Sunday, 15 June 2014

I swear, its not funny

Today is Father’s Day. My son presented me with a handmade card with a lovely message, and then promptly ripped it up and threw it in my face. That’s because my son has Tourettes Syndrome.

That’s right, the funny condition that makes people swear – it’s hilarious isn’t it?

Perhaps the wits at Modern Toss could sit down and explain to my 9-year old how an inherited brain disorder that causes him such pain and anguish is funny?

Of course, I’m a hypocrite. Before I had a child with this disability I used to make casual jokes about Tourettes, because I was ignorant of the condition. Now I know that less than 10% of people with the genetic condition have the urge to randomly swear.  And those that do, find it a very distressing, and embarrassing tic.  Other tics are far more common – blinking, touching, jumping, and screeching, amongst many others. Everyone is different and tics come and go – twirling in circles this month many be replaced by touching the floor every few seconds.

Tics are symptoms of a disorder in the brain wiring. Many people have them to varying degrees, but when they occur in multiple forms and for over a year they can be diagnosed as Tourette’s Syndrome.

It has best been described to me in comparison with a sneeze – you know you are about to do it, can’t stop it and just need to get it out, and when you do there’s a feeling of relief.

In themselves most tics are harmless, but imagine how wearing it can be to be constantly blinking, touching, jumping, or screeching or worse, resisting the urge to do each of these.  It can be exhausting, frustrating and depressing, especially to a child who does not understand why these things are happening to them, and in the context of the school setting where differences are often cruelly seized upon.

Sufferers can suppress their tics, often for long periods – typically whilst in school or in the company of strangers. Indeed, it is not uncommon for family members or teachers to make comments like “he seems fine to me” or “there was nothing wrong with him today”.  But parents and siblings will tell a different story: when they are at home or in a ‘safe environment’ the tics that have been suppressed all day often come out with greater intensity.

Our son has so-called ‘rage episodes’. These are intense, ferocious, often frightening, violent eruptions that come like thunder in a blue sky, and can pass just as quickly – but often with the storm damage you might expect. It’s not just physical, but verbal too - the invective can be fierce. Punches are thrown, feet fly, rooms trashed, pain is inflicted. And just as suddenly it stops, and tears, contrition and self-loathing follows.

Tourette’s also often presents itself alongside other conditions.”The ‘rule of thumb’” according to Tourette’s expert Leslie E. Packer, “is that if the child has one disorder, they probably have symptoms of at least one other disorder as well”. OCD and ADHD are the most common ‘co-morbidities’.

These are all unpleasant conditions that cause great distress.  OCD is well known, but also misunderstood. “I’m a little bit OCD”, you often here people saying, but Obsessive Compulsive Disorder goes beyond being house proud; a compulsion to perform repetive tasks can debilitating. OCD also involves intrusive and distressing thought. For example,  “I think I’m going to burn the house down and kill my family”. These thoughts aren’t ‘real’, that is to say the people experiencing them will not carry out the action they are obsessively thinking about, however, they are frightening and bewildering. They provoke inevitable feelings of guilt and culpability: “I think I’m bad”.

Like any disability the sufferers are not at fault, their symptoms are not a reflection of character defects, they are the result of the way their brains are wired at birth. Indeed, while there are still very many gaps in the medical understanding of Tourette’s Syndrome, one-thing researchers think they know is that the part of the brain thought to be responsible for the condition, the basal ganglia, is some 10% smaller than in those who do not suffer from the disorder. 

As the Time to Change campaign has so brilliantly demonstrated, much of anguish caused by these brain conditions surround other people’s reactions to them.  Prejudice, at its heart, is about misunderstanding.

There is no ‘cure’ to Tourette’s. At a seminar in London yesterday afternoon I heard international expert Dr Douglas W Woods explain that around half of children with Tourettes the symptoms have either abated by the end of their teenage years, or they have learned to cope with them better.

As I write my son has just finished throwing gravel at me and is standing before me with a guitar singing “Daddy’s fat, I don’t like you, you hate me, I don’t love you”.

It is not the type of Father’s Day the greeting cards' industry leads you to expect, not even the ones produced by Modern Toss.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Opportunities provided by the E.U

This is the text of a speech delivered to the Ammanford Twinning Association visit for the twin town of Breuillet on May 30th 2014 at Amman Valley School

It’s been a while since I’ve been back at this school. When I was a 17 year old student here I wrote an article for a Welsh newspaper on the growing trend of young people going away to study and never coming back.

