Thoughts on Paris, Syria and Iraq

Like everyone else I was very saddened by the events in Paris on Friday evening, and my thoughts and prayers are with those who have suffered, their friends and their families. Yet, if anything, that sadness has been deepened by some of the responses to the attacks. So I'd like to put together some thoughts on what has happened.


I'll start with one of the headlines above, "This time, it's war", a sentiment which echoes and is entirely in line with François Hollande describing the attacks as an "act of war". Such statements seem oblivious to the reality that France has already been "at war" with Islamic State for some time. For the past few months it has been attacking IS on a daily basis. These French attacks are every bit as much "acts of war" as the attacks in Paris on Friday. In fact, their cumulative effect is almost certain to have been much more deadly and more destructive than Friday's attacks. France cannot conduct acts of war in foreign countries without making itself a target. Neither can the UK, the USA or any of the other countries which are involved in attacking Islamic State.

We in the West have developed a very distorted view of what war is. We try our best to confine it to foreign fields, far away. Then, to try and make it more remote and minimize our casualties, we are reticent to put troops on the ground ... so we attack from the air instead. And, to make it more remote still, we are increasingly making these attacks by drones, controlled by operatives hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away. In some cases it has become a "normal" job. You live at home, commute to work for the start of your shift, sit at your console piloting drones, probably have lunch and coffee breaks, then either commute straight back to your family, or perhaps get together with friends over a meal or a few drinks. In these ways, we sanitize war.

But war is neither sanitary nor sane. And when the bloody reality of what war actually means in terms of bodies and blood is done to us, we are shocked. We shouldn't be. We cannot attack others without expecting them to try and attack us.


Of course saying this doesn't in any way justify what happened in Paris. Attacking those who attack you is perfectly justified, but Friday's attacks were specifically targeted at civilians, not combatants. In contrast when our forces attack Islamic State (or any other enemy in any other conflict) they will, I am sure, make reasonable efforts to direct their attacks only at strategic military targets. But, even so, I would suggest that our attacks are nowhere near as precise as our leaders would like to make out when they make public statements, and this is all the more so as a direct result of trying to engage with an enemy remotely from a distance, rather than directly on the ground.

I would not be at all surprised if the number of civilians we, the West, have accidentally killed over just the past few months in our attacks on Islamic State is rather greater than the number of civilians they deliberately killed on Friday. In moral terms there is a huge difference; but the end result is still that innocent people pay the price.

And even then, there are grey areas. We may not deliberately target civilians, but what room do we leave as a margin of error? Even if we were to hit our targets 90% of the time, is 10% a sufficient margin of error? Here, the sheer scale of what we are doing changes the equation completely. If we conduct fifty missions a day against IS, it is (in practical terms) the equivalent of conducting five missions deliberately targeted at civilians every day.


The reason this is allowed to happen is probably because our leaders can't think of a better alternative. Public pressure makes them think we have to do "something", but what we are doing is almost certainly making the situation in Syria and Iraq worse rather than better. I would offer these thoughts.

• First, why do we feel we have to be involved at all? Without doubt Islamic State is a despicable regime that does abhorrent things. But there are a number of other regimes in the world that are just as bad. We don't attack North Korea. We don't attack Saudi Arabia. In fact our double standards are such that UK governments count the Saudis as friends and sell them weapons. I think it is all but certain that the Saudis are discretely funding Islamic State, because they see what is happening as primarily a Sunni/Shia conflict.

Yet I would not say that we shouldn't be involved at all because we must face up to the fact that we, the West, are directly or indirectly responsible for a large part of what is wrong in the region; whether as a relic from the colonialism of a century ago, or as a direct result of our invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.

• Second, if our involvement in Iraq has taught us anything, it is that the borders which the colonial powers imposed on the Middle East are arbitrary and largely unworkable. Iraq has a Shia population in the south east, a Kurdish population in the north, and a Sunni population in the west. It was only able to function as a "united" state to the extent that one faction (in this case the Sunnis, led by Saddam Hussein) was able to subdue the other population groups, often by means of atrocities.

Yet, even after we had toppled him and replaced his regime with a so-called democratic government, that government just played another variation of the same game. Democracy can only work where people have a real choice between alternatives, and are free to vote one way or another depending on what the parties offer. All that happened in Iraq was that Shias voted for Shias, Kurds voted for Kurds and Sunnis voted for Sunnis; they could not reasonably be expected to do anything else. But that is not democracy, it is sectarianism. The Shias, as the majority in Iraq, naturally led the new government ... and proceeded to repress the Sunnis with almost the same vigour as they themselves had been repressed under Saddam Hussein. Given that repression, it is hardly surprising that Sunnis in Iraq would feel that they needed to be protected from the new Shia-led government in Baghdad. If we call Islamic State a terrorist group, it is worth reminding ourselves that such "terrorists" can only survive with some degree of tacit consent from the population they claim to represent. For many Sunnis who felt repressed by Shia-led governments in Baghdad, any Sunni-led regime would be better ... even Islamic State.

