Tuesday 31 October 2017

Choose a number

Last week, the President of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, said, "I wouldn't want the EU to consist of 95 states”.  The statement begs more questions than it answers.  On what basis is 95 too many; and what is the right number? 
He seems happy enough with 28 – happy enough not to want it to reduce to 27 as a result of Brexit – and we know that the EU Commission is open to new entrants applying.  I somehow doubt that Turkey will ever make it to membership, but negotiations are in progress.  But I can’t see the EU refusing requests by Norway or Iceland for instance, should they aver make such requests.  Neither can I see them refusing Switzerland, although for its own unique reasons, I doubt Switzerland would ever apply.  Two former parts of Yugoslavia (Slovenia and Croatia) have already joined – if the other five wanted to join and met the conditions, would they really be refused?  I doubt it.  Or, again subject to the same caveats, would they refuse Albania or Ukraine?
It’s easy to see how, by a process of enlargement, the number of states could come close to 40 (perhaps the right answer should be 42, and Douglas Adams just never quite found the right question).  But the point is this: provided a state wants to join and meets the criteria, would the fact that the number of member states would then be too high be a reason for refusing them entry?  I can’t conceive that it would, even if it did somehow get to 95, because in each and every case the application would be considered on its merits, and in each and every case, the question becomes, regardless of the number of existing members, “can we cope with one more?”.  I really can’t see the answer ever being ‘no’; if states are refused entry, it will always be for a reason other than the simplistic numerical one.
Whether the applicant is ‘external’ or ‘internal’ doesn’t change that question or the answer to it, which makes his statement a nonsense, pulling a number out of thin air to suit his own predisposition for keeping the existing states as they are.  But then, since ultimately the EU Commission speaks first and foremost for its member states, why would anyone be surprised?

Monday 30 October 2017

A clash of principles

In relation to the situation in Catalunya, much has been made of the statement in the UN Charter about the right of peoples to self-determination.  It’s a clear enough statement, but as I posted previously, the problem comes in determining what defines a ‘people’ – or perhaps who defines a people.  There simply is (and I doubt that there can ever be) a simple objective test which can be applied.  So the Spanish authorities use the definition that suits their objectives whilst the independentistas in Catalunya use the one that suits theirs.  And there is no independent authority which can decide that one is right and the other wrong.  To, I’m sure, the great surprise of no-one, I support that Catalan side; but I also go further and question why ‘being a people’, however it is defined, is a necessary requirement for the exercise of self-determination.  Imposing what is, in essence, a subjective test with no objective ‘right’ answer seems an unnecessary obstacle to me.
In addition, there’s the question of context.  Whilst the Charter does not make this explicit, it is quite clear – as the authorities in Madrid would argue – that the context of the Charter was the period of decolonization, and the intention of the relevant article was to support the rights of the former colonies.  In that particular wave of colonization and conquest, places such as Catalunya (and the same applies to Scotland and Wales) were part of the process of colonization and conquest rather than the victims of it.  But, of course, if we go back further in time, they were part of an earlier phase of conquest and consolidation, as the historic European states were created.  So – is there to be a time limit on the right to self-determination?  Because that’s effectively what the Spanish state is arguing, isn’t it?
To further complicate the situation, there is another widely-accepted tenet of international law, which is that states have a right to territorial integrity.  Spain is, to an extent, relying on that principle, and much of the response from other European states has been based on that principle as well.  There is, though, a context to that principle as well.  It was accepted by European states as a basis for ending wars of aggression over territory, by accepting the boundaries as they stand today, and agreeing not to seek to change them by force, and was intended to be a means to put an end to centuries of bloodshed and war.  And it has, no doubt, been a contributory factor.  It hasn’t stopped states arguing over boundaries (for example, Spain’s own claim to Gibraltar), but it has prevented the argument going much beyond shouting.
The context, though, was never intended as an insistence that there could never be any change at all (and, in the situation of Gibraltar, Spain actually accepts that to be true), nor was putting an end to externally-imposed territorial change ever intended to be the same as insisting that states created out of a process of aggregation could never disaggregate if the people chose that, although it is ‘convenient’ for Spain – like the other aggregated states – to pretend that to be the case.  But demanding that people accept that the state of which they find themselves a part is their lot in life, which they have no choice but to accept as an unchangeable fact, goes directly against the principle of self-determination.
Two key principles of international law, in the context of Catalunya, are in direct conflict, and there is no international body or organisation which can rule between the two.  Ultimately, the only people who can decide the future of Catalunya are the people of that country/region themselves.  The tragedy of today’s situation is that it is the direct result of a refusal to allow them to make that choice in a peaceful and democratic fashion, but instead insist on imposition, by force if necessary.

Friday 27 October 2017

Nothing’s agreed until everything’s agreed

Much of the hoo-ha about David Davis’ suggestion that Parliament might not get its vote on the EU deal until after the UK has left was based on a real and fair assessment of normal EU practice.  The same applies to the mantra of May and her not-so-merry band for some time that ‘nothing’s agreed until everything is agreed’.  Both of these are a quintessential part of the normal modus operandi of the EU.  Lengthy discussions, give and take, and an eventual agreement at one minute to midnight (even if the clocks have to be stopped to prevent midnight arriving before they’re ready) is a long-standing feature of discussions amongst the member states.  So I can understand, up to a point, why some Brexiteers think that the same should apply to the UK’s exit and trade deal negotiations, and expect everything to be tied up at once.
They’re forgetting something very important though.  The exit part of the negotiations is indeed akin to the discussions amongst members over the years and decades.  And in those internal discussions, it is entirely normal to agree that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.  But that’s only part of the process.
The negotiations on a future trade deal are something entirely different; they aren’t internal discussions between members, they are discussions between the EU as a bloc and a former member state which has decided to make itself a ‘third party’.  Trying to create dependencies between a set of internal treaty-mandated negotiations amongst members and another set between members and an external third party is a wholly unrealistic expectation, yet it is at the core of the UK’s stance.
I really don’t understand why the Brexiteers cannot understand that finalising the negotiations which the EU is required to conduct under article 50 of its own formal treaty is very different from conducting negotiations to which the EU has no treaty obligation whatsoever with a third party country seeking favourable access to EU markets.  The problem here isn’t Brussels’ intransigence, but the expectation by the UK that it can demand a special and unique status, and that it can threaten to walk away, not just from that second set of negotiations, but also from its formal treaty obligations, if it doesn’t get what it wants.
From an EU perspective, the very fact that it has agreed in principle at least to start the second set of negotiations in parallel, once sufficient progress has been made on the contractual part of the discussions, is a huge concession to a departing member.  It is only that extraordinary sense of British exceptionalism which seeks to portray a significant concession as being so inadequate as to constitute some form of punishment or bullying.  And, perhaps, a desire to be able to blame someone else.

