Friday 29 September 2017

Understanding plain English

After open hostilities broke out between the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister just over a week ago, peace was duly restored.  And that peace remains in place.  The two of them are in complete agreement over the length of any transition period and the rules that will apply during that transition period.  The fact that the Foreign Secretary also believes that the transition period should be shorter and that some of the rules won’t apply does not, apparently, signal any disagreement between him and the Prime Minister.  They are in complete agreement about everything, the Prime Minister has been her usual ‘very clear’ about that. 
If the EU27 perceive in any of this a certain lack of clarity in the UK’s approach, it’s obviously because they haven’t been listening properly.  These foreigners, eh – what are they like?

Thursday 28 September 2017

The long road to acceptance

A debate that I’ve often had with some independentistas over the years is about the nature of national identity.  For me, national identity is ultimately a subjective concept rather than an objective one.  There are objective realities which may affect the sense of identity felt by an individual, such as history, language, place of birth, place of residence, but the decision to ‘feel’ Welsh, English or whatever is an inherently subjective one.  Identity is also fluid and flexible; it can change over time and it means different things to different people.  Such an approach also allows of the possibility that people can feel multiple identities, such as Welsh, British, and European, all at the same time, and even in different proportions in different contexts.
Others reject that approach and demand that people accept the identity that they wish to give them.  In that vein, some Welsh independentistas demand that people choose between being Welsh or British – or even more strongly, demand that they accept that they are Welsh whether they want to be or not.  It’s a closed approach to the subject.  And it seems to me that it’s not only counter-productive, but it also denies the reality of life in Wales.  If people want to consider themselves both Welsh and British – which is where most people in Wales would probably place themselves today – who are we to tell them that they can’t have that option; they must choose one or the other?  Besides, for those of us who believe that sovereignty belongs to all of us rather than having been invested by god in the monarch, whether people feel a common sense of identity is merely an aid to any decision to take control of their own lives rather than a prerequisite.
One of the uglier aspects of the Brexit landscape in the UK is the way in which the cheerleaders for Brexit take a very black and white (pun not entirely unintended) view of identity and seek to impose that on the rest of us.  We’ve had Theresa May claiming that anyone who wants to be a citizen of the world is actually a citizen of nowhere, and last week, Boris Johnson decried the ‘split personality’ of young people who think that they can be European as well as, or even instead of, being British.  And Boris isn’t the only one who thinks that the UK can and should be the ‘greatest country in the world’; it seems to be a core belief for many of them.  Another aspect of this has been the branding as ‘traitors’ of anyone who doesn’t ‘get behind’ the decision to leave.
It’s a form of nationalism which I fear, with its inherent notions of superiority and exclusiveness.  I don’t particularly want to live in the ‘greatest’ country; I want to live in a confident and relaxed country which sees itself as just one part of the wider world community, and as an equal with other parts.  There’s nothing wrong with taking pride in past achievements as long as we also acknowledge past mistakes, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting ‘our’ side to do well in rugby or football, but when the people of a country start to believe that they are in any sense ‘better’ or ‘greater’ than everyone else, it becomes unhealthy and dangerous.  Yet it is precisely that belief which seems to be coming to the fore at present.
Life outside the EU – if that actually happens – is likely to be something of a revelation to those who take such a view, even if perversely, in the short term, it serves only to reinforce their view that ‘we’ must be better or the rest of them wouldn’t be out to get us.  The road away from painting a quarter of the world red on the map to an acceptance of the reality of the UK’s position in the world has been a long and tortuous one.  It still has a few twists and turns to come as the readjustment continues.  Life post-Brexit will be uncomfortable for those of us who take a rather more flexible view on identity, but it would probably turn out to be the last hurrah for the faded glory of the past.
But if there’s an element of hope and optimism to be found in the whole Brexit shambles it is that the outcome could yet be a humbled UK deciding to remain, followed in due course by the independence of the last remaining outposts of empire.  An England which could be at peace with itself, and accept a role as an equal partner, rather than trying to make its own rules and dominate others, would find it had rather more friends in the world than the UK seems to have – or even want – at the moment.

Wednesday 27 September 2017

When is a loan not a loan?

The reaction from some quarters to Labour’s proposal to bring PFI deals back ‘in-house’ has been to claim that this would be very expensive, and would require a Labour Government to borrow money in order to buy out the PFI contracts.  The problem with that line of attack is that it assumes that the money involved in PFI deals wasn’t borrowed in the first place, and that is a contentious argument to say the least.
What is the difference between the government directly borrowing money to build a hospital and paying it back over, say, 40 years, and the private sector borrowing money to build that same hospital while the government pay a service charge over the same period and then take ownership of the hospital at the end of that period?  The difference is just a question of accountancy or ‘financial engineering’; effectively the government is borrowing in both cases but treating one type of loan as an ‘off-balance-sheet’ arrangement.  When private companies use off-balance-sheet arrangements, they are often accused of hiding the true state of their indebtedness.  That seems like fair comment to me, and it is equally true when it comes to the government.
The point is that the government already owes the money to pay for PFI deals; it merely pretends that it doesn’t so that it doesn’t have to count the total amount due in its debts.  Any proper due diligence exercise on HM Government’s accounts would, as a result, conclude that it owes a great deal more than its accounts show.  The question therefore, when it comes to terminating PFI contracts early, is not whether the government needs to borrow new money to buy them out, it’s whether borrowing from a different lender at a better rate might be a cheaper (and more honest) way of financing the same debt.  And given the exorbitant effective interest rates being charged on some PFI contracts, and the record low level of interest on new government debt, it’s hard to believe than buying out PFI deals at a fair rate based on normal accounting treatment of the value of future payments won’t be far cheaper than letting them run.
The real question to Corbyn and McDonnell is not ‘how will you pay for this?’, but ‘why did it take you so long to figure this out?’  The latter question gives me far more concerns about their financial acuity than the former; but it puts them way ahead of the Tories who still haven’t been able to figure it out.

