Thursday, 26 June 2008

Ceredig est en vacances

Heading across La Manche tomorrow to spend some time in la belle, belle France. Comment moderation enabled during les vacances.

It's been just over a year since I started this blog and I've managed barely 100 posts - an average of rather less than two per week. The next three weeks' absence will thus be something of an opportunity to reflect on the whats and whys.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

The grey man

It’s interesting that Plaid seem to be facing one of their most significant internal debates for many a year by holding an election for the rather meaningless post of party president. The party isn’t even sure what the job is, if it exists at all (I think Bethan Jenkins is suggesting that it doesn’t). Penderyn sets out a number of possible options as to what the job actually comprises, which I suppose is as good a place as any to start. After all, if the members don’t know what the job is for, how are they to judge who’s the best person to fill it?

The big question, as Dafydd Iwan himself is asking (according to the Western Mail) is why has Elfyn Llwyd decided to stand and force an election? Llwyd himself is being less than clear in spelling out his reasons, leaving anonymous ‘sources’ to mutter darkly in reporters’ ears.

The first reason suggested is that this has something to do with the Gwynedd schools issue. Not very credible to me – Iwan wasn’t the author of the policy, he’s already lost his council seat, and the policy has to all intents and purposes been scrapped. What is the value in removing him from a non-job as well?

Secondly, there are some carefully worded suggestions that Iwan says things that others don’t like. Referring to Independence seems to be one of his sins – it is a word that has rarely, if ever, passed the lips of party leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones. Again, not really credible when one of Llwyd’s prominent backers, Adam Price, has himself been using the I-word extensively this week.

Suggestions that Iwan has a different view from the party’s elected members on issues such as St Athan might be closer to the truth, although I don’t recall Iwan actually saying anything on that (and on my reading of Plaid’s traditional response to military installations in Wales, even if he had, he would have been closer to the party’s core values on this issue. If anyone is out of line, it’s the party’s elected members, many of whom gave strong support to the scheme).

I think Betsan Powys was closest to the real issue in her post, with her implicit suggestion that Plaid’s leader wants to be allowed to ‘get on with the job’ with no danger of being criticised when he makes ‘difficult’ (i.e. contrary to the party’s policy/ values) decisions.

The key to decoding the statements being made revolves around the talk of ‘professionalising’ Plaid, in my view. The party’s unpaid officers are not subject to the control of the party leader. That makes them dangerous; far better for all the main posts to be in the hands of elected members who will do as the leader says. Iwan is the first one to be targeted and the most prominent; but other national officers who are not currently elected public representatives might want to watch their backs.

So, for what it’s worth, my take on this is that this is really a battle to determine whether the future strategy, direction and policies of Plaid Cymru are determined by the membership as a whole, or only by the leader and elected politicians who will follow his line. It mirrors the changes which the Labour Party has been through, which ended up with a nominally democratic party being run autocratically by the leader alone. Are Plaid about to follow the same path?

Belated Birthday Greetings

I appear to have inadvertently missed a very important anniversary. Last Friday, 20th June, marked exactly one year since the Assembly Government announced that it was to set up a commission to examine the funding formula which determines the resources available to Wales.

The decision, of course, predated One Wales; there was a minority Labour government at the time whilst negotiations continued. The motion came from the opposition, and the government, staring defeat in the face, took the sensible precaution of agreeing with the motion instead.

Now a cynic might feel that they did so confident in the knowledge that once they had finalised a coalition deal, they would be able to kick this one into the long grass. However, I'm sure that isn't true, and that somewhere deep in Tŷ Hywel, or maybe in Cathays Park, there is an entire team of civil servants busily working away at preparing detailed terms of reference. And they've hit all sorts of problems of detail which prevent them from making any progress. Or else it's a one man team and (s)he's on long term sick leave.

Or maybe there are just 'other priorities'; there must be lots of things more important than how much money they have to spend.

