Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Gordo the Brit?

Gordon Brown’s speech to the Labour faithful has unsurprisingly attracted a lot of blog comment. Clearly, the sheer number of references to Britain and British was inevitably going to attract attention in its own right, even if I'm not as sad as those who sat down and counted them. Some Welsh bloggers have been quick to jump to the conclusion that this is a response to Welsh and Scottish Nationalism. Perhaps, but probably only in part. Gordon the Brit-Nat is far too easy a response. I think he has another target in mind as well as well, as Normal Mouth has already identified.

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

Early political memories

Gwe and Johnny have both kindly passed this one on, so here’s my attempt. It isn't easy to select, because there was so much happening in the late 1960's, but I'm opting for a conjunction of two events in 1968 - mostly because of the lessons they teach.

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

The Bourne Inconsistency

The views of David Davies on the National Assembly can surely have come as a surprise to precisely no-one. To be fair to him, he’s never expressed any support for it, and has been fairly consistent in his criticism.

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.

Lords and Ladies

Following what spokespeople described as a 'purely procedural' debate at its conference last weekend, it now seems that Plaid will be taking early steps to reverse its position on sending members to the House of Lords. It looks as though many of those who gave fiery speeches against the idea last time are queuing up to give equally fiery speeches in favour next time round – the decision, I am told, is a ‘done deal’.

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

Colour me tax

Traditionally, taxes have been the means by which governments raise funds to pay for the services we require, such as health and education. But there is a growing trend for people to suggest that taxes should also be used as a means of penalising certain activities, or of changing our behaviour.

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?

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Two wolves and a lamb

One of the most over-used words of the age seems to be 'rights'. One element of this is the result of a tabloid press which seems to blame the Human Rights Act for everything which is wrong with the penal system – and attack those rights in the process. But another is where people claim certain ‘rights’ for themselves or for the group or community of which they are a part. Clearly, we all have ‘rights’ of some sort, but how do we judge what is a ‘right’ and what is not?

At its simplest, some of our rights are enshrined in law. Once a ‘right’ has been thus enshrined, we empower others, such as the police and the judiciary, to protect those rights, and to take action against those who infringe them. Legal rights are defined through legislation passed by those who we elect to represent us – and can either be extended or reduced by further acts of legislation. It follows that anyone is surely entitled to campaign either for the extension of rights or for the restriction of rights, and if they can persuade a majority of legislators, then the 'rights' we enjoy can be changed.

But are there rights beyond the law? Is it enough to say that unless something is agreed by a majority and passed into law, then it is not a right? There appears to be a general concept of a ‘moral’ right; but to agree on what such a right is in practice firstly requires agreement on the moral basis for it, something which is not easy to achieve. Majority rule, at least superficially, appears to be an attractive way of defining rights.

However, someone far more erudite than I once said that there must surely be more to democracy than two wolves and a lamb voting on what to eat for dinner. A little corny perhaps; but it does crystallise the idea that minorities may have rights too, and that an oversimplistic interpretation of majority rule is an inadequate way of running a society. (And I’m tempted to add that Hitler was, after a fashion at least, elected to power; another example suggesting that the majority view is not always the beginning and end of any question).

One area where the question of ‘rights’ has been raised, in comments on this blog and others, is the question of the Welsh language. Welsh-speakers have certain rights which are now protected by law, but they fall far short of what many would want.

If I understand my pusillanimous pal, Mr Foreigner correctly, even he accepts that people who want to speak Welsh should have the right to do so if they wish, as long as he isn’t forced to speak it himself. That sounds pretty reasonable to me – I’m not actually aware of anyone who actually wants to force others to use the language. I can certainly live quite happily without anyone being forced to learn or speak Welsh against their will.

