Friday 30 September 2016

Gaddafi's gold

It often seems as though journalists and politicians possess highly selective memories.  Worse, they also assume that the rest of us do as well, and are quite happy for them to regurgitate old stories as if they were new, or even to completely reverse the ‘facts’ if that suits their current requirements.  I mention that as context for the ‘revelation’ that some members of Plaid Cymru went to Libya in 1976 and that the party may, or may not, have received money subsequently.
I was a member of the party’s national executive at the time.  However, it was 40 years ago, and I have no written records from that period, so I am working from memory here – and age, as they say, does not come alone.  I recall, though, that the first I knew about the infamous visit was after the event.  I don’t know how it came to be arranged or how the participants were selected, but I’m sure that it wasn’t through any formal decision-making process.  On the other hand, in those days an awful lot of things happened outside any formal decision-making processes!
The problem with the past is often that we view it through the prism of the present, but the context back in 1976 was significantly different.  At that time, Gaddafi was seen less as a despot and more as a revolutionary who had overthrown an absolute monarchy in a bloodless coup.  And the then comparatively new government of Libya was making efforts to share the country’s oil wealth more fairly, and develop the country’s education and health services.  The BBC’s report includes a quote from Carl Clowes about the reasons for the visit which are entirely true – these were interesting developments from which it was believed that Wales could learn.
One other result of the visit was an attempt to broker some sort of deal between Welsh farmers and Libya to export Welsh lamb.  I’m not sure that very much ever came of it, but the attempt was genuine and well-intentioned.  The one thing of which I am certain is that the visit was not conducted with the aim or intention of securing funding.
Most of what I subsequently learned about the visit came from one of the participants, Brian Morgan Edwards.  Brian, or BME as he was more widely known, was something of a character, to put it mildly.  And on all issues other than the core question of independence for Wales it would be fair to say that his views and mine were more than a little divergent, but we always got on well – and he could be very good company.  But like all good raconteurs, he could at times ‘embroider’ his stories ever so slightly.
(At the time, incidentally, he was not, as stated, Treasurer, but Deputy Treasurer.  The Treasurer at the time was the late Elwyn Roberts from Bodorgan on Ynys Môn.  Having subsequently taken over from Elwyn as Treasurer, I can vouch for the fact that absolutely no-one other than Elwyn would have fully understood the party’s finances at that time, not even the Deputy Treasurer, which was a post with no clearly-defined responsibilities despite having a seat on the Executive.)
Thus it was that one Saturday night in the lounge bar of the Bellevue Hotel in Aberystwyth after an all-day meeting of the Executive (early in 1977, I think) Brian regaled me with his tales of the visit.  He was, shall we say, partial to the odd whisky or six, and had a knack of speaking in a stage whisper which meant that everyone in the room could hear everything he said (including on this particular occasion the gentleman on the other side of the room to whom Brian referred as “Big Ears over there” – in the same stage whisper.  In all fairness, I could hardly blame anyone for listening in in the circumstances).
The Libyans, he told me, had offered guns as well as money, and could not understand why the group were refusing them.  According to Brian, the response to the refusal had been along the lines of “But when the Irish come here, they always want guns.  Why don’t you want guns?”  I was more than a little alarmed at this turn of events, and subsequently spoke to Phil Williams (who had led the visit) privately to express my concerns.  Phil was able to give me the assurances that I sought; the visit had indeed been about looking at what the government was doing in fields such as health and education, not about seeking assistance – and there had been a little ‘embroidery’ in Brian’s tale.
So, with that by way of background, I completely believe the statement by Carl that Brian told him that money had been received; but that is not necessarily inconsistent with believing the counter claim by Plaid that there was no money.  I certainly have no recollection of a £25,000 donation from Libya being reported to the Executive.  The party was, in those days, run on rather less than a shoestring; £25,000 would have been considerably more than 10% of the party’s annual turnover.  It was the sort of sum which only ever arrived as a result of the wills of departed members.  The party’s financial affairs were more than a little ‘complex’ at the time as well; the treasurer was always borrowing from Peter to pay Paul as the party stumbled from one financial crisis to the next.  £25,000 would have made a significant difference. 
On the other hand, in those days political parties as entities were barely acknowledged under the law, and regulation was zero.  Add to that the secretive nature of party financing in general and it’s entirely possible that any party at the time could have received money from all sorts of dubious sources with no more than a handful of people ever being aware of the fact.  For what it’s worth, I genuinely don’t believe that £25,000 was received, but I cannot in all honesty entirely rule out any possibility that some money was received via one route or another with the knowledge of only one or two individuals who are no longer with us.  I suspect not; I simply cannot be certain.
The response by Labour and Lib Dem politicians to the latest rehashing of the story was utterly predictable – seize on a claim, portray it as fact, and issue a condemnation.  It’s utterly hypocritical, as Cai has pointed out, given the links which others subsequently developed with Gaddafi.
It might be argued that it was known at the time that Libya was arming and financing the IRA, and that therefore any contact with the regime was at the least unwise.  With hindsight, that is perhaps so – but there are a lot of things that most of us would do differently with the benefit of hindsight.  And there are plenty of other governments which have funded armed groups in other countries - the US is probably primus inter pares in this respect.  We have to come back to context again.  Although Gaddafi turned out to be a despot, the despotic aspects of his regime were considerably less obvious in 1976 than they were by the 1990s.  At that time, he looked like a man who was utterly determined that all in his country should benefit from oil wealth, and that was a very different perspective on wealth from that prevalent in the capitalist economies.  I couldn’t then, and still can’t, see anything wrong with trying to learn how that was being done in practice.  Everything else about the latest ‘story’ just looks like froth and mud-slinging to me.

