Wednesday 24 February 2016

Doomed unionism

The collapse of the oil price in recent months has led to a certain amount of glee in the unionist camp, with their spokespeople taking great delight in claiming that it ‘proves’ that Scotland couldn’t afford independence.  In fact, it ‘proves’ no such thing; it’s a hopelessly over-simplistic reaction.
It’s true, of course, that the draft figures for the economy of an independent Scotland produced by the SNP were based on an assumption about the price of oil, and that that assumption has been proved incorrect.  (Although it’s worth reminding ourselves that the assumptions about oil prices made by the SNP were very similar to those being used by the UK Treasury to forecast the UK’s revenues and expenditures.)  It’s also true that the fall in oil prices means a fall in revenues from taxes on oil, and that that reduction would have fallen on the Scottish Treasury in an independent Scotland rather than on the UK Treasury as things stand.
Taking those two truths, it’s easy to make predictions of doom for the Scottish economy.  Like all good political sleights of hand, starting with some simple truths is a better basis for a big lie than starting from obvious untruths.  The point is though, that, true as those two points are, they’re not the whole truth.  The reduction in revenue from petroleum tax isn’t the only result of a falling oil price; falling oil prices also have other economic effects.
One of the most obvious of those effects is that the cost of travel and transport reduce, and that affects the price of most goods and services.  In some cases that will be passed on to purchasers in the form of price cuts; in others it will boost the profitability of non-oil businesses.  And consumers paying less for fuel will have more money to spend on other things.
In terms of government income and expenditure, there will be some direct benefits from the reduced price of fuel, and some more indirect benefits from taxes on profits of non-oil businesses, all of which need to be offset against the reduction in revenues from the oil industry.  For the economy as a whole, cheaper fuel can promote and encourage increased economic activity in other sectors, which will also boost government revenues. 
It’s difficult to be certain whether the ‘good’ economic effects of a lower oil price will outweigh the ‘bad’ economic effects in Scotland, although there have been some reports suggesting that they will.  And there can be no guarantee that the price of a product like oil will not increase again in the future if the world economy sees an increase in demand.  The nature of the oil price is that it is essentially volatile, but my personal view is that, over the long term, energy prices are likely to go in only one direction – upwards – whatever variations we may see in the interim depending on the world economic cycle.  The economic prospects of a country where a commodity with a volatile price plays a large part can never be judged solely on a short term basis - and that applies as much to an assumption about high oil prices as it does to an assumption about low oil prices.  
But the idea that what is likely to be a short to medium term reduction in oil prices somehow kills the idea of independence for Scotland is simply wishful thinking.  It’s almost as silly as arguing that the resultant hit taken by the UK spells the end of any possibility for the UK to remain independent.  The good news is that, if over-simplistic half-truths and wishful thinking are the best economic arguments the unionists can come up with, the project that’s doomed is the union, not Scottish independence.

Tuesday 23 February 2016

Tax competition and racing to the bottom

There was a letter from the First Minister in the Western Mail on Saturday, talking about how devolving Air Passenger Duty would make a huge difference.  That part was nonsense, of course.  Devolving APD in itself makes no difference whatsoever; what might make a difference is changing the level of taxation.  Devolving the power might or might not lead to change in tax rates – that actually depends on taxation policy rather than directly on where that policy is decided.
But there was one line in the letter which particularly drew my attention, and that was where the First Minister said, with clear approval of the principle, “The UK government has already accepted the case that it is appropriate for there to be some tax competition following the devolution of tax powers.” 
Perhaps one should never expect consistency from politicians, but I seem to remember that that wasn’t always his position.  Let’s consider his views on the devolution of Corporation Tax, when he said “When it comes to corporation tax I am sceptical on this and if we have it devolved to Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales, I think there is a genuine risk of a race to the bottom with everyone reducing corporation tax; that would be great for business, but hopeless for the public purse.”
So, devolution of taxes that he wants to cut would lead to healthy tax competition; devolution of taxes that he doesn’t want to cut would lead to a race to the bottom.  There is nothing wrong with taking a political view as to which taxes should be cut, held the same, or increased – that’s an entirely legitimate way of enabling people to compare and contrast political parties and programmes.  It is not, however, a sound or principled basis for deciding where taxation powers should reside. 
‘Tax competition’ and ‘race to the bottom’ are just two different ways of describing the same thing.

