Wednesday 30 September 2015

They just keep on digging

There’s a detailed analysis of the results of the election in Catalunya on Syniadau.  In essence the parties in favour of UDI won a majority of the seats but not of the votes; although if the votes of the pro-independence but anti-UDI parties are added in, there’s a small but clear pro-independence majority, even if there remains disagreement as to how it should be achieved.
The reaction of the Spanish central government has been disappointing, even if hardly unexpected – Spain is an indivisible whole and no change can ever be contemplated.  Formally, the judiciary and the executive in Spain are entirely separate, and the government deny any involvement in judicial decisions, but the announcement that the leader of the Catalan Government, Artur Mas, is to be charged and tried for organising last November’s ‘illegal’ referendum has come within days of the election results.  It may just be coincidence, but it doesn’t look that way.
The Spanish government’s position has been clear throughout.  The law about the unity of Spain (which dates from the days of Franco) is part of the constitution of Spain.  It is unchallengeable and irrevocable.  There can be no referendum on independence, nor can parties use an election victory on an independence platform to claim a mandate.  All routes forward are blocked, legally and for ever.
There are echoes there, albeit centuries later, of the way a small country much closer to home was incorporated “henceforth and for ever” into its larger neighbour; and the same problems arise.  Nothing, in the context of humanity, can ever be ‘for ever’; change is an essential element of human culture.  The rich and the powerful have always pretended that they can fix things in a certain way and keep them like that in perpetuity – but they simply can’t.  It’s an attitude which depends, ultimately, on the fiction that power belongs to the centre, not to the people.
In Spain, the view of the centre is based on an axiomatic statement that Spain is a nation and Catalonia is a region of that nation – a region with its own language and history, to be sure, but no more than a region nevertheless.  From that perspective, Catalans who believe otherwise are simply wrong.  But the fact that that that would still be ‘true’, even if every last one of them voted for pro-independence parties, underlines that such a position is ultimately unsustainable in a modern democracy, because there is no way of maintaining it against the will of the people other than by the use of force.
In the short term, I don’t doubt that the Spanish government will continue to use all the legal powers it can muster to resist and disrupt the independence movement.  That includes the use of criminal proceedings against people who dare to take a different view and try to pursue their objectives in a peaceful and democratic fashion.  But it’s ultimately counter-productive.  Winning a court case here or there might look like a victory at the time, but it simply builds the momentum for the change which now seems to be inevitable.
Could a more enlightened approach have built a negotiated settlement which led to more autonomy within a continued Spanish state?  Possibly.  Just as including a third option on the ballot paper in Scotland might have seriously blunted the independence movement there.  But that goes to the heart of the reason why the centralists will ultimately fail.  They only seem capable of taking a short term view.  Today’s victory is always enough, and they’ll worry about tomorrow’s battle when it comes.  The Catalans have always been playing a much longer term game.  And the end game is now approaching.

Tuesday 29 September 2015

How long is long enough?

One of the leaders of the Conservatives in Wales has told us this week that five years is too long a term for the National Assembly.  But Andrew Davies hasn’t, as far as I can see, enlightened us as to how long the term should be.  Perhaps he hasn’t made his mind up on that one yet.  Or perhaps Stephen Crabb simply hasn’t told him the right answer yet.
It’s true, of course, that the extension from the previous norm of 4 years to the new one of 5 was more accidental than intentional, as an unthought-through consequence of the decision (by his own party) to move to fixed term parliaments for the UK, and the perceived need to avoid holding elections on the same date.  He’s not arguing with that decision, it appears, even though the effect of a move to a fixed term at Westminster has probably increased the average length of a Westminster parliament from around 4 to 5.  And he doesn’t seem to be arguing that the elections should, after all, be held on the same day.
I wouldn’t object to a shorter term, as it happens.  After all, from what I remember of history, ‘annual parliaments’ was a core demand of the Chartists.  Now that would be a neat way of keeping them on their toes, and getting rid of some of them a bit more rapidly.  It’s an entirely honorable demand to make – but something tells me that it isn’t what he means.
My real questions are:
(a)  how do we decide how long the term should be – he’s come up with a negative with no real justification to back it up and no argument for any alternative; and
(b)  why, if the issue is relevant for the Assembly, it isn’t also relevant for the Westminster and European parliaments.  What’s the difference?
It would be nice to be able to believe that he and his party see the Assembly as being the most important level of government; so important that we need to vote on its membership more often.  I rather suspect, though, that he’s coming at it from the opposite perspective.

