An apology

123rf-apology-button-free-300x180There occasionally comes to every long term blogger a time when you realise that you’e made a huge and colossal mistake. Not a simple error that’s easily edited away or corrected before anyone can notice, but a massive mistake of judgement that would cause anyone who sees it to instantly think less of you as a person. When you realise that you’ve made such a mistake, the only honourable course of action is to hold your hands up, admit that you were fundamentally wrong and throw yourself on the mercy of your readership, hoping you will get a second chance.

That’s where I am today. In two recent posts (here and especially here – I apologise for the title, obviously) I have made horrendous errors that I must apologise for. These were errors in my fundamental assumptions about how the world works, and as such I need to rethink my position on a lot of things before posting on this subject.

Yes, it is true. I assumed England possessed at least a basic level of competence at playing cricket and so would be able to qualify for the quarter-finals of the World Cup. I was fundamentally wrong to believe this and assert it here on this website, and I apologise to those of you who had to read such obvious nonsense with no basis in reality. I can only say that I hope to do better in future and not to make such ridiculous errors and assumptions again.

Now, here’s why England will definitely win the Rugby World Cup…

England are a long way from going out of the Cricket World Cup

I’m old enough to remember the last time the World Cup was held in Australia and New Zealand. 1992 was my first year at university, and I remember sitting around late at night listening to games with my housemates. One game in particular springs to mind – the group match between England and Pakistan, where Pakistan collapsed to 74 all out, but England ended up having to settle for a draw because of rain. At that point in the tournament, England were looking like real contenders, while Pakistan were clearly on their way out. I don’t think anyone expected that Pakistan’s one point from that game would be the difference between them and Australia in semi-final qualification, nor that they’d beat a previously dominant New Zealand to make the final where, of course, they’d beat England.

This time around, England have been comprehensively battered in their first two games against Australia and New Zealand, but yet again the World Cup’s format means those defeats aren’t terminal for their chances. In a seven-team group where four teams go through to the knockout stage, three wins should be enough for a team to qualify. England have had the bad luck of facing two of the strongest teams in the tournament at the start, but now their schedule becomes a lot easier. Scotland, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan await England in their next four matches and three wins from those four should – without a new Kevin O’Brien appearing – be possible. Indeed, a win against Sri Lanka could even mean England qualify in third place from their group.

That then puts England into the quarter-finals, and up against a team from Group B. This is where the placement in the group becomes important. Fourth place in Group A means they’ll likely be facing South Africa, and probably going home, but third place plays the runners-up in the other group, and that’s a much more interesting prospect. That seems likely to be India, who England have recently beaten twice, or if they have a disaster, one of Ireland, West Indies or Pakistan, none of whom should instil great fear in England.

Suddenly, England have a path to the semi-finals opening up before them. Yes, that’ll likely be against Australia or New Zealand again, but they’d be there and suddenly a tournament that looked like a disaster would be their most successful World Cup since 1992. That says a lot about just how poor England have been at World Cups in the last twenty years, but it looks like a good result from here.

Has devolution in England been messed up again?

englandjigsawIt’s been almost five months since the Scottish referendum, and despite what seemed to be happening at the time, devolution within England has been slipping down the agenda ever since. Sure, we’ve had lots of talk about English Votes for English Laws, which with it’s latest incarnation as A Fair United Kingdom appears to be an excuse for William Hague to troll the whole country through dodgy acronyms.

Howeer, what concerns me more at the moment isn’t further Westminster shenanigans, but the prospects for genuine devolution of power within England. What I fear we risk getting is yet another patchwork fudge which shouldn’t be a surprise as that’s what all reviews of English local government end up turning into. Every one of them, from long before Redcliffe-Maud to now has started with clear and consistent ideas, yet ended with a mass of inconsistency and overlapping responsibilities, not even bothering to sort out the problems left by the last review before adding on a few new complications.

