Friday 30 March 2018

The return of Air Wales?

I referred yesterday to my scepticism about the proposal put forward by Plaid that Wales should have its own national airline, along with a network of regional airports across Wales.  There are a number of issues with this proposal, to my mind.
The first concerns general trends in the aviation industry.  It’s an industry which has certainly seen a great deal of growth in recent years, and that growth has been accompanied by falling prices.  And there is clearly scope for continuing growth into the future.  But that combination of growth and falling prices has been achieved by a mixture of consolidation of national airlines into multinational groups and the rise of cheap low-cost airlines.   There is a history of specifically Welsh airlines - we did, of course, have Cambrian Airways which was moderately successful, and which operated for almost 40 years before being swallowed up by BA in an earlier period of consolidation in 1974.  And we had Air Wales, in two different guises, both of which hit financial problems and eventually ceased operations, in the later instance citing spiralling costs and aggressive competition.  As a means of boosting the range of flights from Cardiff Wales airport, setting up a new state-run airline in a small country like Wales would be going against the flow, to say the least.  That isn’t a cast-iron reason for not doing it, but it’s a pretty good reason for exercising a great deal of caution.
Added to that is that the proposal seems to be based on a supply-led, rather than a demand-led, approach to increasing air traffic.  I don’t doubt that there are people in Wales who would like to be able to fly to an increased range of destinations from Cardiff airport, but at what point does that demand become sufficient to justify the prior expenditure on providing the capacity?  The experience of commercial operators who’ve tried starting new services from Cardiff Wales does not augur well.  A national airline looks like a potential way of diverting a large amount of government expenditure to a loss-making enterprise.  And that is in the context of a government which has little control over its own revenue streams and is legally obliged to balance its budget, meaning that significant investment in an airline would inevitably impact other services.
Underlying those problems is the question of the catchment area from which the demand arises.  I remember a comment on a previous post about expanding Cardiff Wales airport which came close to suggesting that I was being unpatriotic by not enthusiastically supporting expansion; but we need to have a degree of realism about the airport’s prospects.  The population in the catchment area which it is uniquely placed to serve is comparatively small, and is restricted to Cardiff, the Valleys and points west thereof (and we need to remember that parts of that catchment area are among the poorest parts of the UK, a factor which inevitably constrains the current demand for air travel).  For the North, the Canolbarth, and Gwent, there are equally accessible (or even more accessible) competitor airports, and that will remain true even after constructing improved communications routes between north and south.  Choice of airport isn’t just about having a wider range of destinations, or about price (let alone just about being patriotic); it’s also about convenience and ease of access.  The answer to the question ‘why haven’t we got direct regular flights from Cardiff to destination X?’ is because there is currently insufficient demand from within the unique catchment area to make such flights commercially viable (unless they are replacements for, rather than supplements to, existing flights to the same destinations from competing airports, and therefore able to draw on a wider catchment area).  Setting up a loss-making state-run airline is not the solution to that problem.
I don’t know what to make of the proposal for a network of regional airports across Wales as well as expanding the role of Cardiff.  If such airports are going to have their own short or medium haul flights, then they will be direct competitors to Cardiff, and if they’re seen as primarily the origin of ‘feeder’ flights into Cardiff, then they are just about the least efficient and most environmentally damaging method of transporting a (comparatively) small number of people around our country that I can think of.  This is exactly the problem with the current north-south air link – it benefits few and is viable only by the payment of a subsidy for each and every traveller.  Better by far to improve Wales’ internal surface transport (and especially rail), which was another of Plaid’s proposals and one which I would entirely endorse.
And that brings me on to my last, but far from least, point which is whether encouraging the growth of air traffic is a good thing anyway.  I don’t want to stop people enjoying foreign holidays (that would be hypocritical to say the least), nor do I want to create obstacles to foreign trade (although I do want to try and re-localise business as far as possible).  Both of those are likely to lead to slow organic growth in the number and range of flights available from Cardiff.  But actively encouraging the growth of air traffic goes beyond either of those objectives, and seems a strange policy to be coming from a party parading its environmental credentials.  Part of my support for the building of HS2 (which I know appears perverse to many independentistas) is that I see it as part of a high-speed pan-Europe rail network, and as an environmentally preferable alternative to increasing short haul air travel.  I want to see Wales benefitting from that alternative as well, rather than trying to block its development.
Setting up a national airline for Wales looks to me like a project aimed at boosting the semblance of statehood, at what is likely to be a high cost.  I’m more interested in attaining the substance of statehood.

