Thursday 31 July 2014

Cardiff, Cardiff, Cardiff...

The plans for the revamp of Cardiff Central station are ambitious.  They are also likely to be very expensive.  It’s not a plan that I’d oppose in principle, but I don’t agree that it should be the next priority for the network rail investment programme.
I understood why electrifying the main line from Paddington to Swansea should be a top priority.  I can also understand why the lines running through the South Wales valley should be the second priority.  But there are still unelectrified lines in west and north of Wales, and I cannot understand why the scheme to electrify those is not being brought forward ahead of the revamp of Cardiff station.
I try to avoid falling prey to simplistic regional jealousies pitting one part of Wales gets another.  And given the concentration of population and employment in the south-east, the status of Cardiff as the capital, I can understand the logic of an electrification scheme which serves that area first.  It shouldn’t end there though, and a desire to avoid internal competition shouldn’t become an abject acceptance that all investment goes to one corner.
The comment made by the Institute of Directors (“If Cardiff is to compete with other cities in the UK and internationally for investment, then it really needs a train station that is as good as anything else”) sounded like a reprise of why we have to build the extra M4 around Newport, why we have to create a city region based on Cardiff, and why we have to build the Greater Cardiff Metro.  How many more things does Cardiff “need” because we will not get economic development without them, and when will Cardiff have ‘enough’ grand schemes to allow serious investment elsewhere in Wales?
It increasingly looks as though the answer is never – no sooner has one key problem been overcome then another one gets pushed to the fore.  There will always be another key obstacle to Cardiff's development which the rest of Wales will have to pay for, as funds are directed to that one corner of the country.
It’s hard to deny that Cardiff is receiving a substantial devolution dividend, but what about the rest of Wales?  Replicating the south-east bias of the UK was never anyone’s stated intention – yet that’s where we seem to be going.

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Who selects the evidence?

It has become something of a mantra for politicians over recent years that decisions should be “evidence-based”.  It all sounds fine and dandy, with its unstated implication of a rational and logical process leading to an inevitable conclusion.  But reality is rather different.
One of the problems with it is that “evidence” comes in many different flavours.  Whilst some is in the form of hard facts and figures, some is mere opinion.  Expert opinion in some cases admittedly, but still opinion.  And even the hard evidence can sometimes be interpreted in more than one way.  Interpretation is key; and interpretation is largely a subjective rather than an objective process which involves not only weighting the different elements but can also include deciding which evidence to collect in the first place.
Two recent examples of evidence collecting underline the problems.
The first is this report (Peter Black drew attention to the story a week or two ago).  The UK government commissioned a report into the effects of immigration.  Unfortunately for them, the “evidence” didn’t support their viewpoint, so they had it rewritten.
The second was the decision to build the M4 black route.  The Minister certainly had plenty of “evidence” from consultation exercises to take a decision, but some might feel that the decision simply flies in the face of much of the evidence.  Certainly the Minister has chosen to put the emphasis on a different place than I would have done in deciding how to evaluate that evidence.
Quite apart from the practical difficulties of following a truly “evidence-based” approach, there is a question of principle which concerns me more.  Do we really want key policy decisions to be taken by people who have no opinion of their own until the civil servants have collected, collated and evaluated the evidence and then told the minister what his or her opinion is?  What scope does that leave for political differentiation?  After all, the civil servants would give the same advice to any minister regardless of party.
I have heard ministers in the past saying, effectively, that they don’t and can’t have an opinion on an issue until they’ve heard all the evidence, and even arguing that their role is quasi- judicial.  Whilst in a small number of cases that is true, on the whole I prefer to have politicians who are willing to drive things in a clear direction and to say so in advance, rather than ministers who see the job as more a case of sitting in judgement on alternative policies.  I want to be able to choose which policies are followed, not simply which group of people are going to pretend to be impartial judges.

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Do we want to be the playground bullies?

