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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.

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.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Euro 2012 predictions


It's the biggest single-sport event of the Summer, co-hosted by Poland & Ukraine,  starting tomorrow afternoon.

There's no Welsh involvement obviously. The death of Gary Speed cast a shadow over a promising end to the qualification campaign. With the European Championships expanding to a 24-team tournament, Euro 2016 will be the best chance for Wales to qualify for a major tournament since 2004's disappointment. Wales should make the most of it, because I'm sure once all the complications of a 24-team tournament become obvious, it'll revert back to 16-teams.

However that's no reason to avoid looking at how our English and Irish friends will do.

Group A

Russia
Poland
---------
Czech Republic
Greece

Co-hosts Poland have an exciting generation of young players coming through. Wojciech Szczesny is one of the most talented young goalkeepers in the English Premier League, while Robert Lewandowski is one of the most prolific strikers in Europe. They are on the cusp of emulating the great sides of the 70s and 80s. It'll probably be inexperience of a few of the players that will let them down, offset by home advantage. I think they can get out of their group.

Russia have an immensely talented team, and an extremely effective forward line that includes the likes of Andrei Arshavin, Roman Pavlyuchenko and Pavel Pogrebnyak. I expect them to be fighting with the Czech Republic and Poland for the top two places and they'll probably get through in the end. They'll be serious challengers for a European or World Championship in the next decade, but I think this is too soon.

The Czech Republic will want to exorcise memories of Euro 2008, Petr Cech in particular. Milan Baros has a fearsome record at international level in goalscoring, but will influential player, and captain, Tomas Rosisky manage to stay fit the whole tournament? Russia will be too strong for them, I'm guessing, and they play Poland in their last game which will probably be the decider for second place, with home advantage being critical.

Greece will want to put smiles on faces back home. Can they repeat Euro 2004? Not a chance. They'll have to be incredibly disciplined, and incredibly lucky, to get out of a group with the hosts, Russia and the Czechs.

Group B

Netherlands
Germany
---------
Portugal
Denmark

The "Group of Death" in this tournament, but I actually think it's going to be fairly routine.

The Netherlands have one of the strongest squads at Euro 2012 and likely to be amongst the favourites. Only great rivals Germany are a real threat to them in this group. They are an incredibly attack-minded side, despite their anti-football at the 2010 World Cup Final. I fully expect them to get out of the group.

Germany are overdue a big tournament win, their last international trophy being Euro 96. If I were a betting man I'd put money on them. They are most people's favourites this time around, and probably mine as well. I think they'll be too strong for Portugal, and will probably flatten Denmark. It would be a huge shock if they didn't get out of this group.

Portugal look weaker than previous years, but on their day they can be a match for anyone. I just don't think they have enough to take on The Netherlands and Germany. They have no strikers of any note and will probably be reliant on Christiano Ronaldo and Nani to create chances.

Denmark will probably lose every game in a group like this. They performed incredibly well in qualifying, but I think even they'll accept this draw could've been kinder. Third place in the group at best. They have some of the best travelling fans in Europe though.

Group C

Spain
Italy
----------
Croatia
Republic of Ireland

I think Spain are going to be found out this time around, but they are still obvious contenders. Injuries to Puyol and Villa will be huge blows, and the core of the team are starting to show their age. I fully expect them to remain competitive, but I don't think they'll retain their title.

I think Italy are going to be the surprise package. They've had two very disappointing tournaments on the trot. With match-fixing scandals at home, they tend to perform when their backs are up against it. A few kind results here and there could see them go far, but I'd be surprised if they won it. They have a young side with a lot to prove, tempered with an experienced midfield at their peak ages, but they'll have to hope Mario Ballotelli doesn't go off on one, or destabilise the squad.

Croatia suffered heartache in 2008, exiting to Turkey on penalties. They have some very gifted players like Luka Modric, Niko Kranjcar, Eduardo and Vedran Corluka. However I think Spain and Italy will simply be too much for them.

What of the Republic of Ireland? Their first European Championships for 24 years. Russia aside, they had a pretty easy qualifying group in all honesty, and I think it'll show. It does have some sort of inevitability that they'll likely get something out of the Italy game, but it's incredibly optimistic to see them get out of their group.

Group D

France
England
----------
Sweden
Ukraine

France are a far cry from the shambles they were at the 2010 World Cup. On paper, they have one of the strongest squads, but it depends on which France will turn up. I fully expect them to qualify from the group quite comfortably, but after that, who knows? The tournament's dark horses, in my opinion, but they'll have to convincingly beat England in the first game.