Consider, for instance, that where I live Colchester Borough Council has some responsibilities, while Essex County Council has others. Meanwhile, Essex Police and Essex Fire Service have different boundaries to the County Council, and the Ambulance Service operates across the East of England. That, of course doesn’t match up with any of the boundaries used by the rest of the NHS in this area, though it does coincide with some East of England functions remaining from the last Government. It doesn’t, of course, match up with the South East Local Enterprise Partnership that covers Essex, Kent and East Sussex… I could go on, but I’m sure you get the picture and this isn’t unique to this area. The same confusing patchwork of overlapping responsibilities is common across England, and what we need is a system that tries to sort this out, not add even more to it.

However, all that seems to be on the table at the moment is just more layers being added to an already confusing structure. We’re fudging around with what’s already there in the hope that more tinkering will somehow magically make things fit for purpose, instead of starting again from the basics. This is how we get combined authorities and city regions being pushed forward, which copy all the previous bad ideas of regionalism and just apply them to different geographical areas than before. New arrangements are being made based on bodging together something from the existing structures, rather than seeking anything genuinely new. They’re also being applied in patchwork form, one area at a time, meaning there’s going to be increasing confusion about just who is responsible for what.

What we’re also seeing happening is plans going ahead without any involvement of the general public, either in deciding what they’re going to be or in running them after. There was no great bringing together of people from across Greater Manchester to plan the ideas for a Greater Manchester authority, just a bunch of council leaders bashing it out in private with the Treasury (see here for a shot of just how diverse and representative of the city those meetings were). Likewise, when these combined authorities start operating, the people will have very little direct input into the process. They may get to elect a Mayor once every four years, but there’ll be few checks on that power afterwards, and what checks there are come from an indirectly elected assembly of council leaders.

Yet again, one of the real lessons of the Scottish Parliament has been missed. That didn’t just emerge overnight, but was the end result of a long process around the Scottish Constitutional Convention and building popular support and involvement in it. Devolution should be a process that builds from the bottom, not something imposed haphazardly from the top and liable to be changed in the future by Whitehall whim.

That’s why we need a Constitutional Convention – and probably a number of them operating in parallel across the country – to look properly at how things are run and find out just what people want to see in the future, rather than just throwing something else into the mix in the hope that it’ll fix all the previous problems and not just add some whole new ones. However, that’s a solution that would require some long-term vision, cross-party commitment and detailed work to get it right, so it’ll always lose out to our tradition of short-term partisan ideas scribbled on the back of an envelope in the hope of getting a few headlines.

Home Rule All Round?

This is more of a placeholder host as what happens next is very much dependent on how Scotland votes in the independence referendum on the 18th. However, I just wanted to set out some of the things I’ve been thinking in an attempt to clarify them and maybe start some discussion.

What’s clear is that whatever the result of the vote next week, there will be a change in the constitutional balance between Westminster and Edinburgh – either Scotland will be independent, or more powers will be transferred there, which all the parties campaigning for a No vote have promised. However, there’s only been a small discussion about how that will affect the rest (or the remainder, depending on the result) of the UK. What discussion there has been has normally taken the form of a few mutterings, then someone saying ‘it’s all about the West Lothian Question, isn’t it?’ and everyone nodding sagely before moving onto other things.

Whatever the status of the UK is after the 18th, England will remain the one part of the country without any significantly devolved powers and with no obvious solution in prospect. Regional assemblies were rejected, and I’m not sure that a English Parliament or any other all-England solution is going to achieve much, as it assumes that everywhere from Carlisle to Dover and Penzance to Berwick needs the same solution.

However, I think there is a demand for more powers from some areas – Cornwall, Yorkshire and the big cities have all called for them recently – and perhaps what England needs isn’t a preoccupation with finding a one-size-fits-all solution but a solution that’s based on a real localism, with areas getting the powers they want, not the powers that Whitehall decrees they should have. It also needs a willingness to look beyond existing boundaries to see where new powers would be effectively applied not where it was thought to be in the 1880s or 1974 when most of the current local government boundaries were set.

