Sometimes we need a little more UK and not less…

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Last week the Secretary of State essentially withdrew the Wales Bill that he published with a great fanfare only four months ago. In doing so he demonstrated that neither the Wales Office nor any Whitehall department has the experience or the expertise to understand how devolution works – either in principle or in practice. And this is of profound importance to all of us because it suggests that the UK Government no longer understands the constitution of the UK or appreciates how the UK actually works today. And that’s a pretty serious thing. If not entirely surprising.

Anyway. We are where we are.

The “pause” is only worthwhile if good use is made of this time. And by that I do not simply mean parliamentary draughtsmen working furiously to write a bill which is fit for purpose. The First Minister’s intervention on Monday did that for them. And by publishing a draft bill the FM demonstrated that the Welsh Government has a shared vision of a settlement which is coherent and intelligent and which hardwires stability into the constitution. The sad voices grizzling about process from the sidelines – I heard no real criticism of the substance – need to understand that that the vacuum created by the Secretary of State’s failures has to be filled. And it is absolutely right and proper that the Welsh Government does so. Not to have done so would have been an abrogation of its responsibilities.

But this “pause” must do more than teach the Secretary of State about the basics of the British Constitution. It must also allow us to start having a serious debate about how the new UK, which is currently being created in an haphazard, confused and chaotic way, is actually going to work in practice. In short we need the sort of discussion that we should have had prior to last year’s St Davids Day Announcement and at the same time as the debate on the new powers to Scotland and the so-called “Northern Powerhouse”.

And central to this debate is not only a discussion over the devolution of powers and where those powers should properly rest. It also means a conversation about the future purpose of the United Kingdom and how will it will work in the future.

One of the very welcome suggestions made belatedly by the Secretary of State was that the debate over powers and reservations will now be based upon a principled approach. Hallelujah. All we need now is to find out which principles the Secretary of State will employ. I have commented previously that the only serious analysis of this matter was presented by the Welsh Government to the House of Lords Constitutional Committee. Someone in the Wales Office would do well to google it. It describes the UK as an economic, social and political union based upon the principle of subsidiarity. If we could agree on that then everything else quickly becomes easier and clearer.

Such an agreed vision of the future UK would have profound consequences. It would start the process of settling the over-long debate on devolution and it would begin to create a broad public understanding of the differing roles of different governments and parliaments. It would also enable us to build the new structures that would provide the UK with the constitutional architecture needed to underpin the stability that we all want to see.

Fundamentally, the United Kingdom needs a formal agreement between its constituent parts on how it will operate in the future – placing respect on the statute book. But it also needs the machinery of a federal state. At the moment the UK Government is the only shared institution we have – and all too often it acts as judge and jury on its own decisions and actions. This is neither fair nor reasonable and nor is it acceptable or sustainable.

The First Minister agreed whilst giving evidence to the Assembly’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee a few weeks ago that there is no structure or process to resolve disputes on either competence or individual pieces of legislation between governments short of reference to the Supreme Court. This cannot be right.

At the same time wherever there is a dispute on financial matters such as the spending on the Olympics or HS2 or the fundamentals of Barnett then the Treasury simply imposes its own views. Again this is not sustainable as we’ve witnessed recently with the negotiations on the Scottish fiscal framework. The First Minister has also made clear that at least part of his rationale for not increasing income tax levels in Wales when that power is devolved is because of the continuing dispute over the Barnett Formula. The dispute has lasted almost as long as the formula.

To date the UK Government has been reluctant to recognise the constitutional reality that its policies and approach is creating. Its approach has been piecemeal and all too often the suspicion that partisan advantage lies too close to the heart of its decision-making. From English votes in the House of Commons to the reduction in the size of the Commons there has been a reticence to engage in the principled debate about the future nature and shape of the Union that Stephen Crabb seemed to indicate that he would now prefer to see.

An inter-governmental and inter-institutional agreement established in law and sustained by UK-wide institutions independent of all our governments are now crucial to underpinning our new constitutional architecture. And will benefit everyone except well-suited constitutional lawyers. At the same time the UK’s parliaments must learn to work together in a formal structure to provide a much richer, wider and deeper scrutiny in an institutional relationship to oversee the work of these governments and this UK-wide scrutiny is an essential part of this jigsaw.