Thursday 29 March 2018

Of chickens and eggs

There is much that I can agree with in the picture of Wales in 2030 painted by Adam Price in his reported speech at Plaid Cymru’s Spring Conference last weekend.  I’m very sceptical about the one part which the Western Mail used to headline its story – the idea of Wales having its own national airline – and I’ll come back to that tomorrow.  But the rest sets out a vision of a Wales significantly different from the one in which we live today.
In his analysis of the conference on Monday, the Western Mail’s Chief Reporter suggested that the vision “exists in a vacuum, robbed of any real political context”, not least because it didn’t really seem to take into account the impact of leaving the EU, or the unlikelihood of Plaid winning two terms in government in the Assembly in order to implement the proposals.  I thought that a fair point to make, but it wasn’t really addressing the most important question for me.  I’d certainly agree that one of the probable effects of Brexit in the short and medium term is that the degree of growth in the UK (and therefore Welsh) economy will be lower than it might otherwise be, but that isn’t the same as saying that there’ll be no growth at all.  It constrains, rather than prevents, investment in building a different future.  And it’s certainly true that the prospects of Plaid being called on to deliver seem more than a little remote at this stage.  That shouldn’t, however, prevent a party from setting out a vision of what Wales could become given the will, and this is a better vision than any of the other parties are currently offering.  It’s a change from the managerialism of recent years, when the message from all parties has seemed to be simply that ‘we’ can run things better.
The suggestion of an independence referendum in or after 2030 is also welcome, although I wasn’t entirely sure whether putting it in those terms was an attempt to put the question back on the agenda or an attempt to kick it so far in the future as to make debate unnecessary in the short term.  It can be interpreted either way.  It’s still a step forward from the position of recent years where Plaid basically supported the position of the unionists that Wales couldn’t afford independence, but it will take a lot more to undo the damage of that particular aberration.
The most important question for me, though, was the ‘chicken-and-egg’ one: is what Plaid is proposing achievable within the current devolution settlement, setting Wales up for independence at a later date, or does it actually require independence as a pre-requisite to deliver such an ambitious programme in so short a timetable?
One of the key differences between an independent state and a subordinate parliament operating entirely within the parameters set by its superior is that the latter is obliged to balance its budget and spend within its revenue, borrowing only within defined limits and obliged to repay those debts in full.  Independent states in control of their own currency, on the other hand, have no such constraints – they can create money as they wish, borrow as much as they like, and very rarely actually repay the money that they borrow.  The prime limitation on their freedom isn’t a set of rules defined by others, but the actual or probable inflationary effect of their actions.  (An EU state within the Eurozone falls somewhere in between those two positions).
When I look at the vision outlined by Plaid, I don’t see a programme which I believe can be delivered within the current powers and finances of the Assembly.  As a vision for what Wales could be in a fairly short period after independence, it works for me, and is the sort of longer term view which our politicians have been failing to provide.  But in the form in which it seems to have been presented – a vision of what we can achieve before independence – I doubt that it is realistic.  And there is a danger that suggesting that we can have many of the benefits of independence without actually becoming independent is not only a variation on Brexit cakeism, but also raises a negative question – if we can do all that without independence, why do we need independence at all?

Monday 26 March 2018

Correcting the right mistake

I disagree with the claim made by Owen Smith over the weekend that Corbyn made a mistake in sacking him.  Not because I find it hard to imagine how sacking Owen Smith could ever be a mistake (although I do), but because the real mistake has nothing directly to do with sackings or individuals, it is a policy issue relating to Brexit.  Corbyn is, at heart, a determined Brexiteer, a factor which is making it incredibly difficult for him to see the open political goal in front of him.

Of bigger concern to me than sacking a shadow minister for not toeing his leader's lie was the statement by another shadow minister over the weekend, namely Keir Starmer, who said that "We cannot allow Labour to break apart over Brexit".  In a single sentence he has summed up the underlying similarity between Labour and the Tories - both are putting the needs of their parties at the top of their priority list.  And in both cases, that drives them to support a decision which they know to be damaging for almost everyone else.

Friday 23 March 2018

Passport Cakeism

I can understand, after a fashion, why those who fought so hard and so long to regain the right which the UK never lost to determine the colour of its own passports at the thought of the shiny new blue ones being manufactured by foreigners.  After all, if you really believe that those EU types have been preventing us from making them blue, it's easy to see why you wouldn't want those same people to get the contract for the new ones.  But at another level, the furore exposes, yet again, the essential cakeism at the heart of Brexit.

In effect, what they really seem to want is the right for UK companies to continue to have unfettered access to the EU27 market, whilst preventing countries from those EU27 countries from winning contracts here.  Protectionism at home, but free trade everywhere else is not a combination which anyone else is going to allow, as even Trump is being forced to discover.  The Brexiteers are going to have to face that simple reality eventually as well.

