Thursday 27 November 2014

Setting pay levels

The principle of appointing an independent panel to assess the pay of politicians rather than them setting their pay themselves has a superficial attraction.  But “It wasn’t us, guv, it was the independent experts…” will never work for me, because it always carries the (invariably unstated) caveat, “…we only selected and appointed the experts and drew up their brief”.
That’s not an argument for going back to giving them the power – but there is a much simpler and obvious alternative, which is to link the pay of our politicians in some way to average income.  That has the merit of being clear, of taking the decision out of their hands, and of linking their pay to the overall economic performance of the country.  And, subject to a probably heated debate about what the ratio of an AM’s (or MP’s) pay to the average should be (my starting point would be that it should be less than 2:1), it’s likely to be much more acceptable to the public at large.
It’s also not a million miles away from the nature of the original Chartist demand, quoted here by the Chair of the independent panel: “In the nineteenth century, the introduction of payment for Members of Parliament was one of the key reforms called for by the Chartist movement so as to enable 'an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country'”.  I rather feel that the Chartists would have been more than a little surprised to see that particular demand quoted in support of the latest proposals, though.
A relationship with average pay would not, of course, give AMs the sort of pay rise to which they are accustomed and to which they aspire, although they’d never give that as the reason for rejecting such a simple approach.  They’d probably concentrate on the sort of arguments which have been put forward for the latest proposal, which seem to rely on three main elements – level of responsibility, comparability with others, and attracting the right people.  The fact that using those arguments produces a higher number is, I’m sure, entirely coincidental to their choice of argument.  The problem is that, for many of us, none of the arguments being used actually stack up.
Firstly, let’s consider the question of the level of responsibility which they have.  Relating pay to levels of responsibility is itself a very ‘public sector’ concept.  It has nothing at all to do with the idea of payment by results (although I can well understand why elected representatives might fight shy of that concept!).  Personally, I don’t buy into the concept that pay should be set according to the level of responsibility anyway; apart from anything else, it inherently values activities and responsibilities in different ways.  However, for the sake of argument…
In reality, it is Ministers who run the country, not AMs as a whole.  Backbench AMs actually run nothing at all; their direct responsibility for any government decisions is precisely zero.  And that remains true, no matter how many extra powers are devolved to the Assembly.  Certainly, there is ‘responsibility’ in a rather different sense attached to the consideration, debate and enactment of legislation, but much of the input into that process by elected politicians consists of reading out questions and speeches prepared for them by others and voting in a way which has been agreed in advance. (As Owen suggests, perhaps the pay rise should go to those who do the real work…)
Compared to the responsibility shouldered by, say, a doctor, or a nurse, it doesn’t look that onerous to me.  And unlike in the case of a medical professional, there is no requirement for any qualifications whatsoever.  It’s a job which anyone can do – and returning to the Chartists, that was exactly their concept: legislation should be decided by ordinary working people.
Turning to comparability, I have to say that some of the comments made leave me rather more than cold.  Some of the poor things apparently believe that being paid less than people doing a similar job elsewhere in the UK will mean that they are not taken sufficiently seriously.  The salary they are paid, according to this line, reflects their status and credibility.  My heart doesn’t bleed, I’m afraid.  For some of us at least, the point of a Welsh parliament is to make a fresh start, not to be constantly looking over our shoulders at what’s happening elsewhere.  The question from that perspective is not how well the pay compares with Westminster or Edinburgh, but whether it meets Welsh needs.
And finally, we have the old chestnut about attracting people with the right level of ability, an argument with which it is hard to know where to start because there’s so much wrong with it.
I’m reminded of something a presenter once said on a training course I attended many years ago, “Negative criticism of others is merely a dishonest form of self-praise”.  It’s something that I try to bear in mind (not always entirely successfully!) when assessing the ‘ability’ of others; and it’s something that anyone who criticises the level of ability of people as a group (in this case politicians) should bear in mind, because there is an implicit assumption that those making the judgement have a higher level of ability than those being judged.  There’s also a major question around what we mean by the word ‘ability’ in this context.  The word is readily bandied around, but never defined.  However, in this case, it seems that many AMs themselves feel that there is a need for more able people in the Assembly, so let’s run with that assessment for the purposes of debate.
(Although, as an aside, I’m puzzled by the conclusion that they draw from their assessment.  Surely, “so they should resign and be replaced” is a more valid conclusion from the logic than “so they should be paid more”?)
There are a number of obvious flaws in the argument that that getting the right people means paying higher salaries:
·         It sounds a lot like the argument put forward by the bankers who the politicians are so quick to condemn.  And surely experience in that field suggests that what higher salaries attract are greedy people willing to take high risks with a very short term outlook. 
·         Unless there is a way of weeding out those deemed to be inadequate, increasing the salaries merely rewards the same group of people, most of whom are likely to be re-elected.
·         There is no mechanism that I can see whereby an increased salary makes it more likely that more able people will either be selected by their parties or elected by the voters; and assessing ‘ability’ has even less relevance to the second part of that than it does to the first.
·         Do we really want AMs who have been motivated to be there by the pay on offer?
From the perspective of most working people, our elected representatives get an extremely good deal, not only in pay, but also in expenses and allowances.  The latest proposals for pay are a distraction from the work which needs to be done in building a new and different Wales, not least because they highlight the fact that little has changed in terms of attitudes of those who represent us.  It’s a distraction which will repeat itself regularly for as long as they insist on trying to use arguments around levels of responsibility, comparability, and attracting ability to set their pay.  And, as long as they continue to do that, they have only themselves to blame for the bad press which events like this attract.

