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Friday, January 19, 2018

Reality bites on Brexit

Promises made during the referendum campaign that it would be possible for the UK to have its cake and eat it by leaving the EU whilst at the same time accessing all the benefits of membership, were very swiftly disabused yesterday by the French President.

During his visit to Sandhurst Military Training College, Emmanuel Macron rejected the idea of a tailored Brexit deal for the City, insisting Britain will not be allowed full access to European Union markets, including financial services, unless it pays into the EU budget and accepts all its rules.

Financial services is one of the sectors in which France hopes to seize an increased share of the EU market after Brexit. City firms are concerned about new trade barriers, including the loss of so-called “passporting” rights, that allow them to operate throughout the EU from headquarters in London.

Brexit secretary David Davis has said he is seeking a “Canada plus plus plus” arrangement, based on the EU-Canada trade treaty, but with additional access for services, however Macron very quickly rejected that option. The French President said the UK cannot be offered the same access to the single market that membership allows: “There should be no hypocrisy in this respect, or it would not work and we would destroy the single market.”

This is the reality that the Brexiteers have refused to acknowledge. Losing full access to the single market for financial services will see hundreds of jobs decamping to the continent and an adverse impact on our balance of payments.

If we have to pay in and accept the rules of the single market to counter that then the question arises of why leave in the first place. This is one more consideration that needs to be put to the electorate as part of a second referendum.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Debunking Boris

The claim by Boris Johnson earlier this week, that Brexit can deliver even more than the widely debunked £350m a week to NHS was not just ludicrous, but completely misleading. As statisticians have said, the original claim ignores a rebate and EU funding of projects in this country.

Tellingly, the Foreign Secretary is still referring to a gross figure to back up his new fantasy, once more ignoring the flow of money into the UK from Europe. I am not the only person who is sceptical about Boris' motives and his dubious assertions.

As the Independent reports, Sarah Wollaston, who is a senior conservative MP and the chair of the House of Commons Health Committee, has said the Foreign Secretary’s use of the false statistic was “a disgrace” and “a deliberate deception”:

Dr Wollaston, a former GP, said Mr Johnson “should stop using that figure”.

She told BBC Five Live: “I feel it was entirely a deliberate deception [during the referendum campaign]. They knew that figure was incorrect but I had people repeatedly saying to me, ‘Well all that matters is that people remember a big number’.

“I found that shocking and I think it’s absolutely shocking that there are people continuing to use it. She added: “[Mr Johnson] should stop using it. It’s a disgrace, and I feel very strongly about that.

“We need to be very careful about the way we use data and that goes for all of us in public life.”

Ms Wollaston is absolutely right of course, but there is a wider point here around collective responsibility and the duty of Government Ministers not to mislead the public on key issues.

It is fairly clear that Boris Johnson can now get away with virtually anything within the government. Theresa May appears to have no authority over him and lacks the ability to rein him in. However, there is a difference between campaigning as a backbench MP in a referendum campaign and making promises as a Minister.

People will expect the UK Government to deliver on Boris' promise of an extra £350m a week for the NHS because as he is in the cabinet, he will be considered to have established all the facts before spouting off.

The fact that the Prime Minister has not contradicted him adds authority to this alternative truth. If this government continues to mislead in this way they may come back down to reality with a very painful bump.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Labour civil war moves to the constituencies

For all intents and purposes, the struggle for control of the Labour Party was over once Momentum secured an effective majority on the party's National Executive Committee, however the real contest has just begun.

As the Guardian reports, the direction of any future Labour Government depends on the make-up of the Parliamentary Party and it is in the constituencies that battle lines are being drawn. They say that Labour-supporting trade unions are quietly affiliating scores of branches to the party in key constituencies in a bid to influence future reselection battles:

In what one senior Labour figure called a “cold war arms race”, the GMB union has been encircling supportive MPs with newly affiliated branches, all of which would have a vote in any “trigger ballot” to reselect the sitting candidate. Decisions to affiliate branches are taken at regional level.

Several MPs have also told the Guardian that Unite, whose leader Len McCluskey is a staunch supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, is actively signing up new, small-scale branches – although Unite denies the claims.