Tuesday 24 October 2017

What constitutes a majority?

One of the arguments used by opponents against the result of the referendum in Catalunya is that only 42% voted, and although 90% of those voted for independence, that latter figure represents only 37.8% of the electorate.  That, they argue, is not a definitive mandate for such a major change. And, at first sight, that sounds eminently reasonable.
The first problem with it, however, is that it wasn’t only a 42% turnout.  42% is the number of votes that eventually got counted; reports suggest that the actual turnout was more like 55%, but the ‘missing’ 13% of ballot papers were seized and destroyed by the Spanish police.  There is no reason to suppose that the support for independence amongst that 13% was any different from that amongst the 42%; the problem with deliberate disruption of a democratic ballot is that the outcome, as a result, can never be precisely known – which was exactly the objective of the Spanish authorities.  It is, however, probably reasonable to estimate that the actual support for independence was 90% of 55% - or 49.5% of the electorate.
The second issue is about inconsistency.  Whilst there was a much higher turnout in the Brexit referendum (72%), the proportion of the electorate voting for the winning side was only 37.4%.  I accept that (under the rules of the referendum) that was properly considered an acceptable winning margin.  But if the support of 37.4% for Brexit is considered an acceptable democratic result in the UK, why are some of the same people arguing that 37.8% support for independence is wholly inadequate in Catalunya?
The answer that they would give, of course, is that it’s not the low figure in itself which is the problem, but the low level of turnout.  It is unlikely, but theoretically possible, that had everyone voted, the non-voting 45% would unanimously have opposed independence (although it’s certainly likely that the majority of those would have voted against independence).  On the best possible outcome for the unionist side, that would have given ‘no change’ a victory by the slimmest of majorities – 50.5% to 49.5%.  However, in reality, a 100% turnout is impossible.  At any point in time (for any electoral register) there will be some people who have died since the register was compiled; others who are too ill to participate; and yet others who are abroad or for some other reason unable to take part.  A 90% turnout would be exceptional, which means that the independentistas would still have won, even if everyone able to vote had been allowed to do so and had chosen to do so.
Now of course there’s a lot of supposition in that; there has to be given the circumstances of the vote.  The best way to resolve it and ascertain the will of the people would be to allow a properly-run ballot in which both sides were free to put their position and in which the people make the ultimate decision.  But holding such a ballot presupposes a willingness to accept that the people of Catalunya (like any other part of the world) have the right to decide, and the Spanish nationalist parties simply refuse to accept that the Catalans have any such right.
What they are prepared, not only to allow, but apparently to insist on, is new elections for the Catalan parliament, which for some unexplained reason they expect to result in a majority for the Spanish nationalist parties.  In a free and fair election, that looks unlikely to me.  In the first place, the last elections produced a narrow majority for the independentistas, and in the second, I’d expect that the actions of the Spanish nationalists have strengthened the support for independence rather than weakened it. 
But it seems to me highly unlikely, given their behaviour to date, that the nationalists running Spain will allow a situation to develop where, as a result of their own actions, they are faced with a Catalan parliament even more determined to seek independence.  And that makes me doubt that they will really allow a free and fair election.  A decision to proscribe any party advocating independence and imprison its leaders might produce a result more to their liking, but it amounts to the sort of political repression which most of us thought Spain had long ago put behind it.  It does, though, look like the likeliest option at this stage.

Monday 23 October 2017

A small step in the right direction

At Plaid’s conference over the weekend, the party’s leader suggested that the party ‘might’ consider calling for a second referendum on Brexit if the UK Government decides, as seems increasingly likely, to walk away with no deal.  It’s a step closer to the Lib Dem position that any deal must be put to a second vote, but it seems to me that they’re both missing the point, and identifying the wrong trigger for a second vote.
In Plaid’s case, the implication is that it doesn’t matter what the nature of any deal actually done is; as long as there is a deal there’s no need for a confirmatory vote.  But we already know that any sort of deal will be inferior (in purely economic terms, which is, sadly, still the only criterion which our politicians seem willing to apply) to that which we currently have, so the logic of the position is that an inferior deal is acceptable with no further vote.  I find it hard to reconcile that with ‘standing up for Wales’.
Personally, I favour a second vote regardless of the nature of the deal, which actually makes me closer to the Lib Dem position on this question.  (There’s a first time for everything.)  There is however a caveat, which is that the trigger for a second vote should not be whether there is a deal or not, or even the precise nature of the deal, but whether there is clear and sustained evidence of a shift in public opinion.  Without that evidence, demanding a second referendum will inevitably be portrayed as trying to make people vote again and again until they take the ‘right’ decision.  And it would, in all probability, be a complete waste of time and effort.  But with that evidence, it is possible that even the very best deal – of the sort which the Brexiteers promised us would be an absolute breeze – would be rejected in favour of remaining in membership.  And the electorate always has the right to change its mind on anything.
The job of politicians who still believe that remaining a member would be in the best interests of Wales (and I suspect that is a majority of them, even if they’re afraid to say it) is to work to bring about that change in opinion, not wait for it to happen of its own accord.

Friday 20 October 2017

Overlooking the simple solution

In an attempt to move things along in the Brexit talks, the UK Government has been hinting that it is ready to make new ‘concessions’ in relation to the rights of EU citizens.  The problem the government face is that, all these so-called ‘concessions’ still involve taking rights away from EU citizens legally resident in the UK.  And anything which reduces their rights is still going to be a hard sell to the EU27.  What would move things along, of course, would be a simple and clear guarantee that all rights which exist in respect of EU citizens living in the UK on exit day will be fully protected.

