Friday 31 August 2018

We can't decide for others

The pro-Brexit Daily Express got itself quite excited yesterday about the apparent hint from Michel Barnier of a super-duper extra-special Brexit deal for the UK the like of which has never been seen before.  It seems however that they have just not been paying attention – as the Guardian reported, this is nothing new, he’s been saying the same thing all along.  The EU27 have been keen from the outset to maintain strong links with the UK and have always been willing to negotiate a bespoke deal.  What they have not been willing to do, however, is to change the single market rules to suit a departing member; the obstacle to that super-duper deal isn’t in Brussels, it’s in London.
That fact was underlined by the attempt by David Lidington, effectively the deputy to the Prime Minister, to issue an ultimatum to the EU27 – agree to what we want or we walk.  Ultimatums have never been a particularly brilliant way of negotiating anything, and when they’re being issued by the weaker party to the stronger, and when following through on them damages the weaker party more than the stronger, then the stronger party can surely be excused for scratching its collective head and saying ‘OK, go on then’.  The ‘ultimatum’ amounts to a demand that the EU27 not only give the UK all its current benefits, but also start dismantling key aspects of the single market in order to do so.
That’s something to which they were never and are never going to agree; a deal is on the table any time the UK is prepared to drop its red lines.  Whether that is ‘proper’ Brexit or not is another question, but it would at least buy enough time for the UK to decide what it really wants (and offer an easy way back in if sanity is ever restored).  But the underlying reality – that it is the UK which has made the decision to leave, and it is the UK which must bear the consequences of that – was neatly summed up by the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, when he said that Brexit “…is what the British people have chosen for themselves, not for others …”.  That encapsulates the problem at the heart of the Anglo-British nationalism driving the Brexit project – the belief that a vote by the UK electorate not only binds the UK government, but also somehow mandates the rest of the EU to comply with whatever the UK wants.  The old-style imperialists still don't understand the modern world.  Ultimatums, like gunboats, belong to the diplomacy of the past, not the present.

Thursday 30 August 2018

Planning for independence

As part of his campaign to lead Plaid Cymru, Adam Price announced a ‘seven step plan’ at the weekend, setting out the route to independence as he sees it.  It’s pleasing to see someone making an attempt to set out how we get from here to there, but when I read the detail, it looks more like a rehash of Plaid’s existing position (that independence is an aspiration for the future and anyway Wales is currently too poor) and a plan for a political party to seek power within the existing institution without frightening the horses than a realistic assessment of the next steps.
The plan places a dependence on Plaid winning two Assembly elections before holding a referendum.  That is a wholly artificial dependency.  For sure, it took two elections ‘won’ by the SNP before Scotland held a referendum, but that was because they formed only a minority government in their first term and there was no majority in the Scottish Parliament for a bill calling a referendum.  The real dependency here is that question of a parliamentary majority – it requires only one election victory for a party or group of parties committed to holding a referendum to be legitimately able to call one.  It could be, of course, that Adam is assuming that any election victory by Plaid in 2021 would be as a minority administration rather than a majority.  It’s not an unrealistic assumption, and if that were to be the case, then it would, of course, be necessary to postpone any referendum bill until there were a majority.  And it’s equally true that a minority government committed to a referendum would probably reflect, at best, a lukewarm public attitude to independence.  But if a party commits to not holding a referendum until it has won at least two elections, then it ends up with no legitimate mandate to hold such a referendum even if it were to win the first election overwhelmingly. 
There’s nothing to disagree with in the suggestion of ‘building new Welsh media’, although it’s something which is easier said than done, and there is an inevitable lack of detail about the ‘how’ at this stage.  And whilst it’s clear that the lack of such media at present hinders any meaningful debate about independence, placing a dependency on building that media before moving to argue for independence looks like placing an unnecessary obstacle on the route.  The real obstacle is that people in Wales are unpersuaded; simply blaming the media for the failure of independentistas to convince people of the case is disingenuous.  It’s the responsibility of independentistas to find the means of convincing people, not to blame others.
Nor is there anything to disagree with in the desire to ‘grow the Welsh economy’ as such.  However, placing a dependency on ‘closing the fiscal gap’ is another matter entirely, and is my main point of disagreement with this ‘plan’.  In the first place, the so-called ‘fiscal gap’ exists only as a result of a particular set of calculations based on a particular set of assumptions, one of which is that Wales remains part of the UK.  Not only is that not a good starting point for any independentista, it demonstrates a subservience to UK-based thinking and the sort of economic theory which gave us ‘austerity’; and it’s completely the wrong way of assessing how wealthy Wales is.  A much better basis is to look at an international comparator such as GDP per head and assess where Wales stands compared to other independent countries.  I’ve posted on that before, but without going through the detail again, an objective assessment of Wales’ relative wealth puts us in the top 30 world wide (out of around 190 countries) and right in the middle in terms of member states of the EU.  There’s work to be done in terms of setting alternative policies, creating the institutions and so on, but economically, there is no obstacle to independence other than those created by following a UK mindset.
We can be independent any time we want to be – the only real obstacle is that we independentistas have not created that desire for independence.  And I don’t see how the seven step plan addresses that.

Wednesday 29 August 2018

Back to where we were

Few things could better underline the real impact on trade of Brexit than the fanfare greeting the agreement between the UK and SACU (the Southern Africa Customs Union), announced during the PM’s visit to South Africa.  This is not a new trade deal and has not been ‘negotiated’ in any meaningful sense of the word; it is, rather, an agreement by SACU to continue to apply the terms of its current agreement with the EU to the UK, and an agreement by the UK to apply the terms previously negotiated by the EU to future trade with SACU.  The ‘negotiation’ underpinning the terms of the deal was all carried in the past out by the EU.
One of the interesting aspects of the agreement is that it underlines the extent to which trade agreements worldwide are increasingly being negotiated not between individual countries but between trade blocs which first establish their own ‘internal’ rules and then negotiate collectively with other blocs.  This is, of course, precisely what the UK government is saying that it does not want to do in future; it wants, instead, to negotiate its own individual agreements, because that is, apparently, ‘taking back control’.  In this case, ‘taking back control’ means signing as an individual state an identical agreement to that which had already been signed by the EU collectively.
The chances of getting ‘better’ agreements are, in most cases, slim, as this specific example demonstrates.  It’s very much easier to simply piggyback onto work already done than to start from scratch.  That’s not to knock the approach; replicating all the EU’s current agreements has to be better than simply walking away from them all and spending the next ten years trying to negotiate something essentially very similar in the hope that, just occasionally, freedom from the constraints of trying to meet the requirements of 28 member states might bring a small improvement.
It does mean, though, that ‘setting an independent trade policy’ will mean, in most cases and for the foreseeable future, simply accepting the terms previously and painstakingly negotiated by ‘Brussels’.  It’s a lot of time and effort just to get back to where we started.

