Independence Index

Your in-depth guide to Welsh independence.

Assembly

The latest news, debates and reports from the Senedd. (Fourth Assembly stories are under 'Archive').

Bridgend

The major local political stories and developments from Bridgend county.

Laws

We gave AMs law-making powers; this is what's being done with them.

Committee Inquiries

Detailed scrutiny of how Wales is being run. (Fourth Assembly inquiries are under 'Archive').

Vice Nation: Sex

How could an independent Wales deal with issues surrounding sex?

Friday, 29 June 2012

Carwyn's splitting atoms again

It isn't only goggles that do nothing.
Our devolved government's pretty good at that too!

In today's Daily Post, the First Minister attacks Welsh independence as a threat to nuclear jobs on Anglesey, citing Scottish examples as a warning. He's quoted as saying:
"They (nuclear submarine/Trident) are jobs that would be lost to Scotland as a result of independence as indeed there would be jobs lost to Wales, such for example Wylfa B.

"We will back Wylfa B and the people that work there and the communities that are supported. We know Plaid Cymru would abandon them.

"....I suspect there are many other jobs like those at Faslane that would be lost because of independence.

"If you look at Wales the same case applies with Wylfa B. Plaid Cymru say they wouldn't back the 600 people who work there. We will."

Now there's consistency here. The Welsh Government have made it quite clear that they support the construction of Wylfa B, and it's mentioned as part of their energy strategy published back in February (linked below). Plaid Cymru are officially opposed to nuclear power, and leader Leanne Wood has spoken out against Wylfa B.

However, the picture is much more muddied that that. As you probably know, Horizon dropped their bid to construct Wylfa B, perhaps in part because of Germany's decision to phase out nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster last year.

A few new players have expressed an interest – and although I'm not a fan of nuclear power, objectively Wylfa is in many ways perfect – but nothing appears to have come from it yet. The UK Government have since said that they are still "committed to developing the site", but that came across as stalling to me, or reassurance, just like their promises with regard rail electrification.

There are other energy schemes on Anglesey, much closer to fruition that Wylfa B – a new biomass plant near the former Anglesey Aluminium plant and onshore wind farms for example.

Specific mentions of the number of jobs created at Wylfa B in the First Minister's Energy Wales : A Low Carbon Transition:

"Horizon estimates 5,000 construction jobs at peak and around 800 direct jobs in operation over its lifespan."

So that's 5,000 temporary jobs, which will be gone once Wylfa B is built, and a net-gain of 200 jobs with regard operation of the site. Also, Wylfa B will need to be decommissioned itself at some point down the line. To put things in perspective, more net jobs have been announced today at a cinema/retail development in Flintshire – and not a nuclear reactor or WMD in sight. Though I agree that any move to bring "highly skilled" jobs to Wales should be welcomed, albeit not under these circumstances.

These jobs could easily vanish if the UK Government doesn't find anyone willing to build Wylfa B in the first place. It has nothing to do with independence.

Nuclear power is a costly business, but at least the Welsh Government are honest enough to have said in their report that they see this as a way to "make up ground" in any energy production fall as a result of a transition to low-carbon energy production.

Judging by the nominal amounts of energy Wales produces compared to consumption, it doesn't really have that much use to us. Wylfa B would be, in essence, one of the World's most expensive back up generators, because there hasn't been any long-term energy planning by Westminster for 40 years.

Wales has an opportunity to do something different. Devolution and all that? Oh no, hang on....

Mentions of "Anglesey", "Wylfa" and "nuclear" in the Welsh Government's Programme for Government:
                                                              "....."

Why's that?

Well as much as "we" support Wylfa B, "we" don't want control of energy projects above 100MW.

"We" actually back decisions taken by the UK Coalition Government - and energy companies = to put back-up generators in our back garden that "we" don't really need.

"We" won't have that much of a say in it, apart from perhaps some supporting services like training and some influence over associated infrastructure.

"We" can't possibly back Wylfa. "We" only do what we're told.

Sustainable development at the heart of Welsh Government policy?

Yeah, right. Keep telling yourselves that.


Thursday, 28 June 2012

Business Rates Wales Review

The report suggests that changes to Non Domestic Rates could
encourage trade back into Welsh town centres. Will it work?
(Pic : Bridgend Council)

In what could be considered to be a follow-up to my post in April, "Council Tax in Wales - Are the poor paying more?", Business Minister Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) recently released a report on the future of business rates (Non Domestic Rates) in Wales. An anonymous commentator in the last blog said that Prof. Brian Morgan of Cardiff Metropolitan University was "looking into it", and this is the result.

What are non-domestic rates?

I'm going to partially repeat what I said in the other blog here, but it's necessary for clarity.

Non-domestic rates (NDR) are local taxes levied largely on businesses, based on a "rateable value" of business properties, which is multiplied by a "multiplier" to determine the NDR bill. The provisional "multiplier" for 2012-13 is/was 42.5p, so for a business with a rateable value of £10,000 - the provisional NDR bill would be £4,520 – payable in instalments over the year.

There are "rate relief" schemes that help ease the burden, for small businesses in particular, with low rateable values. It can reduce the bill by as much as 50%, or even 100% for small post offices.

NDR in Scotland is fully devolved, while in Wales, as the report says:
"....resources from rates are partly dependent on Barnett formula consequentials from the distribution of business rates in England."

Non-domestic rates are put into a central kitty, held in the Welsh Consolidated Fund at Westminster, and redistributed back to Welsh local authorities based on a formula, made up of various criteria, including population, relative deprivation and demographics. It forms a large part of the Welsh Government's annual local authority settlement and is estimated in the report to total around £1billion per year.

What does the report recommend?

The report made 19 headline recommendations. The stand-out ones are:
  • NDR should be considered for devolution to Wales within the remit of the Silk Commission.
  • The Welsh Government should enable local authorities to retain most of the business rate income, with the Welsh Government adjusting the local authority grant to take account of "needs".
  • Properties with a rateable value not exceeding £6000 should be exempt from NDR when they are part of a combined business-residential building.
  • The Welsh Government should introduce a targeted rate relief scheme for enterprise zones
  • A "number of options" should be taken to "level the playing field" between town centres and out-of town retail parks, including the creation of "Business Improvement Districts".
  • A recommendation against introducing a "Tesco Tax"/Large Retailer Levy because Wales' economy is "more interconnected with England" and it could drive mobile investment away.
  • Incentivise local authorities to "properly enforce" Empty Property Rates regulation.
  • Making use of the next round of EU funding to directly support town centres.
  • Establishing a Welsh Renewable Energy Relief scheme, with provisions for local retention of rates generated by these schemes.

Is this radical enough?

It would be wrong to say this report is a let-down, but there are some issues here.

Firstly, this is stuck in seeing Non Domestic Rates as the only way to raise local revenues from non-domestic premises. Maybe NDR was the extent of the scope of the Task and Finish Group, but that decision might have been a missed opportunity to explore other options.

In the last few months we've had Mark Drakeford AM (Lab, Cardiff West) raise the issue of a "Land Value Tax" in the Senedd. I mentioned in the last post that some way of taking ability to pay into account – for example US-style local sales taxes – should be considered. A Land Value Tax, for example, might've gone some way to promote quick re-letting and combat empty properties.

Secondly, I don't buy the argument that a "Tesco Tax" in Wales is unviable because of "interconnectivity with England". That might be the case along the border – and yes, it might impact places like Flintshire, Wrexham and Monmouthshire - but it certainly shouldn't further west.

Whether Wales actually needs a "Tesco Tax" is a separate debate, but I'm fairly sure business locaton and investment decisions are based on a potential market. That probably disincentivises Wales as a location more than any "Tesco Tax" would, due to our sparse centres in the west and north.

All
options should be on the table to protect town centres, and using a "stick" to incentivise moves to smaller stores in town centres could be just one way of doing it, but it would also need a "carrot".

