Tuesday, 4 December 2007
It’s not the detail of the various stories, or twists on stories, which are damaging, so much as the way in which there is always more. As John Major found out in his turn, it's the steady drip, drip, drip which does the job. And when a tap is dripping, merely trying to turn it tighter and tighter won’t solve the problem in the long term, and rarely helps in the short term either. Just when he thinks the worst is over, someone asks another awkward question which fires the next twist or turn.
The parallel with John Major, whilst far from perfect, does have some resonance in other ways as well. The attempts to tough it out; the attempts to hold on to his friends when he should be sacrificing them for the greater good; the attempts to rationalise the individual stories as being unimportant in themselves - these all bring back memories of the past.
Equally familiar are the attempts to turn the fire back on the accusers, and draw attention to their misdeeds – to say nothing of the way in which the accusers conveniently ignore their own misdeeds whilst they press home the attack, and somehow get away with it.
Loyalists refer to a media frenzy – it’s a fair point, but I’m afraid it’s irrelevant. Fairness is no longer the issue nor the story. The story now is Brown, and the way he deals with the series of crises which have befallen him.
I suspect that Brown is genuinely angry at what has been done by some of those around him, and rightly so. I suspect that he feels that having a number of prominent people hounded out of office for pretty minor misdemeanours is unfair and unjust – and he may well be right on that. It is a sad reflection on the body politic that being right is just not enough. Perception is what counts, and things have already gone too far.
Is all lost? Actually, I don’t think that it is – yet. But it will be soon unless he gets a grip. He needs to clean out the stable, and to be seen to be doing so. A few heads rolling now, a clean breast of everything to the police and the Electoral Commission so as to get the investigations concluded quickly, and quick action to further tighten the rules on the funding of political parties could all wrongfoot the Tories, and leave them struggling for funding. They are, after all, even more dependent on large personal donations than Labour. Shadowy organisations and funds could do with a little more investigation too.
The very worst thing he can do is appear to procrastinate.
Monday, 3 December 2007
Sir Humphrey: Indeed, Minister? How much do they want this time?
Minister: This time?
Sir Humphrey: Your predecessor was extremely generous to them the last time they got into financial trouble. How much do they say they need this time?
Minister: £1.7 million to clear their debts, and an extra £500,000 a year thereafter.
Sir Humphrey: That’s a great deal of money, Minister. Shall I have the civil servants draw up the customary refusal? Budgets are very tight this year.
Minister: That’s not what we said to the Millennium Centre – and the Garden are only asking for a fraction of what we gave them.
Sir Humphrey: That’s completely different, Minister. One simply cannot compare the two cases.
Minister: Why not? The press are comparing the two.
Sir Humphrey: Well, Minister, the Millennium Centre is a home for the Arts. Opera, Theatre, Concerts, world-class performances. The Botanic Gardens is just a... just a… just a garden!
Bernard: And it’s in Carmarthen rather than Cardiff.
Minister: I don’t quite see the difference.
Sir Humphrey: Minister, really! The Millennium Centre is vital to all our work in attracting employment and boosting the economy.
Sir Humphrey: Well it’s really very simple. The captains of industry, the people who make the decisions on investment – culture is extremely important to them. The Millennium Centre is a show case of what Wales can put on at its best.
Minister: You mean a lot of people singing in Italian is the cream of Welsh culture?
Sir Humphrey: World culture, Minister. We have a world-beating stage to stage events, and they are a major attraction to the captains of industry.
Minister: And senior civil servants?
Sir Humphrey: It isn’t easy to get the top people from London to come and spend time working in Cardiff you know.
Bernard: They certainly wouldn’t go to Carmarthenshire.
Minister: But surely we can find some money. Aren’t there some more underspends we can use, like we did for the Millennium Centre?
Sir Humphrey: But that’s Arts money, Minister! You can’t simply spend Arts money on a garden! People don’t pay good money in taxes to subsidise a garden!
Minister: Surely it’s all Heritage money? Isn’t it up to me how we spend it?
Bernard: Not exactly, Minister. Although the Department has a total amount of money to spend, the budget splits it down into lots of sub-headings, each of which has its own total, and if you increase the total under one, then you’d have to decrease the total under another, and then you'd have to explain why the one that you're decreasing was so high in the first place that it was possible to reduce it later.
Sir Humphrey: One can’t simply switch money from Opera to gardening!
Minister: So what do we do?
Sir Humphrey: We tell them that we’ve bailed them out once, on condition that they did not come back again, and that they’ll have to find private finance to make up their deficit.
Minister: So you’re telling me that I can always find money for an Arts project, but there will never be enough for the Gardens?
Sir Humphrey and Bernard: Yes, Minister.
Friday, 30 November 2007
The real scandal, to me, was that a governing party which pledged to bring transparency to political funding, and passed laws requiring donations to be declared, then proceeded to use a loophole in its own legislation by asking potential donors to turn their gifts into loans so that they would not need to be declared.
It was not illegal, but it was clearly in direct contradiction of the spirit behind the legislation which they had enacted. I can see how some would assume that that subterfuge must be hiding some bigger sin, which I suppose is how it developed into a suggestion that honours were being sold, but I suspect that it really was as simple as a desire to hide the sources of party funds; no more, no less.
The danger for Labour in the Abrahams affair is that this starts to look like a pattern. Here again, the objective seems to have been to disguise the real source of funds. The key difference is that, in this case, as Brown himself has admitted, there is a clear breach of the law rather than mere use of a loophole, but the underlying cause is exactly the same – an attempt to conceal the source of the funding.
In the case of the ‘loans’, it was clearly the Labour Party itself which instigated the concealment. At this stage in the Abrahams case, it is unclear whether it was the party or the donor or both who wanted to conceal the source – I guess that will be pretty central to the police investigation. It is already clear however that whoever instigated the proposal, the details were known by both the donor and by senior people in the party – and all of them should have known what the law says on the matter.
The surprising thing is how quickly the matter has snowballed to involve donations to internal party campaigns, and the impact on Brown himself. I don’t think it threatens his survival – yet – although things look pretty bleak for Harriet Harman’s prospects. I find myself wondering whether he has really been told everything, or whether there are some misguided people who think that they are protecting him by not giving him the whole picture.
If he wants to come out of this with minimum damage, I think he needs to deliberately over-react at this stage, before things get any worse. Anyone who personally knew about or was involved in an attempt to conceal the source of funds needs to go. And Brown needs to satisfy himself, quietly but definitely, that there are no other little dodges being used to conceal the sources of party funding.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that the other parties are entirely clean on the issue of funding either, and there’s more than a little hypocrisy in the way that the Tories in particular (but not uniquely) have jumped on this one. But trying to respond to this situation by attacking others will only make matters worse, and increase the overall level of cynicism about politicians.
Wednesday, 28 November 2007
This is not the first time that the Western Mail has attacked parties for making efforts to achieve a degree of gender balance in Welsh politics, but it is probably the first time that their leader writer has shown so clearly how little time he has for the notion that parties should be actively seeking the best people rather than sitting back and waiting for them to appear.
The Western Mail seems to think that ambition is the key attribute that we should be looking for in our politicans, and if women simply don’t have the ambition, then we should stick to the people - largely men - who do. On this point, I'm afraid that I have enormous sympathy with the standpoint of Billy Connolly, who once said that anyone who actually wanted to be a member of parliament should for that reason alone be automatically disqualified.
I don't particularly want our elected institutions to be stuffed with people (aka macho men) who are bursting with ambition. That’s exactly what we’ve had for generations, and look at where it’s got us. Ambition is not at all the same thing as ability - and an unkind person might even suggest that there's some evidence that the two can be mutually exclusive.
I want the most able and talented people; people who are willing to give of their ability and talents to serve the people who elect them, and to present alternative visions of how things can be, rather than just fight each other for the top jobs. And I want parties which are willing to go and look for those talents and abilities even amongst – no, especially amongst – groups of people in society who might be reluctant to put themselves forward.
Now, the Western Mail might argue that not all of the people whom we have elected, whether to the Assembly or to Parliament, or to the European Parliament, have the necessary talents and abilities to do the job. That’s a different argument entirely (although I am far from convinced that it’s a problem which applies solely, or even predominantly, to the female members of those institutions). If the people we have in our elected institutions are not the best or most able available – and I suspect that a lot of people might actually agree with that suggestion – then we should be asking ourselves why those able people are not interested, rather than simply making do with those who are.
That’s a real challenge for all of the parties.
Tuesday, 27 November 2007
Yesterday’s Western Mail piece was, ostensibly, an indication that he was ready and willing to go (and was accompanied by the now customary paean of praise from his chief fan Martin Shipton). But he also seemed to be laying down some conditions - one of which is outside the control of his party, and the other is one that they may well be unwilling to agree to. Is he perhaps trying to give himself some Wigl(ey)-room to decline the ‘opportunity’ after all?