Thursday 29 September 2016

Following the rules

Last week it emerged that the new Home Secretary had been involved with offshore investment funds in the past.  The report was quick to reassure us that this was not an attempt to avoid paying tax in the UK; it was simply that the regulatory regime at the time did not allow this type of fund to be set up in the UK.  So she was not avoiding UK taxes, merely avoiding UK regulations.  That, apparently, makes everything OK.

Wednesday 28 September 2016

Spotting the difference

There have been two vaguely similar stories (here and here) about internal devolution within the Labour Party in recent days.  Wales, we are told is “on course to win greater autonomy”, whereas Scotland is heading for “full autonomy”.  The addition of one small word, “full”, is significant, and it’s tempting to see this as simply the Labour Party’s traditional approach of treating Scotland with rather more respect than Wales.  Perhaps if Welsh voters had done to Labour here what Scottish voters did to it there, Welsh Labour, or what was left of it, might also be on the road to "full" autonomy.  Or at least, that might be the terminology in use, because I suspect that this is as much about presentation as substance.
Some of the proposed changes for the two nations look similar – for instance over internal organisation, candidate selection, and representation on the NEC.  The one thing specifically mentioned in relation to Scotland but not in relation to Wales is the question of policy-making.  In Scotland, the newly “fully autonomous” Labour Party will be free to set its own policy not only on matters in the purview of the Scottish Parliament, but also on wider UK and international issues.  Although, to be fair, they’ve claimed in the past that they already have that freedom, so there’s at least a question mark over what’s changing.
But how meaningful is that right in practice?  One of the other changes seems to be giving the Welsh and Scottish branches of the Labour Party an input into the UK manifesto – but if there is still a UK manifesto, what is the point of there being different policies in different nations? 
The most obvious current example is Trident renewal.  As I understand it the current position is that the UK (i.e. in the new scenario that means the EnglishandWelsh) Labour Party is in favour of renewal, whilst the Scottish Labour Party is against.  (The Welsh Labour Party isn’t allowed to have a view of its own either way – a situation which seems destined not to change under the new arrangements).  But if there is a single UK manifesto, will any Scottish Labour MPs be elected on the basis of the UK manifesto or the Scottish autonomously-decided policy?  If the former, then there is no point in having the right to disagree – and if the latter, then there is no longer a single UK manifesto.  The way things are at present, in all probability it won’t matter: with only one Labour MP from Scotland it’s neither here nor there what he thinks, and he doesn’t look likely to have any companions for some time to come.
It looks to me as though this manifesto issue is either something that they haven’t really thought through, or else something which they think that they can just muddle through when the time comes.  Or maybe it’s both of those; in that sense it would only be mirroring the Labour Party’s whole approach to devolution in the first place. 
Given the Labour Party’s residual popularity in Wales (compared to either England or Scotland), one might think that trying to isolate that from the Labour Party in England would be a rational way forward, but that simply isn’t the way they work.  It’s much more likely that they’ll only come round to that way of thinking when it really is too late, as has happened in Scotland.  That might just be wishful thinking on my part of course; but for a party which was founded with the aim of trying to change the course of history, they do seem to have developed an unfortunate tendency to wait until history overwhelms them.

Tuesday 27 September 2016

Playground politics

A lot of hot air has been expended in recent days about the difference between ‘access to’ and ‘membership of’ the single market, and about the fact that Labour’s AMs ‘voted with the Tories’ in response to a Plaid Cymru-tabled motion.
In general, I’m singularly unimpressed with the various parties’ regular practice of accusing everyone else of ‘voting with X’ on a particular issue.  It always strikes me as being a way of avoiding discussion of the substantive issue by resorting to simplistic insult rather than a way of throwing light on the issue.  In any situation where there is a binary choice of voting for or against a proposition, politicians can only choose one of those options (or, of course, they can abdicate all responsibility, and choose to sit on their hands and abstain).  One would hope that politicians would be mature enough to decide how to vote on the basis of the proposition itself, rather than on the basis of who else might be voting on which side.  Being on the same side as another party in such a binary situation isn’t the same as forming a coalition with that other party, or even agreeing with them on policy – it’s perfectly possible for two parties to oppose any given policy on totally different grounds.  To hear some of them talk, one might think that voting the same way as party X – usually, but not invariably, the Tories – is equivalent to forming a pact with the devil himself.
Returning to the question of ‘access’ or ‘membership’, whilst it could be argued that ‘membership’ is simply a special case of ‘access’ and is therefore included within the broader term, there clearly is an important unresolved question about the nature and extent of access by UK, and therefore Welsh, businesses to the single market post-Brexit.  I agree with the thrust of the Plaid proposal in the Assembly that membership is preferable to any lesser form of access in the interests of economic continuity and stability, but I’m also convinced that full membership without accepting a lot of other rules and regulations, including free movement of people, is an unattainable goal.
The political question is about how we respond to that contradiction.  It’s been depressing to see Labour AMs and MPs lining up to declare that free movement is no longer acceptable because we have to accept and adjust to the ‘legitimate concerns’ that people have about immigration.  What these ‘legitimate concerns’ are is never spelt out; the position of said AMs and MPs looks more like capitulation to a vague and prejudiced xenophobia than a thought-out policy position.  It’s increasingly clear, though, that Labour, like the Tories, is moving to a position of accepting that full membership of the single market is an impossible goal, as a result of the conditions which they themselves are seeking to impose.
Part of the Labour response to Plaid’s motion was to describe it as a motion whose main aim was to be the basis of a press release afterwards.  I think they’re right to say that, but don’t see anything wrong with doing that if the purpose of the press release were to highlight the issue itself and the dangers that we face if we damage our trading position simply in order to secure more control over EU migration.  The bigger problem for me wasn’t using a motion and a press release in that fashion; it was that the publicity which the party sought was more about the playground politics of who voted with whom than with the real and important issue of the economic impact of having to leave the single market as a direct result of demanding controls over migration.
If we are to convince people that arbitrary reductions in migration will be economically damaging, we need to address and debate that question directly and make the link clear, rather than indulge in simplistic point-scoring.  To date, few politicians – in any party – seem willing to do that.

