Wednesday 29 July 2015

Y Gymraeg - curse or blessing?

Reading this article in the wake of the recent UK election reminded me of the conversation between Gwynfor Evans and Winifred Ewing many years ago about one of the key differences between nationalism in Wales and Scotland, namely the resilience and strength of the Welsh language.
Whilst at particular times and in particular circumstances Plaid has come close to “breaking through” in parts of English-speaking Wales, taken as a whole over the long term the party’s strength remains heavily concentrated in the Welsh speaking constituencies in Gwynedd and Dyfed.  The three parliamentary constituencies currently held are the first, second and third most Welsh-speaking constituencies in Wales; the other two which have been held at one time or another occupy the fourth and fifth slots in the same table, and the perennial source of hope, Llanelli, comes in at number six (source: Table 21 page 27).  The degree of correlation is inescapable.  And it’s a long term and well-established phenomenon.
Historically, Plaid Cymru in particular – and Welsh nationalism more generally – owe a huge debt of gratitude to the language and those who speak it for keeping the flame alive.  It’s not only the party’s votes which have come disproportionately from Welsh-speakers; so, traditionally at least, have its funds (and I speak as a former treasurer of the party).  At times when others have despaired of the national cause, the cause has been kept alive, to a disproportionate extent, by nationalists in the most Welsh-speaking parts of Wales.
That’s the upside.  The downside is twofold.
Firstly, a nationalism based on, or springing from, language doesn’t necessarily translate into a keen desire for independence.  It has at times seemed as though there are nationalists in this camp who would be satisfied with an arrangement a long way short of an independent Wales.  And at times, I’ve wondered whether there isn’t a fear, lurking in the recesses of the consciousness of some, that the language would follow the path of Gaelic in Ireland were Wales to gain a full political voice.  The harder edged constitutional nationalism has often come from the more anglicized parts of Wales, where it is frequently, but not always, fused with republican and socialist tendencies. 
Secondly, there is a problem of perception.  When it comes to perceptions, no-one who’s ever done any serious canvassing for Plaid can honestly say that they have not met with a variation on the response that “I can’t vote Plaid because I don’t speak Welsh” – even when the canvasser him or herself is a third or fourth generation non Welsh-speaker from the same background and community as the person being canvassed.  Political nationalism is perceived as being the occupation – or perhaps even the pre-occupation – only of those who speak Welsh.  I had expected that, within the context of a devolved parliament with all four parties signing up, to a greater or lesser degree, to promotion of the Welsh language, the perception that the language was the ‘property’ of one of those parties would fade.  Not only has that not happened, the perception might even, perversely, have strengthened, not least since it’s overwhelmingly the members of one party who choose to use Welsh in debate in the chamber.
I have, of course, simplified and generalised above; reality is rather more complicated than suggested.  But I do so because I want to get to a key point here.  The two strands that I refer to within Plaid have coexisted well – remarkably so in some ways.  The unity of the mainstream political voice of Welsh nationalism has been maintained despite occasional tensions and differences of emphasis.  And there’s no doubt at all that that unity has served Plaid well for many years, even if it has never led to the oft dreamed-of breakthrough.
But I ask the question: has it served the national cause as a whole as well as it has served that party?  Or, in the current context, is maintaining that unity of political expression actually now working against the achievement of the political objectives, and holding back the sort of political nationalism which has had so much success in Scotland?
Lest anyone misinterpret what I say here, I am not suggesting in any way that nationalists in the generic sense should abandon the Welsh language.  But I do wonder whether it’s time for a very clear separation between that issue and the cause of independence. 
For historical and sentimental reasons, I doubt whether such a separation is possible, or even conceivable, within the constraints of existing political forces.  But continuing to do what has been done in the past is a recipe for continuing to get the same results.  Having multiple political expressions of nationalism might be an approach more likely to succeed, and is, after all, much more normal in other countries.  Is it only the electoral system and the fear of a split nationalist vote which prevents that in Wales or is it also an innate small-c conservatism?