Firstly, he wants to go as part of a phalanx of new peers from both his own party and the Labour Party, and even goes so far as to suggest the people whom the Labour Party should nominate. There is no chance of his own party being able to deliver on this condition - and I cannot imagine that Labour will be overly ecstatic about having him tell them what to do either. (Hopefully, some of the more outspoken Labour members will leave it a day or two to calm down before responding to his friendly 'advice'.)
Secondly, he seems to want to become an ex-officio member of the party’s group in the National Assembly – a status which is currently not even granted to elected members of the Westminster parliament. Is this really about helping him to do a job in the Lords, or is it just a way of trying to get more influence over what his party's group are doing in Cardiff? I can really imagine Ieuan Wyn Jones welcoming this sort of potential interference in the Assembly group. Not.
So, when Wigley says that he would find it difficult to acept nomination if both conditions are not accepted, what is he trying to achieve?
I suspect that, in agreeing to nominate peers, Plaid may have crossed one bridge only to find a much tougher one in front of them. They want 'working' peers; people who will spend significant amounts of time in the House of Lords scrutinising Welsh legislation and attempting to table amendments; what they do not want is a few celebrities with titles (so I guess that weather presenters need not bother applying).
Despite the talk of the level of ‘allowances’ payable to peers, the job is not salaried like that of humble MP’s and AM’s, so the only people likely to be able to meet the party’s requirements are going to be those with another income and no real need to work. 'Retired' politicians fit the bill quite well (which is why there are so many of them in the place already), but they have always been in rather short supply within Plaid. Perhaps the would-be Lord Bontnewydd simply believes that his hand is so strong that his party can’t refuse him.
Monday, 26 November 2007
As far as I can see there was nothing particularly new or radical in the paper; most of it seemed to be just repeating what Plaid had said over many years. In that context, my favourite response has to be that of Alun Davies AM - calling Jill Evans a 'nutter' for continuing to espouse a policy stance on which, as I recall, Davies himself fought elections in the past. Does that make him a lapsed nutter?
Anyway, I digress. There were really two aspects to what Evans wrote; the first was a restatement of the principles underpinning Plaid’s defence policy, and the second was a discussion of the Defence Training establishment at St Athans.
Plaid has a serious problem on the whole issue of defence, because they have to try and frame two different policies - one to deal with the way they would like to see an independent Wales behaving, and the other for the (what they would presumably see as interim) period until that point. Clashes and contradictions between these two policies are inevitable.
The soft option would be to frame only a very short term policy, and state that anything else is too far in the future to be worth even considering at this stage. It would avoid many of the contradictions, and enable the party to argue, perfectly naturally for a nationalist party, that Wales should have its fair share of military expenditure and jobs.
But that soft option would be a complete cop-out, and it is surely to the credit of Evans that she has been honest and open on the issue, and has stuck to her principles - something which so few politicians seem to be willing to do these days - rather than simply looking for a more populist position.
It is interesting that the responses all seemed to be attempting to ridicule Evans and her party rather than engage in serious debate. Neither Ireland nor Sweden, for instance (although both members of the EU) are part of NATO, and their miltary policies are geared largely to defence rather than offence – a position quite similar to what I understand that Evans was advocating. Anyone want to go to either of those countries and tell them that their defence policy is so utterly ludicrous that it doesn’t even merit serious debate? For a small independent country, it's a sensible position - surely there can be no great surprise that Plaid would come to similar conclusions.
But an independent Wales, if there is ever to be one, is far in the future; of more immediate significance, perhaps, is the issue of the Defence Training Academy at St Athans. Here we have a direct clash between the economic driver of getting more jobs and investment into the Welsh economy, and the deeply-held views of some people who oppose militarism. It was presented as a problem for Plaid. It certainly is; but it is also a problem for Labour. Perhaps Plaid's anti-militarist wing is more obvious, and stronger within that party, but the strength of similar feelings amongst many long-standing members of the Labour Party should not be underestimated either.
It is a mistake to turn this into a purely party political issue, with the different parties merely trying to score points. There are some serious questions to be answered about the extent to which we want jobs at any price. There are questions about the involvement of companies that are involved in the arms trade, and there are certainly questions to be asked about the training of soldiers for countries whose regimes use their military forces for internal oppression.
Evans and Plaid have raised legitimate concerns; they deserve to be debated, not dismissed. The suggestions, which some appeared to be making, that we cannot afford to even discuss these issues for fear of losing the jobs, or that to even ask such questions is somehow undermining ‘our boys’ is little more than an unworthy attempt to suppress an important debate.
Wednesday, 21 November 2007
In any event, all across Wales, the officers and members of local authorities will be busy scratching their heads as to how they should impose the budget cuts – sorry, identify the efficiency savings - which are now being required of them.
Only the naïve or the deluded – and, of course, members of the Assembly Government – can really believe that there will be much in the nature of ‘efficiency’ in what happens. Efficiency, to me, has a very explicit meaning. Doing things more efficiently means achieving the same outcome by expending fewer resources. Yet in most cases, what will be under consideration is how to re-jig what is being done, rather than how it is being done, in order to save cost - not at all the same thing.
There are a few obvious targets, of course. One, which was mentioned, as part of what may happen, by Vaughan Roderick, is to leave jobs unfilled. This certainly avoids expenditure - but does it really improve efficiency? If the work of the post holder gets done by other staff working extra hours, then it's not a service cut as such, but it is a reduction in employment opportunities (aka job cut), and a worsening of employment conditions for the other staff. If the work doesn't get done at all, then it's a service cut. The only way in which it could be called an 'efficiency' saving is if the job contributed nothing in the first place.
Those even more cynical than I might argue that many jobs in Local Government do indeed contribute little or nothing – but that’s not the reality for service users. In practice, unfilled jobs tend to be experienced in terms of longer response times to all sorts of situations - waiting times for grant applications to be processed, delays before children at risk are seen and assessed, delays in processing housing benefit claims and so on. Service level cuts in all but name.
I am aware of some councils looking at reducing the standard of maintenance on buildings and parks. Cutting the grass less frequently may well be something worth doing anyway, but it’s not an ‘efficiency’ saving; it’s a revision of the specification of the service to be delivered.
Maintaining buildings less frequently is a harder case for them to argue; it may save money in the short term, but it stores up problems, and costs, for the longer term. Why else do we have such a backlog of repairs in our schools requiring such a high capital expenditure now to bring them up to standard? This is past ‘efficiency savings’, aka false economies, catching up with us.
There is, of course, nothing fundamentally wrong with the paymaster, in this case, the Assembly Government, telling the recipients of its largesse, in this case, Welsh local government, that they must manage on less money. It's a valid political decision to take, even if one with which some of us disagree. What I object to is the dishonesty of the presentation - trying to present a budget cut (bad) as efficiency savings (good) when you know that you’re actually going to be reducing the level of services or jobs, is just a form of newspeak.
UPDATE: In a line that I couldn't have made up, a spokesperson for the Vale of Glamorgan Council last week stated that school Christmas lunches would be minus the traditional trimmings, and described this as an 'efficiency saving'. I rest my case.
There is another tagged task doing the rounds, which Valleys Mam and Miss Wagstaff have both pointed at me, inter alia. I’m never entirely sure about these things – I always had a very strong aversion to chain letters as a child as well. Not only that, but I can’t find 8 things under most of the headings either; what a sad life I lead. So I’m afraid that I’m going to have to give that one a miss.
Saturday, 10 November 2007
Minister: Excellent news Sir Humphrey. How much are we giving them?
Sir Humphrey: £13.5 million now and an extra £2.5 million a year.
Minister: And how much did they ask for?
Sir Humphrey: £13.5 million now and an extra £2.5 million a year.
Minister: What was our initial offer?
Sir Humphrey: £13.5 million now and an extra £2.5 million a year.
Minister: That doesn't sound much like negotiation to me.
Bernard: Yes it is Minister. Negotiation is about discussions leading to an agreement or settlement. We’ve had discussions and have arrived at a settlement, so technically that's a negotiation.
Minister: Thank you Bernard. Which projects are going to suffer as a result?
Sir Humphrey: None of them, Minister. In fact, we’re going to be able to give extra money to everybody else as well.
Minister: But I thought you told me that this was a tight budget settlement? Isn’t that what we told the press as well? I can almost hear my opponents talking about smoke and mirrors already. Where’s all this extra money coming from?
Sir Humphrey: Well, yes, it is indeed a tight budget settlement. Very tight. Lots of belts will have to be tightened all round, but we’ve managed to get some significant extra money for this department this year despite that. And the initial payment of £13.5 million is being made from previous underspends on a range of other projects, so it's not new money at all.
