Social Feudalism

720px-Flag_of_Powys.svgWhen I was young and started thinking about politics the idea of Social Feudalism appealed to me. The basic premise is to take the  Middle Age system of regional Princes and Kings, such as Gwynedd or Powys, who extracted taxes from those who lived in their domains to live lives of culture and refinement in return for the rule of law and protection from raiders. Such systems was sustained for millennia. My modern twist on the system was to interject democracy into the system, the ruling class were restrained from over exploiting the serfs or imposing rules the populace wouldn’t accept through a democratic system, which I dubbed at the time the ‘Council of the Elders’.

These ancient Kingdoms perhaps had a tendency to expand, and in doing so become more efficient and offered greater protection to more organised bands of raiders. This perhaps led to the idea of establishing supranational entities for beneficial cooperation to be even more efficient, to have a Kingdom of the Britons. What happened was that the English/ Anglo-Saxons established a King of England first, who over, arguably, the more exciting  bits of history (Battles, court intrigue, which religion should we have debates etc) expanded influence to eventually create the United Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland (the UK), a modern nation state.

Historically the nation state is a fairly recent development in human history and is perhaps one whose time is passing. If the primary purpose is to protect populations from raiders, maintain the rule of law and share the advantages of scale, then it seems the nation state truly is in decline.

Modern raiders, or wars between nation states are now rare, so there is no need for nation states. Indeed the raiders now are the jihadist terrorists, who plot to destabilise nation states and use tactics that nation states struggle to counter but for no financial gain. Indeed the systems nation states established to counter terrorism reduce the freedoms of the subjects that nation states were able to protect.

Law is now global. We live in world of trade agreements and mega corporations who effectively set the rules or lack of them, rather than democratic or aristocratic bodies.

In the Uk the benefits of cooperation are no longer shared, living standards are in decline and the global rich, no longer attached to the land, just keep taking more of the pie.

The establishment, the modern day aristocracy, who have been kept in luxury by the nation state system is under threat: international trade agreements, jihadist terrorism and the end of the era of economic growth as the challenges of climate change and over-population prevent further economic growth, so they just seem to be asset stripping nations all the harder like there is no tomorrow.

Instead of the nation state investing in its poorer regions, such as Wales and ‘Yr Hen Gogledd’ (The Old North / Northern England), to deliver  growth and rise everyones living standards. In the UK, in recent decades we have seen the  UK establishment class asset strip the country for the gain of their group, rather than invest for the future. The nation state of the UK has lost it’s coherence, if it ever truly had it, where wealthier regions subsidise the development of poorer regions. Successful federal nation states, which maintain coherence and identity across the regions through regional governments, such as in Germany or the United States. I get the impression that those people much more comfortably identify as Germans or Americans, whilst we in Britian are more ‘I suppose I am British but…’. The UK has never really done this nation state building, being more obsessed with the development of Empire, power has always been centralised in central London and the regions plundered for their resources, coal, cheap labour and soldiers. Now the coal industry has died nations such as Wales have never received the investment it has needed to grow it’s economy to develop away from the old heavy industries. Wales has lacked the confidence to say, this really isn’t fair, the UK isn’t working for us, we’d be better off managing ourselves.

The answer seems to be more local accountability, to find solutions for local problems locally and not be subservient to protectors who no longer provide protection, rules that work or economic growth that is shared.

I have often encountered critiques of devolution, who argue reductively that eventually everyone is a king of their own tiny private kingdom. This position misses the whole point of bottom up democracy. Deciding where decisions should be made isn’t a case of always smaller, it’s finding the right size. The right size is where there is an optimum balance between the advantages of pooling resources for efficiency and retaining local accountability. An ‘area the size of Wales’ with our population of just over three million people may be the right size, because Wales’ leaders can’t get too removed from the people, it is possible if you want to to speak with members of the Welsh government and make your point and if they don’t listen to reasoned argument you should be able to vote them out of office, but our current electoral system doesn’t quite work. As long as you have democratic systems that allow power to be moved up and down, to and from regions then the best balance will be achieved and those decisions need to be made at a regional level. Statically leaving power at one level is not sustainable. It may be that recreating the Kingdoms of Dyfed and Monmouth is the right level for law making. Democracy should be about a fluidity of decisions that remains accountable to the smallest area. For example: My bit of Wales ( King Squimple I) – my region of Wales – Wales – Britain – Western Europe – Europe – The World government.

It has been a week where I’ve been catching up on Welsh history and reading about the grievous attacks on democracy in Spain. In a world of instability it’s very disturbing that the Spanish government is raising troops to attack democracy in Catalonia. If a region wants autonomy, it should demonstrate it clearly (by holding a monitored referendum or suchlike) and then regain autonomy. So I condemn the Spanish government for its actions to defend the nation state against democracy. The democratic right to self-determination is what allows humanity to be free of tyranny and bad kings /rulers.

Wales also needs independence or something that will deliver democracy, protection and rule of law. So, there are many parallels between Wales and Catalonia, also an ancient Kingdom and has it’s own language and culture. However there seems to be a big difference between Wales and Catalonia. The economic argument doesn’t seem to apply in their case.