Monday 27 July 2015

Moving away from the mythical centre

The Labour Party’s leadership election is turning out to be more interesting and revealing than I would have expected, and it has a while to run yet.  The ‘morons’, as one Labour Party member called those MPs who nominated Jeremy Corbyn whilst having no intention of voting for him, have entirely unintentionally opened up a choice to which ordinary grass roots Labour members seem to have taken rather a liking.
The gulf in perspective that that reveals, between what ordinary members think their party is for and what the elected MPs think it’s for, is one of the interesting aspects of the race.  And it’s a revelation reinforced by the mutterings from some Labour MPs that they would depose Corbyn within weeks were he to be elected.  There’s nothing quite like heeding the democratic choice of the membership.
Personally, I’m not convinced that Corbyn’s views are really as far away from the other three as they’re being painted, but they are at least outside the accepted ‘Overton window’ of mainstream political debate.  From the perspective of the other three candidates, as well as figures from the past like Blair (who I’m assuming didn’t really intend to help Corbyn as much as I suspect that he has done), being outside that window is crime enough.  In their view, elections can only be won within that window.
Whether that’s a valid assumption or not is a good question in itself.  This article sets out some thoughts on why it might be possible for the Labour Party to win under a Corbyn leadership.  The points are certainly worth consideration, and perhaps there is enough of an appetite for some different thinking in the short term to overcome everything that will be thrown at him, but, on balance, I tend to accept the conventional wisdom that a Labour Party led by Corbyn would be unlikely to win the 2020 election (although it’s worth adding that I’m not convinced that a Labour Party led by any of the others would win it either).
The leadership election has highlighted the longer term argument within the Labour Party about whether the party should be an advocate of significant change, and risk losing elections, or whether it is better to advocate only minor changes but be able to win elections to deliver them, even if the difference isn’t always worded in those terms.  The argument of the ‘pragmatists’ as they seem to term themselves, is that it is better to be in power and do little than to be out of power and demand a lot.  It’s not always clear to me whether this is entirely a principled thought-through position; sometimes it looks more like the self-serving rationalisation of power-hungry career politicians, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt - for today at least.
It’s not an argument with which I am totally out of sympathy.  I can understand that sincere politicians dealing on a daily basis with constituents facing the problems caused by welfare cuts, for instance, would argue that it’s better to be in power and mitigate those effects a little than to be standing helpless on the side-lines, shouting slogans.  It’s also easy to see how they can come to believe that merely having people like themselves in power – people who care rather than people who don’t – would be an improvement.  But the result of that self-belief tends to be an exaggerated sense of what is possible as a result of winning an election on a platform which is only marginally different from that of ‘the other lot’.  And the logical outcome of such a strategy is that winning elections and gaining power becomes an end in itself rather than a means to an end.
But the worst thing of all is that failure to challenge the accepted conventional wisdom – whether about the deficit, the welfare bill, immigration or whatever – strengthens that conventional wisdom.  For decades now, Labour has been chasing the Conservatives, trying to beat them on their own ground, in the name of some strange mumbo-jumbo called ‘triangulation’.  The result is that the Tories have succeeded in moving the ‘Overton window’ slowly but surely in the direction of their choice, and the Labour Party has not only allowed that to happen, it has actively assisted the Tories in doing it.
The leadership election has shown that there are still some in the party – largely outside the Westminster bubble – who understand that allowing the Tories and their friends in the media to set the parameters of political debate is a recipe for continued Tory rule, even if ‘Tory rule’ is at times actually delivered in practice by the Labour Party.  And the same people who have been allowed to define the parameters of UK political debate in general are now doing their very best to define the parameters of the debate within the Labour Party, by painting Corbyn as much more different than he really is, and increasingly by demonising him.
There are some who argue that Corbyn would be the Tories’ leader of choice for Labour.  I don’t buy that argument.  It’s often said that oppositions don’t win elections; governments lose them.  On that basis alone, there is at least an outside chance that things could go wrong for the Tories and that Labour will win, whoever their leader is in 2020.  Corbyn might not shift the centre of debate as far as some are assuming, but from the perspective of the Tories, who have been incredibly successful over the long term in moving the 'centre' in their direction, it would be far, far better for Labour to choose a leader who would simply carry on in the direction they are setting.
At the moment, I still think it unlikely that Corbyn will win the leadership, whatever the polls might be saying.  Even if he does win, what passes for political thinking at UK level has become so short-term in its nature that he’d probably only be allowed one chance – failure in 2020 would see him replaced by a more compliant figure. 
And that’s the biggest problem of all.  Serious change isn’t a five year, single-election project.  It’s a long term project which needs to convince people that there can be a better way.  It’s not just about electing a new leader, giving him one chance, and then replacing him.  Labour’s founders understood that – those who have inherited the party not only don’t understand it, but don’t even seem to understand why anyone would want fundamental change.
Far too many people in Wales continue to pin their hopes on Labour, still seeing it as some sort of ‘progressive force’ despite all the evidence to the contrary.  I suspect that they are hoping for a Corbyn victory, and will take heart from the success of his campaign thus far.  I fear that they’re deluded – the Labour Party is a spent force and needs to be replaced, not given a temporary new lease of life. 
And in Wales, as in the rest of the UK, we need to understand that significant change - on any issue - will only result from a determined long term campaign to convince people that an alternative future is possible.  It will never come from working within that Overton window in the belief that that’s the only way of being ‘electable’.  But sadly, bubbles aren’t solely a London phenomenon.

