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Plaid V Royals – Turn Up For the Fight

The Royals are back in town again, next week at least, and already the ranks of Plaid Cymru are lining up to put forward, very vocally, their intended absence from the so called ‘state’ opening of the Senedd. There is a slightly desperate feel to the protest, making sure to shout loud enough so that everyone is aware that they will not be in attendance and that everyone knows why. It almost smacks of a feeling that should Plaid representatives not shout about their absence, then very few people will take notice. Boycotting the Queen just doesn’t hold that much political oomph these days, and is slightly sad that an issue is being made out of it again. After all, in terms of royal popularity, this is probably as bad a time as ever for Plaid to be bleating about republics and abolishment. Following the almost unimaginable success of the Queen’s visit to Ireland, and the hoopla of the Royal wedding, the royal family have probably not had it so good in terms of public relations, for a very long time.

Having said that, I would like to make my views on the subject clear, I am not a royalist, I have no particular allegiance to the English crown (for English it is), nor am I in any particular mood to bark for its survival and continued funding. However, I like to think I am also a pragmatist, and realise that the royals have a certain popularity with many who call themselves British, they also have an unequalled ability to raise a nations profile, and have a significant impact in terms of tourism driven economies. Now none of this should be seen as a justification for their continued ‘rule’ over Wales, just a recognition of the practical benefits that can be derived from this obscure remnant of the pre World War era.

I for one would though be happy to say that the royal family are not Welsh, have no tangible connection to the country, and should not be recognised as having any sovereignty over the land. But let’s be practical about it. Do we really address the issue by hiding away from ‘state’ openings? After all, what kind of message does that send to those outside Wales? That the second a member of the royal family steps into ‘our’ Assembly chamber, we run for the hills? This is what Plaid must remember, the Assembly, Senedd, Welsh Government, whatever we are calling it these days, is ours, the property and product of Wales. Plaid does that sentiment an injustice by cowering away from the presence of a visiting dignitary. At the ‘state’ opening, you have an opportunity, a platform on which you can project you opinions to the world; say what you like about the royal family but they bring, the Queen in particular, profile, something Wales could dearly do with tapping into.

And if we are to be stuck with the Royal family (which so long as prominent republicans think that by not turning up to functions will achieve anything, is the way it will remain), why do we not confront this ‘institution’ to do more for this country, to warrant the tax payers surplus, to promote the nation as if they were monarchs or it (there would be a refreshing change, as opposed to the occasional drop in to check on the manorial lands)? It’s time for Plaid to grow up and face this issue head on, demand more of them, or demand they go, but do it by facing the issue, not by shying away. You achieve nothing by leaving the chamber empty of your presence, empty of a Plaid and a Welsh Nationalist presence, surrendering our democracy with such ease for a headline none shall read.

Turn up next week, and do your duty. Show the royal family that Plaid is here, the Assembly is Wales’, and if that they are not to be made welcome, tell it to their faces!

Welsh Universities – The Brink of Disaster

It has been with increasing dismay that the news feeds have come through, another day, another Welsh University looks to cash in on the magic number of £9,000. It seems almost inevitable now that the entire Welsh higher education network is going to dig its claws into the cash pot, no University in Wales will be free of £9,000 tuition fees. In some respects, who can blame them? The second one Welsh University made its position on the issue of fees clear, it really was only going to be a matter of time before the rest followed. With the Assembly (using the newly selected title of Government just doesn’t sit right yet) set to write off much of the financial implications of such a move for students, Welsh Universities have a free hand, and can largely do as they please on the matter.

However, on far too many levels this does not sit well. Initially, whether the costs for the student are largely written off or not, the implication is very clear. Come to a Welsh University, and expect the same level of tuition as that which can be found in Oxbridge. Should fees be thought of in these terms or not is irrelevant, because this is what fee levels imply. And for much of the higher education network in Wales, this would be a bold and a fallacious implication to allow to be circulated. In all honesty, can Newport, Glamorgan or Bangor stand by such an implication, do they believe that they offer the same standards of education and tuition as the highest ranked Universities in Britain, indeed the world? Believe it or not, the pressure must surely be on these institutions to raise their game; ask for this much money, expect to deliver on it.