Catalonia is one of the richest regions in Spain, whilst Wales is one of the poorest in the UK. So the nation-state redistribution of wealth to poorer regions, such as Andalusia  is how things should be, to gain the economic efficiency across what is now Spain. I don’t think the independence movement in Andalusia is very strong, perhaps because it is respected and invested in by the Spanish state. I wouldn’t be advocating independence for Wales if was benefitting from being in the UK and being respected as a nation for our language and culture. I don’t know all that much about the situation in Catalonia, these things are often complex and there will always be many reasons for the people there deciding independence is in their interests, look elsewhere for more information,  maybe they are just being greedy in seeking independence but even so, a heavy handed approach from a central government just sends shivers down my spine. Self determination and democracy are too important to give up upon. The Spanish government should be welcoming democracy and the chance to point out how Catalonia benefits from being in the Spanish family of nations if that is the case. Then again we no longer seem to have mechanisms for making the best solutions clear, we no longer live in the age of reason, but one of petty media barons.

Maybe, maybe, the time is coming for Social Feudalism, for the ancient Kingdoms to rise again, but this time with democracy and accountability to the people who live on their lands.

yescymruEstelada Catalan flag | Catalan flag | Estelada flag ...

 

 

 

Advertisements

British People in Hot Weather

The British are famous for our obsession with British weather. Britain is rarely hot (>25C) and rarely cold (<-5C). So when it is hot we go crazy and run out outside to bask in the experience the strange newness of the our area being hot. When it snows we also run out to play with the magical icy white stuff. However because such events are usually only for two weeks of the year we don’t bother preparing for them, it’s deemed too expensive to bother, even when buildings exist for over a hundred years, a few quid saved when building and hang the long term efficiency costs.. So, we we suffer in sweaty places of work and grumble about the madness of being only half as productive for a couple of weeks a year. The vast majority of British buildings are not designed for inclement weather and we just put up with it, or try and do things outside and burn our skins to the colour of lobsters.

Sometimes this lack of long term planning ends in tragedy as happened last week. The Grenfell tower block in London caught fire with a tragic loss of life of people dying in their homes.

The tragedy multiples when we think start to think about why this tragic event occurred.  People dying in a burning building is always tragic. Its doubly tragic when it is suggested that mistakes were made that were directly responsible. It’s particularly tragic when the whole UK political system is part of the problem.

Grenfell Tower was part of the 1960s policy to replace falling apart housing with cities in the skies. They were built on the cheap and poorly managed. However at least some thought was put into preventing fire spreading. However, because these flats were near to the most expensive part of London, it seems a decision was made to clad the tower to make it look nicer, rather than install a sprinkler system, which was what the building needed more, to bring it into line with modern tower constructions. There are suggestions that this cladding contributed to the fire spreading quickly and it is this that has made people particularly upset. The UK ‘planning’ system is woefully  inadequate and our building regulations are farcical; which is the fault of the political system.

This political tragedy is that such problems as Grenfell tower were known about for years but nothing got done about them. This is arguably due to a government that has had a strange ideological objection to regulation and is corrupt in being lobbied only by big businesses which don’t like the cost of following regulations.

Surely it is wrong for government to only be responsive to corporate interests and ignore the concerns of the people it is supposed to represent. The market is great at making some things more efficient, cheaper and as a system for deciding what to invest in. However it is not perfect and sometimes we need human beings to make decisions about what works. With a such a government as the Uk has suffered recently, in perhaps supporting luxury residential development and pricing key workers out of towns and by decreasing safety for poorer people living nearby. Less scarily, it is happy to save a few quid now and allow building inefficient buildings and their subsequent productivity effects on the businesses within them. Isn’t is just crazy not to put air conditioning into a building and cover the roof with solar panels to power the air-conditioning, which will provide the power just when it is required. Such obvious solutions are not favoured by the UK planning system with arbitrary points based decisions making. Trivially I grew up with dreadful British showers and it has taken plumbers from outside the UK to come in, shake their heads and install nice showers for us to wash in, it’s like no one ever thought through the installation of showers. There seems no interest in developing solutions, rather allow the population to be used to being ignored and put up with crumbling housing, transport networks, inefficient healthcare and schools.

Hopefully, the tragedy of Grenfell tower will serve as a beacon for change, for greater democratic accountability, where people raising concerns will not be slammed as troublemakers, but actually listened to.

In the recent UK general election, we got an unexpected result. This was due to younger people turning out to vote in greater numbers. However there are suggestions that it was not merely that younger people tend to vote for left wing parties, nor that this time more of them actually voted, but that they voted for Corbyn’s Labour party in huge numbers. This suggests that the disparity in voting intention between generations was the greatest it has ever been.

I believe that the reason for this was about how different generations receive their news. Younger people tend to use social media on the internet more. I heard about the Grenfell tragedy through social media. Older people perhaps use traditional mainstream media more: newspapers and television stations. The issue in the UK is that the majority of the traditional print media is biased towards the Conservative party and television coverage has this right wing bias. So it is arguable that the older generation don’t hear about the real problems with the planning system and only hear a superficial story about leftist trouble makers. Whereas social media does tend to be left wing in its focus. If this theory holds, then there is hope for the future, that practical solutions are implemented rather than a slavish adherence to a single political creed.

What Britain needs is more democratic accountability, more control from the bottom, from communities and regions. Doing this creates systems where people raising concerns are actually listened to and such concerns acted upon. With the current system only the powerful interests of capital are listened to, nations like Wales and the communities within them are ignored, instead one size fits all solutions are found that favour the wealthy few at the top, rather than increasing the amount of wealth and productivity of the workforce.

