Monday 31 December 2018

For services to music and light entertainment

The knighthood is definitely a joke, right?

Friday 28 December 2018

Mistaken messages

The UK has a long and far from honourable tradition of ‘gunboat diplomacy’; sending warships to other countries as a visible demonstration of military power and the willingness to use it.  For ‘visible demonstration’ one can also read ‘sending a message’, which was the wording used by UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson to describe the despatch of HMS Echo to Ukraine.  The big problem with ‘sending messages’ however is that the message received may not be quite the one intended.  Whilst in theory sending a heavily-armed military vessel to a trouble spot might be intended to tell Putin not to further provoke Ukraine or else the UK might be willing to take action against him, sending a hydrographic survey vessel is more likely to be interpreted as ‘we haven’t actually got a proper military ship available at the moment’.  The effect on Putin is more likely to be laughing his socks off than quaking in his boots.

“…and then he said ‘any more nonsense from you and I’ll order the Royal Navy to undertake a hydrographic survey in the Black Sea’”

Friday 21 December 2018

Being assertive

Wales’ new First Minister came in for some criticism yesterday, with the headline saying that he had ‘turned down a one-to-one meeting with the Prime Minister to attend a Labour Party event’.  Fair enough criticism, some might say, but the detail is a little more complex than that.
The First Minister had two pre-arranged meetings.  The first was the Joint Ministerial Committee, with the Prime Minister, the Scottish First Minister and officials from Northern Ireland in the morning, and the second was scheduled for 2pm as a one-to-one meeting with the Prime Minister.  Our First Minister travelled from Cardiff to London, ready and willing to attend both, only to be told that the Prime Minister had subsequently arranged something else at that time, and that he would have to sit around kicking his heels for four hours or so until she could find the time to see him.  He said that he had a prior engagement and declined to wait.
Does it matter here what the nature of that prior engagement was (the criticism has been largely based on the fact that it was a Labour Party event)?  It wasn’t him that unilaterally cancelled a pre-arranged meeting at short notice.  Why haven’t more questions been asked about why the Prime Minister decided that ‘something else’ was more important than a pre-arranged meeting with the First Minister of Wales?  It seems to me that the discourtesy here isn’t a First Minister who honoured an engagement, but a Prime Minister who did not.
Mark Drakeford has been attacked for missing an opportunity to put the case for Wales to a Prime Minister who has made herself notorious for not listening to a word anyone says unless they are agreeing with her.  From the perspective of many in her party, the Welsh (like the Irish) should know their place.  This was never going to be a meeting between equals; there is a power relationship at play here as well.  It seems to me strange that those arguing that the First Minister should have taken the opportunity to stand up for Wales and put our case to the PM are effectively arguing that he should meekly accept his (and, by inference, our) inferior status and sit around waiting at her convenience.  It’s an odd sort of assertiveness for which they are calling.