Monday 28 September 2015

Supporting British jobs

There seem to be few people in Wales supporting the construction of the HS2 rail link, most of them preferring to argue that Wales should have its share of the money and use it for other purposes.  I disagree – not because I expect Wales to get any benefit from HS2 itself, but because, unless we are going to prevent people from travelling at all, the alternative to better and faster rail links is more runways and aeroplanes.  So I’d prefer to see Wales making the case for HS4 (we’ve already missed the boat for HS3 which is likely to serve Scotland) so that we become part of the high speed network rather than whinging on the side-lines.  And the only way that HS3 and HS4 will happen if they are treated as part of a UK network rather than seeing the three projects as entirely self-contained.
Where I find myself more in line with mainstream opinion in Wales is with the idea that infrastructure projects (of which HS2 is one) are a good way of boosting a flagging economy, and that investing in them can create economic growth and jobs, as well as boosting skills and knowledge in the economy.  It was in that context that I was astounded to see that on his trade mission to China, the Chancellor has urged Chinese firms to bid for construction contracts on the project.
‘Scope creep’ is one of those things which can all too easily happen on any project, but for it to lead to the mission becoming the opposite of the original intention is a rare achievement.  Osborne went to China to drum up business for British companies, with the stated aim of China becoming the second biggest customer for British companies.  There is currently a significant gap between the level of the UK's exports to China (at around £16.7 billion), and imports from China (t around £37.6 billion) - see Figure 2 here, so his aim of increasing UK exports to China is a wholly reasonable one.   But, instead of that, he’s ended up trying to drum up business for Chinese companies in the UK.  Even if the Chinese companies would employ local workers to carry out the work, the profits (and the tax on them) would still end up being syphoned out the UK economy rather than reinvested here.
It’s another take on being ‘business-friendly’ I suppose – it’s just other countries’ businesses that he’s supporting.

Friday 25 September 2015

All power to the Crabbs

The report published yesterday by Richard Wyn Jones and Alan Trench on the content of the new Wales Bill was damning.  An exercise which started out with the stated intention of clarifying and improving the devolution settlement in Wales, and moving to a situation which would be more workable than the present one, looks likely to turn out achieving almost exactly the opposite – adding to the confusion and even potentially rolling back devolution in some areas.
But perhaps the key word in the above paragraph is ‘stated’; sadly, it’s not always the case that the purpose stated explicitly by a minister is actually the real reason for the action proposed.  In what looked almost like a throwaway remark in response to the report – in the very last line of the Western Mail’s coverage of the news – was this sentence from a ‘Welsh Office spokeswoman’: “The Secretary of State has made clear that under no circumstances will he publish legislation that creates a pathway to independence”.  It clearly suggests that the real motivation here has less to do with the effective working of the devolution arrangements than it is with the fear of longer term aspirations, and the need to prevent their realisation.
‘Preventing any move towards independence at all costs’ is, of course, an entirely valid position for a die-hard unionist like Stephen Crabb to take.  And personally, I welcome the fact that he’s trying to achieve his aim in this fashion – not because I agree with his aim, but because I find it harder to think of a more cack-handed way of trying to achieve it.  With unionists like this, who needs nationalists?
It confuses process and structure with aspiration, and assumes that aspiration can be killed off by simply ensuring that the process and structure are ‘right’ for maintaining the status quo, and ‘wrong’ for moving away from it.  The parallel which immediately jumped into my mind was with Catalunya, where the Spanish government is trying to depend on laws made by the former dictator to prevent any move towards independence by simply closing all avenues that might lead to it, rather than engaging in an argument about its merits.  The result is that they are indeed making the path difficult but they are increasing the determination of those who want to take it.
And that’s the point, or it would be if there was a serious movement for independence in Wales.  Those who want to counter moves towards independence need to address the aspiration; they need to convince people that it’s the wrong thing for their country.  Simply trying to ensure that it remains unachievable in practice is ultimately counter-productive; it’s the battle of ideas that needs to be won, not the battle of structures.
Following this approach is even worse from his standpoint – because he’s actually winning that battle of ideas at present (even if that’s largely because the case for the other side isn’t being made).  He doesn’t need to keep banging on about preventing independence, because so few are arguing for it.  Being driven by a need to prevent something that so few of us are asking for merely puts that thing on the agenda in a way that its alleged proponents are failing to do.
So – all power to his elbow.  Let’s have more like him.