Of course sometimes the local solution will be impractical, so it remains important that decision makers should research all available information. However in recent times the top-down way of doing things has been proved wrong most of the time, which suggests that the balance of power is seriously off kilter.

The First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system does not work well in the modern world, it favours those at the top of big UK wide political parties. In such parties those that make a fuss about local issues tend not to make it up the greasy pole to where real power resides. This is not how FPTP is supposed to work. FPTP works when a local representative is elected to represent that area in parliament. That local representative will then support initiatives that help their constituents and vote against those that make things harder. These representatives may be members of a whatever political party, but should be prepared to vote against their party when their voters are detrimentally affected. Policy should proceed by consensus, where there is enough support from across the political spectrum for an individual policy. Nowadays the system doesn’t work as party is more powerful than constituency, Members of parliament (MPs) have to take the party whip and not vote on an issue by issue basis. The solution to this is increase power to the bottom, in regions, in communities, rather than top down from political parties. For decisions to be taken with knowledge of people who use things in their daily lives, rather than those who macro manage from afar.

It is time that we wake up and realise that it is wrong that we swelter on packed trains with broken air-conditioning in the summer, on our way to work in inefficient buildings, and then return home to housing with dreadful showers and the risk of being trapped to burn to death in our homes.

 

One Wales

I’m still curious to know exactly why there has been this uplift in support for the Tories. I think it’s because the Tories foster a fear of the other, diminishing the idea that we should help people who are not like ourselves, whom we don’t understand, that we are not all in it together.

In any society we often look to other social groupings. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as being curious helps maintain an open mind and exposes us to new ideas. Sometimes Wales is described as having four distinct groups of people: Y fro Cymraeg (Welsh speakers), The Welsh Welsh (South Wales urban communities), the Welsh British (the English speaking rural areas) and the non-British Welsh (everyone else). We may disagree with this classification, but there is I think an element of truth to it.

In political terms these divisions can be used negatively. For example you will often hear such things as ‘Cardiff getting everything again’, that one grouping gets preferential treatment from one political party or another. However we should celebrate diversity and not allow these forces of division to grow resentment as doing so stops us looking for solutions that work for all.

An narrative of this election is why Plaid Cymru are not capitalising on weak performances from both the Tories, Labour and even the Lib Dems. Part of the story may be Brexit, Plaid Cymru were never keen on Brexit, for them it’s an issue way down the agenda, so it is difficult to find a way of clearly describing a nuanced position. It’s much easier to trot out meaningless catchphrases such as ‘Brexit means Brexit’.

I still think the big issue is the social divisions of Wales. Plaid Cymru are still perceived as being the party for Welsh speakers and as such are not for people like us who are not first language speakers. It is easy to forget how powerful a force this is, it suits some politicians to maintain these divisions to maintain positions of power for themselves, rather than seek workable solutions to our economic problems. However when you are an outsider and transcend social divisions you begin to notice that society is not as divided as it is made out to be. Personally, I grew up in Powys and hence am in the ‘Welsh British’ grouping. However I am learning Welsh and have briefly lived in the south Wales. I have experienced living in all four of these artificial divisions of Welsh society. People and the cultures of all four communities are not all that different. When starting to learn Welsh, one of the first obstacles is whether to learn the Northern or Southern dialect, it’s seems a huge decision. However as you progress you end up learning both dialects and quickly realise that the differences are not at all important.

There is simply too much unnecessary division. My political outlook closely matches the outlook of Plaid Cymru, it’s so clear and makes so much sense: Decisions affecting Wales should be made in Wales by the people of Wales for the people of Wales. The reason being that you have to live in Wales to truly know the issues facing Wales and it’s people. From this point we then look outward to forming relationships and working together for mutual benefit with our friends across the border in England and the wider world.

Plaid Cymru, traditionally have support from a considerable part of the Welsh speaking community. Partly because it is clear that not everyone supports the Welsh language and it becomes clear that it is better to work together than seek division. Plaid Cymru are also slowly gathering support from the Valleys, left behind communities that can really appreciate the importance of working together to build things. There is also support from the non-British Welsh, as they often share the experience of discrimination.

This leaves the final grouping, the one I come from, the Welsh British, one from which very few people support Plaid Cymru. However I went on the journey, I was curious to see what things were like in other communities and I liked what I found. This path is open and welcoming for any person in Wales to explore. Wales can be a strong united country. When we go to watch the national team play rugby, football or indeed roller derby, we share that sense of Welshness and togetherness. Yet somehow it seems that when it comes to politics we forget.

I am an advocate of Welsh independence, not because of a slavish nationalism, but out of pragmatism, it would work a lot better than the current UK system. There are alternatives, such as forming a confederal UK and these should continue to be explored, however such considerations are out of our hands, they would require agreement with the people of England and there is virtually no effort towards such aims at the moment. So independence is the main way forward.

Seeking self-government for Wales is for all of us who live in Wales, whether you speak Welsh or not, whether you were born here or not, whether you have a Welsh family or not, whether you are a town or a country person, whether you lean right, left or sideways, whatever division you may wish to lock yourself within, you can transcend and just say I am Welsh, this is where I am, let’s make where I live a better place.

