Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Debating the tax bill

There is nothing at all unreasonable about a departing member of any organization arguing about the legal basis on which outstanding debts should be settled.  Money is either owed or it isn’t, and there is little doubt in my mind that the EU27 have a reasonable basis for demanding that the UK meet the obligations to which the country has committed.  I’m equally clear that the UK can, if it wishes – and this is what the extreme Brexiteers are saying, simply renege on previously-made commitments and walk away, although I don’t share their optimism that those left with a hole in their budgets will simply shrug their shoulders and place their trust in any commitments that the UK Government makes in the future.
I doubt, though, that many of us would find our banks terribly understanding if we went to them and said, in effect, “We’ll offer to pay you part of what we previously committed to pay you, but only on condition that you allow us to dictate the terms under which we’ll bank with you in future”.  That, though, seems to be roughly the position of the UK Government in relation to settling debts with the EU.  In fairness, it is an approach that most of the extremely wealthy individuals and the biggest multinational companies would recognise, because it is precisely the approach which the UK Government adopts when it comes to taxing the rich and powerful.  They are allowed to pluck a figure out of the air, negotiate around it and arrive at a settlement under which they pay as much as they agree to pay, regardless of their actual tax liability, basically because that makes things easier for HMRC than having to go through all the bother of making a proper assessment.  So I can see why ministers might believe that it can work, although I’m far from certain that the EU27 will roll over as easily as HM Treasury does.
Underlying all this is that, instead of trying to debate and agree what the UK actually owes by considering the elements of the ‘bill’ carefully and reasonably, the UK government – egged on by a media which has little interest in facts or details – is obsessing over the total sum, and trying to create a spurious link between meeting agreed obligations on the one hand and demanding favourable future treatment on the other.  And they wonder why the EU27 are losing patience with them.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Latest update from Planet Zog

I thought that David Davis was simply making an attempt to re-affirm his extra-planetary origins in his speech last week.  The BBC’s Europe Editor saw it as evidence that the two sides were inhabiting “parallel universes”, but EU chief Donald Tusk dismissed it as simply an example of the “English sense of humour”.  It’s a kindness of approach which the UK Government has done little to deserve.  In the course of the speech, the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU gave us his latest take on the state of talks.  It was full of absolute gems:
·       The minister charged with ending the UK’s existing membership of the world’s most successful free trade area declared that he wants the “freest possible trade in goods and services”, and even that the UK’s current close economic ties “should continue, if not strengthen” after the UK breaks those ties.  Yes, he really is arguing that the ties with a non-member can be stronger than those amongst members.
·       The same minister, who is also charged with implementing the political decision to leave the EU, strongly warned the EU against “putting politics above prosperity”, because, after all, "Putting politics above prosperity is never a smart choice".   An understanding of irony is clearly in short supply on Zog.
·       With his responsibility for ending the over-regulation for which he and his team have been blaming the EU for decades, he made it clear that he wants the UK to lead a "race to the top on quality and standards" rather than engage in a "race to the bottom" that would mean lower standards.  Adding more regulation and standards is now better than abolishing them, apparently.
·       To complete his full house of demands for everything to change whilst everything stays the same, he went on to say that being able to resolve disputes without being subject to the rulings of a supranational body like the EU Court of Justice would require the creation of a supranational body to whose rulings both the UK and the EU would both be subject.
There is, of course, a very simple and obvious way in which he and the UK Government can have all that they claim to want here, but that is simply not the way that things are done on his home planet.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Only dealing with equals?

Last month, Wales’ First Minister gave us the benefit of his opinion on free trade deals following Brexit.  Superficially, his suggestion that we should not do free trade deals with countries that have lower levels of income than us is politically attractive. None of us wants to see Welsh companies being undercut or Welsh jobs being exported to low wage economies elsewhere.  There is a problem with this approach though, because it looks at things only from one narrow point of view.
If every country took the same view, then no country wealthier than Wales would ever want to do a deal with us.  After all, they wouldn’t want to see their jobs lost to a lower-wage economy like Wales, would they?  So one possible logical consequence of the First Minister’s position is that countries only ever do deals with other countries whose income per head is roughly similar; and that’s a recipe for locking the relative wealth of different countries and regions into its current position.  If free trade helps to spread wealth – and that’s the implication of the First Minister’s position - then under this approach the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor.  An ‘interesting’ stance for a Labour politician. 
But the likelier consequence is that there would simply be no free trade deals.  Perhaps that’s what the First Minister meant, even if it’s not quite what he said.  It would be a radical change of policy, and it would be interesting to see him spell out what it might mean in practice.  Some of the outcomes might well be positive over the longer term  - in terms of relocalising the economy and reigning in globalisation - even if, overall, it led to a reduction in international trade.  If moving towards that was really what he meant, he has a point worthy of much more detailed discussion and examination, not least in terms of handling the shorter term negative impacts.  I suspect, though, that he just hadn’t thought through what he was saying.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Redwood just being honest

Some commentators have been more than a little unkind to John Redwood, for telling people in his capacity as an investment advisor that they should “look further afield as the UK hits the brakes” after telling us in his capacity a an MP that the “economic gains of leaving the EU will be considerable”.  Now I don’t really object to people being unkind to Redwood; it’s not as if he hasn’t done anything to deserve it.  His ‘rendition’ of our national anthem alone is a debt worthy of repeated repayment for decades to come, and that was but a small part of his performance as Secretary of State for Wales.
But are the two statements really as inconsistent as they appear?  As far as I’m aware, he didn’t tell us that the economic gains of leaving the UK would occur within the UK itself nor that they would accrue to all of us.  And rich people benefiting from the undermining of the UK economy is hardly a new phenomenon.
I suspect that people are confusing Brexit and British patriotism here.  For sure, ‘patriotism’ was one of the means used to persuade people to vote in a particular way, but that doesn’t mean that they ever intended it to apply to themselves.  Capital is never patriotic because it knows no boundaries; it only ever pursues its own interests.  The problem with the response to what Redwood said is that it’s political froth dealing solely with the apparent inconsistency of one politician.  It leaves untouched the wider question of who owns wealth and where real power lies.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

