A British Brexit?

One of the traits that the ‘British’ claim is the ability to wing their way through problems, rather than plan things through, to end up pretty much as things started without much in the way of change. We seem have seen this today with the British government’s further winging of Brexit. I argued on here earlier that what the British wanted from Brexit was simply a loosening of the relationship with the EU, to remain effectively in the EEA Single Market and the Customs Union, but instead of planning this from the outset they seem to have ended up there through a convoluted winging it process through strategy rather than design. So who are the British and what after all is Brexit?

It could all have been plotted in the quiet confines of a Mayfair gentlemen’s club. It was clear from the outset of Brexit that the issue of Northern Ireland and it’s border with the Republic of Ireland and hence the EU presented a myriad of issues for Brexit. So the British governments solution was to say that a solution could be Northern Ireland remaining in the Customs Union, obeying EU rules and regulations whilst outside of the EU. Of course the hard line Unionists of the DUP would cry foul, the Welsh and Scottish governments would demand the same deal as Northern Ireland, everyone would declare an impasse and then the British government plays it’s masterstroke “Okay, let all of the UK remain in the Customs Union and effectively in the Single Market too, problem solved, we’ve resolved Brexit and made our political opponents look even dafter than we made ourselves look, even though they were being sensible at the time, aren’t we so very clever?” It’s almost like a cunning Jeeves solution to a crisis from the ‘Jeeves & Wooster’ stories of P.G.Wodehouse.

So how exactly is this especially a ‘British’ Brexit Solution’? Well, you have to understand what British means in this context. The notion of Britishness is one that even people who like me who have lived all their life on Great Britain often struggle with. Indeed it is a label few are comfortable with, let alone agreeing upon what it means. These days, most inhabitants of Great Britain are Welsh, Cornish, Scots and so on. Only a minority of Britons define themselves as ‘British’ as their primary identity. There are two different versions of Brutishness which sit uncomfortably in this one word, British. Indeed, I pity the foreigner who comes to Britain trying to find an easy word to use to describe the people of this island without offending any Britons. It is a tough challenge, to me the only really safe phrase is ‘the people of the U.K.’, which trips off the tongue delightfully does it not?

A lot of people forget that ‘Great Britain’ is simply the name of the island, the largest island of the British Isles archipelago. When the Romans left in the 3rd century, Great Britain was left to the Britons, the people of the Brythonic Celtic tribes, except for what is now Northern Scotland where the Picts lived, the Picts may have been Celts too, though not enough is known about their history to be certain.

A few centuries later, the Saxon tribes started arriving and settling in Britain, displacing the local Chieftains and assuming positions of political power, replacing the  Brythonic language (which split into Welsh, Cornish , Breton and Cumbric) with the Saxon tongue dominating in what is now England becoming  Old English and later Modern English, after some Viking influence. It is often forgotten that the legendary King Arthur of the Britons, was battling against the invasions of the Saxons. After all this the Britons were left in control of Wales, Cornwall and Scotland, which were ultimately too much effort to conquer completely, as the English crown could easily control the local Vassal Princes when required.

Then by the end of the Middle Ages, the English monarch ruled over all of Great Britain , having effectively annexed Wales and Scotland by political means. Everyone in Britain was ‘British’ again, kind of having rebooted the term back to it’s original meaning of the people of the island of Great Britain.

This British King then sought to increase in wealth and power though conquest and after another few hundred years was the British Empire formed. Again the meaning of ‘British’ changed to mean to ‘Ruling Classes of the British Empire’, the Britons didn’t really notice as it wasn’t really a big issue at the time.

The advent of the two European parts of the World Wars of the last century, dragged the British Empire to it’s knees. The Empire called upon the Britons and indeed the Empire to fight in the war on the promise of bringing Britain together as a nation, where no-one would be left behind, ‘Homes for Heroes’ , the NHS and suchlike. It worked, the Britons fought and died in those wars and afterwards, as a united nation, enjoyed the fastest economic growth they had ever seen and a sense of being a modern national family.

More recently, this sense of the British as the Britons has faded once again, as the Ruling Class / Tory governments have not cared about dividing the Britons in there fervour for capital and international influence for themselves. Ironically the Unionist politicians have done more to break the Union of the UK than anyone else with their neglect of the regions outside the direct influence of London. Britain is now a very divided nation again. The hardcore Brexiteers seem to have hoped that somehow by magic to restore the unity of Britain, when only a tiny minority sought this ‘Hard Brexit’ with a divisive Brexit referendum.