This is not difficult to achieve. In terms of a financial framework for the UK Government and devolved governments, the Australian Commonwealth Grants Commission seems to be a good model and a good starting point. The CGC distributes an equalisation payment to all states in Australia based upon an agreement reached between the states and the federal government. Its independence of the federal government is key to its ability to take rational and fair decisions acting as an independent arbitrator. The last UK Government created the Office of Budget Responsibility to provide external and independent advice for the Chancellor and the present UK Government agreed and accepted that an independent review of the Scottish fiscal framework would be appropriate and so this suggestion or model cannot be a bridge too far in principle. The Treasury would hate it but it would take the heat out of all of our current disputes on money and may even resolve the issues with the Barnett Formula.

In other matters, the Supreme Court is a constitutional court in all but name and I’m sure that within the structures of the Court a constitutional tribunal could be created which would resolve issues of competence before legislating and before any dispute escalates out of control. Far better that than years of arguments between ministers followed by very expensive litigation after a piece of legislation has been enacted.

Sometimes the debate around devolution seems to be about how many powers can be levered out of London and not about a collective vision of a future United Kingdom. Hopefully we can now have a debate about the UK as a whole and not only about what powers we want in Wales.

The elephant is back…

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The Secretary of State’s news conference this morning was probably the most wretched affair since John Morris unhappily faced the cameras almost exactly 37 years ago. It’s difficult to think of a Secretary of State in the intervening decades whose proposals for change have been so comprehensively rejected. In rejection both men were characteristically forthright. John Morris had little alternative and in truth neither did Stephen Crabb. Both had seen their proposals for devolved government roundly rejected. By the electorate in the first instance and by everyone else in the second. If Crabb couldn’t muster a majority in the Welsh Affairs Committee with it’s drafted-in majority then the unanimous rejection in the National Assembly must have been little surprise.

But let’s not be too churlish.

Crabb’s proposals were poorly thought-out, had little coherence and convinced no-one. His only achievement was to unite True Wales and Plaid Cymru. But his belated recognition of this is to be welcomed. I assume his announcement on the reductions in reservations, the abolition of the necessity test, his commitment to look again at ministerial consents and the establishment of a group to look at the issue of the legal jurisdiction along with his enforced “pause” for further thought will all receive a widespread welcome. And we must all recognise that this retreat is one which will allow further debate and discussion. And that is also a good thing.

However this is only half the story.

We are in this unsatisfactory situation because the Secretary of State made grandiose statements which he did not follow up with a robust and open process. Had he involved both the Welsh Government and the National Assembly as well as a broad section of Welsh society then he would not have been in this sad position today.

The new bill must be made-in-Wales and not simply presented to Wales.

The Secretary of State would now be well-advised to create a convention (on which he has been pressed for some time) or at least a joint Assembly-Parliamentary body to review and agree a new bill before its introduction. The Welsh Affairs Select Committee and the Assembly’s Constitutional and legislative Affairs Committee have both examined the bill and held a successful joint meeting. That model may be a good model to keep in mind either for a meeting before dissolution or to be revived once the new Assembly is elected on May 5th. By doing so and achieving a broad cross-party consensus the new bill would have a degree of legitimacy that the draft bill has failed to command. And it would at least help keep the trouble-makers quiet.

By creating this new consensus – and there is a broad consensus over many matters – then the Secretary of State will be able to proceed to legislate in good time and with goodwill restored. But he must also recognise that demanding a referendum over the somewhat obscure matter of the jurisdiction whilst at the same time rejecting the need for a referendum on tax powers is not something which has any credibility or intellectual coherence. Best put in the same bin as the necessity test.

And neither is it acceptable that the provisions of this bill will sit on the Statute Book for two or three or four years until 2021 before being commenced. All provisions should be enacted and commenced with no such delay. In Scotland there is an election taking place with powers that were announced, debated, enacted and commenced in less than two years. It is simply not acceptable that in Wales we need to wait at least five years for far fewer powers. And this will mean that the new powers on elections and structures will not be available until the 2026 election – a full decade after they were announced.