Tuesday 20 March 2018

Tolling for a purpose

The willingness of the Welsh Government to consider the proposal made yesterday by Gerry Holtham that the new M4 link should become a toll road was disappointing.  It’s not that I’m opposed in principal to road tolls.  They’ll always be unpopular, of course, but as a means of seeking to deter private transport, encourage the use of public transport and re-localise important aspects of the economy, I can see a potential role for a properly thought-through system of road tolls.  My problem is that that isn’t what was being proposed here.
Professor Holtham asked “Why should the taxpayer finance the construction when road-users, who benefit, can do so?”.  I have two objections to that line of argument.  The first is related to the idea that shared infrastructure costs should be paid for only by those who use them.  What if we apply the same argument to a new hospital for instance?  Why should the taxpayer finance the construction, when the sick people who benefit could do so?  And the second point is that it isn’t only the users of a road who benefit from it, as we can see if we turn the question around and ask who really pays the tolls for the businesses using any new road.  The answer is, ultimately, the customers, of course.  Although charges and taxes appear to be levied on businesses, the costs of those businesses always and inevitably get passed on to the customer.  And insofar as there is any selectivity as to which customers pay, it’s the ones at the ‘far end’ of the tolled road.
And that brings me to my main objection to selective road tolling rather than tolling as a part of a package of measures with clear social and environmental benefits in mind.  Just as the Severn Bridge tolls have been a disincentive for some businesses to establish themselves on the ‘wrong’ side, preferring to be on the side where they have the greatest number of customers, so tolling any road in isolation creates a disincentive for businesses to find themselves at the ‘wrong’ end of that road.  No sooner do we get rid of one set of disincentivising tolls than we are faced with the possibility of another.
There is a difference between the two cases, of course.  The alternative to using the Severn Bridge is a long diversion, whilst the alternative to using the proposed new M4 link is to continue using the old untolled road - or as Prof Holtham put it, those unwilling or unable to pay the tolls could “prefer to sit in a jam”.  It sounds like a nice empty free-flowing road for those with spare cash, and a second-class route for the rest.  In a roundabout way, the provision of a better, more exclusive, road only for those who can afford it is a justification, of sorts, for the idea that those using it should pay for it.  I’m not sure, though, that a road built for the use of a minority actually answers the supposed need for the construction in the first place.
Like many others, I’m not convinced about the need for the road at all, so if the Welsh Government is serious about being ready to consider the use of tolls on our roads, why not look at how a comprehensive package of policies, including tolling, might reduce the demand for capacity on the roads and obviate the need?  I accept that it wouldn’t be an easy sell, but it would at least be in line with the fine words which the government likes to utter about the environment and future generations, as opposed to building a road which makes those words worthless.

Monday 19 March 2018

Retaliation is futile. Apparently.

It’s not quite what the daleks say, although the image of Boris Johnson speaking through a dalek voice synthesizer is an interesting one.  I doubt that he’d make much more sense, but he probably couldn’t make much less sense either.  In Borisland, it seems that when the UK government takes action against Russia, this is a way of punishing Russia.  And when Russia responds, the only people hit by its actions are Russians.  It all sounds like a very cunning plan to me, albeit more Baldrick than Doctor Who.  All we have to do is punish the Russians a bit more, and they’ll end up doing even more damage to themselves.  I’m sure that there’s a flaw there somewhere, though.
There was also (yet another) echo of the UK’s colonial past in the reasoning of the Foreign Secretary in saying that the closure of the British Council’s offices in Russia would remove Russian access to opportunities to learn English.  It harks back to the days when the colonial masters set about inculcating knowledge of the English language and culture in the natives in place of their own, and completely failed to understand why the natives weren’t eternally grateful.  It’s only a very colonial mind-set which believes that promoting the UK’s language and culture abroad is done primarily for the benefit of the foreigners rather than the UK.
As I noted a few days ago, I really don’t know whether the Russian state did or did not have a hand in the Salisbury attack, although they must remain major suspects.  As a response to that post stated, it’s entirely possible that the government have access to information that was gathered either clandestinely or illegally and which is more definitive than anything so far made public.  The Foreign Secretary suggested as much yesterday, when he claimed that “We actually have evidence within the last 10 years that Russia has not only been investigating the delivery of nerve agents for the purposes of assassination, but has also been creating and stockpiling Novichok”, although he didn’t go so far as to tell us the nature of that evidence, or explain how even that information ‘proves’ that Russia was responsible in the specific case.  On the basis of past claims about ‘evidence’ from intelligence sources – dodgy dossiers and 45 minutes to launch weapons of mass destruction – and in the absence of any immediately obvious benefit to Putin or Russia, I remain at least a little sceptical, and reluctant to trust anything the government says without seeing more hard evidence.  From that perspective, I saw nothing wrong with Corbyn’s response in saying that we should exercise caution before jumping to possibly unwarranted conclusions.
The way in which Corbyn has been pilloried for taking an entirely reasonable position – not just by the Tories and the media, but even by prominent members of his own party – left me wondering, not for the first time, what exactly are those great British values in which we are all supposed to believe?  Sometimes I think I know, and at other times I’m left baffled.  I don’t remember how and when those values included the idea that people were guilty until proved innocent, or that punishment should be meted out before guilt had been formally established.  I thought that the approach of the Queen of Hearts to such matters in Alice in Wonderland was that it was a fantasy, not a documentary.  And I certainly didn’t think that failing to support the implementation of the sentence before due process had been completed constituted some sort of treason, which seems to be the position of Corbyn’s opponents in his own party.
The rush by Labour members of parliament to uphold the ‘tradition’ that the opposition should always support the government on foreign affairs has been a pretty dismal spectacle.  It exposes yet again (as if it needed further exposure) the deep-rooted jingoistic nationalism of many of that party’s elected members.  Yet still far too many people cling to the idea that Labour is somehow ‘progressive’ and deserving of support.  What does it take before they realise the truth that, when push comes to shove, they're little different from the Tories?