Monday 22 February 2016

Halfway in, halfway out?

Cameron’s return from Brussels with his agreement on ‘special status’ for the UK reminded me of the old story about the trade union negotiator who came back to his members and told them that he had good news and bad news.  “The bad news,” he said, “is that I haven’t been able to get us a pay rise.  In fact, I’ve had to agree to a pay cut.  But the good news is that I’ve managed to get it back-dated.”
Cameron seems quite pleased with himself for having got a deal in which he’s not only not achieved what he set out to achieve, but if we believe what he says, he may well have succeeded in reducing UK influence on key decisions in the future, by placing the UK outside the inner circle, as a sort of ‘half-member’ of the EU.  Thankfully:
·         ‘half-membership’ won’t be on the ballot paper for the referendum – if it was, it might be something that I’d have real difficulty supporting, and
·         he’s cynically misrepresenting what he’s achieved. 
He might want to present it, for his own political ends, as being a step halfway out, but the reason that the other 27 have agreed it is that it’s a lot less significant than that.  Does anyone really believe that they’d agree to a whole new class of membership applied to one state only and still allow that state to have the same amount of clout in decision-making as the others?
They’re happy for him to present it as he wishes, but they probably suspect that they’ll be able to row back even on what little has been agreed after a change of government in London at some future date.  That would be entirely in line with the long-standing pragmatism of the whole institution.

Thursday 18 February 2016

We can be independent if we want to

One of the most oft-quoted reasons for opposing the idea of independence for Wales is that we’re too poor.  The idea has gained so much currency that even Plaid has fallen for it in recent years.  But is it true – and what does it even mean?
One common way of judging how rich or poor a country is by looking at the country’s GDP – or more specifically, the GDP per capita.  It’s not an entirely unproblematic basis for making an assessment.  It tells us nothing about the relative cost of living in a country, for instance – so the population of a country with a low GDP per capita and a low cost of living might actually feel better off than the people of another country where both figures are higher.  It also tells us nothing about the way wealth is shared out in a country – so the population of a country with a low GDP per capita but where the wealth is evenly shared might feel better off than the people of a country with a high GDP per head and huge inequality.
But, even with those caveats, GDP per capita is as good a starting point as any to assess where Wales fits.  Here’s a series of charts, setting out GDP per head using three different methods of assessing it (that’s another problem with using GDP as a basis – the definition and method of calculation aren’t exactly clear either).  Wales, of course, simply doesn’t figure in the charts at all, being considered solely as part of the UK. 
That doesn’t mean that we can’t make a guess as to where Wales would fit, though.  There seems to be a general acceptance that the GDP per head in Wales is around 75% of that of the UK as a whole.  Using any of these three tables, it’s easy enough to see where a country with 75% of the UK’s GDP per head would sit.  What does that tell us?
·         On IMF figures, Wales would be in 24th place.  Only 150-odd countries worse off than us.
·         On World Bank figures, we’d be in 27th place, again with 150-odd countries lower down the table.
·         On UN figures, we’d be in 31st place, with another 160-odd countries lower down the table.
·         In each case, the list of countries lower down the list than Wales includes at least 15 (i.e. more than half) of the independent member states of the EU.
So if an independent Wales would be rich enough to be a middle-ranking member of the EU in terms of GDP, why are so many of us convinced that we’re too poor to be independent?  Part of the answer is that we are accustomed to drawing the comparison (or having it drawn for us) with too narrow a range of comparators.  In fact, the usual range of comparators is one – the UK.  And for sure, it’s easy to look at the south-east of England in particular and see ourselves as poor.  But if we look out across the world, it becomes obvious that we’re actually one of the world’s richer countries.
None of that means that independence for Wales would be easy, or problem-free.  It would not.  Taking responsibility for our own future; taking our place in the world – these are hard options not soft ones.  The soft option is to continue to close our eyes to any wider analysis and hide behind our perceived poverty. 
Too many people in Wales have become too comfortable avoiding the question, trying to put it off to a later date, as far as possible into the future.  For too long, the case for Wales taking responsibility for its own future hasn’t even been put – and the one thing that I can more or less guarantee is that no argument ever got won by not being put.  It’s time for that case to be put before the people of Wales, and I’m pleased to have ben invited to speak at an event to kick-start that process on Saturday in Cardiff namely the rally organised by Yes.Cymru.