What lies ahead for England (or should that be Liverpool-Everton XI) and Woy? The squad is mostly young, hungry, but in some areas woefully inadequate or inexperienced for this level – in particular "bench/squad" players. I think it's safe to say England are "in transition". However, I think they place too much emphasis on Wayne Rooney's contributions and are overestimating Sweden and Ukraine. They'll find it difficult, but I'd expect them to qualify from the group, which is probably the minimum the English would expect. For once though, I don't think there are many people predicting an England tournament win. Maybe with expectations at a low level though, they can produce results with the pressure off. We'll see.

Sweden's qualification performance betrays the straightforwardness of that qualifying group (Netherlands aside). They don't have a squad that screams that they'll do anything dramatic. Zlatan Ibrahimovic will probably be carrying the side, but they have a decent record at big tournaments for a country their size. Maybe they can cause an upset against England or France, but likely not.

Co-hosts Ukraine play in a European championships for the first time. Most of their players play in the, not brilliant but not great either, Ukrainian Premier League. I'm not expecting miracles from them here, but I wouldn't be surprised if they pulled off a brave performance or two in front of their own fans.

I also think the racism issue, however serious, has been massively overblown. Club and international football are very different and the Ukrainians won't allow anything to happen that projects them in a bad light. These "negative" stories are dug up before every major tournament. In 1994 it was that the Americans didn't like "sawkerball".  In 1998, 2000 and 2006 it was hooliganism (and it did come true to an extent). In 2002 it was the South Korean and Japanese perceived lack of atmosphere. In 2004 it was organisational difficulties in Portugal.  In 2010 it was South Africa's high crime rate. It's racism this time around, and it appears organisational difficulties are being expressed for 2014. The less said about the 2018 and 2022 World Cups the better.

Maybe it's justified this time, but it does have a patronising, sensationalist, perhaps even ignorant, undertone to it. Finger's crossed nothing happens to cast a shadow.

Knockout stages


Quarter-finals

Russia v Germany
Spain v England
Netherlands v Poland
France v Italy

Russia get a rubbish draw from their perspective. It should be against Germany, who should also win any duel between them. England, should they fail to win their group, will likely face Spain and I think there's only ever going to be one outcome there – England out at the quarter finals, but probably not involving penalties.

Netherlands v Poland should be a walkover for the Dutch (on paper), despite home advantage for the Poles. France v Italy would be an interesting one and hard to call. I'll go for France through on penalties. It's a coin toss.

Semi-finals

Germany v Spain
Netherlands v France

A step too far for Spain I believe. There's been a noticeable shift from "attractive" to "efficient/direct" football across Europe the last few years. If anyone can stomp out Spain's Barcelona-inspired "tiki-taka", it'll be the Germans.

There's one small problem with the Netherlands – they're perennial chokers. On paper they'll get into the final, but I wouldn't be surprised if France fluke it, sending the Dutch home on penalties or in extra time.

Final

Germany v France

The Germans are due a big tournament win, as I said earlier, I think they'll get it too – against France or the Netherlands.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

A Welsh Monarchy

If this were your job for 60 years, you've
probably earned a "service of thanksgiving".
(Pic: Huffington Post)

Betty's Big Bash – A reflection on 60 years of Elizabeth II

I loath the institution: the funny hats, the state religion, the toadying, the hangers-on, the expanded aristocracy, the indentured labour, the opulent trinkets and baubles, the pomp, the enforced red, white and blue. But Betty was born into that goldfish bowl, and that's not her fault. I can't bring myself to have anything but begrudging respect for the woman who's had to combine raising a family with the formality, duties and pleasantries that being monarch demands of her.

Yeah, I'm sure it's a pretty comfortable life, but can you imagine what it's like listening to blustering Prime Ministers and various dignitaries drone on and on, with dull food and even duller conversation, and actually looking like you give a toss? For sixty years. That sounds like my idea of Hell. The Jubilee itself – the partying, the concert, the fireworks, the jumping up and down and waving flags, is - in essence - a "celebration" of her father's death. Perhaps that's why she's had a face like thunder for most of the last four days, only ever seeming to be happy with the "proper" ceremonial stuff earlier today.

Monarchy manages to bring out some of the worst aspects of the public and our politicians. I'm not against anyone having fun because I might not agree with what they're celebrating, but I've got the impression some of the hardcore royalists use the Windsors to fill a hole in their lives.