This unspoken civil war is set to intensify over the next few years as local parties decide who will represent them at the next General Election. If the Corbyn project is to succeed then he needs to have MPs sympathetic to his point of view so as to elect his chosen successor. This is when things really do start to get interesting.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Time to take waste reduction seriously

One of the problems we face in trying to live more sustainably is that when managing waste we are starting too far down the hierarchy.

Effectively there are a number of ways to reduce the amount of stuff we send to landfill and conserve resources which would otherwise be diverted into cosmetic packaging. At the top of that hierarchy is the need to prevent the waste in the first place by finding other ways of doing things. Below that is minimisation, reuse, recycling, energy recovery and disposal.

Most government initiatives focus on getting people to recycle their waste, whilst the development of facilities to burn waste products to generate energy is also a popular option. I would suggest that a far more sustainable and useful role for Ministers would be in preventing and minimising the waste in the first place, especially when it comes to packaging.

As ever it takes the private sector to lead the way, with the very welcome initiative from Iceland in seeking to become the first major retailer to commit to eliminating plastic packaging for all its own brand products within five years to help end the "scourge" of plastic pollution.

As the Independent reports they plan to replace plastic with packaging that includes paper and pulp trays and paper bags, which would be recyclable through domestic waste collections or in-store recycling facilities.

Surely it would not be beyond the bounds of possibility for others to follow suit or for government to consolidate initiatives they are already considering on reducing plastic by legislating to force through a revolution of this sort.

I am positive that the hard-pressed householder would welcome assistance from Ministers in living sustainably, instead of having to bear the burden of recycling initiatives all by themselves.

Monday, January 15, 2018

That awkward moment when your Brexiteer PM tries to claim credit for an EU initiative

There is some controversy over recent changes to terms of payment which bans retailers, airlines and other businesses from hitting shoppers with hidden surcharges when they use credit or debit cards. These surcharges can be as high as 20 per cent and costs consumers around £166m each year.

The downside is that retailers will now try to recover the cost by raising their prices and this will hit people who tend not to use credit cards for purchases.

The reality of course is that as a society we are addicted to credit and that the vast majority of people will use credit cards for major purchases, not least because there is an insurance element attached to these transactions. So balance this is a development to be welcomed. Which of course is what the Prime Minister did.

As the Independent reports, the Prime Minister tweeted: "From today we're banning hidden charges for paying with your credit or debit card – a move that will help millions of people avoid rip-off fees when spending their hard-earned money." The only problem being that it was not her that did this, it was the EU, that institution she is trying to take us out of:

Green MEP Molly Scott Cato told The Independent: "In spite of her rhetoric about fairness Theresa May is failing to give credit where it is due in suggesting that it is her government that is banning credit card charges.

"The truth is that it was my committee in the European Parliament that fought for and won the cap on credit card fees paid by many retailers which will mean lower charges for UK consumers. To achieve this we had to battle against national governments as well as the finance lobby. "It’s also clear that it was the power of 500 million consumers that enabled us to put pressure on the credit card companies. Brexit Britain will be much weaker and its consumers more vulnerable to financial rip-offs."

Labour MEP Clare Moody also criticised the claims, addressing Ms May on Twitter: "No, you haven’t. This is an EU initiative from which all EU citizens will enjoy, not instigated by UK Government." Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable said: “Once again the Tories are claiming a popular policy that they had nothing to do with."

“These new rules will make things easier, cheaper and more efficient for consumers. Once again EU rules are helping people in their everyday lives. Unfortunately this doesn’t match Theresa May’s spin so instead the Tories are lying to the public.

“This is a welcome change that gives more freedom and flexibility to people in their everyday lives.”

Perhaps Theresa May would like to reconsider her determination to take us out of the European Community after all.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Should Norway just grin and bear it?

I suppose that in a week in which the President of the United States has branded dozens of countries as 'shitholes', a minor spat between Norway and Australia can easily be ignored. And so it would be, if it wasn't so amusing.