Like so many others before me, and since, to access opportunities and challenges I had to leave this valley. My family are still here and I visit often. Even though I have now lived elsewhere for as long as I lived in Ammanford I always say I’m from the town. It is home.

But driving up and down these valley roads saddens me. While the community remains strong, and warm, the economy is getting weaker. Despite cosmetic changes there is no disguising it. This valley, and those around it, stands amongst the poorest parts of the enlarged European Union. Poorer than parts of Poland, Romania and Greece.

Membership of the EU has offered some comfort to our distressed state. Left to London Government’s alone there is little doubt that the state of our poorest regions would be even worse. And the poorest parts of Wales will continue to benefit from Convergence funding until 2020 - though helpful, let us not forget this is a badge of shame.

Since Jacques Delors’ leadership of the European Commission the concept of solidarity has been enshrined in the programmes of the EU. Delors was assisted by a native of the next valley, Hywel Ceri Jones from Clydach in the Swansea Valley, in making sure that the prosperity flowing from common trade was spread beyond the wealthiest parts of the EU.

My friend Hywel Ceri was also a pivotal figure in ensuing that young people gained more than purely economic advantages from our ‘ever closer union’. The ERASMUS programme – which he founded - aimed to bring some excitement to the arid notions of economic union. It was to ensure that the EU wasn't just about trade but was also about people.

By giving students the chance to study in other European countries it was hoped that young people would experience new cultures, form life-long friendships and become mobile across borders. It has been a huge success.

One of my favourite restaurants in Cardiff has been established by brothers who came to study through the ERASMUS programme and never left. Its sister project, the Leonardo project creates training placements across Europe for young people and a steady flow of French, Spanish and Italian students have helped me in the organisation I run. Equally the chance to teach in Paris for a year during her degree enriched the life of my wife – a fellow pupil of mine in this school – and we are still in touch with French friends made from that experience.

Similarly the links formed between our two towns over the last 15 years will be long lasting.

These are examples of how the social programmes developed by the European Union have brought to life the founding ideas of those scarred by the conflicts that tore apart our continent generation after generation.

The common memory of the consequences of disunity are fading.  And it is difficult to evoke the nightmares of the 1930s and 40s with any effect on the modern generation of young people. Though I viscerally feel the wounds my grandfather had inflicted by War, my children will not understand.

The benefits of unification are also hard to sell to people who take them for granted. It is hard to imagine not being able to travel across Germany without stopping for hours and being searched at checkpoints, and being restricted in the amount of currency you take with you out of the country – assuming you can get a visa. The past is a foreign country after all.

The results of last week’s elections to the European Parliament show that the institutions of the EU have become remote from its people. Inevitably, as they were not formed by a popular uprising but by the determined efforts of elites.

The fixation with binding the whole of Europe into a single currency and common economic approach has back-fired. The views of many young people towards the EU – especially in southern Europe – are coloured by the tough austerity programme that has been administered to keep the Euro-zone together.

Greek citizens’ approval for the EU dropped from 32% in 2010 to 19% in 2013. In Spain it reduced by half from 59% in 2008 to 27% in 2013.

In the UK a comprehensive opinion poll last month showed that a majority of voters in England would vote to leave the EU. And in Wales – where we tell ourselves we are more pro-European, in reality the margin is narrow: 39% would vote to stay in the EU, while 35% want to come out.

I suspect that when the referendum comes – as it surely will, and indeed should – minds will be concentrated on properly weighing up the advantages and disadvantages. It is hard to have a rational debate in the UK about Europe given the prejudices of the tabloid press, and the ideological blinkers of those on the left and right.

My own view is that the EU is deeply flawed. But that’s inevitable. It is a compromise – a grand bargain. A magnificently ambitious attempt to wire together ill-fitting nations into an awkward alliance, too big to fail. And bravo from me for trying.

I think it in the interests of the EU ruling elites to compromise to keep Britain in, and in our interests – when we have to face a real choice – to hold our nose and jump. Imperfect as it is, its achievements (too often taken for granted) are profound. I remember a senior Clinton campaign adviser in 1996 explaining to me and my fellow Congressional interns that as attention spans shortened through the new information age, it played into the hands of the right: it is far to scare someone in twenty seconds than it is to inspire someone.