However the real problem rests not in the short term horror factor of the fees themselves going up, but in the ability of the Assembly to maintain their positive intentions of protecting Welsh students from fee increases. It must be seen, that in the University landscape across Wales, where all institutions are charging the maximum amount, it is completely unsustainable for the Assembly to cover the costs. In many respects, with a seemingly shrivelling graduate employment sector, can such a move be justified to the tax payer footing the bill? It cannot be sustained, and sadly, due to the gluttony of the Vice Chancellors across the country, it will not be sustained. Then what, a switch back to pre tuition fee rise levels? Unlikely, the arrogance and self serving nature of those running higher education in Wales will greedily hold on to the £9k fees, most likely pushing for more. And as they push, they will succeed in only pushing students, both Welsh and non-Welsh, away from Welsh Universities, and sign their own death warrants in the process.

The Assembly’s motives in protecting students from fee hikes were admirable, and should be commended. But the greed of the Universities will see these noble intentions ruined, and in doing so, see to their own ruin. With every additional Welsh University unfurling the banner of £9k fees, another coffin is driven into the existence of our higher education existence.

A sad day.

Turbine Trouble

Not for the first time, people in Wales are going head to head with the presence of wind turbines and their related paraphernalia (pylons in this case) in the Welsh landscape. On the morning of the 24th of May, the Senedd steps were impressively swamped by individuals passionate about protecting their landscape from the dominating presence of steel giant pylons. The arguments presented have been fairly clear cut, the issue though is one tainted by guilt.

Whenever the wind turbine debate is presented, an increasingly aging argument spills out into the mainstream media. On one hand we hear the voice of the environmentalist, heavily beating the drum of planet saving enterprise. On the other, the oppressed local, whose home skyline is set to be invaded by triangular towers of bright white or dull grey. For those following from afar, we often struggle to reconcile our consciences with the issue at hand. Do we pursue a path that many argue vehemently will contribute to a necessary global effort that could save the planet, or do we say no to a invasive technology which, in a very visual way, has a massive impact on the very landscapes we are looking to preserve? Often the locals involved are painted as selfish idiots, only looking out for themselves, ‘not on my doorstep’ they are seen to cry. Perhaps that is not entirely unfair an assessment, and certainly some will argue on selfish grounds, but these landscapes are people’s homes, so who are we to lambast them for protecting what they hold dear on an individual level? The emotive angles to the debate are both crippling to rational debate, but equally unavoidable when the human element, directly impacted upon by the presence of turbines, is considered.

This current debate though seems imminently avoidable. The turbines are, for a change, not at the heart of the issue. The question is how to connect the turbines and the power they produce to the National Grid. Two options sit on the table, overland cable transfer supported by large metal pylons, or underground cable transfer. With the Welsh landscape being such a key component to the national economy, surely this is a no-brainer; underground must be the way to go? Although, as with pipeline projects, the landscape would for a time be opened up, afterwards the land would return to its natural state, unscarred above ground and offering all that is good about the Welsh landscape for the foreseeable future. Costings have been cited, with a mark-up of roughly £400million being the impact of underground options. Yet as we talk of the need, indeed the responsibility that we have to the environment, surely this additional cost is a small price to pay, as we look to play out part in preserving our natural resource at a global and a local level.

Small Mercies – Newport’s ‘Passport Office’.

The announcement finally came through this morning as to the fate of Newport’s Passport Office, those employed there, and the extra economic potential drawn from its presence in the city. An announcement waited for by many for longer than was reasonable considering the many lives this decision would affect, was one, that for around 150 people, will bring a sigh of relief, for the others, the expected dismay. The political community in Wales, united in a supporting voice for the Passport Office have been quick to celebrate the news, regarding that which has been maintained, while saying little about that which has been lost.

There should be a sense though, that all is not as rosy as it could be. Job losses seemed inevitable, such is the climate these days, and to save so many is indeed something to be cherished. But the fact that the Office will no longer process passports must surely be a blow. I am still to be convinced of just how legitimately a Passport Office can be described as such, without the capacity to process passport applications. Does Newport and South Wales really need a customer support centre, or does it actually need a centre that can provide passports for the nation? I fear that from an economic point of view, Newport may have been left with a lame duck. Jobs are certainly worth fighting for, but the function of the Office should have been fought for as well, and sadly, this seems to have been lost to Wales.

The logic to this concern resides in observations made during the campaign regarding the wider economic importance of the Office. Offering such a key service meant many were willing to travel into Newport, bringing additional money into the local economy, who otherwise simply wouldn’t. Will those same individuals make their way in to the heart of Newport for a support centre, or will they stay at home and make a call, or enquire online?