The origin of the non-row lies in official advice given by the Australian Government to its citizens thinking of journeying to the northern reaches of Europe. As the Telegraph reports, Smart Traveller, which appears to be an official Australian Government travel advice website, advises that there 'are risks for travellers to the arctic archipelago of Svalbard relating to avalanches, glacier accidents, boating incidents and polar bear encounters. The level of our advice has not changed. Exercise normal safety precautions in Norway.'

Norway, however is having none of it. They tweeted in reply: 'Thank you #Australia for your concern. We can assure you that in mainland Norway all polar bears are stuffed and poses only limited risk.' and followed it up with this:

Of course Australia was actually referring to the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, better known by its Dutch name Spitsbergen, meaning "jagged mountains". These islands lie in the Arctic Ocean, north of mainland Europe, about midway between continental Norway and the North Pole.

As Wikipedia records, the islands were first taken into use as a whaling base in the 17th and 18th centuries, after which they were abandoned. Coal mining started at the beginning of the 20th century, and several permanent communities were established.

The Svalbard Treaty of 1920 recognizes Norwegian sovereignty, and the 1925 Svalbard Act made Svalbard a full part of the Kingdom of Norway. They also established Svalbard as a free economic zone and a demilitarized zone.

It goes on to say: 'Svalbard is a breeding ground for many seabirds, and also features polar bears, reindeer, the Arctic fox, and certain marine mammals. Seven national parks and twenty-three nature reserves cover two-thirds of the archipelago, protecting the largely untouched, yet fragile, natural environment. Approximately 60% of the archipelago is covered with glaciers, and the islands feature many mountains and fjords.'

So technically both countries are right. There are no live polar bears on the Norwegian mainland, but there are in Svalbard. Still, the publicity will not have done Norway any harm.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Farage has his pay docked

There are some who would suggest that his contribution and that of his party to the European Parliament does not justify the full £101,808 a year salary, but Nigel Farage and his fellow UKIP-refuseniks have been elected and they are accountable to their electorate not the likes of me and other pro-Europeans.

However, as the Guardian reports, Farage has finally got his comeuppance after a European parliament investigation alleged he had misspent public funds intended for staffing his office. As a result, he has been docked half his monthly salary.

The paper says that the former UKIP leader, who recently bemoaned being “53, separated and skint”, will lose €40,000 (£35,500) in total after European parliament auditors concluded he had misspent that amount of EU funds:

Financial controllers have been investigating the role of Christopher Adams, who was hired by Farage to work in the European parliament as his assistant.

Auditors suspended Adams’ contract last year, because they were not convinced he was working for Farage on European parliamentary matters. Although paid as Farage’s assistant, Adams was also the national nominating officer for Ukip, where he was described as one of the party’s “key people”.

“Since 1 January [2018] the European parliament has withheld 50% in order to recoup the €40,000 due in salary that was paid to Christopher Adams and which cannot be proved by Farage,” a parliamentary source told the Guardian.

Docking Farage’s pre-tax MEP salary of €8,484 a month would mean he would have repaid what officials call his “debt to the EU” by October 2018.

UKIP have used the European Parliament as a means of funding their political activities for too long. This sanction is welcome.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Is another referendum now more likely?

The sudden conversion of Nigel Farage to the idea of a second referendum on whether we should leave the European Union or not, backed by the co-founder of the Leave campaign, Arron Banks, has certainly animated many Remainers. Even Sir Nick Clegg tweeted, 'I agree with Nigel'.

Nigel Farage's rationalisation for his U-turn is that another Brexit vote would lead to a more decisive victory for the leave campaign and silence remain supporters for a generation. My view is that the result of a second plebiscite would be close, could go either way and could still leave the issue unresolved. Timing is also crucial.

As the Guardian says, the natural time for a second EU referendum would be a poll on whether to accept any deal that May negotiates with Brussels before the date of Brexit in March 2019, or whether the UK should leave without an agreement if she fails to secure one. They suggest that if parliament were to vote against May’s deal with the EU, it could provoke another referendum on the issue or a general election in which Brexit was the central issue.

Personally, I would prefer a referendum because General Elections are rarely decided on single issues and do not as a rule provide clear mandates for constitutional change.