Tuesday 26 September 2017

Who cares what Labour think?

There has been criticism of the Welsh Labour government by Plaid politicians over that government’s refusal to support the right of the Catalan government to hold a referendum.  But I’m not sure why anyone would ever expect the Welsh branch of the British Labour Party to support the Catalan government’s attempt to lead Catalunya out of Spain.  Labour may be – albeit reluctantly in many cases – a devolutionist party, but at heart it supports devolution as a means of retaining and strengthening the union, not as a means of undermining it.  And its equivalent party in Spain, the PSOE, takes a similar stance.  Expecting Labour to support the position of the Catalan independentistas rather than that of its sister party is wholly unrealistic.
Insofar as there is a supposed parallel with what’s happening in Catalunya and the situation in Wales, Labour is being challenged to support a devolved administration against a centralist takeover which is, to all intents and purposes, closing down that devolved administration and taking power back to the centre.  However, the parallel with Labour opposing the power grab by Westminster following Brexit is only superficial.  There is a danger of oversimplifying a complex situation in Catalunya, but a more realistic parallel would be if a Plaid government in Wales launched a referendum on independence without the permission of a Tory government in London, and against the wishes of the Labour/Tory opposition in the Assembly.  Labour’s natural instinct in such circumstances would be to support the Tory government – so why expect them to do anything different in respect of Catalunya?
It’s true that the Catalans have been left with no obvious alternative route forward.  The referendum is unquestionably illegal under the Spanish constitution, which declares that Spain is a single and indivisible entity.  They could try to change the constitution, but no matter how big a majority they obtained in Catalunya for doing that, they would still fail unless the other ‘regions’ of Spain also supported them.  The constitution included that clause largely because it was the only way of getting the military back into their barracks after the death of Franco, and it’s true that an overwhelming majority of the Catalans backed that constitution in a referendum as a result, but – and there’s a parallel with Brexit here – who decided that a decision taken in a referendum could never be revoked; that people never have a right to change their minds?  And there was also, of course, a second later referendum in Catalunya, on a Statute of Autonomy agreed with, but subsequently repudiated by, Madrid: why is the result of one inviolable, but not the other?
The background to the referendum on independence is contested and hotly debated, but there is no doubt that, in strictly legal terms, the law is the law and the referendum is illegal.  It’s the sort of legalistic position invariably supported by Labour; and we should not forget that it was a Labour politician – Jack Straw – who argued after the 2014 referendum in Scotland that UK law should be changed to, in effect, mirror the Spanish constitution by declaring the UK to be equally indivisible, effectively outlawing any argument for independence.
There was under Spanish law no way forward for the Catalans to express their wishes regarding independence other than by organising a referendum themselves, after all efforts to hold such a referendum with the consent of the central government in Madrid came to nothing.  They were left with the choice of defying the law or simply abandoning their aspirations.  For those who believe that sovereignty belongs to the people rather than stemming from some central source, the people of Catalunya – and whether one regards them, as I do, as a nation or as others do, as a region is really irrelevant here – have a right to determine by majority decision how they should be governed, but that right is being denied them by a repressive central government, run by a party which is essentially the heir to the former dictator.
The British Labour Party is instinctively unionist, and it is a party which accepts and supports the fiction that sovereignty was bestowed by god on the monarch of England, who ‘graciously’ invested it in the UK Parliament which has, as a result, the absolute power to decide, for the whole of eternity, the governing arrangements for the territories under its control.  It is as much a British nationalist party as the Tories; it is a party which sees the UK as the ‘natural’ state of affairs, in which brotherhood and co-operation extend only as far as the English Channel, a stretch of water which mere foreigners should only be allowed to cross under sufferance.  Why on earth would anyone expect such a party to support the right of the Catalans to decide for themselves?  For Labour, the right of self-determination extends only to very foreign people far away, and certainly not to those which they define as an indivisible part of a greater and immutable whole.  No party of independentistas would or should expect them to behave any differently, and why Plaid are exercising themselves about Labour’s response is a mystery to me.

Monday 25 September 2017

To see oursels as ithers see us

The part of Theresa May’s speech in Florence which made me cringe most was when she said: “…throughout its membership, the United Kingdom has never totally felt at home being in the European Union.  And perhaps because of our history and geography, the European Union never felt to us like an integral part of our national story in the way it does to so many elsewhere in Europe”
It’s not just that she dared to express that view as though it were the view of all UK citizens, based on a narrow majority in a referendum in which people voted as they did for a variety of reasons, bad enough though that leap is.  Nor is it the suggestion that the history of the UK means that we’ve never really been part of Europe, which flies in the face of the truth: these islands have been inextricably woven into the history of the wider continent for many centuries.
It’s more that it goes to the heart of the way that the English (and I mean English in this context) establishment view themselves and the rest of the world.  It’s a lazy expression of the ‘natural truth’ that we are somehow different from, and superior to, the rest of the continent.
But most of all, it’s because it shows an inbuilt tendency to have not a clue about how the words will be received by others.  She more or less told the rest of the EU that ‘the EU may be good enough for you, but not for us’ with that casual superiority which comes so naturally to people of a certain class and background, and completely fails to understand that people from a different background may not see that superior attitude in quite the same way.  Perhaps she genuinely saw it as nothing more than openness and honesty; but that is exactly the problem.  From the outset of the Brexit discussions, the UK has been represented by people who have absolutely no idea how they sound to others.