Monday 26 September 2016

We are not them

According to one Labour MP, John Mann, Owen Smith’s leadership campaign failed largely because it “boiled down to one key message: I am not him” (i.e. Jeremy Corbyn).  Whilst I have considerable sympathy with the idea that such a campaign message is unlikely ever to motivate anyone, I can understand why so many in the Labour Party would think that it was entirely suitable and adequate.  I thought Mr Mann's verdict was, in context, more than a little harsh; after all, doesn’t the whole party’s key message in election after election boil down to simply saying “We are not them” (i.e. the Tories)?

Friday 23 September 2016

How much has really changed?

I’m more than a little confused about the education policy of the Conservatives in Wales.  At one level, I welcome the statements made this week that they don’t want to follow the policy of the English Government in reinstating grammar schools, and that selection at 11 is divisive.  But how much of a change in policy is this in reality?
In 2013, they proposed reintroducing the “best elements” of the old grammar school system into Welsh education, but without re-introducing the 11+ exam.  The meaning of “best elements” wasn’t spelled out as far as I can see, but in essence, they were proposing a “dual education system” where children were split into two streams at 14.  “Best elements” seemed to amount to “selection at 14”; if that isn’t what they meant, then I don’t know what they were saying.
According to a BBC report, this was a proposal which didn’t find its way into their manifesto for the 2016 election.  However in the leaders’ debates prior to the election, Andrew RT Davies was still making the same vague and unspecific argument for incorporating the “best elements” of the grammar school system into the Welsh education system.  Again, if that did not mean splitting pupils into two streams in some shape or form, then I really don’t know what he was talking about. 
What they did say in their 2016 manifesto (albeit by implication rather than outright statement) was that they were still wedded to one key element of the 2013 proposals, namely that there should be a new post 14 phase in education allowing the promotion of a more skills-based approach.  It sounded to me then, and still does re-reading it today, as though they still intended to introduce some sort of differentiation into two streams at 14, although it wasn’t made clear whether their intention was to achieve that by pupil choice or through some form of selection.
Nothing in their statements this week says that they’ve backtracked on their post 14 proposals.  My suspicion is that the apparent opposition to an 11+ exam isn’t the change of heart as which it’s been presented, and certainly isn’t actually opposition to selection at all.  Merely changing the age at which selection occurs or the form which that selection takes isn’t the same thing as opposing selection in principle. 
There is an underlying ‘truth’ behind the argument for grammar schools, and that is that not all children respond well to a particular approach to learning and not all children have a natural aptitude for all subjects.  However, the jump from that to a selective system (or “dual system” to use the Welsh Tories’ preferred euphemism) depends on accepting a number of other much less well-evidenced assumptions, namely:
·         That there is a particular age for all children at which this difference becomes apparent
·         That it applies to all subjects
·         That it cannot be coped with in a single learning institution and requires that children be split into two distinct categories.
What the evidence inescapably shows is that, however ‘objective’ the tests used to split children into groups may be, one of the prime determinants of where children in a selective system end up is parental income.  It’s not a 100% correlation, of course – a fact which supporters of selection twist into a suggestion that selection supports ‘social mobility’.  But for those who are not selected, it actually entrenches social immobility, and it invests more in the education of the selected.  I’m not convinced that the Tories’ position this week actually moves them very far from their traditional stance in support of that.

Thursday 22 September 2016

Ready for what?