The most interesting part of this little bit of mischief making by Farage is the impact it will have on the Labour Party. The Guardian believes that growing support for another referendum could fuel divisions within Labour. The party leadership currently maintains that there is no need for another popular vote. That is a contrast to some of its pro-EU backbenchers.

Farage has opened the door for a U-turn by Jeremy Corbyn. It is time he showed some leadership, acknowledged his role as an opposition party instead of propping up the Tories and came out for a confirmatory referendum that might give us the opportunity to stay in the EU.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

When Dylan Thomas drank with Kingsley Amis

I admit to a level of scepticism earlier this week when I stumbled across a plaque fixed to the fence at the side of Swansea's Uplands Tavern, which boasted that Dylan Thomas and Kingsley Amis drank together in that pub.

My first reaction was to ask whether the two had even been in Swansea at the same time, however a bit of googling soon verified the claim, though any suggestion that the drinking session was repeated is soon disabused by Amis himself.

The story is set out in the Shiraz Socialist blog from Kingsley Amis' own account, which was first published in the Spectator in 1957, republished in 1970 as part of the Amis anthology What Became of Jane Austin? and finally appeared again in modified form in Amis’s 1991 Memoirs:

I met Dylan Thomas on a single evening in the spring of 1951, when he had accepted an invitation to give a talk to the English Society of the [University] College [of Swansea]. The secretary of the society, a pupil of mine, asked me if I would like to come along to the pub and meet Thomas before the official proceedings opened. I said I would like to very much, for although I had lost all my earlier enthusiasm for his writing, I had heard a great deal, not only in Swansea, of his abilities as a talker and entertainer of his friends. I arranged with my wife and some of our own friends that we would try to get Thomas back into the pub after his talk and thereafter to our house just up the street from there. I got down the pub about six, feeling expectant.

Unfortunately, Amis' expectations were left unmet:

Thomas was already in the pub, a glass of light ale before him and a half-circle of students round him. The impression he made was of apathy as much as anything. Also in attendance was, I said in 1957, a Welsh painter of small eminence whom I called Griffiths. In fact this person was a Welsh poet of small eminence by the name of John Ormond Thomas and later known professionally, I understand, as John Ormond. In the course of the session he told us several times that he had that day driven down from his house in Merionethshire (north Wales, now part of Gwynedd) on purpose to see Thomas, whom he had known, he said more than once, for several years. Thomas seemed very sedate, nothing like the great pub performer of legend. He was putting the light ales down regularly but without hurry.

Thomas stuffed a couple of bottles of beer into his pockets and headed off with his entourage to give the talk he had been engaged to deliver:

The bottles were still in Thomas’s pockets — he checked this several times — when in due course he sat rather balefully facing his audience in a room in the Students’ Union up the hill. About fifty or sixty people had turned up; students and lecturers from the College mainly, but with a good sprinkling of persons who looked as though they were implicated in some way with the local Bookmen’s Society. With a puzzled expression, as if wondering who its author could be, Thomas took from his breast pocket and sorted through an ample typescript, which had evidently been used many times before. (And why not? But I thought differently then.)

His first words were, ‘I can’t manage a proper talk. I might just manage an improper one.’ Some of the female Bookmen glanced at one another apprehensively. What followed was partly run-of-the mill stuff about his 1950 reading-lecturing tour of the US, featuring crew-cut sophomores and women’s literary clubs in pedestrian vein, and partly the impressionistic maundering, full of strings of compound adjectives and puns, he over-indulged in his broadcasts. Then he read some poems.

Once the talk is over, Amis records that they retraced their steps:

Not very long afterwards we were all back at the pub, Griffiths [ie J.O. Thomas] included. With his performance over, Thomas’s constraint had disappeared and he was clearly beginning to enjoy himself. Griffiths, however, was monopolizing him more and more and exchanging a kind of cryptic badinage with him that soon became hard to listen to, especially on one’s feet. The pub, too, had filled up and was now so crowded that the large group round Thomas soon lost all cohesion and started to melt away. I was not sorry to go and sit down at the other end of the room when the chance came. It was at this point that my friends and I finally abandoned our scheme of trying to get Thomas up to my house when the pub shut. After a time the girl student who had been with us earlier, and who had stayed with Thomas longer than most, came over and said: ‘You know, nobody’s talking to him now, except that Griffiths chap.

