Friday 28 July 2017

The problems are all somebody else's

Amongst the many problems which the Brexiteers never really thought through is the question of the arrangements for the border between the UK and the Irish republic.  If the UK were willing to consider remaining in the single market and customs union, then the problem would be greatly diminished, but given the outright refusal of both the government and most of the main opposition party even to consider such an option, the issue could end up becoming one of the major obstacles to progress.
Initially, some in the UK Government seemed to be suggesting that the Irish Republic could carry out UK border checks in its ports and airports, seemingly insensitive to the way in which treating the Republic as being somehow ‘part of the UK’ for customs purposes would be received by an independent state.  Subsequently the UK Government has suggested some sort of ‘hi-tech’ land border across Ireland, a suggestion which has not gone down well in Dublin, which sees any reintroduction of a land border as being in danger of re-opening past divisions and damaging both parts of the island.  Their response has been to propose that the Irish Sea should become the border.
Unsurprisingly, the idea of imposing customs and passport checks between one part of the UK and another (effectively treating the north as part of the Republic for customs purposes) has not gone down terribly well with the DUP in the north of Ireland.  One of their responses has been to suggest that there are only two options – there will either be a hard land border, or the Republic will have to follow the UK out of the EU.  As an exercise in cold logic, it’s hard to fault that, although as an understanding of political reality it fails miserably, and would lead inexorably to the imposition of a hard border. 
But it also underscores the underlying attitude of many Brexiteers from the outset on two points in particular.  The first is that Brexit only ever made any sense at all as a precursor to breaking up the EU, and the second is that the problems caused by Brexit are somebody else’s – in this case, the Republic of Ireland.  It’s another example of the UK’s sense of entitlement and exceptionalism that the problems should all be resolved by others bending down before the might of Britannia.  

Thursday 27 July 2017

Laying the blame in the right place

In his latest remarks on immigration, Jeremy Corbyn seems to be moving his party further and further towards the position and rhetoric used by UKIP.  Worse still, he seems to be as determined as UKIP to blame the immigrants and/or the European Union for the failings of UK Government and UK legislators.
He’s actually right in drawing attention to one of the problems, which is unscrupulous employers and agencies bringing in workers from other EU countries – primarily Eastern Europe – and paying them very low wages, sometimes even below the national minimum wage.  One of the ways that they get away with this apparent breach of UK law is by providing transport and accommodation and then deducting those costs from the pay of the workers concerned.  The question, though, is who is to blame for this?
Reading Corbyn’s comments, one might reasonably conclude that it is a consequence of the ‘freedom of movement’ within the EU, and that Brexit would therefore enable a UK Government to put a stop to the practice.  However, the real problem here isn’t with the EU at all – it’s with the inadequacy of UK legislation covering agency workers, and with unscrupulous employers taking advantage of that inadequacy.  It doesn’t require Brexit to end this exploitation; it merely requires a UK Government with the political will.  On that score, the workers concerned have been badly let down by successive UK Governments, Tory and Labour alike.  And their failure to act is one of the misdirected reasons for an increase in resentment about foreign workers in the UK.
Perhaps if Corbyn gets the chance, post-Brexit, he might lead a government committed to taking action against this form of exploitation.  But for the long term, it’s more likely that legislation will be shaped by the Tories than by Labour.  And they’ve already made it clear that their preference is for less control over the way businesses employ people not more.  Deliberate obfuscation over the cause of the problem could end up making things worse, not better.