Tuesday 28 August 2018

But where does it leave Wales?

It was reported over the weekend that a former president of the European Council has warned that a ‘no-deal’ Brexit threatens the breakup of the United Kingdom.  Like most independentistas, I tend to see that as a positive outcome rather than a negative one.  There are a few ‘buts’, though.
The most obvious danger to the continuation of the UK is the possibility of a second independence referendum in Scotland.  But what would ‘independence’ mean in such a scenario?  Many are assuming that it would lead to Scotland remaining in the EU whilst the rest of the UK departs, and there is little doubt that Scottish accession to the EU would be fairly straightforward to negotiate and agree, given that the country is already adhering to all the relevant EU rules and regulations.  However, there’s no guarantee that supporters of independence would want that outcome; the analyses of voting in the referendum suggest that a significant proportion of those choosing independence don’t want to be in the EU either.  More significantly, what would be the relationship between a Scotland in the EU and the remainder of the UK?  For all the reasons rehearsed time and again in relation to Ireland, there can either be regulatory alignment or there can be a hard border; there cannot be no border between the EU and non-EU regulatory regimes.  In short, Scottish independence post-Brexit either means setting up a border between Scotland and England, or else it means accepting the UK (i.e. England) regulatory regime, a decision which in turn rules out membership of the EU.  I’m not at all sure that a border would be an attractive proposition to the Scots, nor am I convinced that accepting rules laid down by England with no input to drawing them up is an attractive proposition either.
The second danger to the UK is the possible reunification of Ireland.  The demographics have been moving slowly but inexorably in that direction for generations, and it’s entirely possible that Brexit might provide the final bit of extra momentum to give a majority vote in favour.  However, it seems unlikely that any majority would be overwhelming, and if there’s one thing that we should have learned from Brexit it is that trying to implement significant constitutional change on the basis of a slim majority in a one-off referendum is not exactly a recipe for reconciliation and unity.  I tend to agree with the Brexiteers that the idea that Brexit and borders would necessarily reignite violence in the north of Ireland is overplayed by some (although the particularly crass remarks by Rees-Mogg about imposing border checks ‘just like during the Troubles’ last week seem almost designed to encourage that result), but I wouldn’t be so confident about a narrow majority in a referendum being used to shoehorn die-hard unionists into the Republic.  History isn’t terribly promising on that score.
Let’s assume, however, that I’m being unduly pessimistic on both scores, and that an independent Scotland joins a reunited Ireland as member states of the EU, overcoming all the far from trivial obstacles to such an outcome, and that they both become visibly successful states.  Where does that leave Wales which, by its voting habits to date, has more or less proclaimed that we’ll take whatever we’re given?  It’s easy to assume that observation of the success being enjoyed by near neighbours in Scotland and Ireland coupled with the economic damage of Brexit would lead to a growth in support for independence. But I suspect that it will not be anywhere near as simple as that.  Wales is much further back in the process; that final push generated by Brexit is nowhere near enough for a country which has come to believe the lie that it is too poor and dependent on others to ever take responsibility for its own future.  There needs to be a desire to take responsibility before the debate can really focus on the details such as how and when.  The default position looks like greater integration not greater self-responsibility.

Friday 24 August 2018

The no deal that never was

I almost felt sorry for the Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, yesterday as he tried to spell out the consequences if there is no deal with the EU before departure day.  He was given an impossible brief: meet the needs of his boss by explaining why ‘no-deal’ is so bad that her so-called ‘plan’ looks good in comparison without undermining her persistent claim that ‘no deal’ is better than a bad deal, whilst at the same time satisfying the more rabid Brexiteers’ desire for the government to say that ‘no deal’ really isn’t a problem at all.  He was never going to achieve both and in the end he achieved neither.  And at the same time as he was busy attempting the impossible by both scaring and reassuring people at the same time, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was busy writing a letter explaining just how significant the potential economic impact was going to be.  It was not exactly a good day at the office for Raab, but my temptation to sympathise is tempered by the fact that his plight is, ultimately, self-inflicted – no-one forced him to take the job.
His contingency plans themselves are notable for not matching the label on the tin, to misuse a phrase.  The theory was that they would help people to prepare for the worst-case scenario, but that’s exactly what they don’t do.  As imagined by the UK Government, the ‘worst-case’ is simply one where the UK Government continues to behave as though the UK was still a member of the EU, following the same rules and processes laid down by the EU27, and assumes that the EU27 will do the same and effectively treat the UK as a continuing member in all but name.  But that isn’t really the worst case at all, is it?  Because the EU could simply decide not to treat the UK in the same way at all and treat us instead as an external third party – and that’s a scenario which the government’s plans don’t even seem to consider.
There is, of course, a question as to whether that would be a reasonable response by the EU27, and whether they’d actually go that far.  If the UK tries to insist that it will follow all the rules but exempt itself from the authority of the bodies enforcing those rules – such as the European Court of Justice – then it does seem quite credible to me that the EU would take a hard-line stance, in which case the plans announced yesterday by the government would be wholly inadequate to deal with the actuality.  If, on the other hand, the UK were prepared to agree to continue to accept the authority of the relevant bodies for the time being, then the EU27 would almost certainly be prepared to take a more reasonable stance to allow more detailed negotiations to continue over a longer period.
Here’s the rub, though.  In the first place, such an agreement would be highly unlikely to get the support of the Brexiteers, and in the second, it would require a formal agreement with the EU.  In short, the government’s plans aren’t for a ‘no deal’ scenario at all; they are for a scenario in which there is a short term and limited deal.  But that short term and limited deal is no more certain than the wider deal towards which the government has supposedly been working, because the UK Government’s own red lines rule out the likely content.
I don’t know how much time and effort went into the plans which the unfortunate Raab announced yesterday, but they simply don’t deal with the situation in which the UK might find itself, they don’t work even as a PR exercise, and they satisfy none of the potential audiences.  Sooner or later, the Brexiteers need to start being honest and accept that, if their prime demand is that the UK should become a third-party country with relation to the EU, then there should be no surprise if the EU grants that wish and treats the UK as a third party.  Spelling out the consequences of that demand is not about some sort of ‘Project Fear’, it’s about facing up to, and preparing for, the reality.  To date, they’ve barely started on that.