We all probably know about the shameful story in today's Guardian about the use of "workfare" people to steward the Jubilee pageant. We're all expected to bow low and become as sycophantic as possible to make sure everything is "perfect" for Betty, when in practice she probably can't see - or wouldn't even know - about every blade of grass out of place. Margaret Thatcher once described Elizabeth Windsor as "the kind of woman who would vote SDP". I'm sure - if she's even told about this - she'll be horrified in private.

If it's one thing that would sum up Betty's 60 years, it would be that (misplaced) sense of duty. She probably always considers herself as there for us rather than the other way around. She's had to do everything in public with a robotic, near-emotionless detachment because that's what we - or should that be traditionalists and royalists amongst us - expect of her.

In this day and age, I think that's cruel, and just one of the many reasons why I'm a republican.

Hereditary privilege existing in the 21st century isn't a cause for celebration. However, even I can begrudge a nod of - not necessarily appreciation, but acknowledgement – towards Elizabeth Windsor the person, who's doing the job well into her 80s, when - if she were any other woman - she would have her feet up by now. Elizabeth Windsor who, like it or not, has become part of the furniture. Elizabeth Windsor and can put a smile on kids faces before they even know what a republic is. And who can bring a bit of cheer to a old biddies in a retirement home who've waited for a glimpse of the trademark brightly coloured dresses. The Liz Windsor who can make somebody really special feel special by handing over an award, or giving them a moment of time and recognition.

We should reflect on that because when she's gone – and not wanting to tempt fate but we should steel ourselves for a Platinum Jubilee - only then will most of us realise the person we've lost.

I can't think of any better person for monarchy to make a dignified exit after - saving one of the best till last. She's one of the best because she's kept herself (and her private life) in the background, maintained that distance between herself and the rest of us by not getting caught up in celebrity culture, whilst remaining familiar and firmly committed to her duties.

The institution can go hang, but we shall not look upon her like again.

So, here's to you Betty, love. Sixty years as the world's most expensive civil servant - a job you had no choice over - isn't bad at all.

The Monarchy in Wales

There are three clear advantages to hereditary, constitutional monarchy over a republic as far as I can see.
  1. Monarchical titles generally command far more respect in diplomacy - as a "living brand" for the nation - creating a wider sense of "loyalty" to the state (when they are popular!).
  2. It's an apolitical position. It's good that there's someone above our elected politicians who can keep them on a leash - and maintain a sense of continuity - without being dragged into the mud of party politics.
  3. Long reigns build up decades of experience in diplomacy and statesmanship, and that level of experience can be invaluable when advising politicians.

Of course, I personally think the disadvantages far outweigh these advantages above.

I've always believed the "head of state options" should be something explored in more detail post-independence. I've brought up a Welsh Republic before, but today of all days is best to look at the arguments and options from the other side. I'm probably not going to make myself especially popular by doing so, but here goes.

The Status Quo

The Queen is head of several
"Commonwealth Realms", most of which
are independent in their own right.
(Pic : Wikipedia)
Retaining the "British" monarch as head of state is the most probable outcome post-independence. It's not acceptable, or ideal, but all but the most trenchant republican nationalists would accept that as an inevitable outcome. To them I would say that with independence there would be the opportunity to present arguments in a completely different environment, and make any changes.

Obviously the Queen/King would have the title "Queen/King of Wales" vis-a-vis Canada and Australia (presumably Scotland as well). The title Prince of Wales would be dropped. Wales would become a kingdom in its truest sense of the word.


If this happened, nobody would notice any difference and it would help maintain the British social union and the "kinship" - which is something even I would want to see. The monarch would have a formal constitutional role defined in any (ideally written) Welsh constitution, naturally.

I'd be unhappy, but not opposed to this.  I'm more a moderate republican (though I've been far more vociferous in the past) and could live with a slimmed-down, reformed, pan-Commonwealth realm monarchy.

Obviously, if I eventually had the choice, I would vote for a Welsh republic.


Brenin Cymru


There's the - significantly more eccentric - option of reviving a native Welsh hereditary monarchy. I imagine only a very small number of people actually want this. I think it should be ruled out, but let's have some fun anyway.

There are several solid claims to the "Welsh throne", depending on which of the old houses you follow. Sir David Watkin Williams-Wynn, 11th Baronet Bodelwyddan ("Dafydd III") is a direct descendant of Owain Gwynedd of the House of Aberffraw who was - nominally at least - "Owain I". His heir - or edling if we want to use the Welsh term - is ironically called Charles, and his daughter, Alexandra has a professional background as an artist.


