Tuesday, 21 October 2014

A visit from the imperial capital

I suppose that the agreement of the UK Government that the Welsh Government can issue bonds to fund its borrowing is better than a refusal.  But given that it makes no change to the total borrowing allowed nor to the fact that the money borrowed can only be used to fund the UK Government’s pet project, it doesn’t really justify the coverage given to it, with the Western Mail rolling out one of their favourite words (‘historic’) to describe it.
It was of more interest to note that the decision was taken by a meeting of a new body, called the “Wales Joint Exchequer Committee”.  I’m not clear what other powers this body has, but its composition is three UK ministers and one Welsh Minister.  That alone is enough to tell us where the real power sits and will remain.
Fair play, though, they did make the trek down to Cardiff for the meeting, and they allowed the sole representative of the Welsh Government to chair the meeting.  As long as the Chair remains neutral in the event of any disagreement between Cardiff and London, I’m sure that’s an arrangement which will be allowed to continue indefinitely.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Tackling inequality, not immigration

The 19th-century French radical Alexandre Ledru-Rollin probably never said “There go my people. I must find out where they are going, so that I can lead them”.  Many of the best quotes turn out to be less than entirely accurate.  But that doesn’t reduce their value – and in the case of this one it seems a good description of the approach of many contemporary politicians.  The question is not what they believe (even they seem not to know that) but what they think they have to say to get elected.  And in pursuit of that utterly unprincipled aim many of them are prepared to do and say almost anything.
It’s hard to think of a single political issue which better illustrates the point than immigration.  Politicians seem to be falling over themselves to demonstrate that they will be tougher on immigration.  Are they doing it because they believe is right?  I doubt it; it’s more a case of following opinion than of leading at.  But the net effect is to reinforce rather than challenge prejudice.
All of the discussion around immigration seems to start from the perspective that migration is, or should be, a privilege granted only to a few.  And the competition between parties and politicians is about who can keep that number the lowest and set the highest bar for qualification for that privilege.  But what would happen if we stand the principle on its head?  Why not start from the perspective that freedom of movement and residence is not a privilege for a few, but a right for all?  On that basis the the question becomes not to whom the privilege should be granted – which is all the UK’s parties seem able to discuss - but from whom the freedom should be withheld, and on what basis.
There’s a danger of oversimplifying the reasons for migration.  Of course people have different reasons for seeking to move from one country to another, and I wouldn’t want to understate the impact of conflict and famine for instance.  But the one single cause which has the greatest influence on the movement of people is economic inequality; in essence people believe that they can have a better life, a better quality of life, in a country other than their native country.  And responding to that by raising barriers is not only managing the symptoms rather than the cause, it’s also an attempt to embed and perpetuate inequality rather than reduce it.
Freedom of movement as a starting point is hardly populist, although it strikes me that there are plenty of people who, when pressed, believe that they should be free to move and that it’s only other people’s freedom which should be restricted.  But being popular isn’t the same as being honest or principled, and prejudiced opinion can only be changed by challenging it, not by pandering to it.
We live in a world of finite resources.  The world’s population is growing and that population aspires to the living standards of the richest.  There are two possible policy responses to this – the first is to accept that resources need to be shared more fairly, and the second is to create fortresses to protect the haves from the have nots.  Much of the debate about immigration owes more to that second policy position than the first.  But only the first is tenable in the long term.  It is delusional to believe that current levels of inequality can be sustained for the indefinite future, and even more so to believe that it can be sustained by building barriers.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Greeks bearing gifts

