Wednesday 28 October 2015

Creating bigger problems

One of the recurrent themes of the whole process of devolution has been the ‘quick fix’.  Time and again, the politicians responsible for taking decisions have taken a decision which ‘solves’ the immediate problem, with very little consideration being given to the new problems which will be created as a result.
The statement by the UK and Scottish leaders of the Labour Party over the weekend looks like yet another in a long line of poorly thought-through changes.  The problem that it seeks to address is clear enough, and that is that Labour in Scotland is perceived as being subordinate to Labour in London.  I can’t put that any better than a former leader of the party in Scotland, who said that the Scottish party was being treated like a “branch office”.  At a time when even many of those Scots not yet convinced by the arguments for independence are seeking a strengthening of the Scottish dimension in politics, this has been a major handicap.
The solution proposed is that the Labour Party will become more of a federal party, with the party in Scotland free to determine its own policies.  It sounds like a simple and obvious solution, but it raises more questions than it resolves.  It’s easy to see how the Scottish party could hold different views on devolved issues discussed in the Scottish parliament.  Having English MPs in Westminster saying one thing whilst Scottish MSPs in Edinburgh say the opposite may not be an overly elegant approach, but it could probably be made to work.
The problem arises however with any Labour MPs who are elected in Scotland.  Currently, with only one of them and no immediate prospect of that changing, it’s probably not an issue.  But since the intention of the proposed change is, I assume, to secure the election of more Labour MPs from Scotland, we should at least consider the theoretical possibility that the electoral results might be as the party desires.
So would Labour candidates standing for election in Scotland be standing on the Westminster party’s manifesto or the Scottish one?  In the first case, they could find themselves saying the opposite of their own party’s members in the Scottish Parliament; and in the other, how could they then be whipped into supporting the Westminster leadership’s programme?
The proposal may yet, of course, come to nothing.  It certainly seems as though many of the Labour party’s centralists are up in arms at the idea and will do what they can to block it – although making such a proposal and then not following it through is probably just about the worst possible outcome for Scottish Labour.
A federal party can work in organisational terms; but I find it hard to see how it can work in policy terms if the policies ever diverge to any significant extent.  Perhaps what the Labour party needs isn’t a federal structure, but a sister party with a much looser relationship.  It’s something that works for them with the SDLP in the north of Ireland.  The SDLP is a completely autonomous party, Irish nationalist in outlook, which shares some of the values espoused by Labour and can work with them in loose alliance on some UK wide issues.  I wonder how such an arrangement might be arrived at in Scotland?

Thursday 22 October 2015

Not as different as they sound

Sometimes, the MP for Monmouth makes it too easy for people to treat what he says as something of a joke.  His comment yesterday, talking about the publication of the draft of the latest Wales Bill and saying that Wales is edging towards independence fits into that category.  I wish it were true, of course; but the idea that this paltry concoction is any sort of a step towards independence is laughable.
Some of his other comments need to be taken a bit more seriously however.  For too many of those for whom the establishment of the Assembly is an unchallengeable given, his comment that devolution is a one-way street and that “No-one is talking about taking powers away from the Welsh government in areas where it is performing badly” may be dismissed in the same way. 
But, thinking about it, is this attitude of an MP towards the Assembly so very different from the attitude of many AMs towards local councils in Wales?  Much of what our AMs say about local councils seems to be predicated on the assumption that ‘if they don’t do as we tell them, we’ll take the power away from them’, because they see local councils as being simply agents of government rather than having any real mandate of their own.  The two positions sound very similar to me.
Both are, ultimately, based on a very simple premise – that there’s a ‘right’ place for power to live, and any power exercised at a 'lower' level exists solely with the consent of that ‘right’ place.  I don’t doubt that many nationalists and devolutionists would argue that there’s a difference, but I’m not sure that there is.  And constitutionally, David Davies is right – the UK constitution quite clearly defines power as being in the gift of the centre, acting on behalf of the monarch whose power was bestowed on her by God.
At the very heart of Davies’ comments is an axiomatic belief about the right of those who hold power to retain it.  It’s a belief shared by many of those who are only really disagreeing with the way he applies it.  Anybody who wants to disagree with him needs to start by accepting that power belongs to the people, not the centre, and that the people have the right to decide where it should be exercised.  Merely moving the ‘right’ place for power to reside from London to Cardiff will never be enough.