For example, a Welsh "Tesco Tax" might only be applied to larger retailers based outside defined town/city centres, or the mooted "Business Improvement Districts". If we're going to have big retailers – an economic and social fact of life - let's make sure they are based as close to traditional town centres as possible, or even encouraged to take over older buildings.

The issue of enterprise zones raises its head once again. We've had some moves on that in the last few months, and it's clear from this report that Wales is likely to introduce some kind of business-friendly NDR rate scheme in EZs. I'm sure Edwina Hart will be mulling over that for the next few months.

Ultimately though, in the long-term, Wales (and probably the rest of the UK as well) is going to need a much simpler replacement for NDR. Like Council Tax, I'd prefer one based on ability to pay rather than property values. The Land Value tax could compliment a "Local Sales Tax" and "Local Income Tax", but that could complicate matters and add unnecessary bureaucracy.

The question is how do you do that while sustaining similar levels of tax revenues? And how do you make sure it's fair for businesses (in particular small ones)?

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Basketball Wales - Selfish, or just sensible?

"Some people say they know they can't believe
Wales we still got a basketball team."
(Pic : MVP 24/7.com)


Considering our climate, Wales should be a powerhouse at indoor sports.

However, when it comes to Welsh sport, basketball won't jump out at you as one of our major ones. We do have a committed organisation that runs the sport in Wales, just as the FAW runs football, or the WRU runs rugby union. Basketball Wales was founded in 2008 as a replacement for the Basketball Association of Wales, which was itself founded in 1952.

In a related note, it was recently reported in the Glamorgan Gazette that former teacher Brian Sparks, from Bridgend, was awarded an MBE for his services to schools basketball. In recent years however, it was the exploits of the successful women's Rhondda Rebels side that thrust basketball into some semblance of limelight in Wales.

Wales has its own competitions, and even its own national team that occasionally competes by itself, but also recently as part of a Great Britain side in preparation for the Olympics - and higher-ranking tournaments like EuroBasket and the World Cup. Team GB had to be given special dispensation to participate in London, after proving they were competitive, as there's no permanent Team GB, just like the football.

Basketball Wales was recently criticised for not signing up to a merger with the English and Scottish basketball associations to form a permanent "British" organisation. This would enable GB to compete at future Olympic Games and international tournaments. Team GB's men's captain for the forthcoming Olympics, Drew Sullivan, is quoted on the BBC as saying it was "selfish and absurd that they made this decision."

Sound familiar?

Wales doesn't have any players in Team GB, and was never likely to produce more than maybe one or two at that level. They're up against players who qualify for British nationality, but who play in the NBA or the bigger European leagues – Chicago Bulls' Luol Deng for example, arguably the most famous British basketball player ever.

The only way Welsh players can even compete internationally is in low-ranking European competitions against the likes of Gibraltar, Malta and San Marino. If Basketball Wales had merged with the other associations though, they would've simply faded out of existence, and their ability to compete in these competitions might've come under question. Basketball Wales are quoted as saying that:
"....membership of the British Basketball Federation (BBF) has not enhanced the game in Wales, including the numbers participating or the level and standard of participation."
In fact, according to ESPN-associated site MPV24/7, funding for Basketball Wales was reduced to effectively zero by Sports Wales in 2011. Zero. Olympic legacy anyone?

Although you can certainly argue that Basketball Wales' decision was perhaps a little parochial, Wales stood, by and large, to gain absolutely nothing from any merger.

So the turkeys didn't vote for Christmas. What's the issue here?

FIBA (the basketball equivalent of FIFA) are noticeably disappointed by Basketball Wales' non-compliance. Judging by their response, it looks as though FIBA might accept that an Anglo-Scottish association will be enough to compete as a "Team GB" side. That'll probably mean Wales will become "persona non-grata", despite being a full member of FIBA in the same way Wales is in FIFA and the IRB.

I'll probably go into this in more detail in the future, but what we need now is a way to promote sports like basketball, netball, handball, wheelchair rugby, futsal – and why not even baseball (the Anglo-Welsh version, which is still played in the Cardiff area AFAIK) - in our schools, colleges and communities. I'd personally like to see more formal competitions, and I would like to see some sort of US-style "college sports" culture develop in Wales. I mentioned that before with regard rugby.

At least with our own independent basketball association we'll have the opportunity to able to do something like that.

Basketball Wales shouldn't have made a decision - that could affect the sport in a whole nation - just to suit the ambitions of one or two elite athletes. England could probably reach the higher echelons of international basketball by themselves with the right support and development, but no athletes should stand on the backs of grass-roots Scottish and Welsh basketball players to make that process easier.

We might not be the best, but there's a proud history there. It's not much, admittedly, but its still ours.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Draft Human Transplantation Bill

The draft Human Transplantation Bill would create a
"soft opt out" system, whereby anyone not specifically opting-out
of a new organ donor register will have presumed to have "opted-in".
(Pic : The Telegraph)

Following on from my post last year on the Organ Donation white paper, Health Minister Lesley Griffiths (Lab, Wrexham) has launched what is likely to be one of the most controversial moves the Assembly has made since devolution.

The Draft Human Transplantation Bill will introduce a soft opt-out system for organ donation in Wales. If the final bill is passed, it'll come into effect in 2015.

How will the proposed "opt-out" system work?

There'll be a separate organ donation register for Wales, and will list whether a person has opted to donate or not to donate.

Consent will still be asked from the close families (dubbed a "qualifying relationship") of the deceased before any donation, and they can still object. The difference is those who have neither opted-in or opted-out will be presumed to have opted-in.

The Welsh Government will be legally obliged to promote transplantation (as currently) and explain the opt-out system fully to the public.

In fact, in the Bill, it'll become a criminal offence - punishable by up to 3 years in prison - to transplant organs without consent, or use them for "a purpose that is not a qualifying purpose".

I presume "not qualifying purpose" would include anatomical dissection, display or other forms of retention.

Who would be subject to the law?
  • People over the age of 18
  • Who have "capacity" to understand the procedure (it exempts those with learning disabilities for example)
  • Who have lived in Wales for more than 6 months and die in Wales

For those under the age of 18, eligible to be a donor, their own wishes will be the only consideration. They'll be contacted by the Welsh NHS in the months leading to their 18th birthday to tell them of the new arrangements.

What are the potential benefits and drawbacks?

The explanatory memorandum lists that the new system will cost around £5million to set up, payable by the Welsh Government.

However, it also estimates that a single extra donor a year has a "net present value" of £5million (what I presume includes increases in quality of life, savings in dialysis treatment for kidney patients etc.). If the stated aim of 15 extra donors a year is met, then it's listed it could be worth £150million. An extra 25 donors would be worth £254million. There's a more detailed analysis in the memorandum if you are interested.

What's likely to be the most contentious issue surrounds whether organ donation is an altruistic "gift", rather than something the state presumes you want to do upon death because it's a "good thing". If there's no increase in organ donation, or if "compulsion" encourages people to opt-out, then it could prove self-defeating, and harm Wales' pretty decent record in organ donation.


That issue....

Yes, in the draft bill, any donated organ in Wales will be available to anyone in the UK as existing. The relevant part of the draft bill is section 15 (1)(b) which amends the Human Tissues Act 2004.

You can certainly argue that - as Wales could be about to put several hundred thousand extra potential donors on the register - England, Scotland and Northern Ireland have moral obligation to follow suit to benefit from any extra "Welsh" organs.

But....

As I said in my previous post, you shouldn't try to limit the "pool" for potential organ donors. I argued that ideally there would be a pan-EU or pan-European organ donor scheme. Just because somebody is Welsh, it doesn't mean they'll always be able to find a compatible donor within Wales. Organs move both ways across borders, and if you're in the situation of needing one, I don't think you'll care where it comes from – you'll just be thankful you have a chance of a semblance of a normal life.

There'll be plenty of non-Welsh incomers who'll be subject to this law.