The Best Pretender

The UK Government’s proposal to write the date of the UK’s departure from the EU onto the face of the bill is a powerful symbol of their determination to go ahead with Brexit without compromise.  It’s not much more than a symbol, though.  If there is one single principle or tenet underlying the UK Constitution, it is that Parliament has absolute sovereignty vested in it by the monarch, and that anything parliament can do it can subsequently undo.  So, yes, parliament can declare the date of departure on the face of the bill; but if it becomes clear that a change is needed, parliament can make that change.
It is a symbol to which all the Cabinet can sign up, of course - precisely because those who think it nonsense also know that it can be changed if (or when) reality requires.  And getting the Cabinet to agree to anything is something of an achievement in itself – the government’s internal negotiations seem to be more complicated and difficult than those with the EU27.  Unity on anything is a bonus; in a context where the UK pretends to make offers to the EU and the EU pretends to take them seriously, symbolism helps to strengthen the perception that the UK is better than the EU at pretending.  Perception can sometimes feel more comfortable than reality.
I can’t help but think, however, that the amount of time and effort being spent on symbolism to strengthen the UK’s posture of pretence might have at least some relationship with the lack of progress on the substance.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Intransigence and flexibility

The position taken by the UK Government – that Brexit cannot be allowed to create an ‘internal’ border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK - is an entirely reasonable one for any government to take.  Even if it were not so, the reliance of the current administration on the votes of the DUP requires no movement on that question.
The desire of the same government to do nothing which unpicks the Irish peace process is an equally reasonable and sensible one; no-one in their right mind (although whether that’s a fair expectation of May and crew is a separate question) would wish to endanger the progress which has been made.  So avoiding a hard border across Ireland is an imperative for them.
And, given some of the wilder promises made by Brexiteers about freedom and independence, it’s understandable that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ requires departure from the single market and the customs union.
The problem for the UK Government is that the three positions - all in themselves reasonable and logical outcomes of the vote last year – are not concurrently achievable.  They can have any two of them, but will have to yield on the third.  It’s clearly an unpalatable choice, but it will have to be made.  Their position to date seems to consist of demanding that ‘someone else’ (i.e. the EU27) comes up with an imaginative solution of the type that they are themselves unable to either imagine or articulate, and that the other side’s unwillingness to do what they can't do themselves amounts to bully-boy tactics.  The default position - increasingly likely given the lack of any serious attempt to do otherwise – is a hard border across Ireland.  Like so much else of the 'negotiating' attempts of the UK, it's as though they are working in a vacuum, in a way which isn't going to impact on real people.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Confusing ends and means

As an independentista, I am of course wholly supportive of devolving more tax powers – indeed, all tax powers – from London to Cardiff.  I don’t really need anyone to make the argument separately for any individual tax.  But the argument being made earlier this week for devolution of long-haul air passenger duty (APD) isn’t an argument about devolution at all; it’s an argument for abolition of the tax for certain airports.  Devolving the tax is presented as being simply a means to an end.
The core of the argument is that abolition of the tax would enable Cardiff to compete more effectively with other UK airports, and to expand the number of flights and destinations.  I’m not at all convinced that those are worthy objectives, and I’m conscious that the original objective of APD was, if not exactly to deter people from flying, then at least to make sure that the cost of doing so covered at least some of the environmental cost, particularly in a context where fuel for road traffic is heavily taxed and aviation fuel is not.  Whether APD is effective in that respect, or whether that aim is better achieved in another way is an issue on which I’m open to persuasion; but simple abolition with no replacement policy looks like a backward step to me.  However, I’d still support the devolution of that tax power, even if I were convinced that any conceivable government in Cardiff were likely to use it in a way which I don’t like.
That goes to the heart of my concern about the argument being put forward by those running Cardiff Airport.  Choosing where to place power over a particular tax on the basis of who is most likely to use that power in the way that a particular interest group wants looks to me like encouraging a ‘race to the bottom’.  It puts different tax authorities in a position of competing to see who can offer the lowest taxation regime.  That doesn’t look like a sound basis for deciding who should wield the power.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Ethics and the law

The revelation that the rich and powerful use tax havens to shelter their wealth from the taxes faced by the rest of the population is about as surprising as a revelation about the Pope’s religious affiliation.  Of course those who own the wealth take steps to protect that ownership; they always have.  But that doesn’t mean that there are no surprising aspects of the affair.
I wouldn’t expect people such as the monarch to be personally managing their own finances; the real decisions are taken by the lawyers and advisors who oversee the day to day issues.  But I would expect those advisors to have been given some sort of steer on the way in which they should behave, and three general directives strike me as being key to such a steer:
·         Get the best returns possible,
·         Make sure that everything is legal, and
·         Don’t do anything that would cause embarrassment if it became public.
It is in relation to the third of those points that there has been a failure, and three possible reasons occur to me for that failure:
·         The steer given to the advisors didn’t cover that point,
·         It did cover that point, but the advisors ignored it, or
·         It simply didn’t occur to anyone that a perfectly legal investment would cause any embarrassment.
Whilst I can’t entirely discount either of the first two, it is the third which seems to me to be likeliest; and it is in line with the defence generally being presented (and emphasised again and again in the media), namely that ‘there is no suggestion of any illegal activity’.  It raises the question, though, about whether we expect the richer members of society to exercise any moral or ethical responsibility, or whether compliance with the law is considered adequate.  It’s quite clear to me that those involved in this whole affair consider that their responsibility starts and ends with that which is legal; they have effectively outsourced their ethical responsibility to the legislature.  If the legislature does not explicitly prohibit something, then it’s acceptable.
At one level, that abdication of responsibility is deeply depressing, but at another it actually provides an opportunity.  It’s almost an invitation to the legislators to take on the responsibility and outlaw anything which looks like an attempt to avoid taxation or otherwise outrages the wider public.  All we need to do is to find enough legislators with an operational financial moral compass.  That's the part which might prove difficult.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Following the mob

On Wednesday, one of Wales’ former governors, William Hague, told us that he could not and would not support a second referendum on Brexit, because any such campaign would be ‘divisive and hate-filled’, even though he still believes that leaving the EU with no long-term deal in place – the favoured option of many of his political colleagues, and the outcome looking increasingly likely – would not be a good outcome.  It’s is clear that he believes that ending up with a poor outcome is better than the likely impact of a second campaign because of the way that campaign would develop.
In fairness, I think his fears about the nature of the campaign are well-grounded.  We’ve already seen the very ugly side of British nationalism at its worst on display in some of the tabloids – calling judges enemies of the people, and labelling opponents as traitors.  And that’s quite apart from the upswing in random racism and discrimination against foreigners.  I don’t doubt that it would get much worse than that in the event of any attempt to change direction, even if the condition which I’ve talked about before were to be met (i.e. evidence of a significant and sustained change of opinion). 
Notwithstanding that the promises made by the Leavers during the last referendum have been exposed for the lies that they were, and notwithstanding the increasing hard evidence of the impact of trying to implement that decision in a short timescale, any attempt to give the people a chance to express a different opinion would be fought tooth and nail by those who support Brexit, and we already know that truthfulness would be unlikely to feature in their response.
But here’s the question which Hague and others who take that stance need to answer: if it were to be clear that opinions had changed, and if it were to be clear that a change of direction would be in the best interests of the UK, would you really argue that we can’t have a second chance because those who ‘won’ last time round would use divisive and hate-filled tactics to try and repeat their victory?  Isn’t that at least a little bit like surrendering to mob rule?