Tuesday 25 November 2014

Taking a cut

I’ve been a bit uneasy from the outset about Osborne’s decision to give people more freedom about how they should use their pension pots.  On the one hand, it’s difficult to argue with the idea that people should have more freedom about the ways in which they use their own money.  But on the other, those accumulating large pension pots have done so partly on the basis of preferential tax treatment of the money salted away.  That preferential treatment was given on the basis that people were prudently saving for retirement, and would never have been granted to anyone who said they were simply saving for a Ferrari.
Part of my unease is about people taking the ‘wrong’ decisions about how to use their pension pots; but neither am I convinced that the state always knows best when it comes to people making decisions about their own retirement.  Governments don’t exactly have an unblemished track record when it comes to taking decisions for us.
My unease was increased recently as the result of a marketing mail shot which I received from a financial services company.  Other than the fact that my age puts me in the right demographic, they’ve clearly done no research or pre-qualification whatsoever before telling me how they can help me access tax free sums from my pension without even having retired.  The company concerned would, of course, help themselves to 5% of the sum released, and, apparently, an annual fee for reviewing the pension.  (Although that’s only found in the small print at the bottom of the last of 4 pages of blurb.  And they don’t tell me anywhere that actually I could do exactly the same without any help from them, and keep my 5% to boot.)
It may, as I’m sure that the government would argue, be invalid for us to stop people doing as they wish with their own money just because it might not be their most sensible decision.  The right to take decisions must always include the right to take silly ones.  But surely it is an entirely proper political concern to ask whether financial services companies are pushing people in a particular direction in order to take an unnecessary slice off savings which people have taken decades to accumulate? 
It may be that Osborne’s intention from the outset was to benefit his friends in the financial services industry.  Some of them certainly lobbied hard for the decision he took.  But even if we give him the benefit of the doubt on that, and assume that his aim really was to give those with a big enough pension pot to make it worthwhile more freedom on how they use it, he has potentially opened the door to yet another mis-selling scandal, as companies keen to make profits target a wider and wider potential market.  How many people will have lost out before action is taken?

