Wednesday 28 December 2016

Honesty isn't just avoiding lies

Just a few days ago, Dafydd Elis Thomas said that the deal between Plaid and UKIP to vote for Leanne Wood to become First Minister triggered his departure from Plaid.  At the time of that vote, Plaid denied that there had been any such deal, and even last week – in direct response to what Dafydd said – a Plaid spokesperson claimed that “Leanne Wood has made no approach to UKIP at any stage…”.  Then, yesterday, we had the story in the Western Mail based on an interview with Adam Price in which Adam stated very clearly that he had approached UKIP to ask for their support, which was forthcoming.
‘Truth’ in politics can be an elusive beast, and it is, just about, possible to argue that no-one has told any lies here.  There’s nothing directly inconsistent between the statement that Leanne Wood made no approach and the admission that Adam Price did; and if one defines a ‘deal’ as being something of a reciprocal nature, then if UKIP and the Tories were offered nothing in return for their votes, it’s possible to argue that there was no deal done.
However…  There’s more to honesty than merely avoiding telling lies, and to date, Plaid have striven to give the impression that the decisions by UKIP and the Tories to support Plaid’s nominee in that vote were taken independently and were not the result of any request for support from Plaid.  That impression has now been revealed to be at some distance from the truth.
Does it matter?  Well yes, it does matter to some of us at least if a party which claims honesty and transparency as virtues is revealed to be behaving in a fashion which is at odds with that claim; and it matters if that party then wants us to trust it on other issues.  It’s arguable, though, that this is just froth, and there’s a deeper issue here.
It is a fact of life that, in a legislative body where one party or group holds half the seats and the other half are split between three parties or groups, effective scrutiny will be improved if those opposition parties are willing to talk to each other from time to time, and – yes, even agree on tactics on occasions.  That doesn’t mean adopting common policy positions on what should be done, but it doesn’t preclude united opposition on things which all of them oppose.  It’s a negative approach to a government programme, but on an exceptional basis, there’s nothing wrong with the opposition uniting in that way.
The real problem that this highlights for me is that all of those concerned understand this reality but all are determined, for presentational reasons, to deny it, not least because all of them have, at different times, played the silly game of “he voted with her”.  And they play that game because they believe that we will swallow it.  So in a sense, it’s all the fault of the voters… 

Thursday 22 December 2016

Looking to the future

What ‘independence’ actually means in practice varies over time; as the context changes, so the meaning changes.  Prior to the UK joining the then EEC, it was obvious what independence meant – it was that status enjoyed by the majority of European countries outside the Soviet bloc.  As the now EU expanded over time, to reach a point where it now encompasses almost all European countries, the meaning of ‘independence’ changed to reflect the new context.  It was, though, still equivalent to the status enjoyed by the majority of European states; it was simply that that status had changed. 
The question facing those of us who seek independence for Wales in the future is this: what does ‘independence’ mean in the new context which we will be facing?  And the prior question is: what is that new context?  There are three broad possibilities.
1.    It may just be wishful thinking on my part, but I’m not yet entirely convinced that Brexit will actually happen.  The more detail that we see and the more complexities there seem to be in extricating the UK from the EU, the more it seems to be at least possible that a movement to reverse the decision will succeed. 
2.    On the other hand, Brexit as currently foreseen may indeed happen, leaving the UK in a stronger/weaker (depending on perspective and events) position in the world, whilst the remaining 27 – joined in time by a few other countries such as the remaining Balkan states – continue the project on which they’ve set themselves. 
3.    There is another extreme of course (although this currently seems less likely to me) - it is not impossible that the mood for change will sweep across Europe and the EU will either collapse or else morph into something a great deal less coherent.  In the very worst case, Europe could even return to its ‘default’ long term condition of being a series of warring states.
Those are three very different scenarios, and for those of us who want to see an independent Wales, they lead to very different understandings of what ‘independence’ means.
We could have an interesting debate as to whether membership of the EU is truly ‘independence’ at all; inevitably membership of such an organisation implies a pooling of sovereignty in some areas.  But we could equally debate whether any country is truly independent any more, because in various ways we are all interdependent, and all countries share sovereignty in some areas to a greater or lesser extent.  In terms of considering the options for Wales looking forward, I start from the position of accepting that EU member state is the de facto definition of what ‘independence’ means in the modern European context.  So, in the ‘wishful thinking’ scenario referred to above, the definition of independence for Wales remains clear and it looks as though Scotland and/or Catalunya will show us the route by which we might achieve it.
In what I hope is the least likely scenario (a return to nation states with or without a looser form of association) the definition of independence for Wales looks very similar to that we used to use prior to membership of the EU.  And the route to achieving it is, if anything, clearer; secession from the UK more or less automatically results in that status.  And it would be the normal status of most European countries, so Wales would not be particularly exceptional.
The hardest scenario to deal with is the one which currently appears most likely.  What does independence look like for a Wales which finds itself outside the EU in an isolationist UK?  And will Scotland still be part of that isolationist UK?
The big difference between Scotland and Wales here is over timing; given the political situation in Scotland, it is at least conceivable that independence could occur on a timescale which means that Scotland never leaves the EU at all. 
(Of course there is debate, both legal and political, around the ease with which Scotland could achieve EU membership, but I tend to the view that, in the circumstances, the 27 remaining members of the EU would tend to adopt a pragmatic response to a country where all EU legislation and rules already apply.  The point about an unprecedented situation is that there is no precedent; and in the absence of precedent – as for instance in the case of the reunification of Germany – the EU tends to find a way forward which advances its core rationale of European unity.)
The position for Wales is different.  I see Wales as being at least a decade – and probably two – behind Scotland as things stand.  If Wales opts for independence at some future date, it will come after a period outside the EU during which the UK Parliament, led by jingoistic Little Englanders, will probably have rolled back much of EU legislation on employment rights and environmental protection etc.  The economy of Wales – already more integrated with that of England than is the case in Scotland, say – would have become even more integrated with that of England (especially if, as seems likely, the great new free trade area which we’ve been promised is limited to the UK itself in the early years). 
Where in Europe are there any exemplars for the position in which a Wales achieving independence would find itself in this scenario?  I simply don’t see any.  The position of a stand-alone Wales outside both the EU and the UK doesn’t look an attractive option to me, and the path to EU membership looks a great deal more difficult than it would be if we were to choose independence at the point of Brexit.  I’m very pessimistic about the future for Wales in that scenario; final and complete integration as a region of England looks by far the likeliest outcome.  I’ve argued before that the vote about UK membership of the EU was ultimately a political decision for me not an economic one – fear for the future of Wales in an isolationist EnglandandWales was a prime driver.
It concerns me that so many nationalists in Wales seem happy to ‘accept the result’ and talk only about the terms of Brexit rather than about how we seek to reverse it.  I fear that they are giving primacy to the short term economics, not the longer term politics; nationalists should always be looking to the long term.  Of course it’s true that a so-called ‘soft’ Brexit will do less immediate damage to the Welsh economy, and of course it’s true that a strong Welsh economy will theoretically make independence easier.  But Brexit, of any description, creates a new context, and redefines what independence means.  I think it makes it very much harder to achieve, not least because it becomes much less attractive as an option.
I was a late convert to support for EU membership, driven largely (as I’ve noted before) by the fact that as it has expanded it has effectively become the only game in town.  It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s the best – possibly the only – context in which Welsh ‘independence’ makes sense in the twenty-first century.  It seems to me that for nationalists to accept the principle of Brexit is to make a major mistake – and possibly a terminal one for the cause of Wales.