Wednesday 17 February 2016

What's in a word

To listen to UK Ministers, one would believe that only Russians kill civilians in Syria, ‘we’ only kill ‘terrorists’.  It’s not credible; there can never be any guarantee that anyone dropping a bomb from the air will only kill those it deems combatants.  But there was another thing that struck me about what Michael Fallon said yesterday as well.  He said that whilst the UK, US etc. are bombing ‘terrorists’, Russia is bombing ‘legitimate opposition forces’.  I’m sure that’s a distinction which will be of great comfort to those being killed by both groups.
It brought to mind the way in which words regularly change their meaning.  It’s a natural attribute of any language, but changing meanings and different interpretations don’t always help rational debate, particularly when those involved in the debate stretch words to mean whatever they want them to mean.  ‘Terrorism’ is a case in point.
As I understand it, the word originated in France as terrorisme to describe the reign of terror during the French revolution.  It referred specifically to actions being taken by the state against its citizens – almost completely the reverse of the way in which it is generally used today.  In the mouths of politicians, it has become a catch-all for anyone using violence in pursuit of political objectives, excluding, of course, those who are seen as friends, and those who use violence as a means of promoting ‘acceptable’ objectives.  As a result, some people can be ‘terrorists’ today, ‘resistance fighters’ tomorrow, and ‘friendly allied governments’ the day after, whilst continuing to do the same things in the same way.  Or all three of those things, depending on who’s describing them.
It’s not only singularly unhelpful as a word when used like that, it’s also a cop-out to avoid debating, or even considering, the underlying causes and issues. But they have to be considered sometime; responding to violence with violence kills individuals but doesn’t kill grievances or beliefs.  On the contrary, it often reinforces them.
The UK has managed to get itself involved in yet another war in the Middle East, and looks likely to be dragged further in; and as is their wont, the politicians have described it as being part of the ‘war on terror’.  IS, or whatever they’re calling themselves today, are a pretty nasty and unpleasant bunch of people.  And the way they administer the territory that the have captured is closer to the original use of the word terrorisme than most of what we’ve seen from many groups to which the term has been applied. 
But I’m simply not convinced that bombing them is a path likely to meet with success in the long term.  We’re sending aircraft to bomb them largely because we have to be seen to be doing something, and this is something that we can do.  But being ‘something that we can do’ is not the same as being ‘something which will make a difference for the long term’.
Throughout human history, one of the hardest forces to tackle has been force based on an absolute religious belief.  The perspective that God demands that we submit to his will, and if anyone refuses, then they must either be forced to submit or be killed is a strange one to most of us today, even if it really isn’t that much different from the perspective of some Christian armies in the past, or that of the Inquisition.  To us, it looks dated and medieval, of course; but that’s a matter of context, not of nature.
The key point is that it isn’t a perspective which can simply be defeated by force.  It's an absolutist idea which needs to be tackled and subdued, but history indicates that we’re more likely to be successful in doing that through trade, education and negotiation.  It’s not often that I find myself half wishing that I was wrong; that a bombing campaign which kills a few thousand now will achieve its aim and avoid the deaths of many, many more later.  Such a belief would be easier in some ways than standing back and saying ‘truthfully, we can’t sort this quickly’ which I guess is why so many have adopted it.  But I can see no successful precedent for such a belief.  And nor could I bring myself to weigh human lives against each other in such a callous fashion - although that's something which seems to come very easily to governments.
Wars can certainly be ‘won’ in the short term.  But time and again history teaches us – even if we rarely learn from it – that the ‘solution’ to one conflict is often part of the cause of the next.  Fundamentalist beliefs cannot be killed by killing those who hold them – even if they could be identified, and even if the thousands of innocents killed in the process were deemed a price worth paying.  Ideas can only be defeated by other, better ideas.  Ignoring that simple reality has already cost the world far too many lives; failure to act on it is costing more on a daily basis.