Minister: So I can announce that I’ve saved the Centre from debt, secured its future, and I can still give extra money to everyone else. There are no losers?
Sir Humphrey: Relatively speaking, exactly so, Minister.
Minister: Relatively speaking?
Bernard: Well, Minister, you could have decided not to save the Millennium Centre, and then the money that you’re using to save it could have been put to other uses, so that the people who are getting extra money could have had extra extra money which they are now not going to get, which means that the amount of extra money that they are getting is less than it could have been so that they have lost some of the extra money but are still getting the rest of the extra money.
Sir Humphrey: Nobody will notice that, Minister. They’ll all be jolly pleased at what an excellent job I, I mean you, have done in getting them extra money.
Minister: But we have secured the Centre’s future?
Sir Humphrey: Oh, yes, Minister. Well, until the next crisis anyway.
Minister: Next crisis? When will that be?
Sir Humphrey: Hard to say, Minister. It should take them at least a year or two to spend all the money we’ve given them before they start to run up new debts.
Bernard: But there will have been a cabinet re-shuffle by then.
Minister: I see. This pot of underspent money that we’re using – is there more?
Sir Humphrey: In what sense, Minister?
Minister: In the sense of pounds and pennies, cash in the bank, money that I can spend. Is there another sense to money?
Sir Humphrey: Well there are always underspends, Minister, otherwise how would any Government ever be able to find money to deal with an emergency like this. But they can only be used to deal with real emergencies. It would be most unwise to use them for anything else.
Minister: So how do I decide what is a real emergency?
Sir Humphrey: Most Ministers are happy to make that decision when they read about it in the papers, or hear about it on the television. That’s the traditional way of doing things.
Bernard: Usually after someone has leaked confidential information.
Minister: But there are some underspends which I haven't yet spent?
Sir Humphrey: Most probably, Minister, but we wouldn’t find them until we looked for them, and we wouldn’t start auditing the other projects looking for underspends until we knew that we needed the money to deal with an emergency.
Minister: So if, hypothetically, there were to be other underspends, we wouldn’t know about them until we looked for them, and we wouldn’t look for them until we needed them, and we wouldn’t need them until there was a crisis, and there wouldn’t be a crisis until I read about it in the papers?
Sir Humphrey and Bernard: Yes, Minister.
Thursday, 8 November 2007
This week, it’s been the turn of David Jones MP, aided and abetted by Stephen Crabbe MP, on the Welsh Affairs Select Committee. They decided to challenge the first of the Assembly LCO’s to make it to London. The former objected on the basis that the Assembly was daring to ask for power to legislate in a specific area, without telling their masters in London exactly what they might do with the powers. The latter seemed concerned that the result would be that things might be different in Wales. The whole principle of LCO's, to say nothing of the Government of Wales Act 2006, seems to have completely passed them by.
People like Glyn can talk until they're blue in the face; but what Jones and Crabbe have proved, yet again, is that, on Devolution, the Tories as a party still simply don't get it.
Wednesday, 7 November 2007
Thus it is that those who until May were so strong in their condemnation of 'spin' have already learnt that it is, in fact, an irregular verb, which is conjugated thus: "I give briefings", "You spin", "He tells whoppers”. I suppose this sort of Damascene conversion is inevitable, but the utter confidence with which they expect us to believe what they say having previously told us to disbelieve the same things when said by the other lot still confounds me.
The Assembly budget is a case in point – and involves another of those pesky irregular verbs. This time, it’s “I seek efficiency savings”, “You impose arbitrary budget cuts”, “He cuts jobs and services and increases council tax”.
Key to the whole budget is the £600 million of ‘efficiency savings’ which they are going to achieve by a ‘bonfire of inefficiencies’, according to Andrew Davies, the Finance Minister. The word ‘bonfire’ is a bad omen to start with; the last time an Assembly government tried to light a bonfire – under the quangos that time – they found that they had no matches, no kindling, the fire was wet, and it was pouring with rain. Much of what was supposed to be burned seems to be still standing. Not an auspicious precedent.
The question, of course, is how they are going to achieve these savings. The answer – although they haven’t admitted this – is that they haven’t a clue. But by cutting certain budgets and telling the budget holders that they must deliver the same level of services with reduced funding, they expect people to do as they say. In short, it’s nothing more than an entirely arbitrary round of budget cuts.
It looks as though the brunt of this is to be borne by Local Government, which has had its funding cut year on year on the same basis by the previous Assembly Government; the only difference being that Plaid then opposed it. I hesitate to put words into their mouths, but I suspect Plaid viewed it as an arbitrary way by which the Assembly government passed on any budgetary problems to local authorities whilst protecting its own spending. It’s different this time, of course; although I have yet to see a satisfactory explanation as to why it’s any different.
The Tories, as the main opposition, are unlikely to be able to do very much to expose this sham - after all, their manifesto for the Assembly elections said that they would fund their spending plans … by imposing an arbitrary ‘efficiency savings’ budget cut on all departments. They cannot disagree with the method, so they fall back on the simplistic – but not necessarily entirely wide of the mark – argument that if there are inefficiencies, it’s Labour that has introduced them, and therefore Labour cannot be trusted to identify and eliminate them.
The Government do, of course, have another old favourite as well – cutting out red tape. It sounds like an immediately obvious thing to do; after all, no-one wants unnecessary bureaucracy. But it looks to me like yet another of those difficult irregular verbs – "I cut red tape", "You repeal regulations", "He takes away workers rights and protection".
I am not arguing that there are no bureaucratic rules and regulations which are superfluous to requirements. But none of them were introduced without an apparent good reason at the time, and when 'business' in particular complains about red tape, they are often referring to those rules and regulations which prevent them either exploiting their work force or polluting the environment. (The Working Time Directive is one of their favourite targets.) Neither would I argue that we do not live in a risk-averse culture where some Health and Safety rules have been taken to excess – but almost all the rules which have been introduced are there in response to a particular occurrence or circumstance, and it would be a brave politician who tried to reform the system.
So, both ‘efficiency savings’ and ‘cutting red tape and duplication’ sound entirely logical and obvious – they are things that no-one could argue with. It’s what the Americans call motherhood and apple pie. Whether they can be delivered in a transparent and measurable way without cuts in services or jobs, council tax increases, or reduced protection for workers and the environment is something that I very much doubt.
PS - There is one other irregular verb to which I should refer here in all fairness – “I comment objectively”, “You criticise unfairly”, “He snipes incessantly from the sidelines”. It all depends on perspective, of course. And it underlines the point that people who expected us to believe them when they spoke from one perspective should not be at all surprised if we have difficulty believing them when they speak from the opposite perspective.
Monday, 5 November 2007
A whole week after Hain’s little outburst, and the dust is settling nicely, after a fashion.
In his latest post on the subject, Normal Mouth argued that Labour need do nothing; and that by doing nothing, they would be calling Plaid’s bluff, since Plaid would not leave the coalition government—not yet, anyway. He’s right, of course, in saying that Plaid would find that they had nowhere to go - but that doesn't mean that it would have been a wise move by Labour.
Plaid are not yet ready to abandon the coalition, and will not do so unless and until they become convinced that Labour will not deliver. Last week’s incident is, however, the sort of thing which could hasten that day if allowed to pass without response. In the event, it looks as though someone in Labour has recognised the need for some soothing words, and Hain has issued a 'clarification'.
I suspect that it's not so much the detail of the clarification that will be important to Plaid as the fact that there is one, since that gives a degree of recognition to their concerns. And most important of all will be the implicit recognition that this is not the way to hold a discussion over the timing of the referendum.
Both parties need to become more aware of the internal pressures of the other, and refrain from this style of megaphone discussion. I tend to accept Normal Mouth's contention that Hain’s comments were never really aimed at anyone except his Labour colleagues. It was fundamentally a statement for internal consumption; but making it so publicly inevitably caused some to interpret it differently. The sooner the Convention is in place and this type of internal discussion within the Labour Party can be held in a more civilised (and less public) fashion the better.
Meanwhile, Nick Bourne seems to be trying to ensure that the route to the rainbow remains open - just in case. He misses the point completely. If Plaid's alliance with Labour were to come to a premature end, it would be because of Labour's failure to deliver on their own party’s policy of a legislative parliament. Why on earth would Plaid then jump straight into bed with a party which doesn’t support the idea of having such a parliament, and many of whose members would like to abolish the Assembly itself?