On one level the preservation of some jobs is an absolute positive. But the wider context of the changes are symptomatic of a struggle Newport has fought with for many years now. Asked the question, will the Passport Office in its new, limited condition, bring people to Newport? The answer, certainly less than were it to have held on to full processing powers for passport applications. With this change, yet another reason to come to Newport has gone, another attraction that could have directed people to nearby shops, lost. The immediate impact of saving jobs will bring cheers, the longer term impact of passport processing being lost, is something that will haunt Newport in years to come.

Another Welsh city, another Welsh town, systematically reduced from the outside.

What’s eating Paul?

It’s been a bit of a revelation joining the world of twitter. Having very deliberately ignored it since its inception, the Welsh Assembly elections in 2011 proved to be the draw that finally brought me into this wonderful world of updates. The insights it has provided  have at times been very boring, a little depressing, especially, for instance, the Secretary of State for Wales her unhealthy levels of interest in Eurovision, but on some occasions, they have proven to be quite fascinating. None more so can this statement be applied, than to Parliamentary stalwart, Paul Flynn.
The Newport MP has taken on the role of the elder statesman of the Welsh political community left in London, and it is perhaps with an eye towards retirement, that Flynn has decided to stick two fingers up to convention and logic and decided simply to ‘go for it’. Flynn has made his views on the WAG Badger Cull proposals very clear through a number of outlets, and has been at it on twitter as well. But the badger cull has provided Flynn with a springboard to launch some of the most impressively illogical and angry anti-agricultural statements seen by a Welsh politician.
For Flynn, the demise of the specific rural affairs cabinet post in WAG was a time of celebration (though confusingly he appeared to also decry its demise), and it afforded the Newport man the opportunity to go on the offensive, lashing out at the agricultural community for its heavily subsidised nature and its general lack of economic contributions. Perhaps Westminster MPs don’t have budgets for researchers anymore, though Flynn would do well to find some spare change to rent one for the day, as bizarre and wildly inaccurate statistics are spat out in his assault. One wonders as well, in Flynn’s celebration of the marginalisation of rural affairs in WAG, just how prominent of an issue his precious badgers will now be without being part of a high profile core cabinet position?
Irrational and ill-informed Flynn’s statements might be, but he knows his audience. In fact, he knows Labours audience. Rural Wales largely turned its back on Welsh Labour in May , and perhaps these statements,  linked to Carwyn’s move to take rural affairs out of the political spotlight, can be seen as a response to those voters who are very clearly outside of the Labour heartlands. After all, who cares about rural affairs in Newport? The danger for Flynn is that rural affairs are a far more complicated beast than turning soil and planting seeds. While Ministers continue to hunt for the golden fleece of industrial revival in Wales, tourism continues to hold up Wales’ end in the world, and a compromise to the importance of rural affairs could well see that which plays such a central role to the Welsh tourism product, suffer dramatically. With the reduction of heritage to a bit part player in the current government as well, we may well be seeing a return to the type of Labour politics that Flynn feels most at home in, industries over arts and agriculture. Whether this is a positive or a negative step in Wales’ effort to become, as Rhodri Morgan once called the country, ‘an outward looking nation’, is unclear. Certainly following this issue through twitter probably won’t be any more enlightening, but at the very least it will offer the opportunity to be confused and entertained.

Plaid – New beginnings or Old Hats?