I'll try harder to remember next year's anniversary.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

The Great Escape?

I haven’t responded to the David Davis resignation to date, because it seemed to me that it was premature to judge. Indeed, it may still be premature, given that he hasn’t even resigned yet, as I understand it, merely announced an intention to do so.

He has tried to present it, of course, as demonstrating that he is a man of principle. It looks to me as though it only proves that he doesn’t think very far ahead. His decision makes sense only if it was to be a proper election, with the other parties putting up candidates, and being prepared to debate the issue. Since they have decided not to play, it has descended into pure farce.

And it was surely obvious to him that ‘not playing’ was a pretty likely reaction by Labour? After all, this was a seat in which Labour had only 6,000 votes in 2005; a poor third place behind the Lib Dems and 17,600 behind the winning Tory. Why on earth should they ever have chosen to play his game? There’s nothing in it for them at all – a hiding to nothing from the outset.

As it is, he looks badly unprepared for this outcome, and hopelessly outmanoeuvred; facing an election against a beauty queen, a raving loony, and a newspaper editor. (The three terms are not necessarily mutually exclusive, by the way). Worse still, he’s managed to open a split in the Tory party, most of whom would have been quite happy to vote for 42 days, or any higher figure that you care to mention, but only voted against because they saw an opportunity to embarrass the Labour Party. He also succeeded in wrong-footing his own leader.

But could we all have got it wrong? Can our brave SAS hero escape from this trap of his own making? Clearly, he has a reason of some sort for the delay between the announcement and the fact of his resignation – could he be playing a more complex game?

Well, here’s a draft statement he could still make:

“When I announced that I would resign and fight a by-election, I suspected that the Labour Party might refuse to contest it, because they’re running scared on the issue. That’s why I delayed between announcing my resignation, and actually resigning. Given the Labour Party’s display of cowardice on the matter, I will not put the loyal electors of my constituency and the taxpayers of Britain to the inconvenience and expense of an election which the Labour Party would deliberately reduce to a farce. The Labour Party have made my point more forcibly than a by-election would. I intend to stay in parliament and continue to contest this issue”.

Alternatively, he could go ahead and make himself look even more ridiculous as he debates terrorism with a beauty queen. And in the fevered atmosphere of a farcical by-election, he might even succeed in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

...and a bit under the weather, too

The second great religion of the doomsayers who may not be challenged is the concept of man-made climate change. I'm not a climate change denier, but I think that many of those who are rightly concerned about climate change do themselves no favours by overstating the case. In that sense, the climate change doomsayers are remarkably similar to the peak oil doomsayers.

We know that the earth’s climate is changing. Of course it is – as far as we can tell, there has never been a period when it hasn’t been. There have been lengthy periods of comparative climate stability, but climate has never been unchanging. So, whatever we do as humanity, we’ll have to deal with climate change at some level.

We also know that, since adopting an economy based largely on hydrocarbons, human activity has been pumping more carbon dioxide (as well as other gases) into the atmosphere, at a much greater rate than would happen without human activity. And that rate is increasing as more and more countries build up their industrial base.

We have very good reason to believe that changing the levels of carbon dioxide etc. in the atmosphere will impact on the global climate. Indeed, it would be very surprising if changing the composition of the atmosphere, even marginally, did not have an impact on climate, given the huge complexity of climate.

What we don’t actually ‘know’, however, is how much of a man-made impact on climate change there will be, nor what that impact will be. All of the predictions are based on complex mathematical models, and all of those models are based on assumptions (guesses to you and me) about some of the key variables. There's a good consensus around many of those guesses, and the people making them are seriously clever people; but a consensus of very clever people does not turn a guess into a fact. And there are some serious anomalies which some climate change alarmists are far too quick to dismiss.

I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t take climate change seriously. Significant climate change, whether man-made or natural, will have a massive impact on human society. And I’m certainly not arguing that we shouldn’t take urgent corrective action to reduce our impact on the atmosphere. Given how little we really know for certain about the impact of what we’re doing, it is madness to not only maintain our level of emissions but to be actually increasing them.