Thursday 23 August 2018

Reducing standards won't work

On Tuesday, the international trade secretary told us that he wants the UK to be a "21st Century exporting superpower", and the story was inevitably linked to the ‘freedom’ that Brexit will give the UK to negotiate trade deals around the world.  Personally, I have more than a few doubts about whether exporting is the inherently good thing as which it’s usually painted; in environmental terms, it seems to me that there’s a lot to be said for more local production and consumption.  But, for the sake of argument, let’s accept the assumption that exporting is always a good thing, and that the UK economy should aim to do as much of it as possible.
Currently, exports make up 30% of the UK’s GDP, and he wants to get that up to 35%.  That sounds like a lot, but it leaves the UK lagging behind a country such as Germany, which really is an exporting superpower, with exports accounting for 41% of national output.  It’s worth considering how and why Germany manages to export so much more than the UK.  Firstly, of course, it can export freely to the other 27 member states of the EU and take advantage of the relatively easy trade offered by the 50+ agreements which the EU has signed with other countries.  These are all advantages which the UK also currently enjoys (although the same trade secretary actually wants us to walk away from all of those in order to negotiate less comprehensive agreements).
The question which needs to be asked is why, if the UK enjoys all the same benefits of trade agreements as Germany, it is unable to leverage those in the same way and achieve the same level of export success?  Clearly, it is not membership of the EU per se which prevents that (and if EU membership isn’t the problem, it follows as surely as night follows day that leaving the EU won’t solve the problem).  The underlying problem must be simply that goods and services produced in the UK are not competitive; and the question is why that should be.
Brexiteers such as Fox might well argue that one of the reasons for the lack of competitiveness is the extent to which EU rules constrain British manufacturers to produce to a particular set of standards following a particular set of rules.  Freed from those constraints, UK suppliers would be able to be much more competitive on price.  It’s a simple analysis, and one with which I can readily agree.  The problem is, though, that the analysis is not just simple, it’s too simple.  There is a major flaw in assuming that goods produced to a different set of standards will automatically lead to higher sales simply because they are more competitive on price.  That flaw is that any market which adopts a particular set of rules to maintain standards – and we’re talking here not just about standards governing the quality of the goods themselves, but also those governing environmental factors and the health, safety and conditions of the employees – is not simply going to allow goods produced to a less exacting set of rules to flood into that market.  For sure, the UK post-Brexit can abolish all sorts of rules currently enforced by the EU and produce goods more cheaply as a result – but who’s going to buy them?
This is the issue at the very heart of the impasse in negotiations between the EU and the UK over borders and trade: the EU wants to maintain the integrity of its market, whilst the UK is demanding, in effect, that it should be allowed to compete on price by not complying with the EU’s standards.  The Brexiteers don’t often put it in such terms, but Rees-Mogg was pretty explicit when he argued that standards which were “good enough for India” could also be good enough for the UK.  It’s a world view which starts from the assumption that business regulation should be driven by the lowest common denominator.  The corollary is that any improvement in standards over time can only come about by global agreement rather than by agreement within individual trade blocs such as the EU. 
Effectively, the Brexiteers are demanding that the EU reduce its standards to whatever the UK decides they should be.  They want the whole EU to become a ‘rule-taker’, with Britannia setting the rules.  There is only one way in which a disagreement couched in those terms can end, but Fox’s optimism on the post-Brexit future for UK exporting is based on the wholly unrealistic assumption that another outcome is certain.  Despite his desire to improve export performance, there’s only one possible result of a blind determination to exempt the UK from the rules and standards applying in the markets to which it exports.  And that result isn’t an increase in exports.