Or perhaps the British ruling class triumph again by being perceived to have played a blinder and won Brexit. The Brexiteers may squeal, but I suspect the Brexieers only really care about power and influence and to be on the winning side and will quietly return to the back room grumbling that is their true love. This is the thing I despise about the Tories, as long as their star stays in the ascendant, they care not a jot about the fate of the Britons or the economy under their rule. As long as you are rich enough to offshore capital, you can keep your family and friends safe from a declining economy and nation state.

I could be completely wrong of course. It is impossible to predict events, but it does seem a very British [read English Ruling Class] way around of solving this Brexit to produce perhaps the ‘Golden Brexit’ [Probably been coined before , every other adjective has been used to prefix ‘Brexit’ at some point.]

Advertisements

In Defense of Free Markets

Last week there was the Labour party conference and their leaders speech. Jeremy Corbyn spoke about his policies of re-nationalising the railways and capping rents. These are sensible pragmatic policies in my view, which are also popular. The government response was Theresa May stating that free markets are the best way to deliver economic growth, and that she should return to winning arguments for free markets as she thought that her party had already won this argument.

This is an example of what I despise about party politics. The meaningless soundbite triumphing over the deeper truths. It has been argued that this is due to people receiving news via a 144 character tweet or a headline. So, that people don’t read deeper to uncover what is more accurately going on.

I agree with Theresa May on the first point that free markets are the best way of delivering economic growth. However she then muddies this statements that distort the truth. The Tories never won the argument for free markets, instead they created a political bubble for a market fundamentalism, where simply injecting elements of free markets into unfree markets will produce economic growth. This doesn’t work, you either have free markets or unfree ones. Regulating markets to make them more free is a good thing, but arbitrary market elements can make markets less free, which is what Tory governments have implemented. Which is why the UK housing and  railway markets are not free and in crisis.

So what is a free market? There are many definitions and it is a much abused phrase as it means different things to different people. My definition is that a free market is one where there is an interplay between producers and consumers, competition between providers, where forces pushing price up and down achieve balance, where supply and demand achieve a sustainable balance. A free market isn’t influenced by external actors.

For example, baker shops. A baker shop provides a service, making bread and cakes and delivers a profit for the owners of the business sufficient that they are better off continuing to run the business rather than seek easier money elsewhere. The bakers shop has costs: maintenance of the premises, maintenance of equipment, staff costs and ingredient costs. So must work out the price by adding to the cost of making a loaf of bread a sufficient margin to sustain the business. There will be other baker shops they compete. If costs rise too much people either buy less bakery products or make their own bread. If price is too low, then the bakery will go out of business. Thus forces on price achieve a balance. The rival bakeries will differentiate to maintain market share, either by being the cheapest or producing a higher quality product. Such a system allows for innovation, for example investment in new technology enabling costs to be lowered and thus we have economic growth. In this simple free market, every aspect of the market is free to influence the market. There are open dialogues between producers and consumers

This can be contrasted with an unfree markets, the semi-privatised UK railway network. On the Uk rail network , private companies bid to run selected services on the network. So a company will run the train services between A & B. The company has little control over the track, it has limited choice in what train carriages it can use. It has to charge government regulated fares, but is allowed to sell it’s own tickets too which of course have to be lower than the regulated fares. It has no competition as no other company is running a service between A&B. Technically it is competing against alternative forms of transport, such as motor cars, buses and aeroplanes, however the price differential between these forms of transport is massive. The railway company would have to alter fares by large factors to increase or decrease demand. Essentially there is no free market mechanisms in this fairly unfree market. Interaction between provider and consumer is quite limited.

Hence the argument for nationalisation of the railways is that private providers simply take profits away for no benefit to the market. A state railway could run the service more cheaply as it doesn’t have to make a profit.

What bugs me about the market fundamentalist position is that it’s too theory pure and lacks understanding of the real world. In the real world businesses are not interested in promoting or maintaining free markets. Real world businesses are concerned with providing a service and maximising profits, which is fine. Businesses may exploit rules or market position to prevent action of free market forces, particularly monopolies, so there is a role for the state to regulate markets to make them more free.