Organ transplantation should always be judged on the basis of need. If there's a more needy Welsh person, they should get it - just as if there were a more needy Scot , Irish, German, Pole or even - God forbid - English.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

National Literacy & Numeracy Framework

The new criteria and testing in primary and secondary
schools aims to improve standards, which have come under
increased criticism from the likes of Estyn.
(Pic: Guardian)

It's often been quoted by the mainstream media – that "kids today" don't have the requisite skills in literacy and numeracy to please prospective employers, flagged up by Estyn's report last year, and with recently-reported ongoing concerns. In response, Education Minister Leighton Andrews (Lab, Rhondda) produced the Welsh Government's brand new National Literacy and Numeracy Framework for 5-14 years olds.

The documents are out for consultation until 12th October. It's anticipated that the new regime will be brought in for the 2013/14 school year, and Welsh Labour's words could soon be backed with NUCLEAR WEAPONS!

The key aims are:

  • Assist teachers in all subjects to "identify and provide opportunities" for learners to improve their literacy and numeracy
  • Create an "annual national expectation" – by which pupils will be monitored on their progress
  • Create clearer definitions of how pupils are doing, including annual reports for parents/carers based on teacher assessment.

What's involved?


The new framework sets out, in some detail, what literacy and numeracy skills pupils will be expected to develop throughout their time in school.

For literacy, skills are split into:

  1. Reading for information
  2. Writing for information
  3. Oracy

The numeracy skills are:

  1. Numerical reasoning
  2. Number skills
  3. Measuring skills
  4. Data skills

These are the same for both English and Welsh medium.

The focus is on acquiring and being able to use these skills, with good integration across subjects, while taking into consideration those with special needs as well as "more able" pupils.

How will standards be monitored?


There are several "indicators" that pupils are expected to achieve though each year of school up to and including year 9. It doesn't appear to be that "top heavy", and the indicators are pretty clear cut and not bogged down in minutiae.

For example, in Reception classes, for "Reading for information", children will be expected to be able to "choose a book" and "recognise words and their meaning".

While at the other end, Year 9 pupils will be expected to "understand texts that are new to them" and "make full, but selective use of the internet to deepen understanding of a topic".

The new framework is mainly for curriculum planning, as well as a guide as to what teachers should be assessing. As mentioned earlier, this is a cross-curricular framework, so it applies to all subjects. In fact, some of the example materials for literacy are taken from geography and history work.

One of the more important developments, is the introduction of national literacy and numeracy tests. These will "provide data, collected and analysed nationally". I remember having these at school too. They were called "SATS", but the Welsh Government got rid of them.

However, the SATS were at the end of every Key Stage. These new tests will be annual, and it'll be a statutory requirement for schools to test pupils. It looks as if the same test will be used across Wales to ensure consistency. The tests will be piloted in 2012 & 2013, being introduced across all the skills by May 2014.

The tests will be:

  • A maximum of 60 minutes in length
  • Tests will have a "window", not a single national date
  • Designed to be administered in groups (small groups, class or year group)
  • Flexible, to allow testing in smaller groups for younger pupils and take special needs into consideration
  • Have comparable tests in English and Welsh, but not translations
  • Will be marked within the schools

Conclusions

I swear we used to have something similar to this when I was a lad. I think it was called "being a teacher". By and large, I'd say they did a pretty good job.

I realise there are plenty of people my age who are walking adverts for a human cull, perhaps why Carwyn wants his hands on nukes so much, but what on Earth do people think we did in lessons all day?

We were tested - quite extensively. We were corrected when we were wrong. We had in-class spelling, maths and reading tests. We worked with graphs, formulae, maps and geometry. There was a "SPAG mark" in all exams - regardless of subject - where marks were taken off for poor spelling, punctuation and grammar.

There's a lot here that I had to go through as a pupil myself - and not that long ago either. This isn't radical or groundbreaking. Teachers should be, and I hope they are, already doing this. I hope that this is a "tidying up exercise" to ensure that literacy and numeracy standards are applied equally across Wales, because if it isn't....

If an Education Minister has to draw up guidelines for qualified teachers on something like this – we're doomed. That's not hyperbole, we really are up certain creeks without a paddle if Leighton doesn't succeed with this.

Leighton is clearly attempting to stop some significant rot - it isn't his fault, and should be welcomed - but this must be one of the most embarrassing documents ever produced by a government on education, not for its content but for its necessity.

The introduction of national literacy and numeracy testing is - while not a complete U-turn on scrapping SATS – perhaps a quiet acceptance that, in principle, it probably wasn't the best thing to do.

If there's one iota of moaning from the teaching unions on this, they should hang their heads in shame, or think of a career change, because they clearly don't want to do the job anymore.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Carwyn prostitutes Wales to the grim reaper


       
I thought Carwyn Jones  had much more sense than this. To say I'm disappointed that he's my AM right now is an understatement. This is the first time I've ever been truly embarrassed.

Carwyn said in the Senedd earlier today, quoted from the Western Mail:


"There would be more than a welcome for the UK's submarine fleet, and 6,000 new jobs in Milford Haven."

What exactly does "more than a welcome" mean?

Will we be able to sign the missiles? Pose for photos? Will Katherine Jenkins welcome them coming over the Severn Bridge with an aria? Will Charlotte Church put one up her fanny? Will Andy Powell try to ride one all the way to Vladivostok?

That could be a good spin off for tourism, eh Carwyn? Pembrokeshire National Park - Home to the ultimate defence of the realm (weather permitting). "Where turtle and Trident frolic".

You'll be able see them off from the coastal path, I'm sure. Perhaps you can arrange day trips from Bluestone. When little Billy asks what the big metal thing is for, Carwyn can tell them himself – "Those are yur to incinerate the enemies of the state. 6,000 jobs, see!" *wink*

There's no doubt that Trident moving to Wales would mean jobs. You can certainly argue that the jobs would likely only be to maintain the submarines themselves. However, those submarines don't exist to spread fun and lollipops to the world. Besides, most of the jobs will be transferred. There's simply not enough time to get "6,000" Welsh people up to speed on submarine and nuclear missile technology. At most there's currently around 1,800 jobs directly related to the upkeep of the system where they're based. So not 6,000 "new jobs", simply no "6,000 jobs."

Bit of a fib that, in what's increasingly becoming a long line of fibs on job creation.

One of the arguments against, is that Milford Haven would "become a target" because of this, but there's no need to worry about that with Trident. Why? You can be confident Milford Haven will already be a target for a nuclear strike because of the oil refineries and LNG plant.

One of the many things requiring to be factored in, is that the warheads are usually transported by road or rail. Presumably (after travelling through much of Scotland and England) through Newport, Cardiff, Bridgend, Port Talbot, Swansea, Llanelli, Carmarthen, St Clears, Whitland and Haverfordwest before reaching Milford Haven. Make sure you wave if/when they pass, and thank Carwyn for the bounty we're about to generously receive.

Would he back a toxic waste dump in Wales if it brought a couple of hundred jobs? You've got to presume, based on this, that the answer is a resounding yes. There's a massive crater in Cefn Cribwr that needs filling in, Carwyn. I'm sure a nice big toxic waste dump would be ideal. There's a lot of unemployment in Bridgend, see. I don't know how many jobs would be created. Lets use your powers of understatement and say 20,000.

This is the ultimate version of digging a hole and getting someone to fill it in. It's the ultimate embodiment of the "broken window fallacy". These things will never be used, cost an absolute fortune to maintain and are designed to bring death and destruction to tens of thousands of people in an instant.

It's unconscionable that anyone with an ounce of reason would willingly want these things anywhere near them. I think most politicians would be very, very cautious – probably neutral - even if they support a move to their area. But to say they "welcome" the possibility is extremely odd - unless they think they can loan them for a parade.

They're shaped like massive penes because, if they are used, it would be to rape the corpse of what would be left of human civilisation. Is that what Carwyn would want Wales' role to be come Armageddon? To "stand up" and tell what's left of Russia, China or whoever that the British Bulldog has got plenty of spunk left in the tank.