Tuesday 21 July 2015

Fighting fire with fire rarely works

The gulf between recognising that there is a problem and finding the ‘solution’, can often be immense, and it’s unrealistic to believe that every problem even has a solution.  In the world of politics, though, politicians feel a requirement upon them to claim that there is a solution, that they know what it is, and that they must express such claims with as much sincerity as they can muster.
It’s in that light that I attempt to interpret what Cameron said yesterday about the danger which ISIS represents, and the ‘solutions’ which he proposed.
He talked about the need to ‘enforce’ British values.  I’m far from convinced that I know what these ‘British values’ are, let alone what makes them uniquely British.  But insofar as I have any concept of what those values might be, I’m pretty sure that ‘enforcing’ a set of beliefs and values on others isn’t amongst them.  Indeed, I would have thought that that was more the speciality of ISIS and similar groups.
He also justified his desire to bomb targets in Syria on the basis that ISIS don’t respect borders.  But most borders are where they are – in often arbitrary places – as a result of past wars and/or settlements of past disputes.  ISIS, in that sense are ‘merely’ tearing up past settlements and creating a new state by use of force.  That’s exactly what other military campaigns have done over the centuries – and the UK traditionally has a lengthy, and not exactly honourable, record of doing just that.
Cameron continually talks about ‘the true meaning of Islam’, claiming that those who don’t share a more mainstream interpretation are somehow not true to the religion.  This one simply doesn’t seem to stand up to any scrutiny.  Within any religion, there are always different interpretations of the ‘true’ meaning, and the adherents of each will always believe that their interpretation is the only really ‘true’ one.  And the problem with this sort of ‘truth’ is that it cannot be determined by majority vote.  For those who hold a particular viewpoint, their ‘truth’ is absolute.
The ‘truth’ which drives ISIS and similar groups seems to me to be simply this – “we know what god’s laws are, it is god’s will that we all obey those laws, and we are imposing god’s will”.  It’s so far away from modern Christian interpretations (although not so far away from those of the relatively recent past), let alone the secular viewpoint of an increasing number of us, as to be almost incomprehensible in a western context, but for those who hold that view it’s so obvious as to need no further explanation.
And that brings me to my biggest issue with what Cameron is saying and doing.  However strange and alien some ideas may seem, bombs and bullets cannot change them, let alone kill them.  They can kill some of the people who hold those ideas, certainly.  But they are unlikely to kill them all, even if that were to be the aim.  There is a real danger that they actually have the opposite effect, and simply encourage more people to hold those ideas.  And one of the few certainties is that they will kill many innocents along the way.
I fully accept what Cameron and others are saying, in that armed groups of fundamentalists ranging across the world using extreme and often barbaric violence to impose their world view is a danger which needs to be countered somehow.  And I won’t pretend for a moment that I know with any certainty how to counter that threat.  But I just don’t believe that more bombing and destruction carried out in the name of all of us, simply because our leaders don’t know what else to do, is much of an answer to anything.