Saturday 23 September 2017

Recognising where the power lies

Some political commentators have interpreted the Prime Minister’s Florence speech as an attempt to go over the head of Michel Barnier, the EU’s Chief Negotiator, and appeal directly to the governments of the other member states.  Since the latter are the people who collectively set the negotiating brief, that would not be an entirely misdirected strategy – the people who set the strategy are the only ones who can change it.  Whether it will be successful or not is another question; past attempts to deal directly with individual member states have been seen as an attempt to undermine the unity of the 27, and been given short shrift as a result.
But hold on a minute – I’m sure that the Brexiteers told us that one of the reasons that we needed to leave was because member states were subservient to the ‘unelected Brussels bureaucrats’ and couldn’t influence the direction of the EU.  That couldn’t possibly have been another porky, could it?

Friday 22 September 2017

A day out in Florence

The UK Prime Minister is off to Florence today to give her important speech on Brexit, so important that negotiations were put on hold for a week to wait for her pearls of wisdom.  The EU negotiators have said that they will pay careful attention to what she has to say, although they’ve also said that they won’t actually be present when she gives the speech.
That declaration raised another question in my mind – who exactly will be there to listen to her?  When the speech was first mentioned, I had assumed that she had been invited by some organisation or other to go to Florence and that she had decided to use the opportunity to put forward her views on Brexit.  It seems that I was being too kind to her – it is becoming increasingly obvious that holding the event in Florence is little more than a political stunt.  Not only is the speaker being flown in for the event, but so is the audience – largely cabinet ministers and journalists.  Am I the only one who finds it a little strange that a Prime Minister should drag cabinet ministers halfway across Europe so that they can smile, nod, and clap in all the right places as she tells them publicly what she’s already told them in Cabinet?
This is the expenditure of our money by the government to organise a jolly to Florence for an event which could equally well (and far more cheaply) have been organised in London, but is going to Florence to add a sense of drama and import to the event.  Perhaps they believe that journalists whose employers will be paying their expenses for a few days in Florence – conveniently just before the weekend, should they wish to extend their stay – will be minded to provide better coverage as a result.
According to the hype, the speech will make an offer to the EU side in an attempt to move the negotiations – currently going nowhere fast – along a little.  But if that’s the aim, it’s megaphone diplomacy.  If she has an offer to make, why not make it directly to the EU negotiators at the talks which were scheduled anyway rather than delay those talks to make it publicly at an event where the claimed target audience isn’t even going to be present?  The answer is, in all probability, that the real target audience for this speech isn’t the EU27 at all – it’s for a domestic audience.  Hard reality is starting to bite; the UK needs to give ground in a number of areas, and ‘leaving’ is starting to look more and more like ‘remaining’, in the short term at least.  The drama and build-up to this event is all about trying to carry the leavers in a direction which they’re not going to like, and trying to give the impression that the UK is driving events rather than having to respond to those horrid European types.
Whether it works or not depends on the degree of cooperation by the journalists - and the gullibility of the electorate.

Wednesday 20 September 2017

Brexit Masterchef

Yesterday, the former chief of the Vote Leave campaign told us that triggering Article 50 to leave the EU was an “historic, unforgivable blunder”.  Strong words, but they don’t necessarily mean that he’s completely changed his mind about leaving the EU at all (although some of his comments suggest that he’s never been entirely convinced about Brexit).  It’s more a criticism of the approach adopted, and particularly of the way that the government has plunged into the process without having a plan or knowing what it wants the end result to be.  He’s not the only one in the leave camp who has expressed such doubts.
The problem with that analysis is that the Prime Minister really does seem to believe that the government is working to an agreed plan.  In response to the latest statements by Boris Johnson, she told us yesterday that “We are all agreed as a Government about the importance of ensuring that we get the right deal for Brexit”.  It’s a statement that I can believe, but it’s wholly inadequate if they don’t have any sense of agreement about what that ‘right deal’ might look like.  It’s as though they’ve decided to bake that famous cake which everyone is always talking about, but without deciding whether it’s for eating or merely having.  Even worse, they haven’t decided what sort of cake to bake – some want a good old patriotic Victoria sponge, others want a nice sticky chocolate cake, and yet others – I blame their education – will be happy to accept a good dollop of Eton Mess.  Worse still, they’ve started to bake the cake without having agreed on the ingredients.
Still, as the Prime Minister keeps telling us in lieu of answering any question put to her, she’s perfectly clear that the people simply want her to get on with the baking, and not to get distracted by such irrelevant detail.

Tuesday 19 September 2017

Merely eliminating the negative

The Secretary of State for Wales told us at the weekend that cutting just over a pound off the cost of crossing the Severn bridges will ‘power [a] new business boom with Bristol’.  It’s probably just as well that he made no attempt to explain how the one thing leads to the other, although it would be interesting to have seen him try.  It’s simply not credible that such a small change – or even the larger change which is in the pipeline when the tolls are abolished – will have as large an effect as he claims.
It’s certainly true that the tolls have, from the outset, been a disincentive to companies basing themselves in Wales.  It may not be a huge extra cost, but small costs repeated many times can become large sums, and it’s easy to see how that becomes a factor in deciding on location.  But the absence of a negative isn’t the same as the presence of a positive, as my old maths teacher would have said, and the removal of a disincentive doesn’t magically create an incentive.  The idea that a reduction in tolls – or even their abolition – can suddenly create new economic growth is fanciful at best.  During the years that the tolls have been in place, companies have already taken their decisions on location, and they aren’t suddenly going to change those because of this change; creating a more level playing field for future decisions isn’t the same as tilting it in our direction in respect of past decisions.
But when the promised land predicted by prophet Cairns fails to arrive, it will no doubt all be the fault of the Labour administration in Cardiff.  He seems to think that he’s done his bit now.