Not for the first time, Cameron has employed the argument about the UK “punching above our weight” in relation to the Scottish independence referendum.  It’s something that sounds like a good thing – but is it?  What does it really mean?
At its crudest, it sounds like a school playground invitation to stick with the big bullies rather than be part of the group of smaller children suffering the bullying.  Only slightly less crudely, it implies that bigger states can and should get their own way more often and/or an unfair share of resources.  If it doesn’t mean any of those things, then it’s surely a meaningless phrase.
As a statement of the way things actually work in the world, it’s difficult to refute the argument.  In practice, might usually is “right”; but is it the way things should work?  Is it the way we want things to be?
I certainly don’t, and I’m not convinced that maintaining the strength of the bullies – which is what Cameron is effectively proposing – is the best way of tackling bullying.  It’s not the advice which Cameron would give to children who were being bullied at school (or at least I don’t think it is!), so why do so when it comes to the big school of international politics?

Thursday 24 July 2014

Credit stealing and blame avoidance

For those who will fill the jobs generated, there is no doubt that Wales’ reported success in attracting inward investment is good news.  It’s not clear how many jobs there really are however.  There has been a tendency in the past to overstate the numbers, and I’ve long been sceptical about claims that “n” jobs have been “safeguarded” and would otherwise have been lost.  When the organisations giving the grants or aid and the organisations receiving them all have a vested interest in presenting the highest possible numbers, there is obviously a potential to, shall we say, ‘use the most optimistic forecasts’.  And some of the jobs will not arrive for 3 to 5 years, which leaves ample scope for ‘changed circumstances’ to lead to a revision of the numbers.
I’m not sure what it says about the Welsh Government’s economic policy.  I had thought that the emphasis was moving away from attracting inward investment in order to concentrate on growing and developing indigenous businesses; not least because of experience.  Whilst some inward investment into Wales has created some sound long-term employment, there are plenty of other examples of a short-term presence which moves on when the grants run out.  In effect, policy often seems to be whatever is happening at the time; events drive policy rather than policy driving events.
Political reaction has been predictable.  The Tories point to every failure in economic policy as being down to the Welsh government and claim the latest news as a success for UK policy; whilst Labour point to every failure as being the fault of the UK government, and claim the news as a success for their policies.
They can’t both be right of course – but that doesn’t mean that they can’t both be wrong.  I don’t simply mean that the policy pursued by the UK government would have been much the same if Labour were in power (although it would have been) or even the same thing in reverse in Cardiff Bay (although it’s easier to conceive of a Labour UK government than of a Tory Welsh government).  I mean rather that economic policies pursued by governments at both ends of the M4 might actually have had a negligible impact on the outcome.  Governments like to pretend they’re in control when things are going well, and pretend that things are out of their hands when things are going badly.  I suspect they’re right on the latter, but simply deliberately understate the applicability of that conclusion.

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Words, not action

Amongst the reaction to the Welsh government’s decision to blow £1 billion worth of capital expenditure on one road scheme in the south-east of Wales, questions have been raised about how the government would be able to progress other schemes, including the Greater Cardiff Metro scheme.  It’s a good question, although given the strings attached to the way in which the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition in London has “allowed” the Welsh government to borrow the money for the M4; I’m not convinced that they would ever have been permitted to borrow the money for any other scheme - perhaps not even for the 'blue route'.
The UK government has always been clear that they were only permitting borrowing because they wanted this particular scheme to proceed (which makes the Welsh Lib Dems’ apparent opposition more than a little curious, even if it isn’t exactly unusual for that party to be both for and against policies).
One option for funding the Metro scheme is the use of European funding.  Cardiff is not actually entitled to that money but it’s been suggested previously that schemes which happen to benefit a greater area might be able to tap into such funding, effectively diverting them to Cardiff.  It’s a little bit like robbing the poor to pay the rich but there’s nothing new or original about that.
On the matter of the M4 itself, Gareth Clubb has done a very effective deconstruction of the objective “evidence” (or rather total lack of) for the government’s proposed scheme.  Whilst both the government and the CBI refer incessantly to the damage which the limited capacity of the M4 does to the Welsh economy, they have no facts to back that claim.  We are all, apparently, supposed to take the claim on trust because they say it is so.
In principle, of course transport bottlenecks will negatively impact on those economic activities (and thus those companies) which depend on transport; but the leap of logic from stating that obvious truth to building a six lane highway around Newport is far from being an obvious – let alone the only – solution.  And the concentration of attention and resource on one (comparatively small) area of Wales betrays an obsession with the idea that the Welsh economy is wholly dependent on (a) what happens in one corner of the country, and (b) on the link between that corner and England.  It’s not a version of the future which offers much to those of us in the west or north of the country.  Nor does it suggest any serious intention to rebalance the Welsh economy and promote more sustainable local economic activity across Wales.
All in all it tends to confirm that “sustainability” is something to be talked about ad infinitum; something which politicians can declare themselves passionate about when seeking ‘green’ votes.  But it isn’t really anything which requires them to take any action.