Wednesday 21 December 2016

Concentrating power

The newspapers and their Tory friends have been milking the planned series of strikes over the next week for all they’re worth.  “Ruining Christmas” seems to be the more-or-less ‘official’ tabloid description; although I’m sure they’d have found a similarly pertinent title at any other time of the year.
I don’t doubt that the strikes will inconvenience many, and I’m equally sure that if I were depending on Southern Rail to get to work, or on BA to fly away for some Christmas sun, I’d be pretty unhappy about it too.  Unhappiness, and playing on people’s anger, sells newspapers.  To make the issue more complex, I’m not sure that I have a huge amount of sympathy with the grievances of the staff taking strike action in every case either; the issue of driver-only train operation, for instance, seems to have been resolved elsewhere, and I’m finding it hard to understand why what’s acceptable sometimes isn’t more generally acceptable.
But there’s an underlying issue here which isn’t really about the validity or otherwise of a particular grievance, it’s about where power lies and what rights working people have to pursue a dispute with their employer.  To listen to some of the Tories talking, they ‘accept’ the right of people to withdraw their labour, just so long as it causes no inconvenience to the employers or customers; the moment it does, it becomes a case of trade unions abusing their power.  And that in turn leads to demands to ban ever-increasing sections of the working population from ever going on strike.  But a right to withdraw labour only so long as it inconveniences no one doesn’t look like a particularly useful right to me – the whole point of any industrial action is to put pressure on the employer.  Striking, or threatening to strike, is effectively the only power that workers have.
What concerns me even more is the way in which people are being swept along with this attitude.  Finding angry commuters to interview is easy enough, but it’s no substitute for a consideration of the power politics underlying the question.  Ultimately, the Tories and their media friends are seeking to make the power balance between workers and employers even more one-sided than it is at present, and the presentation of the issue is effectively aligning workers in other industries and sectors with the employers.  Every time those workers who depend on the trains to get to work criticise the strikers, and demand that they don’t strike, they are effectively telling them that they must accept whatever the employers say and forgo any right to oppose it.
In an increasingly interconnected economy, the failure of services on which so many depend – whether because of a strike or for any other reason – is something which we would all prefer to avoid, naturally.  But the jump from there to handing all power to employers and telling employees that they must accept whatever is imposed on them is far too simplistic a response.  In recent decades, under Tory and Labour governments alike, the balance of power has swung very much away from employees, and those who wield the power are seeking to continue that process. 
I understand the argument that strikes should be a last resort, and that not all strikes will appear to have merit to everyone, but who should decide on the merits or otherwise of a particular dispute?  It’s a question which we can debate ad infinitum, and one on which our opinions will tend to depend in large measure on the impact any particular dispute has on us as individuals.  But the solution is surely a bit more complex than simply taking away employee rights and giving all power to employers.  I hope that ACAS will be able to help resolve the current disputes – that’s the best outcome for all concerned.  The alternative (and apparently popular) suggestion of further eroding the position of working people, and further accumulating power in the hands of the employers, doesn’t look to me to be in the long term interest of all those angry people being so willingly interviewed by the media, however much it might appear to be in their short term interest at a point in time.

