Tuesday, 19 August 2014

When is a promise not a promise?

After reading Vaughan Roderick’s post the other day, it wold be tempting to respond “when it’s made by a Liberal Democrat”.  However, that would be a little unfair; that party is not unique in promising one thing and then delivering the opposite.
Yesterday, the party committed itself to scrapping the toll to cross the Severn Bridges if the party found itself part of a government again after the UK elections next year.  Or did it?  How much of a commitment was it in reality?
In the first place, it’s not in their manifesto yet, only in one of those curious documents called a ‘pre-manifesto’; a mechanism usually used by parties to publicise policies which they’re thinking about including in their manifestos (or for those of a more cynical bent, policies to which they’d like to attract attention but without making any real commitment).  So, is there a guarantee that what’s in their ‘pre-manifesto’ will also be in the final document?  Apparently not.
And secondly, if they do find themselves in government again next year, it can only be in coalition with either the Labour Party or the Conservative Party.  Are the contents of the Lib Dem manifesto then guaranteed to form part of the coalition agreement?  Well, no – they just become a basis for negotiation.  Unless, that is, the party is saying in advance that this is a ‘red line’ issue and that they will not agree to any coalition programme which does not commit to abolishing the tolls.  Are they saying that?  Apparently not.
So, whilst the headlines stated “Lib Dems commit to scrapping tolls”, the actual story is that the party is thinking about maybe including the scrapping of tolls on a shopping list of items which might, and probably won’t, get included in a programme for coalition government.  There’s something of a gap between the headlines and the reality.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Not entirely unsympathetic

There will be few who feel much sympathy for the arguments put forward by Mark Simmonds that a salary of £90,000 plus £27,000 in expenses is inadequate to be able to live in one place and work largely elsewhere.  And I have no faith whatever in the argument that paying MPs more would attract more able people to the job.  Not only does that presuppose that “able” is synonymous with “highly paid” and that able people will only be attracted to highly paid jobs, it also overlooks the fact that since there are no ability criteria for the job, a pay increase would also mean that all MPs - regardless of ability - would get the extra cash.  Insofar as high pay attracts a certain type of person, experience elsewhere suggests that high-paid jobs with no entrance criteria are more likely to attract the greedy and the reckless than the able.
There was a second part of his statement however with which I have considerably more sympathy, and that was about the unrealistic expectations that we have about MPs and more particularly ministers.  It’s not the disruption caused by the mere fact of having to live in one place and work elsewhere, although that’s that way it’s come across.  On that point, firstly it isn’t only a problem faced by MPs, and secondly, he knew that was the nature of the job when he went for it.  No, it’s the fact that local constituents want to see their MP on the ground, whilst MPs are expected to be in Westminster, and ministers are generally expected to be available 24/7 – they cannot meet all those expectations. 
Part of the expectation of constituents has been built up over the years for electoral reasons.  “Being seen” in all the right places can help sitting MPs to keep their seats; and challengers can have an advantage in being available in a way that sitting members can’t, so it’s at least partly about watching their backs.  I’m also sceptical about the 24/7 demands on ministers – being “busy” isn’t always the same as doing useful things.  The attitude of the civil service parodied so well by “Yes Minister” – keeping them busy attending meetings, reading reports, and rubberstamping decisions so that they have no time to take any initiatives of their own – is probably closer to reality than it should be.
But even removing those – to some extent self-imposed – expectations, there is still a tendency to expect our MPs to be doing much more than a 9-to-5 job; and paying them more would only encourage that expectation.
Whilst a fixed 9-to-5 routine is never going to fit the nature of the job, why should the job not be defined in such a way which allows a better home-work balance of the sort that most of us expect?  It’s impossible to escape the implications of having to work in two locations – one in London and one in the constituency – but there are lots of jobs where similar factors can apply: having two bases is no reason in itself for expecting a 24/7 availability.
I suspect that the hours and poor home-work balance (to say nothing of the macho culture) are a larger deterrent to able people – and particularly women – than the salary, but there seems to be an unwillingness to redefine the role to tackle that issue.  And of course the fact that so many of them do other jobs “on the side” doesn’t exactly help the cause of the honest ones trying to do their best…