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Context and facilitation

It is increasingly clear that events in Catalunya are leading increasing numbers of Welsh independentistas to turn against the EU.  There was an article along those lines on Nation.Cymru earlier this week.  It included other arguments against the EU as well, and I don’t entirely disagree with elements of the case which was made against the EU, such as for example the suggestion that “the EU is, in fact, a deeply anti-democratic institution which favours a parasitic Banking Sector and Big Corporations above all else”.  It’s worth pointing out, however, that that isn’t a position somehow adopted by the EU and imposed on its member states; it is rather a reflection of the position taken by the governments of the individual member states, and especially the larger ones.  And given a choice between that policy and the policies likely to be followed by a post-Brexit Tory government, I fear the latter rather more.  Being the lesser of two evils isn’t the best argument for anything, of course, but noting that the alternative is likely to be worse should give us at least a pause for thought.
That’s something of an aside; the question for me is about the context in which Wales moves to independence.  Many years ago, I came round to the view that the EU provides the best context for that step to ‘independence’.  Firstly, it redefines the word ‘independence’ itself in a way which fits the actual experience of most modern European states (and becoming a modern European state is what I want for Wales), and secondly it makes the step from where we are to that state of ‘independence’ a much smaller and even ‘safer’ one in a number of ways.  It’s not an ideal analogy, but within the context of the EU, it makes achieving statehood more akin to an internal reorganisation.
I fear, though, that some independentistas have assumed that the EU would be more than a context, and would be an active facilitator, and are becoming disillusioned when they see that it is not.  I see that as a delusion; I’ve never expected that a body which acts, first and foremost, on behalf of its member states would in any way seek to facilitate or assist the reorganisation of those states (which is surely what we independentistas are all about?) against the will of their central governments.  Why would it?  The task of bringing about that reorganisation, in the teeth of opposition from existing powers and interests, lies where it has always lain – with the people themselves.  The impetus will only come – can only come – from those who desire change.  And as Catalunya has demonstrated, it is unlikely to be an easy process, although it may be less difficult in some member states than others.
Right up until the very moment of the success of the new, the spokespersons for the old will continue to oppose and obstruct; expecting them to do otherwise is folly.  And the unionists will seize upon every such statement as ‘proof’ that what we seek is impossible.  The real question is this: once the people have spoken and the facts have changed, what happens?  In truth, none of us can be entirely certain, but I still believe that the response is more likely to be pragmatic than dogmatic.  The EU will adapt to new circumstances, not because the member states will be enthusiastic about it doing so, but because the European project itself demands that they can do no other.  Just don’t expect them ever to admit that in advance.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Silent majorities

It was Richard Nixon who did most to popularise the phrase ‘silent majority’, but it’s become one of the most over-used phrases amongst politicians who generally want to claim that the majority are on their side in spite of the lack of any substantive evidence.  The claim by Spanish unionists, duly repeated and echoed by the BBC and other so-called ‘impartial’ media sources that the ‘silent majority’ of Catalans are against independence, and that if everyone had voted in the referendum, the independentistas would have lost is just one of the latest examples. 
It’s true that, on a 100% turnout, and assuming that everyone who didn’t vote would have voted against independence, the unionists would have won.  I’ve touched on the actual figures before; the problem with that assertion is that it makes too many assumptions, amongst them that the deceased could not only have voted enthusiastically, but would also have unanimously voted against independence.  Given the actual figures that we do have, it’s hard to see on any turnout less than 99% how the unionists could ever have won; and I find it hard to believe that, even on a very good day, the turnout could have been higher than 90%.  70% is a much more likely figure, and with 37.8% already having been counted as voting yes, the yes side had an unassailable lead.
But here’s the thing: there is only one way of ever knowing what the majority really think and that’s to allow them a free vote.  If the Spanish unionists really believe that they are speaking for the majority, they have an easy way of proving it.  The fact that they are so unwilling to take that path speaks volumes.  They’re only interested in votes which produce the ‘right’ outcome – after all, they’ve already indicated that, if the Catalans dare to elect the ‘wrong’ people to their parliament, they’ll simply be forced to vote again until they get it right.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Choose a number

Last week, the President of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, said, "I wouldn't want the EU to consist of 95 states”.  The statement begs more questions than it answers.  On what basis is 95 too many; and what is the right number? 
He seems happy enough with 28 – happy enough not to want it to reduce to 27 as a result of Brexit – and we know that the EU Commission is open to new entrants applying.  I somehow doubt that Turkey will ever make it to membership, but negotiations are in progress.  But I can’t see the EU refusing requests by Norway or Iceland for instance, should they aver make such requests.  Neither can I see them refusing Switzerland, although for its own unique reasons, I doubt Switzerland would ever apply.  Two former parts of Yugoslavia (Slovenia and Croatia) have already joined – if the other five wanted to join and met the conditions, would they really be refused?  I doubt it.  Or, again subject to the same caveats, would they refuse Albania or Ukraine?
It’s easy to see how, by a process of enlargement, the number of states could come close to 40 (perhaps the right answer should be 42, and Douglas Adams just never quite found the right question).  But the point is this: provided a state wants to join and meets the criteria, would the fact that the number of member states would then be too high be a reason for refusing them entry?  I can’t conceive that it would, even if it did somehow get to 95, because in each and every case the application would be considered on its merits, and in each and every case, the question becomes, regardless of the number of existing members, “can we cope with one more?”.  I really can’t see the answer ever being ‘no’; if states are refused entry, it will always be for a reason other than the simplistic numerical one.
Whether the applicant is ‘external’ or ‘internal’ doesn’t change that question or the answer to it, which makes his statement a nonsense, pulling a number out of thin air to suit his own predisposition for keeping the existing states as they are.  But then, since ultimately the EU Commission speaks first and foremost for its member states, why would anyone be surprised?