Wednesday 26 July 2017

Fudge isn't leadership - it's just a snack

This article in Monday’s Guardian by Shadow Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner has drawn a great deal of criticism for saying, in essence, that Brexit is going to make us all worse off, but that’s what people voted for and that’s what we must therefore do.  As far as the conclusions that he draws are concerned, I agree with the criticism.  It should be incredible that the main opposition party can conclude that a policy is a really bad idea and then go on to support it with enthusiasm.  He’s not alone in taking this strange view of leadership by politicians – one of his colleagues said much the same thing yesterday, but went on to add that the Labour Party’s position could be flexible if public opinion were to change.  It’s a complete abdication of leadership and principle, and suggests that, at any time, the Labour Party’s political philosophy is whatever a perceived majority happen to think.
There are parts of Gardiner’s analysis, however, with which I entirely agree.  His opening paragraph:
“Most trade agreements arise from a desire to liberalise trade – making it easier to sell goods and services into one another’s markets.  Brexit will not.  Brexit arose from key political, rather than trade, objectives: to have control over our borders, to have sovereignty over our laws, not to submit to the European court of justice (ECJ), and not to pay money into the European budget.  When negotiations start it will be the first time countries seek a trade agreement with the clear understanding that they are increasing barriers between them.”
reflects a point that this blog has made a number of times: there is no such thing as a ‘soft’ Brexit, there is only continued membership under a different name. 
(Although I don’t entirely agree with his claim that both sides are entering the negotiations with the understanding that they are increasing barriers between them; I suspect that the Brexiteers really don’t understand that even now.  That’s one of the worst aspects of their position – and it’s largely mirrored by that of the Labour Party when they talk about having “the exact same benefits” whilst being outside the single market.)
I agree with his statement that Brexit arose primarily from political rather than trade objectives, and that the only way to give expression to those political objectives is to opt for the so-called ‘hard’ Brexit being pursued by the government.  That ignores, of course, the frequent statements made by Brexiteers during the referendum campaign that Brexit did not mean leaving the single market, but that was politicians campaigning, a process in which lying has become the norm.  It should always have been clear that, if the slogans about taking back control meant anything, they meant leaving the single market, whatever politicians looking for votes may have said at the time.
Gardiner is simply being honest in what he says.  A Welsh Labour MP, Wayne David, made a similar point yesterday, when he said that it would be very difficult to accept membership of the single market as being compatible with Brexit.  Whilst many of us see the so-called ‘Norway Model’ as more attractive than Brexit, I fully understand that it actually means a greater loss of sovereignty than formal membership of the EU, since it requires adherence to laws and rules with no representation in devising them. 
The real problem facing us is not people like Gardiner or David who are openly and honestly spelling out the consequences of the vote that was taken last year, but the fudging politicians who pretend that it is somehow possible to give expression to that vote whilst remaining a member of the EU in all but name.  It isn’t, and the better and more honest position is to argue that a mistake has been made on the basis of an utterly false prospectus and give people the opportunity to correct it.  The idea that democracy is – or ever can be – about a single irrevocable vote on one day in one set of circumstances is a misuse of the word ‘democracy’.  We need politicians to provide honest leadership on the issue, but they mostly seem too cowardly to do that.

Tuesday 25 July 2017

Mirages are distractions from the real task

Last week, the Western Mail carried a story (to which I’ve been unable to find a link) which referenced the views of Professor Richard Tuck of Harvard University in the US on the question of Brexit and Corbyn.  I hope that I don’t over-paraphrase a complex argument if I say that, in essence, he argues that membership of the EU prevents a politician like Corbyn from implementing some of the things he supports, and that Brexit, followed by a Corbyn election victory, would set the UK free to pursue a much more socialist agenda.  It is, in a sense, the classic ‘left’ case against the EU, seeing the EU as institutionalising neo-liberal policies inimical to the interests of working people as understood by the classic British left.  It’s an attractive argument, and there is much about it which I naturally support.
However, as a counterpoint to that, there was an article in the Guardian last week by John Harris which suggested that underpinning the views of Brexiteers like Liam Fox is the belief that “Brussels is not the liberalising, pro-business force that reality suggests, but an eternal brake on enterprise and initiative that has to be comprehensively left behind”.  On this understanding of what the EU is about, Brexit followed by the election of a more right-wing Tory government is the outcome which they desire, since it would set the UK free of all the constraints on neo-liberalism which membership of the EU imposes.
It’s like two sides of the same coin, but can they both be right?  It is, of course, entirely possible that both are correct in their diagnoses, even if the proposed cures are very different.  The treaties and agreements built up under the EU over many years do indeed place constraints on the freedom of governments to give state aid to industries, and they do indeed place constraints on the ability of companies to exploit their employees.  Both sides concentrate their attention on those constraints that they don’t like.  We end up with an unholy alliance of people who are agreed that the constraints should be removed, but are hugely at odds about how the consequential ‘freedom’ should be used.  They can both be right about the existence of constraints, but they can’t both be right about what will follow their removal.  But there’s much more to this than simply deciding which of the two versions of an EU-constraint-free UK is the most (or least) attractive.
Four things in particular struck me about the arguments here.
The first is that, from both viewpoints, it’s not Brexit that makes the difference; it is the policies which the UK chooses to implement afterwards.  Freed from the admitted constraints, would the electorate choose a more state-directed future under Labour or a more laissez-faire future under the Tories?  Whilst the short term might well look to be Corbyn’s as things stand at present, the longer term electoral history of the UK – and more specifically England in this context – does not fill me with confidence.  Constraining the right looks the more attractive option, even if it also constrains the left.
The second is whether those constraints imposed by membership are the only thing preventing the implementation of socialist policies.  Personally, I think not; the world has become more intertwined - and global capital does not exercise its undoubted power solely through the institutions of the EU.  The history of “socialism in one country” is not a pretty one, and globalisation has made its achievement more, rather than less, challenging. 
The third is about confusion between institutions and policies.  For sure, policies can become embedded in the way institutions work, but it is never necessarily or irreversibly so.  And there are people with similar views in other EU member states.  So which offers the best hope for the future – seeking to change the UK, or seeking to change Europe?  While changing the EU’s underlying economic philosophy looks like a more complex and long-term task that I might wish, I tend to the view that it is ultimately going to be a better solution.  Issues such as climate change require collective action over a long period, and need an international perspective.
Fourthly, what about Wales?  The problem with the ‘left’ case against the EU is that it implicitly assumes the continuation of the UK, to provide a source of non-Tory MPs from outside England.  Not for nothing are people like Corbyn lukewarm at best about devolution, not to say hostile to independence; their vision for the UK depends on anti-Tory votes in Wales and Scotland.  At the same time as Labour’s position requires that continued union, Brexit also makes the alternative future – independence outside the EU – considerably less attractive and practical as an option, unless Brexit leads to the collapse of the EU, which would ‘normalise’ such a status.  That looks highly unlikely to me.
I know that there are many independentistas who sympathise with the views put forward by Professor Tuck, because they would want Wales to have the freedom of action he describes.  I suspect, though, that the ‘freedom’ is a mirage based on wishful thinking, and the better outcome for Wales is as a member of a multi-national and multi-lingual union of free nations.  Changing the nature of that union is the real task in hand – Brexit is an unwelcome diversion.