Wednesday 21 October 2015

More centralism

There has been mixed reaction to the about turn by Plaid Cymru yesterday, in deciding to back Labour’s bill on local government reform after all. The Tories' simplistic approach is to slam Plaid for criticising Labour on the issue just a few days ago, and then supporting them yesterday.  Whether that’s a far criticism or not depends on what, if anything, changed in the interim.  The Lib Dems’ spokesman, Peter Black, claims that Plaid got nothing at all in return for their change of heart, whereas Plaid claims major concessions.
As ever, it’s hard to distinguish the hard truth amongst the spin and invective, let alone work out whether anything will really change as a result.  It does appear that Plaid has gained agreement from Labour on only one real issue, and that’s the question of timing.  Even if the bill is passed, nothing can now happen until after next May’s Assembly elections.  To dismiss that as a complete sell-out is a little unfair, but that’s not the same as saying that it’s a major gain.  Since no-one really expects any party other than Labour to be leading the next Welsh Government, and the bill will already be an act by the time that government takes office, it means that the legislative framework for Labour to plough ahead with this will be in place well in advance. 
Any changes to Labour’s proposals will now come about only if Labour does not gain an absolute majority; and will then be a result of horse-trading between parties.  Perhaps the optimism of the opposition parties about denying Labour a majority is justified, perhaps not.  In the first case, it means that there is some possibility of change after the event, in the second, it means that the changes have merely been delayed by a few months.
But one of the other points about Plaid’s statement struck me as rather more significant.  What exactly is the party’s vision for local government in Wales?  According to Leanne Wood’s statement, Plaid’s vision is now about “retaining the existing 22 Local Authorities making them work together as combined regional authorities”.  I’m not convinced that that is very different in its effect from the centralising agenda of Labour.
In the first place, there’s something deeply conservative, small c, about simply retaining the existing structure of 22 councils, which was something of an arbitrary creation in the first place.  Just as Labour seem to have a fixed idea about the right number being smaller than 22, Plaid’s proposal seems to start from a fixed idea that whatever currently exists is the right number, they just need to be forced to work differently.  I really don’t know what the ‘right’ number is – for me the question starts by asking what the role of local government is rather than what the boundaries should be.  That’s a question which none of the parties are asking, except by default – and that ‘default’ is effectively that they’re there to do whatever central government tells them to do.
And that’s the part which really disappoints me more than the innate conservatism of sticking to 22, and more than whether any deals done in Cardiff Bay are worthwhile or not.  Because this is centralism pretending to be support for local democracy.  There is no vision coming from any of the parties about meaningful internal devolution within Wales to strong local government which has its own democratic mandate through the election of councillors; all of them are simply looking at which structures will enable the most efficient implementation of national policy.
It’s a long way from the internal discussions that I remember in the 1970s about empowering local government.

Monday 19 October 2015

No change there, then

If I understand the proposed timetable for the new Wales Bill correctly, the plan is to publish a draft of the bill tomorrow, then to hold a consultation on that draft before publishing the final version in February 2016, with the intention that the bill will become law in 2017.
I think that I also understand the political differences about the content of the bill.  Pro-devolutionists are seeking a clearer definition of the reserved powers model which does not take any powers back from Wales, and the instinctive anti-devolutionists, largely amongst the Tories, are trying to find a way of honouring previous commitments with minimum change.  (Speaking personally, when the proponents of the bill talk about giving the Assembly power to change its name as one of the main changes, it simply makes me deeply sceptical about whether the changes are worth the effort.)
What I find much harder to understand is the political statements being made around the bill.
For reasons which escape me completely, the First Minister is arguing that this is rushing things through.  But if he thinks that a two and a half year timetable for something which has been long discussed is a rush, I hate to think what slow might look like.
The Secretary of State’s position is no more logical.  He won’t delay it because that would merely allow Labour to make an issue of it in the run up to next year’s Assembly elections.  So publishing a draft in October, and a final version in February with the legislation therefore under discussion one way another for the whole period between now and next May’s Assembly elections means that it won’t be an issue?
What should have been an opportunity to put the clarity of a reserved powers model in place of the often vague definitions which currently exist has become just another front in the yah boo politics of Labour and the Tories.  I suppose we should never have expected anything else.

