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Saturday, 29 October 2016

The Wales Bill: will Wales find its teeth?


It was refreshing to see Prof Richard Wyn Jones publish a direct, unequivocal and “excoriating” criticism of the Wales Bill in the Western Mail yesterday. To date, too many Welsh politicians, lawyers, academics, journalists, commentators and representatives of civil society have couched their criticism of the Bill in measured, polite and even deferential terms, not wanting, it seems, to fall out of favour with the all-powerful Brexit junta which now masquerades as a UK Government. It’s as if they have almost fallen over themselves to apologise for having the temerity to disagree with such a brazen attempt to steel Welsh democracy; fallen over themselves to apologise for the feelings of disgust and offence that they have experienced as a result the Government’s contemptuous insult of Welsh intelligence. And it’s as if they so desperately wanted to believe that Crabb, Cairns and Bebb had innocent, albeit utterly misguided, intentions, that they convinced themselves that all that was needed was a well-penned submission of politely delivered analysis, fact and reason, and all would be well in this harmonious Union of equals.



This blog called it as it saw it nearly 18 months ago. This was a pre-mediated, calculated and intentional attempt to roll-back Welsh devolution in the guise of constitutional re-framing. It had no democratic mandate or legitimacy whatsoever, and has been presented to the people of Wales in a cynical, deceitful and dishonourable way. It was rotten from the beginning and it is rotten now.



If Prof Jones’s article does nothing more than to encourage a few others in positions of authority or influence to find their voice (and their teeth) it will be no bad thing. If, on the other hand, those very same people stand aside and allow what Lord Elystan Morgan described as Whitehall’s “colonial” attitude to prevail, it certainly will be our fate “to be governed on the basis of this nonsense”, as Prof Jones fears, for many years to come; and so might we deserve it.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Question Time, the Wales Bill and Messrs Cairns and Bebb


It will come as no great surprise to report that I am not a Conservative supporter, but it may surprise some that I certainly respect the integrity of many individual Conservative politicians and commentators, particularly here in Wales. It gives me no pleasure to say, therefore, that there is a sort of swaggering arrogance to much of the Conservative Party’s public discourse at the moment, both at a UK level and here in Wales too. It’s as if the General Election result of 2015, the referendum result, the ascent of Saint Theresa, the failure of the centrist Labour coup, the imminent disappearance of UKIP as a serious threat, the guaranteed propaganda support of 90% of Fleet Street and the equally guaranteed lack of proper scrutiny by a woefully compliant BBC, ITV and Sky (with the honourable exception of Channel 4 News), have all coalesced over the last year to embolden Tory MPs and lead them into thinking that they are now invincible, that they can do or say anything without recourse to democratic principle or criticism, that they are unimpeachable.

What is worse, however, is that they genuinely seem to believe their own propaganda. A MAJORITY of the UK population ALL want stricter immigration controls at the expense of free access to the Single Market it seems. EVERYONE who voted to leave the EU did so with a ‘hard’ Brexit alternative in mind. The devaluation of the Pound can have only POSITIVE effects. 36.9% of the vote at a general election is an OVERWHELMING MANDATE for neo-liberal reforms of English public services. A twelve seat majority in Parliament is a LANDSLIDE. And the fact that we have a completely new government that nobody at all has voted for taking the country in a radically different direction is apparently of TRIVIAL IMPORTANCE. It’s been said before, but we really are entering into the era of post-factual politics. If you repeat a lie enough times, people really do start to believe you.

Regrettably, this Westminster arrogance is spilling over into Wales and contaminating Welsh Conservative politics in my opinion. We saw it with Alun Cairns on Question Time on Thursday, making scandalous claims about Plaid Cymru members that even Labour and Liberal Democrat opponents have called “baseless”. But Mr Cairns obviously felt at complete liberty to do this, feels no need to substantiate or explain his accusations after the fact, and feels no need to retract them or apologise. In fact he doesn’t even feel the need to comment at all and just ignores the media’s requests for a statement. He obviously feels ‘untouchable’ at the moment.