Wednesday 14 March 2018

Do as I say, or I'll stamp my feet

I don’t know whether the Russian state was or was not behind the poisoning in Salisbury.  And unless the UK government has information which it has yet to release, then it does not know either, despite having rushed to point the finger.  Russia isn’t the only possible culprit either; as Craig Murray points out, there are other credible potential villains.  I tend to suspect that Russia is the likeliest, but am struggling to see a strong enough motive for carrying out the attack, let alone doing so in such a way that they would obviously be the top suspects.
But even if we give the UK government the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they know what they’re talking about, how wise is it really for a middle-sized offshore state to start issuing ‘ultimatums’ to a state like Russia?  I understand and agree that no state can idly stand by and allow another state to target and kill civilians at will (although the UK position on that would be a great deal stronger if they hadn’t been actively engaged in doing the same thing elsewhere), and that, if the evidence is strong enough there has to be a protest, backed up by some sort of diplomatic action.  But an ultimatum?
There’s something very old-fashioned about the idea of one state issuing an ultimatum to another.  Hitler issued more than one before invading countries, and Chamberlain issued one to Hitler before declaring war on Germany.  But normally, they’re issued either by opponents who are roughly equal as a prelude to stepping outside to settle the issue, or else by the playground bully as a pretext for the thrashing which is to follow.  Even in the times in which they were more commonplace, my memory of history doesn’t bring to mind an instance of one being issued to the bully by the child receiving, or about to receive, the thrashing.  The reason for that should be obvious.
It strikes me as yet another example of the delusion suffered by those who govern us that the UK (or Great Britain as they’d probably prefer to call it despite its inaccuracy as a description) is still a global power in the face of which others should be quaking in their boots: a great power which can throw its weight around and force others into line.  Whilst they certainly need to be disabused of that notion, I’d prefer, on the whole, to find a better way to bring that about than picking a fight with Russia.

Tuesday 13 March 2018

British nationalism isn't exclusive to the Tories

One of the lines used by Corbyn in his speech at the weekend was this: "As democratic socialists, we respect the result of the referendum”.  At first sight, it looks like an entirely reasonable statement, but the premise behind it deserves a bit more thought than that.
I can see how being ‘democratic’ requires the result of any vote by the people to be ‘respected’, in the sense of being a decision at a point in time.  But any democratically-taken decision at a point in time can always be changed by another democratic decision taken at another point in time.  Whether a particular time is the ‘right’ time to test opinion again or not is a question of detail, and I can understand – and even support – an argument which says that we can’t keep on asking people to revisit a decision until we get the ‘right’ answer.  That isn’t at all the same thing, though, as saying that we have no right to continue the argument and try and persuade people to change their minds.  There’s nothing about the word ‘democratic’ which requires a decision thus taken to be immutable regardless of the consequences or subsequent events.
I don’t see, though, why being a ‘socialist’ requires any decision to be ‘respected’ to the extent that it is somehow illegitimate to argue for it to be reversed.  Indeed, quite the reverse.  Being any sort of ‘socialist’ surely requires one to articulate a particular view of the world and to actively seek to persuade people of the validity of that view rather than simply accepting that the people have rejected your world view.
And that brings us to the heart of the Corbyn/Labour problem in relation to the EU.  Corbyn – and some of those around him – still cling to the view that detaching the UK from the rest of Europe is actually a way of advancing their socialist vision rather than constraining it.  An ‘independent’ UK coupled with a ‘socialist’ government is, from that viewpoint, a route to beginning a transformation of British society.  They just seem unable or unwilling to articulate it in those terms, which suggests at the least a lack of conviction either that they can make it happen or else that they can convince people of the merit of the case.  Possibly both.
The political analysis which paints the EU as a club of capitalists committed to an ideology which does not operate in the best interests of working people is one with which I have considerable sympathy, and was part of my opposition to membership of the EEC at the time of the first referendum back in 1975.  As things transpired, however, working people had more to fear from the government of the UK throughout the 1980s whilst it was the EEC/EU which did more to protect the rights of working people, even if the UK repeatedly sought opt-outs from the relevant EU rules.  Looking back over recent history, it was Tory governments which sought to resist extensions of rights proposed through the EU structures, and Labour governments which subsequently embraced those changes, such as the Social Chapter.  In that context, it’s no surprise that one of the Tory drivers for Brexit is the idea that all of those protections can be removed once free of the influence of ‘Brussels’.
The problems for the unarticulated Corbynite view of the world are, firstly, that he can’t carry his own party with him, which is part of the reason for failing to explain his position in detail; secondly that even if he could, it depends on Labour being able to win a succession of elections over a lengthy period to make and embed the sort of changes required – a possibility which history suggests is unlikely; and thirdly that the rest of the world needs to play ball while it happens.  The history of trying to build ‘socialism in one country’ is not exactly a happy one.
The alternative is that ‘democratic socialists’ in the UK seek to work with similarly-minded people in other countries across Europe to bring about wider and more permanent change across the continent.  It’s a daunting task, but it seems to me more likely to succeed in the long run.  It requires the sort of ‘internationalist’ approach about which Labour often talk but on which they rarely act.  Deep down, there is a strong thread of British nationalism and exceptionalism running through the Labour Party, just like in the Tory party.  It’s always been there, but the combination of Corbyn and Brexit is exposing it more clearly.