Also in line for a claim is Evan Vaughan Anwyl from Tywyn via the same lineage. There are probably many others too - and that's kind of the reason why Wales fractured and lost its independence in the first place!

It's also relevant to note that Betty Windsor is - via Margaret Tudor - a distant cousin of Owain Glyndwr.

Is there a way to combine the respect and pomp the position of monarch has, with the democratic mandate of an elected head of state?

An Elective Monarchy

This is exactly what it says on the tin, and despite the oxymoronic nature, isn't as rare as you might think.

The obvious, and most famous example, is the Pope – head of state of both the Vatican City and the Holy See (as a sovereign diplomatic entity). The Pope is elected by the College of Cardinals in a Papal Conclave by a two-thirds majority.
  • Cambodian monarchs are chosen for a life-long term by council made up of aristocrats.
  • Malaysian monarchs are elected on a five-year term by the hereditary rulers of the Malaysian federal states (with the exception of one, which has its own elected monarch).
  • The French President, directly elected by the French, is a co-prince of Andorra along with the Bishop of La Seu d'Urgell.
  • The Maori Monarch of New Zealand was once elected by tribal elders, but it has become a hereditary role.

If Wales were to establish a monarch other than the existing "British" monarch, or reviving a "native" hereditary monarchy, this would be another option on the table. It's probably the closest you can get to a compromise between monarchists and republicans.

So, what could an (elected) Welsh monarchy look like?

Title & Style

Counting Owain Glyndwr as Owain IV
for numbering might go some way
to righting some historical wrongs.
(Pic : Wikipedia)
There would be a constitutional title Tywysog(es) Cymru – in English, Prince(ss) of Wales. Only the monarch would have a title and constitutional role. Their spouse (where relevant) could probably have an "Honourable" prefix before their name, or a new title can be created.

If Wales becomes independent before the death of Elizabeth II (if we're honest, that's unlikely), I'd support granting her the constitutional title Princess of Wales until she dies - as a courtesy – becoming the last hereditary monarch in Welsh history. The elective monarchy would be established afterwards.

The elected monarch would take a regnal name (formally in Welsh, with an English translation). The issue here is numbering.


In my opinion, only native Welsh monarchs up to and and including Owain Glyndwr (Owain IV), as well as monarchs since Henry VII (Harri I), should be counted. This would retrospectively reposition EnglandandWales as a personal union, starting with Henry Tudor and "legitimised" through the Laws in Wales Acts. So, for example, anyone taking the regnal name Edward under this arrangement would become Iorwerth IV. Henry (Harri III), Elizabeth (Bethan III) etc.

The style of the Tywysog(es) should be somewhat egalitarian, but still respectable – a simple Sir or Ma'am. None of this "Royal Highness" or "Majesty" stuff.

As a state representative abroad, the style should probably be a more presidential "His/Her Excellency". They should not be the head of a church, they should not be "divine". Bows and curtsies would probably be reserved to formal state events and only to respect the office - not the person.

Selection and Eligibility

This is a tricky one : How do you decide who would be suitable to be a monarch or not?

We can probably afford to be more nationalistic than with a president. They should have to be Welsh-born on both sides of their family and live in Wales – but the criteria would be unrestricted with regard race, religion, disability and sexuality.

All prospective candidates will be expected to have made a significant contribution to Welsh public life or public service – for example : military service, charity work, volunteering.

There are two ways to go about nominating – open and closed. Open being a wider nomination process, closed being amongst a group of selected or appointed individuals. In this instance, I'd prefer closed.

An "Accension Council" of sorts - made up of the great and the good of Welsh society, members of the Assembly Commission, as well as drafted members of the public - would assess candidates and decide who to go to a public vote, probably via a secret ballot to shortlist them to a maximum of three.

This process could start a year or two in advance of a scheduled election, to make sure there are candidates in place should something happen – like a death or abdication. These candidates would be "held in reserve", and their names kept secret (for security reasons).

The Llywydd of the National Assembly would act as an interim head of state when required – but they wouldn't take the title.

How do you elect a monarch?

First past the post, supplementary vote and alternative vote are probably the three options here. All relatively straightforward and similar to those I suggested for a President. I would prefer Alternative Vote, personally. Another posibility is the use of some sort of electoral college (made up of local authorities, universities etc.).

To maintain the dignity of the role, a Tywysog(es) wouldn't "lose" an election. Instead, the winner would be "confirmed", or we could even adapt the Eisteddfod term "chaired".

There wouldn't be a election campaign as such either, just a detailed biographical profile. I imagine most candidates will be fairly well known to the Welsh public anyway.