Railways and indeed housing are key industries as they provide infrastructure to the wider economy. They enable labour to move around the UK and in doing so enable other markets to be more free. For example a business isn’t restricted in it’s activities by the inflated costs of rail travel or housing. Such key industries can be free markets, but they are not close to being so anytime soon. Hence state intervention such as nationalisation or price capping, can help ease some of the problems and free up the wider economy.

We all want to live in an ideal world and that ideal world would consist largely of free markets. However there needs to be more  understanding that the world is not ideal. It would be better to move in the direction of the ideal rather than exacerbate existing problems in unfree markets. The ideal of free markets should not be tarnished by increasing use of the phrase ‘free markets’ to describe unfree markets. This is a problem because politicians use phrases such as ‘ we support free markets’ when it isn’t clear that they are talking about free markets and use the phrase merely to imply that the other lot are against free markets. This phenomena has reached the state where you hear politicians say ‘we want to make things better’ implying that the other lot wish to make them worse. Basically I think we all deserve  our politicians to act more like  grown-ups, rather than a class whom besmirch the ideal of free markets.

Why I am not a Tory

I am a Social Democrat, a centrist, so I both get the idea of conservatism and socialism, yet view the two as both being fundamentally flawed when applied in the extreme. A good economy an da good society is I believe best achieved by taking elements of both creeds and applying a pragmatic analysis of what works where.

So, part of me is conservative and I know many conservatives, yet I kind of feel pity for them because of the Tory party in the UK. The Tories post-Brexit immigration plan leaked this week, it is just so typical of the kind of ill-thought through damaging policy I expect from the Tories, it’s so extreme, which should be an anathema to conservatives.

The issues with the Tory party is that is a party with three competing dogmas struggling for dominance: Firstly, old school conservatism which hasn’t had the chance to develop, and has become the backdrop, or a shared idea between the other two factions:

The market fundamentalists, neo-liberals or whatever label you wish to apply. The belief that markets can solve every problem, that all the world needs is less regulation and less services to be prosperous and healthy. It’s simple and a pure idea, but it just doesn’t work.

Then there are the nationalists, the people who hold that there is an exclusive club of people, of people just like them, or people who are prepared to act like them who deserve all the fruits of labour of society. This British nationalism harks back to the glory of Empire, of Imperialism. People with the idea that they’re lot arer simpler fundamentally better than everyone else for some unstated reason.

The problem for the Tory party is that these two beliefs are incompatible with each other. You can’t have an anarchy of free trade and provide protection for your privileged group, the idea of ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it’ that we hear mentioned so often these days. What perhaps holds the Tories together is that it was once possible to square this circle, Empire!

The British Empire was essentially a large free trade area, controlled by the British state, which was run by the privileged classes. So there was free trade and protection at the same time. The days of Empire have gone but the Tories get stuck thinking that somethign similar can still be achieved.

This war between the Tory factions has often bubbled over on the issue of the Common Market, The European Community and now the European Union. The Nationalists hate the idea of the UK being subservient to a supranational organisation, yet some of them believe that it is a modern equivalent of the Empire; a large free trade area and protections for the privileged few, provided you are on the top table of the club. The nationalists however really dislike the social side of Europe, the community aspects of the club, the regulations. That the free trade aspect means that EU citizens come to the UK and have successful careers appals them, simply because they are not like them. This group have never liked the EU, because they have never been in enough control of the Eu to satisfy them.

On the other hand the market fundamentalists have mixed views of the EU for different reasons. They like the free trade aspects and want the EU to less regulated and more fundamentalist (these groups loved TTIP and CETA) and also this group hate the social and community side of the EU, not because they hate other people but because a working community rubs against their fundamentalism.

Generally both groups of Tories have, have mixed views of the EU, but have a mistrust of it because they don’t have full control over it, like they do with Westminster government in the UK.

On Brexit, Britain exiting the EU, the two groups are really coming to blows as neither group can get what it really wants, the British Empire back. The market fundamentalists eye up a deregulated Britain that can be the most market fundamentalist state in the world. However they are constrained that Brexit also means losing access to the huge free trade area of the EU. This group want access the the single market and also not have to obey the markets rules. This group could probably get a deal with the remaining EU that would suit their dogma, but the nationalists want somethign else:

The nationalists want very strict immigration controls, hard borders, restrictions to free trade and protectionism and this is the opposite of what the fundamentalists want. Hence we have this internal war within the Tory party, constrained only by the innate conservatism of their membership.