If the Secretary of State is able to recognise that there are many of us in all parties who wish to move from a decades-long debate on the constitution and want to focus on the major social and economic issues facing the country then he will achieve his ambition of a robust, stable and long-lasting settlement. However I believe that many of us will not simply agree to any settlement and will not feel well-disposed to a bill which is made in Whitehall for Whitehall and not made in Wales and for Wales. However we are, this evening, closer to a potential settlement than we were this morning. Crabb has recognised, as did John Morris, that there was an elephant on his doorstep. Back in 1979 that was the end of it. The people had spoken. And had spoken in primary colours.

Today in a much different and changed world the message is also different but in some ways is unchanging. Constitutional change cannot be either forced or imposed. By working together the changes that most people agree are needed, can be made, and made with consent and support. It is now a matter for the Secretary of State to reach out and to work with Wales.

Winning the argument for Europe

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It’s perhaps not surprising that the Institute of Welsh Affairs is giving the impression of being very pleased with itself. By securing a debate between the First Minister and the UKIP Leader on the future of the European Union they have certainly got the new year off to a bright start. There aren’t many political events in Wales that are sold out immediately. It’s little wonder that Plaid are spitting mad. But Plaid would be well advised to focus on the day-job rather than to exercise an unearned hubris and an undeserved sense of entitlement on the airwaves.

In many ways tonight’s debate will help to frame May’s Assembly elections in the wider context of the EU referendum which it now appears will be held a month later. Whilst not entirely helpful for those purists who want us to discuss nothing except domestic issues from now until polls close on May 5th, it does recognise the hard reality of the real world and many in Welsh Labour will also welcome this wider context for different reasons.

I am told that it was Carwyn who actively sought out this opportunity to take on Farage in this debate. Many of us will be pleased by this determination. Carwyn is not a natural or emotional European in the same way as Rhodri who lived and breathed the European project. Rhodri could not wait to get on the Eurostar whilst Carwyn does so only when necessary. In this way he is a pragmatic European, recognising the strength of the EU and the advantages that it brings to Wales but not signed up to a political project. And perhaps ironically this ruthlessly pragmatism may well be Carwyn’s big advantage in a debate against an ideologue who is wrapped up in a number of different contradictions and who has a fundamentally hard right wing libertarian approach to politics, much of which is not to Welsh tastes.

So how do we take on UKIP and win this debate?

First and foremost we need to make and win the arguments for Europe anew. Carwyn will need to be at the top of his game and will need to be very well-briefed and informed. Farage has been fighting this battle for years. And whilst his grasp of reality and the facts can sometimes but a little less than secure, his performances are always assured and confident. But we need to do more than simply win an argument between two accountants over a balance sheet.

I believe that as a nation we do tend to be more pro-European than our friends across Offa’s Dyke but we share a media that is overwhelming anti-European and that will continue to have a defining impact on the campaign to come. To sit back and expect a strong pro-EU vote to fall into our laps because of the supposed impact of structural funds or farm subsidies would a mistake of historic proportions.

In this way the referendum campaign will be about who we are as a nation as much as it will be about a retail offer (as they say in political circles) or simply seeing our relationship with the European Union as a a transactional one whereby we stay if its profitable for us to do so with the inevitable consequence that we leave if the equation changes at some point in the future.

For me Europe helps to make sense of our place in the world. As a minister speaking for Wales in European Councils and elsewhere I made the point that it was my purpose to not only address the issues on the desk in front of me but to strengthen, broaden and deepen Wales’ wider relationship with the institutions and peoples of the European Union as well. As a part of the UK we can have our cake and eat it. As a constituent government of one of the major players in the Union we have access to influence and resources and with a powerful Welsh Government presence and programme we can make those UK resources work for Welsh interests. It’s not perfect and there are many in the UK Government who still have a lot to learn about the reality of being a federal state in terms of representing a whole-UK perspective but it could be a lot worse as well.

And we need to be far more street-wise in how we articulate this message. The politics of UKIP are not simply the politics of anti-Europe and anti-immigration they are also the anti-politics political party. Some very rich, right-wing and privileged public school boys have managed to persuade too many people that they are the anti-establishment party. And it is this anti-politics that is driving their vote in many constituencies, including my own. In winning the argument this evening Carwyn will need to both recognise and expose this confidence trick as well. We need to make the case for not only a wider inclusive and tolerant Europeanism but also the case for politics itself. And a politics which isn’t based upon an easy lazy cynicism whilst promoting distrust and suspicion. We need to win the argument for Europe whilst also winning the argument for a politics which can represent peoples’ values, effect change and restore trust and confidence.