It’s simple and straightforward, and would undoubtedly satisfy the EU 27 on that aspect of negotiations.  So why can’t they do it?  One simple reason – because EU citizens currently enjoy more rights in some areas than UK citizens, and we can’t have that can we?  Now I’m a simple soul, and prone to an over-mathematical perspective on issues, but it strikes me that if you have two groups of people with unequal rights, taking rights away from one group isn’t the only way of achieving equality.  To put it another way, all that the government has to do is to give UK citizens the same rights as EU citizens currently enjoy, and one third of the problems with the current stage of negotiations would disappear overnight.

It tells us a great deal about those who govern us, and their attitude towards the rights of individuals and families, that they would sooner let the whole process collapse than do that.  And it’s not only in relation to Brexit that people and their families come pretty near the bottom of their list of priorities.

Thursday 19 October 2017

Points of no return

One of the arguments put forward by those justifying their support for Brexit is that all the woes predicted by supporters of Remain have not come to pass; things aren’t nearly as bad as they said they would be.  And to the extent that some Remainers predicted the end of the world starting the day after the vote, that is true.  The point is, however, that many of the predictions weren’t about what would happen after the vote, but about what would happen after Brexit – and Brexit hasn’t actually happened yet.
There are still two views amongst economists about what will actually happen in the immediate aftermath of Brexit itself.  The majority view is clearly that the economy will take a hit, whilst a minority continue to argue that it will be the opening of great opportunities.  Given the persistent long term failure of economic forecasts to get anything much right, I can understand anyone’s reluctance to put much store in any predictions, from either side.  I tend to the view that, in the long term, the UK economy will adapt to the new circumstances, but that there will be a serious hit in the short term.  Whether that’s a price worth paying depends in no small measure on whether you’re one of those paying it or not; my suspicion is that the cost will fall on those least able to bear it, and not on the leading advocates of Brexit, many of whom seem to be on the wealthy side already.
There is a sense, however, in which the cause of that economic hit isn’t Brexit itself; it’s not the sudden change in circumstances the day after we leave, for all the talk of cliff edges.  The cause is, rather, the myriad of independent decisions about location and investment taken by businesses about how they will respond to the changes which they expect to happen on or after that date.  Most of those decisions won’t be taken on or after Brexit day itself, they’ll be taken in advance.  Whilst they would like to have the certainty of knowing what the outcome will be before they take their individual decisions, the planning horizon is such that many are already taking those decisions, and more will do so in the coming weeks and months.  They will have to make assumptions in order to do so – and the safest assumption to make at present is that Brexit will happen, and that the UK will find itself in the worst possible trading position vis-à-vis the EU.  The damage, in most cases, might not kick in until after Brexit, but the decisions causing that damage will have been taken in advance.
Each of those individual decisions represents a small point of no return: siting a factory, moving a head office, or upgrading existing facilities – these are not short term decisions.  Once those decisions are taken, even cancelling Brexit would not lead to their reversal.  The Brexiteers claim that they are frustrated by the slow progress of negotiations, but this looks like playing a game to me, not least because the slowness of the progress is largely down to their own continued insistence on having cake and eating it.  I suspect that they’re really rather pleased at the slow progress.  On the one hand, it might give them the excuse that they need to talk away, which is what many of them really want to do even if that isn't what they said in advance; and on the other hand, even if they don’t just walk away, the scenario outlined above about decisions being taken now simply means that we’re getting to the same place slowly, one decision at a time.
There is not one single clear point of no return in this process, but continued obfuscation and delay suits the agenda of those who want a sort of economic revolution, with the UK becoming a low tax low regulation offshore island.  It’s an article of faith to them that this will be a better Britain; the question for the rest of us is, or should be, ‘better for whom?’.

Wednesday 18 October 2017

Not depending on Labour

There are always dangers in ‘reading across’ from one situation to another; all countries have their own political traditions and experiences and those shape events and attitudes.  With that caveat, there are also similarities and parallels at times.
The PSOE in Spain occupies a similar part of the political spectrum as does the British Labour Party, and the two parties are part of the same grouping in the European Parliament.  The response of the PSOE to the situation in Catalunya has been to give its full support to the conservative government in its response to the referendum and any declaration of independence.  It argues for that position on the basis of upholding the Spanish constitution, and it is as absolutely committed to the unity of the Spanish state as the conservative government.
It isn’t a question of ‘left’ vs ‘right’, although historically the ‘left’ and the independentistas in Catalunya found themselves on the same side during the Civil War.  With the benefit of hindsight, and looking at the stance of the ‘left’ today, that almost seems to be more by accident than by design; having a common enemy to fight against doesn’t mean agreement on what should follow the defeat of that enemy. 
Although the Catalan government is led by a broadly ‘centrist’ party, the more centrist independentistas in Catalunya were pushed into holding the referendum by the more ‘left-wing’ parties in the coalition there, but PSOE nevertheless prefer to side with the PP (Conservative) government rather than support a more leftist vision for Catalunya, even though many would argue that the PP are, effectively, the heirs to Franco.  Preferring to work with the central political ‘right’ rather than the independentista political ‘left’ is a clear echo of the Labour Party’s position on Scotland and Wales.
Fortunately for Catalunya, the independentistas, whatever their political perspective, have long ago given up any hope that the Spanish ‘left’ will aid or support them, and have instead depended on a range of parties promoting the Catalan viewpoint, from a range of positions on the political spectrum.  There are clear lessons there for those independentistas in Wales who still harbour the illusion that the Welsh branch of the British Labour Party can somehow be nudged or cajoled into supporting the aspirations of those who seek independence.  When push comes to shove, they will always show their true colours as we have clearly seen time and again in Scotland; spending time trying to cosy up to and influence a British party (which is what the strategy of some seems to be) is a diversion from the real job of winning the hearts and minds of Welsh voters.
* I generally try and avoid terms like ‘left’ and ‘right’; they’re far too simplistic and general to be meaningful in many contexts.  I think, however, that the generalizations make at least some sense in this specific context.