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Why would they?

One of the scare tactics being deployed by the anti-independence brigade in Scotland is that jobs will be lost as companies move out.  Whether it’s “true” or not is irrelevant to those using the argument; their hope is that it will scare enough people into voting no so that the proposition will never need to be proved one way or the other.
Of course, there are companies which are saying they will leave if Scotland votes yes, but this probably owes more to the political prejudices of the people running those companies that to any thought-through policy.  Whether they actually decide to leave will ultimately depend more on the policies pursued by an independent Scotland than on the fact of independence itself.  And the traffic - if such there be - is unlikely to be one way; there will be other companies attracted by the possibilities of independence.
I’ll admit that I don’t know for certain whether companies would or would not leave Scotland, although unless the new government of an independent Scotland introduced a whole tranche of policies likely to drive businesses out (and why on earth would they do that?) then it seems unlikely.  But I’m not the only one who doesn’t know for certain; none of those stating as a fact that businesses will go can actually be certain either.  They just pretend to be – it’s simply propaganda.
The point about propaganda of course is that, if it’s any good, people will believe it and act accordingly.  Truth doesn’t enter into the equation.  I don’t know how effective this particular piece of propaganda will be in Scotland.  Some will believe it; but others will see it for what it is.
It does though seem to have found a ready audience in a group calling itself the Cardiff Business Council, whose members have managed to convince themselves that a number of leading Scottish companies might be persuaded to move to Cardiff if Scotland votes yes.  They are so convinced by the propaganda that they’ve written directly to the companies urging them to come to Cardiff.
There are two things that strike me about this, quite apart from the fact that they’ve been taken in by such propaganda.
The first is that it highlights the negative side of much of what passes for economic development.  It isn’t about growth or the promotion of new jobs; it’s merely about moving economic activity from one place to another.  Whilst the result of moving a company from A to B might well be good for B, it will invariably be bad for A.  And if grants or other forms of aid are involved, it means that we as taxpayers end up paying for a net increase of precisely zero jobs.  It’s much better, for all concerned, to use our time and effort seeking real additional jobs than to compete to move those already existing.
And the second point is this.  If someone running a company is so opposed to the idea of independence that they really will move their company out of Scotland if it happens, why on earth would they choose Wales rather than England?  No matter how unlikely it looks at this stage that Wales might follow Scotland, a yes vote in September will change the dynamic, and Welsh independence will, inevitably, appear more likely (or perhaps I should simply say “less unlikely”) than it does now.  Those involved would surely avoid – almost instinctively – potentially putting themselves in the same position again?
Of course it could simply be that the group concerned are engaging in a bit of anti-independence propaganda of their own…