So this evening I will be not only be supporting Carwyn Jones in taking on Nigel Farage in this single debate but in arguing for a fundamentally different vision of the future of our country. And for me it is emotional and not simply a matter of dry economics. As a father of young children the vision of Wales as a part of a nineteenth century Ruritanian vision of an isolationist English state is the stuff of nightmares. I want us to create a different place and a different future for all our children. A place of tolerance and a place that looks out on a world with confidence and optimism and not with suspicion and sometimes a xenophobic contempt for different cultures and different people. And that means not only winning a political debate and winning votes in May or June but it means winning hearts and minds as well.

After the storm it’s time to start managing water

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The scenes of flooding from northern England and parts of north Wales which have dominated our news screens over Christmas and continue to dominate our screens into the new year are as heartbreaking as they are terrifying for the people who have been forced out of their homes. Many will never again feel comfortable and safe in the homes that they have spent a lifetime building for their family.

A a former environment minister I saw at first hand the impacts of winter storms along the north Wales coast and again in Aberystwyth two years ago. I have stood in the living rooms of people crying their eyes out and spoken to people trembling with fear because they relive the sound of the water rushing into their homes every time they hear the weather forecast. And people who cannot look at the brook in high summer without seeing the torrent which took away for ever their security and peace of mind.

Let no-one be in any doubt of the impact of this destruction. It is not simply a matter of time and money, it is peoples’ home, memories and futures which are being destroyed. The personal impact is even more devastating than the material and economic impact on a whole town or city. But having said that, the sight of some of England’s major cities being brought to their knees in this way retains the ability to shock as does the sight of our own communities and major infrastructure such as the A55 under immediate threat.

There are certainly changes taking place to our weather patterns. Storms have always happened and alway will do so, but the storms that we have witnessed in recent years are unprecedented in their ferocity and their frequency. Whilst it is true that there are limits to what can be either done or promised by governments and politicians to protect us from nature, we have been warned of these changes for many years by the scientific community and it is therefore a fair question to ask governments and policy-makers what actions have they taken as a consequence of these warnings and how these warnings have affected their decisions.

And in asking this question we need to look at not only the immediate short-term priorities but also at the long term. In the short term we will clearly need to invest in traditional defences to protect homes and infrastructure. The north Wales coast with both the main rail-line and the A55 situated right on the coastline alongside a significant number of vulnerable communities is a good example of an area where continued investment is required in these sorts of defences. But perhaps the key to dealing with these events in the long term lies not so much in the concrete of huge flood defence schemes but in the longer term programmes which changes behaviour to accommodate climate change and how we manage water in our society and environment.

Rather strangely in England the media seem adapt at reporting the facts but doing so with an almost beguiling lack of curiosity. If these same events took place in Wales then I’m pretty sure that more substantial questions would be asked about the policy approach taken by successive governments. Cameron has now been forced to answer some serious questions on the approach taken by both of his governments but generally he has faced little criticism or question over the policies of this and the last coalition government who have cut spending on flood and coastal defences as a a matter of policy. Those climate change deniers, who seem to sometimes drive UK Government policy thinking and of whom the BBC still seem to be in awe, are never seen speaking to the people who have lost everything at times like this. They prefer the safety of a tv/radio studio or an editorial conference full of their school pals who all live in well-protected and safe environments. It’s time for Cameron to dig out his sledge and take them on.

At the same time the criticism of our own First Minister on this matter is misplaced. Both the minister, Carl Sargeant, and the First Minister have visited the areas affected. It is unfair and unreasonable to attack either one of them for not visiting a particular location at a particular time. The fact that both took the time to speak with people affected as well as the emergency services and that both will visit again this week demonstrates the seriousness with which the Welsh Government takes these matters. And this is not new. I remember commissioning two reports from NRW on our coastal defences in the wake of those storms two years ago. There was no argument at all over ensuring that the Welsh Government committed all the resources and the cash needed to repair the damage. Compare and contrast with the actions and decisions of the UK Government.

