for the Scots to decide, and in that very narrow sense it doesn’t really matter what we in Wales think.  I do not agree, however, that we should simply have no opinion on the matter.  I think that we should have an opinion, and be willing to express it, for three reasons.
Firstly, whatever the Scots decide will inevitably have an effect on Wales.  If they vote for independence, then the United Kingdom will no longer exist as a state.  (For the pedants: The union of crowns will continue, of course, until one or both countries become republics, but the single state and government will be consigned to history.)  Finding a new name for the non-Scottish part of the current UK will be just about the least important of the consequences of such a decision.  But even if the Scots vote no in September, it would be naïve in the extreme to assume that nothing will change.  Further devolution to Scotland is all but inevitable in that event - there will be an impact on Wales either way.
Secondly, the fact that the Scots are debating – and then voting on – their possible independence should be an ideal opportunity for nationalists in Wales to make the case for Wales to follow suit.  There would be something rather perverse about Welsh seekers of independence remaining silent at the very time when the question of independence has at last become part of a mainstream UK debate.
And thirdly, there is a long tradition of nationalists in Wales and Scotland providing support to each other’s campaigns.  Often, it’s been little more than moral support, but success enjoyed by the one has often boosted the other.  And Welsh nationalism could certainly do with a boost at present! 
I’m still not sure what Scotland will decide; the polls are close and getting closer.  But if I were living in Scotland, I’d be voting yes in September, and a yes vote is the outcome that I’d like to see, for the benefit of Wales as well as Scotland.  All of us who take that view should lend whatever support we can to our Scottish friends.  It can do no harm at all for independence-minded Scots to know that not everyone in Wales is against them, which is the impression which nationalist silence would convey.

Monday 9 June 2014

Open doors

Yesterday’s Sunday Times carried a story about Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, Rachel Reeves, expressing her concerns about Labour losing votes to UKIP.  One of the things she was quoted as saying is that “There were voters who would never in a million years have voted for the Conservative party but were quite willing to go out and vote for Nigel Farage’s UKIP.
It has a ring of truth to it certainly; but it struck me also that there’s a certain degree of poetic justice here, because there’s a very real sense in which Labour a staring at a self-inflicted wound.  For many years, Labour’s prime message seems to have been a twofold one: “The Tories are wicked and evil; we are not the Tories”.  To an extent this has worked, and it’s probably been particularly effective in Wales given folk memories about the Conservatives.
It has a fatal flaw though: what it demonises is not what Tories believe or stand for, nor any particular policy or set of policies.  Instead, it demonises the fact of “being a Tory”.  Shorn of any substance or analysis, it works at the level of myth and prejudice, but it does not respond to the substance in any meaningful way.  So, when another party called something completely different comes along, all of that taboo about supporting “the Tories” is worthless, even if the said new party shares the same fundamental beliefs.
Labour left this door open, all Farage did was walk through it.

Thursday 5 June 2014

Who's taking the decisions?

The proposal that Welsh should have prominence on all road signs in Wales is one that I find it very easy to support.  It is, after all, only a repeat of a proposal made 40 years ago by the official committee set up to look into the matter.  And the suggestion that there should be no mass replacement of road signs, merely a gradual replacement as and when new signs are needed, is certainly a way of minimising the cost, although it will inevitably mean that the process of replacement is a very slow one.  (As an example, I noticed earlier this week on a rural road in Carmarthenshire that there is still a road sign pointing to a place called “Llanelly”; it’s a sign which no one has ever felt it necessary to replace.  And I doubt that it's unique.)
I’m less enthusiastic, though, about the idea that this should be imposed as a rule which all local authorities will be compelled to follow by the Welsh government, even though I know that it won’t happen any other way.  It’s a classic case of a dichotomy between the decision that I want, and the question of where that decision should be taken.  I’m not a great believer in the idea that individual decisions should be taken wherever we can get the “right” outcome.
It’s a point I’ve posted on many times before – what are local councils for; what power should they have; and what value do elected councillors add?
Currently “local government” functions are a mishmash of different things.  In some fields councils are simply acting as local agencies implementing government directives, in others they set policy for themselves.  And there are some fields, of course, when it’s not always entirely clear where policy is really being set.  It was disappointing that the Williams Commission didn't really address this question of purpose - there seemed to be an implicit assumption that local councils are primarily agents for local delivery rather than policy-setting bodies with their own democratic mandate.
The result is that local and central government regularly blame each other for failure and try to grab credit for success.  The councillors we elect have, in reality, little real power over many of the decisions for which they are nominally responsible.
I don’t for one moment believe that we would all draw the line in the same place – I’m an instinctive decentraliser, and accept as a consequence that local control necessarily leads to local differences, and that I will not like all of those differences.  But it would surely be better to draw such a line between truly locally determined services, and nationally determined services which are merely delivered locally.  The former could be delivered by strong local government recognising the mandate which elected councillors have, and the latter by local offices of national government, deleting all pretence that there’s anything “local” about the policies being pursued.
Claiming that road signage is the prerogative of Wales’ local authorities and then decreeing every aspect of policy concerning their format and siting is merely perpetuating a dishonesty – what is there left for councils to decide?  A more honest policy would be simply to move the responsibility to the highways authorities which are already direct agencies of national government.

Wednesday 4 June 2014

Making assumptions

The operators of one of the UK’s AGR nuclear power stations, Dungeness B, have applied for a relaxation in the safety margin for the deterioration of the graphite core.  The dependence of this particular type of reactor on the performance of a particular material over the long term is another of those “little details” which have passed most of us by, and underlines the complex engineering challenges which the designers and builders of such stations have faced.
In itself, the proposed relaxation is probably not a major concern; the level was set on a fairly arbitrary bases in the first place (with a large margin of error presumably).  No one can really be certain what the “right” limit is exactly until it’s reached – which will of course be too late.  But I’m actually less concerned about the specific proposed relaxation than I am about the reasons for the deterioration exceeding expectations, which seems to me potentially a much greater problem.
There’s already talk of the need for a further relaxation in three years’ time: and whilst repeated relaxations should concern us more than just the one, most of us don’t have the technical expertise to know whether we should really be worried or not.
But actually, the aspect of all this which concerns me most was not the relaxation itself, or even the potential need for a further one in three years’ time.  It was, rather, the statement that they want to keep the AGR’s running until at least 2023 “... until the planned next generation of nuclear power stations came on line ...”.  I do not believe for one moment that there will be a single new reactor producing electricity in the UK by 2023 or for some years after that, and I find it hard to believe that even the strongest supporters of nuclear energy can seriously be planning on the basis of such an assumption.  And here’s my real concern about the proposed relaxation at this stage: relaxing the rules a little on the basis of an invalid planning assumption, instead of looking for a viable alternative now, could end up locking us into a situation where there is “no choice” but to make further relaxations every few years.
And it might not just be the graphite cores in the end; other components of the stations will also come to the end of their design lives as well.  We could easily be facing a “need” to make further compromises with safety.
What we really need is not to relax safety standards, but a planned move away from nuclear generation.  Neither the companies looking to make a profit nor the politicians who see only jobs when they look at nuclear power stations are helping with that.