Of course, some would argue that they were close to doing precisely that just a few months ago, and that is true. But, and it’s a big but, the Bourne-Jones rainbow strategy depended entirely on bouncing both parties into a deal before the members of either really had an opportunity to consider the ramifications. So the Tories in the Assembly made their commitment to supporting a legislative parliament, and in their haste to form a government some of Plaid's leading figures accepted that on face value without even asking where the rest of the Tory Party stood.
And why not? After all, the other element of the strategy was that the Tories knew full well that, without Labour, there was no majority in the Assembly for a referendum, so their pledge would never have to be honoured or even tested. So Bourne bounced his AM's into making a meaningless pledge in return for a real share in government – hardly a major concession.
Things are very different now. The words of the Tories have been shown for what they were at the time – a complete sham. Crabbe and Davies have exposed the true views of the party on devolution; and for all that a brave soul such as Glyn Davies says and does, it is increasingly apparent that Crabbe and Davies are more in tune with the party’s membership. Bourne has been left isolated, with his party leader, the shadow secretary of state for Wales, and the rest of the party's AM's conspicuously declining to offer him any support at all. Bourne himself has even been forced to admit in his blog that his views are merely “some personal thoughts”.
Plaid return to the rainbow? I think not.
Wednesday, 31 October 2007
Minister: Thank you, Sir Humphrey.
Sir Humphrey: Particularly the way in which you transferred the blame to the people who had leaked the document to the media. That usually has the desired effect of diverting attention from the real issue.
Minister: For the time being at least. But I’d still like to know how much it is all going to cost.
Sir Humphrey: Well, which answer would you like, Minister?
Minister: The correct one?
Sir Humphrey: The correct answer to any question always depends on the question, Minister. So before I can give you a correct answer, we need to define the correct question. Perhaps we could start by asking what answer you would like to be able to give?
Bernard: Well, Minister, it’s really very simple. Any aid will be a mixture of grants and loans, and there will be some promises to underwrite costs which may never transpire to be real expenditure at all. Some of the money will be paid immediately and some will be deferred, and some will merely be contingency which may never be called upon. Some might even be in the form of the Arts Council subsidising productions and events, so will never go to the Centre itself at all, or will come from a different line on the budget. So there are a range of possible answers, depending on the question.
Minister: I see. What’s the lowest figure?
Sir Humphrey: I thought that might be the one that you would want, Minister. I already have a small team of civil servants working on the answer for you, and we should have it back in a month or two. Now, perhaps we can turn to more pressing issues. Ess Four See.
Minister: I’m thinking of calling for it to be devolved to the Assembly.
Sir Humphrey: Is that wise, Minister?
Minister: Of course. It’s a Welsh channel, its future should be decided by the Assembly. And it would be a bold statement of the way I intend to increase the powers of the Assembly.
Sir Humphrey: But the costs of S4C are just a pinprick in London; they would look like a substantial part of your budget here in Wales. What if the Assembly were to decide to cut back on spending in order to build more hospitals, for instance?
Minister: Well, we’ll demand that the money currently spent on the channel should be devolved as well, and that it should be ring-fenced so that it can't be spent on anything else.
Bernard: So the Minister in London retains control over how much should be spent by the devolved administration in Cardiff, and gets rid of a problem at the same time.
Sir Humphrey: Bernard! Yes, I think I can probably persuade my colleagues in Whitehall of the merits of that suggestion, Minister. But there are some serious issues facing the channel with a declining number of viewers and an increasing cost per viewer – how do you propose to tackle those?
Minister: Any suggestions?
Sir Humphrey: Well, the real problem, Minister, is that the channel has a very low audience and that makes it difficult to attract advertising revenue. Now, what it really needs to do is to attract a higher audience.
Minister: And how could it do that?
Sir Humphrey: The factor which restricts the audience is the fact that it only currently appeals to those who can speak Welsh. Now if we could only find some way of overcoming that…
Minister: What if it were to become a bilingual channel?
Sir Humphrey: What a brilliant idea, Minister. And a very bold decision. The thought hadn’t crossed my mind.
Bernard: But wouldn’t that look like a betrayal of the principles on which the channel was founded?
Sir Humphrey: Only to a few fringe nationalists. But think of the headlines – Minister thinks the Unthinkable; Minister in Brave New Departure; Minister faces up to the tough decisions needed in government.
Minister: And some good photo opportunities as well?
Sir Humphrey: Certainly Minister.
Minister: With Superted on one side and Sam Tân on the other?
Sir Humphrey and Bernard: Yes, Minister.
Tuesday, 30 October 2007
I think that there were two aspects of Hain’s latest remarks which provoked the ire of Plaid on this occasion.
The first was the timing. Hain’s previous statements were mostly made before or around the time of the discussions on One Wales, and could have been dismissed as the views of an individual being input to the debate. This weekend’s comments were made within days of the joint announcements by Rhodri Morgan and Ieuan Wyn Jones that a Chair had been appointed to the Convention, that the referendum would be held on or before the date of the next Assembly elections and that there was, as Morgan put it, "no reason to depart from that commitment". Seen in that context, Hain’s comments looked like a deliberate attempt to sabotage or undermine the decision of the Assembly Government.
The second was the implicit threat that Westminster would use its veto to block a referendum, regardless of any decision in Cardiff. The provision in the Government of Wales Act that there needed to be a two-thirds majority in the Assembly before a referendum could be triggered was always intended to make it difficult for the Assembly to act; and impossible without the backing of Labour. The requirement for a vote in Westminster was a backstop, but not really expected to be necessary, since it would inevitably involve over-riding the views of the Assembly. Paradoxically, when it is now clear that there is easily a two-thirds majority – with probably 50 plus of the 60 AM's voting for, and only Tories (most of them anyway) voting against – in the Assembly for taking this step, it makes it much more serious for Westminster to resist the will of Cardiff on this issue. Yet that seemed to be exactly what Hain was saying he would do.
Normal Mouth is always thoughtful in his analysis, and I frequently find myself in agreement with him, but on this occasion, by referring to Plaid synthesising a ‘toxic level of anger’, I think he’s got it wrong. In signing up to One Wales after a special conference of the Labour Party agreed by 4:1, and a special meeting of Plaid’s National Council agreed by 9:1, I think that Plaid thought that they had an agreement between the two parties, not just between the AM’s of both parties. They always knew that it didn’t apply to reserved matters, or local government matters, but they expected that it would apply to the key elements of One Wales.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of the agreement to hold a referendum in getting Plaid’s support for One Wales, and in that context, a statement from someone as prominent as Hain in the Labour Party implying that Labour would use its majority in London to block the proposal by the One Wales government is inevitably raising concern within Plaid as to whether Labour are serious about the commitment which they gave.
Plaid will have two concerns at this point. The first is that they could be duped into supporting the One Wales government for four years on the basis of a false prospectus. If Labour aren't serious about their commitment, Plaid will want to know that now, rather than later. The second is that Plaid's membership may start to become restless about the deal. In this context, I found it significant that Plaid's Chair was amongst those deployed yesterday. They usually only wheel Dixon out to talk about internal party issues; I suspect that this signifies that at least some in Plaid's high command are concerned about a possible internal challenge to the agreement - and indeed Adam Price seemed to be saying as much yesterday.
Of course, Hain and some of those who jumped to his support have genuine concerns. If those concerns are about the winnability of any referendum rather than about patching over the cracks in the Labour Party, they are valid even within the context of the One Wales agreement. Those concerns should properly be considered and discussed through the Convention - on that at least I agree with Normal Mouth.
But by engaging in megaphone discussions, and threatening to use the gunboat to get his own way, Hain went a step too far. Certainly, Plaid need to show a little more understanding of the difficulties within the Labour Party, and not necessarily try and exploit them on each and every occasion (although if Labour really do present them with open goals…); but Labour also need to understand the importance and significance of this issue for Plaid’s support. This is not just a policy issue within One Wales where changed circumstances might need a degree of flexibility; this is a fundamental pillar of the agreement, and it appeared that Hain was proposing that it could be over-ridden.
I suspect that Plaid don’t really need a formal and public humiliation of Hain by Rhodri Morgan, whatever they may say. But they do need much more confidence that the Labour Party, not just Labour AM’s, feel some ownership of One Wales and the commitments therein. Labour will be making a serious mistake if they don’t respond to that.
Monday, 29 October 2007
Alun Cairns' inbuilt hyperbole engine went into overdrive at the end of last week when he discovered that Plaid AM Leanne Wood was attending a conference of republicans in London.
By some process of logic which probably only he himself can fathom, Cairns apparently sees attending a UK-wide, cross party meeting of republicans as being a 'call for further isolation'. Better yet, cranking up the engine to even greater levels of nonsense, he goes on to describe republicanism as having no sort of logic to it. This is an interesting way to describe the system chosen by most countries in the world for selection of their head of state – and is somewhat lacking as a rational defence of the hereditary principle.