Wednesday 22 August 2018

Putting the past behind us

I noted last week that there is no such thing as simple objective history; facts and events are always selected and interpreted from one or other point of view.  It’s something that strikes me time and time again looking at the debate over Brexit.  One particular example concerns the argument which I’ve seen over and over from Brexit supporters, angry over the failure of ‘Europeans’ to give the UK whatever it wants (even if it still doesn’t exactly know what that is), which refers to the two world wars fought partly on European soil during the twentieth century.  The argument invariably comes down to how ‘we’ saved ‘them’, twice, and now look how they’re treating us, the ungrateful bunch that they are.
It’s an insular mentality, based on the idea that these islands are somehow separate from and apart from the rest of the continent, only getting dragged into that continent’s wars when it became necessary to do so to prevent German dominance.  Not only is that a comparatively short-term and grossly over-simplistic analysis of the causes of those wars, it also ignores the long previous centuries of conflict during which ‘England’ was as often as not the aggressor, attacking anyone and everyone in pursuit of its own desire for dominance.
Taking that longer view of history, Europe has been fought over time and time again in what, from a pan-European perspective, looks like a series of bloody civil wars as different states each sought to dominate their neighbours.  It is that history of conflict which explains the outcome; a mish-mash of so-called ‘nation-states’ in which the boundaries of nations and states rarely coincide.  The desire to avoid any further repeat has been a significant driver of the attempts, however imperfect they have been, to unite Europe since the 1950s.  It’s a perspective which many in the UK seem never to have understood, and which leaves them bewildered when the rest of the EU pursue objectives other than the purely economic. 
In 1984, the president of France and the German chancellor held hands at a ceremony marking the seventieth anniversary of the outbreak of the first world war, marking the extent of reconciliation between those two countries.  It was a moving gesture.  Contrast that with attitudes in the UK – in 2014, thirty years after that hand-holding act of reverence for the dead on all sides, a plan to invite the German president to jointly mark the occasion on which the British Empire and Germany went to war was dropped because it was judged ‘too difficult’, according to a report in the Sunday Times (paywall).  (The same report notes that the government is now planning to invite the German president to the commemorative service at Westminster Abbey marking the end of that war - but he will be the only head of state invited to join the Queen, reflecting again the way in which ‘the war’ is viewed as an almost uniquely ‘British’ event against a single enemy, in another gross oversimplification of history.) 
There is a continuing reluctance in the UK to see either war in terms other than those of ‘this sceptr’d isle’ against the rest, or as victory for one side and defeat for the other, and it can sometimes be difficult to see where commemoration of the dead ends and celebration of victory and militarism starts.  The UK’s underlying military-based identity and resistance to reconciliation in turn often seems to translate into seeing the EU as yet another fiendish plan by which Germany will come to dominate the European continent (a role which a blinkered view of history says belongs only to Albion).  Seen from that perspective, reconciliation between France and Germany – both of which have been ‘enemies’ of ‘England’ for centuries – is viewed more as a threat to the UK’s position than an opportunity for Europe, and rather than seeking to be part of that rapprochement, the aim must be to smash it apart.  When Basil Fawlty talked about ‘not mentioning the war’, he was really reflecting the fact that a shared, albeit distorted, folk memory of ‘the war’ continues to underpin the attitudes of many British people to Europeans in general and Germans in particular.
I can understand, to an extent at least, why some of these attitudes might be present amongst those who lived during either of the two wars; hatred and mistrust of ‘the hun’ was formal government policy in order to rally the population to strive for absolute victory.  But that demographic accounts for less than 10% of those living today, and many of those would have been children at the time.  I can see how the feelings could have been transferred to many in the immediate post-war generation as well; as someone born in 1951, I grew up around adults saying things like 'the only good German is a dead German'.  But whilst subsequent generations in Europe seem to have been able to move on, it does not seem to have happened at the same speed or to the same extent in the UK.  Can anyone imagine any UK Prime Minister holding hands with the Chancellor of Germany at any war commemoration?  Or the reactions of the tabloids if they did?  ‘The war’ still dominates much of the tabloid discourse about the EU in general and Germany in particular - especially, it seems, when it comes to football - even if it is not always openly expressed in such terms.
Things are changing, though.  The generational difference in support for membership of the EU was striking in 2016, and demographic changes since then make a similar result less likely in the future.  That partly explains why the Brexiteers are so keen that everyone should ‘respect the result’; their chances of winning again are diminishing daily due to demographics alone.  One of my fears about Brexit is that they want to take us back to a time when all other European countries were overwhelmingly viewed as potential or even actual enemies, and where this brave little island stood alone.  The crisis likely to be caused by the sort of Brexit for which they are now working is for them an opportunity to invoke that wartime spirit once again, strengthening and passing on to future generations that sense of specialness and uniqueness which Anglo-British nationalists delight in calling ‘not nationalism’.  And I think we all know which sections of the population will suffer most from the economic crisis which the ideologues plan to use to recreate a sense of deference and ‘Britishness’.
The continuing utter incompetence of the governing party, and its inability to agree on anything, gives me hope, of sorts, that such a future can still be avoided.  Faced with a choice of ‘no-deal’ – which increasingly looks like the only possible result of Tory dissension – and a fresh vote leading to cancellation of Brexit, the probability of the latter is increasing.  That would allow us to turn our attention instead to shaping the sort of EU that we want rather than the one we currently have.  But I’d have even more hope if there were a credible opposition party able to free itself of the attitudes of the past and seek a different way forward.

Tuesday 21 August 2018

Maybe not a bus this time...

Last week, the Foreign Secretary told us that leaving the EU without a deal on the future trading relationship "would be a mistake we would regret for generations", but was forced to follow that up later the same day with a ‘clarification’ that what he apparently meant to say was that it was the rest of the EU which would regret it, not us: “it would be a big mistake for Europe because of inevitable impact on long-term partnership with UK”.  In the land of make believe inhabited by the cabinet, it seems that the smaller party to the negotiations, the one which would in the event of ‘no-deal’ be left with no agreed trading relationships with anyone, would do just fine but all the problems and regrets would be felt by the larger partner.
It’s part of a pattern in which the government of a country of 65 million thinks it can make credible threats to a trading bloc of 450 million.  Hunt has managed to excel himself with the weakness of his threat to those horrid Europeans: give us what we want, or "Inevitably that would change British attitudes towards Europe".  Take that, Juncker!  I’m not sure quite whose attitudes he believes would change, though.  Most of those on the Brexit side of the debate seem to be already convinced that the EU bosses are an unelected dictatorship which hates the UK and wants to punish us for daring to leave, whilst those on the Remain side are already clear in their own minds that the consequences we face are being caused largely by the intransigence and red lines of a UK government which has followed a policy of cakeism from the outset.  A messy divorce might harden those attitudes on both sides, but I don’t see it changing them.  His words are just another empty threat, like all the others which have preceded them.  
Meanwhile, other Brexiteers are busy urging Hunt’s predecessor to take another bus tour around the UK, encouraging grass roots Tories to rise up against the so-called ‘plan’ which emerged from Chequers.  He’s currently declining to participate.  That's reasonable enough; I find it hard to believe that even Boris would be daft enough to repeat that stunt, given how badly it has subsequently backfired.  Even he must, surely, see how open to ridicule it would leave him, even if fear of ridicule is not something that generally deters him from doing something.  
What was notable about the proposed grand tour, however, was that it wasn’t aimed at the population at large.  The target audience this time is only grass roots Tories; the rest of us are considered irrelevant in what has always been, first and foremost, an ideological battle within the Tory Party.  Purely coincidentally, these are also the very people he needs to vote for him if he is to realise his leadership ambitions.  Perhaps it won’t be a bus this time, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t find another method to travel the UK whipping up his party’s membership against the plans of its leader.  After all, for him, this has never really been about the EU at all.