Monday 18 September 2017

Brexit dividends

In his latest pitch for the Conservative leadership, Boris Johnson has returned to the ‘promise’ to spend an extra £18 billion a year (£350 million a week) on the NHS following departure from the EU.  The figure has been widely discredited many times and even most of those responsible for promoting it during the EU referendum have long since admitted that the ‘Brexit dividend’ – i.e. the amount of money available for other things because it’s no longer being sent to ‘Brussels’ would be a lot less than that.
I’d go further – I’d argue that there will be no Brexit dividend for the foreseeable future.  Perhaps there may be in the long term, if the economy really does outperform to the extent that Brexiteers believe want the rest of us to believe, although it’s beyond any reasonable or realistic forecasting window so we’ll never actually know whether we would have been better off staying in or not.  But in the short to medium term, most recognise that there will be a hit to the economy, and coupling that probable reduction in GDP, or at the least reduction in growth of GDP, with the requirement to spend a lot more on replacing all the EU agencies with UK versions, increasing the spend on managing the physical and economic borders, and the other increased costs which will come in the wake of Brexit, I believe that zero is a reasonable estimate of the Brexit dividend within any reasonable forecasting period.
Having said that, I welcome Johnson’s statement that the UK Government can spend an extra £18 billion on the NHS if it wants to.  And I agree with him; they can – it’s just that it has nothing at all to do with Brexit.  Looking at the detail of what has been said by Johnson and his supporters, that’s a truth which they come close to acknowledging themselves.  £8 billion of that total – more than 40% - has already been committed and is in no way contingent on Brexit.  What Johnson has asked for is that an extra £5 billion a year be made available in 2019 and a further £5 billion in 2022.  Given the ease with which more than £1 billion was found to buy a coalition partner, and the total government spend of more than £770 billion per annum, this isn’t much more than small change to HM Exchequer – less than 1.5% of expenditure.
However, for a moment, let’s assume that there is a relationship with Brexit.  Part of Johnson’s argument is that the UK should not honour any perceived commitments to EU budgets after the date of departure, and he wants a maximum transition period of six months.  If he’s right, then why isn’t the whole of the extra money available immediately?  Why do we need to wait until 2022?  And if he’s wrong, then where is the 2019 tranche of money coming from?  The answer to both of those questions is very simple – the initial premise is wrong, and a decision to spend more on the NHS is not contingent on Brexit; it’s a simple matter of policy.  The only reason for linking it to Brexit is to attempt to persuade us that Brexit has a short term benefit, when he knows as well as anyone else that it does not.  But then, Boris and truthfulness have been estranged for a very long time.

Friday 15 September 2017

Tightening the bonds

I know that many independentistas in Wales and Scotland voted for Brexit.  Some argued that there was no point escaping from one union only to be swallowed up in another, although it seems to me that that view is at least partly a result of being trapped by the vagaries of language – the fact that the same word (‘union’) is used for both the UK and the EU doesn’t mean that they’re actually the same thing.  Another variant on the same theme was that membership of the EU wasn’t ‘true’ independence; it explicitly requires the surrendering of some of the independence which a country might otherwise have.  I’m not really convinced by that argument either – membership of any international or multinational body (including the UN, for example) implies a degree of sharing of sovereignty, and total independence is something of a mirage in the modern world. 
The questions to be asked are how much sovereignty we pool, in what sort of structures, and how much input we have on decision-taking.  I really don’t understand why some Welsh and Scottish independentistas insist that our two countries somehow require more independence than similar-sized member states of the EU, all of which would scoff at any suggestion that they ceased to be independent states when they joined.  The practical meaning of the word ‘independence’ changes over time, depending on the context, and in the context of European states in the twenty-first century ‘independence’ is equivalent to member-state status in the EU.
I’ve posted before that for me the question of Brexit has always been more political than economic – what is the context in which ‘independence’ for Wales is most easily and smoothly achieved?  And for me, the answer to that is clearly within the EU, where it amounts to a change in political and administrative arrangements without changing the trading relationships.  But, if that route is not available, then what?
Some in Scotland, including the former First Minister Alex Salmond, are arguing that an independent Scotland should join EFTA as a compromise.  No doubt some in Wales would make the same argument.  I can see the attractions, and if we were starting with an entirely clean sheet of paper, I’d be tempted by the possibility.  I fear, however, that from our current starting point, it would be seriously problematic for Scotland (and nigh-on impossible for Wales) in practical terms, unless England also takes the same decision.
We are already seeing, on a daily basis, how wrong the Brexiteers were in talking about a simple and swift separation of the UK from the EU.  If we assume that the UK government is ultimately going to reject the EFTA model (and all the signs are that it will, with the possible exception of a defined and short transition period) then the UK will become what is termed a ‘third country’ for EU purposes.  It’s a status which necessarily requires the creation of economic borders between the UK and the EU27.  Failure to do that leaves the UK as an open ‘back-door’ into the single market and compromises that market; something which the EU27 simply cannot afford to allow.  For Scotland and Wales to seek membership of EFTA whilst England does not would therefore, for the same reason, require the creation of economic borders between the countries of the UK.
It’s not completely impossible, of course – but we shouldn’t emulate the Brexiteers in underestimating the complexity of the task and the likely timescale for achieving it.  Moving from membership of the ‘UK single market’ to being outside that and inside the EU single market, whether through direct membership of the EU or the halfway house of EFTA, is an even bigger task than Brexit itself.  An economic union which has lasted 400 years in the case of Scotland (and closer to 600 in the case of Wales) is inevitably more closely integrated than one which has existed for only 45 years as in the case of the EU.  And there are extremely porous land borders involved as well.
Whilst all involved are still members of the EU, the pathway from being part of the UK to full EU membership as an independent state is an entirely political one.  It involves negotiations about representation and administrative arrangements, but the economic issues are minor – all the same regulations and processes apply before and after.  And whilst ‘internal enlargement’ is not something that the EU has experienced to date, ‘enlargement’, (and the inclusion of new member states) most definitely is.  It’s not an exact precedent, but it’s a sound starting point.
Many independentistas won’t want to hear this, but I can’t ignore what seems to me to be an obvious truth.  For the foreseeable future, the idea of Wales or Scotland not being part of the same trading block as England (and ‘same trading block’ includes the option of not being part of any trading block wider than the UK) is extremely problematic at a practical level.  That doesn’t mean that ‘independence’ is an impossible dream; merely that the meaning of the word changes once again.  And to a significant extent, what England decides controls that definition in a way that does not apply within the EU.  Entirely unintentionally, and for seemingly sound reasons, Brexit-supporting independentistas may have ended up contributing to a tightening, rather than a loosening, of economic ties within an increasingly isolated UK.