Monday 24 November 2014

Nice try, but no cigar

From time to time, I receive e-mail messages from a variety of organisations and individuals referring to this blog.  They range from those who say they are regular readers and then go on to prove that they most definitely are not by offering guest pieces on a range of unrelated topics, to those who are merely looking for a puff piece about a new book or report.  Whilst some of the books and reports are of interest, I don’t do puff pieces, and I don’t publish guest posts.
I had another one last week of a slightly different nature.  This one also claimed to “have been a reader of your site for a while”, told me that there “are loads of things we'll be doing during the campaign” (i.e. UK General Election) “that are relevant to Borthlas”, and asked me what sort of things would be of most interest.
I’d like to feel flattered that I have a fan base at Conservative Central Office, but somehow I suspect that what has actually happened here is that the ‘blogging coordinator for the Conservative Party election campaign’ has somehow put together, or acquired, a list of email addresses for political blogs; done little or no qualification as to which to include in his missive and which to exclude; and used a blanket mail merge to approach them.  Or else hope transcends experience.
The footer to the e-mail warns me sternly that I "must not disclose, distribute, copy or otherwise use this Email".  Do they really think that they can get away with sending targeted e-mails to people at random, and instruct the recipients not to reveal the contents?  It displays a remarkable failure to understand the nature of the medium they are using. 
I’ve seen one response from another blogger who has expressed his views in forthright fashion.  Not quite the way that I’d express it; but it can be taken as read that Borthlas will not be repeating Central Office propaganda.  However, it’s more than possible that I may choose to comment on some of what they have to say; it’s just unlikely that such comment will be favourable.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Who decides?

When I hear a politician talking about ‘post code lotteries’, I hear the voice of a centralist demanding uniformity and consistency driven from the centre.  It's something from which all four parties in the Assembly suffer on a regular basis, but latest up last week was the leader of the Tories in the Assembly, demanding a ring-fenced cancer drugs fund, like they have in England, so that cancer patients can get access to the drugs they need.
His timing was unfortunate, to say the least, coming as it did just a day or two before it was announced that the said English fund will no longer be funding certain drugs because they’re too expensive.  But then, expecting ‘Dave’ to tell RT what he was going to do would be wholly unrealistic. Even RT himself would never expect that.
The idea of a ring-fenced fund to pay for certain drugs for certain illnesses is superficially attractive, particularly for the patients involved.  The fund in England has undoubtedly made some drugs available to people who would not otherwise have had them; and I can well understand why that would make this a popular initiative.  And it’s that popularity, of course, which drives the Tories in Wales to keep demanding that Wales follows suit - they think that there are votes in it.
But is it the right way to run a health service?  Effectively, it is a case of the politicians telling the doctors that they can’t have enough money to treat everyone, whatever their illness, in the way that the doctors would like.  Instead, the politicians will set the priorities for them, and ring fence a sum of money for certain drugs for use only in the case of certain illnesses, regardless of whether the medical professionals consider that to be the best use of funds to achieve the best outcomes for the largest number of people. 
Driven, as it is, by electoral considerations, I’m far from convinced that this is the best way of making clinical decisions.  And, as they’ve discovered in England, it gives the drugs companies no incentive to reduce the cost of the drugs.
Responding to wholly understandable public demands that the latest drugs should be available by creating a ring-fenced fund is no way to address the overall problem of lack of resources in the health service.  Attending to the high profile diverts attention from, but does not resolve, the decisions which doctors face daily about how best to use the resources they do have to benefit the greatest number.  And, ultimately, that’s my real objection to the idea of a ring-fenced fund – it’s not tackling the real problem.