Just over a month ago, three not-very-wise men took themselves off to Scotland and made a solemn promise.  Neither they nor those to whom they made said promise had much clue about what was actually contained in the promise, and it has become increasingly clear that whilst three of them were signing up to it, they were all signing up to something different.  And none of them bothered to consult their disciples in advance either.
The result, fairly inevitably, is a good deal of chaos within the unionist camp as they try and work out what it is that they’re going to deliver, and how to manage the fallout elsewhere.  In this context, further devolution to Wales – something about which they are all endeavouring to appear enthusiastic, despite standing previous policy positions on their head in the process – is little more than collateral damage for the great union.
And the result of that is a haphazard process which has more to do with getting the situation back under control and saving the skins of the not-so-wise than it does with working out what the best interests of Wales are, and how they should be met.  The work of thoughtful commissions which spent time researching and analysing before producing their conclusions has become nothing more than an ‘input’ to the backroom discussions being orchestrated by a Secretary of State who is showing all the signs of having forgotten everything he believed passionately just a few short weeks ago.
I share the concern expressed by Gareth Hughes about a bunch of men in suits cooking up an ad hoc deal in a backroom in London.  Sadly however Wales is not Scotland.  Whilst the future of Scotland is now being driven by her people, re-energised and re-engaged in politics by an exciting campaign, the future of Wales is still being managed where it has been managed for centuries.  Whilst I might wish that Wales had had the sort of recent history which has drawn people into debate about the future, it simply isn’t so.  Without a clear policy drive towards independence as Scotland has had, there is little prospect of Wales reaching that point any time soon.
So a deal of some sort is as good as it gets.  I might prefer that such a deal was hatched up in Cardiff rather than in London, but after seeing the joint statement by the party leaders from the Assembly, I’m not exactly confident that we won’t get more from panicking unionists in London than the sort of timid response which is all that Labour and the Tories in Cardiff are ever going to agree on.
The question which strikes me is about the role of nationalists in all this.  Given that the unionists are falling over themselves to stitch up a deal on which they can all agree, is it best for nationalists to be falling in with them and assisting their efforts to save the union, not to mention their leaders’ skins, or would it be better to seize the opportunity to put some real clear difference between the nationalist and unionist positions by spelling out the sort of alternative which Scotland was offered by its leaders? 
For me, one would have to believe that a nationalist input could make a significant difference to the final stitch-up to adopt the first approach, and to be blunt, I simply don’t believe that to be the case.  They will decide what they will decide.  And that decision will be driven by their electoral considerations, in England, then in Scotland, and as an afterthought, in Wales.  For nationalists to simply fall in with a unionist consensus to which they have contributed nothing would be a huge missed opportunity.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Federalism brings more problems than the obvious one

It’s clear that an increasing number of people are beginning to see a federal UK as a way out of the constitutional nightmare which has been created by a poorly thought-out and asymmetrical approach to devolution to those parts of the UK where there was a demand.  It’s also been clear to me for many years that not a few of those who sometimes call themselves nationalists would be, on the whole, content with such a proposal.  Like Home Rule, however, it’s a term whose meaning depends on who is using it.
Plenty of others have already drawn attention to the biggest problem with a federal UK – unless England is broken down into ‘regions’, a federation in which one member comprises 85% of the whole is unlikely to pay much regard to the views of the 15% if they happen to differ.  And whilst I instinctively favour a more local approach to government, I feel disinclined to try and insist that England should break itself up into regions with which there seems to be little natural identity or affinity, let alone demand for more local power.
Certainly some of England’s larger cities can see advantages in having more powers, but unless the country is carved up into regions based on those cities and their hinterlands, what happens to the more rural areas in between them?  London could certainly make out a good case for becoming a self-governing city state, and its mayor has already hinted at such a suggestion.  (Although going even further, and removing London from the UK might be more of a blessing to the rest of us than many realise.)
There is another aspect of federalism though which has received rather less attention.  Historically, federation has usually been much more about bringing diverse ‘countries’ or ‘nations’ together than about separating them.  It’s been more to do with convergence than divergence.  And the history of federal states has often been marked by a tendency for the centre to take on more powers whilst the components see their powers reduced.  It’s a danger which is likely to be even more acute in a federation dominated by one part.
It would be interesting to see how it might pan out in practice, and how strong the safeguards for the smaller parts might be.  I don’t think there’s much chance of it actually happening though.  One thing which would have to be absolutely clear in any federal approach is that the federal parliament and government would have to be separate from the English parliament and government.  I see no sign that any of the politicians and parties wedded to Westminster are even understanding that, let alone being ready to contemplate it.

