Thursday, 17 April 2014

Keeping Wales tidy

Back in the 1970s, one wag produced a poster which read ‘Keep Wales Tidy – Dump your rubbish in England’.  It was intended to be humorous, although the extent to which it actually raises a smile probably depends on your sense of humour.  I didn’t think, though, that anyone actually took it seriously.  Perhaps I was wrong on that after all.
The question of Wylfa B and nuclear waste is one that I’ve referred to before.  One of the problems that supporters of Wylfa B have is that the construction of a new nuclear power station will inevitably lead to the production of more nuclear waste.  We can’t have new nuclear stations without generating more waste, and that waste has to be stored and handled somewhere.
Trying to wash their hands of any responsibility for the consequences of their support for a new nuclear station means that supporters of Wylfa B are following the advice of that spoof poster – keeping Wales clean by demanding that someone else takes our rubbish.  But wanting the (alleged) benefits with none of the downsides is an irresponsible and selfish approach; hardly the sort of approach which would make an independent Wales a good world citizen.
My nationalism is based on wanting to see Wales taking her place in the world, taking our own decisions, and accepting both the consequences and the responsibility for them.  There’s something very odd to me about nationalists seeking to avoid responsibility for the consequences of the policies they espouse. 
I remember hearing Gwynfor arguing that Wales will be free when the people of Wales start thinking and acting as a free people.  Assuming that someone else will deal with our problems on our behalf falls more than a little short on that score.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Shock horror and outrage

The ‘Trojan Horse’ letter concerning the alleged attempts to take over schools in Birmingham and change their religious ethos has caused something of a stir.  Although the letter seems to have been in the public domain for a while, little seems to be known about its provenance so far, which made me wonder whether there isn’t something a little Zinovievian about it.
Genuine or not, it’s given the press, and not just the tabloids, something to be outraged about, and it’s an opportunity they’ve seized with gusto.  Hopefully, the extent of the problem, if there is one, will become a great deal clearer as a result of the formal investigation – and then we can properly decide whether to be outraged or not.
One aspect of the ‘Islamification’ of some schools which has caused particular ire is the idea that boys and girls should be to some extent segregated in schools, accompanied by pictures of boys on one side of the room and girls on the other.  In 2014, it does indeed seem a strange concept to us, but we forget that it’s not that long ago that it was entirely normal in the state system for a degree of such segregation to take place.
I remember that my primary school had two entrances; one for boys and the other for ‘girls and infants’.  And the secondary school that I attended had, according to the teachers, an imaginary line running from the school buildings to the far end of the school field, and girls had to stay to the left of it, whilst boys remained on the right, under threat of lines or detention for daring to commingle.  And unless my school was somehow unique,  wasn’t it thought perfectly normal for the boys to sit on one side of the classroom whilst the girls took the other?
It all sounds very old-fashioned now, of course – and I would neither suggest nor defend returning to such practices.  They’re in the past and we should ensure that they stay there.  It's just seems that, on this specific at least, whilst I oppose what seems to be happening, I find it hard to work up a great deal of outrage about something which would have seemed perfectly normal to our parents or grandparents. A little bit more perspective would be helpful in dealing with the situation.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Inconsistently consistent

Yesterday’s news coverage of events in the Ukraine included a brief comment from one of the pro-Russian participants, claiming, basically, that united, Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine would be large and powerful, but that separate, Ukraine was small and weak.  It struck me that there was something of a parallel there with much of what the Scottish “Better Together” campaign has been saying.
Consistency, however, isn’t one of the strongest attributes of UK politicians, and the Foreign Secretary was resolute in demanding international support for the continued independence of the Ukraine.  Unity and size are only important ‘domestically’, it would appear.
Boundaries between states in Europe have changed continually over the centuries.  States – not always contiguous with nations, of course – have emerged and disappeared, and been carved out and carved up as empires have been founded and destroyed.  Usually, the process has been a sad and bloody one, although in recent decades, we have at last started to see some peaceful changes reflecting popular will.
Two things stand out for me as being consistent.  The first is that change is always happening.  Boundaries and states are human constructions, and there is nothing permanent or inviolable about any of them.
The second is that, at any given point in history, those in power act and talk as though permanence of ‘their’ world is the natural order of things, and history can be frozen at a moment in time.  In that context, the position adopted by Hague and the rest of the UK Government isn’t as inconsistent as it might otherwise appear.  The Ukraine exists as an independent country and must continue to do so; Scotland doesn’t and shouldn’t.  All arguments about size and strength – like much else which is said by “Better Together” - are really just about rationalising and defending the status quo.
I don’t know whether Scotland will vote ‘yes’ or not at this stage.  At the outset, I rather expected that the first independence referendum would fail, to be followed by a second in a decade or two; but it now looks increasingly possible that it might just happen this year after all.  European history is on the side of change, not permanence.  Whether in Scotland or the Ukraine, merely arguing that what is must continue to be will never be enough.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Please sir...