Terms could be long – perhaps 7/8 years. There would be no term limits, meaning a Tywysog(es) can stand for re-election as many times as he/she wishes. If nobody is selected to stand against the sitting Tywysog(es) then the sitting Tywysog(es) would be "confirmed" automatically.

A Tywysog(es) would be able to abdicate at any time, prompting an extraordinary election. The same would happen should a Tywysog(es) die in office. A former Tywysog(es) would probably keep a title after leaving office - probably something like The Honourable X/Regnal Name.

There should be an informal agreement that a sitting Tywysog(es) who can't fully perform their duties - for whatever reason - should stand down at the end of their current term. Only an incredibly popular or exceptional Tywysog(es) could realistically "reign" for three terms or more.

Constitutional Role

An elected Welsh monarch could draw together some
of our older traditions and create some new ones
(Pic : Rhys McKenzie via Flickr)
Only sitting legislators - and those that don't meet the other criteria - would be banned from being selected. Any Tywysog(es) should need to declare and renounce any memberships of political parties. They should also no longer be able to hold any paid or unpaid role in the private or public sector.

The role is likely to be very similar to those I outlined last year for a potential president, but with the politicised roles removed, or only used on the advice of the government:
  • Commander-in-chief of the Welsh Defence Forces
  • Represents Wales abroad and at home with dignity and tact.
  • Receive and entertain visiting dignitaries and guests of honour, organise state visits and functions.
  • Conferring honours, appointing ambassadors, commissioning officers etc.
  • Act as a mediator in inter/intra government disputes (i.e coalition negotiations)
  • Declare a state of emergency, national holiday and order lowering of flags on public buildings. Signs bills into law and treaties with the authority of the legislature (majority vote).
  • Appoints the Prime Minister (with backing of legislature) and approves cabinet appointments; accepts/declines resignation of government ministers.
  • Dissolves the legislature and calls an extraordinary general election at the request of the legislature (i.e. Vote of no confidence in the government).

The Tywysog(es) would carry out "State Openings" of the National Assembly, and make a similar speech to those made by the monarch in Westminster.

The Prime Minister would probably be expected to hold fairly regular meetings on government policy with the Tywysog(es), and more as a courtesy to a head of state than a serious political role.

So the role would be the "opening stuff, shaking hands, waving at crowd" type role we've come to expect from the existing monarch. As I mentioned earlier, a way to make "really special people feel special".

Pomp & Ceremony

Being elected Tywysog(es) should probably be considered the
highest civilian honour in an independent Wales
(Pic: ITV)
There would be a formal coronation/inauguration for any new Tywysog(es). Whether a new coronet would be made, or the existing one used, or even whether a crown should be used at all, is up for debate. It should be an open, secular ceremony.

There would be an opportunity for celebrations should a Tywysog(es) remain in the role for 25, 50 years etc. Due to the elected nature, these would likely be incredibly rare events. The Tywysog(es) would have to be incredibly popular to be able to manage that.

There should probably be a "palace", doubling up as a venue for state functions. I'm sure there are many suggestions for a possible location : City Hall and Insole Court in Cardiff, Tredegar House in Newport and Erddig House in Wrexham are possible candidates.

Serving and former Tywysogion/Tywysogesau would be eligible - and generally expected - to have a state funeral.

What I would want to avoid, however, is the creation of a "personality cult". There would probably be portraits/formal photographs in public buildings - changed with the Tywysog(es) - but there's no need for the levels of reverence the existing monarch has. No "official birthday", no celebrations for every minor event in their personal lives, no gold carriages, and the Welsh people would be "citizens" not "subjects".

Like some of the monarchs in the Scandinavian countries - Denmark for example - they should be accessible and anyone should be able to request an audience.

I'd also be disappointed if there were to be the creation of "dynasties" - where the offspring of a Tywysog(es) gets elected/selected for their parentage alone.

Likewise, the Tywysog(es) would probably have a bit more personal freedom. Their privacy would be expected to be respected like any other Welsh citizen, they should be able to have interviews, pose for photographs and walk down the street with minimal protection.

I suppose that it could be best described as being able to do their shopping, or go to a restaurant, while being noticed and generally polite to the public and vice versa, not expecting that much in the way of "special treatment", but getting it anyway because they are well-liked.

The role of Tywysog(es) itself should be considered the highest civil honour in an independent Wales
. By electing someone to the position, we would collectively be saying : "You've earned the Welsh crown because you represent the best of the Welsh people".

That, in my opinion, is a monarchy fit for the 21st century, and fit for any future independent Wales.