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Careful what you wish for

According to the leader of the Tory group in the National Assembly, there is inadequate scrutiny of the First Minister.  It’s an easy statement to make, and one with which many might be quick to agree.
It leaves unanswered the question of what we mean by “scrutiny” and what its purpose is.  And that probably explains the facile and simplistic suggestions made by the Tories – changing the time of day at which First Minister’s questions are held so there would be a potentially bigger television audience, and abdicating the Assembly’s responsibility to the Westminster Parliament.  The second is bizarre at best – as Peter Black asks “…which part of devolution do the Welsh Tories not understand?”.
As for the first, well of course since the leader of the Tory group is one of the main protagonists at First Minister’s questions, any increased audience would (purely coincidentally I’m sure, and not part of his thought process at all) lead to more exposure for himself.  The phrase that leapt to my mind first was “be careful what you wish for”; greater exposure for Andrew RT Davies might just possibly not be the unmitigated blessing that he seems to presuppose.
I doubt, however, that it would in reality do much to boost the audience.  Only a politician could believe that the only thing deterring people from watching the First Minister give pointless and boring answers to pointless and boring questions is the time of day at which the charade is broadcast.
If we are serious about improving scrutiny, it would be far better to suggest the lengthy forensic questioning which could be achieved by something more akin to a Parliamentary select committee (but at the assembly not at Westminster as Davies seems to suggest), albeit on a less frequent basis.  But then, that might not provide much by way of televisual sound bites.  It might even – perish the thought – be more boring than First Minister’s questions.  However, proper scrutiny is, by and large, an inherently boring process for the observer.  Being boring doesn’t make something unimportant.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Would a Plan B really help?

The brief extracts of the Salmond-Darling debate on Scottish independence which were aired on the UK news concentrated heavily on the question of the currency to be used in an independent Scotland.  The ‘Better Together’ campaign has clearly decided that the ‘uncertainty’ over currency is a weak point for the ‘yes’ campaign, and are plugging the issue for all it’s worth.  It’s a less than entirely honest position, not least because much of the claimed uncertainty has been created by the three unionist parties attempting to exclude the issue from any post-referendum negotiations, even though they all know full well that negotiation there will have to be in the event of a yes vote.
When it comes to uncertainty, it isn’t just currency of course; there are many details of the implications of independence which will remain unclear at the time of the vote on 18th September (and although the implications of continued union are actually no clearer over the medium to long term, humans psychologically attach greater uncertainty to an obvious and visible change).  That is both completely clear and entirely inevitable, and the only alternative to a lack of clarity would be to have conducted the detailed negotiations before holding a vote – a commitment of effort which the UK Government would never have been prepared to make without knowing whether the Scots actually wanted to be independent.
Without sorting out such detail in advance, the vote on 18th September could only ever have been about the principle rather than the details, although the efforts to which the Scottish Government has gone to try and set out the implications as clearly as it can in the face of intransigence from the other side is commendable.  The ‘no’ side are more responsible for any lack of clarity that the ‘yes’ side, who’ve done their best to set out their aspirations – the ‘no’ campaign has spent more time rubbishing that than on setting out any vision for a changed union.  But a decision in principle has been the normal way by which countries gain their independence, so it’s not exactly a unique situation.
On the specifics of the currency, there can really be little argument with Salmond’s position that if Scotland wants to go on using the £, then the RUK Government couldn’t actually stop them.  As Salmond said: “There is literally nothing anyone can do to stop an independent Scotland using sterling, which is an internationally tradable currency”.  Just as some countries use the dollar, or the euro, without formal currency union, so countries can, if they choose, use the pound sterling.
Whether doing so without a formal agreement on a currency union is a good idea or not is another matter entirely; there are upsides and downsides to so doing, as there are with all the options facing Scotland.  But as a simple statement of fact, Salmond is unquestionably right to say that Scotland can keep the £ if it wishes.  The only question which causes uncertainty is the terms under which it continues to do so; and the biggest problem in relation to that is the intransigence of people like Darling, who knows as well as anyone else that the ultimate outcome will be a negotiated agreement of some sort.
Whether Salmond is wise to continue to reject any suggestion of a Plan B is another question.  Being right in fact isn’t always the same as being right in terms of a political campaign, and I can well understand the call by Jim Sillars last week to start talking about Plan B, a Scottish pound pegged to the value of sterling, probably as the precursor to Euro entry.  (The fear of talking about the Euro is understandable, but the currency continues to expand.  A fortnight ago, the final terms for Lithuanian entry on 1st January 2015 were agreed – the subject isn’t a no-go zone for discussion everywhere.)  No doubt a change of tactic at this stage would be portrayed as flip-flopping – it’s a bit of a no-win situation for Salmond.  The real question is whether Scots will see through the unionist bluster on the subject.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