Monday, 30 October 2017

A clash of principles

In relation to the situation in Catalunya, much has been made of the statement in the UN Charter about the right of peoples to self-determination.  It’s a clear enough statement, but as I posted previously, the problem comes in determining what defines a ‘people’ – or perhaps who defines a people.  There simply is (and I doubt that there can ever be) a simple objective test which can be applied.  So the Spanish authorities use the definition that suits their objectives whilst the independentistas in Catalunya use the one that suits theirs.  And there is no independent authority which can decide that one is right and the other wrong.  To, I’m sure, the great surprise of no-one, I support that Catalan side; but I also go further and question why ‘being a people’, however it is defined, is a necessary requirement for the exercise of self-determination.  Imposing what is, in essence, a subjective test with no objective ‘right’ answer seems an unnecessary obstacle to me.
In addition, there’s the question of context.  Whilst the Charter does not make this explicit, it is quite clear – as the authorities in Madrid would argue – that the context of the Charter was the period of decolonization, and the intention of the relevant article was to support the rights of the former colonies.  In that particular wave of colonization and conquest, places such as Catalunya (and the same applies to Scotland and Wales) were part of the process of colonization and conquest rather than the victims of it.  But, of course, if we go back further in time, they were part of an earlier phase of conquest and consolidation, as the historic European states were created.  So – is there to be a time limit on the right to self-determination?  Because that’s effectively what the Spanish state is arguing, isn’t it?
To further complicate the situation, there is another widely-accepted tenet of international law, which is that states have a right to territorial integrity.  Spain is, to an extent, relying on that principle, and much of the response from other European states has been based on that principle as well.  There is, though, a context to that principle as well.  It was accepted by European states as a basis for ending wars of aggression over territory, by accepting the boundaries as they stand today, and agreeing not to seek to change them by force, and was intended to be a means to put an end to centuries of bloodshed and war.  And it has, no doubt, been a contributory factor.  It hasn’t stopped states arguing over boundaries (for example, Spain’s own claim to Gibraltar), but it has prevented the argument going much beyond shouting.
The context, though, was never intended as an insistence that there could never be any change at all (and, in the situation of Gibraltar, Spain actually accepts that to be true), nor was putting an end to externally-imposed territorial change ever intended to be the same as insisting that states created out of a process of aggregation could never disaggregate if the people chose that, although it is ‘convenient’ for Spain – like the other aggregated states – to pretend that to be the case.  But demanding that people accept that the state of which they find themselves a part is their lot in life, which they have no choice but to accept as an unchangeable fact, goes directly against the principle of self-determination.
Two key principles of international law, in the context of Catalunya, are in direct conflict, and there is no international body or organisation which can rule between the two.  Ultimately, the only people who can decide the future of Catalunya are the people of that country/region themselves.  The tragedy of today’s situation is that it is the direct result of a refusal to allow them to make that choice in a peaceful and democratic fashion, but instead insist on imposition, by force if necessary.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Nothing’s agreed until everything’s agreed

Much of the hoo-ha about David Davis’ suggestion that Parliament might not get its vote on the EU deal until after the UK has left was based on a real and fair assessment of normal EU practice.  The same applies to the mantra of May and her not-so-merry band for some time that ‘nothing’s agreed until everything is agreed’.  Both of these are a quintessential part of the normal modus operandi of the EU.  Lengthy discussions, give and take, and an eventual agreement at one minute to midnight (even if the clocks have to be stopped to prevent midnight arriving before they’re ready) is a long-standing feature of discussions amongst the member states.  So I can understand, up to a point, why some Brexiteers think that the same should apply to the UK’s exit and trade deal negotiations, and expect everything to be tied up at once.
They’re forgetting something very important though.  The exit part of the negotiations is indeed akin to the discussions amongst members over the years and decades.  And in those internal discussions, it is entirely normal to agree that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.  But that’s only part of the process.
The negotiations on a future trade deal are something entirely different; they aren’t internal discussions between members, they are discussions between the EU as a bloc and a former member state which has decided to make itself a ‘third party’.  Trying to create dependencies between a set of internal treaty-mandated negotiations amongst members and another set between members and an external third party is a wholly unrealistic expectation, yet it is at the core of the UK’s stance.
I really don’t understand why the Brexiteers cannot understand that finalising the negotiations which the EU is required to conduct under article 50 of its own formal treaty is very different from conducting negotiations to which the EU has no treaty obligation whatsoever with a third party country seeking favourable access to EU markets.  The problem here isn’t Brussels’ intransigence, but the expectation by the UK that it can demand a special and unique status, and that it can threaten to walk away, not just from that second set of negotiations, but also from its formal treaty obligations, if it doesn’t get what it wants.
From an EU perspective, the very fact that it has agreed in principle at least to start the second set of negotiations in parallel, once sufficient progress has been made on the contractual part of the discussions, is a huge concession to a departing member.  It is only that extraordinary sense of British exceptionalism which seeks to portray a significant concession as being so inadequate as to constitute some form of punishment or bullying.  And, perhaps, a desire to be able to blame someone else.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

What constitutes a majority?

One of the arguments used by opponents against the result of the referendum in Catalunya is that only 42% voted, and although 90% of those voted for independence, that latter figure represents only 37.8% of the electorate.  That, they argue, is not a definitive mandate for such a major change. And, at first sight, that sounds eminently reasonable.
The first problem with it, however, is that it wasn’t only a 42% turnout.  42% is the number of votes that eventually got counted; reports suggest that the actual turnout was more like 55%, but the ‘missing’ 13% of ballot papers were seized and destroyed by the Spanish police.  There is no reason to suppose that the support for independence amongst that 13% was any different from that amongst the 42%; the problem with deliberate disruption of a democratic ballot is that the outcome, as a result, can never be precisely known – which was exactly the objective of the Spanish authorities.  It is, however, probably reasonable to estimate that the actual support for independence was 90% of 55% - or 49.5% of the electorate.
The second issue is about inconsistency.  Whilst there was a much higher turnout in the Brexit referendum (72%), the proportion of the electorate voting for the winning side was only 37.4%.  I accept that (under the rules of the referendum) that was properly considered an acceptable winning margin.  But if the support of 37.4% for Brexit is considered an acceptable democratic result in the UK, why are some of the same people arguing that 37.8% support for independence is wholly inadequate in Catalunya?
The answer that they would give, of course, is that it’s not the low figure in itself which is the problem, but the low level of turnout.  It is unlikely, but theoretically possible, that had everyone voted, the non-voting 45% would unanimously have opposed independence (although it’s certainly likely that the majority of those would have voted against independence).  On the best possible outcome for the unionist side, that would have given ‘no change’ a victory by the slimmest of majorities – 50.5% to 49.5%.  However, in reality, a 100% turnout is impossible.  At any point in time (for any electoral register) there will be some people who have died since the register was compiled; others who are too ill to participate; and yet others who are abroad or for some other reason unable to take part.  A 90% turnout would be exceptional, which means that the independentistas would still have won, even if everyone able to vote had been allowed to do so and had chosen to do so.
Now of course there’s a lot of supposition in that; there has to be given the circumstances of the vote.  The best way to resolve it and ascertain the will of the people would be to allow a properly-run ballot in which both sides were free to put their position and in which the people make the ultimate decision.  But holding such a ballot presupposes a willingness to accept that the people of Catalunya (like any other part of the world) have the right to decide, and the Spanish nationalist parties simply refuse to accept that the Catalans have any such right.
What they are prepared, not only to allow, but apparently to insist on, is new elections for the Catalan parliament, which for some unexplained reason they expect to result in a majority for the Spanish nationalist parties.  In a free and fair election, that looks unlikely to me.  In the first place, the last elections produced a narrow majority for the independentistas, and in the second, I’d expect that the actions of the Spanish nationalists have strengthened the support for independence rather than weakened it. 
But it seems to me highly unlikely, given their behaviour to date, that the nationalists running Spain will allow a situation to develop where, as a result of their own actions, they are faced with a Catalan parliament even more determined to seek independence.  And that makes me doubt that they will really allow a free and fair election.  A decision to proscribe any party advocating independence and imprison its leaders might produce a result more to their liking, but it amounts to the sort of political repression which most of us thought Spain had long ago put behind it.  It does, though, look like the likeliest option at this stage.