During the campaign for the Scottish Independence referendum two years ago, one of the arguments used by opponents of independence was that Scotland would be ‘too small’ to defend itself against any aggressor intent on seizing its territory.  The way it was presented, there were enemies out there (usually assumed to be Russia) who were just waiting for such a sign of weakness in order to invade.  One of the problems with that argument is that almost exactly the same could be said for the UK. 
As a retired general told us at the weekend, the UK’s armed forces “are ill-prepared to defend the UK against a serious military attack”.  But if the test of any defence capability is the ability to withstand an all-out attack from Russia, then the chances of the UK ever being able to afford an adequate level of armed forces are close to, if not actually, zero.  The logic of the general’s argument is surely that the countries of the EU would need to combine their armed forces in to a single organisation (as indeed, some in the EU seem to want).  I somehow doubt, however, that that was what the general had in mind.
The underlying question is about how realistic it is to assume that there are enemies out there just waiting for an opportunity to invade and occupy the UK.  It seems to be axiomatic for the military that such is the case, but is it really?  The point is that any government has to decide on the probability of a particular scenario before deciding how much to invest in preparing for it. 
The old saying that “Generals are always preparing to fight the last war” seems relevant here; although in this case, the general’s view seems to overlook the last half dozen or so military adventures which have been of an altogether different type.  Perhaps they just don’t count as ‘real’ wars between proper armies, of the sort that the military mind can more easily comprehend.  But it’s a strange world indeed where stating that “Counter-terrorism is the limit of up-to-date plans and preparations to secure our airspace, waters and territory" is seen as a criticism that the government is unprepared, when for most of us it might look as though there is actually a degree of refocussing on what are the greater current threats.
Insofar as there is a logic to the demand that we should always be prepared for another major European war, it is based on an assumption that some or all other states are inherently aggressive and seeking to expand their territories, and an assumption that the best way to avoid such a war is to be always prepared to fight it.  That’s one reading of history; but there is an alternative reading which is that when enough states prepare for war against each other for long enough, such a war is ultimately more likely to happen.
My bigger concern is not that the UK is not ready to engage in a defensive conventional war against largely imagined enemies; it is that the UK is far too ready to engage in offensive wars, and too unwilling to engage in sensible disarmament processes.  

Wednesday 21 September 2016

Big boats for rich people

It has seemed from the outset that many of those arguing for Brexit were harking back to what they see as the ‘good old days’; a time when Britannia ruled the waves, natives elsewhere were suitably deferential, and if all else failed, then a gunboat or two could be deployed. 
But it’s hard to think of a better example of that sort of thinking than this story about those who are seeking, in a very literal sense, to get Britannia back on the waves.  The call for the UK to either recommission the royal yacht, or else commission a new one, has it all.  Symbolism of global Britain and a good dose of nostalgia; these are key elements of the Brexit mindset.  The USP for this little proposal is clear – ‘do business with us: we can’t offer you access to the single market, but we can offer you a chance to sign the contract on a very big yacht and maybe even meet one of our royals’.  That obviously trumps the mere economics of any deal, doesn’t it?
It will be costly, but not to worry; one of the instigators of the scheme doesn’t want the taxpayer to fund it, oh no.  Instead, an appeal will be launched for donations from across the Commonwealth (another throwback to the imperial past) from people who will be only too happy to contribute large sums to provide a new boat for one of the UK’s richest families.  Can’t you just feel the genuflection oozing through the population as we all joyously contribute our few penn’orth as well?
These people really do dwell in the past, a place which has rightly been called ‘another country’.  They can happily spout the utterly meaningless phrase that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ without understanding the rather more meaningful statement that ‘the past is in the past’.

Tuesday 20 September 2016

When only one answer is permissible

Not for the first time, I’m struggling to make any sort of sense out of a statement by the First Minister on Brexit.  What seems indisputable is that he has said all of the following:
a.    all four of the UK's parliaments and assemblies should have to "agree to any deal the UK government comes to"
b.    he could not "envisage consent being given by Wales" [without access to the single market]
c.    he "never called for a veto" [for the Assembly]
Whilst all three of these statements make some sort of sense individually, when put together they are self-evidently contradictory - unless… 
The one explanation that does make sense is if it were to be a requirement that the Assembly has to agree the deal, but with the condition that the Assembly has no right not to agree it.  It’s just a question of placing the correct interpretation on the words ‘the Assembly should have to agree’; it’s not a pre-condition for the outcome being accepted, it’s a statement of fact about the option being given to the Assembly.  It’s democracy, Henry Ford style: ‘You can vote however you like, as long as you vote the way Westminster tells you to vote’.
The sad thing is that it seems to fit quite well with the Labour Party’s notion of what home rule should look like.

Monday 19 September 2016

Whose Broadcasting Corporation is it really?

In reporting on the proposed new charter for the BBC, the Western Mail chose to lead with the proposal that Wales would be guaranteed a place on the new BBC board.  How nice for Wales – another opportunity for a Welsh voice to participate in discussions before being over-ruled by the majority from England.  (Unless, of course, the chosen representative is carefully selected to be the sort of person who won’t make waves in the first place.)
It’s an obvious attempt to find a ‘safe’ Welsh angle on the news by another organisation not particularly well-known for making waves either.  But I didn’t think that it was the most significant element of the announcement from a Welsh perspective.  For that, we have to go further down the report, until we reach the part where the UK Culture Secretary said that one of the BBC’s “many responsibilities” was to “bring people together” and support “greater cohesion, not least among the nations of the United Kingdom.”
Now the quaint idea that many have that the BBC is somehow an ‘impartial’ reporter of events has never been true; it has always been the tool of the establishment, presenting all news from an establishment viewpoint.  But it seems to me that this is taking that lack of impartiality one stage further; this is giving the BBC an explicit responsibility to act as a tool for one particular outlook, and promote the idea that the nations of the UK are a homogeneous whole.  It says a lot about the self-styled “national newspaper of Wales” that it treats that as almost an addendum to the glorious news about us having a representative who can always be outvoted.
We need a better media than this in Wales; and in the field of broadcasting, the BBC needs to be broken up into an EBC, a WBC, a SBC and a NIBC, each with its own charter decided by the relevant devolved parliament.  And the sooner that happens the better. 