I’ll be supporting Plaid Cymru at this election, purely and simply because there is no other political party that solely puts the needs of all the people of Wales first. Plaid Cymru are the alternative to a failed political system. Other parties place attention to matters not directly impacting Wales. One size fits all policies which do not work for the majority and we in Wales know that we are not in the centre or the majority of anything, so such solutions are very unlikely to fit those of us in Wales. However I believe that if we take the aim of doing the best for all of one Wales, we one of us will benefit.

Wales

The Rivers of Wales

.

Coal not Dole

Sometimes you just want to scream. In Britain the media is awash with various talk of competing Nationalisms, stoked by the issues of Brexit and Scottish independence. Public figures make announcements that we should be more or less European, more or less British or more or less Welsh. This is further complicated by each of these nationalisms can be either of two things, civic nationalism and imperialist nationalism. More often than not, the debate centres around distorting what each of these things is, to confuse and blur the issue, to distract from working out what will actually make things better. Perhaps the truth is that is is simply wrong to try and change your identity or who you are, there is no sense in it and there are never purely binary things and we are all different soups of various identities anyway.  Lets get on with something more useful.

Brexit, Scottish, or indeed Welsh independence represent choices. In recent times such choices have been subject to referenda. The problem I have with all the argument and political horse play is that the supposed public discourse has centred around national identity. Really such discourse is not about identity at all, such choices should be made on a rational weighing up of complex economics to choose which is the best option.

If Brexit is the better option than remaining in the EU, great,  I do hope that it is as this seems to be what is happening, the result will be that things get better rather than the worse. However I am not assured at all by what has happened since the vote, because hardly anyone is talking about how it will makes things better. It’s the same with Scottish independence, if it makes things better, then great, do it, if maintaining the UK is the better option then we should do that and make it better.

Then there is the two nationalisms thing. This has really complicated many of the farcical debates we see in our media. Actually I think this is just a manifestation of the old left right divide, the two political wings view patriotism is radically different ways.

On the left is Civic Nationalism, where a nation is defined as all the people who live in a society, with all their various diversity. Civic nationalism argues for equality to give everyone in that society an equal chance and to make things better for everyone.

On the right is Imperialist Nationalism. Here there is a predominant sub-culture with the society and everyone should have an equal opportunity to join that sub-culture, which then expands and thrives at the expense of those who refuse or are unable to join. The pre-dominant sub-culture declares that it’s view of the world is patriotic and if you don’t subscribe to those views you are a traitor.

Hence the left always argue for more support for those that do less well than the majority. If that group thus supported  does as well as any other then no increased support is required. Whereas the right argue that they these minority groups should just join the dominant group and should have no special favours for being different.

coalnotdole

So, why the title, ‘Coal not Dole’. I was up in Ebbw Vale this morning and decided that as I was nearby, to finally get around to visiting the Big-Pit museum. It is a really good museum. The museum is a preserved working deep-pit coal mine, such mines were very common in the South Wales Valleys when I was growing up, so I was keen to have a look inside. The highlight of the visit is a trip down the mine in the company of a former miner to the coalface. The guides both explain how the mines worked and give an insight into what working down the mines was like with great humour and wit. If you visit Wales, I highly recommend a visit and it is in a crazily beautiful part of Wales, well apart from the modern open cast coal mines near by!

Being down in the pit, in the dark, seeing the cramped conditions where people used to spend all day working in dusty conditions, makes you realise what a horrible job working down the pits was. However it also makes clear how mining communities, really were communities, fostering really strong companionships between the miners and their families. My family traditionally were farmers and the farming community, pales into comparison as farming is often a lonely job  and traditionally the only time for socialising was on market day. Farming requires dependence on yourself as you are often miles from the nearest person, whereas mining requires reliance on others for your safety. This is a large part of the reason why farmers tend to be conservatives and miners socialists.

My point is we have national identities as part of our individual identity make-up and identities are stronger where there is a sense of comradeship, solidarity and working together for a common cause.  The mining communities built fantastic civic structures, such as libraries, male voice choirs, brass bands and chapels. Hence the mining communities had a very strong sense of their identity as miners, being a miner was their primary identity.

In the 1980s, the UK government decided to close down the mines. To the miners, this was an attack on their primary identity, so of course they were incredibly angry about it. A massive series of strikes were held, under the banner of the National Union of Mineworkers, which produced the ‘Coal not Dole’ badges; or it is better to work, even deep down in a coal mine than be looked after by the welfare state, which was the effect of the government policy. Today, Blaenau Gwent has one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe, the effect of that decision is still felt over thirty years later. The miners knew about mining so they should have been listened to, rather than those in their Ivory towers in London.

I can understand how people do feel passionate when their identities are attacked. However with Brexit and Independence, identities are not actually under threat in the same way. I know some people do feel that their British identity is threatened by Scottish independence, or their European identity by Brexit, but I feel that they do not quite understand what exactly identity is. These identities are not being threatened and they are not going to disappear. People in Britain will not be less European after Brexit, nor will Scotland no longer be part of Britain after independence. Britain will still be a set of islands off the North West coast of the European continent and Scotland will still be a part of the British Isles and they will still form part of our identities if they are parts of our identity now.