These events will bring again into focus the importance of climate change, along with inequality and the eradication of poverty, as the key challenges of our age. The Welsh Government, alongside all other governments, needs to make the mitigation and adaptation of the impact of climate change a key determinant of policy. And I hope that this will feature in the Welsh Labour manifesto when it is published in a few months.

So what do we do?

Firstly, as I have already suggested we do need to maintain, repair and invest in the traditional means of defence against flooding for some of our most vulnerable communities and infrastructure. Secondly, we need to ensure that the Pitt Report is implemented in full with an emphasis on relocating essential infrastructure to safer locations and UK utilities need to be compelled to do this if they do not prioritise it immediately. And finally we need a serious debate about how we manage water in our society and environment. And this debate needs to start high in the uplands and needs to end in our own front gardens.

We have managed water badly in the uplands for decades and this is the fault of both farming as an industry and successive policies driven by successive governments. In the annual row between George Monbiot and the NFU we tend to lose sight of what is possible in a tiresome and sterile point-scoring exercise. However there is an inescapable truth. If we manage water better in the uplands then we will do much to reduce river-flooding in the lowlands. For too long farmers have managed the subsidy system rather the land. And they have been encouraged to do so by the farming unions and by lazy politicians. The result has been a deterioration in the ability of our uplands to absorb and filter water in a way which will contribute towards the regularisation of water flow in our rivers.

And this is possible. There are many great examples of tree-planting and livestock management which are helping our soils and rivers cope. The example of Pontbren in Montgomeryshire is a good one as is the management of the Wye and Usk and, in places, the Tywi as well. One of the things that I did in government was to insist the the current rural development plan includes the restoration of Wales’ blanket bogs. Perhaps not the sexiest policy ever promoted by government but it is one that will will manage water in a more traditional and effective way than the centuries-old practice of bog-draining. It will also help reduce our carbon emissions by recreating enormous carbon sinks and will enable better mixed upland grazing which in itself will help the uplands become more productive and economically viable.

And this approach needs to form the basis of our approach to river basin management along the river course. Those people who seek to dredge every river every year contribute to the problem and not to solving the problems. We have seen too much top soil lost and too many rivers straightened and the natural approach to water management lost over the years. Dredging is only an answer for the TV cameras. It is never the way in which we will maintain healthy watercourses into the future.

But we need the full suite of policies to make this happen. The current system of farm payments do not do this. My successor as agricultural minister had no choice but to introduce the current system given the high court challenge that she faced last year however, the impact of the system is to make many millionaires in the uplands and this will do nothing to encourage a better way of farming. Better to pay the farming community to manage the land in a more sustainable way than simply to throw vast sums of public money at the industry with little public policy return.

And then we need to manage the water in our towns and cities more efficiently and more intelligently. For instance, it is mad that we try to capture and treat, at huge public expense, all water that falls in our towns and cities. Welsh Water has been piloting some “waterscape” schemes which seek to build soft water capture and management in an urban environment. We need this to be norm in the future.

In terms of planning and urban land use we need to ensure that water management is a part of all new developments and is a part of how we plans our urban spaces. For instance, why not plant grass and wild flowers in our city centres rather than endless concrete squares? Why not help people to maintain lawns rather than concrete over gardens? And ensure that porous and absorbent surfaces replace the hard urban town- and cityscapes to which we have become too accustomed over recent years. I’m not sure that I agree with Monbiot when he demands the wholesale re-wilding of the countryside but he certainly has a point about our towns.

And its this long-term intelligent approach that has already proven successive in protecting Pickering from the worst of the flooding over the last few weeks. And it is this long-term approach that will change not only the shape of our towns and cities but also how we value and manage water throughout our environment. And that can only be a good thing.

A question of leadership

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I understand that the Prime Minister has now written to the President of the European Council with the list of his demands. He has apparently told an unhappy Donald Tusk that unless these demands are met by the Council representing the other 27 Member States of the European Union then he will recommend that the UK leaves the EU.

This is not a debate that will benefit Wales and neither will it help address the challenges facing us as a nation. We need to be building a consensus for change across the EU which will help invest in a green economy and sustainable growth and can bring peace and stability to a region that all too often seems to be in turmoil. Never before have I felt so strongly that a UK Prime Minister is not speaking on my behalf and neither is he speaking on behalf of Wales or acting in the best interests of Wales. He is entirely careless of the needs and interests of Wales. He sounds like like an English Prime Minister and acts like a nineteenth century potentate.