Monday, 13 October 2014

I am not a nationalist

Well, apparently not – according to the Lib Dems’ president anyway.  Last week he told us that “Patriots love their country; nationalists hate their neighbours”, and I simply don’t meet his criterion.
That’s not to say that I haven’t met people over the years who do hate their ‘neighbours’, sometimes with a passion which is incomprehensible to me.  And that doesn’t simply apply to Wales and England; I’ve canvassed many who hate all Germans (mostly this applies to people of a certain generation, which makes it at least explicable, even if not entirely rational and understandable), or (rather less explicably) ‘the French’. 
Whether all the people hating their neighbours would consider themselves to be ‘nationalists’ is another question entirely, however.  To the extent that they are, they’re more British nationalists than Welsh ones (although that’s a term that I generally prefer to avoid because it’s another of those labels which avoids debate).
But what’s at work here has nothing to do with rational debate; it is, rather, an attempt to do two things.  And whilst I’m picking on Farron in this case, I do so only because he’s put what many other UK politicians have been saying into one pithy sentence.  (Although there is something very illiberal about claiming that anyone who takes a particular view on the future of his country hates his neighbours.)  It doesn’t only apply to the question of Welsh and Scottish nationalism; they do the same thing in other contexts as well.
The first thing they’re trying to do is to take a word, and insist that it has the meaning which they ascribe to it, and that no other meaning is allowable or conceivable.  Once they’ve done that, from that point on, the debate is framed in their terms. 
It leads to a situation where people who clearly do support the idea of Welsh or Scottish independence (which is all I mean when I say that I’m a nationalist) become so afraid of the connotations put on the word by others that they end up being frightened to use the word themselves.  I can certainly think of individuals who regularly proclaim that they are not nationalists, despite supporting independence.  There is a danger that this reluctance to embrace a word succeeds only in strengthening the narrative of their opponents.
The second thing that they are trying to do is to avoid debate by the simple expedient of branding people with the negative label which they have created.  After all, there’s nothing to be gained by debating with people once you have defined them as having an irrational hatred of others, is there?
This isn’t a one-sided process either, sadly – over the years, I’ve seen attempts to label those who oppose independence as unpatriotic or worse, but I see nothing treacherous or unpatriotic about a belief that Wales is better off as things are than being independent, even if it’s not a view with which I agree.
Labelling is no substitute for debate, and the future is too important to be left in the hands of simplistic sloganeers.

Friday, 10 October 2014

A fudge by any other name

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
For a character in a children’s book, that might, just about, be a reasonable approach, but it really isn't good enough for a political party.  The Lib Dems have, in their various incarnations, been banging on about federalism and home rule for a very long time, but what exactly do the words mean?  And it isn’t just them; Labour’s Carwyn Jones has been calling for “Home Rule All Round” (echoing a call first made, I believe, almost 200 years ago in the 1830s) since the Scottish referendum.
In the case of Labour, the words seem to mean that we move to a reserved powers model, and are then offered the extra powers which may, or may not, have been promised to Scotland (exactly what was promised remains a mystery even to those who made the promise).  Wales should then, apparently, treat this as an ‘a la carte’ offering, much of which should be rejected.
The Lib Dems have done rather more work on the question, and have attempted to set out some detail of what they mean in this document.  I suspect though that others reading it will come to the same conclusion that I did – ‘home rule’ has a much more limited definition than I would give it.  It might even amount to less than that other undefined phrase – ‘devo-max’.  And that bring us back, in a way, to Humpty Dumpty.  The words ‘home rule’ mean whatever the person using them intends them to mean, and the increasing adoption of the term cannot be interpreted as meaning that there is increasing agreement on the substance.  On that, the gulf is as wide as it ever was.
Even if all four parties were to put similar words into their manifestos for the next Assembly election, as some are suggesting, it would tell us little about their actual intent.  A bit like that vow made before the Scottish referendum, in fact.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Political sincerity

Nick Clegg’s response to the decision of his pary’s membership to contuinue to oppose airport expansion was certainly forthright.  Ultimately, it boils down to saying that because he didn’t get the answer he wanted, his party will have to continue discussing it until he does.  I’m not sure that he’d apply the same rule in other circumstances, such as a certain recent referendum.  In that case, I rather suspect that he’d argue that the decision, once taken, is final; but then poltiicians tend to like rules that only apply when they want them to.
I was particularly interested in the way he drew parallels with other party decisions, such as that on tuition fees.  This passage in particular made me wonder: “…how can I put it – I’ve seen the perils of the past of putting something which you know in your heart of hearts is not necessarily deliverable”. Is he, in effect, telling us that he knew the pledge was undeliverable when he made it? 
He solemnly signed that enormous card, and looked directly into camera and told us all that a vote for the Lib Dems was a vote against tuition fees, but he’s now telling us that he knew all along in his ‘heart of hearts’ that he could not and would not deliver it.  That comes as a bit of a shock even to an old cynic like me.  And given that he’s already telling us that he can’t and won’t deliver the Lib Dem pledge on airport expansion if he gets into government again, how can anyone believe anything that they put in their manifesto?