Thursday 24 September 2015

Frogs and princes

As a follow-on from yesterday’s comment about governments and business-friendliness, there’s another aspect about the way in which governments help businesses which means that they don’t always do the right thing.  Government ministers absolutely adore a good photo op, and it it’s associated with ‘creating jobs’ (or at a push merely ‘saving jobs’), so much the better.
As a result, much of the state aid to industry goes to larger companies with lots of employees: the bigger the better is almost the case, since more jobs can be ‘saved’ that way and the photo ops are better too.  But the biggest companies are often also the most ‘successful’ in terms of output and turnover, and therefore the ones which could probably most easily obtain additional funding on commercial terms.
Governments are also afraid of being associated with ‘failure’ – here in Wales, for instance, the opposition parties (the Tories in particular are guilty –“With almost a company a week shedding jobs – after previously obtaining a business grant – Labour ministers have clear questions to answer, although not exclusively) are quick enough to criticise the government when any company which has received government funding goes belly-up.  This can lead to a degree of caution when providing aid to smaller, less well-established companies – which are often the ones which would struggle to obtain commercial finance.
But here’s the thing – anyone involved in start-ups and innovative products knows only too well that failure is frequently the result.  Governments have to be willing to kiss an awful lot of frogs before they find a handsome prince, and oppositions will seek the headlines every time a frog fails to turn into a prince.  Doing the investing at arm’s length, through an executive agency or a government-sponsored investment bank doesn’t get them off the hook either; the opposition parties will still blame the government of the day for exercising inadequate controls.
Is there a way out, which allows government to take more risks in the hope that the rewards of the few successes will more than make up for the failures?  I suspect that the answer is “not without more mature politics”, where parties stop trying to pretend to be business-friendly and do more to understand the way investment in businesses actually works.  That doesn’t mean not applying proper scrutiny to ensure that the decisions being taken are sensible and aligned with a transparent strategy, but it does mean not assuming that the strategy is failing just because many companies turn out to be frogs.  It means judging governments not on the individual decisions being made, but on the overall success of the programme.  I won’t hold my breath.  Headlines are too easy to come by.

Wednesday 23 September 2015

Are businesses really business-friendly?