Tuesday 20 December 2016

Going beyond the evidence

Saturday’s Western Mail published the results of an opinion poll on the EU, which indicated that the majority in Wales regard access to the single market as being more important than control of migration.  I don’t know whether there were additional results in the polling which have not been published, but given the figures in this report, it would have been interesting to see how they correlated with the way people voted in June.
In the form in which the report appeared, other members of the EU could be forgiven for asking “If the most important thing to you is access to the single market, why on earth did you vote to leave?”, because at first sight, it certainly seems as though people are asking for the sort of access which membership currently gives us.  And if only 30% think that ending freedom of movement within the EU is more important, it suggests that, while immigration is clearly a strong factor, it is not enough in itself to explain the June result.
Part of the problem, of course, is that people were told (and are still being told) over and over again that these are not alternatives; the UK can have both.  I’m not alone in believing that to be the stuff of fantasy, but in presenting them as alternatives the poll doesn’t help us to understand how many people still believe that.  Ranking them in terms of their relative importance doesn’t actually tell us that concern about immigration has receded, merely that the possible economic impact of the decision people took is becoming more real. 
I don’t doubt that the question of immigration was a major factor in the way people voted in June, but we need to keep reminding ourselves that “Do you want to stop migration from other EU countries?” was not the question on the ballot papers.  In claiming that the vote was actually a mandate for ending or reducing migration from the EU, to such an extent that it must take primacy in negotiations, the government are going beyond the facts, and basing their policy on surmise.
Let’s look at some numbers.  The vote to leave was won by a margin of 52-48%.  It’s probably reasonable to assume that, for the 48% who voted to remain, there was an implicit willingness (not necessarily the same thing as enthusiasm, of course) to continue with existing rules on freedom of movement.  But how realistic is to make the converse assumption about the 52% who voted to leave?  Is it accurate to say that all of them wanted an end to freedom of movement?  I don’t think it is; migration may have been a dominating factor for a large number, but there were also significant numbers who wanted to leave for entirely different reasons. 
What that means, in mathematical terms, is that even if as many as 95% of that 52% thought immigration was the main factor, that would still leave only a minority of those who voted wanting to put an end to freedom of movement at the top of the list.  And whilst I accept that great play was made of immigration, I simply don’t believe that it was the main driver for such a large percentage of leave voters.  I accept that it’s as dangerous for me to assume that I know the minds of that 52% as it is for the government to do so, but I can at least point to some evidence for my belief.  The day after the poll, Lord Ashcroft released some poll findings which suggested that this was actually the second most important reason mentioned by leave voters, and that 33% of leave voters made it their most important factor.
Now a little bit of simple arithmetic (33% of 52%) tells us that that means that around 17% of all of those who voted did so first and foremost because they wanted an end to freedom of movement.  By making the demands of that 17% an absolute red line in negotiations, the UK Government is not only ignoring the views of the majority of the voting population, it is also ignoring the views of the majority who voted to leave.  And they’re claiming that this is democracy.
That’s an over-simplistic analysis, of course.  There will have been some who put migration high up their list as a second or third factor; and there will even be some of the remain voters who have some concern over migration.  My point, basically, is that none of us can actually be certain about any of this, because it wasn’t the question that people were asked.  It underlines the problem with holding a referendum on a complex matter without detail on the consequences (as compared, for instance with the post-legislative referendums on devolution), but it underlines even more the dangers of governments choosing to interpret the results in ways which match their own preconceptions and prejudices.
Pointing out, repeatedly, that they’re going beyond the data that they have isn’t the same thing as whinging about a result that we don’t like (whatever they may say), particularly when the result of going beyond that data is likely to have a serious impact on the future of all of us in the short to medium term.

Monday 19 December 2016

Forward to the past

There’s nothing new about the Tories’ commitment to ‘British values’, or about them trying to find new and interesting ways of ‘enforcing’ them, but I’m as vague as ever about what these values really are.  Or rather, what I’m unclear about is what makes them specifically British. 
There’s nothing wrong with valuing tolerance, democracy, freedom of speech, and the rule of law, but these values seem to me to be shared with many other countries.  The only thing uniquely British that I can see about them is the uniquely British belief that they are uniquely British.  It’s a reflection of that casual superiority which the (largely English, in this context) establishment possesses without seeming even to realise the fact – Johnny Foreigner and those upstart colonials may profess to value the same things, but they are either aping ‘us’ or else completely insincere.
My first reaction to the latest pronouncement by Sajid Javid, that he wants all civil servants and elected officials (and perhaps all BBC staff and other public sector workers as well) to swear an oath of allegiance to this set of values was that there was actually something profoundly un-British about it.  Oaths are all very well for Americans, and perhaps some of those European chappies, but they’re not the sort of thing ‘we’ do. 
But then I thought about it a bit more, and realised that it’s actually very British – just not in the twentieth or twenty-first century.  But in the past – which is where most of the current government seem determined to reside – it was very much the norm.  And for Cabinet Ministers, who seem to think that kneeling and kissing the hand of some unelected woman whilst swearing undying allegiance to her and her heirs rather than the electors is an entirely normal thing for grown-ups to do, it is not as strange as it otherwise appears.  (And that’s without even mentioning that many in the establishment engage in the strange rites of freemasonry as well.)
But what is perhaps most ‘British’ about it all is the touching belief that having sworn such an oath, people will then abide by it.  Because that’s what we do, right?  I mean, no 'decent chap' would ever swear an oath to get a job and then proceed to challenge those who have a divine right to rule, would he?
My real objection to this sort of approach is that it seems to be increasingly the case that ‘tolerance’ is limited to tolerance of orthodoxy, and ‘freedom of speech’ is limited to freedom to agree with the government.  Faced with an uncertain future (and having themselves contributed greatly to that uncertainty), their only response seems to be to attempt to return to the certainties of the past.  I suppose it’s a possible response, but it belies their oft-stated confidence about a great new future for Britain post-Brexit.  If the only future is the distant past, then perhaps Private Frazer was right after all in his assessment of the capability of those in leadership positions - and we really are all doomed.