Ieuan Wyn Jones , in relinquishing the leadership of Plaid Cymru, has potentially given the party its biggest boost since playing a key role in the referendum debate of 2011, potentially that is. Casting on eye over whose left of the Plaid core in the Assembly, the first name that would have been thrown at the leadership, Helen Mary Jones, is not present. That leaves Plaid with a stark choice that could lead the party in a highly positive forward thinking direction, or leave it languishing in its current state of self denial.
Leading the pack is the old warhorse, and first to show a willingness to take the helm, Dafydd Elis Thomas. DET is certainly looking at a quieter time in the Assembly than he’s used to, having lost his Presiding Officer seat. Having also been highly vocal in his criticism of the recent Assembly campaign, DET may well feel he has unfinished business with his party. However, as clearly angry as he was with the Wyn Jones campaign, many of his wider views feel dated, a Plaid that served its purpose 5, maybe 10 years ago, but not what the party needs now. Either DET needs to change, or his leadership will leave the Party where it was under Wyn Jones.
More of the same, and probably out of his depth, would be Alun Ffred Jones. As Heritage Minister, Alun Ffred was generally seen as somewhat of an overachiever, raising the profile of the role far and above that of his predecessors. However, notable in Wyn Jones’ resignation speech was the shape of Alun Ffred over his left shoulder, lurking in the background and generally looking sorry for himself. Without the faith shown by Wyn Jones, Alun Ffred would be a non entity. Close links to the old guard, same politics, little scope for change.
For something that would add a little spice to the fight, how about a return to centre stage for Rhodri Glyn Thomas? Also as Heritage Minister, Rhodri Glyn seemed to sink his own political future with a catalogue of gaffs that including flaunting the law on the smoking ban. However, as a man jettisoned by Wyn Jones, and as one of the more senior figure left in Plaid, Rhodri Glyn could well decide that he has unfinished business with the party as well.
Elin Jones would also bring Ministerial experience, and a proven track record of administering senior positions within the party. Certainly a solid candidate in terms of ability, and gaff-less compared to our previous candidate, but would suffer from a lack of profile outside the party boundaries.
As almost an exact opposite, Leanne Wood brings little in terms of experience (certainly when compared to her potential competitors), but a very clear profile. With a knack for drawing attention to herself on high profile issues, and a clear cut republican, Wood could well have the perfect combination of youth, profile and a new direction, all of which Plaid were weeping into their cereal for the day after the 2011 election results.
Beyond these figures, the offerings are slim. Profile, more than anything else should take the others out of the running, and come the next election, anyone outside of those named above, could well be disastrous were they to hold the leadership. Of those named above, Plaid’s members will have a clear choice. As other commentators have noted, certain names here would offer very little different to that provided by Wyn Jones. His departure offers a chance to break from the stale, and Wood and Glyn Thomas could provide it. Watching what the party decides it wants, and indeed needs to reclaim its position of 2005, and improve upon it, will be fascinating, or very down heartening.          

Pondering Plaid

I had my doubts about Plaid’s prospects in the 2011 elections the moment that resounding Yes vote came back in the real referendum this year. Whereas AV stirred debate, the Welsh referendum stood out as a campaign fought on the issue that was on the table, something Westminster might do well to learn from. However, with the success on greater law making powers for Wales, there was always the danger that the mandate that Plaid had left, was gone. Greater or increased powers for the Assembly were plausible, independence less so. Given Plaid’s reluctance in recent years to even mention the word ‘independence’, it left them in a very difficult campaigning position this time around. With greater powers in the bag, and independence off of the agenda, just what was there for Plaid to talk about?
An indistinct leadership and a manifesto that could have been copy and pasted from any of the other parties, meant that, let alone there being anything radical about Plaid’s campaign, there was very little to campaign on at all. Apart from showing a desire to stay in power, even though much of the talking was targeted at undermining the position of the only party who could realistically offer the party that possibility, there was no real substance to the fight. As Dafydd Elis Thomas stressed on the BBC, ‘what is wrong with that’, when challenged with the idea that Plaid only appeared to want to be in power.
A lot is the problem with that approach. Without a radical, or at the very least a distinctive manifesto, it is unlikely Welsh voters will back Plaid on mass. There is the very real danger that, having secured greater law making powers for the Assembly, many will have seen Plaid go as far as they can do as a reforming party. Such a situation will not be resolved without a clear change in direction.
Plaid have a choice in 2011. Looking 5 years from now, the party can probably be confident in maintaining their current level of representation in the Assembly without lifting too many weights. For them to return to the position of the second party in Wales, before even considering gathering an SNP level of government running support, a clear and distinct manifesto needs to be put forward to the people of Wales, and with that, a break from the, now looking very old, Plaid of the One Wales Agreement. There is an aging feel to the face of Plaid, it is a party that felt throughout the campaign as it was holding on, rather than fighting for more. The next generation of Plaid must take this opportunity. Elis-Thomas, Wyn Jones, H-M Jones, all names that should be respected and revered in Plaid, but possibly remembered as well. Getting into power should no longer be enough for the party, not if it wants to be a credible distinct political entity going into 2016. Whether the youth of the party have the level of radicalism that has been abandoned by the old guard is yet to be seen, but without it we can only expect to see Plaid’s support decrease than anything else.