Politicians and parties often try to out-do each other as to which can be the most business-friendly.  And each party criticises the others for not being sufficiently business-friendly.  I wonder, though, what they mean, because there is a huge, and not generally understood, difference between being friendly to business in the generic sense and being friendly to existing businesses in the specific.
What I mean by that is that businesses, once established, will always seek to ensure that the environment in which they operate is the one which is most favourable to their interests.  Whether that be in terms of tax breaks, employment legislation, health and safety or environmental protection, they will lobby for the regime which most protects their interests.  And most politicians seem to see being business-friendly as doing what these lobbyists request and gaining their support and endorsement (and potentially, funding for themselves?).
But ‘business’ in the generic goes much wider than that.  It is an essential element of the capitalist system that some businesses will fail.  Creative destruction of some businesses as a result of innovation and change is one of the essential economic drivers.  Preserving ‘what-is’ in aspic, and supporting the continuation of existing businesses in the face of new challenges is potentially inimical to the interests of ‘business’ more generally.  The only reason that this isn’t a great deal more obvious is because economic (and political) power is wielded by existing businesses; those which haven’t even been imagined yet are, by definition, powerless and unable to lobby.
Sometimes, it may well be that those things which existing businesses lobby for would also benefit the businesses of the future; but that’s more by accident than design.  They’re really only pursuing their own narrow interests, even if they try and make it sound otherwise.  In that sense, even existing businesses themselves aren’t always business-friendly in the more generic sense.
Am I saying that business isn’t important?  Of course not; under the current economic system, it’s an essential driver of employment and economic activity.  But what I am arguing is that creating a climate which fosters that is not at all the same thing as assisting current businesses to carry on doing what they’re doing – assistance which may even, at times, prevent or delay innovation and change.  Yet that's often what politicians mean when they talk about supporting business.  In truth, their claims need to be scrutinised a lot more closely to understand whether that simply means that they’re supporting existing vested interests.

Monday 21 September 2015

On bended knee

When I read last week that it was a requirement of membership of the Privy Council that members kneel before the monarch in order to pledge their undying loyalty, the first question that crossed my mind was why on earth such a requirement still exists in 2015.  And the second was – given that I know or have met several members of the Privy Council over the years – did all these people really do that?
It says a lot about the prevailing norms in UK politics that the first question which seems to have occurred to journalists was neither of those, but “Will Corbyn do it?”, with the implicit threat that he’ll be branded a hypocrite if he does and some sort of beyond-the-pale traitor if he doesn’t.  It’s not a very grown-up response.
It illustrates the way in which the media, as part of the establishment, perpetuate what is rather than ask what might be.  The existence of this arcane remnant of a bygone age is taken as a given, as is the requirement for compliance.  I don’t know whether Corbyn will be brave enough to have the courage of his convictions and refuse.  I’d think the better of him if he did, but I’m fully expecting to be disappointed.  And I’ll admit to more than a little disappointment that others have not refused in the past.
The existence of this body is a relic, of course.  It has some formal functions, but largely because parliament has never fully asserted its authority and taken these vestigial responsibilities away from the sovereign.  The argument for Corbyn – or the leader of any opposition party – becoming a member is that it enables him to be briefed confidentially “on privy council terms”.  The truth of that is open to challenge in the light of briefings coming from a hopelessly out-of-control intelligence service that they wouldn’t tell him anything anyway, even if he became their boss.  But even if it were true, it’s based on an assumption that someone who has kneeled before the monarch and sworn a solemn oath can then be trusted more than someone who hasn’t.
Such touching faith in the value of a promise may be another of those great British values which Cameron keeps banging on about.  Or maybe just another example of the total inability of those who rule the UK to let go of the past.

Friday 18 September 2015

A safe opposition

It’s touching to see how concerned so many Conservatives are about the need to have an effective and credible opposition.  Or it would be if they really meant what they are saying.  The MP for Monmouth, in the wake of the Corbyn victory, expressed his concern about the possible new direction of the Labour Party, saying “… there has to be a reasonably strong centre-left party in any democracy…”.
I think that what he really means is that the best way to ensure the predominance of Conservative ideology is to ensure that the main opposition party broadly accepts everything that the Conservatives say.  Conversely, an opposition party which says something different creates a real danger that people might start to understand that there really is an alternative to the Labour-Tory consensus of recent decades.
Cameron was a bit more honest, when he said about questions such as nationalisation and Trident “These are arguments I thought we had dealt with…” – i.e., that Labour has long accepted the Tory position.  It’s easy to see why he would prefer to have both the two main potential parties of government broadly in agreement on most issues.  It helps to legitimise the prevailing ideology, and ensure that people have no credible electoral option to vote for anything other than minor change.
Anything that challenges any part of that consensus, rather than simply falling into it to be seen as being ‘electable’, represents a move away from the two-faction one-party state which the UK has effectively become.  It remains to be seen, though, whether that move will be as large or as sustained as its supporters claim.  I’m still sceptical.

