Monday, February 22, 2010

George Osborne: Hell Freezes Over

It'd be easy to dismiss George Osborne's "Sid The Banks" announcement as just another plucked-from-thin-air policy from a Shadow Chancellor swimming further and further out of his depth. And while those things are true and the blogosphere has done its usual excellent job of exposing the idea's flaws, we should reflect that it's not the first Tory policy announcement this month that suggests they may be embarking on their Greatest Hits tour.

After all, from our position of 20/20 hindsight, it's easy to say that another public share offer won't produce a share-owning democracy because those in the 1980's didn't (emphasising of course that failing to recognise that people buying purposely undervalued assets will be offered and take a quick profit from institutional investors who are willing to pay something approaching the true value of those assets is just the sort of economic illiteracy we've come to expect from Georgie...)

But did you need 20/20 hindsight? Sid may be the exemplar of the big Thatcherite privatisations, but that was December 1986; BT had already gone in December 1984 and the electricity companies would not be sold for another five years. Is it credible to think that the Tories didn't know how those later privatisations would work out? Or is it more likely that they knew but didn't care?

What worries me, however, is that not every Tory privatisation was a Sid job. The rail franchises certainly weren't and neither were their oft-forgotten predecessor, the bus companies. In both cases, many of the resulting companies were management buy-outs later absorbed into bigger concerns. Gee, do you think the Tories might propose something akin to management buy-outs in other areas of the public sector so that big companies can once again snap them up later on so it's not so controversial as direct privatisation while providing a juicy dividend to the workers involved?

Okay, the Tories might have had a Damascene conversion to co-operativism, but then I might be signed to play power forward for the Los Angeles Clippers. It seems rather more likely that as the individual elements of the grand Tory scheme emerge, we'll find that many of them are similarly designed, to disguise the real intentions. And hey, if you were proposing some of the things the Tories were, wouldn't you be ashamed of them too?

Friday, February 05, 2010

Saying The H Word

Every month(ish) in Y Barcud Oren, I try as best as possible to explain the latest developments in Welsh politics to the English. It's a task I enjoy enormously (and let's face it, if you had two government parties throwing you this much comedy material, you'd be enjoying it too) but sometimes covering the news isn't enough to give a sense of the developing trends sneaking their way into the mix. And with just ninety days (presumably) until the polls open, there's one developing trend in Welsh politics we really should be looking at.

There's a party excited about a hung parliament. And it isn't us.

I suppose Alex Salmond's boast that the SNP will return 20 MPs at the general election is so oft-repeated that it might pass you by, particularly in a psephologically-savvy party that knows that a party that returned 21 of 72 constituency MSPs (29%) in an election specifically about Scotland will have trouble returning 20 of 59 MPs (34%) in a UK-wide election. And with coverage of devolved matters so patchy, leaving the English viewer with just intermittent nods to party conferences and the odd controversy, you could be forgiven for writing it off as bog-standard leadership bluster. But when you live with it every day, you can't fail but come to a far more disturbing conclusion.

They actually believe it. And I mean believe it, as the True Word and the Good News.

In the nationalist oral history (which has now transcended mere political narrative and become a national epic poem, somewhere between a new Mabinogion and the Mahabharata) the 2007 elections represented a fundamental turning point wherein the people of Scotland and Wales rose up and demanded that Plaid and the SNP lead them to glory. Minor details like the inevitability of two parties that had spent years framing themselves as considerably Labourer than yow benefiting from the unpopularity of a disastrous Labour Prime Minister and the supposedly crushing mandate only amounting to 31% and 22% of the vote in Scotland and Wales respectively somehow failed to trouble the chroniclers.

Now if you're telling yourself that sort of story you're already in all sorts of psychological trouble, but the hung parliament idea adds another layer of lunacy. The SNP target of 20 surely presumes that even in the worst case scenario they get to 15 and Plaid must be imagining a green sweep from Ynys Mon and Aberconwy in the north through Ceredigion to Llanelli that "guarantees" them at least 7. And if your minimum nationalist expectation is 22, with an option on anything up to 35, then you have to consider yourself, however delusionally, a player in the post-hung game.

At this point the rational analyst thinks that it's quite cute that the nats think the other boys will let them play but wonders who exactly they think will give them the ball. Getting Plaid onto the same page as the Tories in Wales for the rainbow that never was was tough enough and as for the SNP, one imagines that Annabel Goldie's response to any approach from them would be distinctly Anglo-Saxon. Maybe the SNP's referendum (which you have to presume would be the non-negotiable first item on their coalition shopping list) could be delivered by Westminster itself without Dave having to beg to Annabel, but post-hung Dave will want to keep the good ship Change on course for a decisive second election win and if any issue is likely to blow him onto the rocks of the small matter of his party still being, you know, Tories, giving the SNP a referendum is it.

That rational analyst is, however, being a bit Lib Dem in assuming that the Tories are the most relevant partner here. What happens if Labour manage to stay over 300 and a Labour-nationalist coalition is a possibility? The Lib Dems might feel that Labour's losing fifty-odd seats and quite possibly the popular vote overall disqualified them as partners. But for the nationalists, for whom any coalition deal is just the next step in their epic poem, is that a factor? After all, it is essentially what Plaid are doing now, albeit in the Assembly where we've slightly more experience and a lot more maturity about the nature of coalition politics than Westminster. If the nats feel they can come back to their nations and successfully justify rewarding failure because the epic poem told them to, they could well go for it.

Of course, that's all presuming the delusion becomes reality and the fact I'm calling it a delusion should tell you all you need to know about that. Nevertheless it's a delusion that will frame, however subconsciously, all the nationalist spin from here on in. Moreover, you have to wonder where the nationalist heads will be when they wake up on May 8th to find their dreams in tatters. With a powers referendum in Wales still to deliver and a year of governing left for both parties, any failure to respond to the reality of their lot could be catastrophic for their countries and ultimately for their votes.