That makes it all the more important that the social element of the European Union is maintained. It must be more than just a free trade area;  the concept of solidarity must remain central to the way the EU develops if it is to persuade the young people of this valley that the benefits of our alliance are for all to share.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Wales, sleepwalking to independence?

Posted on Spectator Coffee House blog on 14th May 2014

Independence is a fringe issue in Wales. Just 12 per cent of Welsh voters support it, and that figure has been stubbornly consistent. But it is far from implausible that within a decade Wales could find itself standing alone, not through any conviction that independence is the best bet, but because the UK has marginalised Wales.

Wales is in a weak negotiating position already, as the Scottish referendum campaign has shown. Take the Barnett Formula, which adjusts the amount of money received from the Treasury by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. An expert commission, led by respected economist Gerald Holtham, pointed out that if Wales were treated on the same basis as an English region it would get some £300million more a year. But the pro-unionist parties have pledged to keep the Barnett Formula in place (which provides Scotland £4bn annually) as part of their case that the UK is ‘better together’. Wales, Gerald Holtham has concluded, is to be treated as “the runt of the litter… like the youngest child of a poor family that gets only hand-me-down clothes, whether appropriate or not in style or size.” Such is Wales’ lack of leverage that the Treasury didn’t even feel the need to dispute Holtham’s analysis; it simply ignored it.

Welsh political elites are beginning to feel that the union is unresponsive to its modest demands. “The United Kingdom is not a ‘sharing union’. It is rather a realpolitik union. Those with the loudest voice and a credible threat of secession get to have most influence on how resources are allocated,”says Prof Richard Wyn Jones of Cardiff University’s Welsh Governance Centre.

But what if Scotland were to leave the UK? Might the union become more responsive to Wales? Much will depend on how Scottish secession is conducted. It is in the interests of unionists to be magnanimous; but stark statements about currencies, defence and the economy suggest that unionists’ instincts are to let the nationalists stew in their own juice. If this instinct were to govern the secession negotiations and the eventual terms of independence, it might unnerve Welsh political elites and make them fear that a similar dynamic will characterise government in the rump UK, making Wales even more powerless than it is at present.
Of course, it is possible that Whitehall will accommodate Wales in such circumstances; but it seems unlikely. England’s relative size will have jumped from 85 per cent of the UK, to nearly 92 per cent of the rump state, and a resurgent England, and its future in Europe, is therefore likely to command greater attention at the centre.
If the polls are correct, Wales’s wish to remain in the EU would be overwhelmed by England’s wish to leave. Not only would that create a clash of values but it would also create deep unease about Wales’ economic wellbeing, which would have political consequences.

The little regional policy there is within the UK is driven from Brussels, not London. If the EU aid tap was turned off, with nothing equivalent in its place, the concern that economic policy is pre-occupied with London and south east England might shift political thinking on the left in Wales. A union dominated by a larger neighbour, especially one standing outside the EU, and with a powerful centre-right presence, is a very different proposition from the current union eulogised by unionist politicians in Wales.

At the time of writing, a No vote in Scotland still seems the most likely outcome; but, with the lead narrowing, Scottish secession is plausible. Such an eventuality would have profound and far-reaching consequences for Wales, especially if, at the insistence of overbearing centre-right concerns in England, the rump UK exits the EU. It’s about time that the Welsh started to face up to the fact that the ground beneath is moving.

Lee Waters is Director of the Institute of Welsh Affairs.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

The Power Struggle

The last ten days has witnessed tensions within the two main unionist parties which will have repercussions for years to come.

Two sleepy Westminster institutions, the Welsh Grand Committee and the Welsh Affairs Select Committee, both thought past their useful life, suddenly came alive and set in chain a series of events which caused great discomfort in Cardiff Bay.

A seemingly casual put down by the Welsh Secretary, and an incendiary speech by his shadow, lit a long fuse which caused consternation in Cathays Park, and set off a bomb in the Welsh Conservative group in the Assembly. But while it is possible to see these events through the prism of personalities and rivalries, both are about far more - the question of where political power in Wales resides?