Thursday 17 September 2015

No real signs of an earthquake as yet...

Last week, Plaid told us that they want to ‘deprive Labour of power over health and education’.  I can’t disagree with that as an aim, although in itself it’s a very negative statement which needs to be backed up by a positive programme outlining what would be different under Plaid.  There’s no question that the record of Labour in both fields has been badly wanting but however frustrating that record might be from the perspective of opposition politicians, merely removing Labour is an inadequate aim in itself.  And as an aim, it differs hardly at all from what the Tories have been saying, which only serves to underline the inadequacy of the negative.  Health and Education need more than a change of the men and women at the top if performance is to improve.
I can also understand why Plaid don’t want to get into debate about who might do what and with whom after the election, preferring to concentrate on putting their own message across rather than speculating about deals and arrangements once the dust has settled.  I’d be saying the same thing.  But that won’t stop me or anyone else from thinking aloud about just what the process might be if Labour is to be deprived of control over these two important fields – and that demands giving some thought to potential electoral outcomes.
The most credible scenario, given current polling data, under which Labour would have no control over either of these policy fields would be an agreement between all the ‘non-Labour’ parties in the Assembly to come to some sort of arrangement under which one or more of the parties formed a coalition and the others agreed, as a minimum, not to bring the government down.  But Plaid have already – very definitively – ruled that one out.  So what does that leave?
There are currently four parties represented in the Assembly.  At present, it looks extremely likely that they will be joined by a significant UKIP group, and it is at least possible that there will be a Green Party AM or two as well.  Given that any sort of Plaid-Tory arrangement has been ruled out, there are only two possible arrangements of parties which could lead to the formation of a viable government after next May.  The first is if the Tories, UKIP, and Lib Dems between them manage to get a total of around 30 seats; and the other is if Labour, Plaid, the Green Party and the Lib Dems manage to get to the same total (scenarios which include the possibility that any one party in either grouping has enough seats to form a government alone, even if that were to be a minority government with tacit support from at least one other party).  (The Lib Dems are assumed to be flexible enough to jump either way, even if they only have one member left.)
Under the first of those scenarios, Labour would, obviously, be deprived of power over both Health and Education (as well as everything else!).  Under the second, they would only be deprived of both if they were to be the junior partner in a coalition, with the senior partner well ahead of them in votes and seats.  These are, after all, the two most important areas of policy over which the Assembly has control, and it’s just not credible that the largest coalition partner would cede control over both.  Indeed, they’d only be likely to cede control over even one of them if there were to be a rough parity of seats between the partners.  On current polling trends, the likeliest result, even if Plaid were to be a part of the government, would probably leave Labour in charge of both.  (And that also means that Plaid’s participation in such a government would be in direct contradiction to what they said that they wanted to achieve – sadly, the Tory accusation of hypocrisy isn’t as far wide of the mark as I’d like to believe.)
Neither of the two scenarios which would lead to a change of control over health and education seem remotely likely on present trends.  It’s a depressing prospect, which serves only to underline quite how big an earthquake we need in Welsh politics if we’re going to see real change.