Friday 17 July 2015

Wedded to what is

As this story reports, during the discussion in the House of Commons last week on the latest Scotland Bill, a question was raised about the devolution of responsibility for the rules surrounding abortion.  I’m not going to get into the substantive issue of abortion here; I just pick up on the debate for the attitudes it displayed towards the question of devolution and where power should lie.
It was the so-called ‘Pro-life’ group of MPs who proposed the change.  and I’m guessing that they did so more because they thought that they’d get the result that they wanted than because they really care whether the issue is decided in Scotland or not.  And the opposition came from Labour, on more or less the same basis – they don’t want the law to change, and were concerned that the Scottish parliament might just do that.
It seems to me that deciding where the decision should be taken on the basis of where you think you’ll get the answer you want is exactly the wrong reason for seeking to devolve, or not devolve, any issue.  For those of us who are instinctive decentralists, a decentralised decision-making process must, of necessity, include the possibility that devolved legislators will take decisions with which we disagree.  Power only to make those decisions considered ‘right’ at the centre is no power at all – it is mere administration.
The Scottish Secretary commented there was "no reason" why the Scottish Parliament should not be able to decide on "an issue of this significance".  It’s a curious argument for a Tory to have advanced given their recent history on devolution.  If it’s the ‘significance’ of the issue which means that it should be devolved, then many of the powers retained by Westminster are of at least equal significance – and many of those already devolved are much less so.
The Labour Party’s argument against seemed to me to be equally strange.  Their spokesman said, “We believe a woman's right to choose should be determined by robust medical evidence and not by where you live.  There is no reason why a woman in Edinburgh should face a different experience to a woman in Exeter.”  If it’s ‘equality of treatment’ that determines whether something is devolved or not, then the same applies to many of the powers already devolved to Scotland.
It is, of course, the classic argument against any form of devolution of anything.  Why should anyone in Edinburgh face a different experience to anyone in Exeter?  But equally, why should anyone in Exeter face a different experience to anyone in Essen?  The answer of course is that they’re not in the UK – but it’s not much of an answer.  An argument based on the ideal of equality doesn’t stop at a border.
Despite everything that has happened to them in Scotland, it seems that Labour still see every issue as being framed in UK terms – they struggle to contemplate either a narrower, more local context, nor a wider, more international context.  They are wedded to what is, rather than what could be.  That might be quite an apt epitaph for the party, in Scotland at least.

Wednesday 15 July 2015

Ceding the arguments

The Labour Party has succeeded in getting itself into another fine mess over the budget proposals to cut welfare payments to the poorest in society.  Plenty of people are struggling to understand how the party’s acting leader could ever have put the party in a position of saying, in essence, that there is very little in the budget which they would bother to oppose, but it seems to me that it’s a consequence of a number of chickens coming home to roost.
Three things, in particular, strike me about the situation.
Firstly, it exposes the obvious, but generally denied, fact that the Labour Party is no longer a party which espouses a set of ideals and aims to build a society based around them; it is in fact a group of people who seek to win elections in order to gain political power for themselves.  It isn’t about progressive ideals, whatever the founding principles (and some deluded members) of the party might say, it’s about one particular bunch of ‘professional’ politicians gaining power, and being prepared to say and do whatever they think will achieve that aim. 
It’s a point which some of those in Wales spouting on about ‘progressive alliances’ would do well to remember.  The differences of opinion which the statement by the party’s leader have exposed are not, in most cases, differences about what is right; they’re more a case of disagreement about the best way of achieving that narrower objective of winning power (or, even more narrowly in some cases, winning the party leadership).
Secondly, the later retraction by the acting leader who said that the final policy will be decided by the new leader exposes how undemocratic the Labour Party has become.  The members can choose a leader, but that is the limit of their influence on policy.  Detailed policy will be decided at the whim of whoever they elect.  And whilst there’s enough experience within the party for them to know that what people will say in a leadership election can turn out to be a very poor guide to what they’ll say afterwards, I’m sure that for many members of that party, wishful thinking will continue to triumph over hard experience.
And the third thing is perhaps the most important of all - and not just for Labour.  Any party which allows the limits of political debate to be set by its opponents will eventually end up sounding like little more than a poor copy of those opponents.  The statement on not opposing welfare cuts may be one of the crassest examples, but it’s far from being the only one.  Think immigration for instance.  On issue after issue, Labour has allowed the Tories and their media friends to move the Overton window in one direction, and has meekly accepted the result, when any seriously ‘progressive’ movement would be trying to move it in the opposite direction.
For the UK, the result is that the poorest and the dispossessed find themselves unrepresented, and those opposing Government policies find themselves represented in parliament by an opposition which seems disinclined to oppose.  And in Wales, the potential alternative opposition still seems to regard it as inevitable that the UK’s unopposing opposition will remain the leading political force with which they can, at best, hope to form some sort of post-election alliance in the Assembly.  In the real world, it looks increasingly likely that the main beneficiaries will be the Tories – and UKIP.
It isn’t a pretty prospect.