Thursday 20 December 2018

Maybe Corbyn's right

No, not about whether he did or did not say that the Prime Minister is a stupid woman – I think that he probably didn’t.  Nor about whether she actually is stupid or not (delusional seems a better description to me).  It’s rather about whether now is or is not the time to move a vote of no confidence in the government.  Moving a meaningless vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister herself, which is unlikely to even get discussed let alone passed, and which even if it were both discussed and passed would have no impact on anything is something of a copout, of course – but is it really any more meaningless than moving a motion of no confidence which would certainly be defeated?
I can understand why the other opposition parties are so angry; it can’t be easy to sit there and observe on a daily basis the lies, duplicity, obstinacy and sheer incompetence of the governing party.  The desire to do ‘something’ must be overwhelming.  And the temptation to hope that at least one of the 117 Tory MPs who have clearly indicated their lack of confidence in their leader in a secret ballot might be willing to do the same in a public vote must be a strong one.  But, in all seriousness, would the demanded vote of confidence, with all its associated huffing, puffing and expressions of outrage, really do much more than add to the sense that the so-called (albeit badly misnamed) ‘mother of parliaments’ has chosen the lead-up to the pantomime season to degenerate into utter and impotent farce?
The one lesson that I draw from the events of recent months in respect of our ‘democracy’ is about how little power parliament actually has.  They can’t even discuss Corbyn’s cop-out motion unless the government allows them to, and they can’t vote on anything connected with Brexit unless the government first puts down a motion, and the government seem to have an awful lot of control over what they can vote on even then.  Given that, for many, Brexit was about ‘democracy’ and ‘taking back control’, there’s a certain irony in the way that it has succeeded in highlighting the flaws in the UK’s system of democracy and underlining how little control parliament has over anything. 
I’m not convinced that creating a situation where all those Tory MPs who voted to say that have no confidence whatsoever in the PM would be lining up to say that they’re backing her to the hilt is a particularly constructive way of using the time and energy of MPs.  Nor am I convinced that the consequences of success, however improbable that would be, in such a vote have been thought through.  Even if it resulted in a General Election, and even if the Labour Party were to win, swapping a blue unicorn believer for a bearded pink one doesn’t look to me like a huge gain.  Corbyn is probably right that a no confidence vote is unwinnable at present, but he’s accidentally right for another reason as well – it wouldn’t change anything.  The only thing that seems likely to bring about a change in direction would be for the Labour Party to swing behind a second referendum, and he's still resisting that.

Tuesday 18 December 2018

Policy and process

After being appointed as Transport Minister last week, Llanelli AM Lee Waters said that he had agreed that it would be ‘inappropriate’ for him to have any say over the decision on the M4 relief road because he had taken such a strong position on the proposal in the past.  This is the second time that I have heard a Welsh Transport Minister referring to the decision on the M4 as being some sort of quasi-judicial process in which having a strong opinion one way of the other disqualified the individual from taking a decision.  This time, having an opinion means that the minister can’t take the decision; last time – under the One Wales government – the minister argued that as he was responsible ultimately for taking the decision, he couldn’t have an opinion at all.  It was nonsense then, and it’s nonsense now – it’s a case of confusing policy with process.
What is true is that if a government has a policy of building a large infrastructure project such as the M4 then there is a formal legal process which must be followed in which all the relevant parties have an opportunity to present their case and an expectation that all their evidence will be considered carefully and impartially before a final decision on the precise location or route and on any conditions or caveats is taken.  That part of the process is certainly quasi-judicial and being seen to have pre-judged the issue will potentially be prejudicial to due process.  But the policy – whether to build or not – is independent of that process; the process concerns only the proper and lawful implementation of policy.  Policy – to build or not – is quite properly the prerogative of the politicians, not the judges or planning inspectors.  And policy can be changed by political decision at any time.
So, what we have here is, in effect, a politician who is responsible for making policy, and who clearly believes that the policy currently being pursued by his government is the wrong one, excusing himself from having any input into what is probably the most important single policy decision in his portfolio and hiding behind a legal process in order to do so.  It could be, of course, that the First Minister takes a different view on the policy (as far as I’m aware, he has yet to express a view), and the real reason for the Transport Minister being excluded from this policy decision is that the First Minister doesn’t want the policy changed.  It’s a legitimate position to take but hiding behind public enquiries and planning inspectors in the hope that they will provide some sort of cover for politicians to avoid accepting their responsibilities is just a cop out.

Friday 14 December 2018

Clarity is in the ear of the beholder

If there's one thing that the Prime Minister is very good at - exceptionally good, in fact - it's remembering to start every sentence by reminding us how clear she has been, is being, or is about to be.  If it were an Olympic sport, she'd win gold.  The problem is that what follows that statement is invariably either not at all clear at best, and completely meaningless at worst.  Worse still, having given what she (presumably, giving her the benefit of at least a little doubt) believes to be a very clear statement, she takes the bemused and incredulous faces of her listeners as agreement and consent.  The reports today that the EU leaders are unable to offer her much by way of assistance because they don't know what she wants, and feel that she has been far from clear, demonstrate the vital element of clarity which she utterly fails to understand: if those listening don't understand you, that's your problem not theirs.  'Clarity' is defined by the listener, not the speaker.