Friday 14 November 2014

Averages don't tell the whole story

There is an obvious danger that anyone objecting to Cameron’s insistence on continuing intervention in discussion on the Welsh NHS is seen as being a supporter of a service which is failing.  And indeed, some of the responses coming from the Welsh Government do make it appear that they are more concerned with the politics of the matter than with addressing the very real problems that the NHS faces.  The fact that Cameron’s intervention has more to do with politics than with health is no excuse for responding in the same vein.
Part of the problem is that there’s a great deal of heat, but not a lot of light.  Last week, Cameron again drew attention to the difference in waiting times for diagnostic tests, where 30% of people in Wales wait for more than 6 weeks, compared to only 1.5% in England.  In purely numerical terms, that’s a shocking gap between two neighbouring countries, but there’s much more to this than averages can reveal.
From the perspective of each and every individual patient, whether they’re part of the 30% in Wales or the 1.5% in England is irrelevant; the figure for them as individuals is 100%.  And given the small size of Wales compared to England, even on those figures there are almost as many individuals waiting longer than 6 weeks in England as there are in Wales.  If it were really the best interests of patients driving Cameron’s concern, he could halve the total number of people waiting more than 6 weeks in EnglandandWales by eliminating the 1.5% in England, where he does actually have direct responsibility.
There’s another thing about averages as well; whilst they tell the headline story, they hide the detail.  These are averages for all specialities across all locations; there will be a lot of variation in there.  Are there no specialities in particular locations in England where the lists are longer than for the same speciality in some locations in Wales?  I don’t know; but I do know that overall averages will never tell us that.
And how about urgency?  A 6 week target for all tests of all types is nice and easy to shout about, but as a patient, there are some tests that I would want to have immediately, and others that I wouldn’t mind waiting a while for if priority was being given to those in greatest need.  Again, an overall average will never tell us anything about that; yet from a patient perspective, it’s outcomes which matter more than anything.  If Wales could achieve a much lower average (and thus undermine Cameron’s argument) by concentrating on doing the least urgent cases first (if, for instance, they were easier to do), would anyone really think that was the right thing to do?  Fixing the numbers isn't the same as fixing the problems.
Let me stress this: I don’t know the answer to the questions I raise above about the detail underlying the averages.  But I doubt that Cameron does either.  Worse, I’m not sure that he really cares; he’s only after making a political point which has more to do with winning English constituencies in the upcoming election than it does with care for the wellbeing of Welsh patients.
But the underlying problem here isn’t the politics of health, nor the way that politicians use statistics (although it would help if some of them were a little more numerate).  It is that, in Wales as in England, there is a target-meeting approach to managing the health care system, and as long as that continues, the Welsh Government is inviting this sort of criticism. 
Whilst we’d all like to be able to have whatever tests we need ‘on demand’, what really matters to patients is whether we get the tests (and treatment) we need at a time which makes a difference to the outcome for us.  In some cases, that may well be very much less than 6 weeks; in other cases, it could be longer.  Do we want our doctors to be deciding what to do on the basis of meeting a simplistic target to keep the politicians happy, or on the basis of meeting the clinical needs of patients?

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Right conclusion, shame about the arguments

Sometimes I find myself agreeing with much of what someone else says but completely failing to understand how they reached the conclusion which they reached as a result.  At other times I find myself agreeing with the conclusion whilst rejecting just about every step in the logic used to get to that conclusion.  It was the second feeling that I got when I read Kirsty Williams’s comments this week about an increase in the number of AMs.  I agree that 80 - 100 would be better, but disagree with much of what she said in support.
She started by saying that “any increase in the number of AMs must be cost neutral”.  I asked myself why.  I can understand that politicians have made themselves so unpopular that they’re afraid to make the argument for an increase in numbers, but if doing any job properly requires more resources, than an increase in cost is inevitable.  Linking that increase to an arbitrary reduction in something completely different is about presentation rather than logic.
“Wales”, she argues, “...has the highest proportion of councillors compared to residents in the UK”.  As a statement of fact, it’s inarguable.  But as a reason for reduction, it’s weak.  I’m not particularly committed to either the current number of councils or of councillors in Wales, but merely saying that we should cut the number because it’s lower elsewhere is a complete non sequitur.  There are a whole series of judgements to be made about what powers local government in Wales should have and how local communities should best be represented when decisions are taken.  Stating simply that England has fewer councillors for each thousand voters avoids rather than addresses those questions.
“... too many laws are being poorly drafted”, she says.  Again I tend to agree; but I’m not convinced that there is any relationship between that issue and the number of Assembly Members.  It might simply mean that we need more – or better – people in the drafting office; or that the government should not be so hasty in legislating.  Having more people being told to hold how to vote on the content of laws doesn’t immediately strike me as the solution to that particular deficiency.
“We can’t let the lack of capacity in our Assembly be given as a reason for us not to have the appropriate powers to help build a stronger economy and a fairer society”.  I’m not sure who exactly is arguing that the lack of numbers in the Assembly is a reason for not giving the Assembly more powers.  This looks like a convenient fiction, invented to be easily knocked down.  I’ve certainly seen it argued that the lack of skills, experience, and ability is a barrier to giving the Assembly more powers, but I’m not sure how increasing the numbers necessarily deals with any of those issues.
And then there’s the headline about ‘more AMs needed for a stronger economy and fairer society’.  Surely both of those things are actually down to the policies being pursued by the government, not the number of Assembly Members?  How precisely does increasing the number of AMs change that?
Despite all of that I actually agree with her that we should have more members in the Assembly.  It is after all the conclusion of two commissions set up to consider the matter in depth.  But my reasons would be rather different.
Firstly the small number of members leads to a small talent pool from which to select ministers and committee chairs.  That is reflected in the fact that successive reshuffles make little difference to the overall appearance of the government – the same people simply swap posts.  Secondly, the “payroll vote” is too large a proportion of the total.  That leaves little scope for independent thinking.  And thirdly, AMs are obliged to be generalists; there is inadequate scope for them to specialise in particular issues and causes.
Having said all that, they could help themselves more as well.  Squealing about not having the time to do the job properly when some of them have outside paid interests as well doesn’t sound like much of an argument, and it sometimes seems that a number of them consider ‘scrutiny’ to be the same thing as reading out the political points written down for them by their researchers rather than understanding the legislation and responding to it.
It may well be brave of any politician to suggest an increase in their numbers, but if these are the best arguments that they can find, it’s an issue which isn’t going to be resolved any time soon.