Tuesday 14 July 2015

How sincere are they?

Yesterday’s announcement by Plaid that it would seek to produce 100% of Wales’ electricity needs from renewable sources within 20 years sets a clear and achievable target which I’d entirely support.  Coupled with proposals for reducing demand, it sets the scene for an approach to energy in Wales which will help to decarbonise our economy as well as creating jobs in a more sustainable economy.  There is nothing in the announcement by Llŷr Gruffydd with which I would disagree, and if the party is serious about it, it would draw a very clear line between Plaid and the other parties currently represented in the Assembly on the issue of energy.
There is inevitably, however, a question about the extent to which the policy is credible.  Is it one supported by the party as a whole, or only by its energy spokesperson and friends?  If we vote for Plaid Cymru candidates, are we voting for this policy, or are we voting for whatever the individual candidates say, which may well be very different from the stated policy?
There are two large holes in the party’s credibility on this issue, and there was nothing in yesterday’s statement which gave me any confidence that the party intends to plug those holes.
The first and most obvious is Wylfa B.  How can anyone who is planning to generate 100% of Wales’ electricity requirement from entirely renewable resources support the building of a new nuclear reactor in Wales, particularly if such a reactor is likely to meet Wales’ electricity needs anyway?  It makes absolutely no sense at all.
And the second is that making use of renewables includes more use of wind energy, yet Plaid politicians are often prominent in opposing wind energy schemes wherever they’re proposed.  Supporting something ‘in principle’ and then opposing it in practice doesn’t make for credibility.  And I’m not even sure that many of them support it in principle.  I’ve certainly heard some of Plaid’s elected members repeating the lies and half truths of anti-wind campaigners.
It frequently sounds as if the party is in favour of wind turbines only where no-one wants to build them and against nuclear power schemes only where no-one wants to build them – the latter being a point I made in the party’s 2010 conference.  Simply announcing a new policy does nothing to bridge that yawning credibility gap.
I’d be delighted to be able to vote for the policy announced yesterday – and in some parts of Wales, voting for the Plaid candidate might amount to the same thing.  But in wide swathes of Wales, voting for the Plaid candidate would be, effectively, a vote against the policy the party announced yesterday.  For sure, all parties have problems at times with individuals who disagree with the party line on a particular issue.  But in this case, the problem is much more fundamental and widespread than that, to the extent that claiming that ‘the party’ has a policy is rendered meaningless.

Wednesday 8 July 2015

What if they don't want their money back?