Tuesday 16 February 2016

Too complacent by far

I’m not particularly surprised at the finding in the recent poll that Welsh voters are as likely to vote to leave the EU as are English voters.  The oft-repeated speculation by some Welsh politicians about the ‘constitutional crisis’ which would follow an English vote to leave and a Welsh vote to stay has long owed more to wishful thinking about the differences between England and Wales than to hard fact.  And the assumption that voters would fall in behind the leaders of the parties which they usually support flies in the face of the clear distrust which most voters have for most politicians.
It isn’t good enough either to try blaming the poll findings on in-migration.  Whilst it’s true that Wales has a very high proportion of non-Welsh born (and especially English-born) voters, the antipathy to the EU isn’t restricted to the areas which have seen the greatest in-migration.  Indeed, some of the highest votes achieved by UKIP in May were in constituencies with some of the highest levels of Welsh-born citizens.
There has been a high level of complacency amongst the Welsh political classes on the issue, partly perhaps as a result of the lack of any discordant voices amongst those classes themselves.  The result has been a comfortable consensus in relation to matters European, and an assumption that it would be ‘obvious’ to people that Wales benefits from UK membership of the EU.  It’s a complacency which may yet turn out to be fatal to the chances of a yes vote.
I think that the poll findings may well overstate the extent of the movement in opinion, although I accept that that might reflect a certain amount of wishful thinking on my own part.  But I don’t think that there isn’t movement happening – the ‘leavers’ are winning the argument.  What makes the shift even harder to counter is that they’re winning the argument without even making their case.  They are in total disarray and arguing amongst themselves, but still opinion is moving in their direction.
I suspect that that is partly because of the way that Cameron’s fabled renegotiation is being increasingly exposed as little more than a sham, but mostly a reaction to immigration and the daily news stories on that particular issue in the media which are most influential in shaping opinion.  Logically, the EU actually has little to do with immigration, and leaving would make a lot less difference than most seem to believe, but it is the issue on which far too many will probably make their decision unless there is a change in the prevailing climate of opinion.  And it’s not an argument which is easily countered by logic and reason.
Can this movement in opinion be countered, or is it already too late?  I really don’t know, and nor do I know which side is favoured by a quick vote in June (which seems to be the government’s preferred option).  On the one hand, an early vote might be a question of acting before opinion moves too far and too solidly against (particularly if the summer sees yet another increase in the numbers of people traversing the Mediterranean).  On the other would a longer time period give a better chance for a rational and considered rebuttal of the antipathy towards immigration and the connection (or rather lack of) between that and membership of the EU?  Such considerations are rather more significant than whether the campaign overshadows the Assembly election, which seems to be the biggest concern of most of our politicians.
And a case for continued membership based on a belief that we’ll get more handouts from Brussels than from London doesn’t even begin to tackle the much darker feelings which are the real issue, yet that’s still where Labour’s biggest party seems to be.