Tuesday 17 October 2017

Challenging 'obvious' assumptions

Yesterday, ClickonWales published an article by Labour AM, Mike Hedges, arguing for a long-term devolution settlement for Wales.  Whilst thinking aloud by Labour politicians is generally something to be welcomed, the problem with this one is that it did more to highlight the underlying axiomatic beliefs driving Labour than it contributed to original thought on the question of devolution.
Let’s start with the basic premise: that “We have had three devolution settlements for Wales and we are no closer to a long term settlement than we were before the first”.  As statements of fact go, it can’t be faulted; but the underlying assumption (i.e. that there should be a long term settlement) goes undiscussed and unchallenged - it is merely taken as read.  But why?  What is it about the constitutional relationship between England and Wales which requires us to draw up a settlement at a point in time and then stick to it?  In fairness, it isn’t just Mike Hedges and the Labour Party who suffer from this mental blockage; the Tories have been heard often saying the same thing, although they usually put it in pejorative terms such as ‘stop obsessing about the constitution and use the powers you’ve got’. 
And that, actually, illustrates the real reason why the UK parties are so keen to reach a point where they can claim that there is a long-term settlement; they want to put a limit on how far the process can go.  Perhaps they don’t all want to put the limit in the same place, and Mike Hedges seems to be willing to go further than many others, but ultimately, the wish for a long-term settlement is about reaching a point where the process can be halted rather than advancing it.  And there’s nothing wrong with that per se; it’s a valid position to hold, but it would be better if they could be more honest about their intention.
There is another aspect to my challenge about what’s wrong with a continuing process as well.  The situation in which Wales has found itself, from the outset of devolution with the referendum in 1997, has been as the subject of an interplay of forces, sometimes between parties, but more noticeably within one party in particular, Labour.  At no point has anyone really sat down and thought about what would be the right thing to do (and fair play to Mike Hedges - that seems to be what he wants to do): the outcome has always been a question of compromise at a point in time.  This particular contribution to debate is just one position amongst many.  I see zero prospect of it becoming the accepted position of his party, which means that the tensions between different players will continue.  Moving forward one compromise at a time is the best that Wales can hope for; and in that context talk of anything being for the long-term is just wishful thinking.
But there’s a second aspect to the question of axiomatic beliefs revealed by the article as well.  Whilst I can’t disagree with the statement that “Surely the question to be asked is what needs to be controlled by Westminster in order to benefit the whole of the United Kingdom as opposed to what each ministerial department desires to keep under its control”, which makes eminent sense from a unionist perspective, it leaves open the question of how we decide what fits where.  How do we define ‘needs to be controlled’?  Fear not, because for Hedges, the answer is ‘obvious’ – “There are the obvious areas that need to be held centrally: Defence, Foreign affairs, national security, currency, interest rates, overseas aid, immigration, Driver and car licensing, central bank and National Insurance numbers”
Declaring something to be ‘obvious’ is a way of trying to avoid challenge or debate, but I could look at any of those areas and argue for an element of devolution, even within a continued union.  Why for instance, must driver and vehicle licensing be a central function?  In the light of Brexit, there have already been proposals that Wales and Scotland should be able to set their own immigration quotas if they wish – why is it ‘obvious’ that they should not, and that ‘immigration’ must be centrally controlled?  Even in what is perhaps the most ‘obvious’ of all, Defence, why would it be impossible for, for instance, fishery protection using armed patrol boats (normally the preserve of the Royal Navy) to be devolved?  I’m not proposing any of these as policies here, merely challenging why they are axiomatically ruled out.
If we’re serious about asking what ‘needs’ to be controlled by Westminster, all of these should be open to debate.  Closing them all off on the basis of their being ‘obvious’ is another indication of an attempt to set limits on devolution, not debate what it should look like if we started with a clean sheet.

Monday 16 October 2017

Beliefs and facts

Last week’s research findings about the unwillingness of people in Wales to lose anything as a result of Brexit are interesting, but there are dangers in the obvious interpretation.  A reluctance to pay anything for the perceived advantages of Brexit might, at first sight, encourage those of us who think Brexit a mistake to believe that they can be persuaded to change their minds.  But there is nothing in the least inconsistent between supporting Brexit and at the same time being unwilling to pay a penny for the privilege for anyone who simply declines to believe that there is any cost associated with Brexit.
We were told repeatedly during the referendum campaign and since by the exponents of Brexit that not only would there be no cost, there would even be a huge financial gain.  Seen from that perspective, a question about ‘how much are you willing to pay?’ is entirely hypothetical; answering it by saying ‘nothing’ whilst continuing to support Brexit is entirely consistent.  And the exponents of Brexit are still arguing that Brexit will be an overall gain for the UK.  Last week’s noise about spending money now to prepare for a ‘no deal’ wasn’t just about being ready for that scenario – listening to those making the case, much of it was about showing those foreign johnnies that we’re really, really serious about walking away if they don’t give in to our demands now.  It’s a position that makes sense if, and only if, they believe that not having a deal is better than having one, and that having a deal is more about us helping the EU27 than about them helping us.
There’s also the little question of confirmation bias.  For those who believe that Brexit will leave us better off, any suggestion that it won’t is just more ‘remoaning’; and if it actually comes to pass that we really are worse off after Brexit, then it will be the fault of everyone except those who voted for it.  Those nasty Europeans, the treacherous remainers who failed to jump on board the wagon, the half-hearted Brexiteers in the government and civil service – they will all be more to blame than those who actually led us to this point.  And besides, perhaps there would have been an economic downturn anyway – who can really prove that it’s down to Brexit?
Confirmation bias is an extremely powerful force; we should not read anything very much into research which shows that people who think Brexit will bring us net benefits aren’t willing to accept a net loss.