This is why I don’t get this whole binary argument that you must be for one identity over another. It’s a huge distraction from the difficult task of predicting the future and trying to work out how to make things better. The way to make things better is to make the political institutions better, the Welsh assembly, the UK government or the European Union. All of these institutions could be vastly improved and we need to ensure they do make things better, by being accountable to the communities their decisions affect, rather than winning some pointless argument about identity.

Taking Back Control- Brexit for Wales

One of the most galling phrases used by the Leave campaign in the UK EU referendum was ‘Take Back Control’. It’s a great sentiment, but in reality it’s just the UK political and economic establishment taking back control for themselves, not the people of Britain. Instead of the promised greater democracy, it seems that the Tory government will implement a Brexit on it’s own terms and ignore the expressed views of the electorate, leaving Wales to continue to suffer under the foot of powerful elites.

Last night, some interesting opinion poll data was released by ITV Wales. The poll suggests that post-Brexit vote, with all the craziness of the last week or so, that Wales had switched to favouring remaining in the EU. The poll also announced a growing consideration of Welsh independence within the EU, of 35% (up from the 5-10% it has been since the no vote in the last Scottish independence referendum). So can Wales ‘take back control’?

The problem Wales has it that it is currently one of the poorest regions in Northern Europe. Arguably our economy has not had the conditions to adapt to the move from heavy industry at the end of the 1970s to a globalised economy, where job creation has only really occurred in connected services hubs, like London and other major cities. However the argument for an independent Wales has been that freed from governance from London that favours service hubs to the detriment of the wider economy, Wales would be able to grow and thrive as one-nation. Whatever the Tories post-Brexit plan for the UK, with an increased focus on service hubs, deregulation and removal of social infrastructure, it looks like Wales will suffer, with no guarantees of continued regional funding. Perhaps it is really time for Wales to go it’s own way.

A self-governing Wales would be free to enter into it’s own arrangements with the EU. One option is to join the EFTA (European Free Trade Association) along with other smaller nations or full membership of the EU. The EFTA was originally set up by the UK to create a free market area outside the EU before the UK joined the common market in the 1970s. Membership of the EFTA offers tariff free access to the EEA (European Economic Area), easing tariff free trade with other European countries. The advantage of EFTA membership, as opposed to EU membership, is the possibility of certain opt-outs, retaining the benefits of devolution and not overly ceding to centralised decision making.

The UK EU referendum highlighted a number of issues that people are concerned about: housing, immigration putting pressure on jobs and stifling small businesses at the expense of multi-nationals. I think housing is the big significant one, especially for Wales.

I found out recently that Denmark, has it’s own opt-out from the EU housing market. In Denmark only citizens and residents can own residential housing. Wales could also have this opt-out. Wales could establish a constitutional right of Welsh citizens and residents to own their own home and establish rights for renters for security of tenure. Wales can have strong building regulations and build good quality, sustainable social housing, that residents of have  ownership rights. Restrictions on second home and foreign owned residential housing would prevent Welsh housing being an asset market and instead simply be about providing homes for people to live in. One way to do this is to place high taxes on second and foreign ownership and furthermore restrict such ownership in every district to say 25% of the housing stock in each local district. Tourism is important for Wales, people like to stay in holiday lets rather than hotels, these policies would allow these industries to thrive, whilst supporting sustainable communities.

The advantages of taking control of housing are that allowing housing to be an asset market imposes restraints on the wider economy. Until the early 1980s, a full time worker would be able to buy a reasonable home for themselves for three times their wage, support a partner and raise children. The failure of abiding to the social contract of successive UK governments has left housing over-priced, maladaptive to changing requirements and of poor quality.

Taking control of housing has potentially enormous benefits, the main advantage being lowering housing costs, if you halve housing costs back to their long term average, this increases the disposable income of those in employment. Instead of being in housing debt, incomes would then significantly exceed living costs for ordinary people. Then, this luxury income can be saved and invested in the wider real economy, people can be more responsible for their own retirement and welfare. People will be more productive as they will be better rested and less worried. People would be able to move house quickly, easily and without penalty to exploit a flexible labour market. With secure housing, people can take bigger risks, they can set up their own businesses, without fear of homelessness. Reducing the cost of living, so significantly, will lower the living wage, whilst increasing disposable incomes, enabling the Welsh workforce to be competitive in a globalised world.

Their are many other advantages for Welsh independence and other means of reducing living costs. Control over energy policy will enable Wales to make use of it’s natural resources to become more than self-sufficient in renewable energy and less vulnerable to fluctuations in global energy prices. Agricultural policy can be set for the specific needs of the Welsh farming industry and it’s consumers. Wales can opt-out of damaging trade deals like CETA and TTIP and instead create new genuine free trade deals across Europe and the world. In short Wales can democratically control it’s own destiny, grow it’s economy and not be a poor powerless appendage to a wider world that seeks to exploit it. Wales can become a small but integrated hub of a globalised world. Wales can be open to the world, seeking out mutually advantageous relationships with our neighbours and partners overseas.

The transition may be tough, but we are in tough times already. We can create a socially democratic society of strong communities and robust efficient public institutions that actively support a growing culture of enterprise rather than capital that seeks to weaken it. A Wales where it’s young people want to stay and build, rather than go away with the aim of coming back. Self-government for Wales is the change Wales needs and offers hope for the future, we can once again be proud to be British.