Were this just a matter of mischievous behaviour on a television debate programme, I’d be more inclined to just let it pass. But it won’t have escaped the attention of Pedryn Drycin’s readership that Mr Cairns is also responsible for the Wales Bill going through Parliament at the moment, and I’m rather concerned that his new-found ‘confidence’ (if I can put it like that) could end up causing irreparable damage to the constitution of this nation.

As the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee of the National Assembly reported AGAIN this week, following several months of expert evidence gathering and detailed analysis, the Bill as currently drafted REDUCES the legislative competence of the National Assembly and makes the devolution settlement MORE complex. Let us state that again for clarity in a slightly different way: the Bill WEAKENS Welsh devolution not strengthens it; it makes the National Assembly LESS powerful, not more powerful; and it makes it HARDER for the National Assembly to effectively manage the domestic affairs of Wales, not easier. Those are the facts, and there isn’t a single lawyer, academic, or other expert who would (or has) come to a different conclusion. Furthermore, nobody (as in literally nobody) within Welsh civic society has declared any support whatsoever for a constitutional change of this type. Quite the opposite, they have expressed deep concern and disquiet about the Bill. Mr Cairns, his deputy Guto Bebb, and presumably the Whitehall mandarins who drafted the Bill, are the lone voices of support for this retrograde and reactionary piece of legislation.

Ah, but what does that matter if the Conservative Government in Westminster wants to reduce the powers of the National Assembly, has stated clearly in a manifesto that it will do so, and has an electoral mandate from the people of Wales to put that policy into practice? Well, that’s just the problem isn’t it; they don’t have any of those things. They have never stated openly that it is their policy to reduce the powers of the National Assembly (their 2015 manifesto pledge was to ‘strengthen’ Welsh devolution) and even if they had (which they didn’t), they haven’t won an election in Wales since the mid-nineteenth century, let alone the 2015 General Election, the 2016 National Assembly Election, or a specific referendum on the question. They haven’t sought the people of Wales’s opinion, and it hasn’t been given.

Rather like the Westminster Government’s response to scrutiny on Brexit policy, when challenged on the factual inadequacies of the Wales Bill, Mr Cairns and his deputy simply lie, answer a different question or resort to sophistry. They never engage with the substantive issues and they are never honest about their true motivations. So apparently the Wales Bill STRENGTHENS Welsh devolution, is CLEARER, is the result of CROSS-PARTY AGREEMENT, and was MANDATED by the 2015 Conservative Party manifesto. These things are true only in the imagination of Mr Cairns and Mr Bebb. Nobody else believes them. Nobody.

Now, if in the face of such universal criticism, opposition, and contradiction of your factual argument, you simply press on, force the Bill through Parliament unamended by means of your English Conservative majority, and impose a new, inferior, and insulting constitutional settlement on Wales, ...well, there’s no other word for it really, you’d have to be pretty ‘arrogant’ I’d have thought, and pretty dishonourable as well.

If Cairns and Bebb continue along their current path, history will judge them very cruelly indeed I believe, not only for imposing an insulting constitutional settlement on Wales but also for having the hubris and arrogance to do so by deceit and sleight of hand. It will also reflect very badly on those Welsh Conservative politicians who actively supported them or those who sat on their hands and said nothing at such an important juncture. That would be a great pity, and a disappointment for me personally, as the reputations of many people I had previously respected would be tarnished for ever.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The Moral Imperative of a Second EU Referendum


There is no such place or political space as ‘being outside’, or ‘being without’ defined, agreed international relations with other countries, particularly one’s neighbours. You either have them or you are not a functioning state in the world trade, financial, movement of people, energy, security, etc., systems. To that extent, ‘exiting’ or ‘leaving’ the EU is a terribly misleading term. It’s a bit like saying ‘leaving society’. You simply can’t exist as a functioning human being without a substantial amount of co-ordination with the other human beings around you. You can’t ‘leave’ society therefore, you can only renegotiate and perhaps change the way you interact with others within it. Some people might have thought they were voting to ‘leave’ the EU on June 23rd, but what they were actually voting for was an undetermined ‘change’ to the UK's formal relationships with the EU and the rest of the world.