From the past

Yesterday’s Western Mail, like many other papers, contained a lot of coverage about the start of the First World War 100 years ago.  Part of the coverage included a reprint of the paper’s editorial from 4th August 1914, justifying, and supporting the decision to go to war.
But it was the final sentence which caught my eye.  It read:
“In times to come, if Russia does become a menace to us in the East, well, England, allied with Japan, can deal with that situation.”
I suppose that it was a long time ago – I don’t think they would have dreamed of calling the Western Mail the ‘National Newspaper of Wales’ in those days. 
It wasn’t just the Western Mail, though; another story on the same theme in yesterday’s paper referred to an obelisk at St Symphorien dedicated to the “German and English” soldiers who died in the Battle of Mons.  Much of what was said and written at the time portrayed it as a war between England and Germany with a few supporting characters from elsewhere.  England, Britain, and the UK were more interchangeable then than now, to the extent that the second and third were used at all.  History is always changing.
It’s too easy to see this conflation of England and the UK as being some sort of slight to Wales; but it was the accepted norm at the time – even in Wales.  Sometimes, it feels as though we are not making much progress, but stories like these help to underline how far we’ve come in building the confidence and identity of a nation which was all but invisible a century ago.  There’s still some way to go, though.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Getting away with robbery

Bankers' squealing about people being beastly to them is nothing new.  Nor is the idea that people earning vast sums of money for undertaking activities which are of dubious worth at best end up sincerely believing that their salary in some way reflects their ability or value.
But arguing, in effect, that they should be allowed to continue to bend or break the rules as and when it suits them, and take reckless short term decisions in the hope of making a quick buck, and do all that with impunity, is surely an illustration of how far they have become removed from the real economy in which most of us live.
I’m not entirely convinced that the proposals to claw back bonuses for up to seven years go far enough to rein in the gamblers and speculators who masquerade as bankers, but it’s at least a start.  The real requirement is for multinational action to bring the money markets back under control and make them work for society rather than for the bankers.  But the problem we face is that those making the decisions genuinely seem to believe that the crash was just the result of a few bad decisions, rather than an inevitable consequence of the way in which we have allowed people to turn markets into casinos.

Monday, 4 August 2014

For Wales, see London.

Boris Johnson attracted plenty of coverage over the weekend with his call for the Tories to be ready to take Britain out of the EU if Cameron fails to get what he wants in the renegotiation which he’s promised if he wins the next UK election.  London’s Mayor has based his call on a report produced by his chief economic advisor, Gerard Lyons.
The headline in some of the papers that this was an option for the UK was based on a quote from Lyons that
“The best economic scenario for Britain over the next 20 years is to be in a significantly reformed European Union.
"But if, as an alternative, the UK leaves the EU on good terms, while adopting sensible outward-looking trading policies, that comes a very close second.”
But the detail shown in all the reports relates only to London.  Take this as an example from the Independent:
“…the Lyons report predicts London’s GDP of £350 billion will grow to £640 billion by 2034 if EU reforms boost trade with growing markets in the rest of the world.
“But, growth up to £614 billion would still be achieved by the capital if Britain quit the EU to pursue its own outward-looking trade policies, the report concluded.
“Staying in an unreformed EU would see London’s GDP grow to just £495 billion over the same 20 year period, while leaving the EU but failing to adopt trade-friendly policies would limit growth to just £430 billion.”
At least the Western Mail’s headline was more honest – saying that the report showed that leaving the EU was a viable option for London.  But even the Western Mail doesn’t seem to have asked what ‘viable for London’ might mean for Wales.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Cardiff, Cardiff, Cardiff...