It was Owen Smith’s speech that commanded the most attention initially.  Labour’s Shadow Welsh Secretary said the offer of income tax raising powers for the Welsh Government was ‘a trap’.  Pro-devolution Conservatives were quick to try and make political capital with their claim that he had ‘completely demolished the Silk Commission recommendations.  In practice, Owen Smith, was largely repeating his party’s ambivalence to a power they hadn’t asked for and a referendum they didn’t think could be won. The real kick came in an essay Smith wrote for the IWA a few days later. In it Smith went beyond his previous arguments that support for broader tax devolution was conditional on putting in place fairer funding for Wales.  He warned that the recommendations of the Silk Commission threatened the unraveling of the Union:  “What is a Union if not, at base, an economic and social alliance through the pooling of risk and the sharing of rewards?”, he wrote.

Carwyn Jones has been disciplined in his response.  Though he had no intentions of triggering income tax powers, he will resent having his negotiating position dictated by a Shadow Minister in Westminster.  But by putting his case in such fundamental terms, and ruling out income tax powers for the Assembly in the near future, Owen Smith has caused significant damage to the First Minister’s attempts to negotiate increased borrowing levels.  The intervention also sets the tone for discussions between the First Minister and Ed Milliband on the inclusion of other parts of the Silk Commission report in the next Labour manifesto.

Even though Carwyn Jones is Labour’s most senior politician in the UK to exercise power, he doesn’t have a free hand to decide his party’s devolution policy. Power devolved remains power retained.  After all it was a Westminster Government who set-up the Silk Commission, and MPs are keen to remind AMs that they remain the arbiters of the constitution.

It's a message the Welsh Secretary, David Jones, has been privately relaying to the Conservative leader in the Assembly for some time.  Andrew RT Davies has been resisting, and last week paid the price.
After sacking his leadership rival Nick Ramsay, and three other Shadow Cabinet members for defying a three line whip, he had to face reports that he is now “completely isolated” and was subjected to “100% universal criticism” from his party’s Welsh board.  Cardiff Bay insider Daran Hill judged it to be an epic blunder – the wrong issue, at the wrong time, in the wrong way.

The announcement of the sackings by Twitter wrong-footed the commetariat, who did not seem to see it coming, and in the fog war they chose to focus on a process story rather than the power story.  But as the tale unfolded the power struggle at the heart of the episode has become clearer.

In a deeply revealing interview on Radio Wales’s Sunday Supplement programme Andrew RT Davies acknowledged that people within his party have been trying to undermine his leadership since he was narrowly elected two and half years ago.  He said "There have been so-called texts, source briefings - no-one putting their name, but source briefings - and situations orchestrated that obviously make life a little awkward shall we say... within the party”.

Strong supporters of his, the programme host Vaughan Roderick put to him, had suggested that it is the Welsh Secretary, David Jones, who was behind attempts to destabilise him.  Andrew RT Davies didn’t demur, and noted, pointedly, “I and David Cameron are the only two people who have been voted on by the membership”.

Mr Jones sees himself as the legitimate leader of the Conservatives in Wales – a tension that has been familiar feature within both Labour and the Tories since 1999. And the Welsh Secretary has not been terribly subtle about his attempts to pressurize Davies into taking his lead from the Westminster leadership.

The struggle for dominance took on a more substantive dimension over the response to the recommendations of the Silk Commission.  David Jones has little patience with the view of all the Welsh party leaders that the income tax powers he’s proposing to devolve are unusable in their present form. They would want the flexibility to vary the three bands of income tax independently from one another. But the Treasury won’t wear it, and David Jones has been trying to get Andrew RT to sign up to a policy of cutting all tax bands by 0.5%. He thinks it is affordable and would be a vote winner for the Welsh Tories. Davies would prefer the flexibility to target tax cuts at individual income bands, most likely a cut in the top rate of tax to encourage high earners to move to Wales.

Far from being an academic distinction it is live political question at Westminster as David Jones has to pilot a draft Bill through the Commons to enact the power.  It is more difficult for him to swat opposition attempts to change the Bill when amongst their number is the ‘Leader of the Welsh Conservatives in the National Assembly’ (to give him his official title).  But instead of an elegant side-step the Welsh Secretary dismissed Davies’ evidence as a mere ‘personal view’.  Andrew RT rose to the bait and quickly issued a statement which made clear he was speaking on behalf of “the entire membership of the Welsh Conservative group in the National Assembly”.