Now, it might have been possible to define in some detail what the UK’s vision for that change was in advance of the referendum. The Scottish Government did it before the Scottish independence referendum for example. The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish devolution settlements were all defined in legislation before their respective referenda. The European Economic Community was a living, breathing entity when the UK voted to continue its membership in 1975.

The official ‘leave’ campaign could have done the same in June 2016. It could have defined the UK’s future membership of this organisation here, and its non-membership of that one there; this change to immigration policy here, that change to trading terms there; this co-operation to continue here, that one to end there. It might have been comprehensive, or it might have been illustrative. It would have been ‘draft’ only of course, as all new relationships need to be agreed by all parties, as unilateral, self-interested actions rarely result in long-term stability or success (even the most powerful of super-states understands that). But it might have been a start, and it would have given its supporters a degree of authority to say on June 24th, ‘Brexit means […], and the British people support it’. But that didn’t happen. Nothing was defined, not even informally. The referendum mandate was therefore for ‘change’, but what on earth too?

Were our relationships, arrangements and rules of engagement with the rest of the world of little consequence, it might be reasonable to just allow the UK Government to crack on now, define this brave new world, renegotiate something with all parties, set up new systems, and move on. But they are not inconsequential; no, quite the opposite I’d argue. They are existential, even constitutive perhaps. Our formal international agreements define what it means ‘to be the UK in the world’ just as much as societal rules define what it means to be an individual in society. They will affect everything from how we do business in the world, where we trade and on what terms, the shape and size of our economy, how we educate ourselves at university, conduct research, go on holiday, receive emergency treatment abroad, pick grapes in Italy before going to college, get married to someone from Poland, etc., etc., literally et bloody cetera, ad infinitum. We know how we do all those things now. Brexit means that we don’t know how we will do them in the future.

It could be that the scope of change is quite limited in the end of course (angering hard brexiteers) and our lives remain pretty much as they are now. It could be enormous (angering remainers and soft brexiteers) and our lives change in incalculable ways. It could be that a fair majority of UK citizens believe the change to be acceptable and desirable in the final analysis. It could be that a fair majority think it is not. We just don’t know yet, and can’t know until a proposal is put forward and a negotiated, agreed package arrived at with our international partners. It is fair, I believe, to say that we did agree to reject the current definition of ‘us’, but we have no idea what the new ‘us’ is going to be, and who can put their hand on their heart and say that we’ve agreed ‘to be it’ yet?

When people say there is a mandate for Brexit, what they mean is there is a mandate for change. And as a remainer I’d agree with that. The UK Government is entitled (and even obliged) to set out a new vision for the UK’s place in the world and negotiate its particulars with the international community.* It does not have a mandate to press the start button and put that vision into practice however. In what parallel moral universe, for example, would it be right that a government could claim, ‘you said we could do something, so we’re changing everything’?

It should surely be inconceivable to any democrat, therefore, that unknown changes of such potential enormity could be imposed on the citizens of the UK without a second referendum. Brexiteers within and outside the Government will no doubt dismiss and scoff at the idea, but it will not go away. In the absence of a pre-referendum blueprint for ‘Brexit’, it is morally imperative to seek the British people’s endorsement of the final proposal. If David Davis is so confident of building his new British Shangri-La somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, I would have thought he’d relish the opportunity of celebrating its establishment with the roaring approval of the people, wouldn’t he?



*I respect the different mandate given by the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland and they and their political representatives are entitled to determine their own positions vis-à-vis the EU either within the UK or outside it. The Welsh Government has a permanent and continuous obligation to protect the Welsh national interest within its areas of competence and to lobby and negotiate on its behalf outside of them. I would expect them to do this vigorously in respect of the post-Brexit landscape. The people of Wales have a permanent and continuous right to change the nature of their relationship with the UK (and other countries) should they choose democratically to do so. The EU referendum result in Wales in June does not change that in any way.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

UKIP and the Conservatives open up new front in the pro-Britain/anti-Wales constitutional debate.