Thursday 15 December 2016

Spain's opposition to Independence is not a given

A few days ago, Gwynoro Jones published on his blog the text of a speech by Lord Owen at Cardiff University.  It’s rather lengthy, I fear, but in essence he argues that we need to establish a mechanism for moving to a federal structure for the UK.  He’s not alone in seeing that as the way forward, and I suspect that a number of nationalists in Wales, and perhaps even in Scotland, would be content, ultimately, with a truly federal structure.
The devil, though, is in the detail, and particularly, what to do about England.  Whilst England isn’t as homogeneous as some think, neither is regional identity developed to the point where splitting it into regions is a realistic proposition.  And even if it were so split, the English regions collectively would still have a strong common identity, and amount to 85% of the population of the federation, and thus hold overwhelming sway at federal level.
However, my purpose here isn’t really to discuss federalism, but to deal with one of the assertions made by Owen in rejecting other potential alternative futures.  He says, very bluntly, “The option of separate EU membership for Scotland or for Wales does not exist”.  Now, of course, it’s much easier to convince nationalists that the only way forward is federalism if you can simply take the other alternative, of independence within the EU, off the table, so I can understand why he would want to do so.  But his argument leading up to that assertion is, at the very least, open to challenge.
It is based on the assumption that other EU countries – and most especially Spain – will veto any attempt by secessionist states to seek independent entry to the EU for fear of creating a precedent which will merely encourage Catalan nationalists.  Actually, I don’t doubt that both the party currently governing the Spanish central government and the main opposition party would very much prefer that Scotland (or Wales, for that matter) did not become an independent state – it would make things less difficult for them.  However, at present, it’s an open question as to whether Scotland will establish a precedent for Catalunya or whether Catalunya will establish a precedent for Scotland; it’s hard to judge what the pace of events will be in both countries.
Let us assume, however, as Lord Owen seems to, that Scotland win that particular race to independence; how certain is it that Spain would then veto any proposal for enlargement of the EU to include Scotland (I’m leaving open the question of timing, and thus whether than enlargement is internal or external)?  The answer is far from certain – nowhere near as certain as opponents of independence like to assume.
Wee Ginger Dug highlighted a quote from the Spanish foreign minister (a source who might be supposed to know a little more about Spain’s position than Lord Owen) three years ago, prior to the Independence referendum, which read:
“Lo importante es que el derecho a decidir o cualquier otro derecho debe entenderse siempre en el marco de la Constitución y las leyes.”
“The important thing is that the right to decide or any other right ought always to be understood within the framework of the constitution and the laws.”
And actually, that’s entirely consistent with their position on Catalunya, which is a legalistic one as much as a political one.  Under the Spanish constitution, Catalunya simply has no right to seek independence unless the parliament for the whole of Spain first agrees to change the constitution.  It’s a bit like England having a veto over Scottish independence, but given the difference in the constitutions of the two countries, the implication is that Spain would ultimately accept an independent Scotland if it came about by a process which the UK recognised as being lawful.
The same minister has also said, more recently, “I may be wrong, but within four or five years England will return to the frontiers that it had in the sixteenth century.”  Hardly the words of a man who’s expecting to exercise a veto over what Scotland wants to do.  He is, of course, only one man.  As of last month, he’s no longer the Foreign Minister, and it’s possible that even when he was, he spoke for the Government’s policy in the same way that Boris Johnson speaks for the UK Government’s policy.  But whilst I can find a lot of bluster and reticence from other figures in the Spanish Government, I can find no clear statement saying that they would veto Scottish membership of the EU.
But then, I wouldn’t expect to, particularly post-Brexit.  One particular failing of the UK establishment, on which I’ve commented before, is its understanding of the importance of the European project to the other 27 members.  For the 27, it is a political project as much as, if not more than an economic one, not simply the free trade area assumed by UK politicians.  And from that perspective, it’s much more likely that they’d welcome Scotland than reject it.  It’s just that expecting them to say that in advance is unrealistic.
I could be completely wrong, of course; and Lord Owen could turn out to be right.  The point is that we simply don’t know, and can’t know, with any certainty, what the reaction to an independent Scotland would be before it happens.  They key thing here is that, precisely because we cannot know, assuming that the answer will be the one we want is a wholly inadequate way of dismissing that which we don’t want.
It’s easier for Lord Owen to dismiss independence within the EU ‘because Spain won’t allow it’ than it is to enter into debate about the merits of the case; but it’s not a robust argument.

Wednesday 14 December 2016

How badly do we want to change?

George Osborne’s speech in parliament yesterday has been widely reported.  And in saying that the UK should have done more to prevent the unfolding tragedy in Aleppo, I’m sure that he’ll have struck a chord with many.  He’s far from being alone in feeling frustration at what has been happening over the months and years, as well as anger and sorrow over the loss of life.
I’m not sure though that he’s offered much of an alternative.  As I understand what he’s saying, it is that lives are being lost as a result of the bombing and fighting now because the UK decided not to bomb the other side three years ago.  Now it is, of course, possible that the total number of people killed might have been lower had the UK decided to start bombing Assad’s forces (although it’s not certain – it could, on the other hand, have led to a more direct clash between Russia and the west, with even more far-reaching consequences). 
It’s certainly true that it would have been different people being killed.  However, the argument that fewer people would have been killed in total if only we’d killed different people earlier isn’t one which is going to convince any of those of us who were opposed to UK military intervention.  It’s akin to comparing two piles of bodies, and deciding that what’s ‘right’ is whatever produces the smaller pile; it reduces casualties to numbers rather than seeing them as people.
But I’m equally uncomfortable with the idea that the rest of the world should, in situations like this, stand aside and let events take their course until one side or the other emerges ‘victorious’ over the piles of rubble and human bodies.  I wish that those of us who reject the simplistic proposition of military intervention from outside could propose an equally simplistic solution which did not involve inflicting more death and destruction on a country.  The immediate problem is that there are no easy, simple, short term solutions; peace is an elusive thing which needs a great deal of human endeavour to bring about.  The bigger problem is that current international agreements and institutions barely scratch the surface of what is required. 
There are places we could start, however.  Controlling and reducing the trading and manufacture of armaments would be one good step to take; rejecting the concept of unilateral intervention in the affairs of another country would be another.  Both of those require a strengthening of international institutions, particularly the UN.  But all of those things are tackling the symptoms rather than the underlying causes, which are about power, and control of resources, and the real, or merely perceived, differences between the earth’s tribes. 
In an age where there seems to be an increasing tendency to split humanity into ‘us’ and ‘them’ rather than building an understanding that we have a shared existence on one small and fragile planet, I’m pessimistic for the future.  On this issue, as on so many others, it seems that most of humanity is currently determined to advance its own interests at the expense of those of others.  I still believe that things can be different; but presently, there just aren’t enough of us who want them to be.