David Cameron has a reputation in Brussels of being a poor diplomat. He attempts to create unnecessary arguments with our closest friends and allies in order to placate a Conservative Party that is riven by an unpleasant and sometimes chauvinistic nationalism. Most people in Brussels regard this as tiresome and many wish that he had the strength and courage to take on and defeat those loud strident voices at home. Almost all are now accustomed to, and resigned to, this sort of megaphone diplomacy where the UK position on any given issue is determined by the prejudices of newspaper editors and dependent on domestic political positioning rather than a principled and far-sighted approach to the issues facing the continent and the Union.

I remember being in Strasbourg and Brussels during the week following Cameron’s late night and apparently almost accidental use of the UK veto in December 2011. Council of Ministers is always a more measured environment than the intensity of Strasbourg but even there I was told in graphic language how Cameron had isolated the UK, not simply by his actions, but by his approach and attitude to an issue which was critical to the management of the Eurozone crisis – “ he kicked us when we were down and needed help”. UK diplomats shook their heads and wrung their hands shrinking back into a role of apologetic observers rather than their preferred role of princes in a modern concert of Europe.

In conversation with people in Brussels I am struck by their patience, calmness and their stoicism in the face of the increasingly bellicose tone of these speeches and statements. Cameron has been asked time and again for a clear statement of the UK position with the Commission taking the not unreasonable position that it is difficult to negotiate anything without knowing and understanding what the UK wants to achieve. Only so much can be gleaned from reading the Sunday papers.

I regret to say but on Monday and again yesterday he has spoken with a vulgarity and pomposity, making demands on our friends rather than engaging in an intelligent conversation about the issues we face as Europeans. He would have achieved far greater reform and a different approach to many issues from immigration to the operation of the internal market had he approached the matter with a different tone and less vivid language.

The Balance of Competences launched with a grand fanfare by William Hague was supposed to provide the basis for this renegotiation. Hague forecast that it would set the context for the last general election and that all parties would look to it when writing their manifestoes. The great minds of the Foreign Office were set to work to examine the relationship between the UK and the EU and to report on where competences should properly lie. Unhappily for Cameron the resulting document found that, broadly, the balance of competences was in the right place. It found that the EU did those things best done at a European level and the UK did those things best done by a member state. With those findings the document was buried so deeply that it’s difficult to find on Google.

The impression is given that this is an operation that is driven from Downing Street and that their fixer, Tom Scholar, has at least tried to learn some lessons from the previous disastrous interventions. But he may have learnt the wrong lessons. In Cameron’s odyssey around EU capitals the whole enterprise has been framed in aggressive language and attitude calibrated to appeal more to Tory backbenchers than the more sensitive European diplomats for whom only an occasional nod or nuance is required. Again he is not the team player and does not know how to be a team leader.

At the same time there has been little, if any, engagement with the devolved administrations. The UK Government is quick to assert its right to speak on behalf of the UK in these things pointing out that foreign affairs are reserved matters. However it is more than a little clear that this whole process has a significant impact on all of the devolved administrations. For instance, if Cameron wishes to give “national parliaments’ the right to become more involved in the process of legislation (or more accurately to object to legislation) then will this also apply to those subjects such as agriculture or environment which are devolved and where the UK Parliament acts essentially like an English Parliament?

The four baskets of demands vary from the straightforward to the bizarre. The UK Government makes much of its demands over ever-closer union but does not appear to have read the end of that famous sentence which appears in the preamble to the current founding Treaty of the EU.

RESOLVED to continue the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe, in which decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity

Many of us wish that the UK Government had not only read but had understood the meaning of that statement before they started work on the draft Wales Bill. What on earth is wrong with a union of people (not governments) where decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen? Perhaps it’s time for a UK Balance of Competences?