So UKIP have finally shown their cards on Welsh devolution with Mark Reckless claiming that the Brexit vote will result in a decrease of support for the National Assembly in the future, followed quickly by the Conservative leader in Wales, Andrew R. T. Davies, who has claimed that the people of Wales would reject devolution if there was a new referendum “tomorrow”.

The argument is a logical absurdity of course; a popular protest against a ‘big’, ‘distant’, ‘unresponsive’, and ‘unaccountable’ polity (if you believe the anti-EU mantra) would more likely lead to a consequential disillusionment with the next ‘distant/unresponsive’ polity, namely ‘London’, rather than the ‘nearer’ and ‘more responsive’ Cardiff; at least initially. But of course in the minds of the British national right, the Brexit vote was a vote in favour of Westminster over and above all other forms and layers of sovereignty in the UK. It was the ‘silent majority’ reaffirming their oath of allegiance to the Queen (of England) and Country (Anglo-Britain) over pernicious Eurocrats and the traitorous nationalist crachach (of the soft and hard variety).

I’ve not seen any empirical evidence to back up that sort of behavioural profiling, and anecdotally I can confirm that (regrettably, in my opinion) many Plaid and Labour, pro-Welsh, supporters voted ‘leave’ in Ynys Môn, apparently as sceptical of the European political project as their pro-British bedfellows. No doubt ‘anti-devolutionism’ was a factor for the UKIP hard-core in Wales (perhaps 10% of the electorate?), but it is quite a leap of faith to suggest that it was a factor for the other 43% of ‘leave’ voters.  Indeed, as Ifan Morgan Jones has pointed out in his blog, the latest empirical evidence suggests, as it has done for many years, that committed anti-devolution sentiment in Wales is extremely rare nowadays.

But UKIP and the Tories haven’t kicked-off this line of argument, or, to look at it in a slightly different way, ‘deposited’ this combination of rhetorical statements in the pool of Welsh public discourse, because they genuinely believe in its accuracy. No, not in the slightest. What they are actually doing is launching a new discursive ‘front’ in the longer-term pro-Britain/anti-Wales constitutional debate.

You see, discourse works like that. In order to effect political change it matters not a jot what people ‘think’ (people largely think what they are told to think by the state apparatus and its agencies), it matters which lines of discursive argument are in the ascendancy at a moment of political ‘crystalisation’ (an election, a referendum, a vote in Parliament, etc.), or which ‘positions’ are hegemonic at any given time. In order for there to be a successful campaign (and perhaps a vote) to reduce, curtail or even end the Welsh political dimension in the future, there needs to be a preceding (and eventually dominant) discourse of dysfunction, irrelevance and discontentment. That discourse of a devolutionary ‘problem’ is mostly marginal at the moment in Wales, but UKIP and the Conservatives have clearly decided to promote it, and as it gains apparent ‘authority’ in the public domain, so too will their ‘solutions’ such ‘reform’, retrenchment or abolition. Be in no doubt, discourse proceeds ‘opinion’, and discourse can be designed and manufactured.

One thing I certainly agree with Mark Reckless and Andrew R. T. Davies about is that there is huge potential for this discourse to grow and to prevail. I don’t say this because I believe in the inherent ineptitude of Welsh Labour ministers or some inherent Welsh scepticism of Welsh institutions as some would argue, but because the range of agencies available to the British nationalist right to initiate and sustain such a discursive shift is enormous, the range of agencies available to the progressive pro-Welsh coalition to counter such an assault so small, and the ‘neutral’ gate-keepers of discursive confrontations so pitifully incompetent and disinterested.

Freed from their thirty-year war of attrition against the European Union, it can’t be long now before the British nationalist faction in Whitehall, Fleet Street and Sky Towers unleash their fighting dogs on the Scottish and Welsh institutions. They are clever, determined and patient, and they are many in number. Reckless and Davies have much to be optimistic about therefore. Whether there is fight in the old Welsh dog remains to be seen. Forewarned is forearmed however...