But it seems he wasn’t.

Five members of the increasingly fractious Assembly group favoured supporting David Jones’ position (Byron Davies was, fortuitously, absent on the day of the vote and therefore spared the choice of following his instincts).  The internal dynamics are complex with elements of ideology, ego, opportunity, positioning and personal friendship at play.  But against the backdrop of a challenge to his authority from both the Welsh Secretary and his internal opponents, Andrew RT decided to make a (largely insignificant) vote a loyalty test.

Just as David Jones could have finessed the difference of view when he went before the Welsh Select Committee, Andrew RT Davies could have avoided a breech with his band of rebels over the vote in the Assembly.  But having decided to issue a three-line whip he could not have ignored the direct challenge to his authority.

On this site one of the rebels, Antoinette Sandbach, commented  “Sadly Andrew made us choose between party and group”.  Quite so. That was the point.

This crisis is not just a challenge to his leadership – though it clearly is – it represents an existential crisis for the Welsh Conservatives.

The political project begun by Nick Bourne of tackling the perception that the Conservatives are an ‘English’ party in Wales was, perhaps unexpectedly, taken up by Andrew RT Davies.  David Jones challenged that agenda when he was the junior Wales Office Minister under Cheryl Gillan and continues to do so now he sits around the Cabinet table.

Not all the rebels have the same motivation, but the outcome of their actions will be the same if they press their point.  The consequences of pushing Andrew RT Davies out do not appear to have been thought through, and would reverse the progress made by the party in the last ten years.
This story is far more significant than was first reported.  And it fits into a wider picture of MPs, worried about the momentum of the SNP, pushing back against the tide of devolution.

We are living through an extraordinarily fluid period of politics and it is impossible to discern how this story will play out.  But let’s be in no doubt about the forces at play, and the stakes they are playing for.

The myths and realities along the silk Road

When Dave and Nick strode into the Oriel of the Senedd building last month they did so with a purpose. “More power for the Welsh people and the Welsh government”, the Prime Minister told the initial press conference.

Since then the UK Government have published a fuller response to the recommendations of the Silk Commission, and this week unveiled a draft Wales Bill setting out how they will legislate to give AMs greater accountability for the money they spend.

"Power that's about building this country up, power that's about making sure we have real accountable government here in Wales” was what David Cameron said he was delivering on the November morning he came to Cardiff.  But the details that are emerging are less straightforward than the rhetoric might suggest.

The Welsh Government is to get permission to use its existing powers (inherited from the old WDA) to borrow £500 Million for infrastructure spending, and up to a similar amount to help with cash flow problems.  If they want to borrow any more than a modest £1 Billion  then they need to call a referendum (with the permission of the Welsh Secretary) and persuade the Welsh people to draw down powers to vary income tax.

The ‘minor taxes’ that the UK Government have agreed to hand over to the Welsh Government are just that, minor. Stamp duty, land tax and landfill tax are small beer in revenue raising terms. To begin to meet the expectations of unlocking investment capital that have been raised by the debate around Silk, income tax is the only show in town.

The political judgment from the Coalition Government is that Carwyn Jones needs an incentive to take on tax powers, and face up to the responsibility for raising, as well as spending, money. The First Minister has said all along he’d be quite happy to get the power to borrow, but he’s not inclined to accept tax powers without a fairer funding deal for Wales, recently labeling the current situation a trap. There are, of course, other considerations, not least the fact that the Labour Party is split, and the polls show a referendum would be hard to win.

But even with income tax powers the revenue the amount of money the Welsh Government can expect is modest.  While there are no precise figure, sums in the region of £125-140 million a year are expected, which would only allow Ministers to service a debt of around £2 billion ( amounting to little more than the cuts to the Welsh budget since the austerity drive began).

The UK Government have raised expectations about the scale of fiscal responsibility, which look increasingly unlikely to be met. Carwyn Jones may not think that such a modest sum is worth the political risk of calling a referendum.

“More power for the Welsh people and the Welsh government”, but only if they agree to use it for projects the UK Government approves of it seems. Old habits die hard in Whitehall, relinquishing control is not in the DNA. Even the £500 Million pounds that is available now to spend on infrastructure comes with very considerable strings – it must be spent on upgrading the M4.