Thursday 13 December 2018

Being syncretic

There was a review last week on Nation.Cymru of a book telling the story of the foundation of the new political party, Ein Gwlad.  In principle, having more than one political party in Wales advocating independence is to be welcomed; independence isn’t a concept owned by one particular part of the political spectrum, and having a range of parties arguing for different visions of what an independent Wales might be like would be considered entirely normal in most of the other European nations where there is an independence movement.  The reason why it hasn’t happened here is, first and foremost, an electoral system which favours unity rather than disunity, and I suspect that will be the rock on which Ein Gwlad eventually founders.  Electoral reform is long overdue and would probably be a game-changer for political debate in Wales, but things are as they are.
Having said that, I’m highly sceptical of any party which claims to be ‘syncretic’, not occupying any particular place on the political spectrum but able to pick policies, a la carte, from all parts of that spectrum, selecting whatever is best for Wales.  There are, as I see it, two main problems with that approach.
The first is that it assumes that the ‘spectrum’ is actually quite narrow.  If it is possible to mix and match policies from, say, Labour, Tory, Lib Dems and Plaid, then that is because, in essence (and perhaps excluding the constitutional question), the policy differences between them are, by and large, much smaller than any of them would have us believe.  It’s true that the degree of consensus which seemed to be growing in the post-war years has reduced, but broadly the mainstream politicians of all those parties differ mostly in emphasis and degree rather than in principle.  There are people with rather more radical views in all parties, but mainstream debate in UK politics revolves around a fairly narrow axis.
The second problem is how and who decides what is ‘best for Wales’.  The idea that anyone can make such a judgement independently of their own priors is simply not credible, even if the role of those priors is restricted to determining the criteria to be used in making the decision.  What is really ‘best for Wales’ is not something which is either self-evident nor objectively determinable, it is open to a range of differing opinions based on different criteria.  I suspect that syncretism is generally more of a euphemism for populism than a viable political philosophy and amounts to selecting those policies which are most popular amongst the electorate.  But it can never be as easy as that – low taxes and high-quality public services would both be popular, but they don’t combine terribly well.  Oh, and independence isn’t terribly ‘popular’ either.
I believe that it would be ‘better for Wales’ to have multiple parties arguing for independence from different political perspectives (entirely accepting that that belief is based on my own priors rather than on demonstrable proof), but I’m not at all convinced that pretending not to have a political perspective is the way of achieving that.

Wednesday 12 December 2018

Squaring the circle

I think that I've just about got this right:

The Prime Minister accepts unreservedly that any withdrawal agreement with the EU27 must include a legally binding commitment to a 'backstop' which prevents a hard border across Ireland.

In order to get this through her own party, she is asking the EU27 to give her a legally binding commitment that they won't hold her to her own legally binding commitment.

Thus far, at least, she hasn't spotted the flaw in this plan, and is busy trying to implement it.  At least she'll have something else to occupy her for the next few days...

Tuesday 11 December 2018

"No-one voted to make themselves poorer"