Friday 13 October 2017

Parties and politics in Wales

One aspect of the situation in Catalunya which has attracted a bit more attention in the light of recent events is that the independence movement there does not depend on only one political party.  Indeed, the main, arguably centrist, party of independentistas, led by Carles Puigdemont, had to be pushed into committing to, and then organising, the referendum by smaller, more left-leaning, coalition partners.  Catalunya is no exception in this regard; the normal situation in most countries seeking independence is that there are several pro-independence parties, occupying different positions on the traditional ‘left-right’ spectrum, and that whilst they might agree on the aim of independence they are usually at loggerheads on almost everything else.  Even in Scotland, there are now two pro-independence parties represented in the parliament, and another three such parties contested the last elections.  Compared with the European norm, Wales is very much the exception.
In that context, the proposal floated by Royston Jones on Jac o’ the North, to establish a new party in Wales, could be seen as an attempt to normalise the situation here, by having a political party seeking to make the case for independence from a different political perspective than that of Plaid Cymru.  And it is also, of course, a reaction to the failure of Plaid Cymru to advance outside its core Welsh-speaking heartland.
I don’t share much of Royston’s political perspective, but that will surprise no-one.  And I’ve never been a supporter of the idea that a political party can campaign for independence and have no policies on anything else - which is an argument that I’ve heard advanced over the years - unless it is an ‘abstentionist’ party, fighting to win seats but then not taking them.  Non-party campaign groups, such as Yes.Cymru can certainly avoid taking a stance on other issues, but a political party fighting elections with the intention of taking seats will inevitably get involved in voting for or against policies in the legislature to which its members are elected, even to the extent of deciding which other party forms or leads the government.  Those voting for them surely have a right to know what they’re voting for before casting their ballot.  I have no regrets whatever over the small role that I played in the 1970s in moving Plaid into a clearer political stance.
I do share some of Royston’s analysis about where we’ve got to as a result, though.  I can understand why some people who support independence but disagree with Plaid’s stance on certain issues find it difficult to vote for Plaid, and feel that their views are not being represented.  Having a party which does seek to represent that political stance might indeed help to increase the overall level of support for independence, or at least give political expression to a wider cross-section of it.
I also share the frustration at the existence of a political party in Wales which seems to want to claim the exclusive right to represent all independentistas whilst being unsure as to whether it really wants independence at all, and reluctant to campaign openly for that end.  Whilst not sharing the whole of his analysis, I can entirely understand his frustration at the sight of a party which fails to put the case, is making no progress politically, and seems more interested in forming alliances with a British ‘left’ which has little if any sympathy with the idea of an independent Wales.  No party has the right to claim exclusivity on a particular issue, especially if it isn't doing very much about that issue.
This is not the first attempt to form an alternative political party to promote independence for Wales, and it probably won’t be the last.  But the biggest single obstacle to any such attempt to normalise the political situation in Wales remains an electoral system which rewards political unity, and penalises fragmentation.  Without changing that, I wonder how much progress the new party will be able to make.

Thursday 12 October 2017

Fudging answers

The media and opposition politicians are all being very beastly to the Prime Minister for failing to answer a simple enough question.  Failing to answer questions is what she does; why the surprise and shock now?  The real news this time is that she’s admitted that she’s not answering it, and even attempted to provide an explanation for that.  And it’s the explanation which is the most interesting part.
It’s paraphrasing, I know – but I hope fairly – but she basically said that Brexit is a very complex issue with a lot of detail to consider and if there were to be a new vote, then she would do as she did last time round, and consider all the factors very carefully before coming to a decision.  That’s not as unreasonable an answer as some have painted it; circumstances do indeed as she put it “move on”, and opinions can change in the light of that.  But isn’t that a pretty good argument for asking the question of the public again once the detail is known?  After all, if the person at the centre of all this can’t say whether she’d support it or not in a vote at this stage, why assume that all those who voted last time around can’t or won’t also reconsider the issue?

Wednesday 11 October 2017

Nations, states, prisons and freedom

The strongly-worded statement on Catalunya by UK Foreign Minister Mark Field will inevitably disappoint independentistas, but in terms of the element of surprise it’s roughly on a par with a declaration by the Pope that he’s a Catholic.  From the perspective of the UK Government, the Spanish declaration of the indissoluble unity of the territory and nation of Spain is an obvious truth, although of course that tiny little bit at the bottom of the Iberian peninsular can never be considered part of the territory of Spain.  Territorial integrity has its limits, after all.
No doubt the UK government would argue that the apparent discrepancy here is justified on the basis of the fact that every test of opinion in Gibraltar reveals that the population wish to remain British and not submit to Spanish rule, and they’d be right in that assertion.  It’s a little inconvenient, though, that they claim that the people of Gibraltar have the democratic right to decide not to be part of Spain at the same time as supporting the Spanish government’s assertion that the people of Catalunya can never be allowed the same right.
Hypocrisy and double-speak on this sort of issue are not, however, a problem for those who rule states like the UK, for reasons which are largely historical.  The larger member states of the EU – and I think here of Italy, Germany and France, as well as Spain and the UK – take their current form and occupy their current boundaries solely as the result of centuries of conflict and conquest.  The whole history of European statehood is one of shifting lines on maps, of states being born and then crushed out of existence, and of nations finding themselves in different states at different times.  For all the talk of Europe being composed of nation-states, a precise coincidence of national identity and state boundaries is very much the exception, not the norm.
Not wanting to go back to a situation where Europe is composed of a whole series of warring states arguing over where to draw lines on maps is a natural reaction to our common history (and it is our common history, whatever Theresa May might believe), but the response of demanding that the lines and structures must remain ossified at the point which they reached when the fighting stopped is a response which pretends that nationality and identity are firm, settled and objective realities.  That flies in the face of the human experience.  Preventing violent change is one thing, but preventing peaceful change ultimately makes the violent sort more likely.
Those larger states incorporating different national identities which were brought together by war and conquest pretend that they are in fact the natural state of affairs.  Those who ended up victorious in the process of aggregation of territory have long tried to meld together the disparate peoples and identities under their control into one single new ‘nation’, proving – if proof were ever needed – that the concept of what constitutes a ‘nation’ is itself highly flexible.  So, the nationalists running Spain claim that Spain is in fact one single nation, and demand that all those living within its boundaries accept the nationality thus bestowed upon them, and accept that any other identity which they might feel is ‘regional’ not national.  In its insistence on French as the only identity, France takes, if anything, an even harder line on those Bretons, Basques, Catalans, etc. who find themselves within its borders.
The history of the UK demonstrates another important aspect of this, which is that the creation of states doesn’t follow the existence of nations; it is rather that the creation of nations follows the existence of states.  The UK is defined as a nation state not because the boundaries follow those of an existing nation, but because the ‘British’ nation was created to match the boundaries of the state.  The same is true of Spain, France, Germany, Italy etc.  From the date of the incorporation of Wales into England, the state has pushed the idea that differences should be ‘extirpated’, and that all should share a common identity.
But here’s the sting: what history shows us is that even with a determined central power, and centuries of time to exercise that power, eliminating alternative identities is actually a very difficult thing to do.  It can work, up to a point, when people perceive a common interest – after all, the decline in the use of the Welsh language wasn’t a result of the actions of ‘the English’ but of those of Welsh people who bought into the idea that the future was ‘British’.  However, even with that assistance and complicity, it took centuries to get to the position where the language was spoken only by a minority; and even without the language, the ‘Welsh’ retained a sense of identity which was never entirely subsumed in Britishness.  (Whether that sense of identity should be given political expression in the structures of governance is another question entirely; the point is simply that killing a sense of national identity is no small task.)
The Spanish position on Catalunya, naturally and inevitably supported by the UK Government, is that if a Catalan nation ever existed it has subsequently been subsumed into a bigger and better Spanish nation, and that the ‘rest of that Spanish nation’ has an absolute right to over-rule the Catalans.  It’s a position which seems to make what is to most people the most obvious solution – a properly organised democratic referendum in which both sides put their case and the people decide – a non-starter.  But in the real world, there are only two ways of holding all the territory of an existing state together – the first is by consent and the second is by the exercise of force.  That a state which exists in its current form only because of the past use of force should see force as the natural means of assuring its own continuity will come as no surprise, just as the support of other states with a similar history is equally unsurprising.
Spain, like the UK, is in a sense the prisoner of its own history, with Spanish nationalists unable to see an alternative future based on co-operation rather than domination.  Part of the task of independentistas is to help the centralist nationalists escape from a prison which is of their own making.