It may be that Cairns’ basic underlying assumption – that republicanism is inherently unpopular – is correct. Perhaps people in the 21st Century really do still believe that heredity is a good basis for selecting a head of state. But, even if he is correct on that point, it doesn’t mean that there should be some sort of taboo around debating the subject. Creating a taboo is something that people only do if they can’t handle a proper argument. And condemning someone for simply taking part in a conference to discuss the issue is hardly a mature contribution to debate.
Wood has always made her republicanism perfectly clear to all, as have a number of other members of her party. (Although it is not correct, as Ordovicius suggests, to say that Plaid is a republican party. It is not. The issue is one which the party has studiously – and timidly – avoided debating or taking a position on, preferring to argue that it’s an irrelevance to the real issue, which is about the powers of any Welsh Parliament or Assembly).
It’s not exactly a secret that many members of the Labour Party are also republicans; indeed it would be a surprise if that were not true given the party’s roots in a sense of egalitarianism. Few of them, however, choose to argue the point openly.
Cairns is surely aware that there are even some members of his own party who recognise that there is no sensible argument for a hereditary monarch, although they carefully respect the taboo in public.
The Labour government has quite properly started to tackle the nonsensical hereditary element of the House of Lords, although they have not gone as far or as fast as I would have liked, and have yet to commit to turning that House into an elected chamber. Having started to challenge the principle, surely it is only proper that we should have more debate about whether the head of state should be appointed purely because of who his or her parents were.
Wood doesn’t always do things in the most subtle of ways, but she’s honest and forthright with her views on this issue. If Cairns believes that he can justify a hereditary head of state, let him say so, and explain why – in short, he should enter into the debate, rather than merely playing to the gallery.
Thursday, 25 October 2007
He was confident that, once such a body was created, it was a step that could never be undone, and therefore the very creation of the body was the important aspect - everything else could be revisited. To achieve the creation of the body, he had to steer a course between enthusiasm for greater devolution and deep-seated opposition to the very concept – all entirely within his own party. So we ended up with a fudge.
That basic contradiction has never gone away; the real regulator of progress remains where it has always been - in the internal workings and tensions of the Labour Party where enthusiasm and hostility continue to co-exist in an uneasy and sometimes quarrelsome relationship.
The inherent problems with the settlement rapidly became apparent during the first Assembly, but there was no real appetite for dealing with them, so the government did what all governments do in such situations - they set up a Commission. Lord Richard was tasked with reviewing the whole set-up, and the issue was safely kicked into the long grass for a few years.
The Commission’s report, when it was published, can have surprised almost nobody, given the weight of evidence presented to it from a wide range of bodies and individuals. But what it did not, and could not, do was address the real problem - which was, as ever, the internal disagreement within the Labour Party. The result, inevitably, was that the 2006 Government of Wales Act was another fudge.
It is an Act which gives the Assembly a complex, almost incomprehensible, way of starting to make its own legislation, but allows Westminster to hold a veto at all times. It is an Act which legislates for a Parliament, but makes it subject to a difficult-to-hold referendum. An Act which the pro-devolutionists could support as a step forward, and which the antis could support as a means of, as they saw it, blocking progress for the foreseeable future.
Following this year’s elections to the third Assembly, a coalition was negotiated between the two largest parties, and the issue of the referendum on enacting the full provisions of the 2006 Act was a central feature of the negotiations. From Plaid’s perspective, there was a need for a clear commitment to holding a referendum; from Labour’s perspective, there was a need to avoid giving any such clear-cut commitment, or at the very least, leaving an escape clause. The result was another inevitable fudge - a pledge to establish a Convention.
Some people, such as Professor Richard Wyn Jones, have queried what exactly the Convention will do; that misses the point. It's real purpose is met, in full, by its very existence – it needs to do nothing more than to exist in order to meet that objective - because the real objective is simply to act as the glue which sustains the One Wales coalition for the next four years, and allows both partners to accept that the other is operating in good faith.
Normal Mouth, as ever, exposes the nakedness of the Emperor. He goes on to argue, as I interpret him, that the fact that it does not have an obvious role is not to say that we shouldn’t give it one. On that, I agree with NM; but on the nature of that role, we differ.
He suggests that the Convention could and should look at the arguments for that next step in detail. I’m not entirely convinced by this argument, not least because it seems to pre-suppose that the precise model for the next step is open to a degree of change. I take issue with his suggestion that this will be a 'pre-legislative' referendum; the legislation establishing a Parliament for Wales is already on the Statute Book; the only issue is whether it should be activated. This means that, if the Convention was to suggest even slight changes, there could be a need for further legislation to give effect to them.
Having said that, I think that NM and I would probably agree that, in an ideal world, the debate should be at a level which analyses what powers Wales needs and should have, based on an objective assessment of what would deliver real benefits to our people. But I hold out little hope that such a debate is possible, since it seems to me that most of the protagonists know what the ‘correct’ answer is, and are interested only in arguments which support their conclusions.
In the campaign for a referendum, we can already anticipate the battle lines. Plaid, and whatever is left by then of the Lib Dems, will campaign for a Parliament.
I think we can take it as read that the Tories will campaign against. Some such as Glyn Davies might argue against me on this one, but the tide within that party is drifting in the direction of Stephen Crabbe and David Davies. Even Glyn himself, in saying that he hopes that one day there will be a majority in his party in favour, admits effectively that the majority is currently against him. Cameron and Gillan have already declined several opportunities to say that they back Bourne on this issue; and most Tory AM’s have been conspicuously silent on the issue. The Tory decision to campaign against will be based entirely on what their high command see as being to the electoral advantage of their party - and the English perspective will be more important to them than the Welsh one.
The key question, in a direct repeat of 1979 and 1997, is what Labour will do. This is, ultimately, the only issue which needs to be resolved before a referendum for a parliament can be won. It is, and always has been, grossly over-simplistic to present the fault lines in Labour as being between Cardiff and London, although the attraction of that argument to the Plaid politicians who make it is obvious. The task for Sir Emyr and his redoubtable diplomatic skills is to achieve once more what Ron Davies did before 1997 – to get a sufficient level of consensus within the Labour Party to support the policy which that party has democratically decided upon. It’s no small task, but it’s the only meaningful job that the Convention has. Anything else will be just window-dressing.
Saturday, 20 October 2007
Perhaps there is a degree of inevitability about this. The Establishment hugs them close, wraps them in layers of protection from the cruel world outside, and ensures that they get as high a proportion as possible of their information and feedback from those whose whole instinct is continuity rather than change. There is also a good dose of sycophancy thrown in for good measure.
There is definitely a sense of a ‘village’ around any elected institution – whether it be the House of Commons, the National Assembly, or any other body. Within that village people get very excited about things that pass most of the rest of us by; they become exercised about the remotest suggestion of a slight, whether real or imagined, and worst of all, they start to believe that their world is the 'real' one, and that their actions and words have considerably more influence and impact than is actually the case. If that's true for all the elected members, it’s even truer in the case of those elevated to ministerial positions.
It was in this context that I read the words of Ieuan Wyn Jones in yesterday’s Western Mail. One should always be cautious in interpreting the words of politicians, of course. That is especially so in the case of Jones, who has shown an ability in the past to lead people to think that he's said something that he hasn't. But when he says:
"Oppositions don’t win elections; governments lose them. What people will judge us on is delivery.",
I think he actually means what he is saying. His strategy is to show that Plaid can deliver in government, and expect that people will then support the party as a result. Leaving aside the question as to whether he really wants the ‘government’ (rather than his party) to win the next election, I believe he’s got it wrong, for two main reasons.
Firstly, where is the evidence that people will vote for a party which shows it can deliver? People vote for all sorts of different reasons, many of which are absolutely nothing to do with how well or badly the government has performed. And most of the factors are outside the control of any government. The words of Macmillan spring to mind – “Events, dear boy. Events”.
Secondly, even if it were true, then what people would be voting on is not an objective assessment of how well the government has performed, but on their perception of the government’s performance. Jones clearly believes that he can demonstrate a level of competence in government which will create that perception; but most of the electorate start from the belief that ‘competent politician’ is an oxymoron. That’s a lot of cynicism to overcome.
All governments and politicians believe that they are doing a good job and they all believe that they are making a difference. The difference that they actually make is always less than they think it is – it comes back to my earlier point that they believe their words and actions are of greater import than is really the case.
Immediately after the Assembly elections, Jones and his party did their best to propel the Tories into power in Wales. There is a serious danger that a strategy which depends primarily or entirely on convincing people that the government has performed well will finish the job.
Friday, 19 October 2007
Sir Humphrey: Minister, here is the draft statement which we have prepared for you to read this afternoon.