Friday 16 October 2015

Jobs aren't everything

The new Plaid MP for Meirionnydd, Liz Saville Roberts, is certainly making her mark early in the parliamentary session.  I was always confident that she would.  Yesterday’s Western Mail carried a report of her speech marking the anniversary of Tryweryn.  The speech was powerful and robust.
I particularly liked the way in which a comparison was drawn with what we still see happening in Wales, with a particular reference to the “super-prison” in Wrecsam.  I thought that she was absolutely right when she said that “Almost any atrocity can be justified in Wales on the ground that it creates employment.  This justification is still used today…”.
I entirely agree that we should not allow people to get away with using that justification to inflict developments on Wales which are inconsistent with the way that we want to shape our own future.  It would be a great pity if other members of her party were to undermine fatally such a clear and resolute position by arguing that jobs are so important that there are some things that we just have to accept.  Like a new nuclear power station on Ynys Môn, for instance.

Thursday 15 October 2015

Half a step forward

It was foolish in the extreme for Labour ever to have accepted one of the silliest ideas ever to emerge from the Chancellor.  Passing a law which seeks to – but according to convention cannot – bind the hands of future governments and oblige them to eliminate the budget deficit in a set timetable creates more problems than it solves.  It’s about politics, not economics – both playing to the gallery and seeking to reaffirm and reinforce the grossly over-simplistic message about budget deficits being an inherently bad thing.
The Shadow Chancellor is quite rightly embarrassed about his U-turn – it is after all a hole which he dug for himself.  But how much of a U-turn is it really?  Superficially, it’s a question of saying one thing one week and the opposite the following week, but he doesn’t really seem to have changed his mind much on the substance at all.
In reality, he’s still signed up the deficit fetishism which has come to afflict politicians and parties – his disagreement with the Tories isn’t over whether deficits are bad and should be eliminated, it’s only about how and in what timescale.  He has completely accepted the underlying premise – and many in his party have also accepted the Tory arguments on timescales and methods as well.
The economics is much more complex than the politics.  As long as real interest rates remain negative, borrowing money makes eminent sense – the government will, in effect, have to pay back less than it borrows.  Deficit fetishism also overlooks another important factor – at the moment, people are queueing up to lend money to the government.  What would they do if the government simply stopped borrowing?  The economy doesn’t start and end with the government and the public sector, but political debate seems to assume that that part of the economy can somehow be considered in isolation, independent of what’s happening elsewhere.
Seeing through the politics of the silly suggestion for a new law is one thing – a step forward of sorts.  But they’re still not seeing through the politics of the deficit itself.