The divisions within the Tories over Brexit and lack of a coherent Brexit plan encapsulate the whole question of the EU. Outside of the Tory party the people of the Uk are also divided. There is the social EU and the market fundamentalist EU. The left object to the market fundamentalism and the right to the social Europe. Traditionally the political centre supports the EU as a mixed bag as it balances these two competing forces, which is what centrists want. However the EU isn’t perfect and even those of the centre have misgivings with it. My support fro remain is the the EU is better placed to provide some balance than the UK is. After all both the EU and the UK are supranational organisations. There can be no good Brexit until the UK has electoral reform and the Tories and Labour are kept out of absolute authority.

The recent EU, post Lisbon treaty has been ‘free’ movement of people within the EU, which is a new concept in economic terms. People have rightly objected to this free movement as it doesn’t deliver economic growth, it perpetuates problems. For example the UK doesn’t train and retain enough doctors and nurses, so the UK imports them rather than make sure it produces enough of them domestically, however the immigrant medical professionals only partially go where they are most needed.

It’s this ideological dogma that causes many problems, there are very few genuine free markets. Trying to impose free market reforms on imperfect markets doesn’t work. Look no further than the UK railways for examples of overpriced poor quality service in comparison to similar states. People may desire Brexit for ideological reasons as the EU is far from perfect, but there is no mechanism at the moment to make markets function better outside of the EU.

I’ve lived under this dreadful Tory party my whole life and I’ve never understood why ordinary conservatives and centrists have kept propping them up in election after election. Partly the FPTP electoral system is fairly rigged to keep the Tories or someone very like them (‘New Labour’) in power. Really the Tory party are the very worst people to be attempting to negotiate a workable Brexit solution.

Hopefully the Tories will collapse, but don’t bet on it, their resilience  is astonishing. Maybe, just maybe, we can but hope and we can forget this whole Brexit business, reform our electoral system, have autonomy for Wales and have decisions about our communities made for the benefit of those communities, to cooperate as widely as possible, to make decisions  that make economic sense; essentially to give democracy a crack!

 

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.

 

A Victory for Hope?

The UK general election of 2017 was  emotional. It all began six weeks ago when PM Theresa May called a snap election out of arrogance in her 20 point opinion poll lead and mystifying personal popularity, for the chance to settle internal issues within the Conservative party and secure power post-Brexit. In this endeavour she failed and as punishment gets to continue as a discredited PM for a while, probably propped up by the DUP (and thus causing potentially huge problems in Northern Ireland). It would be nice to think that the good old British public have told Theresa May where to get off (to put it politely) for her arrogance and failure to engage with the electorate and even discuss Brexit. Believing that is a nice glowy feeling, but is it the reality?

Sadly the election was a retreat to binaries, again. There was a perception of choice.  This choice magnified intensely by the UK’s antiquated FPTP electoral system  which will hopefully be a casualty of the ongoing mess; but don’t count on it. The choice between giving May the mandate to do whatever she wants or elect Jeremy Corbyn, who does have some positive policies but will involve some change. He is also a campaigner and not a career politician, which there is a desire for. It did feel like it was important to say and indeed vote for one of these two sides, to reconsider voting tactically.  Of course in the aftermath of the election, the two main parties claim it wasn’t that but simply real support for their party agendas.

Yet all that was true of the last general election in 2015, so what has changed? Perhaps Brexit was the cause.

Firstly, UKIP, having achieved their principle aim of taking the UK out of the EU, had their vote collapse. Their vote split two ways to the Tories and Labour, boosting those two parties votes considerably.

Secondly there was the Corbyn surge against the Maybot repetition of ‘This is a serious issue, but I won’t say anything about what I would actually do about it, I know best because I is strong and stable innit” [or something like that] approach, which sits comfortably with the conventions of rolling main-stream media. people finally got to hear Corbyn speak on the telly at length, not taken out of context, thanks to televisual media rules about giving people some airtime during election campaigns, and realise that he is actually a fairly decent bloke. This increased the share of the ex-UKIP vote to Labour, but this wasn’t enough.

The opinion polls were split by around 10%, which is a lot, between a close race and a huge 10% lead. The raw data was similar, what made the difference was turnout of younger people. At the last election turnout of the young was lower than older people and older people tend to vote Tory more.