Wednesday 13 September 2017

Escaping probation

This week has seen the twentieth anniversary of the vote to establish the Scottish Parliament, and the newspapers and television have run a number of stories around that fact.  Fair enough; nice round numbers like 10 and 20 have a resonance for us as humans, even if in mathematical, logical, and historical terms they are pretty much irrelevant.  And we can probably expect similar coverage at other equally irrelevant milestones in the future.
More interesting for me was the nature of the coverage.  Much of it revolved around what the Scottish Parliament has achieved and the sometimes implied, sometimes directly stated question about whether that list of achievements is enough to justify its establishment and continued existence.  It’s an approach which inevitably highlights the continued divisions between those who believe that such a parliament should exist and those who do not. 
But it’s an approach which is never, ever applied to the corresponding institutions in London.  The House of Lords and House of Commons emerged as separate institutions in the fourteenth century; surely a comparable assessment of what they have achieved during that time and whether their continued existence is justifiable is long overdue?  There must be a convenient round-number anniversary which can serve the purpose of raising that question – the seven-hundredth, perhaps.  Seven hundred years is surely long enough to make a proper assessment of their value and worth.  Have they achieved enough to deserve to be allowed to continue to exist?
It’s wishful thinking on my part, of course; the institutions of the UK Parliament have never felt, or been made to feel, any need to justify their existence to anyone.  It’s part of the reason that they are able to continue with arcane traditions and procedures; it’s all perceived as being the natural state of affairs despite the, shall we say, ‘eccentricities’.  But the fact that the media wouldn’t even dream of applying the same approach to Westminster as to Holyrood clearly reveals that they don’t view them in the same terms.  They don’t see Holyrood (and the same applies to the Assembly in Cardiff) as being the natural political expression of the existence of a Scottish nation and identity.  It is a subordinate body, always on probation and answerable to the real seat of power.
And in a sense, they’re entirely right.  Under the UK constitution, the Scottish parliament and Welsh Assembly have no legitimacy of their own; their legitimacy derives from laws passed at Westminster – laws which can be repealed at any time.  They’ll still be asking the same questions at the 30th anniversary of the vote – and every 10 years thereafter for at least the first century, but they’ll never ask them about Westminster.
There is a way of escaping permanent probation, but it depends on having the courage to seize it.

Tuesday 12 September 2017

Keeping one's head in a crisis

The Secretary of State for Exiting the EU told Parliament yesterday that anyone who voted against the government bill on withdrawal was voting for a chaotic Brexit.  In the light of events so far, and in particular his own performance to date, it’s tempting to ask whether there actually is any other type of Brexit, whichever way they vote.  Chaos seems to be the order of the day, and it’s largely self-inflicted.
It looks like another attempt to blame someone else – anyone – for the failures of a government which gives every appearance of having not a clue what it wants in any degree of detail, but continues to maintain that whatever it is, the others should give it to them, because, well, UK.  There was another example of blame-apportioning a week or so ago, when William Hague argued that the government shouldn’t blame the voters even though it was really all their fault; by not giving the Tories the bigger majority which May had assumed would follow the election, they were going to end up having to pay more to leave the EU.  The mechanism by which the size of the government’s majority affects the amount of money owed to the EU was not spelled out of course (it would be interesting to see him try), but the electorate is the latest convenient scapegoat.
In the meantime, the leader of the Scottish branch of the Conservative and Unionist Party, said last week in relation to Brexit: “My real fear is that if there’s a short-term economic hit, we don’t bounce back from it”.  It’s an interesting definition of ‘short-term’ to say the least.
However, whilst her party, government, and ministers thrash around spending more time debating with each other than negotiating with the EU27, the not-at-all-robotic Prime Minister continues to talk serenely about smooth transitions, strength, and certainty.  It reminds me of someone I once worked with who, at a particularly difficult time in a large and complex project, said to the project manager, “if you can keep your head whilst all around you are losing theirs, you haven’t got a (expletive deleted) clue what’s going on”.