Monday 12 March 2018

Choosing the wrong target

After Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at his party’s Scottish Branch meeting over the weekend, it is a complete mystery to me how anyone is still giving any credibility to the idea that Labour’s policy on the EU is in any way different in substance to that of the Tory government.  As an exercise in cakeism, it was a tour de force: Labour want all the benefits of the EU without being bound by any of the rules; they want to be outside the EU yet still have a say in all the important EU policies; they want the exact same benefits as we get from membership whilst having more freedom to make our own policies than any member, let alone any of the countries with which the EU has an existing relationship.  Other than the use of words, and the fig leaf of ‘a’ rather than ‘the’ customs union, it was a speech which could have come from the mouth of Johnson, Gove, Fox, or May.
Except, that is, for the part about immigration.  That was more Farage than Johnson and friends.  And it was a particularly depressing section of his speech, designed more to try to appeal to the prejudices of a particular segment of the electorate than to set out any sort of vision for the future.  There’s been plenty of research showing that the impact of immigration on wages and opportunities is minimal, but he chose to ignore that, concentrating instead on the idea that the damaging part of immigration, in economic terms, is when agencies bring in foreign labour to undercut workers in the UK.
Now, on a factual basis, I don’t know what proportion of total immigration this issue affects.  It’s certainly not all immigration, and I suspect that it’s actually a small part, but it’s a part which is more visible in some communities and some types of work than others, as a result of which it probably has more impact on people’s views on the issue than other types of immigration.  It would be interesting to see some more detailed research on it, but I’ll accept that there is a widespread perception that some agencies are getting around UK law on issues such as the minimum wage by providing food, accommodation, transport etc. and docking these costs (at an inflated level) from the wages being paid to the migrants concerned.  As I said, the extent to which this is a true or accurate perception is a question on which I do not have adequate information to make a judgement, but I’m certain that the perception is widely held.
If we suppose, for the sake of argument, that it is an accurate perception, and that the practice is in use widely across the UK, then it is reasonable to ask what the solution might be.  And my immediate reaction is that if there are holes in the law allowing unscrupulous capitalist employers to exploit employees, than those holes need to be plugged and enforcement action taken.  And had Corbyn suggested that, I would have whole-heartedly supported him.  Protecting workers from exploitation by unscrupulous employers is exactly the approach that I would have expected from anyone calling himself or herself a socialist.
Sadly, however, that wasn’t what he did.  To his shame, he effectively scapegoated the migrants themselves, by supporting an end to freedom of movement.  It’s a case of blaming the victims of an economic relationship based on power and wealth for being on the wrong side of that relationship.  His underlying point, I assume, is that freedom of movement for lower paid workers is a policy which is working more in the interests of employers than of employees.  But even if he’s right, the answer isn’t to curtail the freedom of workers to move, it is to curtail the freedom of employers to exploit.