Monday 20 August 2018


Various news outlets have given prominent headlines to the fact that Adam Price is supporting independence for Wales as part of his bid to become leader of Plaid Cymru.  No problem with that at all (although I might quibble with some of the detail, such as the wholly unnecessary dependency on Plaid first winning two elections).  But am I the only one reflecting on how we have reached a situation where a would-be leader of Plaid supporting independence for Wales is regarded as being ‘news’?

Friday 17 August 2018

Differing perspectives

It was during my time in primary school, back in the 1950s, that I first learnt about Sir Francis Drake.  He was presented, of course, as a ‘British’ hero (despite the fact that ‘Britain’ didn’t exist as a political entity in his day: ‘English’ - incorporating Wales - would have been a more appropriate description), calmly finishing his game of bowls before heading off to defeat the Armada.  I suspect that that rather one-sided view of the man and his role in history remains the perception of most people in the UK, underlining the way in which history often depends on a selective interpretation of events.
He isn’t seen that way in other countries of course.  From a Spanish perspective el despreciable pirata (the despicable pirate) is a more commonly used description.  It’s an accurate one as well; he spent many years attacking and plundering Spanish and Portuguese ports and ships, splitting the treasure thus captured with the then Queen of England, even though the countries were not at war at the time.  He was what is technically called a ‘privateer’; a pirate acting under licence from a state, in this case the crown of England.  And the stories we hear about him defeating the Armada rarely touch on the causes of it being sent towards these islands in the first place – one of which was the aim of putting a stop to the privateering of Drake and his ilk.  The man who British history tells us saved ‘England’ from the Armada was, from a more objective perspective, one of the causes of it being sent here in the first place.  He had also been a slave-trader, a fact generally glossed over when considering his role in history.
The point here is that ‘history’ isn’t simply an objective list of dates and events; events are selected and interpreted in a context and from a perspective, and the same events can be interpreted in wildly different ways.  The same is true for words and language as well.
In the context of Brexit, many of its Anglo-British nationalist supporters talk regularly about the need for the UK to foster a ‘buccaneering spirit’ in the way it faces up to the rest of the world from the position of glorious isolation in which they wish to place us.  But the words ‘buccaneer’, ‘corsair’, ‘privateer’, and ‘pirate’ are all near synonyms, and when one country talks about becoming ‘buccaneers’ we should not be at all surprised if others hear the word ‘pirates’ and suspect that what is being suggested is that the UK should revert to its traditional historical role of breaking all the rules, using underhand methods, and simply helping itself to the property of others.  The term ‘perfidious Albion’ didn’t come into use without considerable justification.  Sometimes I suspect that that is actually what the extreme Brexiteers want (especially when they start talking about tearing up the rule book by which others operate in order to gain advantage) albeit employing a little less violence than did Drake.  We really shouldn’t be surprised, though, if others are not exactly greeting the prospect with enthusiasm, let alone rushing to assist the UK in realising this particular ambition.

Thursday 16 August 2018

Being a good neighbour

Increasingly desperate Brexiteers have resorted recently to accusing the EU of breaking its own treaties by not accommodating the UK’s demands, on the basis that those treaties require the EU to "develop a special relationship with neighbouring countries, aiming to establish an area of prosperity and good neighbourliness”, and some have even suggested that failure to do this leaves the UK open to follow Trump’s advice to the Prime Minister and sue the EU.  Leaving aside the irony of the PM trying to use an institution which she has said the UK wants to have nothing to do with (the European Court of Justice), to say nothing of the question as to whether taking legal action would help or hinder the negotiation of any agreement, there is an even more fundamental problem with the idea.  In effect, the UK would be trying to sue someone else for the consequences of its own actions, and it doesn’t take much of a legal brain to come to a conclusion about the likely prospects for success in that endeavour.
It’s true, of course, that the EU does have a treaty obligation to be a good neighbour, but demanding that the EU gives in to each and every demand from the awkward and obstreperous bloke next door is going well beyond neighbourliness.  Helping someone out is one thing; doing whatever he says is quite another.  The UK’s stance at the moment isn’t so much asking for a helping hand as refusing to step into the lifeboat unless the captain and crew first agree to repaint the boat, replace the engine, and change direction; and it’s backed up with the threat that if the captain doesn’t agree it will drown itself and blame the lifeboat crew.  The UK isn’t asking for neighbourliness, it’s asking for submission.
The Brexiteers don’t see things that way, naturally.  They portray the UK as a victim being punished by those horrid Europeans for daring to want to leave, and they start with a belief that the UK has an entitlement to unique treatment, because – well, because it’s the UK and is therefore special.  The idea that the UK is just another third-party state on the fringes of Europe (which is the logical outcome of Brexit) and can be treated with the same degree of good neighbourliness as other states such as Norway is anathema to them.  It doesn’t fit their world view.  The Anglo-British nationalists driving the Brexit project are stuck in a view of the UK and its place in the world which pre-dates the second world war, and probably the first as well.  It’s a world of empires and dominance, where others are there to be divided and ruled; a world in which the English language is pre-eminent and those countries which use that language form a natural set of trading partners for what they still fondly see as the mother country.  It's a world in which others may be our neighbours, but we are never mere neighbours to anyone.
It’s also a world which disappeared more than half a century ago; they just can’t see it.