In short, what we’re probably going to need is some form of constitutional convention, but one that’s not concerned solely with how the country as a whole is run but how we can keep as much power as possible at the lower levels of the system throughout the country. I have no idea what form that would take – with or without Scotland involved in it, but that’s why I’m sending this half-formed thought out there, in the hope it might get some discussion going. So what do you think?

If you want to stop Russia, calling for England to host the 2018 World Cup is a bad idea

One of the small highlights of the recent World Cup for me was the BBC showing the official FIFA World Cup films on BBC Two on weekend mornings. In the 1982 film – G’Ole! – there’s a moment near the end when the camera pans over the crowd for the final and shows a Colombia 1986 banner, the only time that tournament ever appeared on camera.

Colombia had been selected to host the 1986 World Cup but withdrew from hosting later in 1982 because of a host of domestic and economic problems. In the words of President Betancur: “We have a lot of things to do here and there is not enough time to attend to the extravagances of Fifa and its members.” Colombia 1986 is the only time a country has not hosted the World Cup after being awarded it.

Luckily for FIFA, there do still remain several countries willing to attend to their extravagances, and indeed will compete to provide more and more extravagances in order to get to host the World Cup. That’s why there was heated bidding for the rights to stage the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, and why some have cried foul after they were awarded to Russia and Qatar. Since they were awarded, there’s been constant criticism of the Qatar 2022 decision, and recent events in Ukraine have also made people question whether it’s right to host the 2018 tournament in Russia and Nick Clegg has called for it to be taken away from them.

Unlike the complaints about Qatar, the arguments given for having the 2018 World Cup are almost entirely political, based on the recent actions of the Russian Government, though they tend to ignore that world sporting bodies are generally autocratic institutions themselves and don’t really respond to that sort of argument. Despite the fact it opens up a lot of other questions – should British clubs refuse to play in Russia in UEFA tournaments? If FIFA don’t change their minds, should the home nations boycott 2018? – it’s a legitimate thing to propose.

However, if you want to scupper your entire campaign very quickly, what you shouldn’t do is this:

Talking about the situation in Ukraine, Nick Clegg raised the question on whether Russia should host the World Cup in 2018:

“He (Putin) can’t constantly push the patience of the international community beyond breaking point and still have the privilege and honour of receiving all the accolades in 2018 for being the host nation of the World Cup.”

In light of Russia’s actions, one option could be to bring the World Cup to England instead.

If you agree, sign this petition.

We the undersigned call on England to host the 2018 World Cup instead of Russia.

That’s currently on the Lib Dem website, and suddenly turns it from legitimate concerns about Russia to one of the countries beaten by Russia in the 2018 bidding trying to get revenge. It weakens the case against Russia hosting it by associating it with England getting the tournament instead and thus makes it into a contest of two countries, not weighing up the merits of one.

The reason I brought up Colombia 1986 at the start of this post was because when the decision was made to not have the World Cup there, it wasn’t because another country had stepped forward and said ‘we’ll do it instead’. The decision to not host the tournament and the decision of the location of the replacement were separate, and if FIFA were to decide to take it from Russia, there’d surely be an open process (well, open by FIFA standards) to decide the replacement, as happened for 1986 (with Mexico selected over the USA and Canada). One could also look at the ongoing dispute over Qatar 2022, where the USA (probably the most likely location for it if it doesn’t happen in Qatar) are being very careful not to put themselves forward as the alternative, but instead are keeping the debate about whether it should be in Qatar at all.

(I’d also question if England was able to host the tournament on such short notice, given the suggested new stadiums and expansions proposed in the original bid. If Russia were to lose it, and it was to stay within Europe, the most logical new host would likely be France, given the work they’re currently doing for Euro 2016.)

This might just be an overenthusiastic staffer at Great George Street getting carried away and starting off a petition without thinking about it, but it’s a huge own goal. If you want to make the case against Russia, you should do that, and not confuse the issue by trying to fly an England flag at the same time.