Wednesday 16 September 2015

Hypocrisy trumps honesty

One of the things that came through loud and clear from Corbyn during the leadership election was that he doesn’t do personal.  He really doesn’t seem to care that much what people think of him at a personal level, and he wants to talk policy rather than personality.  It is, I suspect, a significant part of what won the election for him.
In the light of that, what can we make of the frenzied reaction of the press to him refusing to sing ‘God save the Queen’, and attacking his mode of dress?  Three things, it seems to me.
Firstly, his political opponents – including, or perhaps even especially, those in his own party – are deeply uncomfortable with discussing policy.  There are probably several reasons for this – including that they’re not used to thinking in terms of policy, and much more accustomed to voting as they’re told, and that they are probably (and rightly) afraid of losing any intelligent argument around policy.
Secondly, it makes for easier headlines.  There’s a lot less work involved in writing a press release or tweeting a negative and highly personal attack than there is in preparing a serious response to policy; and what passes for journalism finds it easier to write big screaming headlines in response.
But thirdly, and most importantly, there’s a less obvious effect at play, and that is an attempt to impose, or at least reinforce, the boundaries within which politics is conducted.  And that includes preventing or suppressing any serious debate about policy which might expose the fact that there are alternatives.   There’s a mindset at work for which ‘being different’ is inherently dangerous, even if the differences are not as great as they're portrayed. 
Corbyn could, of course, simply compromise and fall in with convention, which is what I’m sure many of his so-called colleagues will be urging him to do.  Hypocritical, of course, but it’s what they seem to want.  I doubt that it will make much difference – they’ll only find more and more things to criticise unless and until he’s brought completely back into line.  And parts of the media are not averse to making things up if it suits their agenda.
But for me, there’s something very sad about a political culture which would find complete and obvious hypocrisy more acceptable than honesty and consistency.  That, though, is the Labour-Tory consensus in which we live.

Tuesday 15 September 2015

Hold the front page!

It doesn’t seem to take a lot to get on to the front page of the Western Mail these days.  Being called Hain is usually quite enough.  Yesterday’s Western Mail headline was “Corbyn, Carwyn and the huge test for Welsh Labour”, but it was, in essence, a platform for His Unroyal Hainness to expound his views – again.  (And, of course, with a link to the “full report” on an inside page where his book also gets yet another free plug.)
Reading what he actually says, it doesn’t necessarily relate to the election of Corbyn at all.  His core message is that if the Labour Party mobilises the enthusiasm of its members and supporters to get out and canvass, then it could do well in the next election regardless of who the leader is; if it fails to do so, then it could face a difficult time.
In fact, I’m not even sure that that message is limited to the Labour Party.  HUH could equally have said that ‘if a party can fight a good doorstep campaign it might win votes, but if it fails to do so, it might not’.  Who’d have thought it?  This is a secret which has clearly eluded many to date, and comes as stunning news to the Western Mail. 
We really need a better Welsh media than this.

Monday 14 September 2015

Corbyn the saviour?

Throughout the election process for a new leader for the Labour Party, all the candidates did their very best to show that they were in some way different from the others; in Corbyn’s case, that was aided and abetted by the Tories and the media.  I’ve never believed – and still don’t – that he is actually as different as has been claimed.  It’s hard to see how anyone as different as is being claimed could have stayed in the Labour Party as long as he has.  But the hype from within the Labour Party itself, branding him as unelectable and a disaster leaves his ‘fraternal comrades’ with a problem.
Some have already started on the line that ‘the voters have spoken; we must listen to what they said’, demanding that all members rally round and support the new leader.  I’m looking forward to hearing this group tell us why we should now vote for the man that they said last week was a complete and utter disaster; bad for the party and bad for the country.  That should be fun.
Others will seek to ensure that their prophecies of doom are fulfilled, by trying to undermine him at every opportunity, and talking up the chances of replacing him before the next election.  They are already setting some impossible bench marks for the poor man.  One Labour MP has demanded that Corbyn must deliver an advance in Scotland in the Holyrood elections next May – “He has to show that he is a winner.  If he can’t win back Scotland, he has a problem”.  Mission impossible; but not just for Corbyn – anyone fancy the chances that any of the other three candidates would do any better on that one?
Another member of the Labour Party said something along the lines of ‘it’s alright to hold personal views as a backbencher, but as leader you have to take account of the party’s policy’.  I agree with that as a principle, although it’s not a requirement which was ever expected of Blair.  And actually, Corbyn’s views seem to be closer to his party’s policies as they were back in the days when members were allowed to make policy.  In practice, for the last few decades, Labour’s policy has been whatever the leader says it is anyway.
If the Labour Party does indeed manage to make itself irrelevant over the coming months and years, it will be less to do with what Corbyn does and says and more to do with those people – largely Labour MPs – who have shown themselves to be hopelessly out of touch with their party’s members.  On many issues, they’re actually closer to Cameron and the Tories than to Corbyn and Labour’s membership.  It seems that many of them would prefer to keep a Tory government than listen to the members of their own party.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out in Wales.  The margin of victory was so great that it’s impossible to believe that Welsh members of the Labour Party haven’t also voted overwhelmingly for Corbyn – will Labour in Wales now end up saying the same things as Corbyn?  And where does that leave Plaid in particular?  With the exception of the future direction for devolution (on which Corbyn’s views are currently as clear to me as mud) it’s hard to see much significant difference between the Plaid message in the recent UK election and the Corbyn message.  Unless the national question is brought back to the centre of Welsh politics, why wouldn’t people who agree with that anti-austerity and anti-Trident message not simply vote for the party most likely to be able to deliver on it?
If Corbyn - accidentally, by forcing Plaid to behave more like a nationalist party in order to differentiate itself - succeeds in making the national question a more significant issue, his election could well turn out to be a turning point for Wales.