Wales' last contribution to human history would be to wave off a fleet that would "send a message" to hundreds of thousands of perfectly innocent people, in the final ever game of tit-for-tat diplomacy. Meanwhile, we all die of radiation poisoning, shitting into a bucket behind a door piled with sandbags and cushions. The lucky ones will already be dead. Will there be any union flags left to wave, I wonder?

If he's lucky, Carwyn would probably be in a bunker somewhere, hopefully tortured to madness should the welcome mat be laid out for Trident in Wales. Little Billy is a pile of ash. Bridgend is on fire, Cardiff has been wiped off the map. Everything for several miles around Milford Haven is charred while everything that isn't dead would be soon after. That's what Carwyn "more than welcomed" to Wales today.

It isn't worth 6,000 jobs – or whatever number Carwyn pulled out of the sky. It isn't worth 6million jobs. Yes, we need investment in our ports, but for this!? Seriously!? Is this one of the few ways the Welsh Government can foresee future investment in our most important port?

If you've got good work, or even bad work, Wales is your release. The cheeks are spread apart and we're bent over. Our sphincter is open for business. No need to lube up. Just make sure you give the money to Carwyn, because we don't want to be beaten up again.

It'll be a very sad day, probably the moment I finally take the plunge and emigrate, if Trident moved to Wales. It would be the end of any hope that we could have, or build, something better here, whether we remained part of the union or not.

Instead of Green Investment Bank's, an expansion of co-ops, an expansion of university spin-outs, this is what the Welsh were born to do – the equivalent of a girlfriend hiding her boyfriend's gun.

Don't we deserve better than that?

Monday, 18 June 2012

Politics of pride : The evils of nationalism


200-up. Thank you for your continued support.

No political ideology is perfect, and nationalism (in all its manifestations) is no exception. I expect this post is going to go down like a lead balloon, but it's a subject worth considering.

It's often been said that socialism, for example, is the "politics of envy". If we're going to use the Seven Deadly Sins in this exercise, you can disregard gluttony and sloth as they don't really fit in anywhere. Social conservatism could be described as the "politics of wrath" - trying to keep things a certain way through pressure or compulsion. Economic liberalism, the "politics of greed". Social liberalism, the "politics of lust". Green politics probably combines lust for the planet with socialist envy.

But what about nationalism? You could say nationalism is the "politics of pride".

1. It can be co-opted into something much worse


"Balkanisation" is often thrown around, as a pejorative, to describe the rise of nationalism amongst the British nations. The cause of the Yugoslav Wars in particular are immensely complicated, covering various religious, ethic, historical grievances and economic/socio-political manoeuvring. The power-keg - created by years of inter-ethnic tensions - and a constitution complicated by varying degrees of autonomy in addition to trying to fit the Yugoslavian socialist system into it, set the ball in motion. A violent break-up however, could have been avoided.

The strident Serb nationalism (or you could argue Serb unionism/irredentism) adopted by the League of Communists in Serbia could be considered the key catalyst, or turning point, in the violent break up of Yugoslavia. The Serbs had gradually seen their influence wane within the Yugoslav federation, and their historic claims on Kosovo undermined. It created a nationalist narrative, pitting the exploited Serbs against their neighbours. By seizing control of the Yugoslav (federal) agenda, and taking steps to undermine the sovereignty of the other nationalities to "protect themselves", the Serbs became the popular villain of the piece - but that would be wrong. No side is blameless, though the Slovenes and Macedonians probably come out of it better than the others.

If this were the 13th century, you could argue that the British Isles had a similar situation, but those days are long gone now. There's no chance of a violent break-up akin to Yugoslavia for a multitude of reasons. Even the former Yugoslavia is slowly moving towards an era of slightly more peaceful coexistence. They'll probably all be better off for it in the long-term.

However, if the nations of the former Yugoslavia had taken a more conciliatory tone, instead of using nationalism to blockade themselves in, or to lay claims to each others territories, or to ferment mistrust, maybe history would've been different and far less bloody.

Mix the pride of nationalism, with the wrath of social conservatism and you end up with fascism. Mix it with envy and you end up with sort of Stalinist Communism. Mix it with greed and you have imperialism.

Nationalism is an incredibly potent tool. It's not something that should be wielded by amateurs, or tied to messages or political purposes that are contradictory. It draws on a primal territorialism that every human on the planet possesses – "this is mine/ours, that is yours/theirs".

When used correctly, it can unite, instill hope, boost morale and drag struggling nations over the finishing line. When used incorrectly, or when taken to extreme limits, it can divide, lead to a monocultural cul-de-sac, exceptionalism and xenophobia.

That leads us nicely into the next section.

2. It can be used as a "dog whistle"

It's said "patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel", but perhaps it's "the last tool of scoundrels".

Your government is struggling. It's running out of ideas. You need a plan. The quickest and easiest way to dig your way out of a hole is to wrap yourself in the flag. We've seen it in Wales so many times now, it's moved from being something nationalists would arguably welcome (the "Welshification" of politics) to something obstructive to the political process and debate. If I'm honest it's even increasingly annoying, not because of "treading on Plaid's turf", but because it's a convenient distraction from the issues.

One of my least-favourite pejoratives is the term "anti-Welsh". For example, anything the Coalition Government does is "anti-Welsh" because they don't spend every waking moment worrying about what the Welsh Government thinks on welfare reform, or macroeconomics. Until those levers are in the hands of politicians based in Wales, Westminster is perfectly within their rights to tell Welsh politicians to shut up - none of your business.

Obviously I wish there were only one national flag flying above public buildings in Wales. But while there are two flags, we have to accept, in this devolution age, that there are some things our politicians shouldn't be focusing too much time and energy on. There are plenty of problems here that need sorting out, within the scope of our devolved Assembly – that's the true patriotic duty, isn't it?

It happens quite often at the British level too. The British equivalent being mentions of "Our Boys", World War II footage dubbed over with a Churchill speech (or an air-raid siren), slow-motion montages of athletes crossing finishing lines or pumping fists.

The royal family are the ultimate dog whistle – for both unionists and a fair chunk of nationalists – for differing reasons.

I don't know what it's supposed to instill. Pride perhaps?

I'd be prouder if, oh I don't know, Cardiff managed to attract a Green Investment Bank, we had a mile of electrified railway, or if there wasn't a excessive charge on getting into the country in the first place.

It's become a card played on so many occasions, at the wrong times, that when there's a genuine slight against Wales, the reactions can be brushed aside as a chippy nat rant.

3. "Exclusivity" and replacing one elite with another
Can you ever have a Welsh nationality while it's subsumed under a British nationality? Can you be Welsh, while not being ethnically Welsh? Is nationalism "exclusive"?

I don't buy that argument, but I can see why many would get that impression. Civic nationalism is inclusive to a wide degree. I don't think there's any danger of Welsh or Scottish nationalism doing this really. It's what comes after that bothers me.

Now it also cuts both ways - persecution and prejudice against minority languages and ethnicities for example. Like it or not, it has happened in Britain, even today continuing in a more sneering and condescending fashion - and one of the reasons there's a nationalist element in the first place.

I touched on this a few days ago in relation to the UK. I don't think there's anything wrong with having a single Welsh national identity, alongside a cultural/social British, European or Commonwealth one. I doubt non-nationalists are ever going to understand the difference, and nationalists will never be comfortable with duel-nationality. Perhaps though, we're allowing identity politics to get in the way of the practicalities. It's more fun, and it stimulates more passionate debate, but it doesn't matter really, does it?

Yes, there are differences between ethnic "Welshness", civic Welshness and Britishness (civic, social and ethnic). The civic Welshness is the most important one to most nationalists. That means if you live in Wales, you are equal to a Welsh "born and bred" individual. That's a guiding principle across Europe and is unlikely to ever change.

However, I'd argue that Wales should be primarily run for the benefit of the civic Welsh alone. Wales should have the apparatus in place to enable it to run itself effectively. We should be promoting Welsh talent and primarily concerned about the needs of Welsh businesses, a Welsh environment and a Welsh economy like every other nation on the planet is with theirs, on the basis of equal standing internationally.