Tuesday 13 December 2016

Welcoming the robots

Last week, the Governor of the Bank of England issued a pretty dire warning about the potential impact of automation.  It could, he said, cost up to 15 million jobs over time.  And he isn’t just talking about monotonous repetitive jobs like widget-making either; even skilled knowledge-based jobs are at risk as the technology gets ever cleverer.  I suspect that he’s being over-optimistic; the speed at which technology is advancing is hard for many to take in, and could lead to many more job losses than that.  As one small example, just a few years ago, the idea that vehicles would be able to drive themselves seemed like the stuff of science fiction, but in the near future we will probably be wondering why we ever allowed error-prone humans to control something as dangerous as a vehicle in the first place.
From the point of view of individual companies, the attractions of automation are obvious – uncomplaining machines turning out prodigious numbers of widgets 24 hours a day 365 days of the year has to be better than dealing with people with all their foibles.  But I wonder if the outcome for producers of goods and services as a whole, rather than as individuals, is quite so rosy; if we really do lose 15 million jobs, who is going to have the money to buy all those widgets?
Carney was arguing that the government and corporations have a duty to help people manage the change, not least because those job losses are likely to happen before the new jobs (and new types of jobs) are created.  That seems reasonable in itself, but my question is about how realistic it is to expect that there will be lots of new jobs created.  It’s an essentially unanswerable question.  Guided by experience, technological revolutions have always led to new jobs eventually - but there’s no inevitability about something happening in the future just because it’s always happened in the past.  Simply assuming that it will owes more to faith than to logic.
There may, as the article suggests, be jobs building the robots and training the AI, but from what I know of technology, I’m not convinced that it won’t advance so quickly that even those jobs will themselves be automated.  Why would they not be?  (And even if they’re not, is it realistic to assume that everyone can be trained to build robots and train AI?)  The logical outcome of every individual enterprise gaining from shedding employees and automating its processes is that all of them lose in the end by destroying their customer base.  Isn't that, in essence, what Marx was referring to when he talked about capitalism containing the seeds of its own destruction?
The implication of what Carney was saying is that governments and corporations should take steps to help manage the temporary gap between the disappearance of the old and the emergence of the new.  If we assume that there is a ‘new’ to emerge, that is sensible and reasonable – but what if that assumption is wrong?  If, in reality, those jobs are going to disappear never to be replaced, how do we as a society adapt to a situation where the demand for people to do work is significantly and permanently reduced? 
The answer depends on how we decide to share out what work is available – and to what extent it can be shared anyway; not everyone is likely to be able to be trained as a brain surgeon, for instance.  I have suggested previously, not entirely  tongue-in-cheek, that people who choose not to work are doing the rest of us a favour; when there aren’t enough jobs to go round, choosing to live on a low income without working could almost be seen as a form of altruism.  But paying a significant section of the population not to work is actually one possible, and entirely rational, response to a permanent reduction in the demand for work.  Doing more to share the work out is another.
It’s ideology, not economics, which drives the idea that everybody should be working, and that those who don’t – because they can’t, or won’t, get a job – are somehow beyond the pale.  A future in which machines do most of the work and humans have more leisure time to seek personal fulfilment in other ways might sound like the science fiction I referred to earlier, but if it becomes technically possible, why wouldn’t we choose it?  It requires a paradigm shift, certainly – but a paradigm shift may be the inevitable result of 15 million job losses.  We really need to be thinking through the possible responses before it happens because perhaps capitalism really will destroy itself.

