Winning the argument for Europe


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.

The tragedy of Aylan


I hope that both The Sun and Katie Hopkins are deeply ashamed of themselves. Those words and the decision to publish them were both not only wrong but immoral. And this week those words have become haunting. Does Katie look at Aylan’s body and still not care? And what of The Sun’s editor? Does The Sun feel any responsibility for any of this?

The image of Aylan Kurdi has dominated the front pages of newspapers this week, including with some extraordinary hypocrisy, The Sun itself. The heartbreaking picture of his small body lying lifeless on a beach in Turkey is powerful and made all the more powerful when it first appeared on social media alongside hundreds of photos of smiling children on their first day at school.

It is one of the most distressing and painful images that we’ve seen for years. He could have been my son or anyone’s son. And subsequent photos of him with his older brother and an interview with his dad paints a picture of a happy little boy which helps make this tragedy all the more real for all of us.

His death is a direct challenge to the position taken by the UK Government and by governments across Europe. It is a test for Cameron and it is a test for Europe. And it speaks volumes of the crisis of leadership across our continent that Germany appears to be the only state that recognises the scale of the response needed. It is a crisis of morality in our society, in our media and in our politics.

In Aylan’s death I hope that we will all face, and try to answer, the question as to why are we so resistant to the idea of taking people to our homes and protecting them from extreme violence? Surely this is at the heart of our humanity and who we believe ourselves to be as a nation and as a country?

Our history is one where we have welcomed people to our shores and offered them the protection and support that they need and that we can share. Such headlines attacking the kinder transport in the thirties would have been inconceivable so why is escaping from Kobane so different today? Clearly the scale and the numbers are huge, but we are richer today, we have the experience of the past and we have the structures of European governance that we didn’t have 80 years ago.

This summer has been one where our screens and papers have been filled with the human impact of the wars in the Middle East and Africa. As we’d expect parts of the press have been most guilty of creating a an image of desperate people trying to escape war, slaughter and genocide as a threat to our holiday plans. But I can think of no part of the media that has emerged from this summer with much integrity.

Where was the public outcry when the article described above was published in The Sun? At what point did describing human beings as “cockroaches” become an acceptable part of our public discourse? At one level it’s possible to dismiss Katie Hopkins and The Sun as examples of the worst parts of the gutter press, but what of David Cameron describing people in Calais as a “swarm”? In terms of creating a national mood are they really so different? What is certainly different is that David Cameron should know better than to play to this particular gallery.

But why are we surprised? The events and coverage of this summer are not new. For too long we have allowed a debate on immigration which has been largely driven by anti-Europeans and the rest of the right wing all fuelled by their cheerleaders in The Sun, Daily Mail and the rest. And their hypocrisy when confronted with the reality of the atmosphere that they themselves have helped create is simply sickening. Rather than confront and challenge this debate, all too often we have run away from the difficult choices involved in taking on these arguments and winning a public debate based on principle, doing the right thing and our basic humanitarian instincts.

It’s nearly 70 years since Orwell published his essay Politics and the English Language and it is striking how his invective against weasel words and opaque phraseology would be true today and never so true as now. We have used terms like “migrant” or “Asylum-seeker” as pejorative terms to disguise the real human impact of policies that have been pursued by the government in our name and on our behalf. The media have, either through idleness or intent, also made use of the same language to perpetuate a story that poor people who are risking everything to survive the horrors of Syria and escape the genocidal Islamic State are a threat to our lives and our communities. Again language is defining not only the terms of the debate but helping to create a nasty intolerant culture which has dehumanised both them and us.

And Alylan’s death is the direct consequence of this culture and this political failure.

And the political failure is profound. For far too long we have run away from challenging the rhetoric of UKIP and their friends on the far-right. We have become accustomed to the language of chauvinism and the fear and intolerance of those people who are not from around here or who are different to us. We blamed Eastern European nurses and African cleaners for the depth of the economic crisis because its easier than asking the really tough questions. It’s no wonder that we haven’t heard from Farage over the last few days.

The language and tone of the UK Government and particularly Cameron over the last 24 hours has been appalling. Ironically the UK’s approach to securing safety and security for people close to their homes is not intrinsically wrong or bad. But their failure to recognise that approach is a wholly inadequate response is criminal. My fear is that the reality of this policy is that it is driven by fear of the press and the right wing than it is driven by the desire to do the right thing

It is telling that it is Carwyn Jones and Nicola Sturgeon as First Ministers in Wales and Scotland who are making clear that both countries are ready and willing to play our part. The optimist inside me believes that is a further example of how the politics of Wales and Scotland are becoming increasingly different and more tolerant than that of the hot-house of Westminster. I hope that since some Conservatives, all the candidates for the Labour leadership and other backbenchers are also demanding urgent action that the culture of that place may change as well.

Given the scale of the media coverage of Aylan’s death it appears that in death he will be accorded more respect than in life. But it is a real tragedy that it has taken this little boy’s terrible death to galvanise European leaders to take action and to shame the UK press into silence. Why is it always this way? I remember witnessing at first hand the human impact of genocide in Rwanda and again in the Balkans. In both cases it took a public outcry over the deaths of thousands of people before politicians took action. As politicians we really must live up to the post-Rwanda slogan of “Never Again” and to make it real.

But let us be clear. Doing the right thing today means going beyond refugee quotas and protection of the aid budget. It means a determined challenge to those chauvinists who have stigmatised and demonised other people because of where they were born, their language or their customs.