Monday 11 September 2017

It's not just about economics

On Friday, the Western Mail’s leader column pronounced in large bold letters that “Brexit must not hit our country's poor”.  As a statement of what most of us would hope for, it’s hard to argue with that.  But how widely held is that view in reality?
As part of the argument in support of its position, the opinion column went on to say “Regardless of how anyone voted in the referendum, nobody will want Wales to fall off an economic cliff in 2019 when the UK leaves the EU.”  I’m far from certain that that is a true or accurate statement.  I have the impression that a quick and total break is exactly what many want and thought they were voting for.  And it was, I thought, perfectly clear during the referendum itself that many of those arguing for Brexit wanted exactly that outcome, believing, in effect, that the ultimate gain from Brexit was worth the pain involved.  That may not have been – indeed was not - what they actually said, but there was enough information to the contrary available for people to understand the likely outcome.  But – as we all do, in our own ways – people chose to believe the ‘facts’ which supported their own predispositions in a classic real-world illustration of confirmation bias.
And from reports I’ve seen on opinion surveys since the vote, including those where respondents have said that the ‘benefits’ of Brexit are so great that they’d be prepared to see relatives thrown out of work in order to realise them, I’m not sure that opinions have changed very much.  Whether I like it or not, I cannot escape the fact that the majority of those who voted in Wales supported Brexit, nor the conclusion that by doing so they voted in favour (in the short term at least) of damaging the economy of Wales, in favour of ending the regional assistance from which Wales has benefited, and in favour of making themselves and the rest of us poorer.  The reasons for doing that are varied: perhaps a belief that ‘taking back control’, or reducing immigration were valuable ends in themselves, or perhaps in the belief that short term pain would lead to long term gain.  Whatever the reasons, they voted for leaving the EU with all its consequences, and much of what the Western Mail and Wales’ politicians seem to have been saying since amounts to an attempt to remain a member for as long as possible, but call it something different.
The desire for Brexit was never primarily an economic one; those making the case always knew that there would be an economic hit as a result.  It wouldn’t fall on the leading Brexiteers, of course; it was always going to be the poorer families, nations, and regions which would suffer.  In the same way, my own wish to remain was never primarily an economic one either; it was about Wales’ place in the world and how best to get there.  There are economic consequences, of course; there will be winners and losers, but over the long term, the economy will adapt – it’s what economies do.  Whether it will recover to the extent that it makes no difference over the very long term is an open question to which we can never really know the answer, since we only get to live through events once.  It’s a wholly unnecessary and self-inflicted pain in the interim but sadly it’s what people voted for, no matter how much the Western Mail and others may try to argue otherwise.
The real problem that I have with all the arguments about mitigating the effect and seeking a way through the mess which causes as little damage as possible is that they’re not tackling the underlying problem, and may be in danger of confirming rather than challenging the views of those who supported Brexit.  What was lacking at the time of the referendum – and is still lacking from our nation’s ‘leaders’ – was any attempt to make a positive argument for the European integration which brought the trade and economic benefits rather than a simplistic negative argument against losing those benefits.  Those who built the EU’s structures – just like those who argued for Brexit – never did so for primarily economic reasons.  It was always about a vision for the future of Europe.  There are flaws in the way that they have attempted to realise that vision, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that they had one.
Underlying the whole debate about Brexit and its consequences is a major gulf between differing views about what sort of Europe we want to see and what our role in it should be, whether as Wales or as the UK.  Treating it as solely an economic issue and concentrating the debate on mitigating the economic effects is ignoring that clash of world views.  It does no more to change the world view of those supporting Brexit than repeatedly telling them that they were duped and misled (even if that happens to be true).  But it is on the underlying conceptions of the world and the role of Wales and the UK in it that the debate needs to be centred if there is to be any chance of a change of attitude.  Changing course for solely economic reasons will only reinforce the belief that we are somehow being ‘dominated and bullied’ by ‘Brussels’ into doing what 'they' want.

Friday 8 September 2017

The people will decide

I can’t remember the exact date, but sometime in the late 1970s I once met the founder of Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya, Jordi Pujol, who later became the leader of the Generalitat in Catalunya.  It was not long after the death of Franco, and it was still illegal for anyone even to advocate the idea of independence from the Spanish state.  That, he told me, was the reason that Convergència at that time argued for more autonomy, rather than for independence.  However, others always saw him, until the latter part of his period in government at least when he gave up on the idea of progress within the Spanish state, as more of a natural federalist than an independentista.  So, whether his commitment at that time, and for many years thereafter, to building a federal Spain was down to principle or pragmatism may well be open to debate, but it has become largely irrelevant in the context of the twenty-first century.  Things in Catalunya have moved on (in large part because of the actions of the Spanish central authorities in amending the statute of autonomy in 2010) and independence, rather than federalism, is now the mainstream of debate.
As Syniadau posted yesterday, the Catalan Parliament – in which an overall majority of the members were elected on a platform calling for independence – voted on Wednesday to proceed to hold a referendum on 1st October.  The central authorities in Madrid have been quick to denounce this as an illegal act and have promised to prevent it happening.  Whether they will succeed or not is an open question – Syniadau argues cogently that they are unlikely to be able to prevent it taking place, and that the likeliest outcome, as things stand, is a declaration of independence within days after the votes are counted.
Strictly speaking, there is no doubt that the central authorities are correct in arguing that the move is contrary to Spanish law.  The Spanish constitution makes it clear that Spain is a single and indivisible whole and that no part has the right to secede.  Things have improved since that meeting with Jordi all those years ago, in the sense that it’s no longer illegal to advocate independence, but the only legal way to achieve it involves first persuading the rest of Spain to approve a change to the constitution.  It’s an impossible barrier – but that was always the intention.  That leaves a political movement which has won the argument in Catalunya itself, and has an electoral mandate to move forwards, with little choice.
I’ve argued in the past that I can devise no satisfactory objective definition of nationality.  Nationality is in essence both subjective and fluid; it changes over time.  And sometimes people can feel that they are members of two or more overlapping nations at the same time.  Some independentistas deny that – despite it being the everyday reality of most of the people around us – and demand that everyone choose one, and only one nationality.  That seems to me to be a futile and self-defeating quest.  But there is another point to this as well – whether defined objectively or not, is nationality the only basis for deciding whether the people living in a defined geographical area have the right to govern themselves or not?  I don’t see why it should be, and in the context of Catalunya, it doesn’t matter whether the people see themselves as Catalans, Spaniards, or a bit of both – if they decide on self-determination, who has the right to stop them?
It’s an issue which goes to the heart of what ‘sovereignty’ is and where it resides.  For those of us who believe that it belongs to all of us, the right to self-determination is one which cannot be denied once the majority desire it.  The Spanish authorities start from the perspective that ‘the law is the law’, and as a result, no part of the whole has any rights unless the rest of the whole agrees to them.  It’s an unbridgeable gulf in perceptions, which is why all attempts at negotiating some other way forward have failed.  It doesn’t look like it will be an easy ride, but the decision is now going to be taken where it should be taken: by the people of Catalunya themselves.