Wednesday 9 September 2015

The unimportance of boundaries

There’s a certain inevitability about the way in which those in the UK who don’t like open borders have responded to the numbers of people travelling across Europe in recent weeks.  Part of it includes scornful references to the Schengen agreement, and they tell us how fortunate it is that the UK never signed up to it.
It’s true, of course, that the retention of border controls by the UK has prevented many people from reaching the UK.  It’s also true that the open border policy of much of Europe means that once people are in the Schengen area, there is no physical means of preventing them travelling as they like within that area.  Such a response within the UK does, though, reinforce the perception elsewhere in Europe that the UK is a member of the EU but not really part of it.  The UK’s anti-EU brigade may claim that they want to return to a ‘common market’, but in truth, they struggle with the concept of a ‘common’ anything.
It also betrays an attitude towards borders which is based on a perception that some borders are right and natural and need to be protected, whereas others do not, and an attitude towards movement by people which regards it as a privilege rather than as a right.  Both of those attitudes are being reinforced on a daily basis.  It’s something that should worry us more than it seems to.
Most of those who demand the continuation of full and rigorous border controls at all points of entry would be outraged at the thought of border controls between England and Scotland or Wales (although, to be fair, some of them strike me as the sort of people who’d really rather like to introduce controls on movement between counties if they thought they could get away with it).  But why?  What is it about the boundaries between states which makes them more sacrosanct than other boundaries?  All boundaries are, ultimately, human constructs.  There’s nothing eternal or inevitable about any of them; and most, if not all, have moved regularly over the centuries.  The idea that they are rigid, natural, and eternal is of fairly recent origin.
Politicians would be doing us a better service if they expended their efforts on working out how to prepare for, and deal with the consequences of, free movement than on using the current problems to restrict that freedom still further.

Monday 7 September 2015

I agree with Dave (well, sort of...)