Minister: But it doesn’t say anything.
Sir Humphrey: Precisely, Minister.
Minister: I can’t go into the Chamber and stand up and speak without saying anything.
Bernard: Oh, I don’t know Minister. You’ve managed it quite well for most of the past eight years.
Sir Humphrey: Minister, there are delicate negotiations in progress, difficult issues to be addressed, feathers to be unruffled. It cannot be helpful for these issues to be discussed openly in the full glare of media attention.
Minister: But we’re going to be pumping millions into the centre; surely I have to tell them that?
Sir Humphrey: Minister, there is no point telling them something they already know. Everyone knows that you’re going to be pumping millions in, but it’s important to the negotiations that you do not reveal how many millions.
Minister: So how many millions will we be pouring in?
Sir Humphrey: Oh, I don’t know. As many as they ask for. This is a flagship Arts project which cannot be allowed to fail.
Minister: If we’re going to give them whatever they ask for, that doesn’t sound like much of a negotiation to me.
Sir Humphrey: Well, Minister, if you really want to tell them that, you can, but it would be a very brave decision on your part.
Minister: Thank you Sir Humphrey.
Bernard: I don’t think you understand, Minister. Sir Humphrey means that it would raise a lot of other questions.
Minister: Such as?
Bernard: Well, Minister, to start with, people might wonder where the money was coming from, and what other schemes would be suffering as a result.
Minister: And where is the money coming from?
Sir Humphrey: Oh, there are a lot of minor unimportant little Arts projects in other constituencies across Wales which might have to be deferred for a while.
Minister: Deferred. That doesn’t sound too bad. For how long?
Sir Humphrey: Hard to say, Minister. Months, years, possibly decades.
Minister: That sounds more like cancelled than deferred to me.
Sir Humphrey: Oh no, Minister. We almost never cancel projects; we prefer to defer them.
Minister: I see. So I speak without saying anything – how do I handle questions?
Sir Humphrey: Well, your predecessors would always attack the people who leaked the document. Damaging sensitive negotiations, that sort of thing.
Minister: But I’ve used leaked documents in the past myself – won’t I look a little inconsistent?
Bernard: No-one expects consistency from a politician.
Sir Humphrey: You are the Minister. Your predecessor was the Minister. To us, names and individuals are unimportant; there is only The Minister, and The Minister is always consistent.
Minister: You mean that now that I’m the Minister, I carry on doing whatever the previous Minister did?
Sir Humphrey and Bernard: Yes, Minister.
Tuesday, 16 October 2007
Decade after decade passed, and a certain pattern became remarkably consistent - about half way between each General Election, the party would succeed in winning a stunning by-election victory, often apparently surprising itself as much as anyone else. These would always be declared 'Orpington' moments, after one of the very first such events, and would be presented as the harbinger of a ‘mould-breaking’ change in British politics. The party’s members were always exhorted to prepare themselves for greater things – even for forming a complete government on one memorable occasion.
But false dawns can be very misleading, and it never was to be; 'Orpingtons' almost always got reversed very rapidly, and the mould quietly settled back in its place.
The party tried a number of other tactics, even merging itself with another party in an attempt to combine their market share, only to find that two plus two rarely came to a total as high as three, let alone the expected five (arithmetic was never one of their stronger points).
Then something quite remarkable seemed to be happening. Over three elections - 1997, 2001, and 2005 - the party managed to make some major strides forward, hitting a level of seats in 2005 which was quite unprecedented for a third party, and was the largest they had achieved for a very, very long time.
With a popular leader who managed to communicate effectively with the electorate – striking a particularly effective note with young people – coupled with careful targeting, and non-stop campaigning, who could know where this would lead? They immediately recognised that something needed to be done. They looked at the situation long and hard, and decided that the obvious thing to do was to sack their leader. They needed a reason of course, and settled on the rather spurious (in the sense that if taken to its logical conclusion, it would disqualify a large number of other politicians) fact that the leader was known to be rather fond of a drink or ten.
It was obvious to all that what they really needed was someone older; someone largely unknown. If he were also to appear aloof and as though he were living in bygone days, so much the better. And so it was, and the plan worked beautifully. The party faded back into the scenery, with its voter base dissipating rapidly. Some members even started searching their cupboards for their old sandals, so powerful were their reminiscences.
Seeing that the London branch had so much pleasure in all this, the Welsh branch decided to join in; after all, why should Wales be left out? First, they decided that, with only six of them in their local school, they should threaten the bigger children that they would take their ball home unless they were allowed to set the rules. When the bigger children told them what to do with their ball, they fought amongst themselves until the ball burst open.
With no-one else wanting to play with them any more, no ball left to play with, and not enough players to form a team of their own, the way ahead was obvious. It was time to fight over who should be captain. The existing captain said that he wanted time to think about this, but two of the others said that according to their copies of the rules, the team had to hold an election, and they both wanted to be captain. Two of the others also wanted to be captain, but didn’t say so, and the only one who didn’t want to be captain felt badly ignored.
Then it emerged that the man who thought he was the captain wasn’t really the captain at all – the real captain was one of the pupils from London who had been having a lot of fun recently with two young twins and their mother. Although he was the real captain, he suddenly remembered that he had important business to attend to in Montgomeryshire, and decided that he’d give up being Welsh captain so that he could concentrate on that - and his young friends.
With attention finally returning to him, the other Welsh captain decided that he would indeed give up – but not yet – and used his copy of the rule book to convince the two who said they wanted to be captain (as well as the two who wanted to be captain but hadn't said so yet) that they should shut up because he was bigger than them, and anyway no two of them could agree with each other as to what to do, and until two of them could agree on something, there was nothing that they could do. The one who didn’t want to be captain still felt ignored and forgotten.
Dramatically, attention then switched back to the London branch who decided that they’d had so much fun the last time that they’d sacked a leader that they’d do it again, but this time, they’d use against him all the reasons that had made him so attractive in the first place – his age, aloofness, lack of effective communications skills and so on.
The real Welsh captain – the one with urgent business in Montgomeryshire – then decided that although he’d given up being captain of the Welsh branch, he'd quite like to become one of the captains of the London branch (for they had two of those as well), even though that might make it difficult to attend to his business in Montgomeryshire.
In next week’s episode – how I successfully captained the Titanic to its planned rendezvous with the iceberg, by A Libdem.
Wednesday, 10 October 2007
So, is the latest budget settlement for the National Assembly a good one or a bad one? Labour’s London end, in the person of the Chancellor, of course, says it’s a good one, and draws attention particularly to the fact that it includes a 2.4% year-on-year rise over and above the increase that would be down to inflation alone. Inevitably and completely unsurprisingly, Peter Hain agrees with him. But then, for the Government making the decisions, every year is a good one. That fits their agenda.
Plaid’s London end, in the person of Adam Price, claims that it’s the “worst financial settlement for Wales since devolution”. I can’t quite remember the words used in previous years to describe the settlements, but I’m reasonably sure that Plaid have never ever described the settlement as anything other than a bad one, whatever the actual numbers. That has, to date, fitted Plaid’s agenda. (It is interesting however that Plaid’s parliamentary leader, Elfyn Llwyd seems to be rather less exercised about the numbers this year.)
Both parties’ Cardiff ends, of course, find themselves in a more difficult situation, so it comes as no surprise to find that the official WAG response – presumably on behalf of both parties – is a little more restrained. They are both, after all, finding themselves between a rock and a hard place. Labour were never going to be too harsh on their own government, and Plaid, as their coalition partners, can hardly disagree with the official government line, so we have words like 'tough' and ‘challenging', rather than outright criticism.
Back to the issue of truth. Whilst there is some disagreement as to whether the increase over and above inflation is 2.4%, as indicated by the Chancellor, or 1.8% as calculated by Adam Price, there is no disagreement that the budget is increasing at an above-inflation rate, which clearly allows for some spending growth over and above the ongoing government programme.
The nub of the problem, of course, is whether that will be enough to fund the entire One Wales programme. We don't have the detailed comments of the civil servants on the costings of the programme (although the Western Mail is still working on that), but we do know that the programme does not come cheap. The Assembly government may struggle to deliver on all its commitments, and we can be absolutely certain that the Tory opposition will be watching for any hint of a fudge here or a watering down there.
It is Plaid who have most to fear in this situation. Core spending is hardest to cut, and the extra commitments introduced by the One Wales agreement will be the easiest - a lot of the Plaid contribution to the programme is in those extras rather than in the core. Ending up in coalition supporting a Labour programme would be a somewhat ignominious end to the story.