The situation in Syria has many parallels with Iraq. In broad terms, Syria has a Shia (Alawite) population in the western coastal area, a Kurdish population in the north, and a largely Sunni population elsewhere; but the Sunnis form a large majority. Just as was the case in Iraq, Syria is only able to function as a "united" state to the extent that one faction (in this case the Shias, led by Bashar al-Assad) is able to subdue the other population groups, often by means of atrocities. Note that I have used exactly the same sentence as I used before. One of the often-repeated refrains of western leaders has been that both Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad have committed atrocities "against their own people". By and large they haven't. Their atrocities were largely against the other population groups that they were trying to subdue.


So, for what it's worth, my conclusion is that there is no way in which either Iraq or Syria can function as successful states within their current borders. This is a reality that the West needs to grasp, particularly if we want to see functioning democracy in the region.

The problem faced by Western governments is that we are fairly clear about who we are fighting against, but not who we are fighting for. In Syria, we are against Assad and we are against IS. A few years ago we were more against Assad, now we have swung round to be more against Islamic State. If put on the spot, I'm sure that our leaders would say that they want to see a "moderate Syrian opposition" come to power in place of Assad's regime, preferably by democratic means. But a Syria of that sort cannot work as a democracy, just as Iraq cannot work as a democracy. Sectarianism prevents it from happening. If there were elections in Syria under its present borders, all that would happen is that the Sunni majority would vote for a new Sunni-led government, and the Shias and Kurds would then feel repressed by that government. Syria would be a mirror-image of Iraq.

Perhaps, up until a few months ago, the replacement of Assad's regime by a moderate opposition might have seemed at least a remote possibility; but things have now changed because of Russia's intervention.

Unlike the West's intervention, Putin has the great advantage of knowing what he is fighting for, as well as what he is fighting against. He supports Bashar al-Assad. The simple reality is that Russia will not let the Assad regime fall. The reason for this is very obvious: Russia has a naval base at Tartus and an air base at Latakia, both on the Syrian coast in the Shia-populated region. This article in the Moscow Times reports on plans to expand Russia's presence there into a unified military base. So, unlike the West, Russia knows what it is fighting for, already has troops on the ground, and is prepared to put in more, as many as it takes. I don't think Russia has any particular fondness for Assad or for Shia Islam, but it has a practical working relationship that it does not want to put into jeopardy ... and it certainly would be in jeopardy if a Western-backed "moderate" regime were to take over in Syria. Perhaps Assad himself might go, but the Russians will ensure that if and when he does, he is replaced with someone who will continue the existing arrangement. We in the West might not like the fact that Russia is determined to maintain a strategic military base in the eastern Mediterranean; but with UK military bases in Cyprus, we are in no position to complain.


Faced with this reality, I believe there cannot be a unified democratic state of Syria within its current borders. But we might be able to achieve a stable, and even democratic, solution by changing the borders along these lines.

From my perspective, the best place to start is with the Kurds. One of the great injustices of colonial rule is that the Kurds do not have their own state. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire the Kurdish-populated territories were split between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Iran. They have been mistreated and subject to cultural repression ever since. But, apart from historical injustice, it makes sense to support them in purely pragmatic terms. The Kurds are currently our best military allies against Islamic State, and by far the best hope of establishing a functioning democratic state in any part of the present day territory of Iraq and Syria.

For their part, the Kurds are certainly not afraid to fight against IS, but are probably wary of being used by the West, only to then be dumped by the West once our immediate objectives have been achieved. We might be clear about the need to fight against IS, but need to take a leaf out of Russia's book and decide who we are fighting for as well. We need to publicly commit ourselves to the establishment of a new Kurdish state (or perhaps a confederation of Kurdish states in Iraq and Syria) and we then need to give them the assistance necessary to provide that state with the security it needs to protect its borders. This would mean a proper army with heavy weapons such as tanks and a proper air force. As I see it, this state would be limited to the current territory of Iraq and Syria because in practical terms it would be impossible to alter the borders of Turkey or Iran. Yet if, as I hope, this new Kurdish state were to be a democracy at peace with both Turkey and Iran, the borders between Kurdistan and the Kurdish-populated areas of Turkey and Iran would be less problematic.


The next border adjustments would need to divide Shia- and Sunni-populated areas in both Iraq and Syria. Iraq has shown us that democracy cannot work if one population group is perceived by the other to be dominant. Yes, this can happen in mature democracies, but we must recognize that democracy is something new to this region. The protection of minorities that is fundamental to the way western democracies work takes time to develop. It is a mistake to think that democracy can be imposed overnight just by holding elections. There is more to democratic societies than merely holding elections and letting whatever majority emerges continue to act in the same way as the previous dictators did.