But perhaps the worst aspect of all of this is that it has entirely abrogated any sense of British leadership in Europe. Losing Helmut Schmidt yesterday reinforces the sense of a continent lacking in leadership. These are difficult times, a fractured Middle East is at the heart of conflicts on our doorstep from the Ukraine to northern Africa. We face enormous global challenges. This week’s UN report on climate change has been drowned out of the news and the cost of the financial crisis is still being counted not only in capitals and financial centres across the world but in the homes of millions of people who face increasing uncertainty. All of this screams out for leadership and a vision of the future. Whatever we may make of Cameron’s baskets, one thing is clear and unarguable. They are not a vision of a different EU and not a vision of active European leadership in an uncertain world.

The humbug of Halloween

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Without wishing to appear unduly grumpy I can’t be alone in thinking that the Americanisation of our culture seems to approach its zenith or nadir (depending on how you look at it) at this time of year with trick or treating. And reflecting on this last weekend I’m inclined to think that surely we can do better than this?

And without being overly dramatic this is not simply a shame. It’s a tragedy. Halloween has a long and colourful history. It has been celebrated in Wales since pre-Roman times and like many of our modern festivals has been both a pagan and Christian festival rooted in the changing seasons and onset of winter. Today the the Welsh Nos Galon Gaeaf still reminds us of these early traditions.

My childhood memories of Halloween are mainly of ducking apples and the pain of trying to carve a face out of a turnip. I knew no-one who had a pumpkin in those days. Today Halloween now seems to last a month and is dominated by a dreadful commercialisation, trick or treating and a variety of outlandish costumes. I remain unconvinced that “sexy corn-on-the-cob” is an appropriate dress for anyone at any time of the year.
And the growth of Halloween has also seen the decline of Bonfire Night as a national event in our public culture and consciousness. I spent many weeks dragging a guy around the streets of Tredegar, hoping that my father would not recognise the trousers that had been stuffed with newspaper but can’t remember the last time I saw a child with a guy asking for a “penny for the guy”. Again I recognise that not everyone approves of some of this imagery but it is a part of our shared history in these islands.

Now I am usually someone who welcomes American cultural influences and certainly have never been convinced by those who would seek to create a false choice between an American or European future. I’ve never felt it necessary to choose. I like parts of both. Our politics has a lot to learn from America in terms of openness and accountability. Our wider public culture can learn a lot about citizenship and equality. But the suffocation of our history and the importation of a commercialisation that reduces a 2,000 year tradition to a cut and paste, takeaway and throwaway evening is for me probably a step too far. Here we have more to learn from our friends on the European mainland of the importance of creating and protecting a space for our traditional culture and customs.

Instead of this ready-made superficiality of Halloween I would prefer my children to enjoy learning of a festival which teaches us about our history and our own rich Welsh and Celtic traditions. Samhain, the Celtic New Year, is probably the best-known of our early traditions dating back to pre-Roman times. It was from this festival that our Jack O’lanterns are derived as is the tradition of dressing up, wearing masks and other disguises to avoid being recognised by the ghosts that may be thought to be present. It was Samhain that gave us much of the richness of Halloween and the associations with witches, hobgoblins, fairies, and various other demons. It was also a time when the souls of those who had died were believed to return to visit their homes, leading to people lighting bonfires to frighten away evil spirits.

Today’s Nos Galan Gaeaf echoes these traditions and memories. A night when spirits walk the earth and where the ghosts of the dead will appear at midnight. In some parts of Wales, the ghost was often the Ladi wen (white lady), elsewhere it could have been the more frightening Hwch ddu gwta (tail-less black sow) that appeared. Again huge bonfires would be lit on the hillsides to offer protection. Today’s traditions of ducking apples also have these ancient roots with apples and potatoes used to celebrate the event.

I also fully recognise that my hated trick or treat also has its roots in this history and there are certainly well-documented traditions of groups of youths dressing up in women’s clothes with the girls in men’s clothing, wandering from house to house after dark, chanting verses and soliciting gifts of fruit or nuts. In other areas young men would dress up in sheepskins and old ragged clothes and disguise or blacken their faces. After chanting some rhymes, they would be given gifts of apples or nuts or if they were lucky some beer. These groups, the gwrachod (witches), again speak of the associations of visiting spirits and the dead. Not surprisingly the visits of these groups were taken seriously as indicators of good tidings for the forthcoming year and the expulsion of the bad spirits from the household. Again our customs speaks of an ancient oral historical tradition where these stories are passed down the generations as a community culture and not one supported by governments and the state.