Friday 9 March 2018

Different rules inevitably incur costs

There was one sentence in the statement by EU Council President, Donald Tusk, this week which seemed to me to sum up the essence of the fantasy world in which the UK government is living.  He said that “This will be the first FTA [Free Trade Agreement] in history that loosens economic ties instead of strengthening them”.  There are two key aspects to current agreements stemming from EU membership, one of which is the removal of all tariffs, and the other is the harmonisation of rules and regulations.  Either of those types of barriers can lead to a requirement for borders and checks; only the removal of both types of barriers can secure ‘frictionless’ trade.  The UK’s position, repeatedly spelt out by the Prime Minister and her colleagues, is that there will not be a common set of rules and regulations (unless, presumably, the EU agrees to copy UK rules, a possibility which I think we can discount).  In those circumstances, there is no way to avoid Tusk’s conclusion that the negotiation is about securing a new agreement which loosens rather than strengthens current ties.
It’s easy to see how, in principle, it will be possible to reach an agreement which does not require the re-imposition of tariffs between the EU and the UK, but the UK’s aspiration to be able to change its regulations at will necessarily requires more border controls than currently exist.  There is potentially a not insignificant problem relating to the term ‘most-favoured nation status’ which is found in many trade agreements, under which if the EU offers the UK a ‘no-tariff’ agreement, it could be obliged to offer the same to a number of other countries with which it has existing trade agreements, and which would also condition any agreements which the UK subsequently reached with other parties.  But with time (if we had it), I suspect that such an agreement could be reached, and Donald Tusk has himself indicated that the EU27 are ready and willing to work towards that.
It is a lot harder to see how the problem of non-tariff barriers can be overcome, as long as the UK continues to insist on its right to set different rules and regulations, unique to its own markets.  In her latest speech, the Prime Minister seemed to be tacitly acknowledging this, whilst still clinging to the meaningless rhetoric about creating the absolute bestest free trade agreement ever in the whole history of mankind, in an attempt to paper over the inevitable.  As long as the term ‘free trade’ refers only to the issue of tariffs, she might even get something close to that; but pretending that it can in any way be other than worse than the current agreement is delusional.  And the only way that it can obviate the need for a hard border is if we redefine the term ‘no hard border’ to mean a border controlled by armed police through which smart technology is used to minimise delays, just like the one between the US and Canada to which the PM herself referred.  Getting the Irish government to agree to that redefinition strikes me as falling, at the very least, into the category labelled ‘challenging’.
Of course, not being bound by rules and regulations which have to be painstakingly negotiated with 27 other countries and then applied uniformly is something which has a value of sorts in its own right.  It’s not a financial value, though; in financial terms it carries a cost, not just in terms of restricting trade and travel between neighbouring countries, but also in terms of duplicating the standards and enforcement mechanisms.  I think that at least some of the Brexiteers understand that, and have decided that it’s a price worth paying.  It would be more honest, though, for them to say that and explain why, rather than to continue to try and argue that there is no cost at all involved.

Thursday 8 March 2018

Who needs anyone else's agreement?

At the heart of the debate about the so-called ‘power grab’ by Westminster as part of the Brexit process is a belief that common frameworks in some areas are a good thing which will help to maintain the coherence of the market between the different parts of the UK.  As far as I can make out, there’s no real difference between the position of the UK Government and the devolved governments on that question; the issue is about how to achieve it.  In essence, although they don’t put it such clear terms themselves, the position of the UK Government is that such commonality can only be achieved by Westminster deciding the framework and effectively imposing it as a constraint on how the devolved administrations can use their powers.  From the point of view of the devolved administrations, any such framework should be negotiated and agreed, rather than being imposed, starting from the assumption that in areas where they hold the responsibility they are equal partners and should be treated as such.
Perhaps the UK Government will back down under the persistent pressure being applied, perhaps not.  But if they decide not to change course, there can only be one winner from this conflict in the short term: since all powers held by the devolved administrations are held only by the grace of a central parliament which reserves to itself the right to revoke them at any time, Westminster can always trump anything decided in Cardiff or Edinburgh (Belfast being currently in no position to decide anything anyway).  That is the whole point of devolution – it does not, and was never intended to, create any sort of ‘equality’ between the devolved parliaments and the central one.  It's a point which also goes to the heart of the difference between a voluntary union of independent states and a union based, ultimately, on conquest and domination.
Of course, Westminster’s belief in the utility of common frameworks extends only as far as the borders of the UK.  Much of what Brexit is intended to achieve (and in which it will succeed if it actually happens) is about weakening or even destroying existing common frameworks.  What is a good thing when applied to the Wales-England border is a bad thing when applied to the England-France border.  That is so obviously the case that it doesn’t even require anyone to explain why.
There is though one common aspect between the two situations, and that is the determination of Westminster that they, and they alone, should make the rules.  They try to present the EU rules as being ‘imposed’ by foreign bureaucrats, but the reality is that they are negotiated between the 28 member states.  The problem, for the English government, is that they have never been able to accept that in such a negotiation they might not always get everything they want.  Seen from that perspective, there’s nothing in the least surprising about their determination to press ahead with establishing the common post-Brexit UK frameworks without having to negotiate with anyone else.  Their stance is entirely consistent – the Westminster government must make all the rules.
That’s why I don’t really expect them to back down much more on the EU legislation despite the hostility of Cardiff and Edinburgh.  Their world view prevents them seeing any alternative.  It also helps to explain the gulf in understanding between the UK and the EU27; the UK is still waiting for the EU to accept that the UK must always be allowed to decide everything for itself, without ever having to get anyone else’s agreement. 