I'm less sure of how the Sunni/Shia divisions might work than I am about the borders of a new Kurdish state: but in Iraq the Shia state would be the southern third of the present Iraq, including Baghdad but not extending further north; and in Syria it would be the coastal strip north of Lebanon. The remaining area of both western Iraq and eastern Syria would be predominantly Sunni. There could be one state with a capital in Damascus and one with a capital in, say, Mosul; but I don't really see why it should not be a single state, as the current border between Iraq and Syria is nothing more than an arbitrary line on a map from the "e" in Acre to the last "k" in Kirkuk, reflecting only what Britain and France wanted for themselves a century ago rather than what anyone in the Middle East wanted then or wants now. In this one respect, Islamic State have a reasonable objective. There is much to commend a single predominantly Sunni-populated state in the territory that straddles what is now western Iraq and eastern Syria. It might even be worth fighting for. The problem is not the borders of such a state, but the intolerant, blood-thirsty butchers that currently control it.

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Al Jazeera's take on the Catalan election

I've just watched a rather well-balanced report and debate on the situation following Sunday's election in Catalunya on Al Jazeera, and thought others might like to watch it too.


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Catalunya: what happens next

With the final results of the election to the Catalan Parliament declared, I'd like to offer an analysis of the result and what is now likely to happen.

In summary: this is unquestionably a victory for those who want Catalunya to become an independent state, but it is a messy victory. There is a mandate to move forward towards independence, but it will need to be done carefully.

Forming a Government

Yesterday's election allowed the Catalan people to choose who they wanted to represent them in the Catalan Parliament, and the immediate task ahead of those who have just been elected is to form a Government. As we can see from the graphic below, Junts pel Sí won 62 seats and are by far the largest party. In reality, there is no other alternative but for Junts pel Sí to form the government because the other parties come from radically different parts of the political spectrum and could never work together.


It is easy to think that the obvious choice is for Junts pel Sí to form a government with CUP, because they both unequivocally support independence. But CUP are a radical, left-leaning party which will almost certainly not be interested in forming a government with politicians from a centre-right party like CDU. In fact they have specifically said they would not support Artur Mas as president.

One option would be for CUP to abstain in the vote to elect Mas as president. But the numbers don't quite add up: if they abstained, the 62 Junts pel Sí candidates could still be outvoted by the remaining 63 deputies from other parties. It would therefore be necessary for at least one of the other deputies to abstain or vote for Mas. If this happened, it would almost certainly be one (or all) of the deputies from CSQEP that does so.

The other option would be for Artur Mas to stand down in favour of someone else. There are two choices: either a neutral, figurehead president such as Raül Romeva, Carme Forcadell or Muriel Casals (the first three on the Junts pel Sí list) or Oriol Junqueras, the leader of ERC. CUP and CSQEP, both on the left of the political spectrum, would probably support Junqueras rather than Mas. This needn't necessarily result in Mas being sidelined. Mas and Junqueras have worked hand in glove on everything to do with the route map to independence over the last three years (though not the day-to-day questions of governance, such as implementing austerity) and would continue to do so now.

In many ways, a change of president might be good. Large sections of the pro-Spanish media have delighted in calling the independence movement the product of Artur Mas' ego, so a change of president would clearly show that it is more than that. Besides that, ERC have supported Catalan independence for far longer than Mas, who was only converted to the idea three years ago following mass public demonstrations in favour of independence.

What will the new Catalan Government do?

Whatever question mark there might be over who is president, there is no question that the new Catalan Government's priority will be to set up the institutions necessary for Catalonia to function as an independent state. This is the platform they were elected on, and in this they will have the full support of CUP, so getting these things voted through parliament will not be a problem.

It is equally certain that the Spanish Government will do all it can to prevent these institutions from being set up, using the Tribunal Constitucional de España (Spanish Constitutional Court) to do so. It is worth noting that 10 out of its 12 members are political appointees, who will therefore make political decisions. The new Catalan government will therefore have to ignore its rulings, just as the previous government has already done with its rulings on issues such as the use of Catalan in the education system.

The only real questions will be over what the Spanish Government does when the Catalan Government ignores the TC's rulings. Will it arrest prominent members of the Catalan Government? If it does, there will be plenty of others willing to step up to the plate. So the only other option would be to send in troops and tanks. It is a matter of brinkmanship, and the pro-independence deputies will have to hold their nerve.

When and how will independence be declared?