Monday 24 July 2017

And he was doing so well until then...

In responding to last week’s release of details about high salaries for some BBC staff, Corbyn made some good points.  He started by saying that the issue isn’t just about a few very high-paid performers in one organization, and that the issue of gender inequality goes much further than that.  I agree.  He moved on to talk about the wider issue of pay inequality, and suggested a statutory limit of 20 times the lowest salary in an organization for the pay of the highest paid.  I might quibble a bit about the number 20, but any number quoted in this context is going to be essentially arbitrary and it’s better to start with a high limit than with no limit, so I agreed with him on that as well.
Then he went and spoiled it all by adding the words “in the public sector”.  Why?  Pay inequality between the highest paid and the lowest paid is a much bigger problem in the private sector than it is in the public sector, and insofar as pay inequality is a driver of wealth inequality and inequality of opportunity, the private sector represents a much bigger problem.  It’s as though politicians, of all colours, can’t resist falling into the meme of believing that the public sector is somehow less useful and needs more control than the private sector, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
On frequent justification for that line is that public sector salaries are somehow being paid for out of ‘our money’, whilst private sector salaries are not.  This is demonstrable nonsense.  Taking just the world of broadcasting as an example, there are three different mechanisms by which we all pay the salaries of those involved.  For programs on the BBC we pay a licence fee for possessing and using a television set; for subscription services such as satellite or cable we pay a monthly fee to allow access to them; and for services supported by advertising, we contribute to the salaries of those involved every time that we purchase any product advertised.  And in every case, that is true whether we watch any of the programs or not.  And in the case of programs supported by advertising, we make that contribution even if we have no television.
In all cases, the salaries of broadcasters and managers are paid for out of ‘our money’, it’s only the route by which we pay that is any different.  Broadcasting is but one example, similar statements could be made about any other industry or activity – ultimately, the salaries of those involved are paid for by us, whether as customers or taxpayers, and the argument that we have a more direct interest in the salaries of those paid for by one particular method stems from ideology rather than logic.  It starts from the underlying assumption that the public sector is somehow a ‘burden’ rather than an asset, and it’s disappointing, to say the least, to see Corbyn effectively starting from the same viewpoint.

Friday 21 July 2017

Swansea isn't the end of the line

A promise by a politician is rarely worth the paper on which it often isn’t even written, and there is no reason why a promise to electrify a railway should be any different.  Breaking the promise to electrify the line to Swansea will not exactly enhance the reputation of those who’ve done it, but in all fairness, they are currently hard at work breaking much bigger promises than that one.
I’d give them almost full marks for inventiveness in selling this as an advantage because we won’t have the disruption of all the engineering works in carrying out the upgrade, but I do wonder where that line of argument will lead.  It could easily become an argument for not doing a lot of other things.  There is, after all, quite a lot of disruption involved in building hospitals, schools, roads …
They are right in arguing that it will give us better more modern rolling stock with more seats more rapidly than waiting for electrification all the way to Swansea with electric-only trains, and they’re also right in arguing that it won’t make any difference to journey times between Cardiff and Swansea because the restriction there is the track, not the source of power or the rolling stock.  That does, though, rather gloss over the fact that the new trains will be heavier, more expensive to buy and run, and less environmentally friendly than the all-electric ones we could have had if the project had gone ahead.  I’m not particularly convinced either about some of the arguments put forward about this being a huge blow to the image of Swansea in trying to attract investment.  I would have thought that the quality and reliability of the transportation would be more important than the source of power.
There is another advantage (in the sense of it being an ill-wind which has none) to the decision taken yesterday which few seem to have even realised let alone commented on, and that is its impact on those of us who live even further west of Swansea (although I entirely understand that people in London might not be fully aware of our existence).  That advantage is that bi-modal trains don’t have to terminate their journey at Swansea; like the existing aged beasts they will be perfectly capable of travelling past the end of what seems to be regarded as civilised Wales and out into the sticks where some of us insist on residing. 
One of my concerns from the outset has been that the electrification project would take away the few through trains which we currently enjoy.  As a short term expedient that might have been something up with which we might have had to put, but the problem with the electrification project has long been that it has been seen as a single one-off project rather than part of a longer term vision to electrify the whole network.  We still need that longer term vision of an all-electric railway; all that’s really changed is that the section of line from Cardiff to Swansea has been added to that part of the network for which that vision is required.  I hope that those who so far seem to be mostly interested in making political capital out of the decision will also take that on board and not restrict their arguments to one short stretch of line.