Friday 16 September 2016

The relevance of qualifications

I never realised until yesterday how useful an HGV driving licence could be.  If I’d realised that it qualified the holder to dispute the well-established consensus view of academics and researchers on matters such as climate change, I might have tried to get one.  I had foolishly believed that it dealt only with the finer points of driving a lorry. 
Now that my misconceptions have been so dispelled, I can only support the proposal that one particular holder of such a licence should indeed be given a platform to debate climate science with those who have the temerity to claim to be experts in the field, a claim whose sole basis is many years of study and research.
Any suggestion that I might be looking forward to the prospect of the MP for Monmouth making himself “look silly” as he put it in his own words would be no more than foul calumny.  The only slight problem that I foresee is finding a serious climate scientist willing to pit his knowledge and learning against someone who possesses such an outstandingly relevant qualification as an HGV licence.

Thursday 15 September 2016

Winging it

The report of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee on the intervention in Libya contained a damning indictment of the former Prime Minister, David Cameron according to all the newspaper reports.  In some ways, though, it’s a pity that the investigation and report were limited to the issue of Libya.
At one point, the report said that “…former prime minister David Cameron was ultimately responsible for the failure to develop a coherent Libya strategy”.  It struck me that the sentence would still ring true if the word ‘Libya’ was deleted.  The debacle over Brexit, for instance, was a result of the same tendency – a lack of a coherent strategy and a tendency to fly by the seat of his pants, making it up as he went along.  Overconfidence in one’s own ability to ‘wing it’ is not a sound basis for good government.  In the case of Libya, it probably led to many needless deaths as well.

Tuesday 13 September 2016

What next for Cameron?

After resigning his parliamentary seat yesterday, Cameron said that his continued presence would be a ‘distraction’ from the work of his successor, and appeared to make it clear that he did not want to be in a position of putting an alternative point of view to that of the government.  However, he also said that he wants to continue in public service and campaign on the domestic and international causes that he championed in Downing Street’.  I wonder how he squares that particular circle.
There was another piece of analysis yesterday by the BBC’s Political Editor, looking at how completely May has junked the people and policies of the Cameron era.  We’ve had a complete overturning of the economic policy which Cameron, Osborne, (and, I’m sure, even May) previously told us were essential.  International policy (towards China in particular) looks likely to see significant change.  This week, policy on selective education was reversed.  It seems that the so-called ‘northern powerhouse’ so beloved of the ex-Chancellor is rather less close to the hearts of the new team as well – and all this in just two months.  Who knows what else will change as she really gets stuck in?
The comment ("it IS a new government", one senior Tory told me, "not everyone has understood that yet") reported in the second story seemed quite accurate to me.  We have a new government, working to a new and different set of priorities.  Whilst the changes are not necessarily in the same direction, the difference between a May administration and a Cameron one looks like being as great – perhaps even greater – than the difference that there would have been between a Cameron administration and a Miliband administration had the 2015 election gone the other way.  And all achieved without the bother and hassle of an election.
But back to Cameron: given the extent of the emerging differences, how can he continue to campaign for the same things without ending up in opposition to May’s government?

Monday 12 September 2016

The problem is the way we measure

The UK Government’s proposal to extend the use of selection in the process of allocating spaces in secondary schools doesn’t apply to Wales of course.  I guess that means that it will be classified as an ‘England-only’ measure in the House of Commons meaning that Welsh MPs – including Owen Smith – will not have an input to the decision, no matter how much they huff and puff with indignation.  The Conservatives in Wales and their ideological chums in UKIP will, no doubt, renew their demands that Wales should follow suit, and open selective schools here.
To listen to the opponents in Labour’s ranks, one would think that they are totally opposed to selection in education.  But that simply isn’t true – we have selection now, including here in Wales, but it’s selection based on wealth rather than ability.  Whilst it’s true that there are fewer private schools in Wales than in England, and their role in the education system here has always been more peripheral, they do still exist, and in any event, parents can always send their children over the border to an English school if they wish.  It’s an aspect of the education system which Labour has, at the very least, tolerated for generations, and they still show no sign of wanting to end that selectivity.
Over and above that, sending children to private schools isn’t the only way in which wealth can help secure a ‘better’ education.  Again, this is less common in Wales than in England, but the use of private tutors and the ability to move into the catchment area of the ‘best’ schools are options which are simply not open to all parents.
On the Tory side, whilst the argument that it is better to select on ability than on wealth has a certain ring to it, there’s a lot left unsaid by such a simplistic formulation.  The first and most obvious questions are how we define ‘ability’ - and then how we measure it.  Plus – where is the evidence justifying the choice of 11 as the magic age when children’s ability and potential can definitively be judged?  Even if there were clear evidence that it is even possible to assess the long term academic potential of children from one simple test, given that children develop at different rates, how has the catch-all age of 11 been set as the basis for making a determination?
It strikes me that a lot of those arguing for selection are really pining for the past; a golden age (in their memory at least) when the old certainties held sway.  It was a time when the middle class sheep were largely separated from the working class goats (although a small number of the latter were allowed in as long as they showed the potential to become middle-class sheep in time).  But effectively it wrote off the potential of a lot of children at the age of 11.  Some overcame that with time, but a lot did not.
One of the great failures of the comprehensive system in the UK has been that, for all the well-meaning words, we have still not succeeded in giving equal value to different types of ability and success.  Schools and pupils are judged as being successes or failures overwhelmingly on the basis of exam scores, rather then on the contribution they make to society as a whole.  In that sense, at least, it’s true that comprehensive education has not lived up to its promise - but is that the fault of the approach or of those making judgements on such a narrow basis?