Monday 12 December 2016

Elections and arguments

There is much on which I would disagree with Jeremy Corbyn.  He has, though, struck one of the more sensible notes amongst politicians in his refusal to set any sort of numerical limit on immigration, but to pay attention instead to how we respond to any problems caused.  He’s ploughing a lone furrow, however.  Even most of his own party seem to disagree with him, with our own First Minister declaring last week that Corbyn is out of touch with Labour voters, and that however things might look from London, they look different here.  The First Minister is right on that last point, although not perhaps in the way he intended.  The key difference between London and Wales on this issue is that London has a great deal of immigration, and Wales has very little, but I doubt that that is what he meant.
Carwyn Jones didn’t tell us what he thinks that the limit on immigration should be, or how it should be set.  He also didn’t give us the benefit of his views on why immigration is such a bad idea – assuming that he really believes that it is (and he surely wouldn’t want controls if he doesn’t, would he?).  All he told us was, in essence, that Labour voters are against immigration and might vote for UKIP if Labour doesn’t copy the basics of UKIP’s policy.  I wouldn’t personally describe that as a particularly sound basis for policy-making, but I suppose it’s part of what they mean when they say that policy should be ‘evidence-based’.  There’s plenty of evidence that voters don’t like immigration, after all.
Yesterday, disappointingly, Plaid added its two-penn’orth to the anti-immigration argument.  It was more nuanced, and prefaced with a sensible statement that some immigration is good, but it ultimately came down to saying that we should be ‘picky’ about who can migrate, and that we should try and retain an ‘element of’ free movement.  I’m not at all sure that one can have ‘an element’ of any type of freedom; it sounds like it comes from the same school of thought as the idea that a woman can be ‘slightly’ pregnant.  Some things are binary – they either exist or they don’t.
In this case, freedom of movement which is constrained by governments being picky or setting criteria isn’t freedom of movement at all; it’s a privilege granted only to some.  Privilege and freedom aren’t at all the same thing.
So, we have a situation where UKIP, the Tories, Labour and Plaid are now all agreed that freedom of movement is a bad thing and should be constrained; the difference between them is about numbers and criteria - about how many should be accorded the privilege and how they should be selected.  That’s a question of detail, not principle.  The details are not insignificant, and I’m not arguing that they’re not important; but we do need to understand the distinction between a difference of degree and a difference of principle.
The First Minister was at least honest enough to admit, in effect, that his case isn’t based on economics or any other particular impact which immigration might be having on Wales; it is based entirely on party electoral considerations.  I suspect the same is true of Plaid, although it wasn’t made that explicit.
It might be, of course (and it is only a might – this is far from certain), that adopting a watered down version of UKIP’s central argument will help to stop that party gaining further traction.  But that isn’t the same thing as countering their arguments.  In fact, it’s quite the reverse.  Adopting the anti freedom of movement position of UKIP not only fails to counter their argument, it actually legitimises it, reinforces it, and brings it into the mainstream of politics. 
Defeating the arguments of parties like UKIP isn’t simply about keeping them out of power by implementing milder forms of their policies, it’s about getting out and explaining why those policies are damaging and dangerous.  It’s about concepts and ideologies, not just electoral outcomes.  They may well lose the elections, but there’s a danger that they’re winning the battle of ideas, and that their ‘opponents’ are helping them to do so.

Friday 9 December 2016

A rose by any other name

The word ‘parliament’ derives from the French, ‘parler’; so there is a sense in which ‘talking shop’ is a reasonable alternative description.  For reasons which escape me, there seems to be a general belief that an Assembly of the people is somehow a less important establishment, or has less status, than a talking shop.  But the idea that it isn’t a proper legislature unless it’s called a parliament strikes me as being a strange one, placing rather more emphasis on the name than on the function or activity.
‘Assemblée Nationale’ is good enough for France, for example, and worldwide, the title ‘Assembly’, in one form or another, seems to be more prevalent than the use of the term ‘parliament’, as this list indicates.  It’s true that many former possessions of the British empire do still use the term ’parliament’, but being a former possession of a specific empire doesn’t seem to me a particularly good reason for choosing one word over another. 
There is also, I think, a degree of correlation between the source of sovereignty in a country and the name of its legislature; monarchies, where power stems from god through the monarch, tend to prefer the talking shop word, whilst republics, in which power (in theory at least) stems from the people, tend to prefer the concept of an assembly of the people.
So, given a choice between calling our legislature an Assembly or a Parliament, I have a preference for retaining the former rather than aping Westminster.  Sadly, aping Westminster is what our politicians seem to prefer in most things.
Having said that, it’s not an issue of great importance to me – what matters more is what it does.  And in that context, the critique by Daran Hill earlier this week seems relevant.  We have a legislative body which isn’t actually doing very much by way of legislating.  Now, I’m not a fan of passing laws for the sake of it, but in this case I agree with Daran that there does seem to be a lack of ambition for Wales, when there is so much to be done.
And that brings me to my real criticism of the consultation announced yesterday on changing the name of the Assembly.  Whether the AMs spend a lot of time debating this, or whether they spend very little time debating it, as the Presiding Officer suggests, the very fact of launching a consultation on a change of name succeeds in giving the impression that this issue is important to them – and more important, at that, than all the potential legislation that they’re not considering. 
Whether that impression is fair or not isn’t the point; it’s the conclusion that many will inevitably draw.  If the difference was one of great import, it might be worth taking a considered decision to risk a negative response from the public at large, but it really is just a name.  I find it hard to think of a better way of highlighting the disconnect between the real world and our elected representatives than getting involved in this sort of diversionary activity.

Thursday 8 December 2016

Identifying the enemy

Yesterday, one Tory MP was criticised by many for describing the EU as “the enemy”.  It may simply have been a military metaphor overstating the case, as he claimed (MPs overstating their case is hardly an unusual or noteworthy phenomenon).  I’m not sure, though, that it’s really that far away from the thinking of many Brexiteers.  It’s a very short step from seeing “the EU” as a foreign power controlling our laws to seeing it as an enemy which needs to be fought.  And they’d find it hard to distance themselves from the accusation that they consider it a foreign power controlling our laws, given everything that they’ve said.
Whilst some of the Brexiteers do still seem to have enough of a grasp on reality to realise that the UK is going to have to negotiate with the 27 as a bloc, and that demonising an organisation which those 27 still see as a key part of their future may not be the brightest or most constructive approach, I do wonder whether even they, deep down, share that same antipathy to the very existence of the organisation.  Others are more honest – how many times have we heard people greeting events in Europe with phrases such as “we’re leaving a burning building”, or “it’s going to collapse anyway”?  It’s even possible that they may turn out to be right rather then merely doing a bit of wishful thinking - only time will tell; but at the moment, such attitudes are more likely to strengthen the resolve of the 27 than weaken it.
And, if they really do believe that the EU is some sort of tyranny from which we’re doing well to escape, one has to wonder why they would ever be happy to allow so many other countries to continue living under that same tyranny – the logic of their position is surely that they don’t just want to leave the building – they really do want to destroy it as well.  Why wouldn’t they want everyone to be ‘free’?  Isn’t ‘supporting freedom everywhere’ part of their mantra?
This question of the EU as some sort of tyranny deserves a little more examination though.  Who do they really believe are the tyrants?  In any organisation where decisions are taken through negotiation between 28 members over an extended period, there will inevitably be circumstances when the wishes of one or more of those members will be over-ridden.  I don’t see that as tyranny; I see it more as ‘win some, lose some’ – a process of give and take where one has to judge whether the overall package is a net positive or a net negative.  Only a spoilt child would demand that he or she has the right to win every time.
But there is another possible interpretation of what they mean by tyranny, and that is that there is, in their view, one country in particular which drives the EU forward.  That would, of course, be Germany.  Some of the tabloids have put it very bluntly over the years, claiming that the EU is akin to Germany’s third attempt to dominate the continent and bend it to her will.  I find it a laughable suggestion, but I have no doubt that it plays well to some.  But is it really possible that, at some level, albeit not fully articulated, the Brexiteers (who seem determined to live in the past in plenty of other ways) see leaving the EU as a continuation by proxy of the last two world wars?  Is that, perhaps, what they really mean when they talk about “the enemy”?