So I would prefer to not allow our history to be packed up and resold as someone else’s modern tradition. My fear is that unless we are clear and determined that we wish to create a Wales that is not only prosperous in economic terms but also prosperous in social and cultural terms then this culture will become simply the stuff of history text-books and we will all be the poorer.

But rejecting these particular cultural imports of our American friends is not by itself sufficient. I remember Gwyn Alf Williams speaking of the importance for today of a country that knows and understands its own history and cultural inheritance. In Wales we can trace this inheritance further into history in a way that few modern nations are able to do. And remembering our past and reinventing our traditions for the present and the future is something that in Wales we have done for nearly two millennia. The key today is to not simply hold onto these traditions and customs but to reinvent them for a new age.

Constitutional reform for beginners

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It hasn’t been a good week for Britain.

I wrote earlier in the week to express my disappointment with the latest draft Wales Bill. A disappointment that appears to be widely shared across political parties and the Welsh political community. I am yet to see or hear of any non-Conservative speaking up in support of Crabb’s lasting settlement.

The Conservatives are not natural constitutional reformers and yesterday’s vote on English laws is an example of their intellectual confusion on such things. Yesterday the House of Commons was compelled to vote for constitutional change which is again ill-thought out and will create far more problems that it solves.

I cannot believe that Welsh Conservatives danced happily through the Aye lobby yesterday afternoon, excited at the prospect of losing their votes on whole swaths of legislation which is critical to the success of their government and in some cases will help define this government.

And this creates a real lasting problem for the whole of the UK Parliament and especially its Celtic members. Stephen Crabb has indicated that he would like, one day, to serve in the UK Cabinet in a different role. Which is entirely understandable and in the past a wholly reasonable ambition. But which role could a Welsh MP now fulfil? It would be curious at best to see a Minister taking through legislation upon which they themselves could not vote. And if it becomes impossible for an MP representing a seat outside of England to serve in a number of middle-ranking roles in the UK cabinet then the chances of our MPs reaching the great offices of state become reduced, and the chances of a Welsh MP becoming Prime Minister are reduced even further. And this is not simply an issue for the over-ambitious backbencher. It is a significant problem for the future of the UK as a multi-national state.

And if the location of an MP’s seat is the defining issue in terms of the legislation they consider then why do MPs from England continue to sit on the Welsh Affairs Select Committee and take evidence on issues which affect only Wales? Surely consistency would demand their removal?

The hard reality is that this measure does and will create conflict within the legislature. And that is always a bad thing. And it creates conflict in the process of law-making. Take the Localism Act from the last Parliament. A UK Act where different clauses and different sections applied in different ways to different parts of the UK. Some clauses has a UK application, others a GB application, and then others applied to England and some to Wales and England. In the current Parliament such a bill would now have different MPs voting on different clauses and different sections. Would English MPs have a vote on sections which apply only to Wales?

It’s probably true to suggest that there has been a sense amongst many English Members that the Celts get an easy ride, voting on schools etc in England and then free to complain about the decisions of the devolved institution in their own country over which they have no control and little influence. The real tragedy here is that this is a Westminster fix for an issue which is a UK-wide and goes to heart of the sort of state we want the UK to be in the future.

Now it’s not for people like me to dictate how devolution should work for English communities but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that where the UK Conservative Government has a radical and reforming agenda which is at once exciting and far-reaching is where it speaks of a northern powerhouse and devolving significant powers, budgets and responsibilities to groups of English councils. It is done with consent and without referenda. A lesson there for Wales. It would appear that were this agenda to be pursued across large parts of England then the demand for English votes in the House of Commons would become irrelevant. Here the future House of Commons would have differential responsibilities for different parts of the UK. No-one is advantaged and no-one disadvantaged.

I discovered last week a document that had been buried deep in the background papers for the Assembly’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee. The document was the Welsh Government’s submission to the House of Lords Constitutional Committee’s enquiry into the Union and Devolution. The reason that I mention it is that it contains almost the only intelligent analysis on the future shape and nature of the UK state that I have seen in the last twenty years or so. It is recommended reading. Honestly.

It is a tragedy that the UK Government has been unable or unwilling to publish a similar document outlining their vision for the future shape of the UK state. The constitutional convention appears further away than ever at a time when it is needed more than ever.