Tuesday 10 October 2017

Who's got the ball?

According to the Prime Minister, having made a few of what she calls concessions in her speech in Florence, the ball is now in the EU’s court; it’s their turn to make concessions.  It makes me wonder whether the PM and her government understand the nature of the negotiations in which they’re involved.
Actually, in most types of negotiations, she’d be right.  Typically, a negotiation between two parties sets out to improve on the current situation in ways which benefit both parties – the infamous and over-used phrase ‘win-win’ applies.  In such a circumstance, both parties know that allowing both sides to gain something means that both have to concede something, and they take turns in the process of negotiation.  And if they can’t reach an agreed position acceptable to both, then they can simply walk away from the talks, and the current situation continues.
In the case of Brexit, however, one of the parties has effectively said “we want to renegotiate this deal so that we’re considerably worse off, and we want you to change your rules to weaken your single market in order to mitigate the effects of our decision, oh, and by the way, we’re cancelling the agreement between us regardless of what you say”.  Not so much seeking ‘win-win’ as demanding ‘lose-lose’, accompanied by a degree of puzzlement as to why the other side doesn’t immediately see this as a brilliant idea. 
In return for committing a massive act of economic self-harm, the UK demands that the EU makes it possible for states to enjoy all the benefits of the single market with none of the costs, thereby threatening the integrity of both the single market and the EU itself.  In this context, the part of the Florence speech floating the idea of a two year transitional phase amounted to saying, “We’re going to reduce the amount of self-harm that we do to ourselves, but in return, we want you to start making changes which damage your single market”.  ‘Meeting in the middle’ when both sides gain is one thing; but ‘meeting in the middle’ when both sides are expected to lose is another thing entirely – especially when one side’s view of ‘fairness’ is that it lessens the impact on itself whilst increasing it for the other.
A normal part of any negotiation is to understand what ‘the other side’ want to get out of it, and ensure that what you offer them is attractive.  It may well be that May, Davis et al really do believe that weakening the rules around membership of the single market will be a good thing for the EU27 as well as for the UK.  I think they’d be wrong, but I could understand such a viewpoint from people who wish that the EU didn’t exist at all.  But they’ve not only failed to understand that things might not look the same from the other side, they’ve made no effort at all to explain to the EU27 why this is such a good idea, or how it will benefit them.  Instead, they merely demand concessions and call out the EU27 as bullies and dictators if they fail to give them.
When I read about the ‘progress’ being made in the Brexit negotiations, I’m reminded of the old story about a trade union negotiator who returned to his members and told them, “I’ve got some bad news and some good news.  The bad news is that I haven’t been able to get us a pay rise; in fact I’ve had to accept a pay cut.  But the good news is that I’ve managed to get it backdated”.  The way things are going, I suspect that even that trade union negotiator would get the UK a better deal from Brexit than the current team.

Monday 9 October 2017

Laws and legitimacy

At the heart of events in Catalunya is a difference of opinion about the legitimacy of laws and constitutions.  The legitimacy of the position taken by the central authorities in Madrid stems from the Spanish constitution, which declares Spain to be an indissoluble whole, and the legitimacy of the position taken by the independentistas in Catalunya stems from the results of the last elections and a democratic vote in the Catalan parliament.  And from the perspective of outsiders, those supporting Madrid do so on the basis of upholding the law and territorial integrity of Spain, whilst those supporting the independentistas do so on the basis of both the democratic legitimacy of the Catalan parliament, and the wording of the UN charter, which guarantees the right of all peoples to self-government.
But one of the problems with the UN Charter is that whilst the wording is clear enough, the definition of ‘peoples’ is not; and a declaration of the rights of a ‘people’ to independence depends entirely on how we define a ‘people’ in the first place.  One of the disputes between the authorities in Madrid and those in Catalunya (and in other ‘regions’ of Spain, come to that) in recent years is whether Catalunya is a nation (as the Catalans would prefer) or a nationality (as Madrid insists, on the basis of the argument that Spain is one nation).  The implicit assumption behind that is that a ‘nation’ has rights which a ‘nationality’ does not.  Whilst the UK does not have the same debate about the precise wording, the same conflict exists under the surface, it’s just that ‘nations’ have different degrees of legitimacy.  So the UK Government is quite relaxed about using the same word (nation) to describe both Scotland and Wales on the one hand and the UK on the other, it is clear from their words and actions that they see them as two different kinds of ‘nation’. 
In both cases, the underlying question is about what a nation is and who defines it.  In the case of Spain, clearly the centre believes that it and it alone can define what is a nation, and that definition of nation can and should be imposed on all within its boundaries.  I suspect that there are some in the UK who would really like to be able to take a similar approach.  But nations are a human construct, and largely a subjective one at that.  People don’t consider themselves British or Spanish because the government insists that that is what they are; their self-identity is based on experience and history, and there are probably as many definitions of what it means to be Welsh, for instance, as there are people who claim to be Welsh.  And the same is true for any other identity.
The bigger question for me is why the question of identity or nationhood has any relevance at all here.  If the majority of the people in a particular country/region/area want to take control of their own affairs, why should it matter one iota whether they define themselves (or are defined by others) to be a ‘nation’ or a ‘people’ or not?  It seems to me that that is a wholly artificial barrier to the exercise of sovereignty by those to whom it belongs.  Ultimately, the right of any government to govern the people in the territory it delimits as belonging to it depends on the consent of those people; the right of the UK government to govern Wales, for example, cannot depend on the consent of those living in England, it can only depend on the consent of those living in Wales.  (And, by the same token, the right of the Welsh government to govern, say, Ynys Môn depends on the consent of the residents of that island – but that’s a subject for another post.)
And that goes to the heart of the current crisis in Catalunya.  Had the central authorities allowed the referendum to take place, and played a full part in it, putting their case before the people of Catalunya, opinion polls in advance suggested that there was at least a fighting chance that they would gain the continued consent of the Catalans, for a while at least – as happened in the Scottish referendum in 2014.  But effectively, they’ve simply declared that they don’t need that consent; they have the right to govern without it.  Ultimately, that is probably the best way to lose much of the consent which previously existed.  And it underlines that basic point that, in a debate of this kind, relying on a purely legalistic interpretation loses more hearts and minds that it wins.
Those who argue that law, and adherence to law, are a vital part of modern society are right in principle; but underpinning all law is legitimacy, a much vaguer concept, and that legitimacy always depends on the consent of the governed.  Failure to recognise that is a feature of dictatorship, not democracy.