It’s a statement often made by those opposing Brexit, and it has a nice ring to it, but it simply isn’t true.  Some people certainly did vote, consciously and deliberately, to make us all poorer.  And that is far from being as irrational as it sounds; there’s nothing at all wrong with doing exactly that if one is convinced that there’s a greater good involved.
Much of the debate surrounding Brexit has been based on the economic consequences rather than any perceived non-economic costs and benefits.  That is part of the reason for the huge gulf in understanding of what the EU is about between the two sides in the negotiations – for most of the other EU states, economics has always been only part of the argument.  The EU is, and always has been, at heart more a political project than an economic one, and the failure of the UK side to recognise that, assuming instead that economics would eventually bring the EU round to the UK position, has been a major factor in the time taken to reach any sort of deal.
We all place a value on things which cannot be priced in strictly financial terms, and there is always a trade-off between those things which can be priced and those which cannot.  Democracy and sovereignty, for instance, have a value, and at least some of those who voted for Brexit will have valued those more highly than any anticipated economic disadvantage.  People in that group really did consciously vote to make us all poorer.  (There were also a larger number who unconsciously voted to make us all poorer – this would be those who placed a similarly high value on democracy and sovereignty, but simply didn’t believe those who told them that these things come at a price.  And I can’t blame them when many of those leading the Brexit campaign knew full well that there would be a price but simply lied - and are still lying today).
That underlying trade-off – between sovereignty and democracy on the one hand, and economic benefit on the other – is one we all make; it’s just that we don’t all assess the trade-off in the same way.  I remember one independentista (no longer with us, sadly) telling me that he’d eat grass if that was the cost of independence for Wales.  It’s not a position with which I could ever agree, but it illustrates the point.  And it works in the other direction as well.  Given a choice of being poor in a democracy or rich under a dictatorship, which would we choose?  For some – at either end of the spectrum – it’s a black-and-white issue.  For most though, it’s more nuanced than that; it requires asking a few more questions, such as ‘how poor?’ and ‘what sort of dictatorship / what sort of democracy?’  It’s an oversimplification, but faced with a choice of grinding poverty in a democracy or having adequate food and shelter in a dictatorship, I can see why many of the poorest might prefer the latter, whilst it is those who can afford to lose a little who might be more willing to take the more principled position.  And it is that question of nuance, balance and trade-off between the economic issues and the non-economic issues which is where the debate should have been from the outset, instead of which we’ve had something closer to absolutism on both sides; one demanding that economics takes precedence and the other insisting that sovereignty and democracy are more important.
That helps to explain why it isn’t enough to simply ‘prove’ that the economic consequences are bad.  We also need to talk about the other side of the equation.  And here’s the thing – membership of the EU does, unquestionably, reduce the absolute sovereignty of the member states.  (The democracy question is rather less straightforward: I’m not at all sure that the EU can really be considered less democratic than a state in whose parliament the majority of members are appointees, hereditaries or bishops.  It is, however, true that the electorate of a single member state cannot by themselves dismiss those running the EU, and from a perspective which believes that absolute sovereignty should sit at the level of the member state, that can be, and has been, too easily presented as ‘undemocratic’.)
Part of the reason for the current mess is that proponents of greater European integration have generally been unwilling to even discuss this issue of sharing or pooling sovereignty, and why that isn’t at all the same thing as ceding sovereignty to someone else.  Anglo-British exceptionalism has made them afraid even to attempt to explain the difference.  The result has been that a narrative developed, over decades, that the UK was no longer a sovereign state.  It brings us to a strange situation in which it is those who have given most thought to the question of what constitutes independence and sovereignty, the independentistas of Wales and Scotland, who argue most strongly for a twenty-first century definition which involves nations coming together as equals with a degree of sharing and pooling for the common good, whilst the Anglo-British not-nationalists-at-all, who have given a lot less thought to the question, are stuck in an eighteenth century mindset in which things were much more absolute – and where they and their ilk were in charge and the rest of the world simply did as they were told.  My fear is that, if it comes to a second referendum – an eventuality which is now looking increasingly like the only way out of the current deadlock – that that argument about the nature and extent of ‘sovereignty’ in a highly-connected twenty-first century world will be lost by default again.