The question, of course, is whether the same protection should be extended to Welsh-speakers – do they have the right not to be forced to use English in certain circumstances? That’s what is really at the heart of the debate about further language rights. If we want to create a truly bilingual society in Wales, then it follows that they should have the same, or broadly similar, rights to services in their own language – after all, no-one can argue that it’s a foreign language here in Wales. I suspect that the real reason people are falling out about the extent of legislative protection for Welsh is that we haven't really got to grips with that question - do we believe in a bilingual Wales or not? Without a degree of consensus on that, what is the basis for meaningful discussion over individual proposals?

But there is one argument that worries me greatly. When I hear people saying “but they can all speak English anyway”, it does sound to me a little bit like one of those wolves talking.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Every Alan needs a Johnny

…. to seriously misquote Maggie Thatcher. When I first started seeing comments from AlaninDyfed, and then read his website, I have to admit that I briefly wondered whether we was for real or not. Much if what he wrote seemed to be such an extreme characterisation of a particular perception of Nationalism that I thought that it might be a wind-up. But no, he’s for real.

His threads are often worth reading though – as much for the comments as for the initial postings. I have to admit that I’ve oft enjoyed the banter between him and Johnny Foreigner, (who seems to be everyone’s participatory pal except mine).

Now, Johnny too has launched a web site all of his own, and, as Normal Mouth was quick to point out, consensus is far from being the order of the day. In his very first, anything but tentative, posting, Johnny’s managed to attract a certain amount of opprobrium, to put it mildly. Again, I have to admit that I did, briefly, wonder whether he in turn might be a spoof of some sort, because it seemed to be such a characterisation of everything that nationalists love to hate. I have concluded, however, that he too is for real.

The debate between the two – insofar as two people speaking such different languages, from such different standpoints, can be said to be holding a debate at all – remains worth reading, not least to brighten up a dull moment. As a serial thread troll (his word, not mine), Johnny has been forthright in asking questions and challenging others' views; something which I personally enjoy. Challenging opinions and statements encourages others to justify them and the rationale behind them, and that can surely never be a bad thing.

However, now that he has branched out, and started to state his own opinions rather than merely challenging those of others, it already looks as though he may end up looking as immoderate as his chief verbal opponent, albeit from the other end of the Welsh spectrum. Still, as opposites are said to attract, the sparks of this beautiful relationship will, hopefully, continue to fly. It will help to justify the continued existence of Alan – after all, every Johnny needs an Alan too.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Neurosurgical Boundaries

For some months before the Assembly elections, Plaid AM's in particular, and most especially Dr Dai Lloyd, were running hard on the campaign to retain the neurosurgery unit in Swansea, rather than agree to the then Labour government's proposal to centralise and merge it with the unit in Cardiff.

Superficially, that campaign was successful, and the Health Minister has announced that both units will remain open. Cause for great rejoicing – in South Wales. For the Law of Unintended Consequences then came into play, and it turns out that this looks like rather less of a success from the point of view of patients in North Wales.

To date, most North Wales neurosurgery patients have been treated at Liverpool’s Walton hospital, but the Health Minister announced that, in order to justify keeping two units in Wales, patients from the North would in future have to travel to one of the two units in the South for their treatment – adding a significant amount of time and inconvenience to their journeys.

There are, as I understand it, two arguments which have been deployed in support of the proposal. The first of those is that, to maintain the skills of people in a highly specialist area, and to justify the numbers being employed, they need a number and range of cases which can only come from a larger population than is to be found in the immediate catchment area of the two South Wales units. The second is to do with providing services for Wales within Wales.

It seems to me that the first part of the first argument – number of cases – is (at least in part) a financial rather than a medical argument. (It sounds very much like the argument which was at the heart of the proposals for centralising some services which proved so unpopular for Labour during the election campaign.) There will always be a pull between providing specialist services locally and providing them at the lowest possible cost per head. Taking the decision as to where this balance lies is surely one of the proper roles of political debate, since it boils down to deciding how much to spend and on what priorities.