Friday 9 September 2016

Whose debt is it anyway?

I’ve posted on the GERW figures previously, and particularly on the fact that what they show relates only to the position of Wales as a part of the UK, and tells us little about the position in which Wales would find itself as an independent state.  The overall figures necessarily include estimates for some items of expenditure where the actual cost to Wales cannot be separately identified.
One of those is the cost of servicing the national debt.  As part of the UK, Wales is assumed to bear a part of that cost, and the simplest and easiest assumption to make is that the proportion notionally allocated to Wales should be based on the population of Wales as a proportion of the population of the UK, so an assumption is made that around 5% of the cost is attributable to Wales.
That isn’t the only way of doing it, however.  We could assume that it should be done on the basis of share of GDP; given that Wales lags behind the UK average in terms of GDP that would reduce the share attributable to Wales.  We could do it on the basis of share of directly attributable public expenditure – given that identifiable spend per head in Wales is higher, that would increase the share attributable to Wales.
But all of those methods relate to assessing the position of Wales within the UK.  What would be the position of Wales at independence in relation to the national debt of the UK?  Most nationalists – eminently reasonable people – have tended to assume that Wales would take a share, probably on the basis of population.  But again, that isn’t the only option.
If we look at history, we could ask ourselves one simple question – of all of the countries which have over the last 250 years gained independence from the UK or the British Empire, how many of them took on any part of the national debt of the colonial power?  The Thirteen Colonies of the US?  Australia?  India?  Ireland?  I don’t believe that there is a single example of any country gaining its independence which has agreed to take a share of the national debt of the colonial power over and above any debt built up by any pre-existing local administration prior to independence.  And I’m pretty sure that the same applies to the former possessions of Spain, Portugal, France etc., as well as those of the UK.  Indeed, at the time of the Scottish independence referendum, the UK Treasury itself made it clear that it was ultimately responsible for the whole of the UK’s debt.
What actually happens will be the result of negotiation at the time; but perhaps our starting point should be rather lower than many are assuming – only debt actually incurred by the Welsh Government itself.  It would make a significant difference to the economics of independence.  And before anyone claims that that is tantamount to avoiding our obligations, let’s just remind ourselves – who is it that prevents the Welsh Government from borrowing as it sees fit, and therefore constrains the economic development in Wales which would be required to repay debt?

Thursday 8 September 2016

Managing our legacy

Yesterday’s Western Mail contained an outline of the processes involved in decommissioning a nuclear power station.  I can’t find the story online, but it doesn’t really matter – with a few changes of verb tense, it was identical to this story published in the same paper in December last year.  (As I commented yesterday in relation to another issue, I suppose it saves on the cost of journalism.)
The article itself set out the steps which need to be taken to decommission a nuclear power station, in a process which is planned to take a total of 90 years.  In the case of Trawsfynydd, we’re already more than 20 years through the process – only another 70 to go.  In the case of Wylfa, we’re just starting; almost all of the people born this year in Wales will be dead before the job is finished, to put things in a human perspective.
Wylfa 2, if it is ever built, is scheduled to produce electricity for 60 years before its own 90 year decommissioning process starts.  According to the plans, the company which runs the site for those 60 productive years will be paying for the 90 years’ decommissioning process at the end of that.  I doubt it – that’s not the way capitalism works.  The belief that any profit-driven company will put enough money aside over six decades to fund an essentially unknowable cost over the following nine decades strikes me as being akin to believing in fairies.
But worse still is that no-one knows what to do with the waste recovered in the decommissioning process.  As the report to which I linked above puts it: “Meanwhile, everyone is crossing their fingers and hoping that someone will find a safe place to bury it before [the 2040s]”.  Yes, that’s right – it depends on a vague hope that someone will come up with a solution which has eluded us for the past 50 years.
We can’t do much other than hope for a solution in relation to the nuclear stations which were built so optimistically in the 1950s and 1960s.  We’re stuck with the legacy of nuclear waste bequeathed to us by those who took the decisions at the time.  We can do something, though, about the legacy that we leave to our great, great, great, great, great grandchildren in relation to Wylfa B.  We could resolve not to leave them the same legacy that was left to us, by not building the plant in the first place.