Monday 10 December 2018

30 Little Ministers

30 Gov’ment ministers sent far and wide
Told to get the people on Theresa’s side
For 40 million voters they were given 2 days each –
A target unattainable; completely out of reach
The spectacle of 30 government ministers being sent scuttling around the UK over the weekend to drum up support for Theresa May’s Brexit deal is just the latest twist in the long-running farce which Brexit has become.  The stated reason is, of course, as disingenuous as everything else that the Prime Minister says.  Even if it were possible for 30 people in 2 days to win over the millions – Leavers and Remainers alike – who think that the deal is a bad one, she has no intention of allowing them to vote anyway. 
I saw a snatch of an interview with Michael Heseltine in which he said that sending them around the country was a good idea – not because they would actually persuade anyone, but because it would get them out of London and away from the London media, the plotters and the leakers.  It would, he said, get them out of No 10’s hair.  It’s a rather cynical view.
Perhaps the PM really believes that people in their masses will be motivated to contact their MPs to demand that they vote for the deal.  But if she gave the matter a moment’s thought and considered perhaps how many of her own constituents ever contacted her about a political issue while she was a back-bencher, she would realise that it would only ever be a tiny proportion – what might be called the ‘usual suspects’. 
It seems to me that the only credible target of this onslaught of ministers (have I just invented a new collective noun there?) would be members of the Conservative Party.  It is, just, conceivable that at least some of those members might be motivated to demand that their MP show a little more loyalty to their elected government.  In such a scenario, having to hear the message on news programmes is just collateral damage for the rest of us in what is really yet another internal party discussion.  I doubt, though, that even that would be successful.  The indications are that Tory members out in the constituencies are much more likely to support ‘no deal’ than the agreement that she has negotiated.
Maybe Heseltine really has hit the nail on the head, and it’s all just a glorified form of displacement activity.

Wednesday 5 December 2018

Carts and horses

There’s a lengthy piece by Labour AM, Mick Antoniw in today’s Western Mail (although I can’t find it online) arguing that a General Election is a better way forward than holding a second referendum, the so-called ‘People’s Vote’.  When it comes to the practical issues surrounding the arrangements for such a vote, I have a great deal of sympathy with his arguments; there are many details which are not as straightforward as many suggest.  I don’t believe them to be insoluble, though; and a second vote seems to me a better way forward than either Brexit based on the last vote regardless of any change in opinion, or parliament simply overturning the result of the referendum, despite the fact that it has every right, constitutionally speaking, to do so.
However, where I really part company with him is his closing argument that “a general election will increasingly become accepted as the only way to give the people a real choice”.  As long as the Labour Party’s leader clings to the notion that “Brexit cannot be stopped” and the delusion that, if only he were in charge, a better deal could be negotiated, there is no way in which a general election to choose between a Tory Brexit and a Labour Brexit is any real choice at all.  Even worse, and although I don’t always trust opinion polls, the polls currently suggest that it is unlikely that Labour would win such an election standing on its current policy.  Despite the complete disarray and incompetence of the Tories, they appear likely to out-poll Labour again.  And another narrow victory for the Tories will change nothing.
In fairness to Antoniw, he does also say that Labour would have to fight such an election on the basis of seeking a new deal and adds that “Labour’s manifesto would have to offer the promise of a ratification of any deal and an extension to the franchise to 16-year-olds”, i.e. a commitment to holding a second referendum after the attempted renegotiation.  It’s a face-saving formula; whilst Labour remains committed to red lines which include no membership of the single market and no freedom of movement, any ‘renegotiation’ is going to be as superficial as that undertaken by David Cameron, as well as further alienating our European partners in the attempt.  Still, the very fact that most Remainers will understand that limitation will not detract from the fact that they have a potential electoral home, even if for only one election, which will facilitate the outcome which they want to see.  And that could be an electoral game-changer for Labour.  The problem is that I don’t currently see the Labour leadership being ready to embrace such a line, even though it’s clearly their best chance of gaining a majority.  An election without that prior change of policy seems likely to do more harm than good – Labour need to sort out their position first.  And that probably requires a change of leader…

Tuesday 4 December 2018

Plus ça change...

During a recent sojourn in sunnier climes, I set out to read the first part of Don Quijote in the original version.  It was hard going at times, but what struck me was the timelessness of some themes in literature.
I mean, here is a man who is madder than a box of frogs, with his head stuffed full of a romanticised and largely fictional view of past glories and who believes that he can relive those glories in what was – to him – the ‘modern’ age.  Even when the facts are carefully spelled out to him – Sancho told him that that ‘giant’ was a windmill before he went and attacked it – he refuses to accept facts that clash with his carefully constructed concept of how things should be, and acts on the basis of his beliefs instead.  He invariably comes off worst from all his adventures but presents them all as great triumphs and/or blames his evil enemies for using trickery and magic against him.
My question is this – how did Cervantes manage to paint such a brilliant picture of the average Brexiteer politician 400 years before the EU even existed?