Monday 15 February 2016

Bigger sticks

Last week, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister (for the time being, anyway) invited us to consider the scary prospect of the whole world giving up nuclear weapons – except for North Korea.  Who, he invited his audience to consider, would fancy living in such a world?  To him, the answer was obvious – but it’s one of those rhetorical flourishes which don’t stand up terribly well to detailed analysis.
Even from a simplistic perspective, would a world in which the Russian, American, Chinese, UK, French, Israeli, Indian and Pakistani nuclear arsenals had ceased to exist, leaving just a handful of weapons in the hands of one small isolated state, be better or worse than the situation today?  I can’t immediately see any argument which says that it wouldn’t be better.
But of course Benn was looking at a much narrower context than that.  If I understand his argument at all, it is that the UK needs to retain its nuclear deterrent so the North Korea wouldn’t ever dare to attack us with its own nuclear weapons.  But hold on a minute there – why would they want to?  I mean, it seems to me that they have other enemies which they are much more likely to pick on than the UK.  In that context, if they really did decide to fire one of their bombs at South Korea, say, would the UK really respond by firing a Trident missile at them?  It doesn’t seem a very credible scenario to me.
Perhaps the argument is that they are so irrational that they just might decide to go for the UK, and that’s why we need Trident to deter them.  But the whole point about a nuclear deterrent is that it assumes that ‘the enemy’ is not irrational, and will think very carefully about the potential consequences of their actions – if they cannot be depended on to rationally weigh up the costs and benefits of their actions, then there is no deterrent, only a mechanism for exacting revenge.
I suspect that the US Defence Secretary was much closer to the truth about why so many Labour-Tory politicians want to keep nuclear weapons, when he talked about the UK ‘punching above its weight’.  It’s nothing to do with deterring anyone, it’s all about being the big boy in the playground; one of the ones with the biggest sticks.  So, let me ask a variant of the question which Benn posed: “And finally, who fancies living in a world in which those with the biggest sticks tell everyone else what to do?”

Friday 12 February 2016

No use depending on Labour

Labour’s tribulations over Trident continue.  This week, Andy Burnham told us that getting to an agreed party position on the subject looked like an impossibility.   I agree – but actually, there’s nothing new about that.  Labour has had difficulty with the issue of nuclear weapons from the outset, and there has always been a dissident group within the party opposing the party’s official policy.  When the party has officially argued for nuclear weapons, the minority has been those arguing against; and in the two elections that I can recall when the party’s official position was to oppose such weapons, there were those in the party who continued to argue in favour of them. 
Burnham also said that it’s an issue on which a compromise position is neither sensible nor achievable.  Possessing nuclear weapons but committing never to use them is just plain daft, as is building boats specifically designed to carry them and then not arming them.  There is no middle way here.
On all of that, what Burnham says is true.  However, to date, that hasn’t stopped Labour having an official policy on the issue; it has simply meant that not all the party’s members support that policy.  Insofar as there is anything new now, it’s that implicit in what Burnham has said is that the party should not take a position at all if that position is contrary to what the pro-nuclear brigade believe, but should simply leave all members free to argue as they wish.  It is, apparently, OK for the anti-nuclear members to argue against policy if the policy is pro-nuclear, but the pro-nuclear side will oppose even having a policy if it isn’t the one that they support.
None of us yet knows whether the Labour leader’s view will prevail when the party’s new policy is decided.  But it probably doesn’t matter a lot.  Even if it does, and even if Labour wins the next election, it is highly unlikely the House of Commons will support Labour’s policy - too many Labour MPs will support the Tory position.  Besides, history tells us that even if Labour support the scrapping of nuclear weapons when in opposition, and win an election with that policy in their manifesto (as happened in the 1960s), once safely elected they will feel free to do the opposite.
At present, there seems to be only one route which has any hope of leading to UK nuclear disarmament, and that’s Scottish independence.  It’s certainly not through the Labour Party.