However, the fact that the spending round would be tighter this time round than in previous years was known by all in advance, and if the coalition partners have been sensible in their discussions, they will have factored this in, won’t they? It would be nice to feel confident on that point; but we were reminded in the Western Mail story yesterday of Adam Price’s comment that the All-Wales Accord was never properly costed, and we have only the word of the politicians involved that One Wales has been. (As a complete aside, I do find myself wondering whether, had its supporters been successful in peddling the rainbow, we would ever have been told that it was based on a back-of-the-envelope costing? Maybe I’m just a tad too cynical sometimes, but I strongly suspect that the members – outside the Assembly – of the parties involved weren’t made aware of this at the time.)
Time alone will reveal what is true and what is not, but already we are seeing a difference. What Plaid would have unreservedly condemned as a betrayal of Wales just a few short months ago in Opposition becomes nothing more than a tough challenge to be faced up to in Government. Is this change in language what politicians mean by ‘making a difference’?
Saturday, 6 October 2007
But there is one of his standard questions which I do now wish to answer – the one about my worst blogging experience to date. It is this: writing a post, to which someone else responded by writing a post of his own, to which someone else responded by commenting – and then both of them lost their jobs.
I am referring, of course, to Keir Hardly (aka Marcus Warner), and Dave Collins, both researchers working for Labour AM’s. I didn’t agree with Dave Collins’ comments at all; and I disagreed with a lot of what Marcus had to say on the language, but neither of them deserved to lose their jobs for expressing their opinions. I cannot, of course, accept any responsibility for what they said; but I do feel a degree of responsibility for having made the posting which led to them saying it.
Their opinions are not unique, and statements made publicly by some elected members have also expressed a less than enthusiastic attitude towards the language without them being in any danger of losing their jobs. And those opinions are more common than some supporters of the language might wish to admit. Dealing with them by means of witch hunts instead of by reasoned argument merely hides opinions; it doesn’t change them.
So, welcome back to Marcus, with whom I am sure I shall continue to disagree on occasion, and best wishes to both of you in looking for new employment. Your sackings say more about your employers than they do about you.
Wednesday, 3 October 2007
The support of the central party for Bourne's stance on Wales is at best lukewarm. Given several opportunities to say that he supports his party's leader in Wales, Cameron has studiously failed either to back him, or to slap down those who take the opposite view, such as David Davies. I think we can take it that Bourne's views are just that - his own. Tolerated as long as it helps to win a few seats in the Assembly, but never to become party policy. Come the parliamentary election, we can expect the Tory party in Wales to revert to its usual form.
According to the Western Mail, 10 of the party’s group in the Assembly are 'broadly' in favour of his pro-devolution stance; but ‘broadly’ seems to leave considerable room for doubt as to the extent of their enthusiasm. Coupled with a lack of outstanding talent in the Assembly group, it's probably enough to leave Bourne unchallenged as leader for the time being, but the conspicuous lack of support from the English party will hardly be giving him confidence for the long term. And whether the Welsh Tories' position in the Assembly would survive a change of leadership must remain an open question.
In the meantime, as Ordovicius points out, it looks as though they want to fight their parliamentary campaign on the basis of an irrelevance, which comes, in their own words, no higher than 1002nd in the list of matters of importance, even to rural communities.
Tuesday, 2 October 2007
I ran into some criticism from some nationalist bloggers with these two posts a month or so ago. Some of those who commented felt that I was arguing against the existence of a Welsh nation – but that was never my intention. What I struggle with is finding an objective basis for defining the existence of a Welsh nation which cannot also be used to define the existence of a British nation.
Some, such as AlaninDyfed, get around the issue by simply defining ‘nationality’ in a way which excludes any possibility of multiple or overlapping nationalities, and attempts to force people to choose a single defining nationality. Whilst this has the attraction of simplicity, it seems to me to ignore the simple reality that the majority of people in Wales define themselves as both Welsh and British. There is something deeply unsatisfactory for me in simply dismissing the view of the majority as a delusion.
Normal Mouth has suggested that nationality is to some extent a contrived concept; that's an idea that has some validity to me. If nationality cannot be defined in some objective fashion, but depends ultimately on what each of us feel, than it is, ultimately, a product of human invention. Does a baby have any inherent nationality before (s)he is conditioned into one by nurture? I would argue not, a point of view which supports the ‘contrived’ proposition.
But, for something which has been invented by humanity, nationality has a very powerful hold on almost all of us. I think that hold is as much to do with identity, though, as with nationality; and the two are not quite the same thing. Ultimately, our nationality is something that we choose. I am Welsh because I choose to be so; I choose to identify with 'Welshness' - whatever that is. Ordovicius (as well as Gwe and Aran) raised an extremely pertinent point in saying that there isn’t even a single ‘Welsh’ identity. ‘Being Welsh’ means all sorts of different things to different people, yet still somehow, we feel there to be enough commonality there that the idea of Independence for Ynys Môn sounds a very odd one.
Even though I choose to be Welsh, I have no real problem considering myself to be British and European as well – and why ever not? There is a very valid argument that, for most English people, ‘English’ and ‘British’ mean more or less the same thing. Sometimes though, I feel that we might be too quick to rail against the apparent arrogance of that view, and start to deliberately define ourselves in ways that distance ourselves from it as a reaction. Here in Wales, we know that they think like that, and we know that the two nationalities are not the same – but still most of our compatriots manage to be quite relaxed about being both Welsh and British.
However, fascinating though the debate about nationality and identity is, the real question we need to address is surely this – what does it mean in political terms?
For some Welsh nationalists, there is a straight line between Wales being a nation and Wales being independent; the one should lead automatically to the other. And much as I dislike the term ‘Brit-nat’, there are those who jump straight from the belief that we are a single British nation to the conclusion that devolution should be scrapped and all decisions should be taken in London. In both cases, it seems to me, this is the politics of Goldilocks; the idea that there is a structure of government which is 'just right', and that it is based on a simple process of equating ‘nation’ with government structure.
Defining things in this way works well for the nationalists on both sides; but it does little for rational and constructive debate, since neither side will ever convince the other. It looks to me as though what the opinion polls tell us is that the majority of people in Wales are ready and willing to support further devolution, but need to be convinced that it is a good idea on pragmatic rather than theoretical grounds. I suspect that the debate will be won or lost by those who are prepared to argue on bread and butter grounds rather than those who talk in terms of over simplistic nationalism.
We should remember that what was ‘just right’ for both Goldilocks and Baby Bear was far from ‘just right’ for either Mummy Bear or Daddy Bear. They need to be convinced that different really is better.
Wednesday, 26 September 2007
Let’s look at Scotland first. On the face of it, the ‘Union’ would appear to be in much more imminent danger in Scotland than in Wales, with all the talk of a referendum. But this is really just that – all talk. There is no majority in the Scottish Parliament for holding a referendum, and I’m convinced that there will be no referendum in the immediate future - certainly not in the next four years. Alex Salmond knows that as well as anyone - his game is twofold. Firstly, by starting the debate and having the actual vote blocked by the 'London parties' he can and will claim that Scotland's legitimate right to a say on the matter is being blocked. Secondly, and far more importantly, by making it clear that Independence is a matter which will be decided by a referendum, not by an election, he removes one of the fears that some Scots may have about voting for the SNP. It becomes a safer option.
Electorally, Brown knows that he faces losing a few Scottish seats to the SNP, and a few more to the Tories, but he also knows that this is not where the election will be decided. Playing the ‘British’ card will be unlikely to win back the support of any who are deserting to the SNP; and I doubt that anything he does can make Labour seem more British than the Tories in Scotland. There is also a real danger that polarising things around identity politics in Scotland ends up working against the Labour Party there, and he, as a Scot, will know that as well as any.
In Wales, support for Independence remains more or less static at around 12 – 15%, as it has done for many years. There is a broad consensus developing for further powers for the Assembly, but Brown is probably supportive of that anyway. The ‘Union’ is not in immediate danger. Electorally, there is probably only one Labour seat in serious danger to a Plaid advance, and that is Ynys Môn. The danger to Labour at Westminster level comes much more from the Tories, who could win 3 or 4 seats on a good day. But again, this is not where the election will be won or lost.
So, there are a few seats (a handful) in Wales and Scotland under threat from Plaid and the SNP, and another handful under threat from the Tories. If more than a handful are lost to the Tories in Wales and Scotland, Labour will already have suffered something of a meltdown in England. The next general election will simply not be won or lost in Wales and Scotland - the main battleground is in England.
Against that context, one has to ask why on earth Brown would adopt a platform which, in the eyes of some commentators, puts the future of the ‘Union’ at its heart – an issue which is of primary relevance only to two areas of the UK which are not going to affect the outcome of the election? (I see no evidence of any serious debate about the ‘Union’ in England; certainly not in the same way as it is debated in Scotland).