Wednesday 15 August 2018

Facing two ways at once

I agree with those campaigning against the dumping of ‘nuclear mud’ off the cost of Wales that we should not allow Wales to become a dumping ground for waste created by others.  There’s some question over the extent to which the waste is, in fact, radioactive, but whether it is or isn’t is irrelevant to the question of whether we should be accepting it or not.
We need to be wary, though, of double-edged swords.  If the starting point is that a country or territory creating toxic (including nuclear) waste needs to find its own method of disposal within its own territory, then it follows that anyone supporting the construction of a facility likely to create such waste must be willing to retain and dispose of the waste created once that facility is completed and operational.  Assuming that the waste is a problem for ‘somebody else’ to resolve is simply hypocrisy.
In Wales, and in the case of nuclear waste, this is a particular problem for Plaid.  Whilst some members of the party are actively campaigning against the dumping of mud from Hinkley off the coast of Wales, others are openly arguing for the construction of new nuclear power stations in Wylfa and Trawsfynydd, without ever seeming to say anything about what happens to the radioactive waste which will be produced.  But if it is wrong for England to dispose of its problem in Welsh waters, it is surely equally wrong for Wales to assume that the waste arising from any new nuclear power stations in Wales can simply be exported – whether to England or to anywhere else.
Those who support the construction of new stations – and I include in that category those who try to argue that extra facilities built on new sites are somehow not ‘new’ at all – need to be prepared to explain to people how and where they intend to dispose of the waste.  Anything else is just dishonest.

Tuesday 14 August 2018

Agreeing the definition is a side issue

Godwin’s Law states that "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1".  I don’t know whether online discussions have ever been rigorously investigated to determine the truth of the law, but casual observation suggests that it conveys at least a degree of truth.  And I’m not sure that it’s limited to online discussions either. 
There is a corollary to the law which states that “when a Hitler comparison is made, the thread is finished and whoever made the comparison loses whatever debate is in progress”.  The truth of that one is rather less certain in my mind; it more often seems to be the case that those involved simply double down on the positions that they take.  What is perhaps truer is that once a debate reaches that point it changes direction; it loses focus on the original question, whatever that was, and starts to turn around whether the comparison is fair or reasonable instead.  That in turn makes it a poor argument to use in most - perhaps all - circumstances.
Part of the fuss around antisemitism in the Labour Party revolves around whether the Labour Party should accept the internationally-recognised working definition of antisemitism; and one of the disputed clauses at the centre of that debate is that “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” is, by definition, antisemitism.  I find myself in sympathy with those in Labour who doubt whether this should really count as antisemitism at all.  At a purely rational level, comparing the actions of two different governments in two different epochs and finding some apparent similarities is not at all the same thing as taking a hostile position against a whole people or religion.  I can understand, though, why accusing the descendants of those who most suffered the consequences of a particularly evil regime would be considered by them to be exceptionally insulting, and that alone should make people very wary about either drawing such a comparison or arguing about the detail of the wording.
Coupled with Godwin’s Law, it’s a wholly counter-productive line of argument as well; it diverts the debate away from the reality of the effects of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians and into questions of semantics and the fairness of the comparisons drawn.  The real issue is not whether Israeli policy is or is not similar to that of the Nazis, nor whether drawing such a comparison is or is not antisemitism: it is about the way that the Israeli government is treating Palestinians on a daily basis.  I don’t need comparisons with what someone else did in another place at another time to be able to see brutality and inhumanity in action, and such comparisons don’t add anything to my perceptions of what is happening.  And I really don’t understand why the Labour Party is allowing others to divert it into a row about definitions rather than the substance of the Palestine issue.

Monday 13 August 2018

Devolution as EU plot

The new leader of UKIP in the Assembly has made clear his belief that his victory in the internal election was a direct result of his policy of abolishing the Assembly and that he now expects the whole party to fall into line behind him and support that policy line.  In a party with so few members, his 269-vote mandate is probably enough to carry the day and revert to the anti-devolution position that the party long maintained.  The real surprise is not so much that the party is swinging back towards hostility to devolution as that it ever made its fragile peace with the concept in the first place.  Still, as individuals and as a party, they have every right to campaign for the abolition of the Assembly, and indeed for the elimination of the Welsh language and all signs of Welsh identity if they wish.  It’s up to those of us who disagree to make the positive counter arguments, something which necessarily involves rather more than name-calling.
It’s not so long ago that UKIP were arguing that devolution in Wales was all part of an evil plot by the EU to divide and conquer.  Indeed, just two months ago, UKIP Scotland was still arguing that Brexit would expose “… the Scottish Parliament and devolution for what it really is. An EU plot to by-pass National Parliaments and create a Europe of Regions”, and that “Outside the EU there is no need for the devolved assemblies” because “All the assemblies have ever done is administrate and implement EU legislation”.
Their basis for this strange belief has always been a complete mystery to me; it’s as though the history of campaigning for domestic parliaments in Wales and Scotland before the EU was even established is somehow completely erased, and the national movements only sprang into existence at the instigation of the EU in order to help those horrid Brussels bureaucrats implement their dastardly plans.  It also somewhat glosses over the less-than-helpful response of ‘Brussels’ to the campaign for Catalan independence – if they really wanted to create a ‘Europe of the Regions’, an objective observer might suppose that they’d be actively supporting a movement for independent membership of the EU by a ‘region’ like Catalunya.
As another line in the statement by UKIP Scotland makes clear (“For the first time in 40 years, people are realising that sovereignty and legislative supremacy lies in the UK Parliament”), the party’s outlook is based very much on a centralist Anglo-British nationalist perspective.  From that perspective, the idea that anyone could ever espouse an identity which is any way different is anathema; it is the state which defines and gives identity, and the people must accept that.  And the British state is the only ‘natural’ unit of government - there should be nothing above and nothing below that level; independence and sovereignty are absolute and indivisible and belong to the centre.  We should remember though that it’s not only in UKIP that we find this dangerous form of nationalism; UKIP is merely the party which displays it most clearly.  There are plenty in the Conservative and Labour Parties whose core beliefs differ little when it comes to the question of where sovereignty lies.