Thursday 7 September 2017

Migration and economics

One of the most over-used words in contemporary debate is ‘sustainable’.  Part of the problem is that it means different things to different people as they define it in ways which enable them to do what they want to do; and another part of the problem is that it’s become one of those fashionable words without which no report on anything is ever quite complete.  So in discussing the question, I start by pinning my colours firmly to the mast of the Brundtland report; it’s about using resources in a way which does not compromise future generations.
Currently, developed countries are a very long way from meeting that definition – it has been calculated that the earth’s population would require the resources of three earths to sustain its current level of resource consumption if every person on earth enjoyed the average living standard of the average person in the UK.  And some have argued that the US lifestyle would require four earths.  It’s not an exact calculation, of course, and some would argue about the detailed elements of it, but the basic conclusion – that current lifestyles in the developed world require the use of resources at an unsustainable rate – is a reasonable starting point. 
One thing that we can say with a high degree of certainty is that those people and countries which don’t currently enjoy the same standard of living as we do in Europe or the US aspire to achieve that standard of living.  That aspiration is one of the prime drivers of migration – faced with a choice of waiting until their own countries catch up or taking a short cut by moving to a country with an already existing higher standard of living, many in the world’s poorer countries are choosing the latter.  And who can blame them?
It’s a mechanism which doesn’t only operate between the world’s poorest countries and the richest; it also operates ‘regionally’ within both poorer areas and richer.  So, for instance, within the EU, those countries whose economies are lagging are seeing an outflow towards those countries with higher average incomes and better job availability.  Poles, Romanians, Bulgarians etc. come to the UK first and foremost because they feel that their prospects are better here than they are in their countries of origin.  And they’re not wrong about that.  We in Wales should be only too aware of the phenomenon – the cause is exactly the same as that which has, for generations, led so many of our own young people to head towards London or even further afield.
We perceive it differently though, partly because the line on the map between England and Wales is seen to be entirely different in nature from the line between the UK and ’the continent’, and partly because immigration and emigration appear to be two completely different phenomena.  Whilst I understand why the perceptions are different, the objective reality is that there is no real difference on either score.  For us here in Wales, both types of migration are part of our lived experience – but emigration is actually the bigger issue.  It’s only because the perspective from which the issue is usually examined and reported is a very ‘British’ one (in which movement from Wales to England doesn’t count as ‘migration’ at all because it’s seen as ‘internal’) that we end up with politicians discussing the question as though the problem is controlling who comes in.  Actually, we could gain more insight if we were to look at the problem from the perspective of those countries in Eastern Europe which are losing so many of their young people to places like the UK, Germany, or France.
That brings me to the paper launched today by the Welsh Government, talking about controls on immigration post-Brexit.  The report talks about the problems Wales faces from an ageing population and the need for immigration in order to sustain services and communities, and suggests an approach to managing immigration which is dependent first and foremost on the need for the skills of the immigrants.  In effect it focuses overwhelmingly on one-way migration (inwards) by a specific demographic (people of working age), and specifically refers to the need to avoid the working-age population decline which would otherwise occur.  I found that a very narrow and short term perspective on a much more complex issue.  That’s understandable, to an extent, in the context of the short-term problems likely to be caused by Brexit, particularly to a country like Wales which is already suffering from an outflow of qualified young people.  In that sense, it looks like an attempt to balance a response to tabloid-driven xenophobia and the immediate needs of the Welsh economy, but what it doesn’t even touch on is how we get to a situation where population and resource-usage are in balance over the long term – and not just in Wales.
The underlying economic model is broken; it depends on an ever-growing population of working age to support an ever-growing population of pensioners.  It owes more to Ponzi than to sustainability.  There’s a difference in emphasis, but the approach being taken to freedom of movement by the Welsh government differs little in principle from that of the UK government – it’s all about the economic self-interest of the country receiving migrants, and has little to say about the interests of migrants or those of their countries of origin, let alone about our wider collective interests.