That also means there's going to be a Welsh social stratification, cases of Welsh exploiting other Welsh people and a Welsh culture of excess. Racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination won't go away overnight post-independence. Maybe Wales would be better placed to deal with these problems, but it'll be the same old faces, same old stories, just with a Welsh accent.

For Oxbridge, see Aberystwyth and Cardiff. For Eton see Haberdashers, Llandovery College and Ruthin School. Our future politicians and leaders of industry will likely be treading a very familiar path.

When nationalist, and in some cases socialist, debate in Wales is often reduced to a case of the working-class "oppressed" Welsh fighting against the exploitation of the British establishment, post-independence we'll be confronted with a deeply uncomfortable fact:

We're as bad a bunch as the rest of them.

In small nations (or more accurately, nations with a very small/elitist civic society - and that includes the UK), where everyone knows one another, a "pally" culture can develop. This happens in all nations to a certain extent, but in smaller ones, it can become more pronounced, leading to cronyism, and opening doors to corruption. It also means that when a minister or a public figure needs to be held to account, it doesn't happen for risk of causing offence, hitting morale within a party/ institution or creating political enmity (i.e. Storing up a potential leadership challenge at a later date).

These elites serve a vital role though. They generally drive forward the creation of a civic culture, serve as patrons of national institutions and form the ties that bind the politics to the civic – linking state to citizen. In (south) Wales they're called the "crachach" or the "Taffia". Sometimes they're divided into Welsh-speaking and non-Welsh speaking categories. The irony is that most of the people who've used these terms, or heard of them, probably are part of the crachach – including politicians elected to "stand up for the working man (or woman)."

There's the danger of swapping one elite for another elite, or serving the interests of one against the other. I wouldn't be happy with a recreation of Westminster in Cardiff Bay post-independence, but that's one likely outcome. Of course if there were a "new politics" : direct democracy, complete transparency in government and a continuation of the Assembly's (generally) more casual procedures and atmosphere, then there's a chance this could be avoided – but not entirely. It isn't even avoided today, look at AWEMA.

4. Nationalism vs Cosmopolitanism vs Internationalism

This is tied to "exclusivity". What's the best outlook for a nation?

Many small European nations could be considered monocultural or monoethic. Wales is no exception to this, really. Is that a "good" or a "bad" thing? Multiculturalism is a force for good, as long as it's bound by an overarching, inclusive, civic state identity that's separate from the ethnic one – obviously I believe that to be Welsh.

However, nationalism is often accused of being "backward" or "introspective". There's nothing wrong with that at all. You don't know where you're going unless you know where you've come from, but you don't always have to look behind you. I certainly prefer looking forward, and what I see in the future is red, white and green. If a nation doesn't look after itself, or its own wider interests first, how can it ever be expected to look out for others?

There's a suburban smugness about cosmopolitanism. It results in the infusement of different cultures, cuisines and worldviews – and that's positive. But it also results in nauseating examples of middle-class "safe multiculturalism". The sort of people who'll go to a Mela, who'll travel around off beaten Africa or Asia, but would balk at a minority couple moving in next door and who might come to the conclusion that their own culture is backward. It's all surface deep. It also results in walking on eggshells to avoid offending people.

But there's also a rather smug "monoculturalism" as well. You won't find the best examples of Welsh folk music and poetry playing in front of a few people in a pub, or in a rain-sodden tent in mid-Powys . You'll find them at football and rugby grounds. But, not just in Wales it has to be said, that sort of thing is sneered at because it's not diverse enough, it's "too popular", or it doesn't have a greater message behind it - other than believing, en-masse, that the referee occasionally masturbates.

The likes of North Korea aside, no nation stands alone. It's a globalised world and Europe has led the way in international cooperation, culminating in one of the great political achievements of the 20th Century – the European Union. This can easily accommodate nationalism. In fact, you could argue that nationalism is enhancing it by ensuring every nation (as a member state) is an equal, breaking down traditional expansionistic and exceptionalist powers, and ceding sovereignty consistently across all of the peoples of Europe. Unity through diversity, not in spite of it. An entire continent, not just a collection of islands off the coast.

5. Nationalism is a means to an end, not a means in itself.


It could be argued that this is also one of the big plus points for nationalism – it's 100% achievable. A nationalist politician can walk away at some point saying "job done." It isn't as abstract - in terms of delivery - as "social justice" or "personal liberty".

Is nationalism even a ideology? At heart, it's very narrow and functional - more about system of government than how a government should be run. It's more a facilitator than deliverance.

Civic nationalism has an end-game – independence or a significant degree of self-determination. Once that's achieved, where does it go? Ultimately, it'll be other ideologies and parties that will  deliver the means. In Wales and Scotland, nationalism has been adopted by social democratic parties, or you could say social democratic policies have been adopted by nationalist parties.

I dabbled in traditional left-wing politics, before concluding that an independent Wales is probably the best vehicle see any movement towards equality, social liberalism and social justice – based on examples elsewhere in Europe.

That's compared to the dramatically unequal United Kingdom, that hasn't changed enough after decades and centuries of Labour, Conservative and Liberal rule. Having said that, Welsh independence alone probably won't deliver it either – and that's the point I'm making - but at least it gives us a chance to deal with it our own way – and yes, it probably is significantly different to how the English or Scottish would, so much so we'll have to go it alone.

This is going to sound odd, but I don't really feel any "loyalty" towards Wales. I'm not a flag waver or a chest-beater. I'm not really interested in the emotional and romantic arguments for independence, aside from the Welsh right to self-determination. I'm more concerned about pragmatism.

At the risk of repeating myself, I believe independence would allow Wales to operate to its fullest potential as compared to being part of the UK - or more specifically, the possible reforms independence could bring would enable such.

That's incredibly boring, isn't it? Therefore it makes sense to have an emotional pull alongside it, even if you don't really believe it. It's almost like seeing "the national cause" as a religious act of faith. I've even said before that independence would be a "leap of faith". Though it's wrong to suggest that nationalists alone are culpable of this.

But once a nation has achieved sovereignty (not necessarily in a Westphalian sense) what would be the purpose of nationalism? Some of the answers are above - and they're not something to look forward to.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Whither Porthcawl?


Just before the local elections a few weeks ago, I mentioned that one area Bridgend Council have seriously underperformed is the regeneration of the seaside town of Porthcawl. I thought the topic was significant enough to look at in some more detail.

Background

Porthcawl is the third largest town in the county of Bridgend, with a population of around 16,000. It was once a coal-exporting port for the Bridgend Valleys, but is perhaps most famous for its seaside resort status - with Trecco Bay being a popular getaway for miner's families, and most people in the local area will have visited the Coney Beach fun fair at some point in their youth.

In what will be a familiar story in seaside towns across Wales and the UK, over many years the "Costa del Orite Butt" had become fairly run down, unloved, and in dire need of a turnaround in fortunes to avoid becoming - to be frank - a South Walian Rhyl. Porthcawl does seem to have avoided this fate, thanks in part to an excellent local comprehensive school (one of the better ones in the county) and being able to attract wealthy retirees. However, that doesn't make for a successful economy.

Porthcawl lost its rail link in the Beeching cuts – and is probably now competing with the likes of Mold, Caernarfon, Abertillery, Blackwood and Tredegar for the title of "largest town in Wales without a railway station". The port was downgraded into a harbour/marina, and the town has had to compete with cheap foreign holidays for tourists. Porthcawl was also the only one of the "big three" settlements in the county (Bridgend, Maesteg, Porthcawl) to not have some sort of focused regneration initiative.

That changed back in 2007, when Bridgend Council launched a consultation on regeneration plans for the Porthcawl area. Dubbed the "Seven Bays Project". It earmarked a significant chunk of Porthcawl's seafront for a massive regeneration project, which is hoped will open up land for residential and leisure development, improve flood defences and give the economy of the town a much-needed boost by improving retail choice.