Wednesday 7 December 2016

Christmas Wrapping

It’s that time of year when we cheerfully (?) tolerate unfunny old jokes written on tiny slips of paper and concealed in crackers, so here’s my effort:
“What’s red, white and blue, or possibly grey, but definitely not black or white, and comes in hard and soft varieties?”
No, I’m afraid there’s no funny punchline.  In fact there’s nothing very humorous about this at all, it’s deadly serious.  I don’t know who came up with the ‘red, white and blue’ line, or what was going through the Prime Minister’s head as she duly recited it, but it’s even more inane than the mantra about breakfast meaning breakfast.
According to what the papers tell us, May was actually a Remain supporter, although she didn’t do a lot to promote that view at the time.  It has occurred to me more than once recently that perhaps she really is having a laugh with all of us – giving the Brexit head-bangers the impossible task of trying to come up with a plan, sitting on the side-lines making comments which say nothing, and waiting until it’s safe to come forward and say something along the lines of “well, I always thought this was a silly idea; why don’t we have a rethink?”
I’d like to believe that; it’s preferable to believing that she really thinks that what she says makes any sort of sense.  It would be a cunning plan of course, albeit in the Baldrickian sense of being not very cunning at all and doomed to fail, but it would at least be a plan.  I’d like to believe it, but I can’t.
Instead, they’re just blundering forward, telling Johnny Foreigner in no uncertain terms that he needs us more than we need him, behaving as though they live in the imperial past, and now wrapping up what looks like an almost total vacuum in a flag and appealing to people’s sense of British patriotism to believe that this emptiness is in fact a thing of substance, which has colour and form as well.
The odd thing is that, as with the emperor’s new suit, those who want to see it can, and believe it to be a thing of great beauty.  We need to remind them constantly that, in this case, the beauty that they see really is entirely in the eye, or perhaps brain, of the beholder.

Monday 5 December 2016

Understanding politics

Let me see if I’ve got this right.
If the government are obliged (as seems to be likely, although we should not pre-judge the outcome of today’s Supreme Court hearing) to present a Bill to parliament to trigger Article 50, then Labour will seek to amend that Bill to constrain the form of Brexit.  Without their amendment, they claim that Brexit will lead to a drop in wages, public spending and living standards.  But if their amendment fails, they will not oppose either Brexit or the Bill itself, even if it does lead to a drop in wages, public spending and living standards.  This is called defending ordinary working people from the Tories.
The reason that they can’t oppose either Brexit or the Bill is that the majority of the electorate voted to leave.  But, actually, 48% voted to stay; with Labour now supporting the process of triggering Article 50, the voices of those 48% are represented only by the smaller (in UK terms) parties, who between them account for only around 10-12% of the seats in parliament.  Labour, as the main opposition party does not see it as its job to speak for the main body of opposition amongst the electorate, even if most of its MPs agree with that 48%.
The reason for that seems to be that the majority of the electorate in Labour constituencies voted to leave, even though all the evidence shows that the majority of those who actually voted for the Labour MPs themselves voted to remain; the majority for leave came from those who voted for their opponents.
So, to sum up: Labour MPs feel that it is their duty to speak up for those who voted against them and against the majority of those who voted for them, even if they believe that the outcome of that will be a drop in wages, public spending and living standards which will disproportionately impact on those who actually did vote for them.
Strange business, this politics.

Saturday 3 December 2016

The question doesn't seem to matter

As a general rule, I don’t watch a huge amount of television, but I am something of a news junkie.  That means that I sometimes catch the end minute or two of whatever program happens to be on just before the news.  This week, as a result, I learnt that Stephen Crabb, David Jones, and Cheryl Gillan are all pointless answers.  I don’t know what the question was, but somehow, it doesn’t seem to matter.