As it happens the Welsh Government are also very keen on spending money on the M4 – even though much of the current Cabinet agreed to cancel plans for a new road in 2009.

Ministers have to be careful what they say about their preferred option for the motorway around Newport as the formal consultation is ongoing (they had to scrap the last one because of the threat of a legal challenge on environmental grounds). They need to be seen to be keeping an open mind, but it feels very much that Cathays Park and Whitehall would prefer to build a brand new section of motorway over the Gwent levels.

The trouble they have is the cost. £500 Million doesn’t go a long way when it comes to building a six lane motorway.  The Welsh Government has put the cost of a new stretch of M4 at £936 Million, but analysts believe £1.25 Billion is nearer the mark.

The cost of large infrastructure projects are notoriously hard to predict, but the Welsh Government’s current estimate for a new motorway is on the optimistic side.  The cost of building a new road was put at £1.25 Billion at the time the project was shelved in 2009.  The latest plans out to consultation assume the road can be built more quickly and therefore can be delivered for less than a billion - but analysts think the figures are unrealistic.

Prof Stuart Cole, Emeritus Professor of Transport at the University of South Wales, has told the IWA “The figure of £936 Million is based on an expected date of completion of 2020. If a completion date of2031 is used, which was the original assumption and is realistic, then £1.25 billion is a reasonable final figure for the expected outturn price”.

Prof Cole has put forward an alternative plan in a report published jointly by the IWA and the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, The Blue Route: a cost effective solution to relieving M4 congestion around NewportHis proposal - which had been the favoured option of transport officials at one stage - would cost £380 million (one third of the Government’s official estimate) and could be completed much sooner.

But even if a brand new motorway is thought to be the best option it may be a luxury that the Governments cannot afford.  BBC Wales Political Editor Nick Servini tweeted  that the “Welsh Government says £500m borrowing limit could be enough to build M4 relief road after it's topped up by other funds”.

That'll take a lot of 'other funds' and won't leave anything for the rest of Wales.
When it was announced that the Welsh Government would get new borrowing powers, the First Minister emphasised the money ‘is not just for the south of Wales, it is for the whole of Wales north and south’. A point echoed by Welsh Secretary David Jones who was quick to press the case for investment in the A55.

Tying up all of our borrowing powers, and potential future revenues, in one scheme in the south east is politically difficult.

No doubt more money could be found if there was a will to do so. Indeed, the ‘other funds’ Nick Servini refers to may well be a reference to the prospect of gilt market borrowing funded by the proceeds of future Severn bridge tolls. But there’s some way to go before that is a likely prospect.

In the meantime, as the dust settles on the UK Government’s detailed announcement on what “More power for the Welsh people” means, the spin of empowerment is feeling a little hollow.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Are the Silk threads unraveling?