Wednesday 19 July 2017

Money, students and manifestos

It’s only a few weeks since the UK General Election and already Labour seem to be rowing back on their promise to write off student debt, with claims in the last few days that it was more of an 'ambition' than a firm policy, even if it didn’t exactly sound that way during the election campaign. 
Here in Wales, Plaid Cymru, the party which helped Labour introduce tuition fees in the first place during the One Wales period, is now criticising Labour for increasing fees to match the latest change in England, claiming that the proposal goes against the Labour Party’s manifesto.  They presumably assume that we’ve all forgotten that when most of the Plaid AMs voted to introduce fees in the first place they were also going against their own manifesto commitment.  (And it’s worth noting that the politician taking the decision to increase fees is actually a member of the Lib Dems, another party with a somewhat, shall we say ‘chequered’, history on the question of fees.)  The whole issue of student fees seems to be one which unites governing parties in supporting them whilst opposition parties unite in opposing them, and that’s true whichever party forms either the government or the opposition.
The underlying question has two strong ideological elements to it.  The first is whether services supplied by the government should be collectively funded or paid for by those who actually use them, and the second is to do with the question of the availability of money for the government to pay for things.
Regular readers will know that I’m a committed supporter of the idea that services should be funded collectively rather than paid for individually, and I entirely accept that that is a position which flows from my own ideological standpoint.  In the case of university education, I accept that those benefitting from it often end up better off financially than those who don’t, but a properly progressive taxation system would ensure that those with the highest earnings also make the highest contributions to paying for services.  (And, as an aside, people who end their education at ‘A’ level tend to do better financially than those with GCSEs, and those with GCSEs do better than those without.  Why single out one particular type of education for payment at point of use?)
But let’s turn to the second ideological factor – the availability or otherwise of money.  Governments, of whatever colour, tell us that ‘we can’t afford’ to provide university education without charging for it.  But like all the other things that they tell us we can’t afford, it comes down to policy choices.  How much the government raises in taxes, how much it borrows, and how much it spends are all political choices.  When the government needs a few billions for some project or other – such as buying the support of the DUP or starting another war somewhere – it can always find it, because the UK Government controls the money supply.
However, the Welsh Government does not control its money supply.  It has long been a theme of this blog that governments are not like households, and they really don’t have to balance their budgets in the same way, but more accurately, that is only true for governments which can control the supply of money – like the UK Government.  The Welsh Government’s budget, on the other hand, really is more like that of a household, and a household whose purse strings are controlled elsewhere and which can be arbitrarily loosened or tightened.  Whilst I might have had more sympathy for Labour’s response if they had been more honest and spelled out more clearly that any promise relating to fees in Wales was wholly dependent on the election of a Labour Government for the UK as a whole (and therefore on voters in England), their basic point that they can only find the money to do something different in Wales if London gives it to them or they cut elsewhere is a valid excuse in itself.
The backtracking by UK Labour is a far more serious issue.  The interesting point is that in his interview McDonnell actually acknowledged that half the nominal amount of student debt will never be paid back in any event.  And figures elsewhere suggest that 70% of students will never repay the whole of their debt.  In essence, the whole edifice of student loans and debts is based on little more than an accounting sleight of hand. 
The UK Government pretends that it is not paying student fees because the students are paying them.  But the students do so by borrowing the money from the Student Loans Company which is wholly owned by the UK Government.  And where does their money come from?  From the Government, of course.  So, instead of using borrowing, taxation or the magic money tree to pay fees, the government raises the same money from the same sources to fund loans through the SLC, and for accounting purposes assumes that it’s going to get around half of it back over a lengthy period.  The other half – the bit that will never be repaid – will, in effect, have already been paid by the government – exactly what the government says it ‘can’t afford’ to do as a reason for introducing tuition fees in the first place.
Before the election, it appeared that Labour were offering hope to young people that they could enjoy a university education in exchange for paying a fair share of tax if they earned more when they took up employment.  It even looked as though they understood that governments are not like households.  After the election, it appears that they’re reverting to type and falling in with the Tories’ attitude towards finances after all.

Tuesday 18 July 2017

Who's really overpaid?