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

A world-beating Ruritania obsessed with its own survival


I don’t know who has changed most, me or British sport. I used to love watching the Olympics, particularly track and field, although I can remember enjoying the rowing and hockey too. Now I can barely watch 10 or 15 minutes of saccharine BBC coverage before switching over or switching off. OK, so I’ve moved an awful long way from supporting ‘Britishness’ as a default political choice, but that hasn’t prevented me supporting British sportspeople in the past. But I’ve found it almost impossible in the context of these Olympic Games, even more so than in 2012.

Perhaps it’s the cynicism of the new Olympics, that ruthless product management ethos which demands that sport after sport is swallowed up in an imperial ‘brand march’ that Napoleon himself would have been proud of. Golf, tennis, rugby, football; they’re all part of the empire now. But when some of the planet’s richest sportspeople (some of whom just knock a small white ball around a few hectares of American prize real estate for a living) get even more air time and plaudits than usual, I’m afraid it’s too much for me. It just dilutes the tradition of amateurism which I value, and takes well-deserved attention from those who would never get a look-in otherwise.

But there are more sinister forces at play as well. For the IOC, more participating sports means more televised events, means more advertising revenue, means more power and influence at the geo-political-sporting top table of course. But for the British State, which includes its co-opted communication outlets such as the BBC, ITV, Sky, and print media, the Olympics has simply turned into an irresistible free-for-all of gooey pro-British propaganda, rammed down the throats of an otherwise indifferent, increasingly ‘abritish’, people. The more sports you can throw into that pot, the bigger the demographic.

To my eye at least, it has simply become an orgy of Union Jacks (athletes were forbidden from carrying other national flags apparently), God Save the Queen, happy, smiley, contented fans, and epic stories of brave young Brits fighting for Blighty and bringing home the hardware (and so they might with £350m of lottery money going into their elite performance programmes). It’s as if it was all scripted in advance, which – as anyone who understands how the broadcast media works will know – it was. Only the nuances were left to chance (the final colour of the medals, the odd surprise), the story-board itself was written in advance from beginning to end. Starved of the Great British Bake-off, the Great British this and the Great British that over the summer, the public lapped it up of course. It was technicoloured entertainment; and excellent subliminal political propaganda to boot.

State-sponsored exercises like this in the reinforcement of British nationalism used to be self-assured, understated and discerning in the UK. In recent years they have become superficial, awkward and undignified, as if a woefully under-qualified junior PR manager has been left in charge whilst the bosses stuff their pockets and Whitehall burns. And when a bulwark of the English imperial project like Simon Jenkins bemoans a new (Soviet-style) British ‘cultural cringe’, you know something’s awry.

The mandarins and privy councillors at the heart of ‘Project Britain’ know full well that a second Scottish independence referendum is just around the corner, and to that extent you can forgive them their propagandistic exuberance of recent months. But their obsession with red white and blue bunting, Churchillian rhetoric and free cucumber sandwiches is a high-risk strategy. It left me utterly cold, like there really isn’t any hope for a non-Anglocentric union of nations on these islands in the future. And if they lost me, a rather wet, moderate Welsh nationalist, I shudder to think how it left the people of Scotland, who in the next 18-24 months will pass judgement once again on the kind of state they want to be part of : an averagely achieving sporting nation which focuses on the well-being of its people or a world-beating Ruritania obsessed with its own survival?

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Remain


I will be voting to remain in the European Union for the following reasons:

I have no problem whatsoever with immigration, whether from the EU or elsewhere. It is a sign of our prosperity not our impoverishment. What is more, I actually prefer the multi-cultural UK I live in now to the knotted-hanky and knobbly-knees UK I lived in 30 years ago.

Where UK public services are under strain, it is because of tax and spend choices the UK Government has made, not because of a growing population. Change the Government if you want more hospitals, or let them stay in if you want a small state and low taxes. Either way, it’s still your choice.

I am content with the basic vision of a confederal Europe based on sovereign nation states working together and I do not believe in ‘New World Order’ conspiracy theories.

Single markets need common trading rules and I have absolutely no problem with EU Law. Most of it simply regulates what we buy, eat and consume. Get used to it, it’s just called modernity.

The EU has enriched my life and that of my generation immeasurably.

I have not had to go through the horrors of a world war like my grandparents did.