 

 

 

 

 

The Disunited Kingdom

The UK has voted to leave the European Union (EU). I wrote here some months back that I thought the UK may end up leaving the EU when it didn’t really want to. It now seems that this has happened. I was wrong about the turnout, the debate did engage people. It is perhaps because the ballot paper presented a simple binary choice, where every persons vote counted equally, engaged the electorate, unlike ordinary elections. However it also divided the electorate, not merely because it was close but demographically. Some areas strongly supported remaining in the EU (by 3 to 1) in some places, whilst others were strongly for leaving. Furthermore, opinion polls suggest that the young, (18-25) were for remaining, whilst the old (65+) were strongly for leaving.

The UK is used to such huge divides geographically at elections. Political parties target their policies at areas that support them and exacerbate the economic divide, traditionally called the North-South divide. However in the EU referendum, the divide was different.

Wales voted to leave the EU by 52.5% to 47.5%, close, yet decisive and roughly the same proportion as England. People today, the day after, have been asking a pertinent question: “Why did Wales vote to leave when it is net beneficiary [more EU money is spent in Wales than goes to the EU in fees] and does not have the pressures of net immigration on housing, schools and hospitals [in fact quite the opposite]?” Wales gets more out of being in the EU than it does by being in the UK. Trying to find an answer to this question has been  a puzzle.

However when you look in detail at how the vote was split in Wales, a possible answer emerges. The  university towns with high proportions of young people were for remain (Bangor, Aberystwyth and our capital, Cardiff), as were wealthier areas (Monmouthshire and the Vale of Glamorgan). However the big leave support was in the Valleys, being strongest in Blaenau Gwent.

The Valleys are the old industrial heartlands, part of the original industrial revolution, formed in the 19th century to exploit the coal lying beneath, which supplied the iron and later steel production industries. Nearby Cardiff grew as a major world port and was once the largest coal and steel port in the world. People migrated to the Valleys for this work from other parts of Wales, Ireland, England, Italy and the rest of the world. The often brutal nature of the work forged both steel and strong communities.

Heavy industry in Wales declined towards the end of the twentieth century. The Tory UK government, under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher took the decision to close down the mines, with the idea to move the UK to a new, modern services based economy. There were strikes and civil unrest, but the government got their way and left the valleys without alternative industries, leaving behind high unemployment and social deprivation, but argued for as a ‘price worth paying’ to give the UK as a whole the economic growth of the late 1980s and 1990s. The people of the Valleys, with a working class tradition, have always voted strongly for the UK Labour party. During the Labour government of Tony Blair, there was hope that the time had come for the support and investment to make the Valleys prosperous one more. However this support never came in sufficient quantities to establish prosperity, the needs of London and it’s financial services industry took priority.

This story of the abandoned former heavy industry areas, is also found elsewhere in the UK, in the North of England and the central belt of Scotland. It is these communities that seem to have voted to leave the EU the strongest, the former Labour party ‘heartlands’. These communities suffer through Tory UK governments, they have kept voting for the Labour party, but in recent times have not been helped by the Labour party. It is not hard to understand why these communities are very angry with the political establishment, especially when the political establishment who seem to only address the needs of the globally connected cities of Cardiff and in particular London. The Labour party has focussed towards population demographics they need to win power in London. so, when the chance arrived for these communities to vote against the UK and European establishment. In the recent referendum, they voted strongly against the establishment.

Really, just because the issue of the European Union was on the ballot paper was irrelevant, it was a chance to kick the smug world of London based politics, to seek radical change. The real cause of the problems in the British economy stem from the UK government, and not the EU. Indeed today, I have heard some people regret their leave vote, giving the reason that they only wanted to punish the establishment.

I went to a EU referendum hustings meeting locally. I was a little surprised to hear from Valleys people (communities created by immigration) complaining about immigration, even though it wasn’t an issue locally in putting pressure on services. I did hear of resentment of immigrants from the European Union. People complained of all the new job growth appearing in the South East of England being taken up by EU migrants. I have heard the points that Welsh people can’t take those jobs because they have families and can’t afford or indeed wish to move from a nice home  to a tiny room, while young EU migrants can more easily. People were asking why can’t those jobs and that investment come to this area, where it’s needed. so, it seems you can be against immigration even when that immigration occurs far away, the ripples of globalisation. The issue seems to be not immigration as such, but the failure of the UK government to invest in the infrastructure a growing population requires. However it was easier for the establishment to blame immigration rather than their own failings.

This phenomena extends beyond these formerly industrial areas to the wider Britain, outside of London. People who have for the last thirty years seen their disposable incomes fall, particularly with the cost of housing continuing to rise above the rate of growth in the real economy. Where once a full-time worker could have a decent home, support a partner and provide for their  children, this is now much more difficult. Faced with the prospect of a continuing decline in living standards and offered the opportunity of profound change, in leaving the EU, many people over 35 have simply voted for it, they perhaps they sense they have little to lose and everything to gain, being in housing debt and hence with no savings or investments. They ‘want their country back’, to live in easier times, where money moved around the community, rather than sucked away elsewhere, where people had time and energy to put back into their communities.

So, despite the differences of Wales compared to England, there has still been a support for leaving the EU, they don’t really want. What the Welsh and English people do want is a change in the political establishment, for a representative democracy, a politics that helps all of the population flourish. The EU was seen perhaps seen as part of that cosy establishment of the wealthy class.