But it is equally a mistake to believe that reducing the impact of human activity to zero will avoid climate change - it won't. Earth's wobbles on its orbit, cyclic changes in the Sun and other factors will continue to have an impact on climate, whatever we do. We need to be preparing for climate change as well as trying to reduce or eliminate the man-made element – these are not either/or alternatives.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Feeling a little Peaky...

In comments on previous posts, Draig chides me a little for my scepticism over the connection between the current high price of oil and the concept of Peak Oil. Peak Oil (like Climate Change) is certainly on my list of things to worry about. Both issues are challenging for all of us – although they may not be the two most pressing.

Peak oil, again like climate change, has become one of those things which have an almost religious status for some, and any challenge to it is met with outrage. But shouting ‘peak oil’ whenever the oil price goes up is as meaningful as shouting ‘climate change’ whenever we have a freak storm; neither follow necessarily from the science or mathematics.

In essence, the concept is incredibly simple. As oil is a finite natural resource, there will come a time when oil production reaches its peak, and production will decline thereafter. Unless the global economy has planned for this, and we have put alternative energy sources in place, the inevitable result will be price rises and energy shortages.

So far, so good. I have no quibble with that at all – my disagreement is about whether the current high prices are in any way related to the peak oil theory. Peak oil theory certainly predicts high prices; but it is a complete non-sequitur to argue that high prices at a particular time therefore prove the theory. I think that there is another, darker reason for the current high prices.

There will, of course, come a time when oil production does reach its geological peak, although estimates of when that will be vary. There are two main complicating factors in knowing when it will happen.

The first is that the current level of supply is artificially capped by the producing countries. I don't blame them or criticise them for doing that; but there is a great deal of difference between a cap on production based on geology and a cap based on politics, even if the effects (rising oil prices) might look similar.

The second is that, as the price increases, oil reserves previously considered unrecoverable on economic grounds become economic after all, so that the geological cap may continue to move a little further away in the short term.

At this stage, I remain unconvinced that the current price hikes are actually based on a real shortage of oil, or even on a genuine fear that there will be a shortage in the near future. Prices have been forced up largely by speculators who are betting on there being a fear of a shortage, and then trying to make vast sums of money by creating the fear that will enable them to win their bets. Those bets are thus in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy, but gambling on this scale doesn’t prove the peak oil theory – and this sort of gambling is hardly a rational basis for running the world economy either.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Lost in Translation

Translation of latest post on Nick Bourne’s blog:

"Understandable angst and concern about the massive hikes in fuel prices shouldn’t obscure the need to continue to take green measures."

I’ve spotted a massive political opportunity for the Conservatives, but it isn’t very green.

"It is quite compatible to ensure that the tax on fuel is postponed for example, and some of the VAT is abated, whilst still concentrating on green efforts, for example, encourage homes to insulate and to adopt small scale devices like small turbines on houses or indeed solar panels (an area that has been much neglected in this country as compared to say Germany)."

We can be populist, cut taxes, encourage people to continue making profligate use of oil, and claim that we are still being green by transferring all the responsibility for taking action on climate change from the government to the electors (the German Conservatives have already spotted this one, and appear to be getting away with it).

"I think there is a great danger in people seeing there being one or other camp and I don’t think that is the case at all."

There is a serious danger that people might spot that what we are proposing is incompatible with what we’ve said previously, so we’re going to have to find a form of words which bridges the gap.

"I think it is quite feasible, indeed desirable, to do something on the price of fuel but at the same time press ahead with a green agenda."

We can win a lot of votes by cutting taxes and giving in to the roads lobby, but we need to sound as though we’re still serious about the environment.