You hear  on the doorstep: “I’m not voting, it doesn’t make any difference, all the politicians are the same they are careerists”, they do have a point. However this time, in the wake of a Brexit vote where the older people out voted the young to produce the Brexit. Then the polls clearly told younger people that their votes do matter, because the other lot will vote anyway. Corbyn campaign style appealed to the younger voters by being more real ,more honest and less media savvy. So I would suggest the younger people did vote and we got the close election the polls predicted if the younger people vote. If more people are engaged with the politics then there is hope that things are going in the right direction.

When I heard the exit poll at 10pm last night, I felt so warm am glowing, the Uk was going to get rid of the Tories hegemony! Though the night the tension mounted, that first victory of the Tories losing  there majority began to fade as not quite enough Tory MPs were defeated, allowing them to continue for a time with some form of alliance with the DUP. Northern Ireland and Brexit will now feature heavily in the UK political world.

However the Tories remain in government, weakened and dangerous. The UK will have to wait until another election to start rebuilding to start investing in the future again. By which point the careerist politicians will find a way to stop Corbyn’s movement and regain full control of our political system. Which is worrying. The UK is half way there to getting positive change, but there is so much still to do and huge risks of further regression, especially with the Brexit clock ticking.

Corbyn’s leadership has been strengthened, but he is one man. The Labour party is full of careerists, who don’t want to go down the path of construction to contribute, but to further thee own interests.

There is hope, this election showed that it is possible for conviction politicians with principles to win against the careerists. However with the two giant establishment parties still in control of things, parties stuffed full of careerists, who will change a principle in a second if it means a few more votes. Elections for these careerists are about proving themselves, moving up the ladder and not caring deeply about the people of this country.

This was a small victory for hope, but it’s hard to feel good about it as real change is still so far away and we still await a political system which will makes things better for the people who live here, for the economy and for our declining communities. The UK could be one-nation again, but there are so many forces working against that, I am still convinced we need to start that construction work of economy building from smaller movements, from nations like Wales. We need to create systems that work that are genuinely accountable to the communities that produce the wealth and then build them up into bigger systems. Top down organisation of the UK has lost it’s way, became too corrupt and doesn’t look like doing enough to rescue itself.

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

.

Being British

I survived and indeed thrived in a week doing everything in the Welsh language. Dw i’n wedi blino iawn ac mae fy ymynedd wedi toddi [I am really tired and my brain melted]. The most amazing thing was I now know that it is possible to live in another language, which is incredible for someone who was monolingual for so long. More on this nes ymlaen [later on]. Sorry I’m still thinking of saying things in Welsh before the English! It was also lovely to spend a week away from the UK general election and finally get around to visiting some of Edward I’s castles in North Wales.

Disturbingly, the first thing I noted was an opinion poll putting the Tories on 40%. Huh? . This just makes me feel so sad after a week in a really positive community. Have people really forgot what being Welsh and/or British is?

You don’t really know your connection to your country until you live away from it for some time. Long enough to pine for the things you love about your home. Most of the time it is just the native sweets and chocolate that aren’t available worldwide, but it’s also other things like: church bells, proper chips, cask ale and cider, the incredible naffness of the screech of the wheels of a Pacer train going around a corner, Indian restaurants, the National Health Service, the 2p games at the seaside, afternoon tea, BBC Radio,  the bizarre but lovable traditions that have been maintained and the general sense of what somehow holds British communities together.

Yet, all these cool things about Britain are under threat, not by immigration, not by the EU, but by this continued obsession with right wing corporatist government, placing the interests of a wealthy minority above everyone and everything else. I do think that the vote for Brexit was simply an expression of the frustration of losing the things we love and a sense of helplessness about it which found expression with Brexit. But why oh why oh why are people turning to the Tories, the very people who caused the losses and the people who continue to perpetuate them?

Wales is different to the rest of Great Britain, which is made up of so many diverse communities, but we have so much in common. I am Welsh and Wales has it’s own history and peculiarities, yet so does England and Scotland. We should not get bogged down by what is different, but simply celebrate our diversity and enjoy living amongst so many communities in such a rich and varied island. We should never accept a single definition of beimg British.that there is only one way of being, one economy to prioritise or only one language we should use.