So, why was there support for remaining in the EU in Scotland and Northern Ireland? I think that  was because in Scotland and Ireland there is a real alternative. For Northern Ireland faces the costs of having the border with Southern Ireland closed, as a border of the EU, which would be costly for communities used to regularly crossing the border. Northern Ireland has it’s own political parties, not tainted by the whims of a London centric government. For Scotland, the devolutionist party, the SNP (Scottish National Party) are in power, but again not tainted by London politics. The benefits of EU membership are thus clearer.

Both Northern Ireland and Scotland, have the opportunity of ridding themselves forever from London politics. Northern Ireland can re-unite to form a united Ireland, in the EU, it seems even Unionist communities their are  more people now open to this in the light of Brexit. Scotland looks likely to leave the UK as an independent country and thus retain membership of the EU.

Which would leave the United Kingdom [well no longer united as ‘united’ comes from the Act of Union with Scotland) as England and Wales. However it is possible Wales could follow Scotland’s path, if the reasons for the leave vote are as I’ve described, that Wales did not vote for brexit because people really wanted to leave the European Union.  Plaid Cymru (Wales’ devolution party) are not yet perceived as the alternative to the Westminster establishment, Much of Wales has stuck with Labour and angry that they have failed to deliver change with the limited powers of the Welsh government. In any case the divisions between people of different areas and different ages leave a very disunited kingdom.

There is always hope. Referenda can engage electorates and this seems to have occured, provoking discussions and finding solutions on the ground to problems. If thsi energy continues, real change can happen, as it has in Scotland. The established order can be eradicated to be replaced with a truly representative government, that acts for the people it serves. Anything can happen. Divisions can be washed away and arguably such a process is easier outside of the EU. The campaigns of inflaming racism towards people perceived as immigrants has stoked the far right and further divides communities. It is a risky course, the establishment will not relinquish power without a fight. Victory can be claimed before the real work of reform is done.  Britain is in interesting times.

Devolution

It is probable that I write more about politics on this blog than I would perhaps like. Part of the reason I’d rather not is that I assume people have spent a lot of time thinking about politics and that the arguments for positions are well known and at least understood, even if not agreed with. For example ‘Question Time’, where politicians avoid answering questions from the audience and other panellists often stand out by actually expressing their opinions. What sometimes seems clear is members of the public not really understanding the issue and quite often it seems that politicians don’t understand either. In the case of politicians there is a least the suspicion that they do understand but hide this for some reason, yet in the case of members of the public it is likely that such misunderstanding is genuine.

I wrote a while ago about why Plaid Cymru, seem to struggle to make electoral progress in the face of an under-performing Labour administration in the Welsh government and probably the worst government in history at the UK level. Plaid Cymru are saddled with the impression that they are nationalists and are only for speakers of Welsh, neither of which is really the case. Furthermore, in the light of the forthcoming UK European Union (EU) membership referendum, the issue of why people can be in favour of withdrawal from one union, the UK, yet be in favour of continued membership of another, the EU. Superficially, there is a point, it seems contradictory, but it isn’t at all.

I am surprised by this misunderstanding, perhaps a lot of people don’t understand what the argument for devolution is about. This lack of understanding is not  merely Unionist political spin. In any case isn’t wishing to leave one union, the EU, yet be in favour of retaining another, the UK, also superficially inconsistent. Perhaps there is a similarity in logic, in principle, but the two positions are far part practically and ideologically
Personally I am in favour of independence for Wales as things stand, but would not describe myself as a nationalist. The argument for devolution is all about democracy

Devolutionists believe that political power should belong with the people, that power is granted to central bodies from local communities with consent  (and can be withdrawn if necessary) and gain mutual benefits and efficiencies of working at larger scales and that decisions should be made as locally as practicable.

The argument is that the Welsh economy could do better if freed from the restraints of a UK government that favours the financial sector (which is very small in Wales) and supports the economy of South East England, to the detriment of everybody else. Wales is now one of the, if not the poorest, region in Northern Europe. Wales used to be one of the wealthier regions, this wealth was generated from the coal and steel industries, though arguably much of the actual wealth went to London, rather than staying in Wales.

Modern economies are cyclical, with periods of growth and recession. The role of government is perhaps to attempt to manage this, by sustaining growth by not allowing the economy to expand too quickly and then acting to boost the economy to minimise the effects of recession. In larger states, such as the UK, a problem is that the economy is divided into regions with different local economies. In the UK there is a divide between the South East of England and everywhere else. So, what has happened is that when the South East is growing too quickly, interest rates were raised to control this expansion. The problem with this is that the rest of the UK, is only just entering into a growth phase and this expansion is prevented by UK fiscal policy. This would not be so much of a problem if the state, the UK acted to mitigate the imbalances, but this isn’t really done and the media often suggest it is the rest of the UK’s fault that it is relatively poor, rather than simply admit it’s part of how large states work.

In Wales, we remember the Miners dispute of the early 1980s. The argument for closing the mines wasn’t terrible. The mines were basically just about paying their way and not making a profit as the international price of coal fell. so the idea that closing them, so the workers could then do something more productive made sense. However, infrastructure was not put in place of the mines, opportunities for enterprise were not provided. So, what happened instead of communities breaking even, the communities of the South Wales valleys lived off unemployment benefits from central (UK) government. So in reality, closing the mines cost the UK money, and made living in the valleys more depressing than when there was high employment. Arguably there was also an agenda about attacking the power of the trade union movement, so it didn’t really matter about the valleys, the end justified the means, it allowed South East England to prosper, but of course it does matter, especially if you live in Wales!