Sometimes, the people with the grandest job titles turn out to have the least power and influence.  It’s almost as though those bestowing the titles feel that those receiving them can be bought off with a fine-sounding name as a substitute for money or power.
I’m not aware of many cases, however, where the original request was for a grand title instead of money or power.  The question of the name given to our National Assembly seems to be one of those rare exceptions. 
Last week, it was reported that Plaid are submitting an amendment to the Wales Bill currently wending its way through the House of Commons, seeking a change in the name of the National Assembly to the “National Parliament of Wales, or Senedd Genedlaethol Cymru”.  The desire for a name change isn’t restricted to Plaid of course; the (Labour) Presiding Officer has expressed a similar view in a personal capacity, and the leader of the Conservative group has put forward the same suggestion on behalf of his group (although, as we have learned recently, everything that he and his group say is purely a personal opinion unless it’s been agreed by the Secretary of State in advance).
Clearly, it’s important for any nationalist that Wales has a ‘proper’ parliament; but when I talk about a ‘proper’ parliament, I mean one with proper powers, not just a proper name.  The name is ultimately an irrelevance; what matters is what it can do, and the very fact that we have Welsh politicians beseeching London politicians to change the name merely serves to underline that lack of power.  I rather suspect that, if and when the Assembly has the power to decide for itself what it should be called as part of a more wholesale transfer of power, the name would be seen as the irrelevance which it is.
Besides, there’s nothing wrong with ‘National Assembly’.  A quick look at the names given to national legislatures across the world reveals that it’s actually a very common name.  Only a blinkered UK-centric view would lead anyone to the conclusion that there is any significant difference between a parliament and an assembly.
But, when the Assembly can decide for itself what it should be called, and if the politicians still think that it’s of any great import, then the aspect of a name change which is of greatest psychological importance isn’t the difference between an Assembly or a Parliament – it’s whether the name of the country needs to be included at all.  Most nations don’t feel the need to include the name of their country in the name of their legislature – why should we?  There’s something very insecure about feeling that to be necessary.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Self-inflicted problems

Another aspect of the debate on devolving income tax powers to Wales was the concern expressed by both the Shadow Secretary of State and the Lib Dems that it would lead to “tax competition”.
I’m aware that the Tories genuinely seem to believe that reducing income tax by a few pennies in the pound would somehow attract hundreds or thousands of entrepreneurs to live in Wales and to set up their businesses here, although I’m not aware of any serious evidence which supports what looks like an axiomatic belief in the virtue of low taxation rather than a coherent economic policy.  And I’m aware that many business supporters of devolving various taxes to Wales support it not out of any commitment to devolution, but because they have a rather touching – and I suspect misplaced – faith that the Welsh Government would respond by cutting all these taxes.
But that is all just rhetoric.  Any government which wants to make significant cuts in some taxes would ultimately have to do one of two things – either cut expenditure or else raise other taxes to compensate.  And it is the latter of the two which exposes the real problem in any Welsh Government being able to make any creative use of the proposed powers.
‘Proper’ governments – those which really have true responsibility for raising as well as spending money – have a wide range of taxation weapons in their armoury.  They can cut some taxes and raise others – or even abolish some and invent new ones – in order to change the balance between the different types of taxation in use.  The extent to which taxation changes actually affect economic behaviour is an open question, but assuming for a moment that they do, it is precisely the ability to tailor the overall tax regime to different or changing circumstances which enables governments to influence economic policy.
The problem with all the proposals and debate currently is that only a very narrow range of taxes is proposed to be devolved; and there is only one really significant tax included in the proposal.  It is hard to see how devolving the power to vary the rate of income tax without being able to amend other taxes correspondingly can do other than create a degree of tax competition between the countries of these islands – which is part of what makes the power difficult to use.
Ultimately, it seems to me that those complaining about the dangers of tax competition are really complaining about the limitations of their own policy.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