What's planned?

The planning guidance was published in November 2007. This has been supplemented by the current Local Development Plan (which includes the regeneration sites). The regeneration areas are split into three areas.

1.The Western Development Area : This is the current Salt Lake car park, Porthcawl Harbour and the Dock Street car park. I've found this outline plan, but the final scheme could be a lot different.

The Western Development Area outline plan (Click to enlarge)
(Pic : Gaunt Francis)
Developments in this area include:
  • A new 32,000sqft (Tesco) supermarket
  • A new surface car park
  • An 80,000sqft expansion of Porthcawl's retail core, with new public spaces
  • A possible cinema and budget hotel
  • A landmark "leisure box" building and refurbishment of the Jennings Building
  • 650 residential units, including a possible care home.
  • An upgrade to Porthcawl Harbour itself, including committed funding towards development of water sports facilities

2.The Central Development Area : This includes the Coney Beach funfair, Griffin Park and the Sandy Bay promenade.

Developments here include:
  • An upgrade to Sandy Bay promenade, with a new "gateway"
  • Taller buildings, presumably apartments with retail space below, along the promenade
  • An expansion of Griffin Park eastwards
  • Improved flood defences

3. The Eastern Development Area : This is basically the former Sandy Bay caravan park, a brownfield site that stretches from the Parkdean Trecco Bay caravan park to Porthcawl town itself.

The main focus in this area is residential, with an unspecified number of new homes, a new "foreshore park" at the eastern end of the Sandy Bay promenade and lifeguard station. It would be linked to the Portway by a new link road and redirected bus routes, but the new link road wouldn't provide a through route to Newton or Trecco Bay, instead there'll be a "bus gate".

What's gone wrong?

Well, it's five years on, and not a lot has happened in that time, while other regeneration projects in the county have moved at a much quicker pace (I'm thinking of the current works in Bridgend town centre in particular).

I think it's unfair to put all of the blame on this on the council, though. Residential development seems to be a key enabler for part of the regeneration, and market conditions haven't been great for that.

These things do take some time, but if you look at comparable large-scale regeneration schemes - Bargoed's "Big Idea" for example - they've been delivered quickly and rather efficiently, while having to counter the same economic problems – sometimes more pronounced – than Porthcawl.

Some people of Porthcawl have lost faith in the whole process.
The "Porthcawl First" group was formed in 2011. They believe that many of the regeneration proposals have been "imposed" on the town, with a lack of transparency. They also make a strong case for more local control, support for improved and higher quality tourist facilities and improved leisure facilities in the town.

This could stem from the claim that around 30%, or more, of Bridgend's Council Tax revenues comes from the Porthcawl area. Due to house prices in the area, this is perfectly believable, but I'm not sure if it's ever been officially substantiated.


There have been consistent campaigns for a swimming pool in the town over several years, with no forthcoming results. The closest one is in Pyle - about 5 miles north of Porthcawl - with another one - aimed mainly at tourists - on the Trecco Bay camp. This "backlash", which has been dubbed the "Porthcawl Spring"  could've played a part in Alana Davies - a prominent member of Bridgend's cabinet - losing her seat to an Independent in May's local elections, though Alana has subsequently become Porthcawl's mayor.


The Outlook

Tesco are "imminently" due to put in a full planning application for the Salt Lake car park site, as reported in the Glamorgan Gazette in the last few weeks.

However, I'm sure many people in the town are going to be worried that the other leisure and retail developments won't happen for a long time. If it's taken this long to get a major supermarket chain to commit, how long will it take to get the mooted (but not confirmed) cinema, or the "leisure box" built? It could result in the only deliverable project being a supermarket with a housing estate around it. That would be a huge let down.

Maybe Bridgend Council could do what Newport Council did. When the very ambitious Friar's Walk development fell through, they waited until a slimmed-down, but equally ambitious, proposal came along - when they could've accepted any old development.

My concern is that, with mounting criticism, Bridgend Council, or their regeneration partners, might want to cut their losses and open the land up to anything - just to get something built, or to stall for time. Porthcawl deserves better than that.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Draft Public Audit (Wales) Bill

"Who watches the watchers?"
The draft Public Audit Bill aims to address some key issues
surrounding how public institutions in Wales are held to account.
(Pic: BBC)

The second "meaty" piece of legislation so far this Assembly term is incredibly boring, but absolutely essential. It's to do with the Wales Audit Office, which has – ironically - come under intense scrutiny over the years due to various failing and malpractices.

Before she became Plaid leader, Leanne Wood (Plaid, South Wales Central) uncovered instances of workplace bullying, self-authorised expenses and excessive severance packages. And of course the former Auditor General was jailed in November 2010.

Having said that, despite these major issues, it's actually been an efficient organisation – winning a chartered accountancy award in 2009.

The time has come though for more concrete changes and Finance Minister Jane Hutt (Lab, Vale of Glamorgan) put a new Public Audit Bill out for consultation in March, with a final draft/Bill proper likely to come in the next couple of months.

The draft proposals included:

1. Public Audit Institutions

The Auditor General:
  • Will be nominated by the Assembly and appointed by the Queen
  • Can hold the office for a single term of 7 years and cannot be re-appointed
  • Cannot be an elected official, member of the House of Lords, or an existing employee of the Wales Audit Office or Assembly Commission
  • Pay will be decided by the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee, but won't be performance based
  • Will be Chief Executive of the Wales Audit Office

The Wales Audit Office (WAO):
  • Will have a corporate body made up of 7 members - 5 of whom will be non-executive members appointed from outside the WAO, the Auditor General and one employee of the WAO.
  • May employ its own staff, but under the same conditions as employment to the Welsh Government
  • Is obliged to carry out its functions "efficiently and cost-effectively"
  • Must prepare a statement of expenses and income and prepare and annual plan for the financial year
  • Will have the power to borrow to meet temporary excesses
  • May charge fees for its duties and services, subject to Public Accounts Committee approval. Welsh Ministers will be able to draw up a "scale of fees" through regulations

2. Public Audit Functions
  • The Auditor General will have "compete discretion" and will not be under the direct control of the Assembly or Welsh Government.
  • Welsh Ministers and Assembly Commission must keep proper accounts and prepare a statement of those accounts for each financial year, submitted by November 30th in the following financial year.

Public Bodies subject to public audit include (with varying deadlines):
  • Public Service Obundsman
  • Older Persons Commissioner
  • Children's Commissioner
  • Welsh Language Commissioner
  • Local Government Boundary Association
  • Estyn (school inspector)
  • Forestry Commission
  • Countryside Council for Wales
  • General Teaching Council for Wales
  • HEFCW (HE funding)
  • National Library
  • National Museum
  • Welsh levy board
  • Welsh NHS body/bodies
  • Care Council for Wales
  • Wales Centre for Health
  • Sports Council for Wales
  • CADW

  • Education bodies, such as governing bodies, may be subject to audit on request.
  • Welsh Ministers may amend the list with consultation with the body/bodies affected.
  • The Auditor General will have four months to lay a copy of the accounts before the National Assembly as well as a report on any findings.
  • The Auditor General will have to be satisfied that spending, or money received, was lawful, used for expected purposes, meets statutory provisions for accounting and observed proper practices in the statement of accounts.
  • The Auditor General will have to carry out "value for money" examinations, to ensure efficiency and cost-effectiveness within an organisation. This must take the views of the Public Accounts Committee into account.
  • The Auditor General can produce reports on matters "in the public interest" that arise during an audit.
  • The House of Commons Select Committee of Public Accounts will be able to request that the Assembly's equivalent committee take evidence on their (HoC) behalf or report evidence to them.

3. Auditing Local Government
  • Local authorities (county councils, community councils, national parks, police commissioners, fire authorities etc.) will need to make up their accounts by March 31.
  • The Auditor General will have similar powers to audit local authorities as those listed in part 2 above.
  • The Auditor General will have the power to judge and publish "standards of performance" within local authorities. It will need to be published in a local newspaper which is printed for sale, free of charge or circulating in the area.