Wednesday 6 September 2017

Understanding the options

Bankers are not generally the most obvious or reliable source of political truth, and I’m not sure that I place a great deal of faith in the prediction from Morgan Stanley that the current UK government will fall during 2018.  On the other hand, the chances of the government lasting for the full term seem unlikely, so 2018 is as good a guess as any.  On the basis of pure guesswork, there’s at least a 25% chance of it being correct.  But I was more interested in their succinct summary of the options for the outcome of Brexit talks:
“We expect the EU to offer a choice between a close relationship in which the UK can participate in the single market and customs union but will be bound by the EU rules of the game, and an arm's length relationship in the UK, in which the UK achieves full sovereignty over borders, courts and laws, but does not participate in the single market and the customs union.”
That struck me as a fair and realistic appraisal of the only two possible outcomes – continued membership in all but name, or a complete break.  And it puts the Prime Minister’s call to speed up the talks – to say nothing about the Brexiteers’ repeated insistence that the whole process is really amazingly simple - into perspective.  All it takes to bring about a speedy and certain conclusion is for the UK government to understand that there are only two realistic options possible, to decide which one it wishes to pursue, and to concentrate their negotiating efforts on tweaking the details of the chosen outcome to get the best of it.
The obstacle to progress is, in essence, a failure to understand that there is no third option under which the UK has an arm’s length relationship, is not bound by the rules, but continues to participate in all the bits it likes.  I understand the arguments for achieving ‘full sovereignty’ as defined by the Brexiteers, and I understand the arguments for retaining membership of the single market; but it’s obvious that for any country to have both would signal the beginning of the end for the EU, and is something to which the EU27 will never – can never – agree.  It should surprise me that that is not as obvious to the government as it is to Morgan Stanley.  Somehow, though, the current government has lost the capacity to surprise me when it comes to the EU – they can and will say anything, no matter how unrealistic or delusional.

Tuesday 5 September 2017

Mistake - or simply disinterest?

Blair told us over the weekend that he’d made a mistake over devolution, because he “failed to do enough to ensure Welsh and Scottish devolution did not undermine the UK's national identity” and “did not understand in the late 1990s the need to maintain cultural unity between the different parts of the United Kingdom”.  An admission that he might have ever got anything wrong is something of a departure for him, but it seems to me that what it really tells us is that he did not understand at the time, and still does not understand now, why people in Scotland and Wales wanted devolution in the first place.
At the time that devolution was enacted, he – like many others in his party – saw devolution to Wales and Scotland as just the first step in the regionalisation of the UK, to be followed by the creation of regional assemblies across England.  They saw it, primarily, as being about better governance and administration rather than having anything to do with identity.  The regionalisation plan got as far as a referendum for the North-East, but came to a sudden and abrupt halt when the idea was overwhelmingly rejected. 
One might have thought that a rational response would be to ask why the idea was so popular in Scotland, and managed a small majority in Wales, but was so clearly rejected in England – but that seems to be a question Blair never asked himself.  Had he done so, he would have understood at the time that identity was at the heart of the demand for the creation of national elected bodies for Scotland and Wales.  If it were purely about the regionalisation of the UK and good governance, why would anyone choose those particular boundaries, particularly in the case of Wales?  The answer is because they mark the boundaries of perceived nations containing within them people who identify with a nation other than simply the UK.  It doesn’t follow that all those who voted for devolution were or have since become independentistas, but had it not been for that sense of identity and belonging, and a desire to see that expressed in political terms, there would never have been a majority for devolution in either country.
It follows from that that it was always inevitable that giving political expression to that perceived sense of nationhood would lead to differences in policy (there’s no point otherwise), and a probable strengthening of those different identities.  None of that necessarily leads to a demand for independence, as the different paths trodden by the two devolved nations shows, but the belief that it would have no effect on the way in which people choose to identify (or not) with the UK, let alone that it could have been prevented by taking stronger action to promote UK identity, shows a surprisingly naïve side of Blair.  Or perhaps it merely confirms that he never saw the issue as important or took much interest in it.

Monday 4 September 2017

Agreeing with the Tories

Last week, the Tories in the Assembly returned to one of their all-time favourite themes – high salaries in the public sector.  This time, it was the health service which was the subject of their ire, and they seem to have a particular fixation about any salaries which are higher than that of the Prime Minister.  The Labour government responded in the traditional manner of those who support paying high salaries, talking about the need to ‘attract the best’ to fill the top jobs.  In some ways, this is almost the reverse of the position one would expect the two parties to take.  Traditionally, Labour would oppose high salaries, and the Tories would talk about needing to attract the best. 
I can understand that, for someone who genuinely believes that high salaries attract the best candidates rather than simply the greediest, capping those salaries at an arbitrary level (‘the salary of the Prime Minister’) would be a damaging interference in the employment market, and would lead to the people in the top jobs being sub-optimal for the performance of the relevant organisation.  It follows that the Tories cannot believe that the way to attract the best people is to allow market forces to operate (although I accept that that statement does discount the possibility that they might actually not want the best people to run public services anyway – but they couldn’t really want those services to fail, could they?).  And the reaction of the Welsh government suggests that Labour really do believe that paying higher salaries attracts better candidates, and that good talented people cannot be found at a lower price.
The good news in all this is that I’ve finally found an issue of principle on which I can agree with the Tories and disagree with Labour – I really don’t believe that there is a direct relationship between how much someone is paid and how good they are at their job.  When it comes to salaries of top earners, there is a distorted market in operation in which a self-perpetuating group of rent-seekers push salaries ever higher to serve, ultimately, their own best interests.  What I don’t understand, however, is how it’s possible to believe one thing in relation to the public sector whilst believing that the complete opposite rule applies in the private sector.  So perhaps I don’t agree with the Tories very much after all.