A curious belief

Plenty of others have already drawn attention to the twisting and turning of Labour politicians as they attempt to explain how they all hold the same view on devolution of tax, particularly income tax.  It isn’t pretty, and they’re deluding themselves if they think that their unity is in any sense credible.
The reason given by the Shadow Secretary of State for supporting the so-called lockstep struck me as a curious one.  He said:
“We agree with the Government that the principle of progressivity ought to be retained, which is why we agree, broadly speaking, with the notion of the lockstep, tying together those bands.”
I suspect that a Labour politician’s public agreement that Tory policy on income tax supports progressivity will come as a surprise to many, not least within his own party.  Perhaps my memory about the disagreement over whether the highest rate of tax should be 40p, 45p, or 50p is just an illusion.
But the basis of his argument seems to go further than that.  It is implicit in supporting the lockstep on that basis that he believes that the wicked evil Tories in London (which is a rough translation of the usual Labour description of them) are more likely to maintain progressivity in income tax than any conceivable government which might come to power in Wales.
It’s a very curious thing to believe.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Messages, big sticks, and accidents

In an ideal world – for me at least – no single state would be too big or powerful to be pulled back into line when it violates international law (just like banks shouldn’t be too big to fail).  But the world in which we live isn’t ideal, and there are some states which can, as a result, get away with a great deal.
The most obvious is the US, whose willingness – often aided and abetted by the UK – to ignore any international agreements or institutions which stand in its way makes it very much harder to insist that other countries should obey the rules which it rejects.  Another is Russia, and having watched what the US has done in recent decades, it shouldn’t really be any surprise that Putin thinks it appropriate to behave in similar fashion.
This week, a former head of the army called for the deployment of more UK troops than currently planned on the European mainland to “send a message” – one of my least favourite political clichés – to Putin that he “should think twice before he considers any further expeditions and expansion”.  And perhaps we should send a gunboat or two as well, because this sounds like something from the imperial era.
Using the presence of troops to warn another state not to take a certain action is credible only to the extent that that other state believes that those troops will be sent into battle against them.  And given the difficulty that the UK Government has had in identifying even a few minor little sanctions which make it look tough without actually achieving very much, waving a big stick in the air doesn’t look terribly credible to me.  And I have more than a sneaking suspicion that it won’t look very credible to Putin either.
History should teach us that threatening military action is a course of action which can develop a momentum and a ‘logic’ of its own.  “Messages” can get misunderstood all too easily (particularly if the quality of intelligence available to those making the decisions is as poor as the example I referred to yesterday).  The challenge is to de-escalate the tension which is building, not escalate it further in response.  The idea that negotiation isn’t possible unless backed up by big sticks and threats of military action belongs to the past, but still seems rife in military circles.
International security depends on creating and strengthening international institutions and agreements, not on flouting them.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Intelligence isn't always very bright

People tend to think of ‘intelligence-gathering’ as a murky world of spies, secrets, and interception of communications.  But what gets presented to decision-makers as ‘intelligence’, neatly collated into digestible reports, can often include a great deal of gossip, which is as likely to have been gleaned in chance discussions as by devious methods.  It also seems as though some of the final reports blur the distinction between fact, gossip, and fiction – outright dishonesty isn’t the sole progenitor of dodgy dossiers.
The recent revelation on Wikileaks about the cables sent by the US Ambassador to the then Secretary of State is a case in point.  What it amounts to is that the Secretary of State was being fed ‘information’ about what was happening in Wales which would be utterly unrecognisable to many of those involved.
My favourite bit was this:
Plaid Cymru was “vehemently opposed to nuclear energy.”
The American claimed Welsh Government energy advisor Dr Ron Loveland told the embassy that “even raising the issue of nuclear energy with Welsh Deputy First Minister and leader of Plaid Cymru Ieuan Wyn Jones is ‘too sensitive.’”  Mr Jones has since left those posts.  “This negative attitude toward civil nuclear energy is pervasive in Wales, as several contacts echoed to ESTHOff similar concerns about nuclear waste.”
Given the huge difficulties that Plaid has faced over many years precisely because Plaid Cymru, far from being vehemently opposed, is unable to articulate a coherent policy on the issue, and given that a lot of that difficulty stemmed from the pro-Wylfa stance of Ieuan, this part of the feedback to the US is laughable.
On second thoughts, no it’s not laughable, it’s extremely worrying.  If they can get something as simple as this so wrong, how much more wrong information is being passed back up the line?  Worse still, how many US decisions on how to react to events in the world’s trouble spots are being made on the basis of information of such dubious veracity?

