Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What's The Welsh For 'Schadenfreude'?

Interesting developments today in Wales, where all hell appeared to break loose after Labour put out a press release declaring that there would be no more progress on a referendum on further devolution until after the general election.

Referendum? Further devolution? Labour? Yes, you read the above correctly. Enacted by a Labour government and supported by the Lib Dems, as a result of the 2006 Government of Wales Act, provision exists for our Cambrian cousins to hold a referendum to decide whether or not the Welsh Assembly should be given primary legislative powers. Even some Welsh Conservatives are now in on the fun, arguing that not only should there be a vote on granting legislative powers, but also arguing in favour of the move.

The statement by First Minister Rhodri Morgan, Welsh Secretary Peter Hain and the Chair of Welsh Labour clearly caught their Plaid Cymru coalition partners unawares. Part of the 'One Wales' coalition deal between the two parties is a commitment to holding the referendum, if it is winnable, by May 2010. In response, Plaid branded the move as a "serious breach of trust" and "completely unacceptable". Things appeared to have cooled down by the afternoon, though, with Rhodri Morgan and Plaid Depute First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones able to say in an emergency statement following some hasty afternoon negotiations that "all options" on timing were open.

The similarities, not to say differences with Scotland are immediately apparent. With the Westminster Government insisting that there will be no progress on Calman until after the election, and this attempt by Peter Hain to delay a referendum in Wales, the game being played by Westminster Labour is pretty clear. Everything will be put into the deep freeze for now and the election fought on the claim that only Labour can deliver on further devolution in an attempt to try and shore up their vote. This either buys another few years of time in which to do nothing if Labour gets re-elected, or leaves the whole thing for the Conservatives to deal with should they run out winners.

Except, neither Plaid nor the SNP have played ball. The Scottish Government has draft orders in place which would allow for Calman to proceed without any need for further delay. Meanwhile, with Rhodri Morgan due to stand down, Plaid have the option of refusing to back any Labour candidate for the First Ministership who opts to backslide on this aspect of the coalition deal.

But why might Labour, other than its innate conservatism and reluctance to concede any more devolution than it absolutely must to fend off the electoral threat of the nationalists, be so keen to put the brakes on? The answer may lie very close to home, with echoes to be heard in the increasingly shrill cries against holding an independence referendum in Scotland.

Firstly, there's the problem for all of the unionist parties, but particularly for Labour, of being seen to support a Welsh referendum while ruling one out in Scotland. It's a position which holds precisely zero credibility. With public support for a referendum already high, it's a contradiction with which the SNP would need no encouragement to make hay over.

However, the ramifications run so much deeper. Think on the 'neverendum' argument posited by unionists as a reason why Scots shouldn't even be permitted to hold a first vote. Joyously, in section 103 of the Government of Wales Act 2006, it is made clear that if a majority of Welsh voters do not back the transfer of primary legislative powers, this does not prevent Westminster from laying the orders necessary to hold a further referendum in the future.

In just one paragraph, the Labour party in Government, and the Lib Dems who supported the bill on its passage, have enshrined explicitly in legislation the principal that there should be no time bar on holding a subsequent referendum if people vote against. Scotland can't get a vote on further constitutional change, but the Welsh can have as many votes as they like until they deliver what the government considers to be the right answer. Thus, by Labour and the Lib Dems own hands, the neverendum argument, such as it ever was, is killed stone dead.

The timescales promise to be similarly glorious, at least from an SNP perspective since all parties in Wales seem still to be contemplating a referendum prior to 2011. Compare and contrast this position with the unionist advanced argument in Scotland that constitutional ‘navel gazing’ (Calman presumably excepted) is the ‘wrong’ thing to do in a recession. In Wales, we will shortly be hearing the counter argument from a Lib/Lab/Con alliance that only with the further transfer of powers can the measures needed to counter the downturn adequately be taken.

If the Welsh Assembly backs a referendum by the required 2/3rds majority, the Welsh First Minister has to give notice of this in writing to the Secretary of State. The clock then starts ticking – the Secretary of State then has 120 days to either lay a draft of a statutory instrument containing an Order in Council before each House of Parliament, or give notice in writing to the First Minister as to why they are refusing to do so.