Wednesday 7 March 2018

Lying under oath

There have been some suggestions recently that Sinn Féin’s MPs should take their seats in the Westminster Parliament in order to change the balance of votes when it comes to Brexit.  In Ireland, the suggestion has been made on the basis of protecting the interests of the whole of Ireland, a basis which must surely hold at least some appeal to a party committed to a united Ireland.  The call by the Taoiseach seems well-motivated, but unlikely to have much impact, given the history and background of the issue.
In a rather simplistic comment in the Guardian, Polly Toynbee managed to reduce the whole history of abstentionism to a reluctance to “mutter the loyal oath”, bearing in mind that “they could always rescind it later”.  Things are much more complex than that, but that’s a subject for another day.  It made me wonder, though, why the loyal oath is necessary in the first place.
Were they to start ‘muttering’ it, Sinn Féin’s MPs wouldn’t be the only ones doing so dishonestly, with their fingers figuratively crossed behind their backs.  I’m certain that there are republicans in all parties in the House of Commons who still take the loyal oath (wording here), and in the National Assembly (which has a similar oath), even if some of them are unwilling to admit it.  All of them have, before taking up their seats, been obliged to utter a meaningless form of words with zero sincerity.  For understandable reasons, members of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland do not have to swear allegiance to the Crown, or take any other form of oath; they merely have to sign the membership roll and pledge to observe a series of rules concerning their conduct.
But if merely signing in and agreeing to abide by the parliament’s rules is enough in one part of the UK, why isn’t it enough elsewhere?  Why do we continue to demand that elected members solemnly lie (with or without use of the bible) before they can do the job for which we elect them?  In one sense, it’s just a throwback to a more deferential era; in another it’s a formal reaffirmation of the constitutional fiction that power belongs to the monarch, not the people, and that our elected members are there to serve the monarch not the people.  Abolishing it is long overdue.
It wouldn’t be enough to end the abstentionist position of a party which refuses to accept that the UK Parliament has any rights to legislate for any part of the island of Ireland, but it would be a step towards recognising that power, ultimately, belongs to the people.

Tuesday 6 March 2018

The superiority is real, not imagined

I’ve never really understood how anyone can seriously support the idea of a hereditary head of state, where the incumbent is selected solely on the basis of being the eldest child of his or her parents.  (Actually, it’s not even as straightforward as that – the selection is on the basis of who are believed to be the parents; I’ve often wondered how many of those who have ascended to the throne are the offspring of someone else.  As the saying goes, ‘it’s a wise child who knows his own father’.)  And I know that there are many elected politicians, of all parties, who share that scepticism about the value of apparent heredity.
In practical terms, however, I’ve never seen it as a particular priority.  Whilst I’d prefer Wales to become a republic with an elected head of state, it is the possession of power to make laws which is the important issue, not the question of who formally signs them.  As long as, in practice, the monarch has no power to do anything other than what the government tells him or her to do, it’s a minor anomaly which can be corrected at some future date.
Sometimes, however, the issue becomes more relevant, not so much because of the fact that the head of state is a hereditary position, but because of the fiction which stems from that, which is that all power belongs to the monarch who graciously shares it with parliament.  It is particularly pertinent in the case of devolution.
In relation to the EU Continuity Bill which the Assembly yesterday agreed to treat as emergency legislation, yesterday’s Western Mail editorial column told us that the Welsh Government was correct in seeing the UK Government’s power grab as a threat to devolution, and added that “What Westminster is seeking to do is exert its authority over democratically-elected national bodies that it considers subordinate to it”.  I take issue with the use of the word ‘considers’ here.  I agree, though, that the question exposes a problem at the heart of ‘devolution’, which is that, in constitutional terms, all the power enjoyed by the National Assembly stems not from the fact that it is a democratically-elected body chosen by the people of Wales, but from the fact that the Crown-in-Parliament has allowed it to exist and allowed it to exercise a restricted range of powers.  The Assembly truly is ‘subordinate’ to Westminster; that is inherent in the very concept of ‘devolution’.
I can understand why supporters of devolution see the UK Government’s approach to Brexit as being something of a ‘power-grab’ (and I welcome the Assembly’s efforts to protect its powers); but I can equally understand why the UK Government sees a body which has, from a London perspective, no more right to its existence than a county council as getting above itself when it dares to challenge the central power.  Legally, Westminster has every right to be “imposing its will on Wales and Scotland” as the Western Mail puts it.  And complaining about “an administration that considers itself superior” is empty rhetoric.
If we don’t want a body which is constitutionally superior to behave as though it is constitutionally superior, we need to take away its constitutional superiority.  At the least, that requires a change in the UK constitution to recognise that the people, not the monarch, are sovereign.  And for the Assembly to be treated as any sort of equal with Westminster requires us to treat powers held in Westminster as having been loaned to Westminster by the people of Wales rather than treat those exercised by the Assembly as having been loaned to the people of Wales by a hereditary monarch.  It’s a paradigm shift which I doubt the Western Mail is ready to make.

Monday 5 March 2018

Were her fingers still crossed?