Monday, 24 March 2014

Poles and trenches

An issue much troubling many people in this part of the world at the moment is the proposal for an overhead line to connect the Brechfa wind farms to the National Grid.  The final line is yet to be identified, but some broad corridors have been painted on maps as a basis for consultation.
As owners of land (to wit, a house and garden) which sits squarely in the centre of one of these corridors, we were invited to a session organised by Western Power Distribution recently for them to explain the proposals.  Whilst it was helpful to see the lines on a larger scale map, there really wasn’t a lot to be said.
To be honest I’m not particularly exercised either way about the prospect of a few extra telegraph poles with wires strung between them crossing the field in front of the house, and I don’t really understand the demand from some quarters for the entire route to be placed underground.  It would be visually better of course, and perhaps in some sections of the route which are particularly sensitive scenically it’s worth doing that.  But the disruption of digging a deep trench through the area is not to be lightly dismissed either.
Some of the opposition seems to be more about fighting yesterday’s battles rather than about the line itself; a sort of rear-guard action against the wind farms.  Making it impossible to connect them to the grid would certainly undermine the rationale for building them, but it’s a false hope and a misplaced campaign.
Some of the political opposition is less than honest as well; politicians who claim to be in favour of renewable energy and against fuel poverty doing their best to block renewable energy projects and increase the cost of the energy from those which are approved.
And there’s no small dishonesty either in the claims being made by some that putting the cables underground would cost no more than putting them overhead.  I don’t know who’s doing their sums or where they get their figures.  Western Power Distribution claim that the costs are £150,000 per kilometre for an overhead line and £986,000 per kilometre for an underground cable - six times as much.  It’s possible – of course – that they’ve exaggerated the difference a little, but the difference doesn’t go away just by asserting that it doesn’t exist.  And it isn’t just the installation cost which is different; digging up cables for repairs and renewal costs more than patching any overhead line.
Would I prefer that overhead lines never intruded on the view, anywhere?  Yes, naturally.  I want a nice clear view with no poles and wires.  But I also want affordable electricity when I need it, and I want it from renewable sources.  We can’t always have everything we want.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Subsidising coal, oil, and gas

This report is worth a read.  It’s not exactly recent (November 2013) but it’s one of those things that I’ve only just got around to reading.
One of the frequent refrains of the opponents of wind farms is that they wouldn’t be built if it weren’t for the subsidies.  Take away the subsidies and no one would ever build a wind farm again.  Like all good propaganda, it has the advantage of being true, as far as it goes.  It isn’t the whole truth though, and they get away with it only because the subsidies for renewable energy are more obvious than the subsidies for other forms of energy.
What this report highlights is that when the subject is looked at more comprehensively, it becomes clear that for every £1 spent to support renewable energy, £6 is spent on fossil fuel subsidies.  The total subsidy, just to the producers of fossil fuels (i.e. without counting consumer subsidies) amounted to some $523 billion worldwide in 2011.  The subsidies aren’t always obvious, and take many forms, some of which are set out in the report.  But the basic message is clear – we are paying more to subsidise fossil fuel then we are to subsidise renewable energy – it’s the complete reverse of the claims made by those opposing renewable energy schemes.
Now, of course, statistics can be selected and it’s important to compare like with like.  We also need to consider the state of development of different technologies.
So, for instance, the world uses much more fossil fuel than renewable energy; even if the subsidy per kilowatt hour were to be the same, one would therefore expect a higher total to go on fossil fuels than on renewables.  In fact, given that renewables is a newer and still developing technology, the subsidy per kilowatt hour is generally likely to be higher than in the case of fossil fuels.
That is not, however, enough to “prove” the point which the antis make.  Subsidies – any sort of subsidies – for fossil fuel encourage their continued use, and mean that renewable energy is competing with subsidised fossil fuel and that people are still being incentivised to continue using fossil fuel.  Take away those subsidies completely, and the requirement for any subsidy for developing new technologies reduces dramatically.
So why does it happen?  At its simplest, the governments paying subsidies are afraid of exposing us to reality when it comes to the cost of energy.  Energy represents such a large proportion of household and industrial costs that governments believe that paying the true cost would be an enormous price shock.  So they take all sorts of actions to reduce and/or hide the costs.  We still pay in the end of course through taxation.  We just delude ourselves.
It can’t continue indefinitely though.  Sooner or later we need to face up to the real cost of our demand for energy.  Perhaps then we’ll do what we really need to do, which is to reduce our demand rather than play games with the price.