4. Data Matching
  • The Auditor General will be able to conduct "data matching exercises", which involves comparing data to see how well they match, including identifying patterns and trends. This aims to assist in the detection of fraud.
  • Any of the bodies mentioned above will be required to provide data to the Auditor General, with fines for non-compliance.
  • Results of data matching may be disclosed by the Auditor General but with some restrictions (i.e. patient data).
  • The results may be published by the Auditor General, but not if the body or person is included in the data matching exercise, can be identified from the information, or if the information is "not otherwise in the public domain".
  • The Secretary of State will have powers in this area to do with criminal justice. The SoS will have powers to amend the Act to include public bodies that relate exclusively to Wales, modify applications or to omit bodies.

5. Functions of the Auditor General


This is a list of specific rights and duties of the Auditor General, and the subjects of audits. It's an expansion of everything listed above.

Conclusion

I'm not entirely sure of the reasons this legislation is needed, to be frank. All of these things should already have been in place since the Wales Audit Office was established. However, it does make it a lot clearer as to what the Wales Audit Office and the Auditor General are responsible for. It should lead to better functioning behind the scenes, and ensure that relevant bodies are kept on their toes.

It brings the Wales Audit Office into line with the provisions of the UK Budget Responsibility and National Audit Bill.

As I said, this is incredibly boring an uninspiring, but essential for smooth running of government.

You can wake up now.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The inflexibility of British identity politics


Owen: As I suspect most of the people reading this will know, I recently wrote an article for Cambria Magazine on the "affordability" of Welsh independence. You can read "The Big Independence Question" here at Cambria Politico.
"People can be Scottish and British, it's OK. And if they feel primarily Scottish that's fine too. But if they leave the UK they won't be British any more: it stands to reason." - Ed Miliband, 7th June 2012 (quoted from The Guardian)

One you move out of the parental home, your parents are still a part of your family, as are your extended family. That's "Britishness" to me, or what I would like it to be.

The status quo is the equivalent of several generations living under the same roof, generally getting under each others feet. Scotland is looking at Property Gazette, but put off by the prices. Wales is a forty year old man-child playing console games and eating Doritos all day long. Northern Ireland is the drama queen youngest daughter. England is the favourite son who has a successful job, is very attractive, but can't get a girlfriend because his personality stinks. Cornwall is locked in the attic, while the British parents are resolute that none of them would last five minutes without the constant, dedicated, love, care and attention of Mummy & Daddy – even if it kills them.

Personally, I'm quite comfortable with a Welsh ethnic, national and cultural identity, a Celtic pan-cultural identity, a pan-Britain, Commonwealth & Ireland "familial" identity and an all-encompassing European trans-national, civilisation identity. It also goes without saying I'm one of seven billion of the same species.

That's at least five different identities (more once you add community and family ones). Each has their own meaning to me - the last one being the most important, the first being the most relevant in practical and decision-making terms. I also have different opinions on which ones should wield the most influence on my daily life. If that still makes me a "narrow nationalist" so be it.

I might very well believe that Wales should be an independent nation state, and believe in the self-determination of all nationalities, but I'm not a fan of anybody dictating the terms of what someone can or cannot identify themselves as. I might not accept that "British" is my nationality, but it's still a part of my identity, just not as critical as I believe it should be.

If, post-independence, people in Wales still want to consider their nationality British, I'm fine with that. I'll be fine with people celebrating Jubilee's or whatever. In fact, I'll be more inclined to join in, as a looser part of my identity – the equivalent of a family reunion - as long as it doesn't affect Wales' inalienable right to exist on equal standing with every other nation on the planet.

"British" is a geographical truism. If you are from Wales, England, Scotland or Cornwall, you are "British" whether you consider it a nationality or not, and whether those nations become independent/self-governing or not. Northern Ireland and all those ever-present bits of pink on the map make it more complicated, but saying Scots wouldn't be British post-independence is a bit like saying citizens from non-EU nations aren't Europeans.

The trouble is, "British" is interpreted by many unionists as meaning – exclusively - Unitedkingdomofgreatbritainandnorthernirelandish. It's not, really, an ethic identity – not that such things really matter – despite attempts to create the notion of a single "British people". Although I can understand people from ethnic minorities being more willing to identify as "British" as opposed to the more ethnically-derived constituent nationalities.

It started as a personal union between crowns, so it hasn't always been the national identity as we know it.

When people describe "British culture", they usually describe things that are quintessentially English - just wrapping everything under a catch-all label to make those of us on the fringes feel included. I don't consider it my own national identity in part because it subsumes my Welsh one in a way I believe is artificial. Obviously I believe there are also inherent and irreconcilable political and economic disadvantages to Wales within the union, hence the blog.

The fact the Scottish are on the cusp of possibly rejecting their British "national identity", makes the whole notion of a British nationality weak at the core. The Scots shouldn't be in the position even contemplate doing this if Britishness were such a strong binding influence for the union as claimed. Almost everything about British identity as it currently stands also "feels wrong". It "feels fake" and without any meat to it.

You don't really see successful secessionist movements in federal nations with a powerful, overarching national identity; that's inclusive, not really dominated by one member state, combined with effective and less convoluted division of powers at local, state and federal level – the USA, Switzerland, Australia and Germany for example. These nations exist purely as the sum of their parts.

The likes of the UK and Spain don't really have this. Instead they have something "above" the sum of their parts, that hovers around, you can't ignore, but has little substance to it. It's a by-product of a political engine. "Britishness" is steam, while the other identities are shovelled and thrown into the fire. Neither can work without the other, but one is solid while the other dissipates surprisingly easily despite looking dramatic on the surface.

If Scotland leaves the UK (I'm not convinced the yes-side will succeed in 2014), "British", as Ed Miliband implies it means – Unitedkingdomofgreatbritainandnorthernirelandish - is by and large dead, returning to a personal union of the crowns of Scotland and England. If the Scots can no longer be British post-independence on those terms, neither can Ed.

But British identity shouldn't be viewed as a negative just because it doesn't seem to be working the way unionists or nationalists might like it to. It can be positive and something to celebrate, but it'll have to become something different, perhaps even something better, perhaps something we don't even know of yet.

It's an example that's been done to death now, but the pan-Scandinavian Nordic Union and Nordic Council is something that the "New Britishness" can model itself on. It acknowledges that there's  something in common between a collection of independent states, and has benefits of being part of "the family" – passport-free travel for example, or even sharing embassy space.

What a coincidence, something similar exists in the British Isles – The British-Irish Council, the Common Travel Area and perhaps even extending to the Commonwealth. People in the Republic of Ireland can freely move to any of the other nations, vote in their elections but the Irish can also play a full part in international affairs, making their own decisions and mistakes as a sovereign nation state. The same is vice versa, except "Britain" muscles in on the sovereign nation state bit.

Once you throw in the Crown Dependencies, if you had little understanding of how the UK worked, it would likely appear inexplicably and unnecessarily complicated.

One thing is becoming obvious though. On the constitution and devolution, the Welsh Labour leadership currently trumps anything that Westminster Labour can put out.

If only Labour had someone, at UK level, who talked some sense on the future of the UK and all its associated conundrums – someone like Carwyn Jones perhaps.

Maybe if the London-based branch of Labour took their heads out of their backsides, and gave their most senior elected politician anywhere in the UK the time of day, they might be able to create a slightly more coherent policy on devolution, identity, federalism and England that could preserve the Union - instead of the dribbling nonsense put out last week.

Instead of getting bogged down in the not particularly important "heart" issues of identity and belonging, both sides of the debate are going to have to offer a "head" vision that not only lasts beyond the next set of elections, or the next decade, but works 30, 50 or 100 years from now. One of the union's strengths is that it has an ingrained flexibility because it doesn't have a written constitution – the union, as it is currently, is only 16 months old – but it's rapidly approaching an end point unless we have something bolder.