Thursday 11 February 2016

Coalitions and arrangements

Simon Thomas seems to have ignited something of a hostile reaction within Plaid yesterday, when he declined to rule out an arrangement with the Tories which falls short of a coalition.  I suspect that, in semantic terms, he was correct to argue that what Plaid’s leader had said only rules out one particular type of arrangement, namely a formal coalition.  But I think most people had interpreted what Leanne said – and were intended to interpret it – as ruling out any arrangement which would put the Tories in power in Wales.
But on the principle, I agree with Simon, and have posted on that before.  It’s not that I particularly want to see the Tories in power in Wales, or see Plaid supporting such a government.  And when the issue was under discussion in 2007, when there was a possibility of including the Tories in the so-called ‘rainbow alliance’, I was even more opposed to a coalition with the Tories than with Labour.  But I was happy to talk to both, because that was the only way of ascertaining what, if any, real progress could be made.  I had two main reasons for not being quite so definitive in ruling out some arrangements in advance.
The first is largely pragmatic, and is to do with negotiating leverage.  In the context of the current voting system for the National Assembly, where coalitions or less formal arrangements are more likely than not, any party claiming to be putting the interests of Wales first needs to get the best deal that it possibly can.  And telling everyone in advance that there’s only one party with which you’re prepared to do any sort of deal doesn’t actually incentivise that party to give a lot of ground.  Quite the reverse – it actually strengthens the Labour Party’s hand in any discussions.
The second is more about the aims and objectives of a party.  I find it extremely difficult to believe that the Tories in Wales would offer more concessions to the nationalist position than the Labour Party, but I don’t find it totally inconceivable that it could happen.  Events are inherently unpredictable.  Ruling out, absolutely, any such possibility in advance looks like the action of a party more concerned with its own short-term advantage than with the constitutional progress of Wales.
Of course, the reason given for that would be that the long term future of Wales depends on the strength of the nationalist party, and that any deal with the Tories would weaken that party.  But is that reasoned argument, or merely rationalisation of pre-existing prejudice?  I’m convinced that any deal with the Labour Party is equally likely to weaken Plaid – that certainly seems to be the experience of One Wales.  But if the main aim is making progress towards independence, then bringing about change, and then entrenching that change, is surely more important than the results of one or two elections.
I accept that this is largely hypothetical – any discussion before the election can only ever be speculative.  I entirely understand why all parties would sooner concentrate at this stage on fighting and winning the election than on speculating about what might happen afterwards.  Perhaps there really will be a political earthquake which propels either Plaid or the Tories into a position where they have enough AMs to be in a position to lead a government, however unlikely that may look at present.  But in a context where all the polls show how unlikely it is that any party will win the majority about which they are all so keen to talk, speculation will inevitably continue to be part of the narrative of the campaign.  That’s entirely natural, and in many other countries in Europe, people and politicians would be struggling to understand why there is such a reluctance in Wales to accept the fact, and debate the possibilities more openly.
Talking about arrangements and compromises is an inevitable part of what it takes to create a different type of politics in Wales, and break away from the UK’s obsession with absolute majorities.  It’s about building a more European style of multi-party coalitions and arrangements.  There’s something very ‘British’ about simply wanting to avoid the question.

Wednesday 10 February 2016

Changing the arguments

This is a much better argument for a ‘yes’ vote in the EU referendum than most of what I’ve seen so far.  A “decentralised partnership of equals” where Wales is one of those “equals”, and a rejection of the idea that the decision can be made by “punching numbers into a calculator” is the sort of vision for a future for Wales as an independent member of a restructured European Union which is about more than mere economics.  Syniadau has also drawn attention today to a new cross-Europe movement seeking to democratize the continent, and re-invent the EU on a different basis.  Both are hopeful signs of a new approach to what it means to be part of a multi-national project for peace and progress.
Much of the rest of the debate about the EU, however, continues to revolve around the idea that it’s all about economics, and nothing more.  One of the problems with that approach is that the economic effects of departure are largely unknowable – for all the apparent ‘certainty’ that they display, both sides are essentially guessing.  And inviting people to judge who might be making the best guesses doesn’t look like a very good basis for making a fundamental decision about the future.
There was a report a few days ago, for instance, which suggested that leaving the EU would be like taking a leap into the unknown.  I agree – but I’m not convinced that the economic future within the EU is as certain as that implies.  There is a natural human tendency to assume, almost subconsciously, that ‘what is’ is somehow safer and more certain than the alternative.  But in this case, continuing as a member of the EU carries its own range of possible outcomes, depending on events which are at this stage unforeseeable.
I believe that the UK could and would survive economically outside the EU, albeit with a period of adjustment, in the same way that I believe that Wales could and would survive outside the UK – again with a period of adjustment.  Adjusting to circumstances is what economies do – and there are plenty of recent examples of economies adapting well to new circumstances.  The question is not whether we could or would thrive economically whether in or out; it’s about what sort of world we want to see.  And I welcome the fact that at least one of Wales’ politicians is arguing from that viewpoint.