Tuesday 11 November 2014

Thinking ahead?

On Sunday, the people of Catalunya were given a chance to vote in a “consultative” ballot run by volunteers, on the question of independence.  Those who voted were overwhelmingly in favour.
The result has inevitably been dismissed by the Spanish government.  The Unionist parties argue that the ballot cannot legitimately reflect the wishes of the region because it was organised by the pro-independence parties.  On this point, I cannot but agree with the Spanish government.  No referendum organised on this basis by the supporters of one side of the debate was ever going to give a mandate for independence.  For such legitimacy, a proper vote would be needed using the formal electoral roll – a ballot, in fact, of the sort which the same Spanish government went to court to prevent happening.
It’s a legalistic Catch-22 for supporters of independence.  The Spanish centralists are relying on a provision in the Constitution laid down by a dictator who had no time for either democracy or sub-state nationalism, and using it to stifle the voice of the Catalans.  Would the Catalans still vote for independence so overwhelmingly in a properly held ballot?  That’s an open question, which can only be answered by holding such a ballot; but trying to prevent such a ballot from being held seems to me more likely to lead to an increase in support for the proposition than to defeat it.
Where next in the process?  (And it’s not entirely academic for us in the UK – it’s the sort of situation in which the UK could find itself if instinctive conservatives such as Jack Straw had their way and enshrined in law the concept of an indissoluble kingdom.)
It seems likely now that the next elections in Catalunya will become a referendum on the issue; and it currently seems more likely than not that the pro-independence parties will win a majority for the proposition.  What then? I wonder whether the Spanish government have really thought further ahead than the court case outlawing the ballot – do they understand the potential consequences of their stance?
There’s no sign of them becoming any less intransigent on the question; and a Catalan government with a clear majority faced with such intransigence probably has little alternative to a unilateral declaration of independence, given the pressure from its own supporters in such circumstances.
Faced with that, the centralists in Madrid would have only two logical options – to accept reality, or to send in troops from the rest of Spain to depose the government and impose direct rule.  I find it really hard to believe that a 21st-century European democracy would resort to the latter; and even if they did, rule from the centre would serve only to further inflame Catalan feelings.
“Trech gwlad nag arglwydd”, as we say in Welsh.  Ultimately people cannot be coerced into remaining part of any state against their will for the indefinite future.  A state exists only by the will – or at the very least the acceptance – of its people.  The Spanish prime minister reminds me increasingly of King Cnut – the difference being that Cnut knew that he could not control the tide.