Monday, 23 October 2017

A small step in the right direction

At Plaid’s conference over the weekend, the party’s leader suggested that the party ‘might’ consider calling for a second referendum on Brexit if the UK Government decides, as seems increasingly likely, to walk away with no deal.  It’s a step closer to the Lib Dem position that any deal must be put to a second vote, but it seems to me that they’re both missing the point, and identifying the wrong trigger for a second vote.
In Plaid’s case, the implication is that it doesn’t matter what the nature of any deal actually done is; as long as there is a deal there’s no need for a confirmatory vote.  But we already know that any sort of deal will be inferior (in purely economic terms, which is, sadly, still the only criterion which our politicians seem willing to apply) to that which we currently have, so the logic of the position is that an inferior deal is acceptable with no further vote.  I find it hard to reconcile that with ‘standing up for Wales’.
Personally, I favour a second vote regardless of the nature of the deal, which actually makes me closer to the Lib Dem position on this question.  (There’s a first time for everything.)  There is however a caveat, which is that the trigger for a second vote should not be whether there is a deal or not, or even the precise nature of the deal, but whether there is clear and sustained evidence of a shift in public opinion.  Without that evidence, demanding a second referendum will inevitably be portrayed as trying to make people vote again and again until they take the ‘right’ decision.  And it would, in all probability, be a complete waste of time and effort.  But with that evidence, it is possible that even the very best deal – of the sort which the Brexiteers promised us would be an absolute breeze – would be rejected in favour of remaining in membership.  And the electorate always has the right to change its mind on anything.
The job of politicians who still believe that remaining a member would be in the best interests of Wales (and I suspect that is a majority of them, even if they’re afraid to say it) is to work to bring about that change in opinion, not wait for it to happen of its own accord.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Overlooking the simple solution

In an attempt to move things along in the Brexit talks, the UK Government has been hinting that it is ready to make new ‘concessions’ in relation to the rights of EU citizens.  The problem the government face is that, all these so-called ‘concessions’ still involve taking rights away from EU citizens legally resident in the UK.  And anything which reduces their rights is still going to be a hard sell to the EU27.  What would move things along, of course, would be a simple and clear guarantee that all rights which exist in respect of EU citizens living in the UK on exit day will be fully protected.

It’s simple and straightforward, and would undoubtedly satisfy the EU 27 on that aspect of negotiations.  So why can’t they do it?  One simple reason – because EU citizens currently enjoy more rights in some areas than UK citizens, and we can’t have that can we?  Now I’m a simple soul, and prone to an over-mathematical perspective on issues, but it strikes me that if you have two groups of people with unequal rights, taking rights away from one group isn’t the only way of achieving equality.  To put it another way, all that the government has to do is to give UK citizens the same rights as EU citizens currently enjoy, and one third of the problems with the current stage of negotiations would disappear overnight.

It tells us a great deal about those who govern us, and their attitude towards the rights of individuals and families, that they would sooner let the whole process collapse than do that.  And it’s not only in relation to Brexit that people and their families come pretty near the bottom of their list of priorities.


Thursday, 19 October 2017

Points of no return

One of the arguments put forward by those justifying their support for Brexit is that all the woes predicted by supporters of Remain have not come to pass; things aren’t nearly as bad as they said they would be.  And to the extent that some Remainers predicted the end of the world starting the day after the vote, that is true.  The point is, however, that many of the predictions weren’t about what would happen after the vote, but about what would happen after Brexit – and Brexit hasn’t actually happened yet.
There are still two views amongst economists about what will actually happen in the immediate aftermath of Brexit itself.  The majority view is clearly that the economy will take a hit, whilst a minority continue to argue that it will be the opening of great opportunities.  Given the persistent long term failure of economic forecasts to get anything much right, I can understand anyone’s reluctance to put much store in any predictions, from either side.  I tend to the view that, in the long term, the UK economy will adapt to the new circumstances, but that there will be a serious hit in the short term.  Whether that’s a price worth paying depends in no small measure on whether you’re one of those paying it or not; my suspicion is that the cost will fall on those least able to bear it, and not on the leading advocates of Brexit, many of whom seem to be on the wealthy side already.
There is a sense, however, in which the cause of that economic hit isn’t Brexit itself; it’s not the sudden change in circumstances the day after we leave, for all the talk of cliff edges.  The cause is, rather, the myriad of independent decisions about location and investment taken by businesses about how they will respond to the changes which they expect to happen on or after that date.  Most of those decisions won’t be taken on or after Brexit day itself, they’ll be taken in advance.  Whilst they would like to have the certainty of knowing what the outcome will be before they take their individual decisions, the planning horizon is such that many are already taking those decisions, and more will do so in the coming weeks and months.  They will have to make assumptions in order to do so – and the safest assumption to make at present is that Brexit will happen, and that the UK will find itself in the worst possible trading position vis-à-vis the EU.  The damage, in most cases, might not kick in until after Brexit, but the decisions causing that damage will have been taken in advance.
Each of those individual decisions represents a small point of no return: siting a factory, moving a head office, or upgrading existing facilities – these are not short term decisions.  Once those decisions are taken, even cancelling Brexit would not lead to their reversal.  The Brexiteers claim that they are frustrated by the slow progress of negotiations, but this looks like playing a game to me, not least because the slowness of the progress is largely down to their own continued insistence on having cake and eating it.  I suspect that they’re really rather pleased at the slow progress.  On the one hand, it might give them the excuse that they need to talk away, which is what many of them really want to do even if that isn't what they said in advance; and on the other hand, even if they don’t just walk away, the scenario outlined above about decisions being taken now simply means that we’re getting to the same place slowly, one decision at a time.
There is not one single clear point of no return in this process, but continued obfuscation and delay suits the agenda of those who want a sort of economic revolution, with the UK becoming a low tax low regulation offshore island.  It’s an article of faith to them that this will be a better Britain; the question for the rest of us is, or should be, ‘better for whom?’.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Not depending on Labour