Friday 2 December 2016

Cutting the apron strings

There is a great deal to welcome in this week’s joint report from the Wales Governance Centre and the Electoral Reform Society.  Its conclusions – an increase in the membership and a move to a single class of AM with a more proportional electoral system - are both things which I’ve supported for many years.  Having said that, I don’t agree with everything that they have to say, particularly when it comes to the proposed number of AMs – or rather, how that number has been arrived at.
When I first read the news reports, it struck me that 87 was such a precise number – most previous discussions have talked about round numbers such as 80 or 100.  The reason for arriving at 87 is clear enough; there are 29 Westminster constituencies, and if we allocate three AMs to each, we end up with 87.  The mathematics is clear – but how about the logic?  What, for instance, is magic about 3 members per constituency, when 4 would produce an even more proportional result?  Why do all constituencies have to be the same size and have the same number of AMs?  I understand the argument for equality of representation, but part of the beauty of multi-member constituencies is that they can have different numbers of representatives if they have different numbers of constituents.
The problem that I have with this report is that the outcome is driven by the rather axiomatic assumption that coterminosity is a good thing; in this case, that Assembly constituencies should match Westminster constituencies.  I’m not convinced about that at all; and the report itself notes that “there is little detailed published research of which we are aware on public attitudes to coterminosity”.  I certainly understand why the political parties would prefer consistent boundaries; years of experience of the complications of constituency boundaries not being the same as local authority boundaries means that I am well aware of the difficulties for parties in trying to organise themselves to fight elections across different boundaries.  And were I still a party functionary, I’m sure that I’d be arguing for coterminosity. 
But does it matter to the public?  I’m not aware of any strong evidence of that; indeed, given the recent research on people’s knowledge of the names of their representatives, I’m not sure that it matters much at all.  Insofar as there is a potential for confusion, it’s most likely to arise if multiple elections are held on the same day, it seems to me.  And in Scotland, there is already a disconnect between the constituency boundaries for Westminster and Holyrood – I’m not aware of any evidence that that has led to the public being seriously confused.
If it doesn’t matter to the public, why don’t we start by thinking about what we would ideally do for Wales if we started with a clean sheet of paper?  That will, of course, be a matter of opinion, but given the strong criticism of the new Westminster boundaries for ignoring historic identities and communities, why should we simply follow suit?  What’s wrong, for instance, with having a single constituency for Cardiff (or Swansea, or Newport) and adjusting the number of members upwards?  What’s the problem, for our new Welsh democracy, with recognising rurality by having greater variation in the size of constituencies than is permitted under the new Westminster rules (after all, many politicians in Wales have already argued for precisely that in relation to those new Westminster rules)?  Or more generally, why do we start from the implicit presumption that what happens for Westminster is ‘right’, and everything else has to be built on that foundation?
Now I know that the report’s authors have held discussions with representatives of all the parties before publishing their conclusions.  I don’t know what was said in those discussions, of course; but it may well be that the authors concluded that coterminosity was an essential requirement for there to be any chance of cross-party agreement on the changes; that coterminosity is, in other words, a price worth paying in order to get the two greater prizes of an increase in numbers and a change to the voting system.  And actually, if that were the basis of their conclusion, I’d agree with them.  But that’s a pragmatic argument rather than the one of principle as which it’s being presented.
Pragmatism may have to suffice in the short term, but in the longer term, we really need to free ourselves from the assumption that we have to follow what happens for and at Westminster.

Thursday 1 December 2016

Freedom depends on equality

I have posted a few times on the idea of freedom of movement as being, in principle, a right available to all rather than just a privileged few, and one response which I often get is that allowing freedom of movement to all would lead to even more mass migration than the world is currently seeing.  It’s an argument that I understand, but it’s an argument based on practicalities rather than on principle.  The fact that treating something as a right might cause problems isn’t an argument for saying that people don’t have that right; it’s an argument for considering what those problems are and how they might be tackled.
People choose to migrate for a number of reasons.  (I use the word ‘choose’ rather loosely here; in war-torn countries, or those ravaged by famine and disease, it doesn’t look much like a choice.)  One way or another, the basic driver for most migrants is the search for a better life.  That is as true for the rich person migrating to a tax haven as it is for the poor African seeking a route to Europe; the difference is that ‘better’ means something rather different at the extremes.  Ultimately, the fact that a better life is available elsewhere is down to differences in economic wealth across the world; global inequality is the main driver.  The question, in terms of policy, is how we respond to that; and there are broadly only two possible options.
The first is the one being advocated by virtually all parties in virtually all the world’s wealthy states: pull up the drawbridge, control the borders, select how many (and which) immigrants are allowed in, treat freedom of movement as a privilege only for the few – in essence, to adapt a phrase from another context, “what we have we hold”.  The consequences of that are what we are seeing daily – dispossessed, desperate people risking their lives to travel illegally where they can’t go legally.  And I’m sure that I’m not alone in believing that this is, ultimately, a line which cannot be held, even if we wanted to.
The second is to acknowledge that inequality is the underlying cause and address that inequality.  In essence, that means a deliberate, planned, and managed transfer of wealth from the haves to the have-nots on a global scale.  The UN target of 0.7% of Gross National Income in aid barely scratches the surface of what is required, and that’s even truer when at least some of that aid from the richer countries is then spent back in the donor countries.  It is unlikely to be a popular policy as things stand – we are already seeing people talking about cutting the foreign aid budget because ‘charity begins at home’.  I can understand that view as well when there are so many in our own society who are struggling with the basics; but isn’t that, also, the product of inequality, albeit on a more local basis?
At a European level, this is what the structural funds from which Wales has received large sums (even if we have failed to use them wisely) are all about – trying to spread wealth more evenly across the EU.  The essence of much of the Brexit campaign was to reject the idea that rich countries (like the UK) should contribute more in order to achieve that aim, and one can legitimately argue that the people of Wales rejected the whole concept of redistribution (although that hasn’t stopped our politicians from trying to claim an exemption for Wales).  One of the tragedies of politics in Wales was seeing those who have most to benefit from an attempt at equalisation throwing their lot in with the privileged whose starting point is that the rich have an absolute right to increase their share of wealth at the expense of others.  Sometimes, turkeys really do vote for Christmas, it seems.
The EU vote in Wales also served to underline how big the task in front of us is if we want to move to an approach based on spreading wealth rather than raising walls.  If those who would benefit from more equality reject it in favour of the proposition that the rich should hold on to what they have, what chance of persuading the population as a whole to a position of greater altruism in favour of the world’s poor on an even larger scale?  Yet for those of us who believe that building walls and controlling borders is the wrong way to go, that is the task facing us.  We have to make the argument for greater equality, both at home and worldwide.  But where are the politicians with the courage even to attempt that, rather than lamely fall in behind the privileged and the prejudiced?