Friday 15 June 2012

Is the Welsh Government corrupt?

Nick Clegg put in quite a robust and combative performance in this interview he gave to BBC Wales. He points out the obvious: Welsh Labour has been shifting blame for its dire performance in government in Wales to anybody else but itself.

Clegg points out that Carwin Jones (Welsh Labour), who has not even managed to put together a legislative programme worth mentioning for  this Welsh Assembly in 2011, has played the anti-English card for the last year and got away with it. However the fact is Labour has been in power in Wales since 1999 and under successive Labour led governments the Welsh education system has dropped ever lower in the rankings, NHS performance is poor and schools are notoriously underfunded by the Labour government to the tune of about £400 per pupil per annum compared to England. Where does all the money go that the Labour government under Carwin Jones gets every year to run this country (after all that's about £15 billion)? 

We now have a hint where some of this money ends up: the BBC reported about widespread corruption apparently countenanced by the Welsh Government documented in a Wales Audit Office report just this week. More than £1.5 million of public money disappeared as it changed hands from the Welsh Government to some of its contractors in North Wales. The Audit Office makes clear that the money was never recovered and may now be in the hands of some people who appear to be suspiciously close to some influential figures in the Welsh Government. No surprise then: it seems Labour and Carwin Jones still have their hands in the till! 

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Gorwel Launch...

Launch of 

The Welsh Foundation for Innovation in Public Affairs

at the Park Plaza Hotel, Cardiff 
on Thursday, 28th June at 7 p.m. 

Guest speaker: 
David Torrance, Scottish writer, journalist and broadcaster
All welcome: RSVP: 

Gorwel: Y Sefydliad Cymreig ar gyfer Syniadau Newydd 
mewn Materion Cyhoeddus 
Lansiad yng Ngwesty’r Park Plaza, Caerdydd 
ddydd Iau, 28 Mehefin am 7 p.m. 
Ydy’r Canol Dde yn ddylanwadol yn yr Alban? 
Gwersi i Gymru 
Darlith a Thrafodaeth 
Siaradwr gwadd: David Torrance
Croeso i bawb: RSVP: 

Tuesday 12 June 2012

John Major before Leveson

What a contrast to Gordon Brown! The Leveson Inquiry continued today with evidence from former Prime Minister John Major. His comments on the freedom of the press were characterised by balance, fairness and a desire to genuinely contribute to find a solution to press regulation.

John Major stands out since he was the only Conservative Prime Minister not to have enjoyed the support of the right wing press in the UK at the time while he was in office. As time goes by, his time as Prime Minister continues to look better and more dignified as contemporaries would probably have liked to see it. 

This may just be a case of nostalgia, yet Major's very considered comments on press regulation and press freedom sounded very different to the vindictive and largely dishonest evidence given by Gordon Brown yesterday. Perhaps there is a link between the need to portrait yourself as a trustworthy and courageous and the lack of the same in real life. If you remember, Brown wrote a book just before he took over from Blair in which he compared himself to Nelson Mandela. 

The modesty of John Major favourably contrasts with Brown's hyperbole. Sadly, we don't have politicians of this caliber anymore! 

Monday 11 June 2012

Brown waffles his way through his appearance at Leveson

So there you have it: he was always wronged and the evil journalists have made his life hell! We should all feel sorry for Gordon Brown, the former (never elected) Labour Prime Minister who has given evidence to the Leveson Inquiry to this effect this morning. 

Asked sycophantic questions by a largely ineffectual Counsel to the Inquiry, Brown was allowed to waffle for hours without ever answering any question that was put to him. When his own misdeeds came into focus (the way his staff distributed salacious, false information about other politicians) he claimed he never heard of anything or didn't know what the question referred to. The press reaction to his appearance has certainly not lacked honesty!

But even more strikingly, in his endless answers that seemed to ramble on forever, he drew a distinction between good and bad journalism. He supported the idea that 'quality journalists' should be financially supported (by whom? the taxpayer?) whereas 'bad' journalists should not. 

Any wonder we should worry about the freedom of the press with comments like this from a master political manipulator? 