Part of the issue is the problem of centralisation. Centralising things can confer benefits and great efficiencies however centralising creates executive elites which creates problems for the majority not in the elite. Imagine a political union as much like a club, I’ll use the example a sailing club.

People can join a sailing club by paying an annual membership fee. In return members receive benefits, such as use of club boats, training, social events and opportunities to enter competitions. The point of being a member is that it is much cheaper to be a member rather than do it all by yourself, which would be more expensive. So, like any club an executive committee is elected to run the club, which regularly meet together to organise the running of the club. Generally, the committee will be the more committed sailors, people who make the most use of club facilities, do more sailing and generally get more out of  their membership fee, than a more casual member. This can become a problem if the committee or elite start running the club for their own benefit, because the ordinary member will remain a member even if it is only slightly better to be a member than paying for everything themselves. They may even consider leaving the club in such circumstances, but refrain because of the high costs of buying their own boat. However if anyone is overly greedy, they would be likely to find themselves voted out of office at the next Annual General Meeting (AGM).

If it is imagined that this sailing club is compared to an international political union, many parallels become apparent. As I argued above, the UK does have an executive elite that serves it’s own interests rather than the good of the membership/citizenry generally and an electoral system that makes it difficult to boot out the elitists. So, with the case of say Welsh independence from the UK, there would be huge costs of separation for Wales: new systems such as  new tax systems, new laws and a new judicial system, new systems for businesses and individuals and costs due to economic uncertainty from the wider international community. However, where membership of a union is more costly than independence, in the long term, the country would be better off governing themselves. Of course Wales would not exist in isolation, it would then wish to cooperate for mutual benefits with the wider international community, but would at least do it on it’s own terms and have the political infrastructure to withdraw from any agreement that didn’t have a net benefit. Having the means to leave relatively easily, encourages the union to look after all it’s members.

So, my ideal would be for a maximum amount of devolution, self-determination, the political systems for independence to remain in place and a functional representative democracy. Then international agreements can be entered into and left when there is a benefit for doing so. It is still possible this way to enter into wide ranging agreements where there is a net cost in some areas and benefits in other areas. Cooperation can use the existing political infrastructure, provided it is not removed.

Perhaps a difficulty with long terms unions, such as the UK or the EU, is there is a tendency to lose local systems to central authorities, for example the European Central Bank for Eurozone (EZ) countries and it seems that such arrangements are difficult to leave. I would argue that the ability to leave is central for such cooperation to work.

In the proverbial nutshell, membership of international agreements should be based on a rational assessment of the benefits and costs for the economy as a whole, as long as there is a net benefit of membership, you join to stay a member.

My arguments for Welsh independence, stem simply because I am Welsh. I would be just as in favour of a new federal state formed of say, Wales, South West England, Northern England, Scotland and possibly Ireland, the similarities in the economies would enable a strong beneficial union. The argument for devolution is universal.

So, to answer the question of why you can argue for more independence from the UK, whilst arguing for continuing membership of the EU. The simple answer is that there is a net benefit from EU membership, but not from  UK membership

A longer answer is that the UK keeps (mysteriously) electing Conservative governments, whose policies don’t help Wales or it’s economy, they actually make it gradually worse. Wales exists in a political union where the electorate are governed by political parties that don’t command a majority in Wales. So, independence would free Wales to run it’s own economy , have a more representative government and improve it’s GDP.
So, why do devolutionists want to remain in the EU? Because the EU is a slow cumbersome organisation, that doesn’t change things rapidly in reaction to current media trends. When it does make a policy is more general as it has to work across most of the EU, so tends to have a less negative effect on the Welsh economy than a UK decision, the bias towards some regions found in the UK is less at an EU level.
Whilst devolutionists want democracy and local power, they are also internationalists who believe in cooperation for mutual benefit, to work together with neighbours and partners for mutual benefits, rather than be dictated to by centralised governments we have no influence over. The EU does lack democratic accountability, this is it’s main failing, but hopefully this can be rectified, although this may take some time, it needs to be the priority. The oil of common systems and regulations is generally beneficial and to some extent buffers the desire of individual governments to remove benefits for ordinary members to serve their own elites.

So really, I seek an independent Wales in a heavily reformed, more democratic EU and a close relationship with rUK, working together for mutual advantage, with common systems where there is a net benefit to ordinary people or the wider economy. Basically the idea is establish democratic control first, then cooperate, rather than just grumble about the problems of a centralised dictatorial elite.
I have written quite a long answer, but I hope you would agree at least that there is an argument for leaving the UK, but remaining in the EU, though you may disagree and see the balance of benefits and costs differently for each possible union.
If the UK was a fully federal, level playing field, I would not be arguing to leave the UK as then the benefit of being a member of bigger state would be mutually advantageous. If the EU becomes even more dictatorial I would advocate leaving that too. It all about the balance of power, whether the advantages outweigh the benefits, and they constantly change.
The whole EU remain/leave referendum is not a simple question at all and does bring the  question of devolution and democracy to prominence.