Wednesday 7 September 2016

Don't just do the math

There was a story in yesterday’s Western Mail about the introduction by Flybe of ‘rescue flights’ between Cardiff and London City airport to cover the period of closure of the Severn Tunnel.  Full marks for good PR – it’s almost identical to the same story covered by the same newspaper just over five months earlier.  Still, in these hard times, I suppose it saves on the cost of journalism.
Talking of savings brings me to the point that I wanted to make.  According to the newspaper report, passengers could save “approximately two hours from their working day”.  With my usual fascination with figures, I inevitably found myself wondering about that one.  I suppose that it might be true if you take a Cardiff-centric view and compare the journey time of someone who is boarding a plane at the airport with that of someone boarding a train at Cardiff Central, but that simple comparison hides a lot of detail. 
What about the time getting to the airport compared with the time getting to the station?  The train doesn’t just call at Cardiff – it also calls at Swansea, Neath, Port Talbot, Bridgend, and Newport.  For most potential travellers across South Wales, I reckon that the time spent getting to and from Cardiff Airport will be greater than the time spent getting to their nearest station, and that immediately starts eating into the average saving.  And it’s a journey which will, almost inevitably, be made by car rather than by public transport.
And what about check-in time at the airport?  That means that travellers need to be at the airport longer in advance of departure time than would be the case at a railway station.  The report suggests that there would be a special ‘fast-track’ for passengers on these flights, which might reduce that time, although not eliminate it.  But hold on a moment – if some passengers are ‘fast-tracked’ with no overall increase in resources (and none is proposed as far as I can see), then others will end up being ‘slow-tracked’ to compensate.  The total time saving for one privileged group of passengers is surely balanced out by a total time increase for everyone else.
And then there is the question of how the travel time is used.  Whether on plane or train, business people usually claim to be ‘working’ (although in my experience, that’s rather easier on a train than on a plane), so any time ‘saved’ merely means they’re going to be doing the same amount of work (and spending the same amount of time on it) elsewhere doesn’t it?  (Or perhaps we should be rather less willing to believe the line about ‘working’ whilst in transit.)
But even supposing for a moment that the headline figure is true, and that the average person will save two hours by using these flights, how ‘true’ is the conclusion that Welsh businesses will save up to 800 working weeks?  The mathematics is simple enough; take the basic figures and do the multiplications.  But this is about more than mathematics; it’s also about current day working culture and practices.
Take the phenomenon of ‘presenteeism’.  If a business traveller ‘saves’ two hours off his journey, does he actually get two hours less pay, or spend two hours less ‘working’ on that day?  I very much doubt it; it’s simply not done to go home early or to stop checking those all-important e-mails just because you’re no longer ‘in the office’.  The working day is likely to be just as long, just spent in a different fashion.
And businesses actually ‘save’ not a penny from shorter journey times, because they aren’t paying for the extra time anyway – the general expectation these days is that the staff concerned do the job, not that they spend a particular number of hours doing it.  Apparent ‘savings’ from shorter travel times may be the valid result of strict arithmetic, but they’re non-existent in the real world.
It might not matter at all in this case, but it does in others.  Similarly spurious ‘savings’ are after all the main basis of the case for building the M4 relief road, a project which is going to cost us all a great deal of money.  We shouldn’t be blinded by the apparent accuracy of mathematical processes – we need to challenge the underlying assumptions more thoroughly.

Tuesday 6 September 2016

All the time in the world?

The way many politicians talk about Brexit, one could be forgiven for thinking that the process is clearly-defined and straightforward: the government invokes Article 50, and there is then a two year period of negotiations in which all the details are finalised.  But that’s a hopeless oversimplification.  The two year period is entirely arbitrary; it was included in the clause not because anyone had sat down and worked out how long it would take, but because they needed to include a time frame of some sort, and two years ‘felt’ about right.  And I suspect that they didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it either; after all, they never anticipated that anyone would actually be so silly as to trigger Article 50.
The surprising thing is not that some people are now actually questioning whether two years will be long enough; it is that so many are failing to question it, and are assuming that there is some science and thought behind the timetable. 
There are other options, of course.  Some of the Brexiters (especially those who were never really concerned about the economic consequences of the decision because their opposition to the EU is, and always was, ideological) are starting to feel concerned that attempts might be made to subvert the referendum result, and are thus arguing for a ‘hard’ exit.  Under this scenario, the UK could simply repeal the Act which authorised membership in the first place, withdraw from all the institutions, and sort out the consequences afterwards.  It would lead to a degree of chaos in the short term, but for those so-minded, that would be a price worth paying.  And from their perspective, it would, in any case, be a price paid by someone else – i.e. the population at large.
I don’t know how long the actual formal process will take.  There was a report last week that one academic was predicting that the process will take so long and be so complex that it will never actually happen.  I think he’s wrong in principle; any structures put together by humans can always be torn apart by them as well and no structures last for ever.  I suspect, though, that he may be right in saying that the sort of ‘soft’ exit which the government is seeking may be a more elusive goal than they are currently assuming, and may take longer to bring about. 
There is no particular reason for the UK to require a short timescale other than to satisfy the more rabid isolationists; from a more rational perspective, it’s in all our interests to ensure that, if it is really going to happen, it happens in the best and most controlled way possible.  What is more likely is that the other 27 members will want it sorted quickly.  From their perspective, they are facing a two year period in which a lot of time and energy will be focussed on the needs of one member who wants out, when most of them would prefer to be spending that time and energy on moving the institutions forward to meet the needs of those who want to stay. 
On that basis, those who are assuming that they can have as much time as they need may turn out to be as mistaken as those who think it can be done sensibly overnight, because both are making one common assumption – that the UK holds the cards and can set the timetable as well as the terms.  It’s another variation on the idea that the UK is special and unique – but a rude awakening is the likelier prospect.  And with any luck, that rude awakening will come sooner rather than later.

Monday 5 September 2016

That wasn't what we meant...

