A question of leadership


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


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.