Thursday 9 August 2018

Some big boys did it

The Bloomberg Editorial Board produced an opinion piece a few days ago, urging the cancellation of Brexit, arguing that “It isn’t too late for the U.K. to change its mind about this whole misbegotten venture”.  The suggestion that Brexit is a ‘misbegotten venture’ isn’t exactly uncommon in the rest of the world, although there are always those, such as Trump and Putin, who see it as an opportunity.  For them, if not for the UK.  But there have been a series of thoughtful articles in recent months in overseas publications wondering exactly what Brexit tells us about the UK – and the answers never seem to agree with what the Brexiteers tells us.
Bloomberg did acknowledge that reversing Brexit would require a second referendum and that that isn’t exactly a straightforward proposition, but suggested that the other EU members could aid the process by making it clear that they’d prefer the UK to stay and that the Article 50 notice could be withdrawn and/or the date extended if that would assist the UK government in arranging a new vote.  Some EU governments have already made encouraging noises in that direction, and I’m confident that the EU would be willing to agree on both those points if there were any signs that the UK government wanted such an outcome.  But there aren’t, and any suggestion that the EU were attempting to prompt such a move would be immediately portrayed by Brexiteers – with their usual complete disregard for mere facts - as an attempt to ‘force’ the UK to vote again until ‘Brussels’ gets the answer it wants.  The idea that the EU ‘forces’ countries to re-vote has, after all, been a basic mantra of the Brexiteers from the outset.
Bloomberg does offer another alternative, which is “… offering non-voting membership of the single market, with all its rights and obligations, for as long as it takes to arrange a limited free-trade agreement of the sort that Europe has reached with other non-EU countries”.  It’s a reasonable suggestion, although there’s no obvious reason why it should be restricted to circumstances in which “… EU governments have come to think Britain is more trouble than it’s worth, and would now prefer it to go”.  It’s equally applicable if they would prefer us to stay, but recognise the unlikelihood of that and simply want to ensure an orderly exit.  It’s an obvious, sound and sensible interim approach which makes more sense than an immediate rush to the door.  It’s never going to be as good, in economic terms, as continued membership, but as a halfway house it would buy the time to work through the implications properly.  I’m not sure, though, that the EU actually needs to make such an offer – it seems to me that it’s an option that has been on the table from the outset.
And that brings us to the nub of the issue.  It’s not the EU which has ruled out such an option; it’s the UK - by insisting that it wants all the rights but none of the obligations implied by such an option: a form of super membership better than that enjoyed by any other member.  And the fact that the EU27 won’t allow the UK better terms than they themselves enjoy is all down to the 'intransigence' of those 27 EU members.  That’s the basis on which the new Foreign Secretary has warned the EU that if they don’t back down, the UK is walking towards a no-deal ‘by accident’.  It’s not an ‘accident’ at all – it’s the probable outcome of deliberate UK policy.  In similar vein, the Trade Secretary has now talked about ‘no-deal’ being the likeliest outcome as a result of the EU’s 'intransigence'.  There’s certainly a lot of intransigence around, but it’s coming from the Brexiteers with their continued demand for free unicorns or else.
As the pound slumped on Monday, some ‘senior Whitehall sources’ were quoted as saying that if the UK crashes out with no deal “we will make it clear whose fault it was”.  And there, in a nutshell, we have the Brexiteers' latest core strategy exposed: ‘It wasn’t me, Miss, some big boys did it and ran away’.  It's no wonder that the rest of the world is scratching its collective head in amazement.

Tuesday 7 August 2018

Determining lunacy

According to the Sunday Times (paywall), David Cameron concluded during the run-up to the EU referendum that the then Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor, Michael Gove was ‘mad’ and ‘behaving like a lunatic’.  I’m not in a position to judge – the fact that he sometimes looks a bit mad is far from adequate grounds to draw any conclusion.  But Cameron appointed him to the job, and should have been in a better position to make a judgement than I.
Mildly amusing though it is to see Tories falling out amongst themselves, not just over policy but in such a highly personal fashion as well, it surely raises as many questions about Cameron as it does about Gove.  After all, if the Prime Minister had really come to the conclusion that his Justice Secretary was as mad as a box of frogs, why on earth did he leave him in charge of the Department of Justice?  It doesn't look like the action of a responsible Prime Minister.
Perhaps Cameron wasn’t preparing to sell an otherwise boring book back then…

Monday 6 August 2018

The change we need

On Friday, Nation.Cymru carried an article by Plaid’s leader, Leanne Wood, arguing that the choice facing Wales is between independence and an increasingly right-wing, centralised British state.  I can’t disagree with the underlying assumption that those driving us to Brexit are instinctive believers in a return to a more unitary, centralist and authoritarian state in which British patriotism and deference to authority become once again the norm.  It’s a perspective from which the economic crisis which they seem determined to precipitate is probably viewed as a plus in order to rekindle that famous ‘wartime spirit’ for which they are so nostalgic.  Nor do I disagree with the assertion that one way of avoiding that future is by seeking independence for Wales.  But I do nevertheless harbour a number of doubts about posing the choice of futures for Wales in such terms.
Firstly, there’s a question of nomenclature.  The terms ‘hard right’ and ‘hard left’ are regularly used by politicians, but what do they mean?  As a general rule, politicians use such terms as a substitute for debating ideas and policies or as a way of insulting other people rather than engaging with their views.  When the Telegraph or Mail refer to Corbyn as ‘hard-left’, their intention is to portray him as a villain, and it probably works with a large part of their target audience.  It’s not that the target audience necessarily understand exactly what it means – they just know that it’s a bad thing to be.  But outside that target audience, it probably just annoys people.  Similarly, calling people ‘hard right’ works with a different target audience, but not outside that audience.  Both are pretty much meaningless other than as insults.
Secondly, there exists, in the Welsh electorate, a hard core of Tory voters.  While swing voters can boost the party’s performance to anything up to 33% of those voting, the party has almost never attracted less than 20% of the votes in a Westminster General Election in Wales.  And that 20% can be considered to be composed of people who identify their political affiliation as Conservative, and who will vote for the party almost regardless of the specific platform being put forward.  It doesn’t matter how ‘right-wing’ (whatever that means) the party becomes, they are likely to continue to support it, because it’s ‘their’ party.  It’s probably true that many of those voters are, currently at least, opposed to independence for Wales (although we know from past opinion polls that even some Conservative voters do support independence), but presenting independence as a direct alternative to their party is more likely to confirm that tendency than to change it.
Gaining independence requires at least 50% support of the Welsh electorate (and personally, I’d want to aim much higher than that: the experience of Brexit surely indicates the problems of trying to implement such a significant change with the support of only a bare majority of those voting).  Potentially alienating at least 20% of the available voters makes that harder to achieve.  It is, perhaps, inevitable that a party which seeks to combine support for the long-term aim of independence (and as an aside, the reiteration of Plaid’s previous position that Wales’ economic position needs to improve before seeking independence was disappointing, but that’s off-topic here) with positioning itself in a particular part of the political spectrum will end up alienating those who do not place themselves in that part of the spectrum from that longer-term aim; but it isn’t always helpful in terms of furthering that aim. 
I would not argue, however, that an independence-minded political party which involves itself in electoral politics can or should avoid any ideological positioning.  That’s fine for an extra-parliamentary campaign, such as Yes.Cymru, but a political party represented in a parliament will need to be willing to vote on a range of issues (and even participate in government); and those voting for it need to know where it stands.  I would argue, rather, that what Wales needs is the normalisation of the debate around independence as being something which people on all parts of the political spectrum can support, albeit whilst holding different visions of the sort of Wales which would emerge.  That requires the existence of other credible parties of independence, which can present the aim in terms that welcome, rather than exclude, the support of those on what is loosely called the political right.  I wouldn't vote for such a party, but there are people who would, and whose views have no current home.  A situation where there is only one party even nominally supporting independence can also allow that party to ‘park’ the issue, almost with impunity, because they calculate that independence supporters have nowhere else to go.
The blockage which prevents the expression of alternative visions for an independent Wales is an electoral system which not only militates against a multiplicity of political parties but also gives a huge inbuilt advantage to one party in particular.  The real ‘change Wales needs’ (to steal a phrase) in order to remove that hegemony and facilitate a more representative form of politics in Wales is a move to STV for Assembly elections.  I cannot think of any change which would do more to change the nature and direction of Welsh politics.  The irony is that the only route that I can see to achieving that in the foreseeable future is by a level of joint working between non-Labour parties which one party has emphatically ruled out. 
It may well be, as some would argue (although I'm not convinced), that there would be a high political cost in the short term to any such collaboration.  But without such change, does anybody really see any way out of a stagnant and ossified politics in Wales?