The second part, though (the range of cases), is much harder to deal with. The smaller the unit, the more rarely certain types of problem will be seen. It can be overcome to some extent, of course, by sharing staff, and by staff sharing their time between different units, but there are costs (time as much as money) associated with that. This is less of a political question, and more of a medical one; politicans need to be willing to listen to expert views before reaching decisions on this.

The second argument deployed, however, is wholly political in nature, and is the one which interests me most. It is effectively that such services should be supplied wholly within Wales for Welsh patients. Even as a committed devolutionist, I find myself asking ‘why?’.

I understand an argument about local provision of services – it is natural that people want all services provided as close to where they live as is possible within the resources available, and within the standards set for those services. I can certainly understand an argument for setting up a third unit within Wales (subject to the issues around numbers and types of cases mentioned above), and Llandudno would seem to be well-placed for that.

But I don't understand the argument that says that such services should always be provided within Wales, regardless of cost implications or the inconvenience to patients. What exactly is wrong with a situation where the Assembly Government effectively ‘buys’ certain services from hospitals across the border where that provides a better service for the people of Wales? (There’s nothing, incidentally, which prevents this working the other way as well – why should some people on the English side of the order, by the same token, not be able to access services from Welsh hospitals, if that provides a better service?)

Transfer of comparatively small sums of money in both directions across the border to pay for services accessed by citizens in no way undermines devolution, or the move for greater powers for Wales. On the contrary – I can see it relieving potential concerns about the impact of greater devolution on services. There are real dangers for public confidence if people believe that greater devolution = more centralisation in Cardiff.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

unCollective irResponsibility

Although the Labour-Plaid team have been in place at the Assembly for almost two months now, my understanding is that, between Rhodri Morgan’s illness and the summer recess, the first meeting of the coalition cabinet has yet to be held. That provides an interesting context to Thursday's warning by Rhodri Morgan that Ministers need to be pulling together not disagreeing in public.

Of course, the fact that the Cabinet has not met does not mean that the Ministers have been idle, nor that ‘the Government’ has not been taking decisions. On the contrary, Ministers have been kept extremely busy by their civil servants, taking routine individual decisions of the sort which never reach Cabinet, making ministerial visits, the occasional award ceremony, and so on.

As we learned from Sir Humphrey, it is a central part of the role of the civil service to ensure that Ministers are kept so busy that they do not have time to start doing anything radical. Hence, 'activity', for all ministers, rapidly becomes confused with 'effectiveness'. And they are all given plenty of activity.

The only example of discord to date which I can recall was the little spat over dredging in the Bristol Channel, where Plaid’s Dai Lloyd attacked the government on the grounds that since the decision was one made by a Labour Minister, Plaid could in no way be held accountable. It’s an interesting argument to use – and I suspect that Morgan is more concerned about the use of that argument than he is about anything Dr Lloyd might say.

In highlighting the fact that the decision was made by an individual minister, Lloyd is correct, of course. What the situation underlines however is that, for any government, the vast majority of ‘government’ decisions are actually taken by single Ministers, acting largely alone, within their own sphere of responsibility. Things would otherwise grind to a complete halt. That raises the question of which decisions should be subject to the principle of collective responsibility.

If the principle only applies to cabinet decisions, then the scope for ministers to disagree with each other is enormous. I suspect that, at the very least, Rhodri Morgan would expect it to apply to all cabinet decisions and all decisions related to the implementation of the One Wales agreement. But even that remains a fairly small proportion of the overall business of the government, and I can understand why Morgan might be worried if ministers start to feel that they are free to criticise all other decisions as they wish.

Plaid in particular may be about to learn that being in government is a double-edged sword. Their individual ministers will have a great deal of freedom to take decisions in their own areas of responsibility on a day to day basis - but, by the same token, Labour ministers will have the same freedom in their respective areas of responsibility.

The real test for the coalition is likely to be about the extent to which the ministerial colleagues are prepared to accept and defend each others’ decisions, rather than about the broad principles outlined in One Wales. Morgan is probably right to be worried.