The fact that Cameron has received so much positive coverage for proposing such a small change in response to the refugee crisis, and that the other parties all seem to be talking about broadly similar numbers, says a lot about the prevailing climate of opinion in the UK towards the troubles of others.  It’s hard to disagree with Cameron’s statement that the UK should take its ‘fair share’ of refugees, but the word ‘fair’ is not one which is amenable to a simple and straightforward definition.  800,000 to Germany and some 10,000 – 15,000 for the UK doesn’t chime with any definition of the word ‘fair’ that I can devise.
It’s also worth noting that, despite the positive coverage being given to the Prime Minister, the gesture by the UK government, directed as it is at those who have not yet started migrating from refugee camps in the Middle East rather than at those already in transit, does absolutely nothing to assist our fellow Europeans in handling the immediate problems that they are facing.  (I suppose, though, one might argue that it speaks to one of those great British values that he’s always banging on about – after all, we all hate queue jumpers, don’t we?  But it’s not much of an excuse.)
Something else that Cameron said with which I agree is that the problem really needs to be solved in the countries from which the refugees are migrating.  I agree with the principle; it’s just that we have a different view about what that actually means.  I think it means helping those countries at war to achieve peace, and those countries whose ‘only’ problem is poverty and hunger by sharing the world’s resources more fairly.  He seems to think that it means dropping more bombs.
And there’s yet a third thing on which I agree with Cameron.  One of the better decisions that his government has taken was to protect the foreign aid budget, and to promise to give 0.7% of GNI as aid.  As with my other points of agreement, the problem is not with the principle, but with the practice.  The proposal to channel part of the foreign aid budget to local authorities in the UK to help with the cost of resettling refugees doesn’t fit with any reasonable person’s definition of overseas aid.  That’s not to say that the councils don’t need financial assistance – merely that it cannot honestly be called foreign aid.
The crises which have led so many people to risk so much to seek out a better future are not ones for which there are any simple or quick solutions.  They require a long term commitment of resources and effort.  But the UK government does not only not have a coherent and viable response to the long term problem – it isn’t even willing to do very much to respond to the immediate needs of those affected.  And it’s being aided and abetted by opposition parties whose response is little better – high on critical rhetoric, but short on willingness to talk about the significantly higher numbers of people who need safe havens now.

Thursday 3 September 2015

In whose interests?

As we’ve seen recently, people-smuggling is not only a criminal act, it can also have tragic consequences when the ‘entrepreneurs’ involved, who have already taken whatever cash they can get from desperate people, decide to abandon their victims to die.  It must be one of the very few crimes, however, where the instinctive reaction of so many politicians is to crack down on the victims.
Events of recent weeks have also exposed the huge difference in perceptions as to what the EU is about between, basically, the UK Government and everyone else.  For one of the countries taking the greatest strain in handling the consequences of migration, Germany, the idea of free movement of people within Europe is close to being an article of faith; for the UK Government, free movement is a privilege for the few, to be allowed only by exception.
I don’t know from where the UK Government got the idea that free movement was only ever intended to apply to people who had already found a job in the country to which people were moving.  Perhaps they simply think that if they repeat that mantra often enough we’ll all believe.  But it isn’t in line with the sort of freedom for citizens to which most of the rest of Europe signed up.  It’s clear that the UK’s idea of Europe is one where freedom of movement applies only to capital, not to people. 
Interestingly, that preoccupation with the interests of capital rather than citizens was precisely one of the fears of those of us who opposed membership in the 1975 referendum, but it turns out that we had less to fear from the other members of the EU than from the UK Government.

Tuesday 1 September 2015

Veterans and roadblocks

The Labour leadership contest seems destined to provide more fun for the spectators such as myself for the remaining days before the result is announced.  Last Saturday, we had the latest Blair attempt to assist stop Corbyn’s campaign.
It demonstrated yet again (not that we needed a further demonstration) Blair’s unerring ability to present his own opinions as incontrovertible fact and everyone else’s as fantasy.  He knows that he’s right; no evidence is therefore required (although if really pressed, he could probably find someone to draw up a dossier ‘proving’ his case).
He lambasts those who would fight an election on a manifesto similar to that of 1983 when Labour lost the election, demanding instead that members support one of the three candidates offering a version of the highly successful 2010 manifesto, on which Labour obviously won the election (although I must have missed that result somehow).
My favourite passage was this one:
“It is like a driver coming to a roadblock on a road they’ve never travelled before and three grizzled veterans say: “Don’t go any further, we have been up and down this road many times and we’re warning you there are falling rocks, mudslides, dangerous hairpin bends and then a sheer drop.”
The three ‘grizzled veterans’ are obviously Blair, Brown and Kinnock, but another part of history that I seem to have missed is the bit where all three of them in turn tried the Jeremy Corbyn route and found it wanting.  The tricks age plays with the memory, eh?  But in the version of history that I seem to remember living through, all three of the grizzled veterans ‘knew’ how bad the road was without ever needing to try it. 
I can understand his frustration though - why, oh why do these people not simply believe what they’re told by those who’ve never, ever been caught out making anything up?