Sunday 3 June 2012

Britain's oligarchic elites

Inequality has made some headlines in the UK since the recession and the (former head of Downing Street's policy unit) Ferdinand Mount has helpfully distilled some of the public discussions in his new book The New Few (Simon & Schuster). Not content with simply rehearsing the debate, Mount argues that there is something foul in the state of Britain when managers receive large bonuses at times of decreasing share prices and poor people struggle to get by. 
His conceptual frame is the idea of oligarchy but this is where the argument sadly wears thin. Although Mount drops the names of Pareto and Michel who defined the debate on elites in the first half of the 20th century, his take on oligarchy and elitism is more discursive and argumentative rather than analytical. Aristotle gets a mention too with his juxtaposition of democracy, oligarchy and monarchy (where notably, Aristotle thought democracy a perverted form of rule). 
Yet, it is Mount’s concept of oligarchy that fails to convince. One reason why is well illustrated by the argument Michael Walzer employs in Spheres of Justice (1983). Walzer distinguishes between the economic, political and social spheres and identifies the main challenge for modern politics in moments where power in one domain spills over into influential positions in another domain. It is this cross-sectoral ability to call the shots that hints at the essence of oligarchy in Aristotle’s meaning. 
In other words, only where political influence directly translates into economic power, or vice versa, is democracy seriously jeopardised. Now, Mount may cite several instances where managers appoint each other to directorships on boards, and he might be right that there is an unhealthy cross-fertilisation amongst some people with influence in quangos and companies. Yet, Britain is nowhere near a true oligarchy in Walzer’s sense. In fact, we know an oligarchy when we see one, and we can observe one at our (European) doorstep: Russia. 
The insidious aspect of Russian political and economic life is not that there are some extremely powerful people and some who are filthy rich but that both elites are deeply intertwined in personnel. Political power directly translates into economic power, often, as under Yeltsin, with immediate effect through shareholding. 
Britain is a far cry from this paradigmatic type of oligarchy. You may deplore that Tony Blair is cashing in his fame (and perhaps his influence with some foreign potentates) but he has little say on who sits on the Labour front bench or on the board of BP. 
But it is not only Mount’s conceptual take that has a wonky quality, it is also the overarching narrative that does not quite stack up. As he starts with an exploration of the banks and financial services, he follows a story that is shaped like a valley curve, with greed and usury at its highest during the beginning of the 20th century, followed by strict legislation curbing the power of the banking sector, leading to a resurgence of reckless financial activities after the Big Bang (in Britain) and the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in the US. 
The problem is that this development is not neatly aligned with the increase or decrease in political and social participation, or oligarchic behaviour in either of these spheres (to use Walzer’s terminology). The story is a more complex one, with British industry suffering from one of its worst moments of corporatism (union and otherwise) during the times when banking demons were largely tamed. At the same time (during the 1060s and 1970s), Britain also saw a deepening of social mobility that, Mount hints at it, may have had little to do with the economy itself. 

The sad fact is that much of the transformation that took place in the 1960s was due (amongst other things) to the delayed convulsions of war and the changes that came with them. The galvanising and transformative effect of war can be seen even more clearly in Germany and Eastern European states, where (sadly) the largest push in terms of social mobility was achieved not through democratic means but through the extermination of a whole section of society. 

The Holocaust and the loss of 6 million people in Germany alone removed a whole cultural and political elite from society. Similar transformations happened in Eastern Europe where the Holocaust and the subsequent extermination of entire sections of society by the Communist regimes achieved temporarily an extraordinary upwards pull of lower working classes into the ruling elites. 
In essence then Mount’s desire to forge a single trajectory of concentration of economic and political power fails to convince. Britain, just like West Germany and many other developed capitalist countries, experienced a plethora of significant economic, political and  social changes, that had various origins and pulled their societies in different directions, hardly any of them exclusively oligarchic in character. 

Wagner in Cardiff

Tristan and Isolde yesterday at the Welsh Millenium Centre. The biggest star of the Welsh National Opera is still its venue, a house with astounding acoustics and breathtaking views from most places. But the Centre had a serious contender for the top spot in Ann Petersen as Isolde in last night’s performance. Her singing was effortless and her acting was simply impressive. 

That made it difficult for the male lead, Ben Heppner, who struggled at first but put in a decent performance. Wagner’s tenor roles are fiendishly difficult and taxing to sing and anyone who has listened to Rene Kollo struggling his way through the Ring knows what I mean. Yet, Heppner made good later on, perhaps only hampered sometimes in the more physical moments by the fact that he is not exactly lightfooted which did not always make it a pretty sight to see him move around. 
The orchestra started off with a very slow tempo under Lothar Koenigs and experienced some minor jitters at the beginning and, funnily enough, at the very end, but quickly became more surefooted and robust throughout with the exception of the brass section at times. But perhaps that is Wagner’s fault. He does not exactly afford them the comfort of hiding behind the rest of the orchestra and in crucial moments exposes them completely. Who can blame them when their nerves get in the way? 

Ann Peterson and Ben Heppner in WNO's Tristan

The stage design was a bit pedestrian, yet perhaps this is what this opera needs, allowing me to close my eyes at times and simply listen to the music. Now, everything is sung in German and the lyrics are of course hideously schmaltzy, which sometimes makes you laugh out loud when you are supposed to cry but that might just be because we feel slightly uncomfortable with the saccharine drama of some 19th century music. 
All in all, a really enjoyable evening not least because of the supreme voice of Isolde and a very strong and beautiful voice of King Mark (Matthew Best). So go and see it if you can!