Friday 7 November 2014

Painting himself into a wolf-infested corner

When he first decided to offer the UK public an in/out referendum on the EU, Cameron and his advisors probably thought that it was a masterstroke which would shoot the UKIP fox and help him coast to victory in next year’s election.  But the more time passes, the more it seems that not only will it achieve neither of those objectives, it could actually lead to the one thing which I really believe he was genuinely trying to avoid – a UK exit from the EU.
As with most cunning schemes dreamed up by politicians and their advisors, it was never really thought through.  The aims of the renegotiation which was the excuse for not having an immediate vote were never defined.  I can understand that, up to a point – if you tell the other parties in advance exactly what you are trying to achieve, it can make the negotiations harder.  But in the absence of definition, the aims are being defined for him, partly by the media and partly by the very fox he was trying to shoot.  And the objective is rapidly being boiled down to one single issue – immigration.
By not spelling out in any detail what he was trying to achieve (probably because his only real aim was always electoral rather than having much to do with the treaties) he has allowed himself to be trapped into a position where if he fails to achieve anything significant on that one issue, any negotiations will look like a failure.  The more he tries to find another way around the question, the more friends he loses within the EU – this week, he seems to have managed to lose all his friends in Scandinavia.
Rarely can a political party which was until just a few weeks ago without any representation in the Westminster parliament have achieved so much in terms of shifting the centre of debate.  The window within which debate on immigration now takes place is such that the question parties have to answer is not whether immigration is good, bad or indifferent, but simply ‘what are you going to do about it?’  It’s an Overton window which effectively precludes any wider debate about the issue in mainstream politics.  That’s quite an achievement.
Not all ‘achievements’ are beneficial, though.  This particular one not only flies in the face of any economic evidence about the benefits and costs, it also leads us inexorably towards the door marked ‘exit’ - and insularity.  The language used by Cameron and friends is in itself less than helpful – talking as though Europe is something ‘other’, with which we have a ‘relationship’ rather than being a part of.  I can think of few things which, from the perspective of those who see themselves as ‘members’ (i.e. all the other states!), could be more calculated to provoke a negative attitude from the outset to any attempt at changing the rules.
Whilst it looks likely that Scotland would vote to remain in the UK in the event of a referendum, I do not share the confidence of others that the result in Wales would be much different from the result in England, however much I might wish that it be so.  And at the moment, I'm not confident that EnglandandWales wouldn't vote for exit.  Cameron could, of course, lose the election next year, although with the polling gap closing, the possibility of Cameron clinging to power can’t be ruled out as easily as appeared to be the case some months ago.  Even if he loses, it’s by no means certain that there won’t be a referendum under a Labour-led government; that party has clearly said that it will call one “if there is any proposal in the next parliament for a transfer of powers to Brussels”.  And given that Miliband and his party have allowed themselves to become trapped in the same narrow window of debate around the key issue which is driving much of the opposition to the EU, I’m not convinced that would be much better.
And that brings us back to the real issue here.  No matter how much the politicians try to pretend that the issue is about sovereignty or regulation or finance, deep down they know that the driving issue for many of those who would vote in such a referendum is immigration.  From my own experience in canvassing electors over many years, I am well aware that that issue has a real potency, and whatever they say, the politicians are trying to harness it for political purposes. 
The problem we face is two-fold.  In the first place, politicians have become afraid even to attempt to lead opinion; instead they allow themselves to fall in with public opinion – the window is largely one of their own creation.  And secondly, they have allowed the issues of immigration and the EU to become conflated in people’s minds – and have even encouraged that conflation.
The Romans had a saying, Auribus teneo lupum which sort of fits the situation.  Cameron and friends have nurtured and encouraged the wolf; the danger is that it’s the rest of us who end up getting savaged.