The plans for the revamp of Cardiff Central station are ambitious.  They are also likely to be very expensive.  It’s not a plan that I’d oppose in principle, but I don’t agree that it should be the next priority for the network rail investment programme.
I understood why electrifying the main line from Paddington to Swansea should be a top priority.  I can also understand why the lines running through the South Wales valley should be the second priority.  But there are still unelectrified lines in west and north of Wales, and I cannot understand why the scheme to electrify those is not being brought forward ahead of the revamp of Cardiff station.
I try to avoid falling prey to simplistic regional jealousies pitting one part of Wales gets another.  And given the concentration of population and employment in the south-east, the status of Cardiff as the capital, I can understand the logic of an electrification scheme which serves that area first.  It shouldn’t end there though, and a desire to avoid internal competition shouldn’t become an abject acceptance that all investment goes to one corner.
The comment made by the Institute of Directors (“If Cardiff is to compete with other cities in the UK and internationally for investment, then it really needs a train station that is as good as anything else”) sounded like a reprise of why we have to build the extra M4 around Newport, why we have to create a city region based on Cardiff, and why we have to build the Greater Cardiff Metro.  How many more things does Cardiff “need” because we will not get economic development without them, and when will Cardiff have ‘enough’ grand schemes to allow serious investment elsewhere in Wales?
It increasingly looks as though the answer is never – no sooner has one key problem been overcome then another one gets pushed to the fore.  There will always be another key obstacle to Cardiff's development which the rest of Wales will have to pay for, as funds are directed to that one corner of the country.
It’s hard to deny that Cardiff is receiving a substantial devolution dividend, but what about the rest of Wales?  Replicating the south-east bias of the UK was never anyone’s stated intention – yet that’s where we seem to be going.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Who selects the evidence?

It has become something of a mantra for politicians over recent years that decisions should be “evidence-based”.  It all sounds fine and dandy, with its unstated implication of a rational and logical process leading to an inevitable conclusion.  But reality is rather different.
One of the problems with it is that “evidence” comes in many different flavours.  Whilst some is in the form of hard facts and figures, some is mere opinion.  Expert opinion in some cases admittedly, but still opinion.  And even the hard evidence can sometimes be interpreted in more than one way.  Interpretation is key; and interpretation is largely a subjective rather than an objective process which involves not only weighting the different elements but can also include deciding which evidence to collect in the first place.
Two recent examples of evidence collecting underline the problems.
The first is this report (Peter Black drew attention to the story a week or two ago).  The UK government commissioned a report into the effects of immigration.  Unfortunately for them, the “evidence” didn’t support their viewpoint, so they had it rewritten.
The second was the decision to build the M4 black route.  The Minister certainly had plenty of “evidence” from consultation exercises to take a decision, but some might feel that the decision simply flies in the face of much of the evidence.  Certainly the Minister has chosen to put the emphasis on a different place than I would have done in deciding how to evaluate that evidence.
Quite apart from the practical difficulties of following a truly “evidence-based” approach, there is a question of principle which concerns me more.  Do we really want key policy decisions to be taken by people who have no opinion of their own until the civil servants have collected, collated and evaluated the evidence and then told the minister what his or her opinion is?  What scope does that leave for political differentiation?  After all, the civil servants would give the same advice to any minister regardless of party.
I have heard ministers in the past saying, effectively, that they don’t and can’t have an opinion on an issue until they’ve heard all the evidence, and even arguing that their role is quasi- judicial.  Whilst in a small number of cases that is true, on the whole I prefer to have politicians who are willing to drive things in a clear direction and to say so in advance, rather than ministers who see the job as more a case of sitting in judgement on alternative policies.  I want to be able to choose which policies are followed, not simply which group of people are going to pretend to be impartial judges.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Do we want to be the playground bullies?

Not for the first time, Cameron has employed the argument about the UK “punching above our weight” in relation to the Scottish independence referendum.  It’s something that sounds like a good thing – but is it?  What does it really mean?
At its crudest, it sounds like a school playground invitation to stick with the big bullies rather than be part of the group of smaller children suffering the bullying.  Only slightly less crudely, it implies that bigger states can and should get their own way more often and/or an unfair share of resources.  If it doesn’t mean any of those things, then it’s surely a meaningless phrase.
As a statement of the way things actually work in the world, it’s difficult to refute the argument.  In practice, might usually is “right”; but is it the way things should work?  Is it the way we want things to be?
I certainly don’t, and I’m not convinced that maintaining the strength of the bullies – which is what Cameron is effectively proposing – is the best way of tackling bullying.  It’s not the advice which Cameron would give to children who were being bullied at school (or at least I don’t think it is!), so why do so when it comes to the big school of international politics?