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My support for the EU is not unconditional however, and I will continue to fight vigorously to ensure that following are protected:

Subsidiarity – that sovereignty is always assumed to rest at the lowest level possible unless a convincing case can be made for pooling it higher up. I hold that to be true for Wales, the UK and the EU. But wanting greater freedom for the individual or one’s nation does not HAVE to mean abandoning cooperation. That is a false dichotomy. As a Welsh nationalist I do not discount mutually beneficial cooperation at a UK level, and I don’t discount it at a European or global level either.

Pluralism – that one size doesn’t fit all; that exceptions and differences are tolerated and celebrated; that uniformity and homogeneity are not pursued for their own sake; that diversity is recognized as one of nature’s greatest riches.

Redistribution – that the main purpose of any government should be to reduce economic inequality not increase it.

Progressivity – that government should be an agent of liberation and justice for disadvantaged and minority groups; that it should promote fairness and equality for all not just the ‘conforming’ majority.

Sustainability – that perpetual growth and untrammelled consumption are intellectually and morally bankrupt ideas; that government must take the lead in changing direction, of finding ways of combining prosperity, happiness and long-term sustainability.

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It is my judgement that the benefits of being a member of the EU outweigh any dis-benefits at the moment. It is also my view that on balance the EU contributes positively to my 5 key principles above rather than work against them.
I will continue to observe and scrutinise the EU’s activities and development and campaign for those things which I think are important. I WILL let you know if my opinion changes in the future, but at the moment staying in the EU seems the only rational, ethical and intelligent thing to do.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee report on the draft Wales Bill


I would normally consider writing a summary and appraisal of a new publication such as the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee's report on the draft Wales Bill for Pedryn Drycin, but on this occasion I will decline. The report is relatively short and is written in accessible language, its clarifications on matters of fact and interpretation are precise and accurate, and its arguments are made succinctly and cogently. It suffices, on this occasion, to strongly recommend that Pedryn Drycin's small but hard-core readership read the original report and come to their own conclusions.

My opinion, for what it's worth, is that its analysis is broadly consistent with everything that I have written here over the last few months and its recommendations to the Secretary of State for Wales can be quickly endorsed by all reasonably-minded Welsh democrats: that is, 'start over again, or remove all the mischievous, undemocratic bits'. Further, and taking due account of its measured and diplomatic language, it is still a damning indictment of the process, the draft legislation and the UK Government's underlying motivations.

[The Committee's chairman, David Melding, has also written a short article on Click on Wales today, 'Back to the drawing board for the draft Wales Bill?', explaining the broad findings and recommendations of the report]

I will, however, make particular reference to one section of the report:

"164. It has been suggested that the purpose of the draft Bill is to overturn the decisions of the Supreme Court in relation to the existing settlement and conferred powers model. While that may be the approach from a Whitehall perspective and within Parliament’s prerogative, if that is the intention it should be expressly stated in the interests of openness and transparency."

Whilst it would do my ego no end of good to think that the report's authors avidly read, and are referring specifically to Pedryn Drycin, when they say, "It has been suggested", I rather suspect they are reflecting more widespread grumblings and malcontent in Cardiff Bay. But I am gratified, nonetheless, to see a central pillar of my argument over the last few months find its way into the report: that is, if it is the UK Government's intent to overturn the Supreme Court's decisions and roll-back the legislative competence of the National Assembly for Wales, "it should be expressly stated in the interests of openness and transparency". That is the very least we can expect from a supposedly democratic government, one would have thought.

It is a matter of regret to me, however, that the committee did not go on to 'note' that the Conservative Party made no General Election manifesto commitment whatsoever to take such action, that the Conservative Party has no majority electoral mandate at any level in Wales, that such action would run contrary to the will of the people of Wales as expressed in the 2011 referendum, and that whilst being within Parliament's prerogative, would represent one of the grossest abuses of Whitehall power in the history of 'democratic' UK politics...

Then again, perhaps 'undiplomatic' language of this sort will become more commonplace in the corridors of Welsh power if Stephen Crabb declines the committee's recommendations and persists on his lone charge into historical infamy over the next few months?