It is time for the people of Wales and the rest of Britian to just wake up and look around at what is happening to our society, to be Indy Curious and seriously think about autonomy for Wales, to be open to new possibilities. Why stick with the Tories? You don’t keep taking things out of communities to give to those already wealthy and put nothing back into the communities that generated the wealth: closing schools, closing hospitals and community groups struggling for resources are signs of failure, not signs of success. To use a farming analogy, you don’t keep growing crops out of a field and put nothing back into the soil and then wonder why your yields get worse every year, you nurture the soil, you put fertilisers back into the soil, you put back into the soil what it needs to enable it to produce food. It’s exactly the same thing with communities, you plough back in investment, you improve services for the future, to enable those communities and their economies to thrive. This is what Wales badly needs as do communities all across Wales, Britain and indeed the whole world.

Yet, Theresa May rabbits on how much she says she cares about unity and the United Kingdom, when in reality her policies will continue to cause harm to the things she claims to care about and then has the gall to attack those groups who are fighting for their communities.

To advocate an independent Wales is not about seeking separation or  being somehow anti-English. I seek autonomy for Wales because what Wales needs is simply not being provided by UK government and there is nothing to suggest that this will change anytime soon. I love Wales and I love Britain. I want Wales to be able to look after itself to survive and thrive, just as I want other communities in Britain to thrive. With autonomy Wales would be empowered to work together with communities across Britain, to share ideas and re-build British communities. Seeking Welsh independence is the most pro-British thing that there is. I want every community to succeed and to achieve that means helping your own community first. Supporting the Conservative party is about division, taking away power from communities and giving it to the rich multinationals. There is nothing wrong with large corporations, but they just have an unfair advantage at the moment. A large supermarket chain can force out local butchers and other local businesses, whom are often more efficient than the big corporations.

So, lets wake up Wales and the rest of Britain, let’s take on the spirit of Owain Glyndwr, who rose up against the oppression British communities by the English establishment. It’s time to really take back control and stop voting for this lot of corrupt Tories. It’s time to work together to preserve the traditions of Britain and embrace the future with open hearts.

1280px-Glyndwr's_Banner.svg

The Flag of Glyndwr

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.

#Llangennech School

I did say I was going to write about why supporting Welsh independence wasn’t  nationalism. However I’ve constantly seen this issue flare up on my media feeds over the last few weeks. Really it’s merely a storm in a tea cup. Yet the whole furore is kind of a case study of how discussion of events becomes ugly very quickly these days, with many wild accusations flying around, even arguments about motives for appealing for calm! Both sides of the argument accuse the other side of being nationalists, whether ‘Welsh nationalist’ or ‘British nationalist’

IActually there is an interesting discussion to be had about this topic. The difficulty is that a reasoned argument is buried quite deeply beneath the froth of opinionated voices.

Briefly the situation as I see it is that there is a Welsh government policy to increase provision of education in the Welsh language and have bilingual schools as this has educational benefits. There is also the option to be educated solely in the English language in Wales too. The school on Llangennech is currently dual stream, there are two cohorts of pupils, one being educated bilingually and one in English. The local council have decided to phase out the English stream and make the school a full Welsh medium school, when the current English cohort have progressed to high school.

The complaint seems to be that those families wishing to educate their child in English will have to apply to schools a few miles outside the village and these schools may have to expand. Of course it is usual in any community to resist change that makes life more inconvenient for people in those situations. This is just local news. However it has kind of erupted into mainstream mass media.

If only we lived in a perfect world. Having education in two languages does present challenges, particularly in rural areas. The problem is that small schools are being closed due to budget cuts, with children having to travel further and further to get to school anyway. In reality the educational problems in rural areas are far greater than those faced in the more populous Llanelli area. So, when primary schools are split by medium of education depending on parental choice these distances can further increase, which is detrimental to education.

From my perspective having gone to school in Mid Wales, these Llangennech families are lucky in that they have a school on their doorstep and have the choice of alternative schools within a few miles if they want an alternative. Such things get forgotten in the heat of these arguments.

Because of the rural nature of much of Wales, sometimes dual stream high schools is the only sensible option as the next school may be 30 miles or more away. However there is an argument that dual stream schools are detrimental at a primary level (5 to 11 years old). Detrimental, because one cohort are being taught in Welsh and for children from English speaking homes language immersion is important for the children to develop skills and confidence in the Welsh language, especially where there is little or no Welsh spoken in their homes. It is also detrimental to the English cohort who will be surrounded by a language they are not being taught the skills to be  able to use that language. So, from an educational perspective ending dual stream primary schools makes sense.