There are always dangers in ‘reading across’ from one situation to another; all countries have their own political traditions and experiences and those shape events and attitudes.  With that caveat, there are also similarities and parallels at times.
The PSOE in Spain occupies a similar part of the political spectrum as does the British Labour Party, and the two parties are part of the same grouping in the European Parliament.  The response of the PSOE to the situation in Catalunya has been to give its full support to the conservative government in its response to the referendum and any declaration of independence.  It argues for that position on the basis of upholding the Spanish constitution, and it is as absolutely committed to the unity of the Spanish state as the conservative government.
It isn’t a question of ‘left’ vs ‘right’, although historically the ‘left’ and the independentistas in Catalunya found themselves on the same side during the Civil War.  With the benefit of hindsight, and looking at the stance of the ‘left’ today, that almost seems to be more by accident than by design; having a common enemy to fight against doesn’t mean agreement on what should follow the defeat of that enemy. 
Although the Catalan government is led by a broadly ‘centrist’ party, the more centrist independentistas in Catalunya were pushed into holding the referendum by the more ‘left-wing’ parties in the coalition there, but PSOE nevertheless prefer to side with the PP (Conservative) government rather than support a more leftist vision for Catalunya, even though many would argue that the PP are, effectively, the heirs to Franco.  Preferring to work with the central political ‘right’ rather than the independentista political ‘left’ is a clear echo of the Labour Party’s position on Scotland and Wales.
Fortunately for Catalunya, the independentistas, whatever their political perspective, have long ago given up any hope that the Spanish ‘left’ will aid or support them, and have instead depended on a range of parties promoting the Catalan viewpoint, from a range of positions on the political spectrum.  There are clear lessons there for those independentistas in Wales who still harbour the illusion that the Welsh branch of the British Labour Party can somehow be nudged or cajoled into supporting the aspirations of those who seek independence.  When push comes to shove, they will always show their true colours as we have clearly seen time and again in Scotland; spending time trying to cosy up to and influence a British party (which is what the strategy of some seems to be) is a diversion from the real job of winning the hearts and minds of Welsh voters.
* I generally try and avoid terms like ‘left’ and ‘right’; they’re far too simplistic and general to be meaningful in many contexts.  I think, however, that the generalizations make at least some sense in this specific context.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Challenging 'obvious' assumptions

Yesterday, ClickonWales published an article by Labour AM, Mike Hedges, arguing for a long-term devolution settlement for Wales.  Whilst thinking aloud by Labour politicians is generally something to be welcomed, the problem with this one is that it did more to highlight the underlying axiomatic beliefs driving Labour than it contributed to original thought on the question of devolution.
Let’s start with the basic premise: that “We have had three devolution settlements for Wales and we are no closer to a long term settlement than we were before the first”.  As statements of fact go, it can’t be faulted; but the underlying assumption (i.e. that there should be a long term settlement) goes undiscussed and unchallenged - it is merely taken as read.  But why?  What is it about the constitutional relationship between England and Wales which requires us to draw up a settlement at a point in time and then stick to it?  In fairness, it isn’t just Mike Hedges and the Labour Party who suffer from this mental blockage; the Tories have been heard often saying the same thing, although they usually put it in pejorative terms such as ‘stop obsessing about the constitution and use the powers you’ve got’. 
And that, actually, illustrates the real reason why the UK parties are so keen to reach a point where they can claim that there is a long-term settlement; they want to put a limit on how far the process can go.  Perhaps they don’t all want to put the limit in the same place, and Mike Hedges seems to be willing to go further than many others, but ultimately, the wish for a long-term settlement is about reaching a point where the process can be halted rather than advancing it.  And there’s nothing wrong with that per se; it’s a valid position to hold, but it would be better if they could be more honest about their intention.
There is another aspect to my challenge about what’s wrong with a continuing process as well.  The situation in which Wales has found itself, from the outset of devolution with the referendum in 1997, has been as the subject of an interplay of forces, sometimes between parties, but more noticeably within one party in particular, Labour.  At no point has anyone really sat down and thought about what would be the right thing to do (and fair play to Mike Hedges - that seems to be what he wants to do): the outcome has always been a question of compromise at a point in time.  This particular contribution to debate is just one position amongst many.  I see zero prospect of it becoming the accepted position of his party, which means that the tensions between different players will continue.  Moving forward one compromise at a time is the best that Wales can hope for; and in that context talk of anything being for the long-term is just wishful thinking.
But there’s a second aspect to the question of axiomatic beliefs revealed by the article as well.  Whilst I can’t disagree with the statement that “Surely the question to be asked is what needs to be controlled by Westminster in order to benefit the whole of the United Kingdom as opposed to what each ministerial department desires to keep under its control”, which makes eminent sense from a unionist perspective, it leaves open the question of how we decide what fits where.  How do we define ‘needs to be controlled’?  Fear not, because for Hedges, the answer is ‘obvious’ – “There are the obvious areas that need to be held centrally: Defence, Foreign affairs, national security, currency, interest rates, overseas aid, immigration, Driver and car licensing, central bank and National Insurance numbers”
Declaring something to be ‘obvious’ is a way of trying to avoid challenge or debate, but I could look at any of those areas and argue for an element of devolution, even within a continued union.  Why for instance, must driver and vehicle licensing be a central function?  In the light of Brexit, there have already been proposals that Wales and Scotland should be able to set their own immigration quotas if they wish – why is it ‘obvious’ that they should not, and that ‘immigration’ must be centrally controlled?  Even in what is perhaps the most ‘obvious’ of all, Defence, why would it be impossible for, for instance, fishery protection using armed patrol boats (normally the preserve of the Royal Navy) to be devolved?  I’m not proposing any of these as policies here, merely challenging why they are axiomatically ruled out.
If we’re serious about asking what ‘needs’ to be controlled by Westminster, all of these should be open to debate.  Closing them all off on the basis of their being ‘obvious’ is another indication of an attempt to set limits on devolution, not debate what it should look like if we started with a clean sheet.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Beliefs and facts