If the main audience for the PM’s much-heralded speech last Friday was her own party, and if its main purpose was to reunite that party, then success was at best limited, with the former deputy Prime Minister firing another salvo over the weekend.  I can understand why any party leader would prefer to have a party united behind her on policy and direction rather than with the simple intent of inserting a knife between her shoulder blades, but given the depth of the disagreement on Europe within her party, and the fact that it’s been a running sore for three decades, I suspect that her attempts are doomed from the start.  Time to recognise that one of the world’s most electorally successful parties is no longer fit for purpose.
Paradoxically, if the main audience was anyone but her own party, then the speech could probably be considered marginally more successful.  It’s still peppered with ridiculous fantasies and contradictions – what can anyone make of her claim that she wants the “broadest and deepest possible agreement – covering more sectors and co-operating more fully than any free trade agreement anywhere in the world today” whilst also admitting that any deal on her terms will mean less free trade than at present.  There already is a ‘most ambitious free trade deal’ in existence.  It’s called the EU and she’s leading the UK out of it, so what she’s actually calling for is the ‘second broadest and deepest’ deal.
Her talk of the deal being a ‘win-win’ is equally silly if confined solely to economics.  There can be little doubt that it’s actually ‘lose-lose’, and the purpose of any negotiation is to mitigate the losses, not maximise the non-existent gains.  The only way that anyone can interpret any aspect of this as a ‘win’ is by treating non-economic considerations as being more important than economic ones.  That is, ultimately, the position held by Brexiteers, and it would be an entirely honourable one if they were to be honest about it.  Some of us would still disagree, of course, but at least we’d be debating on an honest basis.
At one point in her speech she actually said “I want to be straight with people”.  But if that’s what she wants to do, why not do it?  It’s the sort of political rhetoric that always makes me certain that what’s about to follow is going to be the exact opposite. Still, even if at a detailed level she’s still asking for what she knows to be impossible, at a headline level it’s easy to see why the EU negotiators have welcomed what looks like the start of a realisation that the UK’s red lines are going to have to be rubbed out one by one.
In fairness to the Prime Minister, I thought that she did a pretty good job, in most of the speech, in setting out why membership of the EU is such a good idea for the UK, and why we will lose out unless we retain membership of various agencies and keep most of the EU’s rules and regulations.  At least, that’s what I thought she was saying, and that’s what the EU negotiators seem to think she was saying as well.  On the other hand, both they and I thought that she had committed, last December, to keeping Northern Ireland in the same customs and regulatory regime as the rest of Ireland.  It turned out that she had her fingers crossed behind her back all the time, invalidating all promises made.  The question now is whether they were still crossed last Friday.  The Brexiteers who praised her speech certainly seem to think so.

Thursday 1 March 2018

What republic?

Last December, the UK Prime Minister agreed a joint statement with the EU27 which said, in relation to a border across the island of Ireland, that “…in the absence of a later agreement, the UK will ensure “full alignment” with the rules of the customs union and single market that uphold the Good Friday agreement”.  Yesterday, the EU27 published a draft treaty to implement the December agreement in which one option (Option C) is that Northern Ireland remains aligned with EU rules in a number of areas.  I am struggling to see why the first of those was presented as a great triumph for Theresa May, but the other is something to which she says “no United Kingdom prime minister could ever agree”. 
Of course, my inability to see the enormous difference between these two things might be entirely my problem.  I am, after all, someone who still fails to understand the huge significance of swapping a burgundy passport for a blue one.  On the other hand, it is at least possible that I might be right and there is no real difference - other than that three months have passed since then, during which the EU was supposed to have forgotten what the UK agreed to last December, because it was, in reality, simply a negotiating ploy to allow talks to progress, and not something which they were ever supposed to take seriously.
There are two underlying problems highlighted by the Irish border issue.  The first is that the Prime Minister has managed to make three very clear promises:
·         She has promised the EU and the Irish that she will do nothing which necessitates a hard border across Ireland,
·         She has promised the DUP that there will be no border between the island of Ireland and the island of Great Britain, and
·         She has promised her own backbenchers that the UK will leave the Customs Union and the Single Market and make its own regulations and trade deals.
It is perfectly possible for her to keep any two of those promises; the delusion is to believe that there is any conceivable way of keeping all three.  The question which I find myself asking is why that delusion is so strong, not just for her, but for all the others who continue to insist that they can do all three.
That brings us to the second, and perhaps more important, underlying issue.  I believe that they really don’t understand that Ireland is an independent sovereign state, and continue to regard it as some sort of semi-detached part of the UK, inextricably bound up with the rest of us, with a leadership which is currently being awkward but which will fall into line eventually.  And at the moment, I’m not sure that the English nationalists running the UK at the moment, with their entire philosophical outlook firmly rooted in the days of empire, is capable of developing the understanding which will be necessary if they are ever to reach an agreement.  Mere facts can’t convince people who prefer their own ‘facts’, a perspective which means that the inevitable failure of the current approach will always be someone else’s fault. 
The cliff edge awaits.