Wednesday 14 October 2015

Truth and lies

There were two related stories in the Sunday Times this week (sadly hidden behind their paywall) about the renewal of the Trident nuclear ‘deterrent’.
The first was about Cameron and the fact that he, like previous Prime Ministers in the nuclear age, had to write personal letters to the captains of all four Trident submarines.  Described as ‘letters from the grave’, the hope is that these letters are never actually opened, but simply destroyed when they are replaced by new letters from a new PM.  The letters give the submarine commanders instructions as to what they should do in the event that the UK has already been destroyed by a nuclear attack.
He didn’t talk about the content – he could hardly do that.  But insofar as the idea of deterrence has any credibility at all, the ‘enemy’ (whoever that may currently be) has to believe that the instructions would be for the commanders to unleash their destruction and obliterate between 15 and 20 cities and all their inhabitants.  If the enemy doesn’t believe that, then it is hardly a deterrent.
But if the letters are ever opened, then clearly deterrence will have failed.  The enemy will have weighed up the odds and decided to press the button anyway.  At the point at which such letters ever get opened, it’s way too late for deterrence – by then, it’s purely about posthumous revenge.  Oh, and incidentally making the world even less hospitable for anyone who survived the first attack than it already will have become. 
It serves only to underline the madness of the idea that possession of such weapons can ever make the world a safer place that the concept of deterrence depends on each side thinking that the other would sooner add to the death and destruction that has already been caused than try and save whatever would be left of humanity.
The second story was about a former senior US defence official called Franklin Miller trying to debunk the suggestion that the UK’s nuclear force is not as independent as is claimed, and that there is some sort of US veto on its use.  The idea of such a veto has been around a long time, and is credible, not least because the UK’s missiles aren’t actually UK property; they’re merely leased from the US.  It is only the warheads which are the property of the UK.  It is entirely possible that there is some sort of software or hardware lock on the firing of missiles without US agreement.
Clearly, for an ‘independent’ deterrent to be of any value the enemy have to believe that it is truly independent; otherwise they do not need to fear the UK, only the US.  So people like the UK Government and Mr Miller need to convince the enemy that it is truly independent, even if it isn’t.  That in turn means that we can never know whether they’re telling the truth or not.  They are truly caught in a logic trap of their own making.  No matter how many times or how forcibly they re-iterate the claim that there is no veto, we can never be certain that they’re telling us the truth.
In a sense, both stories come together at this point, because they both underline the fact that we can never know whether governments are telling the truth or lying.  And this isn’t exactly some unimportant little issue…

Tuesday 13 October 2015

Being outvoted

Owen Paterson is not a fan of the EU; that’s been clear for some time.  But I was fascinated by the latest argument that he has put forward, as a reaction to statistics showing that the majority of the UK’s MEPs are frequently outvoted in the EU Parliament.  He said:
“The fact that the UK is constantly outvoted shows that we need to renegotiate our terms of membership.  I want to see a new relationship based on trade and friendly co-operation with the ability to make our own rules in our own parliament.”
To me, that sounds like an awfully familiar argument heard regularly in Wales and Scotland about decisions made in the UK Parliament.  But the standard response from people like Paterson is that the UK is a single entity with a single parliament, and that we should stop whingeing about the results of democracy.  Why is unhappiness about being outvoted by our neighbours ‘narrow nationalism’ only when expressed by the Welsh or the Scots?

Monday 12 October 2015

Blair, Brown, Major and Cameron. Really?

The original stated premise of Cameron’s promise of a referendum on the EU was that he would first conduct some sort of renegotiation of the terms of membership and then put the result to a vote.  Perhaps he genuinely intended things to work that way, although exactly what was to be ‘renegotiated’ was never very clear.
It’s increasingly irrelevant though.  Both the ‘in’ camp and the ‘out’ camp are gearing up their campaigns already.  The ‘negotiations’ have barely begun, but the results – if there are any – will have no effect on the make-up of the campaigns.  Cameron’s fig leaf is looking decidedly dodgy.
In a sense, it’s not really a bad thing that the debate centres on the principle rather than the detail; I find it hard to believe that many electors will make up their minds by looking at the details of any Cameron package and carefully weighing up the impact.  It’s much more likely that they will be voting on issues such as immigration, or even just a desire to give a kicking to a government mid term, which all serves to underline the folly of getting into this position for short term internal party reasons.
I do wonder though about the strategy of the ‘in’ camp in the names that they’re putting forward.  It looks like the product of some sort of bubble-think to me.  I fear that an unholy alliance of Blair, Brown, Major and Cameron might actually end up having quite the opposite effect of that intended.

Thursday 8 October 2015

What sort of Europe?