I’m not one of those who would argue that referendums are alien to the UK constitution and should therefore be avoided.  Apart from any other consideration, such arguments are usually based ultimately in the fiction that sovereignty is the exclusive property of the god-anointed monarch who graciously agrees to share part of it with parliament; a fiction which those of us of a more republican bent naturally and instinctively reject.  If sovereignty resides with the people rather than with the monarch, then referendums are one way of allowing the people to express that sovereignty.
That doesn’t mean that referendums are problem-free though.  One of the more obvious problems is that they have to reduce everything to a single, simple question.  In the case of the EU, that simple question was whether we wanted to be in or out.  The basis on which people came to a conclusion about that simple question was then down to each individual, and there’s no doubt in my mind that different people had very different rationales for the decisions that they individually took.
Clearly, the whole question of immigration was a major part of the thinking of many people who chose to believe that the EU was in some way the cause of immigration and that exit would mean an end to immigration.  That was always over-simplistic, but it was a belief that was encouraged by many on the ‘leave’ side.  In some cases, that was because they themselves wanted to stop immigration, but I’m sure that I’m not alone in suspecting that in some cases, they knew full well that Brexit in itself wasn’t going to make a huge difference to the levels of immigration; and maybe didn’t really care that much about the subject anyway.  They were simply, and very cynically, playing the cards that they thought would help them win.
The Prime Minister’s rejection of a points-based system for immigration today has caused some consternation amongst those who mistakenly thought that that is what they were voting for.  Farage has gone so far as to declare that “The people were clear in wanting a points-based immigration system which is why so many went out and voted to leave the European Union”.  Perhaps he really does think that is what people were voting for, but there was no mention of a points-based immigration system on the ballot paper – or indeed of immigration at all.  He is confusing two different things here – the first is what people actually voted for, and the second is the reasons why they voted as they did.  The ballot paper only measured the first of those; in a referendum, the second is irrelevant.
In simple terms, the ‘leave’ side made all sorts of promises which they were never in a position to make, because they could never keep them.  Election manifestos are bad enough; parties make all sorts of promises which they never keep – and perhaps sometimes never intend to.  But in a referendum, there is no manifesto, no package of measures, simply a straight yes or no to one individual question.  That is a major weakness of a system of decision-making based on referendums.
It’s not necessarily an argument against holding referendums, or against being bound by the results – and in the case of the EU referendum, it’s too late to put those arguments anyway.  The best that we can hope for in the specific case is that, as the truth about the detail comes out, there will be a sufficiently significant shift of opinion to justify revisiting the question.  It is, though, an argument for thinking very carefully about what issues should be subject to a referendum and when such a referendum should be held.  It’s not an easy question to answer – too soon in any process, and the subject matter is too ill-defined for the campaigns to be able to be adequately rooted in fact; too late, and people will feel that the deal is already done and dusted and they’re just being asked to rubber stamp it.
My own preference is for a two-stage process on issues such as the EU (and I’d argue the same in the case of independence referendums): an early vote on the principle, and a final vote on the detail.  It means asking people to consider and vote on the same issue twice, but if we’re going to use the more direct approach to democracy which referendums represent, it is surely preferable that the final decision is an informed one.  It wouldn’t stop people from voting on the basis of irrelevant or peripheral considerations, of course; but it might make it clearer what they are actually voting on and deter spurious claims after the event that “that wasn’t what we voted for”.

Friday 2 September 2016

Crossing a line

I’ve never been a fan of the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance, and I don’t understand why the media give them so much attention.  They are a self-appointed group who have decided that taxpayers’ interests are best served by opposing any and every item of government expenditure, rather than taking a balanced view about the costs relative to the benefits.
Their figures usually come from the submission of Freedom of Information requests; in this case, it was based on one submitted by a Conservative AM, whose party generally seems to share the Alliance’s ideological opposition to government expenditure of any kind.  Once they have their numbers, they then spin them into a press release which the media dutifully report, usually verbatim, as part of their daily onslaught against any type of public service in pursuit of their ideological aim of eliminating most government expenditure.
In today’s piece, they have excelled themselves.  Of course, any expenses paid to public servants need to be scrutinised (whatever Paul Flynn may say), but that is no different from the position in any private enterprise.  In the course of doing their jobs, some staff will need to travel, and there are costs associated with that.  Given the size of the undertaking, an annual expenditure of around £250,000 by the Welsh Government on staff travelling costs doesn’t immediately strike me as being excessive in total.
I certainly don’t believe that it justified the claim that these expenses are being racked up by “… a very small group of individuals intent on bleeding the public purse dry”.  I thought that was a pretty offensive statement to be making; the spokesman seems to have been carried away by his own oratory.  I’m not convinced that the slew of stories which appears regularly based on FoI requests actually adds anything to political debate; in this case, it’s just a bit of nastiness directed at people trying to do their jobs.

Thursday 1 September 2016

Pennies and buns

In any negotiation process, it is entirely normal for both sides to start out by demanding more than they expect to get, so that there is some scope for meeting in the middle after a suitably robust exchange of views.  So, in principle at least, we should not be surprised if the UK Government goes into the Brexit negotiations asking for rather more than it actually expects to get, just as the rest of Europe will start out offering less than it expects to concede eventually.
It’s also normal, though, for both sides to present at least an impression that what they are asking for is realistic and reasonable.  In this case, the UK Government seems to be starting out by asking for all the advantages of membership of the European Union, but none of the perceived disadvantages or costs – in short, to get a better deal as a non-member than is available to any of the members.  And they seem to be genuinely convinced that they’re going to get that.
It could be, of course, that they’re just extremely good actors; that they know deep down that they haven’t a hope of getting what they say they’re going to get; and that their confidence is all a front, or a negotiating ploy.  It would be almost comforting to believe that.  The problem is that when I watch them and listen to them, I think most of them really do believe that the UK is so special, so important, so unique, and so valuable that the other EU members will see it as being in their interest to give them what they want. 
The Brexit negotiations are important; the outcome will affect all of us for many years to come.  But our future is being left dependent on the delusions of people who still haven’t come to terms with the idea that Britannia doesn’t actually rule the waves, and hasn’t done so for a very long time.