Friday 11 July 2014

Business as Usual

A month or so ago, Barack Obama, at Cameron’s urging, made an intervention in the debate on Scottish independence, making it clear that he saw advantages to the US in having a strong united partner.  (That’s an argument that might work for some, although whether providing the sort of strong united partner that the US might want is a good argument against independence depends a great deal on one’s perspective.)
It seems that Obama had previously declined a similar invitation from Spain’s PM, Mariano Rajoy, but the US ambassador to Spain, James Costos, did comment on the question of Catalan independence last week.  His comments were, however, rather more equivocal.  Even so, he subsequently tried to backtrack a little to appear, if possible, even more equivocal.
The key point he made was a very simple and obvious one, which is that if things change, then companies adapt to those changes.
He’s right, and Independence, whether for Scotland or Catalonia, is inarguably a change in circumstances which would call for adaptation; but actually, independence itself isn’t really going to be much of an issue for most companies.  More important for them will be the taxation and regulatory policies pursued by the independent governments after independence.
Whilst the leaders of some companies – as we’re seeing in Scotland at present – are making bold statements about the implications for independence and what they’ll do in response, much of this is hot air based on using the companies which they lead to provide a platform for expression of their own political prejudices.  What any company which seeks to be successful will actually do after independence will be based on a much more careful and rational assessment of the nature of the new regime under which they’ll be working.  And given that Scotland is certain to remain in the EU with all the same rules about the single market, the likelihood has to be that they’ll carry on as though nothing has happened.

Thursday 10 July 2014

Who's the silliest boy?

Requesting that civil servants provide financial details about payments made to named individuals who just happened to be opposition AMs was a pretty silly thing for Alun Davies to have done.  His resultant sacking as a Minister was inevitable, particularly given the way in which he’d been ‘let off’ another misdemeanour just hours beforehand.  As the First Minister more or less said, it’s hard to see his request as other than a clumsy and stupid attempt to misuse his position to instigate personal attacks on other politicians, however much he may try to make out that it was just for 'background' purposes.
Having said all that, I’m less than impressed with some of the opposition response to events, with politicians of the other parties ‘baying for more blood’ as the Western Mail put it in its headline yesterday.  It’s an intensely personalised approach to political debate, which probably results from two factors.  The first is that the politicians are cooped up in the hothouse in the Bay, and the second is that there is so little real difference between them on policy that all they can do is argue about each other’s personal merits and qualities.
A minister tried to do something improper and quite rightly got sacked for it.  Most of us – probably all of us – do silly things from time to time, although the consequences are not always so severe.  And silliness in politicians has never been demonstrated to be party political in nature; foot-in-mouth syndrome can and often does affect politicians from any party.  So can a tribalistic desire to do down one’s political opponents whenever the opportunity presents itself.  But there is – or should be – more to politics than that.
This isn’t what some of us hoped devolution would be about.  It was supposed to bring about a more mature and adult approach to political debate in which different futures for Wales could be laid out and examined, not just an amateurish copy of the pantomime nonsense that we see daily from Westminster.  For sure, demanding blood generates news stories and headlines, but it adds little to the sum total of knowledge and understanding.  And it has even less to do with building a new Wales.