Implicit in what many politicians say about eliminating the deficit and reducing debt is that they want the government to repay the money it has borrowed.  But I wonder if they’ve thought through the consequences of that – what are the consequences for others of a government surplus?
There are two obvious consequences of a current account surplus in the public sector.  The first is that the ‘rest’ of the economy – the private sector, in essence – has to run a corresponding deficit.  Whether that’s a good thing or not is a matter of opinion, and depends on the economic circumstances at the time.  But the fact of it is inescapable.
The second is that it means that government debts would be repaid.  But what if those to whom the debt is owed don’t actually want to be repaid?  The outcome of repaying debt might not be as positive overall as some seem to assume.
The UK is not in a position where it is scrabbling around at the end of every month to borrow more money to pay the month’s bills, although I suspect that is not far off the image which many have.  On the contrary, people are queueing up to lend money to the government.  One person’s debt is another person’s investment, and UK government ‘debt’ is seen as a very worthwhile investment by the lenders.
Much of the government’s debt is held by institutional investors, including the pension funds of those of us who’ve been contributing over the years.  And pension funds like the safety and security of government debt, even if the rewards are low, because it enables them to commit with certainty to paying pensions.  (And, as an aside, it also means that much of our pension funds are already being invested in public projects, just not as directly and obviously as some might like.)
But if the government insisted on redeeming its bonds and paying down its debts, then those institutions might find that they either have to invest more abroad, or else invest in riskier ways.  That might not be the best outcome for the population as a whole, never mind current and future pensioners.
I accept, of course, that not everyone is in the same position (although recent changes to pension rules mean that an increasing proportion of us are going to be dependent at least in part on investments for our pensions rather than current tax revenue).  And I’ll accept that some might see advantage in a trade-off which reduces government interest payments even if it leads to less secure pension arrangements.  But my point is simply this: most of the UK’s public debt is actually owed to the citizens of the UK in one way or another, and most of those to whom the money is owed are not only not demanding repayment any time soon, they’re lining up to lend the government more.
Government budgets are not at all like household ones, and talking as though they are is less than helpful.  Reducing debt isn’t always the right thing to do.

Tuesday 7 July 2015

Jumping into traps

In what is billed as an attempt to convince electors that Labour can be trusted with their money, the party’s Shadow Chancellor has agreed to sign up to the Tories’ proposed ‘law’ mandating a budget surplus.  At headline level, the idea that any Government should legislate to tie its own hands regardless of the economic circumstances succeeds only in convincing me that they’re even more clueless about economics that I’d previously thought.
The devil, of course, is in the detail, and the Shadow Chancellor went on to say that the government should ‘aim’ to run a surplus ‘in normal times’ ‘if the economic circumstances allow’.  Any one of those caveats undermines the proposed law; taken together they render it utterly meaningless.
It leaves us with a tough choice – we can either believe that he’s intelligent enough to know that the exercise is thus a completely pointless one, in which case we have to conclude that he thinks we’re all too stupid to reach the same conclusion, or else we can believe that he really thinks that the proposed law is worthwhile, in which case electing him as Chancellor would be a dangerous move, to say the least.
I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that the former is more likely.  The Tories know that the proposed law is economic nonsense; it’s about politics not economics.  They’ll find as many caveats and exclusions as Labour in practice.  But the aim of the law is to reinforce the ideological stricture about budgets and spending; to shift the Overton window of debate in their direction.  And instead of attempting to put an alternative view, Labour has not so much fallen for the trap as taken an enthusiastic running jump into it.

Wednesday 1 July 2015

Taxes we don't notice

One of the first things that the previous coalition government did in 2011 was to increase the standard rate of VAT from 17.5% to 20%.  In later years, they increased the point at which people started paying income tax, claiming that this was helping the lower paid in particular, although the main beneficiaries were actually those on higher incomes.
Any switch of taxation from what people earn (income tax) to what they buy (VAT) will almost inevitably have the effect of increasing the proportion of taxes paid by those on the lowest incomes.  But when they need to raise money, politicians tend to prefer indirect taxes in the belief that, after the initial shock of any increase, people notice them less, and resent them less, than a line on a payslip showing how much of their hard-earned cash is being sent to the Treasury.  They’re probably right in that assumption, but taxing people in a way that they don’t notice isn’t at all the same thing as taxing them in a way which is fair.
This story in the Independent, showing that the outcome of this approach to taxation is that the less well off pay a higher proportion of their income in tax when all the taxes are added together should therefore come as no surprise to anyone.  (Apparently, though, it does to some.)  We will never get a progressive taxation system unless the burden of taxation is shifted away from indirect taxation to direct taxation on income.