The educational matter doesn’t get discussed, the process of finding solutions to challenges. Instead we have a media frenzy where one side gets accused of being anti-English and the other side accused of being anti-Welsh. Whereby people are allegedly forced to speak Welsh or forced to speak English. No-one is forcing anyone to do anything, can we not all just get along with each other and find solutions that work for everybody? It would seem not.

c5b2efjwgaasjpx-1

What incensed me was an article in this weeks Western Mail (the supposed ‘national’ newspaper of Wales). The article reported that someone had slashed  a cars tyres in Llangennech, perhaps as a consequence of the heated discussions. However the article featured a picture of two ladies holding a Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (The Welsh  Language Society) banner in support of the councils decision. The point is simply having Cymdeithas yr Iaith associated with tyre slashing, suggests that they are responsible for the tyre slashing without a shred of evidence. This false connections just inflame the debate, rather than report what is going on. The newspaper have since apologised, but the damage is already done. The ‘there’s no smoke without fire’ that the modern mass media thrive on. We live in the world where if you repeat the same lie often enough, large numbers of people who don’t dig any deeper begin to accept it as fact.  We see this sort of thing going on the mass media and in social media, all the time, its just sickening. We are living in a post-truth world.

It just seems a part of all these division the mass media seem to relish stirring up. We have the Brexit divisions, everything seems us and them, so when you are somewhere in the middle and just want a practical workable solution, your voice is discounted,  it is unsettling and just seems quite quite mad. I am neither  for or against EU membership, I am not a fluent Welsh speaker (yet), nor am I completely disconnected from the Welsh language. If you’re not binary, you somehow don’t count. Well, we all count!

It’s this debates never truly end thing. There is a tendency to make things binary by going back to first principles, whether it’s the re-awake the language debate or the EU debate. Hence so much energy is spent re-hashing old arguments that there seems very little space left for: Ok, there is a broad consensus, how do we make it work and where do we go from here? This applies both to education and Brexit.

There is evidence to suggest that children in Welsh medium education, from non-Welsh speaking homes do have a tendency to struggle. Such children should be identified and given extra support and by and large they are but some do fall through the cracks, which is where the wider community can and should help. This is what pressure should be put on, not on attacking the existence of the supposed ‘other side’. These children can be supported by the Welsh speaking community and as part of that the English speaking community can help the Welsh speaking community.

Sometimes in some circumstances, like when a child from an English speaking home doesn’t receive the support for schooling in Welsh, the best option for that child is an English medium education and that option should be available just as readily as a bilingual education. Generally in most of Wales, the nearest school is an English medium school. What is desired is the option of bilingual or English medium schooling to be accessible wherever the child lives in Wales.

It is entirely possible for everyone to work together for mutual benefit. It’s called society, where we all have the time and space to develop new ideas, increase efficiency and grow our economy. We do not have to go through deciding which side we are on and then struggle to fit in because hardly anyone   actually fits in with a rigid interpretation of that sides philosophy. What is important is the children’s education, giving them the skills to succeed in the world, not to be pawns in someone else’s pointless battle.

This is Wales, some of us speak Welsh, if you don’t like it, get over it, no-ones forcing you to stay, yet of course you are welcome to stay if you wish to!

The problem with Liberals

On these pages I have often described myself as a Social Democrat and not a Liberal. These two political doctrines to the outsider appear quite close, yet I feel there is fundamental difference between the two. This difference is why I have a problem with liberalism.

Social democracy and Liberalism share some common world views. Perhaps most importantly that society should work for everyone, it is worth repeating, everyone; black or white, rich or poor, man or woman. However the two doctrines differ in how this society is to be realised. Social Democracy advocates working out what the centrist position is from first principles, whereas Liberalism finds the centrist position more relatively, based on prevailing public opinion. This relativistic stance is to me the weakness of Liberalism.

However, as human beings we are relativistic creatures, how we think, how we behave and what we value is determined socially. This social determination is guided by our families, our social peers and the communities we grow up in. The views of the world we hear around us, shape us. There is natural desire to compromise with prevailing views in a society, to ‘fit in’ and find our own space. To be able to compromise, you have to be able to understand and be prepared to be persuaded by arguments if you test them and find them convincing.