Friday 6 October 2017

A quick concession

A week or so ago, the Prime Minister gave what was reported as a robust defence of 'free market capitalism', extoling its virtues and claiming that it was under threat from Labour.  In her conference speech on Wednesday, talking about capping energy prices, she laid out an excellent exposition of why free markets don’t work, and why she is therefore going to intervene in the way the energy market works.  It was an interesting juxtaposition, to say the least.
The first thing to note is the way in which she conflated markets and capitalism.  This was either deliberate obfuscation or else she really doesn’t understand either; it’s hard to tell which in the case of Theresa May.  But they are not at all the same thing.
The ‘market’ is a product of human ingenuity and is the best enabler we’ve yet come up with for the exchange of goods and services, but it in no way depends on the use of a capitalist system for the production of those goods and services.  I can easily envisage a post-capitalist economic system which continues to use the market mechanism.  And why not?  Why throw away something proven to work?  The second question is then not about markets per se, but about how ‘free’ they are.
Insofar as there is an ideological dispute about markets, it is not about whether they should exist, it is about how they are controlled.  Very few people are calling for the abolition of markets – but there are also very few who call for completely unregulated markets.  All markets run according to a set of rules and regulations; the questions to be asked are what those rules are, who draws them up, and whose interests they serve.  Few people would argue that monopolies should be allowed to distort markets in their favour, and as we learned on Wednesday, even the Prime Minister recognises that markets with many small consumers and a very small number of large suppliers can end up favouring the suppliers rather than the consumers. 
But in saying that, she’s entirely conceded the ideological point which she was so determined to defend only last week - markets need intervention and control to make sure that they work for the interests of all participants.  Those calling for the removal of controls are invariably those who believe that they can benefit from such removal; but we need to remember that for some to benefit, others must lose.  It's not as easy as the management mantra about win-win suggests to ensure that there are no losers - dividing the world into winners and losers is the norm.  Making markets work fairly for everyone requires a degree of control and intervention - as the Prime Minister conceded on Wednesday.

Thursday 5 October 2017

Identifying the culprits

The complicity of EU institutions in the violent suppression of the Catalan referendum by the Spanish state is leading many to question their own support for continued membership of the EU.  It's a natural enough response, but I wonder whether they are aiming their ire at the right target.
The Brexiteers told us, repeatedly and incessantly, that the EU was a superstate from which the UK, like other members, was obliged to take instructions and to which member states were in some way subservient.  This was, and is, a travesty of the truth.  The power of the EU rests primarily in the Commission – whose members are appointed by member states – and the Council of Ministers – direct representatives of member states.  The elected parliament wields far less control over the EU than either of those bodies.  This means that the EU is, to a significant extent, more a forum for negotiating, and then enforcing, agreements made between the member states than an entity with a policy agenda of its own (which is not to say that Commissioners in particular do not have their own agendas).  When it comes to taking a stance on any issue, such as the situation in Catalonia, that position is brokered by the EU institutions, but crucially stems from the positions of the member states.
So it is the position of the member states which is at the root of what is, to put it mildly, a disappointing response from the EU.  As far as the larger member states are concerned – the UK, France, Italy, and Germany – there should surely be no surprise that they take the side of Madrid.  They all have secessionist movements within their borders to which they wish to give no comfort, and they all enjoy being the big boys in the yard.  Why on earth would anyone expect any of them to support a movement which could ultimately assist in promoting their own downfall?
Of much more concern to me is the response of some of the other states.  Whilst there has been some internal debate, it seems, within the Irish Government, the response of the Republic is particularly disappointing.  The Irish, above all, should be aware that the legalistic, constitutional route to independence doesn’t work when faced with a repressive state which refuses to acknowledge your right to self-government.  Malta gained its independence from the UK peacefully, although not until after what was effectively a Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1958 leading to the suspension of the constitution and imposition of direct rule.  Cyprus gained its independence from the UK after a long and bloody struggle.  Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia all declared their independence unilaterally after the fall of the Soviet Union, and Croatia and Slovenia emerged from the wreckage of Yugoslavia.
All of these EU member-states have at least some recent historical understanding of the difficulties in exercising their right to independence by following only the constitutional rules of the state of which they were previously a part.  Why are they so keen to support for Catalunya what they would never have supported for themselves?  Why are they not attempting to influence the collective EU position forcefully?  It is that which angers and disappoints me, not the predictable behaviour of the big boys or their servants (not masters!) in Brussels.