It’s unclear whether the Chancellor actually used the word ‘overpaid’ in relation to the salaries of public sector employees, but there’s a lot less doubt that he and many of his Tory colleagues really do believe it to be true.  (At least, they believe it to be true of some public sector workers – as I understand it, Ministers and MPs are also public sector workers, and I’ve never heard any Tory suggesting that they are overpaid.)  I’m more interested, though, in how they have reached this conclusion.
It seems to be based on a very simplistic comparison of public and private sector average earnings, as though the mere fact of a difference between the two means that one group are ‘overpaid’.  I’m not convinced that it is based on any sort of like-for-like comparison, and it’s worth bearing in mind that decades of Labour-Tory government have seen many low-paid public sector jobs outsourced to the private sector.  In simple mathematical terms, moving low-paid employees from the public sector to the private sector increases the average salary in the former and decreases it in the latter.  That tells us nothing about the relative value of either.
Even supposing that the comparison is properly conducted and compares work of ‘equal value’ (a phrase which itself could be the subject of extensive debate), the mere appearance of a difference in averages is as likely to mean that one group are underpaid as that the other are overpaid.  It all comes down to one’s perspective.  And that question of perspective is key – from the Tory perspective (with the obvious exception of work done by really important public sector workers like Ministers and MPs, i.e. themselves) the value of work in the public sector is inherently lower than the value of work in the private sector.  That’s not about assessing value added, or contribution made to society or the economy, it’s about a simplistic axiomatic belief that work done in the public sector is a bad thing per se.
More generally, some of the other comments made expose a belief that salaries should be determined with no regard to the cost of living or the needs of employees but solely on the basis of any recruitment difficulties.  From that viewpoint, if there are no difficulties recruiting enough people to do the job, then there is no need for any salary increase, regardless of whether the living standards of those recruited, as well as those already doing the job, are falling year on year.  (Again, this rule doesn’t apply to themselves, whose salaries obviously need to be increased regularly – despite the oversupply of willing candidates.)  The best bit of all is that they get to call this ‘an economy which works for all’ without being challenged.

Monday 17 July 2017

Parties and sisters

The recent UK General Election produced something of a mixed message as far as Plaid is concerned.  On the one hand, under the Westminster system, “it’s goals that count”; near misses are valueless and soon forgotten.  On that basis, an increase from three seats to four counts as progress on the scoresheet, and the closeness of two of those results is immaterial.  On the other hand, support leached away almost everywhere else; I’m not alone in wondering whether the repeated messages about needing one of those mythical beasts called a “progressive alliance” (led, inevitably, by Labour) was not in effect an open invitation to simply vote for the real thing and support the Labour Party.
There have been some calls since the election for Plaid to adopt a stronger stance on independence for Wales, making it the key part of the party’s appeal.  It’s an interesting answer, but I found myself wondering what the question was if that’s the answer.  If the question is about improving Plaid’s short-term electoral appeal, then making a position which has the support of only a small minority in Wales the centre of its campaigning seems a particularly strange response, and one unlikely to achieve the desired outcome.  It would be a silly response.
That means that the issue becomes one of what Plaid is actually for – a question which has been fudged for electoral purposes for decades now.  Because if we ask a very different question – how do we being about Welsh independence – then depending on a national party which declines to discuss the issue is an even sillier response.  The argument about the role of independence in the party’s campaigning is actually a proxy debate about the purpose of the party.  Is it to bring about that constitutional aim, or is it about winning elections to try and bring about smaller incremental change in the shorter term?  The party has, for years, tried to do both, and failed; failed, in fact, to the extent of appearing shifty and dishonest about its real aims.
In that context, Adam Price’s comments in Saturday’s Western Mail were an interesting response to the issue. 
One of the things he said was that “Yes Cymru is a very, very lively political movement which takes a more radical line on the independence issue than Plaid is able to do”.  The particular word which hit my eye in that sentence was the word “able”.  What exactly is it that prevents Plaid from taking a radical line on independence if that is what its leaders and members want?  The answer, of course, is ‘nothing’.  If independence was an objective that they really, seriously wanted to achieve, then there is nothing at all that prevents them from making that argument.  There would, though, be consequences; as discussed above, it would probably have a negative electoral impact for the party in the short term.  (I use the words ‘short term’ because the whole purpose of campaigning for independence would be to increase the numbers supporting it which in turn should lead to increased electoral support over the longer term.)  But to argue that the party is not ‘able’ to make the argument is to make the aim of independence secondary to the short-term electoral objectives.
Leaving that aside, there were a few other issues which struck me about the suggestion.
Firstly, when we look at “those areas where Plaid is not currently breaking through”, compared to those where it is, there is one obvious factor which differentiates the two.  That factor is the Welsh language, or rather the percentage of Welsh speakers in a particular geographical area.  Wholly unfairly, but unarguably true, Plaid is still associated overwhelmingly with the language.  And the implication of having a sister party working in the areas which Plaid is failing to reach is that Plaid would withdraw from those areas and leave the field free to a largely English medium party of independentistas.  It’s a very radical proposal and might even work; somehow, though, I doubt whether that was the intention.
Secondly, the comparison between the Labour Party and the Cooperative Party is an extremely poor one.  The second of those was effectively swallowed up by the first many years ago; although it has its own structures and conferences, it is always subordinate to the needs of the Labour Party and knows its place.  Taking a “very, very lively political movement which takes a more radical line on the independence issue” and subordinating it to the needs of a political party which is afraid even to discuss the issue looks more like closing the issue down than advancing it.  Those campaigning for independence outside the structures of any political party should be very wary of being seen as the servants of, or even a front for, one particular political party in Wales.
And thirdly, I’m far from sure that turning a ‘very, very lively movement’ into any sort of political party, whether as a sister or not, is the best way of advancing the cause of independence.  I’m much more attracted to the idea that a campaign outside formal political structures is a better way of building support. 
That is not the same as saying that there shouldn’t be more than one political party in Wales seeking the support of those desiring Welsh independence.  Having multiple independence-supporting parties is a normal and healthy situation in nations such as Wales.  If turning Yes.Cymru into a political party isn’t the way to achieve that, how else might it be achieved?  One obvious step would be for the Welsh branch of the Englandandwales Green Party to declare independence and adopt a position similar to that of its Scottish sister party on the constitutional question.  Sadly I see no signs of that happening at present. 
That aside, what is the obstacle preventing the emergence of alternative independentista parties?  The answer, it seems to me, is the electoral system under which we operate.  It encourages and incentivises people who otherwise have little in common in political terms to coalesce in a single party for fear of splitting the vote, and to continue to cling to that party even when it is making little or no progress.  I like Adam’s suggestion that there should be more than one party occupying the independentista part of the spectrum, but it seems to me that the pre-condition is either a willingness of Plaid to withdraw from large areas of Wales or else a change in the electoral system to STV.  Of the two, I think the second is extremely difficult, but still more likely and achievable than the first.