In many ways Social Democracy is the tougher discipline as it prescribes picking apart all this social fabric to get to the fundamental issue. Social Democracy is thus a cold discipline, relying on logic and reason,  can seem devoid of feeling. Yet it isn’t cold as the aim is to provide something for everyone. This criticism also applies to Liberalism, whilst the Liberal will listen, they may lack empathy as they are trying to work out where the centre is, rather than understand each individual.

Both the Liberal and the Social Democrat are a little jealous of those away from the centre on the left and right wings, the Socialists and Conservatives. Jealous, because the wings don’t have to think so much. To the wings political positions come easily, certain arguments just fit naturally with how they think and the opposite arguments seem alien and incomprehensible. Centrists often run into this problem that they don’t always get a reasoned argument for something. So often an argument will rest on an appeal to a common sense that runs true with how they think. The problem with such rhetoric is that is doesn’t extend beyond like minded people, to the centre or the ‘other’ wing. There seems to be this rise in division and the recent development of Nationalism in Europe and North America that raises serious concerns. I blame the Liberals.

Partly it is because the Liberals have moved from the centre, where us Social Democrats still are, towards the right as it has appeared that society has moved to the right. Electoral success has been the reward of this drift. Tony Blair, was essentially a Liberal, as were Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Here in the UK, the Liberal Democrats found themselves in a coalition government with the Conservatives from 2010 to 2015, for the good reason of providing stable government. However, the Liberal Democrats failed to do their job as a coalition partner and went native with the Conservatives, to the horror of Social Democrats and Socialists, the ‘Liberals’ had let us down, again. It was not unexpected, Liberals, with their mode of drifting to the centre ground, working everyday with predominantly right wing Conservatives would lead you to shift your perception of the centre quite far rightwards, which is what happened.

Liberalism may he partly the cause of the recent rise of Nationalism, of Brexit and Donald Trump. Once you start drifting in a certain direction currents often speed you on in that direction, because nationalism is very good at subverting human nature.

<Slight tangent in case anyone is getting confused, I am supporter of Welsh independence, or “Welsh Nationalism” as some like to call it. We are not “Nationalists”, it’s just not the same thing, ok? (maybe I’ll expand on this next time!)>

The problem with Nationalism is that the worldviews and opinions of the people who surround in our lives, in our communities, our desire to fit in and to work to make things better are essentially positive. For social animals everyone doing their thing and working with the people around us to improve society is simply a good thing.

However, the sly fox of Nationalism achieves it’s end of replacing the ‘good of the community’ with the ‘good of the nation’. So instead of being inspired to improve our communities, we are inspired to work to improve our nation. This is not the same thing. Nations are somewhat artificial constructs and do not seek to help people, they have a life of their own and play around with our notions of self and community. Nationalism when it arises, often has a scapegoat, a group to blame for the nation not being as mighty as it could be, be it the Jew in 1930s Germany, the Socialist, the immigrant or the Muslim in recent times. This right wing nationalism, relishes competition, which is actually bullying as it slowly works it way through society, the narrative subtly changes until you find yourself in a totalitarian state, like in George Orwell’s ‘1984’. The Liberal just adapts in this environment, the Liberal remains in the social centre, even though this social centre is now way off balance. For the Conservatives, they don’t notice the true horror as to them at last society  is  chiming with their own worldview, they feel as though they have won something and even the Socialist may be happy as it appears that society is at last demonstrably ‘improving’. But, to those able to be Social Democrats and to those on the outside, it is a nightmare.

Whether we are truly caught in the  Nationalism trap in the UK and USA, is perhaps too early to say, but all the very worrying signs are there: There is stoking of fear of ‘foreigners’, the scapegoating of  minorities in particular Muslims, There have been elections won by populist extremists and possibly more to come in France and the Netherlands. and when we are told that these people win, so we now must conform to whatever they want to do, to be good “patriots”…

It just seems like that many people have forgotten the warning from history about Nationalism, that Orwell wrote about in ‘1984’. Even in Germany, the country that most painfully learnt the lessons of the perils of Nationalism, some 80 years ago, is seeing the rise of Nationalism. Remember ‘Ignorance is Strength’ & ‘We are at war with Eastasia, we have always been at war with Eastasia’.