If this Assembly vote happens prior to the election, say in mid February 2010, it means that the first thing a Welsh Secretary will have to do post-election is decide whether or not a referendum can go ahead. Whether that person be Labour or Tory, even assuming that matters don't move quite so quickly, it seems likely that just as the unionist parties carry out their threat in Scotland to vote down a referendum bill, the issue will be resurrected almost immediately when matters come to a head in Wales.

Gloating is seldom an attractive trait in politics, but then again, neither is the defence of blatant double standards. Thanks to this piece of three year old legislation, the unionists have slayed every single argument that ever passed their lips against the principal of a referendum on constitutional change, on the principle of having future votes if required and on the principle of having a referendum during an economic downturn.

Peter Hain is due to visit Wales tomorrow, and will doubtless come under intense pressure to explain firstly why today's statement was made, and secondly, to state whether he backs the position as set out this afternoon by The First Minister and his Deputy. It should be fun to watch, but not nearly as much fun as it will be to see Scotland's unionists squirming over why Scotland should be denied a referendum just as the Welsh seem set to prepare to go to the polls.

The twisting and turning in the months ahead will be simply exquisite to watch. Now where's that popcorn?

UPDATE: Plaid Candidate Heledd Fychan seems mildly amused by it all as well...

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Huntly - Monday and Saturday

Work took me to Huntly on Monday, in the aftermath of the floods which saw around 100 people evacuated from their homes.

Almost a month's rainfall in 24 hours, allied to ground already saturated from previous rainfall, saw the River Deveron rise dramatically overnight as water ran straight off the hills. As the river rose, the burn which flows through The Meadows estate quickly backed up and burst its banks in the early hours of the morning, flooding the neighbouring housing estate and the nearby Meadows care home.

First stop was the Stewart's Hall, where many of those affected were awaiting meetings with representatives of Aberdeenshire Council and Grampian Housing, to try and sort out what could be done until their homes were again habitable. Alex Salmond, who is the local MSP, and Cllr Joanna Strathdee, were also there to offer their support.

With the floodwater beginning to slowly drain away, the clean-up operation was getting underway. However, with furniture, carpets, walls and floors damaged beyond repair, it could be weeks if not months before some people are able to return to their homes. It's hard to offer words of comfort in these circumstances, but amongst the residents I spoke to, many of whom were still coming to terms with what had happened, there was a stoic determination to soldier on and to return to normality as soon as was possible.

Later, Joanna and I went round the housing estate to see for ourselves how the clean-up operation was progressing. We also took a walk along the Deveron down by Huntly Castle, which had by that stage begun to return to its normal levels. Even there, down by the Nordic Ski Centre, the extent of the damage was quite remarkable.

Here's a photo of debris, including planks from the scaffolding which had been on the A96 bridge:

The gravel from the riverside footpath was swept away (above), leaving the trench below:

A flooded car park. The water had fallen considerably by the time this was taken:

The Deveron in full spate, with the riverside path turned into a canal:

However, today saw the second weekend of the Huntly Hairst festival, along with a Continental and Farmers market. I headed along in the afternoon to take a wander round and chat with folk about how the town was responding to Monday's events.

A slightly more sedate Deveron today:

Today's market:

There's a fantastic community spirit in Huntly, and it's been great to see the way that local people have rallied round. However, those still out of their homes are likely to need help for some time to come. Life goes on, but we shouldn't forget that there's still a lot to do to return life to normal for the folk who lost their homes last week.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Taken To Cask

Yes, yes. I know it's a lazy shot, but even after a severe bout of the cold and a protracted case of the canny be bothereds, this still makes me laugh:

Yep, in their press release relating to regulations laid in parliament which will improve the labelling of Scotch Whisky, Jim Murphy's full time press officer, working for a part-time department, has managed to mis-spell the word whisky.

'On the rocks', 'spelling disaster for the industry', 'lacking spirit' - insert your own jokes here...