Wednesday 4 October 2017

Circular arguments

The Secretary of State for Defence has told us this week that the development of nuclear weapons by North Korea justifies the UK’s possession of such weapons.  Unfortunately, he does not set out the logical process he’s used to get from the premise to the conclusion. 
Insofar as there is a degree of logic there, I can understand why a state which fears that another nuclear weapons state might attack it could convince itself that it therefore needs to have its own nuclear weapons to act as a deterrent to a potential attacker.  But isn’t that precisely the logic which has driven Kim Jong-Un to acquire nuclear weapons in the first place?  In essence, Fallon’s argument seems to be that North Korea is developing nuclear weapons to counter what it sees as a threat from us, so we need nuclear weapons to counter the threat that they will pose us as a result.  It’s a circular argument which leads inevitably in only one direction – nuclear proliferation.  If the existence of nuclear weapons in one state justifies the retention or acquisition of such weapons by another, the solution has more to do with getting rid of them than with upgrading them. 
I can understand why Fallon might honestly believe that Kim is mad enough to use his weapons once they are ready, and I wouldn’t disagree with that assessment.  A closed dictatorial society where people are afraid to tell the supreme leader anything that he might not want to hear could well create the conditions for a nuclear conflict to break out, but that’s not much of an argument for threatening all-out retaliation; it just proves that ‘deterrence’ doesn’t work in those particular circumstances.  The whole concept of deterrence is based on an assumption that possessors of nuclear weapons will carry out a careful assessment of the likely retaliatory damage to their own side before using them.  It also assumes both that those involved will make a rational assessment, and that weighing up the probable millions of deaths on both sides to decide who wins is in some way a rational act.
The real reason that the UK insists on retaining and upgrading its nuclear weapons – despite treaty obligations forbidding it from doing so – is to maintain the fiction that the UK is one of the world’s great powers and keep hold of its seat on the UN Security Council.  It’s one of the most expensive seats in the world.

Tuesday 3 October 2017

Bribes and transactionalism

Those clever Tories have noticed that they didn’t do very well at attracting the votes of young people in the election, so they’ve decided to do something about it.  In this case, ‘doing something’ means offering changes on issues such as tuition fees and housing.  And they’re being utterly shameless about it; they’re not even attempting to say that there’s anything wrong with the way things are at present – indeed, they give every indication of believing that current policies are the right ones.  They are making no attempt to explain why the changes they propose will be better for the country as a whole, or how they fit with their other objectives – I suspect that they are not really convinced themselves.
No, this is all about targeting a specific section of the electorate (not even all young people in fact) and offering direct bribes to persuade them to change their voting patterns.  Will it work?  I really don’t know, but I suspect that it’s just too obvious and blatant to have quite the effect that they want.  Confirmation bias is as likely to make people believe that they could have done these things all along if they’d really wanted to, so that all that guff about austerity was the lie that many knew it to be all along.
But I shouldn’t really be that surprised at the nature of the pitch they are making.  It is, after all, axiomatic to them that individuals will always act in their own best financial interests rather than thinking about any wider issues.  From that perspective, all they need to do is to explain to the target audience why voting Tory will make them as individuals better off, and turn it into a simple monetary transaction.  They’ve become so blinded by that belief that they really can’t see anything wrong with that approach.  Perhaps it’s another form of what someone said about the existing order containing the seeds of its own destruction.  Self-destruction certainly seems to be working its way up the Tory agenda these days.

Monday 2 October 2017

Holding back the tide

There’s more than a little irony in the way that some who have previously argued that the EU has too much power over the affairs of member states are now suggesting that the EU should have done more to intervene in the affairs of a member state in support of the Catalans voting yesterday.  It underlines the reality of the EU – it is an organisation formed by a coming together of member states, and those member states continue to hold the real power.  It’s the exact opposite of what the Brexiteers told us.  That an organisation of member states supports the position of those member states should be no surprise to anyone; it’s an argument both for becoming a full member state and for greater democratization of the organisation.
Those controlling states invariably believe that they are part of the natural order of things, and that they are – or should be – eternally indivisible wholes.  That’s as true for Spain as it is for the UK, and in both cases the central authorities attempt to justify their actions by demanding that everyone accept their definition of national identity.  So the British nationalists in the UK demand that we accept that the nation is the UK and that other identities are of lesser validity in the same way as the centralists in Spain demand that all within the territory of Spain accept that they are Spanish.  And both seek to retain current boundaries and authority.
Unfortunately for them, people don’t always feel the sense of identity that they are told to feel, and many of us feel quite relaxed about having different and overlapping identities at the same time.  But identity isn’t the only determinant of what is or should be a state; more important even than that is the idea that the people living in any area ultimately have the absolute right to decide how they shall be governed, by majority decision.  It means that there are two, and only two, methods of holding existing states together.  The first is by the consent of the people and the second is by the use of force.  Yesterday, the central authorities in Spain abandoned all pretence at following the former of those routes in favour of resorting to the latter.
Can it work?  Well, history teaches us that it has usually worked for long periods in the past; most modern states were formed and subsequently held together largely by the application of force and often appalling levels of violence over decades or even centuries.  But that was in the past: I doubt that a twenty-first century ‘democracy’ can effectively maintain unity for long by the use of force in an age where the reality of events is immediately known across the world, as well as by those directly affected.  That only leaves the ‘consent’ route.
The thing about consent is that it is, to adapt an over-used phrase, a process rather than an event.  Consent is expressed in the everyday actions of millions of people in the way that they do or do not accept the established order and interact with the state.  It is not something which happens on a specific date when a specific generation turn out to vote on a specific constitutional proposal.  An event like that does not – and cannot – bind successive generations for all time.  To try and maintain the fiction that it does – which is effectively the position of both Madrid and London - is to ignore both history and the reality of human expression.  Consent once given can be withdrawn at any time; people always have the right to determine their own future, a right which includes both keeping things as they are and choosing an alternative.
Yesterday’s use of force by the Spanish central authorities will almost certainly turn out to be counter-productive from their own viewpoint, although I suspect that there are many more twists and turns to come.  The Spanish Prime Minister has succeeded in proving what Cnut set out to prove to his courtiers centuries ago – that it is impossible to turn a tide merely by ordering it to stop – even if that was the complete reverse of his intention.  Worse, he shows no sign of realizing what it is that he has proved so clearly.