‘Why don’t you stay and talk to him?’

‘Too boring. And he wasn’t talking to any of us. Still, poor dab, he does look out of it He was in a real state a little while ago.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘All sorry for himself. Complaining that everybody’d gone and left him.’

We all felt rather uncomfortable, and rightly. Although I can vividly recall how tedious, and how unsharable, his conversation with Griffiths was, I am ashamed now to think how openly we must have seemed to be dropping Thomas, how plain was our duty not to drop him at all. Our general disappointment goes to explain our behaviour, but does not excuse it. We were unlucky, too, in encountering him when he was off form and accompanied by Griffiths. At the time I thought that if he had wanted to detach himself and talk to the students he would have found some means of doing so: I have since realized that he was far too good-natured ever to contemplate giving anyone the cold shoulder, and I wonder whether a talent for doing that might not have been something that he badly needed. One of us, at any rate, should have found a way of assuring him that he was being regarded that evening, not with a coltish mixture of awe and suspicion, but sympathetically. Then, I think, we should have seen that his attitude was a product of nothing more self-aware or self-regarding than shyness.

It is possible to feel Dylan's presence wherever you go in Swansea (and of course where he lived in West Wales), but not every establishment he patronised sees fit to record the fact. Kudos to the Uplands Tavern then, for doing so and causing me to find the account of this incident online.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Are UKIP the most dysfunctional Welsh Assembly group ever?

Having secured the election of seven Assembly Members in 2016 it did not take long for UKIP to start falling apart. Right at the beginning of the session there was a coup during which Neil Hamilton ousted the party's Welsh leader from fronting up the group.

Nathan Gill subsequently left the UKIP group and sat as an Independent before he decided that he would rather concentrate on being an MEP and resigned from the Assembly altogether. There are many who say that he will not be missed due to his erratic and infrequent appearances in the Senedd.

And then the now six-strong UKIP group lost a second member as Mark Reckless defected back to the Conservatives.

So it must have been a relief to the remaining five members when Nathan Gill's resignation saw his replacement by another UKIP member. A fresh start? One would think so, alas it was not to be.

As the Western Mail report, Mandy Jones, the new North Wales UKIP AM, lasted just hours as a member of her party's Assembly group. Instead of welcoming her with open arms, Neil Hamilton and his little fan club put out a statement claiming that Ms Jones had chosen to employ people who “are either members of, or have recently campaigned actively for, other parties, or both” and that as such she was not welcome to join them.

Mandy Jones own account of the rift highlights the UKIP group's paranoia. She says she was given a two-hour ultimatum to sack her staff or be excluded, only finding out when she was handed a press release during a meeting with Assembly Presiding Officer Elin Jones:

She said she was “shocked, upset and appalled” to be told that she should dismiss the staff members previously employed by Mr Gill.

A former shepherd and the mother of four grown-up children, Ms Jones, who lives near Corwen, said: “Nathan Gill contacted me a while ago and told me that he intended to resign his seat and that under Assembly rules I would take over.

“I then had a dinner in north Wales with Neil and Christine Hamilton. They were charming, but it was mentioned to me that I shouldn’t reappoint Nathan’s staff and that they would help me to get staff of my own.

“I was very conscious of the fact that I needed people to help me through the transition. Assembly officials told me that Nathan’s staff members had a good work ethic. I was happy to take them on to help me. Otherwise I would have been totally unsupported.

“I couldn’t believe it when I was given an ultimatum. Before the group meeting on Monday evening the other Ukip AMs were all friendly towards me, so I wasn’t prepared for the nastiness. I didn’t sack the staff in line with the ultimatum, but I only found out they had excluded me from the group during a meeting with the Presiding Officer Elin Jones when I was shown the statement. I was shocked, upset and appalled.

“My politics haven’t changed, but after their behaviour I wouldn’t want to work with such a bunch of people. All my energy will be put into representing the interests of the people of North Wales.”

The UKIP Assembly group must surely now have the prize for the most dysfunctional sitting in the Senedd. It is difficult to see what they have achieved other than to squabble amongst themselves.

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