Tuesday 9 February 2016

Following England

Ever since the UK Government introduced the cancer drugs fund for England, the Tories in Wales have been banging on about the need for Wales to follow suit.  I’ve always had my doubts about the question – if the underlying problem is that the NHS does not have adequate funding to be using new and innovative drugs, then the answer is to provide more funding, not for politicians to start over-riding clinical decisions by diverting resources from one type of treatment or disease to another.  It’s a gimmick – a populist one, to be sure amongst those who see family and friends suffering from the disease – but a gimmick nevertheless.
Last week, a House of Commons committee reported on the way that the fund is working in England.  The report covers a lot of detail, but crucially it says that there is no evidence that the fund is benefiting patients, extending lives or a good use of taxpayers' money.  I suspect that the first two parts of that conclusion are a little harsh; I’m sure that some of the individual patients and families would argue that they have benefited, and would oppose any move to wind up the fund. 
But any true assessment of the efficacy of the approach has to look not just at those patients and families who do see some benefit but at all of them – including those with other diseases and illnesses who may be losing out; the report specifically notes that extra cash has had to be diverted from elsewhere in the NHS to pay for the fund.  In the round, it’s clear that whatever the political advantages of establishing the fund, in medical terms it hasn’t proved to be quite as brilliant an idea as it was painted. 

I don’t expect the Tories in Wales to stop demanding that Wales follows England on this; following England is their natural default position.  I’m sure that, like the UK Government, they’ll claim that it’s just about changing the way the fund works and is administered.  Hopefully, the Welsh Government will continue to resist such calls and leave the decisions on medical priorities to those who know better than politicians.

Monday 8 February 2016

Wishful thinking

The reported attempts by the Conservatives in Wales to turn the Assembly election into something of a referendum on Jeremy Corbyn rather than a vote about policies and programmes as such is an interesting approach.  Perhaps they have some private polling data which is not available to the rest of us suggesting widespread antipathy towards Corbyn in Wales, but from the outside it looks like an approach based on an assumption that something which is ‘obvious’ to them will be equally obvious to everyone else.
I don’t doubt that it will appeal to their core voters.  Readers of the Daily Mail are likely to be already convinced that Corbyn is the devil incarnate, and reminding that particular sector of the electorate that Carwyn and Corbyn are members of the same party might work to shore up that vote.  But assuming that internal groupthink is typical of the wider electorate is the sort of mistake which is all too easy for politicians and parties to make.  Playing the Corbyn card repeatedly and relentlessly doesn’t seem to me to be likely to have a huge appeal in terms of winning over opposing parties’ supporters.  It’s a bit like Labour always playing the Thatcher card – it seems to help to keep their own supporters loyal, but I doubt that it ever won many people over to Labour.
And that’s the point.  Whether some of us like it or not, there is a fairly solid and consistent Tory vote in Wales, and it seems to be growing, but I suspect that to be more a result of demographic changes (such as migration and age profile) than of any real shift of individual voters from Labour to Tory.  I don’t immediately observe the sort of personal antipathy to Corbyn which this strategy depends on amongst non Tory voters, although I do observe an increasing antipathy towards the over-personalisation of politics, and to a negative approach which is based mainly on slagging off the opponents. 

Whatever Labour might like, they will not be able to avoid the UK media seeing the Assembly election as delivering a verdict of some sort on Corbyn; but that’s about the media interpreting what they want to see happening.  It doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily much of an issue for the electors themselves,  Assuming that coverage in their favoured media actually represents public opinion in Wales as a whole looks more like wishful thinking by the Tories than serious analysis. 