Thursday 2 August 2018

Defying gravity

There was a story in yesterday’s Western Mail about discussions between Liam Fox and Japan, which reported that Japan has promised to back the UK’s bid for membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) after Brexit.  (I haven’t been able to trace an online version of the story in the Western Mail itself, but it appears to be a syndicated story from an agency, because the same story with the same wording also appeared in the Daily Express.) 
It’s clear that Fox, like most of the Brexiteers, believes that it is better to have an agreement with countries a long way away than one with those nearest to us, as though that can somehow make up for the loss of opting out of the more local agreement.  It completely ignores the gravity model of trade, but that should not surprise us given that Fox’s own cabinet career has itself been remarkably resistant to the normal rules of gravity.
As the New Zealand Trade Minister explained in this report, one of the drivers for the agreement is that “CPTPP has become more important because of the growing threats to the effective operation of the World Trade Organization rules”, although I’m sure that isn’t quite what Fox and the rest of the Brexiteers have been telling us about the WTO option.
However, it was the final paragraph of the Western Mail/ Daily Express report which really struck me:
“Eliminating tariffs and quotas between members and involving mutual recognition of regulations and rules on cross-border investment, CPTPP is seen as a swifter and more effective alternative to forging separate trade deals with individual member states.”
Now there’s a vision.  A free trade area encompassing some of the world’s biggest economies coming together to agree a common set of regulations and rules, which will apply to an increasing range of goods and services over time instead of a patchwork of individual bilateral agreements.  It’s such a brilliant idea, I can’t think why no one has thought of it before.  It’s a pity that there’s nothing similar closer to home, in Europe say, that we could join instead of going half way round the world and pretending to be on the Pacific Coast.  Oh, hold on a minute…

Wednesday 1 August 2018

Finding the right starting point

I don’t know whether using the army to distribute essential supplies is or isn’t part of the government’s contingency planning for Brexit.  The Sunday Times (paywall) claimed that it is, but the government denies it forcefully.  Given that the ultimate fall-back position for just about any crisis is to use the armed forces, I’d be surprised if the question has not been discussed at all, and the current government doesn’t exactly have a solid track record of honesty and transparency on anything associated with Brexit.  On reflection, perhaps I shouldn’t have included the words ‘associated with Brexit’ in the last sentence; any and every statement is subject to revision when someone lets slip the truth.  “Oh, you mean that army – we thought you meant another one.”
It was the Brexiteers who originally demanded that the government publish more detail about its contingency plans for a ‘no-deal’, in order to show M. Barnier and the EU27 that the UK means business.  It seems, though, that the civil servants tasked with preparing the plans misunderstood the request; the plans weren’t supposed to reveal what might happen in case that scared people; they were only supposed to show how wonderfully the UK would cope and that there would be no problems at all, ever.  In their naivety and driven by a complete lack of patriotism, those damned experts tried to sit down and look at what might really happen, instead of assuming the best.  For most of us, it’s a very strange type of contingency planning which starts from the assumption that all will be for the best, but it’s the sort of ‘planning’ which has underpinned the whole Brexit vision from the outset.
There was one aspect of the Sunday Times report about the use of the military which particularly caught my attention, which was that “Helicopters and army trucks would be used to ferry supplies to vulnerable people outside the southeast who were struggling to obtain the medicines they needed.”  Given the utter improbability that the London-based government would uniquely deny medicines to the vulnerable in the southeast, what is it about a potential shortage of medicines which affects everyone except those who live in the southeast?  Because the implication here is that those in the southeast will somehow find it easy to obtain supplies whilst the rest of us won’t. 
I for one would like to know what assumptions are underlying a contingency plan which can make such a distinction.  Perhaps the answer is to be found in the cock-up theory of history rather than the conspiracy theory.  The Sunday Times referred to existing contingency plans being ‘dusted down’ rather than new ones being written.  Perhaps they’ve picked up the one marked blizzard to use as the template.  Blizzard, Brexit – both have two syllables, start with a ‘b’ and will cause chaos.  It’s as good a place as any to start.