Last week’s research findings about the unwillingness of people in Wales to lose anything as a result of Brexit are interesting, but there are dangers in the obvious interpretation.  A reluctance to pay anything for the perceived advantages of Brexit might, at first sight, encourage those of us who think Brexit a mistake to believe that they can be persuaded to change their minds.  But there is nothing in the least inconsistent between supporting Brexit and at the same time being unwilling to pay a penny for the privilege for anyone who simply declines to believe that there is any cost associated with Brexit.
We were told repeatedly during the referendum campaign and since by the exponents of Brexit that not only would there be no cost, there would even be a huge financial gain.  Seen from that perspective, a question about ‘how much are you willing to pay?’ is entirely hypothetical; answering it by saying ‘nothing’ whilst continuing to support Brexit is entirely consistent.  And the exponents of Brexit are still arguing that Brexit will be an overall gain for the UK.  Last week’s noise about spending money now to prepare for a ‘no deal’ wasn’t just about being ready for that scenario – listening to those making the case, much of it was about showing those foreign johnnies that we’re really, really serious about walking away if they don’t give in to our demands now.  It’s a position that makes sense if, and only if, they believe that not having a deal is better than having one, and that having a deal is more about us helping the EU27 than about them helping us.
There’s also the little question of confirmation bias.  For those who believe that Brexit will leave us better off, any suggestion that it won’t is just more ‘remoaning’; and if it actually comes to pass that we really are worse off after Brexit, then it will be the fault of everyone except those who voted for it.  Those nasty Europeans, the treacherous remainers who failed to jump on board the wagon, the half-hearted Brexiteers in the government and civil service – they will all be more to blame than those who actually led us to this point.  And besides, perhaps there would have been an economic downturn anyway – who can really prove that it’s down to Brexit?
Confirmation bias is an extremely powerful force; we should not read anything very much into research which shows that people who think Brexit will bring us net benefits aren’t willing to accept a net loss.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Parties and politics in Wales

One aspect of the situation in Catalunya which has attracted a bit more attention in the light of recent events is that the independence movement there does not depend on only one political party.  Indeed, the main, arguably centrist, party of independentistas, led by Carles Puigdemont, had to be pushed into committing to, and then organising, the referendum by smaller, more left-leaning, coalition partners.  Catalunya is no exception in this regard; the normal situation in most countries seeking independence is that there are several pro-independence parties, occupying different positions on the traditional ‘left-right’ spectrum, and that whilst they might agree on the aim of independence they are usually at loggerheads on almost everything else.  Even in Scotland, there are now two pro-independence parties represented in the parliament, and another three such parties contested the last elections.  Compared with the European norm, Wales is very much the exception.
In that context, the proposal floated by Royston Jones on Jac o’ the North, to establish a new party in Wales, could be seen as an attempt to normalise the situation here, by having a political party seeking to make the case for independence from a different political perspective than that of Plaid Cymru.  And it is also, of course, a reaction to the failure of Plaid Cymru to advance outside its core Welsh-speaking heartland.
I don’t share much of Royston’s political perspective, but that will surprise no-one.  And I’ve never been a supporter of the idea that a political party can campaign for independence and have no policies on anything else - which is an argument that I’ve heard advanced over the years - unless it is an ‘abstentionist’ party, fighting to win seats but then not taking them.  Non-party campaign groups, such as Yes.Cymru can certainly avoid taking a stance on other issues, but a political party fighting elections with the intention of taking seats will inevitably get involved in voting for or against policies in the legislature to which its members are elected, even to the extent of deciding which other party forms or leads the government.  Those voting for them surely have a right to know what they’re voting for before casting their ballot.  I have no regrets whatever over the small role that I played in the 1970s in moving Plaid into a clearer political stance.
I do share some of Royston’s analysis about where we’ve got to as a result, though.  I can understand why some people who support independence but disagree with Plaid’s stance on certain issues find it difficult to vote for Plaid, and feel that their views are not being represented.  Having a party which does seek to represent that political stance might indeed help to increase the overall level of support for independence, or at least give political expression to a wider cross-section of it.
I also share the frustration at the existence of a political party in Wales which seems to want to claim the exclusive right to represent all independentistas whilst being unsure as to whether it really wants independence at all, and reluctant to campaign openly for that end.  Whilst not sharing the whole of his analysis, I can entirely understand his frustration at the sight of a party which fails to put the case, is making no progress politically, and seems more interested in forming alliances with a British ‘left’ which has little if any sympathy with the idea of an independent Wales.  No party has the right to claim exclusivity on a particular issue, especially if it isn't doing very much about that issue.
This is not the first attempt to form an alternative political party to promote independence for Wales, and it probably won’t be the last.  But the biggest single obstacle to any such attempt to normalise the political situation in Wales remains an electoral system which rewards political unity, and penalises fragmentation.  Without changing that, I wonder how much progress the new party will be able to make.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Fudging answers

The media and opposition politicians are all being very beastly to the Prime Minister for failing to answer a simple enough question.  Failing to answer questions is what she does; why the surprise and shock now?  The real news this time is that she’s admitted that she’s not answering it, and even attempted to provide an explanation for that.  And it’s the explanation which is the most interesting part.
It’s paraphrasing, I know – but I hope fairly – but she basically said that Brexit is a very complex issue with a lot of detail to consider and if there were to be a new vote, then she would do as she did last time round, and consider all the factors very carefully before coming to a decision.  That’s not as unreasonable an answer as some have painted it; circumstances do indeed as she put it “move on”, and opinions can change in the light of that.  But isn’t that a pretty good argument for asking the question of the public again once the detail is known?  After all, if the person at the centre of all this can’t say whether she’d support it or not in a vote at this stage, why assume that all those who voted last time around can’t or won’t also reconsider the issue?