Tuesday 11 July 2017

Friends and vultures

The UK Prime Minister has seized on Donald Trump’s statement that a trade deal with the UK can be done “very, very quickly” once the UK has left the EU.  According to the Sunday Times, she claimed it as evidence that Brexit is back on track.  Funny, though – I can’t remember her ever saying that it had gone off track; the official position has always been that everything is moving along in accordance with her plan.
Anyway, I know that she’s desperate and looking for straws to clutch at, but is there any other leader, of any country, who would take this sort of superficial fluffy statement from Trump at face value?  He’s shown repeatedly that he can say one thing one day and the complete reverse the next, all the while arguing that he’s being entirely consistent and that anyone who denies that is fake news.  Indeed, his behaviour is so erratic that some have even suggested that he would have been replaced by now if he were CEO of any large company.
Given how long other deals to mitigate or reduce barriers to trade – whether tariff or non-tariff – have taken to negotiate, I’m instinctively reluctant to accept that a deal which is good for both parties can be put together as rapidly as the Brexiteer politicians repeatedly tell us.  And knowing how few experienced trade negotiators the UK has only makes me further doubt whether a deal agreed quickly would be in the interest of the UK.
But perhaps that’s the point.  All those countries which are, according to May, lining up to offer quick deals to the UK might indeed, as she seems so willing to accept, be good friends wanting to help us adapt rapidly to the new post-Brexit reality.  But there is another possibility - they could be more like vultures spotting a weak and injured Prime Minister and seeing potential advantage to themselves.  Only time will tell.

Monday 10 July 2017

Lead, don't follow

Today’s Western Mail headline declares that there has been a surge of support for a ‘soft’ Brexit according to an opinion poll conducted for the paper.  On closer reading, what the poll actually seems to say is simply that the balance of opinion between remaining in membership of the single market and controlling immigration has shifted in favour of the former.  That’s hardly surprising as the implications become clearer on an almost daily basis, and the lie that was spun last year about being able to do both becomes increasingly obvious. 
I remain unconvinced, however, that there is any such thing as a ‘soft’ Brexit, and the politicians that tell us that there is are being disingenuous.  In this instance, I agree with the comments made by a spokesperson for Tory group leader Andrew RT Davies and quoted in the report – “There is no such thing as a soft Brexit or a hard Brexit.  You either leave the European Union or you don’t.  Remaining bound by EU laws, unable to make new trade deals, and unable to control immigration would mean that we haven’t left at all.”  That is surely true – that which is being described repeatedly as a ‘soft’ Brexit amounts, in effect, to continued membership but without the influence and input which comes from membership.
That’s not to say that I think that would be a bad thing; it would certainly be preferable to the complete departure from the EU which is now the official goal of Labour and Tory alike.  It’s just that I think it’s a dishonest position to hold.  If politicians really believe that continued membership is the right solution, it would be preferable for them to come out and say so – and campaign for that outcome.  Anything else is just regurgitating the lie of the Brexiteers during the referendum, which was that we can retain all the perceived advantages with none of the perceived disadvantages. 
It’s true, of course, that any politicians adopting the stance that I suggest would initially at least be pilloried by the likes of the Daily Mail (although some of us might see that as more a badge of honour than a stain on their character), but opinion is already shifting, and I suspect that they’d find themselves on the right side of history.  And in the long term, they’d earn more credibility by leading than by waiting until they can tamely follow public opinion.