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Choosing the right article

One of the more persistent lines taken by opponents of Scottish independence is that an independent Scotland would find itself outside the EU and have to apply for membership as a new state.  Some of those using the argument go further and say that other countries (they usually cite Spain) would then veto any Scottish application.  The Spanish government takes much the same line in respect of Catalonia, only rather more honestly tells the Catalans that it might decide to veto their application itself, rather than shifting the potential blame onto some other state.  There seems to be little doubt that, if Scottish (or Catalan) membership depends on Article 49 of the treaty, then the legal argument for that position is probably correct.
The SNP and the Scottish Government argue, on the other hand, that the situation could be covered by Article 48 of the treaty, which would make the whole process much simpler, and need not require a period of being outside before readmission.  There is no direct precedent for such a situation, so the question of which route would apply will not be finally established unless and until one or other country actually votes for independence.
There was a report earlier this week on some work done by an academic at Oxford University on the subject, which in essence came down on the side of the Scottish Government’s interpretation.  Whilst recognising that there is no precedent, and no specific provision in the treaty to handle such a situation, which always leaves an element of doubt, the professor concluded:
“Despite assertions to the contrary from UK lawyers, EU lawyers and EU officials, any future independent Scotland's EU membership should be assured, and its transition from EU membership (as a) part of the UK, to EU membership (as an) independent Scotland relatively smooth and straightforward.”
Interestingly, she drew a parallel with the reunification of Germany, where a state which was a member effectively enlarged itself by taking in territory and population previously outside the Union.  This was dealt with on a very pragmatic basis, and it is reasonable to ask why Scottish or Catalan independence would be treated any differently, particularly given the EU’s history of seeking to expand. 
I can accept that the other member states would have the potential to make the negotiations difficult and protracted either way if they wanted to, but what ‘Better Together’ have failed to explain is why they would want to.  It’s clear why they want to use the threat of doing so in order to deter people choosing independence, but what exactly would be their motivation for driving an area of territory and millions of people out of the EU once the decision had been taken?  Spite?  Revenge?
If Scotland or Catalonia decides to opt for independence in one or other of this autumn’s referendums, is it really credible that the UK or Spain would then deliberately seek to make their lives difficult for such base motives?  I don’t find that in the least bit credible.

Monday 7 July 2014

Journalistic licence

Last Friday’s Western Mail contained this little story which included the paragraph:
John Dixon, who was Plaid Cymru’s chair from 2002 to 2010, told Wales Eye the fresh controversy showed the party’s policy on nuclear energy was incoherent.  He said: “On nuclear energy, whether the party is for or against depends on who you speak to.”
It’s obviously based on this posting on Wales Eye, from the 27th June.  However, the Wales Eye story doesn’t actually say either that this was something which I had “told Wales Eye”, or that it was in response to the “fresh controversy”; both those little fictions (or should we say “journalistic embellishments”?) are entirely the property of the Western Mail.  I don’t know who runs Wales Eye, but as far as I’m aware, I’ve never had any communication whatsoever with those running the blog; and certainly didn’t speak to them or anyone else about this story.  Apart from anything else, I was out of the country at the time.
The words attributed to me, though, are undoubtedly mine.  They’re lifted from this blog posting in July last year, but I’d have needed to be very prescient to comment on a trip to Japan almost a year before it happened.
Does it matter?  After all, the comments were made on a blog which is in the public arena even if not particularly widely read.  And I haven’t changed my mind about what I wrote a year ago.  Whilst Plaid’s de jure policy is to support renewables and oppose nuclear energy, the party’s de facto policy is that its members are free to take whatever stance that they wish on energy policy – and no party taking that position can claim to have an honest or coherent energy policy.
Context is important though.  The story in which the quotes were used was really nothing to do with energy policy at all.  It was about two other matters entirely – one overt, the other less so.
The overt focus of the story was a criticism by a Labour politician of a Plaid politician for accepting hospitality from a company which is seeking to gain and maintain political support for its proposed development.  The words which came to my mind were pot, kettle, and black.  A brief glance through the register of interests of AMs or MPs will reveal that many of our elected members – of all parties – are only too happy to accept the generous hospitality of companies in many fields.  Only the politically naïve could believe that the companies concerned spend money in this way with no ulterior motive in mind.  I’d prefer that our elected representatives maintained a greater distance from capitalists on the make, but I have no great expectation that that will happen any time soon.
The less overt aspect of this story was the quote from a “senior Plaid Cymru figure”, which was clearly a knife aimed at the back of Rhun ap Iorwerth.  This sort of unattributable briefing has become a pernicious problem for the party since the establishment of the Assembly, and owes more to internal personal rivalries and ambitions that it does to a debate about energy policy or any concern for the future of Wales.  It’s one of the less savoury practices which some party members have learned from observing New Labour in action.
So, whilst I don’t and can’t object to either Wales Eye or the Western Mail quoting selectively from this blog, it strikes me as unprofessional to present an old quote on an issue of policy as though it were a quote on either the question of accepting hospitality or an intervention in the internal rivalries of a party.