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Nations, states, prisons and freedom

The strongly-worded statement on Catalunya by UK Foreign Minister Mark Field will inevitably disappoint independentistas, but in terms of the element of surprise it’s roughly on a par with a declaration by the Pope that he’s a Catholic.  From the perspective of the UK Government, the Spanish declaration of the indissoluble unity of the territory and nation of Spain is an obvious truth, although of course that tiny little bit at the bottom of the Iberian peninsular can never be considered part of the territory of Spain.  Territorial integrity has its limits, after all.
No doubt the UK government would argue that the apparent discrepancy here is justified on the basis of the fact that every test of opinion in Gibraltar reveals that the population wish to remain British and not submit to Spanish rule, and they’d be right in that assertion.  It’s a little inconvenient, though, that they claim that the people of Gibraltar have the democratic right to decide not to be part of Spain at the same time as supporting the Spanish government’s assertion that the people of Catalunya can never be allowed the same right.
Hypocrisy and double-speak on this sort of issue are not, however, a problem for those who rule states like the UK, for reasons which are largely historical.  The larger member states of the EU – and I think here of Italy, Germany and France, as well as Spain and the UK – take their current form and occupy their current boundaries solely as the result of centuries of conflict and conquest.  The whole history of European statehood is one of shifting lines on maps, of states being born and then crushed out of existence, and of nations finding themselves in different states at different times.  For all the talk of Europe being composed of nation-states, a precise coincidence of national identity and state boundaries is very much the exception, not the norm.
Not wanting to go back to a situation where Europe is composed of a whole series of warring states arguing over where to draw lines on maps is a natural reaction to our common history (and it is our common history, whatever Theresa May might believe), but the response of demanding that the lines and structures must remain ossified at the point which they reached when the fighting stopped is a response which pretends that nationality and identity are firm, settled and objective realities.  That flies in the face of the human experience.  Preventing violent change is one thing, but preventing peaceful change ultimately makes the violent sort more likely.
Those larger states incorporating different national identities which were brought together by war and conquest pretend that they are in fact the natural state of affairs.  Those who ended up victorious in the process of aggregation of territory have long tried to meld together the disparate peoples and identities under their control into one single new ‘nation’, proving – if proof were ever needed – that the concept of what constitutes a ‘nation’ is itself highly flexible.  So, the nationalists running Spain claim that Spain is in fact one single nation, and demand that all those living within its boundaries accept the nationality thus bestowed upon them, and accept that any other identity which they might feel is ‘regional’ not national.  In its insistence on French as the only identity, France takes, if anything, an even harder line on those Bretons, Basques, Catalans, etc. who find themselves within its borders.
The history of the UK demonstrates another important aspect of this, which is that the creation of states doesn’t follow the existence of nations; it is rather that the creation of nations follows the existence of states.  The UK is defined as a nation state not because the boundaries follow those of an existing nation, but because the ‘British’ nation was created to match the boundaries of the state.  The same is true of Spain, France, Germany, Italy etc.  From the date of the incorporation of Wales into England, the state has pushed the idea that differences should be ‘extirpated’, and that all should share a common identity.
But here’s the sting: what history shows us is that even with a determined central power, and centuries of time to exercise that power, eliminating alternative identities is actually a very difficult thing to do.  It can work, up to a point, when people perceive a common interest – after all, the decline in the use of the Welsh language wasn’t a result of the actions of ‘the English’ but of those of Welsh people who bought into the idea that the future was ‘British’.  However, even with that assistance and complicity, it took centuries to get to the position where the language was spoken only by a minority; and even without the language, the ‘Welsh’ retained a sense of identity which was never entirely subsumed in Britishness.  (Whether that sense of identity should be given political expression in the structures of governance is another question entirely; the point is simply that killing a sense of national identity is no small task.)
The Spanish position on Catalunya, naturally and inevitably supported by the UK Government, is that if a Catalan nation ever existed it has subsequently been subsumed into a bigger and better Spanish nation, and that the ‘rest of that Spanish nation’ has an absolute right to over-rule the Catalans.  It’s a position which seems to make what is to most people the most obvious solution – a properly organised democratic referendum in which both sides put their case and the people decide – a non-starter.  But in the real world, there are only two ways of holding all the territory of an existing state together – the first is by consent and the second is by the exercise of force.  That a state which exists in its current form only because of the past use of force should see force as the natural means of assuring its own continuity will come as no surprise, just as the support of other states with a similar history is equally unsurprising.
Spain, like the UK, is in a sense the prisoner of its own history, with Spanish nationalists unable to see an alternative future based on co-operation rather than domination.  Part of the task of independentistas is to help the centralist nationalists escape from a prison which is of their own making.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Who's got the ball?

According to the Prime Minister, having made a few of what she calls concessions in her speech in Florence, the ball is now in the EU’s court; it’s their turn to make concessions.  It makes me wonder whether the PM and her government understand the nature of the negotiations in which they’re involved.
Actually, in most types of negotiations, she’d be right.  Typically, a negotiation between two parties sets out to improve on the current situation in ways which benefit both parties – the infamous and over-used phrase ‘win-win’ applies.  In such a circumstance, both parties know that allowing both sides to gain something means that both have to concede something, and they take turns in the process of negotiation.  And if they can’t reach an agreed position acceptable to both, then they can simply walk away from the talks, and the current situation continues.
In the case of Brexit, however, one of the parties has effectively said “we want to renegotiate this deal so that we’re considerably worse off, and we want you to change your rules to weaken your single market in order to mitigate the effects of our decision, oh, and by the way, we’re cancelling the agreement between us regardless of what you say”.  Not so much seeking ‘win-win’ as demanding ‘lose-lose’, accompanied by a degree of puzzlement as to why the other side doesn’t immediately see this as a brilliant idea. 
In return for committing a massive act of economic self-harm, the UK demands that the EU makes it possible for states to enjoy all the benefits of the single market with none of the costs, thereby threatening the integrity of both the single market and the EU itself.  In this context, the part of the Florence speech floating the idea of a two year transitional phase amounted to saying, “We’re going to reduce the amount of self-harm that we do to ourselves, but in return, we want you to start making changes which damage your single market”.  ‘Meeting in the middle’ when both sides gain is one thing; but ‘meeting in the middle’ when both sides are expected to lose is another thing entirely – especially when one side’s view of ‘fairness’ is that it lessens the impact on itself whilst increasing it for the other.
A normal part of any negotiation is to understand what ‘the other side’ want to get out of it, and ensure that what you offer them is attractive.  It may well be that May, Davis et al really do believe that weakening the rules around membership of the single market will be a good thing for the EU27 as well as for the UK.  I think they’d be wrong, but I could understand such a viewpoint from people who wish that the EU didn’t exist at all.  But they’ve not only failed to understand that things might not look the same from the other side, they’ve made no effort at all to explain to the EU27 why this is such a good idea, or how it will benefit them.  Instead, they merely demand concessions and call out the EU27 as bullies and dictators if they fail to give them.
When I read about the ‘progress’ being made in the Brexit negotiations, I’m reminded of the old story about a trade union negotiator who returned to his members and told them, “I’ve got some bad news and some good news.  The bad news is that I haven’t been able to get us a pay rise; in fact I’ve had to accept a pay cut.  But the good news is that I’ve managed to get it backdated”.  The way things are going, I suspect that even that trade union negotiator would get the UK a better deal from Brexit than the current team.