Tuesday 4 November 2014

Promises, promises

I don’t know when the Labour Party first adopted a policy of reforming the House of Lords, but it sounds like one of those things that has ‘always’ been policy.  I can certainly remember many Labour leaders talking about it when in opposition, even if ‘it’ hasn’t always meant exactly the same thing.  But they’ve never got around to actually doing anything about it when in government.  It’s one of those things that are just ‘too difficult’, although the euphemism usually adopted is that ‘there are more important priorities’.
So Ed Miliband’s statement that a Labour government led by him would actually do something needs to be read in the historical context, and is probably not worth a great deal as promises go.  Besides, at this stage his suggestion of it becoming some sort of Senate with regionally-elected representatives has not been thought through a great deal – apparently that’s to be left to the constitutional convention that he plans to establish.  Giving them a few years – perhaps the whole term of a parliament – is enough to sound like a commitment to radical reform whilst leaving Miliband with a cunning ruse to kick the issue immediately into the long grass.
It raises a question, though, about the purpose of the constitutional convention itself.  Slowly but surely, he’s announcing all the decisions in principle before it’s even established – the second chamber will be retained with similar functions, but with the method of election to be determined; there will be more power delegated to cities; there will not be two or more different classes of MP; the list grows.
Setting up a convention to carry out a thorough review of the constitution sounds like a radical idea, but it increasingly looks like it’s going to be little more than a means of getting someone else to put the flesh on the bones of an already determined Labour policy.
Still, sounding radical whilst delaying action is a familiar approach.  It’s been successfully deployed by many of his predecessors, so why wouldn’t it work for him too?  I suspect that their lordships will still be around for a few more decades yet, sadly.

Monday 3 November 2014

A majority of what?

Scotland’s next First Minister called last week for a decision on withdrawal from the EU to be valid only if all 4 nations of the UK individually supported that result.  The call was immediately rejected – I’m sure that she had no other expectation; but she’s made the point, and made it well, that Scotland shouldn’t be dragged out of the EU against the wishes of the people.
So far, so predictable.  I was more interested in the response of some of those rejecting the call, who claimed that it was hypocritical for her to make that call, when the rest of the UK hadn’t been given a vote in the independence referendum.  It’s completely the wrong comparison to make – arguing that the rest of the UK should have a vote on Scottish independence would be more akin to arguing that the whole of the EU should take the decision on whether the UK leaves or not.  Somehow, I don’t expect many unionists to be making that demand!
A better comparison – and a far more damaging one at first sight – would be to argue that a vote on Scottish independence should not be valid unless a majority in each and every local council area voted in favour.  But as far as I have seen, none of Nicola Sturgeon’s opponents have latched on to that one.
I suspect the reason may well be down to something from which we all suffer to a greater or lesser extent, which is a belief that some of the units created by lines drawn on a map are more ‘natural’ than others, and should thus form the basis on which decisions are mad.  So, from a Scottish nationalist perspective, Scotland is the natural unit, and an all-Scotland vote is valid; but from the perspective of the UK unionists, the UK is a natural unit and an all-UK vote is definitive.
I’ll admit that I suffer a similar tendency to feel that Wales is a natural unit which should be treated as a whole, even if I try and take a more objective view at least part of the time.  It’s inevitably, at least in part, about identity – something which is inherently subjective rather than objective.  But even as a subjective feeling it has a power – people feel themselves to belong to a nation in a way that they don’t feel themselves to be part of an artificial region.  And that’s no small part of the reason why ‘regional devolution’ in England has never taken off.  People feel more attachment to their locality or city than to the regions drawn on a map somewhere in Whitehall.
The point about subjective loyalties or identities is, of course, that they can and do change over time.  The transition from a feeling of Britishness to a feeling of Scottishness (and the same thing has happened, although not so strongly, in Wales) has happened slowly, over many decades.  Looking back, the change is obvious, but I can’t remember feeling it happening at any specific point.  I suspect that part of the problem which Cameron, Miliband et al suffer from is that they haven’t really seen or understood that it’s happened at all.
Some have claimed that it’s a result of devolution; although I see the issue of cause and effect here as being more of a chicken and egg question.  But it’s all a bit academic by now; the fact of growing confidence and identity in two nations which are currently tied to England with different degrees of constitutional bonds is one which the unionists need to come to terms with.  (I leave the six counties of Northern Ireland out of this analysis deliberately – whilst there are parallels, there are also a range of other issues).
Maybe, at some point, the idea of identity at an even more local level will gain traction, and the question as to whether an all-Scotland (or all-Wales) majority is enough will take on more pertinence than it has today.  But whatever happens in the future, we’ve already reached the point where a simple all-UK majority on a matter such as leaving the EU is just not good enough in either Wales or Scotland.  And simply dismissing the call out of hand in the way Cameron did last week is likely in the long run to do unionism more harm than good.