Tuesday 2 February 2016

Opening the borders

Labour’s Shadow Chancellor has been strongly attacked by his own side for suggesting that the world is moving inexorably towards open borders.  It’s another sad reflection, considering the internationalist idealism of the founders of the Labour Party, that those arguing for open borders are regarded as aberrant, whilst those arguing for controls over the free movement of people are regarded as mainstream.  It’s perfectly possible, of course, that those supporting strong borders are merely reflecting what they see as being the opinion of the electorate – but that’s an even sadder reflection on the state of the modern Labour Party and how far it has strayed from its early ideals.  And pandering to conventional opinion rather than being willing to challenge it serves only to strengthen it.
In the circumstances, suggesting that open borders are the way of the future was a brave statement by John McDonnell.  I think he’s actually right.  The world is changing around us in ways which not everyone will like; but not liking something doesn’t mean it won’t happen.  In particular, modern communications technology makes it easier for people to compare and contrast their own way of life with that elsewhere.  It’s too easy to see the refugee crisis as a product of war or famine alone.  Whilst those are certainly factors, concentrating too heavily on those ignores the wider economic issues leading to large scale migration.
‘Economic migrants’, as governments like to refer to them, are ‘merely’ escaping poverty, rather than death through famine or war; but poverty causes death too.  It can be slower and less dramatic, but poverty – even relative poverty – affects longevity as well.  And there can be no doubting the disparity in the quality of life between the rich countries and the poor.  It is surely entirely understandable that people seeing a better quality of life elsewhere will attempt to seek it out, rather than accept their current state.
Of course, whilst modern communications make the disparities more visible, and the comparative ease of travel (compared to the situation just a few decades ago) facilitates greater mobility, neither of those is the underlying cause of the disparity.  That comes down to centuries of differential rates of economic development; and we should never forget that the greater pace of development in the richer parts of the world was for a very long time underpinned by exploiting the resources of the rest.  The whole history of colonialism and capitalism is about the transfer of wealth from some areas to others.  In this case, I’m talking about the richer and poorer countries across the world, but similar processes have also operated internally within the richer countries.
Add in the likely effects of a changing climate, and we are going to see even more mass migration in the future, and people ignoring borders in the process.  There are two potential responses to the situation.  The first is the stance taken by conventional politicians, which is all about building fences and obstacles, pulling up the drawbridge as it were, to stop people moving around.  That’s proving hard enough now.  If the numbers continue to grow, it is likely to become unsustainable without resorting to the increasing use of force.  The other is the stance taken by McDonnell, which is that we need to start thinking about the consequences and how we prepare for them.
It’s not an easy or a comfortable question to be asking ourselves.  How do we protect and sustain accepted cultures and customs if the population demographic is changing?  How do we deal with the economic and social consequences?  Being afraid, for whatever reason, to even ask such questions is part of the problem, but the result – trying to pretend that we can continue to hoard wealth in some parts of the world whilst denying it to others – simply won’t work for very long.  If the critics of McDonnell succeed in silencing debate on the question, we’ll all be the losers in the longer term.

Monday 1 February 2016

Wriggling out of promises

The introduction of free TV licences for the over 75s was a good political gimmick, just like the winter fuel allowance.  Both were classic examples of governments seeking to appeal to a particular section of the population for electoral purposes.  I tend to the view that it would be better to simply increase the state pension, let people manage their own finances, and provide targeted practical assistance to those struggling to budget for irregular expenditure.  It would also be easier and less costly to administer.  However, as the saying goes, we are where we are.
When the BBC agreed to take on the ‘hit’ for licences for the over 75s, I thought at the time that they’d given in rather easily to a proposal which was clearly going to have serious financial consequences for the corporation.  Perhaps, even then, they had already started planning ways of clawing at least some of the money back.  Maybe the government even gave them some sort of a nod and a wink at the time that there would be no objection if the BBC wanted to be a bit ‘creative’ over the issue.  I’d be very surprised indeed if what starts out as a ‘voluntary’ payment remains as such for very long. 

In essence, however, there is a breach of faith here, by the government.  They promised one thing to the elderly by telling them that the free licence wouldn’t be affected by the change, and are sitting back whilst someone else attempts to subvert the promise which they made.  I for one wouldn’t have been unsupportive if they’d honestly and openly abolished this particular freebie and added the extra cash to pensions.  I’m sure that it wouldn’t have been a popular move (and pensioners tend disproportionately to support the Tories), but it would have been an honest and sensible one.  Offloading the promise onto someone else to wriggle out of is neither of those things.  And I wonder how many of those affected will really be fooled.