A former Secretary of State for Wales claimed yesterday that Wales, far from being worse off if the UK were to leave the EU, could actually be better off.  For what it’s worth, I actually agree with him – it is entirely possible that Wales could indeed benefit economically from leaving the EU.  I can’t be certain, though – and neither can he.  There are too many unknowns for anyone to be certain.
Part of the problem with the whole debate about Wales and the EU is that the pro-EU side seems to be trying to frame it in purely economic terms.  They argue that Wales would lose all the European funding that we currently receive.  It’s true, but it’s an essentially negative argument.  In fact it’s not dissimilar to the Project Fear approach of the anti-independence campaign in Scotland last year, concentrating on what Wales would lose financially by leaving – rather surprising, when you look at some of those making the argument.
The anti-EU side can quite rightly counter that argument by pointing out that the EU money can be considered to be UK money simply passed through Brussels and recycled, and there’s no fundamental reason why the UK couldn’t simply pass the money directly to Wales.  Whether they would or not is a rather different question, but an argument based simply on trusting Brussels more than London isn’t exactly an inspiring one.  And it is, again, in essence a negative argument.
But the economics of the situation will, I suspect, turn out to be a sideshow.  Those arguing for or against continued membership based on who’s right about the sums will probably get most of the media coverage.  But the motives which are likely to sway voters are much darker issues such as migration - matters of the heart rather than of the head.  Cameron, in an attempt to appease people in his own party, is taking the UK to the brink of a decision made more on the basis of xenophobia than on a hard-headed economic analysis, and the forces he has unleashed are unlikely to be countered by arguments about grants.
There is a sense in which the problem stems from the mindset of the UK from the outset, and the gulf between that and the mindset of the original founder members.  The EU’s architects saw the EU as a way of integrating the economies and polities of Europe to ensure that there could never be another war like the two which ravaged the continent in the 20th century.  UK politicians have, from the outset, seen it as a simple trading arrangement.  Perhaps De Gaulle had a point in twice vetoing the UK’s bid for membership.
What we are missing in the UK in general, and Wales in particular, is any wider debate about the objectives of the EU.  Peace, stability, and prosperity in a continent bound together economically was the original objective, and it’s not a bad starting point.  Many Welsh nationalists, me included, were highly sceptical of the idea of membership from the outset.  Whilst I haven’t changed my mind about all the reservations that I had, I have, like many others in Wales, come to see the EU as potentially a bastion against the dominance of a particular language and culture, and a context in which smaller nations can play a part in a wider whole on their own terms – i.e. the argument long ago stopped being primarily an economic one.
From that standpoint, I’m actually keener than Cameron on some form of renegotiation of the underlying treaties (although I accept that isn’t difficult – I’m not really convinced that he wants any serious change).  The change that I want, however, is a very different one.  “Internal enlargement” is a key issue for the future, and a change to the treaties which formally recognised that as a possibility would facilitate a move towards the sort of Europe that I’d like to see.  I don’t see it as a likely outcome of any negotiation though; too many of those participating in the discussions are bitterly opposed to it, and I don’t see any country likely to argue for it.
That doesn’t mean that internal enlargement won’t happen.  I’m not sure at this stage who’ll be first to try it, although Catalunya looks to be the front-runner currently.  But it’s the sort of change which will happen as a pragmatic response to events rather than through any up-front negotiation.  And once the door has been opened...
The question for nationalists in Wales is whether we see our future as part of a Europe which is inevitably headed towards both greater federalism and greater autonomy for historical nations and regions, or whether we want to see ourselves in some sort of “fortress Britain” which is likely to be the political, as well as economic, result of a decision to leave the EU.  A forward-looking European nation, or a part of a backward-looking British state.
All of my instincts lead me to the former of those options, whilst the latter fills me with horror.  But the 'nationalist' argument to date seems to concentrate on which is the best place to hold out our begging bowl - Brussels or London. If we follow that path, we are en route to the second option.  If we want to avoid that fate, we need to be making the arguments for the first option much more coherently than has happened to date, and largely forget about the details of European funds.

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Forgetting who did what

I’ve long nursed a healthy dislike for the Taxpayers’ Alliance and all their works.  The very name suggests that they are somehow a cuddly little organisation looking after the best interests of all those who pay tax – which is most of us.  But they are not; they are an ideological campaign against the public sector, and for the interests of the wealthiest few.
There’s been plenty of evidence of that in the past, but yesterday’s report on their meeting at the Tories’ conference was a gem even for them.  They don’t just think what is unthinkable to most people – they say it out loud.  They’ve called on the government to cut pensions now, and not to worry too much about the fall-out because many of the pensioners will have died off before the next election so can’t retaliate at the ballot box.  (And they didn’t add this bit, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were thinking it – the more the government cuts benefits for the elderly, the more of them will conveniently die off before they can vote.)
Mind you, there was one thing that he said that I can’t help but agree with.  Those who survive to vote in 2020 may well have forgotten by then which party cut their benefits – not because of age or feeble-mindedness, but because Labour and the Tories have been so similar for so long that it's become credible that anything done by one could have been done by the other.