Friday 7 July 2017

Not simple economics

One of the constant refrains from some quarters in relation to Brexit was that the UK only ever signed up to an economic union – the Common Market – and not to a political union of European nations.  Whilst it’s true that many people have long believed that (I’m not convinced that those who signed the UK up to the EEC in the first place were much more honest than the Brexiteers who’ve led us out), it was never true in fact.  There was always a political element to the organisation; indeed, for the founders, it was always much more about a political vision of a peaceful united Europe replacing the warring states of the previous centuries. 
In a very real sense, economic union was more a means to an end than an end in itself.  Whilst there were some in the UK who also signed up to that, the overwhelming majority of the UK’s politicians have always appeared to treat membership on a more transactional basis: what we get versus what we put in.  That gulf in understanding about the aims of membership is part of the reason for the failure of the UK’s leaders to understand why they cannot have the economic benefits whilst the UK puts itself outside the political arrangements.  That is, ultimately, the basis for Barnier’s warning yesterday, but the reactions in interpreting it as a threat or hostile action serve only to underline that gulf in understanding.
But it isn’t only with regard to our relationship with the EU that UK politicians seek to reduce issues to economics, and see everything in terms of the pluses and minuses of the balance sheet.  The same is true when it comes to the question of independence.  In the UK context, there is always a demand for Welsh and Scottish independentistas to spell out precisely the economic consequences of independence, as though it were the act of independence which changes things rather than the policies pursued thereafter.  That isn’t true everywhere, however.  Here’s an interesting article by Iain Macwhirter of the Herald in Scotland, looking at the situation of Slovenia and Slovakia, two other European countries which have gained their independence in recent years.  The point which he makes very effectively is how little debate there was about economics before those countries took the plunge and went their own way.
As he puts it, “Ultimately, the case for independence will always stand or fall on a nation’s desire for autonomy, not marginal economic gain.”  It’s a point with which I entirely agree.  Ultimately, Wales and Scotland will become independent countries only when and if the people of those countries want to be independent and the task of independentistas is to create that desire.  That doesn’t mean that the sort of economic policy which different parties and groups would like an independent Wales to follow has no part in the debate, but that will involve the sort of choices which can only be made post-independence, and will to an extent at least depend on the nature of post-independence relationships with England, Scotland and the EU. 
Post-independence choices will also depend more on which politicians we choose to govern the country than on the fact of independence itself, and there are more routes than one to a successful future.  The article to which I linked discusses some of the economic decisions taken by Slovakia and Slovenia.  They’re not the only options and they’re not examples which I’d particularly like to see Wales follow.  The point about independence is that we would be free to make our own choices, and not be bound by those of others.  But the bigger point is that we have to want to take that responsibility first – and currently, we’re far too timid and frightened to do it, a situation which isn’t helped by a ‘national party’ which basically accepts the economic constraints placed upon us by the limited imagination and transactional bias of UK politics.
What ‘independence’ means varies over time.  I concur with Macwhirter’s conclusion (although I’d substitute Wales for Scotland) when he says that “It is not possible to envisage an independent Scotland that is not part of the EU, or in a halfway house like Norway.  And it is equally very hard to see what future awaits Scotland as part of a UK that has left Europe behind”, which is why I’ve always seen Brexit as more a political question than an economic one.  Alternative futures await us, but only when we have the desire and courage to pursue them.