"The Chancellor will have a £600m fuel windfall from extra VAT from domestic fuel alone, quite apart from the VAT windfall on petrol and deisel"

The windfall income which the government is getting from unexpectedly high fuel taxes might enable them to plug the gaps in their budget, and that would destroy a major part of our election strategy.

"It is quite possible to abate some of this tax but at the same time to press ahead with green energy measures."

We can promise tax cuts and win votes now, and people with more money in their pockets will forget about the environment.

"Indeed there are huge economic, social and environmental gains to be achieved by doing just this."

It can help us win the General Election.

“The government response of simply seeking to produce more North Sea oil is really a woefully inadequate response.”

Producing more North Sea oil will make very little difference, but I still wish we’d thought of it first.

Wednesday, 4 June 2008

From the Heritage Bunker (Last in series)

Minister: Sir Humphrey. Where have you been for the last few weeks?

Sir Humphrey: I’ve been negotiating with Whitehall on your behalf, Minister.

Minister: Excellent, Sir Humphrey. So we’re ready to announce the details of the Elco?

Sir Humphrey: Not exactly, Minister, no. There are a few small problems remaining.

Minister: Look, Sir Humphrey, I’ve promised this to people. I promised it to the electors, and I promised it to my party. I promised to announce it in the spring, and it’s now summer. I’m coming under increasing pressure for an early announcement. Your last little suggestion of announcing the extension of existing powers to 57 more bodies backfired rather badly. People noticed that it was the same announcement made by my predecessor – and that we hadn’t actually done anything in the last twelve months.

Bernard: But Minister, it’s only the second time that we’d announced that change. We normally announce things at least three times before actually doing anything.

Sir Humphrey: Thank you Bernard. Minister, we just cannot get my colleagues, I mean the other Ministers, to agree to your proposals.

Minister: Why not? What’s the problem?

Sir Humphrey: Well, it’s the question of extending the law into the private sector, Minister. If you could just remove that little requirement, we’d be able to move ahead with an announcement almost immediately. Otherwise it is likely to take many more months of discussion.

Minister: But then it would be meaningless!

Sir Humphrey: Of course not, Minister. The Assembly would then have the right to make laws on the matter any time it wished - it would just be a matter of staying within current constraints, for the time being.

Minister: So we could pass any laws we liked, as long as they didn’t go further than the current one?

Sir Humphrey: Precisely, Minister. But it would enable you to act now, given the impending changes.

Minister: Impending changes? What impending changes?

Sir Humphrey: There is talk, Minister, of some changes in ministerial responsibilities.

Minister: You mean a re-shuffle? I hadn’t heard that.

Sir Humphrey: Not necessarily a re-shuffle, Minister. Just a few minor changes. But an early announcement would be advisable.

Minister: What’s behind this talk?

Sir Humphrey: Oh, I don’t know exactly; there has been some mention of an event at the Qumrani embassy, that's all that I've heard. But an early announcement, with a more restricted scope, would also allow me to devote my time to other pressing matters.

Minister: What other ‘pressing matters’?

Sir Humphrey: Well, Minister, I hadn’t mentioned this before, but I’ve been thinking that it would be a good idea to organise a fact-finding mission for you. To let you see the way in which other countries promote their lesser-used languages.

Minister: What would that entail, exactly?

Sir Humphrey: Well, Minister, I thought perhaps Canada to study the experience of using French; Catalonia, the Basque country, maybe Sardinia, and Switzerland to look at the use of Romansch. But I really couldn’t organise such a trip and continue negotiating the Elco at the same time.

Minister: And Brussels, maybe? I like Brussels. And they have some language issues.

Sir Humphrey: I’m sure that we could fit that in, Minister.

Minister: I see. And if I agreed to a more restricted scope for the Elco at this stage, we could always come back to it in the future?

Sir Humphrey: Certainly, Minister.

Bernard: Well, your successor, in any event.

Minister: And use the experience of the fact-finding trip as additional evidence?

Bernard and Sir Humphrey: Yes, Minister.