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Losing the plot

-         We wanted the power to borrow money. 
-         The only way that we could get that was to promise to use all the money we borrow to build a new motorway. 
-         So we’re building a new motorway.
As a justification for building a six-lane highway across the Gwent levels, this doesn’t work for me.  I suspect that it won’t work for a lot of other people either.  And whilst I’ll admit that it’s paraphrased, it does seem to sum up the argument being put forward by the Welsh Government for the decision to press ahead with the M4 relief road. 
Adding in, for good measure, that "Business people are very content", doesn’t do it for me either (even if it were true; my understanding is that some business organisations would prefer to have a cheaper route finished sooner).
It makes it appear as though the power to borrow money became, at some point, an end in itself rather than a means to doing whatever it was they originally planned to do.  And it means that the decisions on the Welsh Government’s transport priorities – and indeed more generally capital spending priorities - are effectively being set by the UK Government, not the Welsh Government.
It’s not a good starting point for new financial powers.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Don't mention the deficit

I almost felt sorry for Ed Miliband after he forgot to deliver the passage in his speech concerning the deficit, and ended up rather sheepishly trying to make amends and explain himself.  I wasn’t particularly sorry that he was being pilloried; I just felt that he was being pilloried for the wrong crime.  We’re all prone to the occasional memory lapse, although some are obviously more significant than others (on which note – did I really hear Cameron suggesting that forgetting a passage in a speech was far worse than a father forgetting that he’d left his child in the pub?).  For me, Miliband’s real crime was not that he forgot part of his speech, but that he felt it necessary to include the passage in the first place, and then overstress the issue in order to recover ground.
To be sure, failing to mention the deficit at all in the published draft would have attracted the opprobrium of the Tories and their allies in the media – however, he was going to get that whatever he said.  But the extent to which the Tories’ obsession with reducing the deficit (or rather, talking about reducing the deficit) has become accepted political wisdom highlights the extent to which the main “opposition” party accepts the basic premise.  Where in politics today – in London or in Cardiff – are the voices challenging the great Tory deficit myth?
The Tory mantra is an easy one for people to understand, as Gareth Hughes pointed out earlier today.  The parallel with household accounts may be both misleading and completely inappropriate, but it’s one that people can easily grasp.  But, as the Tories’ unfunded proposal for £7bn of tax cuts amply demonstrates, they know full well that reducing the deficit is not as all-important as they’ve claimed.  As Gareth says again, this has just been a cover for an ideologically motivated drive to reduce the size of the state.  Sadly, the other parties and the media have largely swallowed it, to the extent that, like poor Ed, they feel obliged to parrot the Tory message, and even promise to continue the austerity programme.
How big a deficit can we actually run?  I really don’t know – but here’s the thing: neither does anyone else.  Nobody knows how big the deficit can get before the gamblers and speculators – the people really driving policy on this question – decide that it’s time to start betting against the government.  And curiously enough, given that most of them are natural and instinctive Tories (to say nothing about being the beneficiaries of tax cuts for the higher paid), a Tory government can get away with running a higher deficit than a Labour government before they start claiming to have run out of ooffle dust confidence.
It’s really magic stuff, this ‘confidence’; although it would be a more accurate description if it were to be followed by the word ‘trick’.  The supply of it is basically unlimited but its use is controlled by a fairly small number of people who can say they have it one day and that it’s gone the next; but they can get it back again if only the government does what they say.
‘Deficit reduction’ as the main plank of policy owes more to ideology than to economics.  The fact that all the parties seem to have signed up to it underlines the lack of ideological differences between them.  Why do we let them get away with it?

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

From drama to farce

There was certainly something very dramatic about the way the leaders of the three unionist parties dropped everything and took themselves off to Scotland following one opinion poll showing a lead for the yes campaign.  And the spectacle of a revitalised Gordon Brown coming over the hill like the seventh cavalry was not without its own touch of drama.
Solemn vows were made, irrevocable and guaranteed, they all said. 
But the whole thing descends into farce when the front man (or perhaps that should be fall guy) for the vows has such faith in the rest of them to deliver on the promises that he made that he’s now calling for 100,000 Scots to sign a petition demanding that the three not-so-wise men keep his promises.
The thing that struck me was this.  There were 2 million who voted for further devolution and against independence (although some of them may foolishly have thought that they were voting for the status quo – an option removed from the ballot paper by the Prime Minister).  Why does he only want 100,000 of them to sign his petition?  Could it be that he’s not overly confident that many more than that will follow him a second time?