Wednesday 5 July 2017

An honest Brexiteer

Brexiteer and honest aren’t words that I would normally use in combination, but in one important aspect at least they clearly apply to the newest member of the UK’s ministerial team handling the Brexit negotiations.  In comments he made in 2010, Steve Baker called not just for Brexit, but for the whole EU to be “wholly torn down”.  Labour, Lib Dem, and even some Tories have piled into the issue claiming that having someone with such views negotiating on behalf of the UK will be counter-productive, and one Tory MP said “It just reveals what the extreme Brexiteers have been about all along.  It’s not enough to take the UK out of the EU.  They want the entire thing to fall apart”.
Well, yes.  All of that is true, but why is it such a surprise?  Destroying the EU has always been the intention of most Brexiteers, even if they’ve mostly been rather more reluctant to say so.  Indeed, it’s the only position which really makes any sense of much of what they have said.  During the referendum, many of them told us that we could have all the economic benefits without membership, but never told us exactly how that could be achieved.  There is one – and only one – scenario in which that was ever going to be possible, and that was if the EU reformed itself into a much looser entity, based almost entirely on economic agreements and without any of the political elements which were the founding principle behind the organisation.  In short, the successful Brexit which they promised was predicated on an assumption that Brexit would result in a sea-change in attitudes in the other 27 countries.
And it isn’t just among the Little Englander type of Brexiteer that bringing down the EU makes sense.  I’ve noted before that Welsh independence outside the EU makes less sense to me than full Welsh membership of the EU, because the existence of the EU redefines the meaning of independence in a European context.  But take away the EU, and revert to a position where independence is again redefined as meaning the status of a country which is a member of a much looser trading arrangement, and an independent Wales once again looks like the normal state of any European country rather than something rather exceptional.  For independentista Brexiteers, destroying the EU is also the logical conclusion of their position.
In fairness to Mr Baker and his ilk, bringing down the EU is a coherent and consistent world view; the problem is that it shows so little understanding of the drivers which led the original 6 members to create the EEC.  Not all the more recent recruits to the EU wholly share that original vision of a different type of Europe, but that vision remains much more powerful in the seats of government of Europe than the Brexiteers have ever understood.  Instead of weakening the bonds tying the other 27 together, Brexit has succeeded in strengthening them – and getting rid of what has probably been the most awkward and disruptive member state may well turn out to be the biggest British contribution to European unity in history. 
It would be an unintentional contribution, of course.  The UK’s position has always been ‘divide and rule’, and we’ve already seen elements of that in the UK’s attempts to split individual members of the EU off into separate negotiations and discussions – with talk even of aid in exchange for support in some case.  The strategy hasn’t changed at all; it’s just that, in this case, it has the potential for backfiring spectacularly.
The reaction of those who disagree with his position was predictable, but I’m not at all convinced that it will make any difference at all to the position of the other 27 countries in dealing with the UK.  I’m sure that they’ve realised all along that the only logical context for Brexit was the collapse of the EU – they’re as capable of interpreting the demands for all the benefits with none of the limitations or obligations as I am – and will already have assumed that to be one of the UK Government’s aims.  Insofar as it makes any difference to anything, the domestic context is the more important.  A more open statement of the real aims of the Brexiteers can only assist sensible debate within the UK.

Tuesday 4 July 2017

Why is inconsistency so alarming?

When the Freedom of Information legislation was introduced in 2000, I thought that it was generally a good thing.  Enabling people to have access to data held about them, as well as digging out information that public bodies would often wish to keep hidden are both worthwhile objectives.  In practice, though, it has become a tool for lazy politicians and journalists to produce easy stories which are often based on different interpretations of the questions asked and different ways of holding similar information; used in this fashion, I’m far from certain that it has had the enlightening effect which was intended.
A few weeks ago, the Tory AM for Aberconwy used a series of FoI requests to generate a ‘story’ which highlighted the difference in approach adopted by different local authorities across Wales to the issue of Fixed Penalty Notices.  It plays to a couple of favourite Tory memes, neither of which have much basis in reality.
The first is that there are “alarming inconsistencies” across Wales.  Well, it’s true that there are inconsistencies – different authorities assign different priorities to the issues covered by Fixed Penalty Notices and therefore use different methods of enforcing them.  What, exactly, is alarming about that?  If there is more public concern about dog fouling, for example, in one area than another, why on earth shouldn’t the relevant authority respond to that by taking a stronger line on enforcement and putting more resources into it?  What would be the point of having local authorities at all if they all gave exactly the same priority to every issue and all set about things in exactly the same way?
And the second is that some local authorities might be using the notices as a means of generating revenue.  Well again, it’s certainly true that authorities which put the most resources into pursuing the relevant offenders will be generating more revenue than other authorities – although they’re also incurring more expenditure in the process.  But is there any evidence – even the merest shred – that authorities are deciding on their approach to enforcement based on the possibility of generating more revenue?  If there is, you’ll be searching for it in vain in this particular ‘story’.
In one astounding statement, the AM said “The system is there to penalise those found to be in breach of the rules but it is clear that something isn’t working because the number of fixed penalties is going up dramatically each year.”  How exactly does the fact that an increase in the number of people being penalised prove that a system to penalise people breaking the rules isn’t working?  It seems to me that it actually proves that it is working, and that the problem is with the number of people breaking the rules.
And what does ‘over-zealous’ mean in terms of enforcement?  If there is no suggestion that notices are being issued to people who haven’t broken the rules (and again, I see no evidence of that in the ‘story’), then in what sense is issuing a notice considered to be ‘over-zealous’ as opposed to implementing the law?  If the Tories want to change the law so that only some offences currently liable for fixed penalties remain so, that’s an entirely legitimate position for them to take.  But supporting the law and then arguing that not all offenders should be penalised – which is ultimately what she seems to be arguing – is a very odd position to take.