Monday 5 October 2015

My heart bleeds for the lawyers

The Secretary of State set out in some detail last week his reasons for pessimism about achieving agreement on the proposed Wales Bill.  No surprise at all that the fault for this is being placed squarely on the Labour Party’s reluctance to submissively sign up to exactly what the Tories offer rather than on any reluctance by his own government to negotiate seriously, or even honour the promises that they’ve made before.
His real objection to establishing a legal jurisdiction for Wales is probably based on his previous statements that he will do nothing which might conceivable make it easier for Wales to become independent, at some distant future point, if Wales ever had a political party arguing for such a step to be taken. 
But one of the reasons he gives is even sillier – it seems to boil down to a few lawyers from Wales who’ve had a successful career in London feeling that lawyers might not do so well for themselves working solely in Wales.  I suspect that it is probably true – but I also suspect that the career prospects for lawyers are not the top reason which many people would put forward as a basis for deciding how Wales should be run.

Friday 2 October 2015

Mixing the missions

Jeremy Corbyn's mission to Scotland to try and recover his party's position there, coupled with the enthusiasm of so many of his party's MPs for possessing and being willing to use weapons of mass destruction must surely raise an interesting conundrum for him.  On the one hand, he wants Labour to defeat the SNP in Scotland, and on the other he wants rid of Trident.  But paradoxically, achieving the first of those makes it considerably less likely that he can ever achieve the second.

Given the statements he's been making in Scotland, and the extent to which he's already been equivocating over Trident to appease his MPs, it seems to be increasingly clear which way he'll jump.  A victory for Labour is more important to him than getting rid of nuclear weapons.  Sadly, but not unexpectedly, he'll turn out to be less different from his predecessors than many have been assuming.  Too many people are being taken in by his rhetoric - when push comes to shove, it will always be party over principle.

Thursday 1 October 2015

Attacking the wrong target

Jeremy Corbyn seems to have upset some of his shadow cabinet colleagues by saying openly and honestly that, if he were Prime Minister, he would not authorise the use of nuclear weapons.  Both Labour and Tory MPs - ably aided and abetted by the BBC who seem to have swallowed their argument hook, line, and sinker - have jumped on his words as an indication that the result will somehow be to weaken the UK’s defences.  The whole point of a ‘deterrent’, they argue, is that the unspecified ‘enemies’ out there have to believe that they would be used, otherwise they’re useless.
Some of us think such weapons are useless anyway.  It’s impossible to conceive of a situation where any rational person would authorise their use.  (But perhaps that’s my problem - expecting rationality in a politician?)  Possession seems to be more about being one of the big boys in the school yard than anything else – but it’s an awfully expensive way of getting one of the biggest sticks.
Seriously, even if Corbyn had answered the question in any different way, would he have been credible?  Labour’s warmongers seem to want him to say something like, “I’ve campaigned against nuclear weapons all my life, I believe that the use or possession of such weapons is morally indefensible, but of course, if I were Prime Minister, I’d be willing to use them”? 
One has only to ask the question to see the flaw in the argument that he could or should have answered other than as he did.  He would not have been in the least bit credible.
What would be far more useful and meaningful would be to ask all those who are now criticising him to explain, or to give one hypothetical example, how and when they would be willing to authorise the mass slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians in some distant cities.  I’m sure that they’d all respond by saying something along the lines of ‘not wanting to let the enemy know in advance what he could or could not get away with’.  But the fact that they’d all say that there are circumstances in which they would be willing to use such weapons tells us all we need to know about their moral compasses.
Corbyn isn’t the one who needs to defend his stance.