Published on IWA blog on 11th November 2013

The Prime Minister and his deputy got the headlines they were after: Wales offered tax-raising powers by UK government. David Cameron was able to show the modern Conservative Party is pro-devolution and financially responsible, and Nick Clegg was keen to stress his party’s historic role in delivering ‘Home Rule all around’.
But just a week after the two men stood side by side in front of Richard Rodgers’ undulating wood celling, and the veneer is already beginning to peel away.
The UK Government have promised AMs the power to borrow money, and have given them the option to vary the rate of income tax and keep the proceeds.  But there’s a catch. The Chancellor may still get to decide what the borrowed money is spent on, and the tax powers are limited, and can only be used if there’s a fresh referendum within a time-limited period.
 Taken together, I think the conditions Cameron and Clegg have insisted upon make it unlikely that the offer of income tax powers will ever be taken up.
So what’s going on?
“David Jones was very enthused about the announcement” of devolving tax raising powers to Wales, Welsh Conservative leader Andrew RT Davies told the BBC last week. Really?  The Welsh Secretary who has been fighting trench warfare within Whitehall against moves to give more powers to Wales, enthused?
Hard to believe at first, but the more detail that emerges of the conditions of the deal, the more David Jones’ enthusiasm makes sense.
The Welsh Secretary is something on a sceptic about devolution. He did his best to quietly undermine the referendum on extra powers in 2011, and there is no doubt whom Kirsty Williams was referring to when she noted “there were people in London who didn’t want the Silk Commission to be established”.
But the little discussed, and coded, clause in the UK coalition agreement to set-up ‘a process similar to the Calman Commission for the Welsh Assembly’ set in train a process that was difficult to stop.
Modeled on the Commission which required the Scots to take greater responsibility for raising the revenue they spent, the Silk Commission was set up to achieve similar ends.
In exchange for extra powers would come more responsibility.  To avoid the Government in Cardiff constantly blaming Whitehall for insufficient funds or powers, Westminster wanted to ensure that AMs would face the discomfort of having to raise some of the revenue they wished to spend.
Since last November’s publication of the Commission on Devolution in Wales, chaired by Paul Silk, a hotly contested battle has been raging within the coalition on how to respond.  The Liberal Democrats have expended political capital within Government to fight for devolving tax powers.  Whilst the Prime Minister and Chancellor have been relaxed about the principles of the first part of the Silk report, the Secretary of State for Wales, David Jones, has been fighting its progress through Government at every step. The eventual announcement was seen a victory for the Lib Dems, and defeat for David Jones. However, that caricature is proving too exaggerated.
It has emerged there are two significant qualifications to the deal announced at the Senedd.
It seems likely that the chance to hold a referendum to trigger tax-varying powers will be subject to a cut off date. Unless the vote is held by a certain date – there is some speculation that this will be 2017 – then the deal is off.
The existence of a ‘sunset clause’ in the new Government of Wales Bill was effectively confirmed by Wales Office Minister Jenny Randerson last week. She told ITV’s Sharp End “It is a mechanism that people have put forward as a way in which we can ensure that something happens as an outcome to this in a reasonable timetable”.
By coming out in favour of holding a referendum soon, and pledging to campaign for a yes vote, Andrew RT Davies and Kirsty Williams hope to put pressure on Labour to draw down the tax powers. A position also backed by Plaid Cymru.  However, the First Minister seems to have no appetite for another referendum, or for ever using the power to change income tax rates. After all the Scottish Parliament have had the power since 1999 and have never used it.
Even if he wanted to get greater tax powers Welsh Labour MPs would be in open revolt if he tried.  Shadow Welsh Secretary Owen Smith – who ironically is one of the more pro-devolution MPs – wrote on a Labour blog last week that devolving income tax without more generous grant funding from Westminster  “would be irresponsible in the extreme and lock in under-funding”.
Just as he warned David Cameron that he could only expect him to campaign against Scottish independence in next year’s referendum if he delivered on the Silk report, Carwyn Jones is now trying to pressure the PM to deliver improvements to the Welsh funding settlement if the PM wants the Welsh Government to take greater responsibility for raising its own revenue.  He told AMs last week “I could only campaign for income tax devolution if I was confident that the overall funding regime in place at that time was fair to Wales”. And there’s no chance of that happening unless Scotland leaves the UK, and even then no guarantee.
The First Minister is a lot keener on getting borrowing powers, as well as getting his hands on so-called ‘minor taxes’, like Business Rates, the Aggregates Levy and Air Passenger Duty. But despite a recommendation from the Silk Commission to pass them down to Cardiff, the UK Government have refused.
Stamp Duty Land Tax and Landfill Tax are to be devolved to Wales, but the Treasury may try to decide how the proceeds are used. After all the Welsh Government already has the power to borrow using the powers it took off the old WDA, but it can only exercise them with the approval of the Chancellor.  It is far from clear how much lee-way George Osborne will give the Welsh Government, especially if it is to fund anything other than a new M4.
As Conservative MP Glyn Davies noted on his blog “If its using powers already in existence, and limiting it to what UK Govt approves, not sure how much of a constitutional change this actually is”.
But perhaps the biggest impediment to getting Labour to sign-up to holding a referendum are the constraints on how the income tax varying powers will work. The Silk Commission recommended that Wales be allowed to vary individual tax bands, but the Treasury seems to insist on the same arrangements as Scotland, where it is only possible to raise or cut all tax bands at the same time.
So AMs will be allowed to vote to increase everyone’s income tax in Wales, but they will not be able to cut the top rate of tax.  That alone is enough to kill a referendum campaign before it begins.
As the person charged with shaping the messaging for the Yes for Wales campaign in the 2011 referendum, I do not see how you could sell that message to a public sceptical of politicians in an age of austerity – Even if you could get all parties lined up together to trigger a referendum and campaign in favour.
No wonder David Jones was enthused. As the old saying goes, he who laughs last, laughs loudest.