That something will also have to offer the English more than expressions of "good nationalism". That safe kind of nationalism, that arises with every major sports tournament, and doesn't deal with the nitty-gritty of decision-making - you know, doesn't deal with the stuff that actually matters to people or could result in awkward questions being asked.

If the identities of the constituent nations of the UK shouldn't belong exclusively to nationalists, neither should British identity to unionists. What Ed Miliband has said - and what presumable many others in the coming years will be saying - is that you can only be British on unionist terms.

What inflexible, narrow British nationalism.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Independence Minutiae : Same Sex Marriage

The UK Government is currently consulting on proposals for
civic same sex marriage - what could a sovereign Wales do? What
are the arguments that legitimise same sex marriage?
(Pic: The Telegraph)


What is "marriage"?

We'll all probably have our own definitions of what marriage is. It'll probably boil down to "a lifetime commitment to a monogamous relationship enshrined in law" or more simply "He's/She's mine, hands off!"

But is this definition exclusive to straight couples? Should it be?

The government of the Thingamajig of EnglandandWales is currently undertaking a consultation on same sex marriage. The Lib Dems, Greens and Plaid Cymru have long been supporters. Labour of course made the progressive step of introducing "civil partnerships" but that isn't "same sex marriage". The new developments would potentially legalise civil marriage between same sex couples, but religious marriages would remain off-limits. Scotland is also consulting separately on the issue, and along similar grounds.

There's widespread support for the idea that same-sex couples should be able to make a "lifetime commitment to a monogamous relationship enshrined in law". In a July 2011 poll for Angus Reid, support for same sex marriage was at 43%, while support for civil partnerships was at 34%. There are other polls that suggest higher support for same sex marriage.

Many have criticised the UK government, suggesting that this shouldn't be a "high priority" - as though our MPs can't concentrate on more than one thing at a time. There have also been - rather cynical - suggestions that the Conservatives are using this as a way to appear "progressive" or "nicer".

But is a lot of the debate around same sex marriage boiling down to a name?

Are Same Sex Marriages legitimate?

When granting civic or legal rights, there are several points to consider, and probably more than I'm listing below:

1. Is it informed?

Both humans age over 16, only two of them, not in an existing marriage, not related to one another and actually willing to marry. Yup.

2. Does it contradict existing legislation?

Homosexuality and bisexuality are legal, discrimination based on sexuality is illegal and civil marriages are legally recognised. Any change to the law should comfortably fit within this. Not allowing same sex marriage could probably be considered contradictory, unless marriage is strictly defined as between a man and a woman.

3. Would it be considered unconstitutional?

Obviously any Welsh Constitution or Bill of Rights would need to have, and I would expect them to have, equality for LGBT's. However, it would also need to have protections to allow people to practice their faith and beliefs (within reason). There's nothing to suggest same sex marriages would be "unconstitutional", and we wouldn't really know in UK terms.

4. Does it have a direct negative impact on other individuals or society? If so, can appropriate measures be put in place to mitigate it without criminalisation?


Two consenting adults making a lifetime commitment to each other, expressing their love. Nothing to see here. The "negative impacts" are largely subjective.

The arguments against


There are two mainstream "strands" of arguments against : the religious and the conservative moralist.

Religious objections are perfectly legitimate, but have (or should have) no baring on the granting of civic/secular or legal rights.

I'm against the state interfering in internal religious affairs (with exceptions), or vice-versa. It would be incredibly optimistic to expect conservative elements like the Catholic Church or Islam to ever recognise same sex marriage.

However, here's a list of things that Christianity, and its associated denominations – the majority religion in Wales and the UK – has by and large "loosened up on" down the years:
  • Bowl hair cuts and shaving (Leviticus 19:27)
  • Rearing pigs, eating pork and bacon (Leviticus 11:8)
  • Fortune telling (Leviticus 19:31)
  • The withdrawal method of contraception (Genesis 38-9:10)
  • Tattoos (Leviticus 19:28)
  • Blended fibres (i.e Polyester) (Leviticus 19:19)
  • Divorce (Mark 10:8-9)
  • Castrated men entering into a church (Deuteronomy 23:1)
  • Women wearing gold, braids or pearls (Timothy 2:9)
  • Eating shellfish (Leviticus 11:10)
  • Cross dressing (Deuteronomy 22:5)
  • Arrogance (Proverbs 16:5)
  • Mocking bald/old men/revered elders (2 Kings 2:23-24)
  • Anaesthesia during childbirth (Genesis 3:16, Isaiah 26:17-18)
  • Homosexuality [well, not quite] (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, Romans 1:26-27)

All of this is open to interpretation, and being taken in the relevant context, of course.


If organised religions want to deny same sex marriage, as a religious ceremony, based on their own interpretations of religious texts, then they should be perfectly entitled to do so.

But there's also a warning for them in all this. Organised religion has become a dying influence on social policy because it has never kept up with the pace of social, and perhaps even technological, change in the last century. The list above tells its own story. It's in danger of becoming a loud, shrieky, hysterical presence on the sidelines that can't be taken seriously. Religion has never, should never, and will never, hold a monopoly on the definitions of love between informed adults.

If it's now considered an anachronism to outlaw divorce (even if it's still viewed negatively), perhaps it's not so ridiculous to acknowledge a "lifetime commitment" between two adults through the spiritual equivalent of gritted teeth.

For example, being able to be married, or a new equivalent to marriage, in a religious ceremony, on the "promise" that they would remain celibate. I think that's the closest same sex couples are going to get to marriage equality within religious groups, though more liberal denominations and orders might be convinced from within to go the whole hog.

There's also a social conservative, somewhat "secular", argument against. A belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman. This is to preserve the "nuclear family" in order to maintain social norms and traditional family values. I doubt this holds much water in modern Wales, where single-parent families are becoming increasingly common. In 2010, single-parent families made up 9.3% of households compared to 8.4% for the UK. There are no statistics, as far as I can tell, for families made up of same sex couples, though I suspect they will also increase over the years.

Independence & A New Marriage Act


It's highly likely that the same sex marriage issue will be resolved long before independence, and probably within this current parliamentary term.

That doesn't mean that the issue couldn't be revisited post-independence. If we follow the Swedish example, a new gender-neutral Marriage Act could be drawn up to tidy things up. It could include:
  • A legal definition of marriage as a legally registered partnership between two people aged over 16.
  • Possible new definitions for common law partnerships.
  • A clear outline of financial, children, bereavement, divorce and property arrangements – perhaps ensuring an equitable/fair split of assets and more equitable parental access rights.
  • Religious opt-outs – religious institutions can refuse to marry same-sex couples, or recognise same-sex marriages as an institution for religious rites, but the state would always recognise it as equal to mixed-sex marriage.
  • Liberalised civic marriage venue licencing.

The UK Government are also consulting on criminalising "forced marriages" (which are already illegal in Scotland). Although it's going to be incredibly difficult to fully eliminate forced marriages simply through legislation, any post-independence Marriage Act could deal with the force marriage issues, legitimate "arranged marriages" and "marriages of convenience" (i.e. to obtain citizenship). Hopefully it could be done in a way to protect the rights of brides and grooms while acknowledging cultural and religious differences.

What could marriage look like post-independence?


This partially depends on social trends. As religious attendances fall, perhaps most people will opt for a civil marriage in registry offices, or other venues, or indeed pretty much wherever they want to if venue licencing were liberalised : a favourite pub, a local park, a stadium, where they met, at home. Though you probably can already.

I'd imagine over the coming years there'll be more "common law" partnerships, and perhaps slowly, marriage - as we've come to know it - will become increasingly less common, but remain the most popular choice for a couple's dedication to each other.
And yes, I'd fully expect there to be many people declared "husband and husband" or "wife and wife." If not in churches, synagogues and mosques etc., then in any licenced civic marriage venue – if same sex couples take their right - hopefully fully protected in Wales - to do so.