Brown is not a stupid man; he knows as well as I do that his target audience has to be in England rather than in Wales or Scotland, and the question is not how his speech plays in Wales and Scotland, but how it plays in England.
The first possible interpretation is that he wants to show that, even though he is a Scot, he has England’s interests at heart. We need to bear in mind that, for most English people (and this is clearly different in Wales and Scotland), the terms English and British are pretty much interchangeable; the stress on Britishness will not grate in the same way with his target audience there as it will with some in Wales and Scotland. I think this is part of his aim, but only part.
The second issue has much more to do with the idea of social cohesiveness in England. I don’t think we should underestimate the level of shock and concern being felt at the top of government about the extent to which some in-migrants, and some of their descendants, are perceived to be failing to adopt ‘British’ values, and I suspect that this was also an important element in crafting the speech. In fairness to him, I suspect that he sees a real need to increase social cohesion, primarily in England. To do so by talking up Englishness would only fuel the fires in Scotland and Wales, and as a Scot, it would sound downright dishonest in any event, so he has little choice but to fall back on Britishness – but, as mentioned earlier, in England, the two will generally sound the same anyway.
On this issue, he’s walking a tightrope; the whole area is a subject which is difficult to talk about because of all the issues it raises about multiculturalism and religious freedom; but it becomes far easier to deliver the message if it seems to be aimed primarily at other ‘British’ people.
I find myself, again, in agreement with Normal Mouth, when he states that much of what we might regard as 'British' shared values are actually closer to being universal values (although I suspect that that is true only against a largely secular cultural background). And I can certainly see why, quite apart from electoral calculations, Brown would wish to ensure that those values are more universally understood and shared throughout these islands.
Will it work – at either level? At the deeper level, I genuinely don’t know. If my analysis is right, I'm prepared to give him a degree of credit for tackling a real issue, even if the stress on being British grates where it seems to run counter to a sense of Welshness. And electorally? I think he’s already won the next election, whenever he calls it. The more direct comparison people make between him and Cameron, the harder it becomes to see any significant advance by the Tories, just so long as he avoids the inevitable banana skins.
Tuesday, 25 September 2007
There was a point during that year when there were Russian tanks on the streets of Prague, and British tanks on the streets of Belfast. One newspaper published a picture of a youth stoning a tank, and later received a letter from a reader which read something like “Thank you for your graphic picture of the youth stoning a tank. But can you tell me please – was the youth a Czech patriot, or an Irish hooligan?”. So many lessons there:
Life is not a cowboy film. You cannot tell the goodies from the baddies by the colour of their hats.
One person’s goodie is another person’s baddie. To the Czechs, the youth was a patriot; to the Russians, he was a traitor to the revolution. (And a similar dichotomy existed for the young Irishman.)
Whether someone is a ‘goodie’ or a ‘baddie’ changes with time. Hence, most governments end up negotiating with ‘terrorists’ eventually, and ‘terrorists’ often end up as ‘heroes’ and ‘freedom-fighters’. Ask Mandela.
Events are often essentially neutral. What makes them, or the participants, ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is oftten more to do with our own preconceptions about the circumstances and the participants than with the objective reality of the events themselves.
Events are filtered. Unless things happen on our doorsteps, we only see them as filtered by the news media – and they have often decided for us what’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ before deciding how to cover the events.
And most of all – we need to try and understand opposing viewpoints and the basis for them before there can be meaningful debate. Debating from the standpoint of our own preconceptions without being prepared to examine and challenge them leads only to a dialogue of the deaf. Or stones against tanks.
Friday, 21 September 2007
What is more surprising is the way in which an official spokesperson for the Conservatives has been so quick to isolate the party’s Welsh leader, Nick Bourne, by describing his support for law-making powers as no more than a ‘personal’ view. It’s only a few short weeks ago that the entire Conservative group in the Assembly signed up to that ‘personal’ view when they backed the All-Wales Accord. Will they now speak up in support of their leader in the face of such ferocious internal criticism, or will they effectively tell us, by their silence, that they've changed their minds? Or perhaps, as some of us suspected at the time, they were never really serious, but were prepared to do and say anything for a taste of power.
Plaid's leaders don't come out of this particularly well either, of course. It's all very well for Elfyn Llwyd to say that this reveals “the London-centric, Middle England heart of the Conservative and Unionist Party”, or that “Whatever the spin, they are still the party who imposed John Redwood on Wales, and they are still the party that ran the No campaign in 1997”. But isn’t this is the same Elfyn Llwyd who was trying, just a few short weeks ago, to persuade people that the Welsh Tories had changed – and were fit people to be given a hand in the government of Wales?
Make no mistake about it, there are many in Plaid (probably including the party leader) who still think that the party should have formed a coalition with the very same ‘London-centric’ Tories, and who regret that they did not. Davies is doing his very best to help them see the folly of their ways, so at least he performs some sort of service to Wales.
We will be told, of course, that Plaid remains opposed to the whole idea of a non-elected chamber, but on purely pragmatic grounds, it is better for the party to be represented anywhere that Wales' interests are discussed. Actually, I think that's an entirely honourable position - the only bit that the party will have trouble explaining is what exactly has changed. The pragmatic argument is, after all, exactly the one that got defeated last time Plaid debated the matter.
However, the outcome is certain, and Plaid will be sending its members to the so-called Upper House in due course. The only remaining question is who gets to wear the ermine.
The one obvious name which has been suggested by many is that of Dafydd Wigley. The beast of Bontnewydd to become the Lord of Bontnewydd. Wigley has said in the past that he would never go to the Lords, and he may yet resist; but I suspect that if his party prevails upon him then he would accept; and it would give him a useful role again in Welsh politics. It would also reunite, in the House of Lords, the famously amicable duo of Wigley and Elis Thomas, who worked so effectively together in the House of Commons during the late 70’s. And that means that Plaid would surely be keen to extract as many new members from the government as it could - and on a roughly proportional basis, they could surely expect another 1 or 2 on top of Wigley.
Perhaps we should ask Vaughan Roderick to get his virtual betting shop open on this one. What price Lord Cynog, for instance, or Lord ap Gwilym? And, in the interests of gender balance, who would be the first Plaid peeress?
Tuesday, 18 September 2007
Take, for example, the high level of tax on tobacco. I’m not entirely sure whether the intention is to be punitive or to change people’s behaviour by discouraging them from smoking. Superficially, it seems to be the latter, but if the tax was high enough to achieve that aim, then the government would presumably have to find an alternative way of raising the same monies to fund our services. So, as something of a cynic, I’m not so sure that the tax is really about changing behaviour at all – I suspect that the no-smoking legislation is going to be far more effective in cutting consumption.
The one thing that is certain is that it’s a regressive rather than a progressive form of taxation, in the sense that it – like most taxes other than income tax and wealth tax – inevitably has a disproportionate impact on those least able to pay for their tobacco addiction. But anything that keeps income tax down, particularly if it can be presented as having some beneficial social effects is always going to appeal to politicians seeking votes, especially when they perceive that elections are lost and won on the question of income tax.
Which brings us neatly to the subject of so-called ‘green’ taxes. The Lib Dems have been at it this week – 'Green Tax Good - Income Tax Bad' seems to be their mantra – but all the parties seem to be talking to some extent about green taxes. So, are their motives entirely honourable?
Well, the Lib Dems are quite honest up to a point – a paper on the Green Switch by three of their MP’s last year said that “Green taxes will continue to yield substantial sums to the exchequer if they do their work properly”. They also suggest that green taxes need to be ‘revenue-neutral’, such that the total amount of tax collected does not fall.
Their argument is actually, in fairness, a little more subtle than that when it comes to the detail; but it is surely reasonable to conclude that they are therefore not expecting green taxes to deter too many people from doing the things that cause the environmental damage. They argue, as I understand it, that the taxes help cut out the more ‘marginal’ journeys, rather than persuading people to give up the car.
And that in turn brings us to the question of fairness. It is more likely to be the least well-off who are cancelling their 'marginal' journeys due to cost, while the more wealthy continue to use their car and just pay the extra taxes - after all, they’re the same ones who will have benefited from the cut in income tax. If anyone finds that they simply can’t afford their week in the sun due to the marginally increased cost of air travel tax, it will be the least well-off; the wealthy will continue to enjoy their two or more holidays each year.
This is not an argument against taking action on climate change – far from it. It’s a pressing problem, and we all need to take it more seriously. But is it right that it is the least well-off who should have to adjust their lifestyle as a result of ‘green’ taxes, whilst the better-off benefit from tax cuts on their income and can still afford to carry on as before?
Are green taxes really about changing our behaviour, or are they a back-door way of switching tax from progressive systems to regressive systems – whilst at the same time avoiding legislating and regulating in ways that might actually make a bigger difference?