A second city – relegation for Swansea?

Published on IWA blog on 5th August 2013

Is Swansea Wales’ second City? In population terms certainly, but it seems a rather dated question – reflective of a time when the ‘principality’ was only worthy of two perhaps.  With the elevation of Newport  to city status it is probably more productive to think in terms of Wales having several ‘second cities’.
So what then of Swansea’s identity?  That too is changing.  The last census showed a growth in the city’s population of around 15,500 over the last decade with Swansea becoming more cosmopolitan (though still 94% white).
A 9.0% fall in the number of welsh speakers (greater than the 3.5% fall recorded for Wales over the period), underlines the sense that discussions about Swansea’s ‘identity’ are more appropriately framed in terms of the city having several ‘identities’.
Any sense of place, and the orientation of the people who live there, is of course dynamic. Identities are fluid, and are constantly changing. Swansea’s is rich and complex, but perhaps no more so than a similarly sized town in England.
The more relevant question for modern Swansea is ‘is it more than the sum of its parts?’. Without a coherent sense of direction Swansea risks being buffeted by the severe storms on the horizon.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that Welsh Councils face spending cuts of 18% in the next few years. Politicians will want to try and protect key frontline services like education and social services from the worst. But even assuming they can limit reductions in key areas to 9% that will mean that spending on other services will have to come down by an eye watering 52%.  This is a game-changing scenario. Efficiency cuts, or collaboration, cannot produce savings of this magnitude. It will require real sacrifice and political pain as the budgets for libraries, parks, leisure centers, public toilets and other visible services are slashed.
This is something all Welsh councils will face, but Swansea enters this storm in an already battered state.  Next year it has a projected deficit of £5m, with a forecast shortfall of £22m in 2015/16 and £35m in 2016/17.
Add into the mix Swansea’s weak economic base – the city falls within one of the poorest regions in the European Union; its dependency on the public sector – a third of its working population work for the state; and the fact that nearly 20% of its population is over 65; and it has higher than average percentage of residents with a long term health problem or disability (at just under a quarter).
Even a city secure in its identity and clear on its future direction would struggle to deal with these profound challenges.  Swansea, however, is not in this position.  My own experience of dealing with every authority in Wales in my previous role is that the city and county of Swansea is one of the weakest. My anecdotal canvassing of people ahead of last week’s IWA event in the city found that the two words most often repeated to describe the city’s politics were ‘messy’ and ‘nasty’.
“The current structure of local government – party political, ward-based councillors… – means that it can be more difficult to take tough, timely strategic decisions that, although they may create winners as well as losers, would benefit thecity overall.” Andrew Carter of the Centre for Cities think tank wrote in a wide-ranging report on the potential impact of directly elected mayors.
The report argued that Mayors, due to their strong ‘place-wide’ mandate, can help, both where they have formal authority and where they use ‘soft power’ to influence relationships across Government, business, and civil society.  The evidence seems clear enough in Bristol.  The capital of south west of England was just one of two cities that voted in referenda to replace their cabinet structure with a directly elected Mayor. George Ferguson, an independent, has brought both definition and flair to the city’s leadership.
Clearly an elected Mayor is no panacea. The multiple challenges Swansea faces would not melt away by the election of a single figure, no mater how dynamic.  But it would help the City to articulate a unified vision for its future direction, and would help create a catalyst to the transform the culture and focus of the council bureaucracy.  And if the system of using ‘open primaries’ to select candidates was adopted wholesale the process could be used to oxygenate Swansea’s politics.
If the city has serious ambitions to rank alongside Cardiff it needs to chart a new course.  It cannot expect aid or support from elsewhere. This is a journey that has to be driven from within the city.
Swansea has a natural advantage in its location, and a tremendous opportunity in the growing reputation of the city’s University, but it is not yet doing enough to capitalise on either.
If it does not strike out in a fresh direction Swansea risks being overwhelmed by forces beyond its control, and the notion that it was ever considered a second city will be laden with pathos.