At the start of this post, I was careful to say that the new Catalan Government had a mandate to move forward towards independence, but that things would have to be done carefully. As I see it, there is no real problem in setting up the institutions necessary for Catalonia to be an independent state, but there is a problem over any eventual declaration of independence.

The key question is whether yesterday's vote constitutes a mandate to declare independence, and the reality is that it doesn't.

If Junts pel Sí and CUP had obtained more than 50% of the vote yesterday, there is no doubt that this would have constituted a mandate to make a unilateral declaration of independence, without the need for any further vote on the issue. But this wasn't achieved. Nevertheless, yesterday's election cannot be interpreted as a vote against independence either, because those were not the only two options on the ballot papers.


As the graphic above shows, both CSQEP and the UDC are in favour of Catalunya's right to decide about independence in a referendum, but not in favour of a unilateral declaration of independence. They achieved 11.45% of the vote between them, and it is all but certain that some of these voters would have voted for independence if yesterday's vote had been a binding referendum on independence. This would take the figure in favour of independence beyond 50%.

But a matter of this importance needs to be established with complete certainty, and therefore another vote needs to be held before independence can be declared.


There is more than one way of doing this. The painless way would be for Madrid to allow a referendum to be held and respect the result. But I think this could only happen if Podemos, probably in coalition with the PSOE, were able to form the next Spanish Government. There is absolutely no way that either the Partido Popular or Ciudadanos (the Spanish wing of the Ciutadans) would allow such a referendum. Also, apart from the question of independence, yesterday's election was a marked success for the Ciutadans, making them the main Unionist party in Catalunya with almost the same level of support as the PP and PSC combined. This can only bode well for their performance in the Spanish election in December, making the chances of any sort of agreement between the Spanish and Catalan governments even less likely.

But according to the road map to independence set out by Junts pel Sí, the Catalans are going to be given another chance to vote anyway. The idea is to spend the next 18 months setting up the institutions required to function as an independent country, and for the electorate to then approve a constitution for the new Catalan Republic. The declaration of independence would be made by the Catalan Government on the basis of that approved constitution. This, as it happens, was the main point of difference between Junts pel Sí and CUP: CUP wanted the declaration of independence to be immediate rather than after a second vote in 18 months, which was one of the major reasons why they did not join the Junts pel Sí list.

So things are now trickier than they might have been, but the problem is not insurmountable. If there had already been a vote in favour of independence, the second vote would have been solely about the provisions of the new constitution. This, logically, must mean that if new constitution were not approved by the electorate, the Government would have needed to revise it until it was approved. Now the second vote will need to be not only about the provisions of the new constitution, but also about the principle of independence.

One could say that this second vote always implied acceptance of the principle of independence; the only change is that the question must now be framed in such a way as to make it explicit.

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Catalunya Triomfant

This widget from Ara will give the unfolding latest results, but it is now clear that Junts pel Sí and CUP have got an absolute majority in the Catalan Parliament, and will work towards a a new constitution for an independent Republic of Catalunya, with a new constitution being put to the Catalan people for approval in a referendum in the next 18 months or so.

It would have been nice for the pro-UDI parties to get 50% of the vote. But in round numbers the Yes/No margin is 48%/39%, with 9% voting for CSQEP and 2% for UDC. We need to be careful not to interpret the CSQEP and UDC votes as either a Yes or No to independence.


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The Big Weekend

Apart from the not unimportant matter of what happens at Twickenham tomorrow, the main event of the weekend will be the election to the Catalan Parliament on Sunday. As well as being the most significant election for Catalunya since the death of Franco, it should also prove to be very significant for those of us who want to see other stateless nations such as Wales gain our independence within a European framework.

I'm very conscious that I haven't written much on this subject, or on much else, over the past few months. But this is worth carving out some time for. If you want to be reminded about what I've written in the past, please click here, but this is a brief outline of what has happened recently.


In essence, the Spanish Government has steadfastly refused to consider any moves towards an independence vote—or even greater autonomy within the Spanish State—even though a clear majority of the people of Catalonia and their representatives in the Catalan Parliament want such a vote to be held. Because of this, the parties which want independence, Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC), Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) and Candidatura d'Unitat Popular (CUP), have called an early vote which they intend to be a plebiscite on the sole question of independence. The CDC split with Unió Democràtica de Catalunya (UDC) with whom they had shared a long-standing and largely successful coalition, over the issue.

There were hopes in some quarters that the pro-independence parties would form a single electoral list, in which politicians would play a secondary role to prominent non-political figures in Catalan society so as to emphasize that this was a matter that transcended normal party politics. After much negotiation this was largely achieved, with only one pro-independence party, the smaller CUP, refusing to join it. This list is Junts pel Sí (JxSí, Together for Yes). So there are two voting options which are unequivocally pro-independence and, if these candidates win a majority of seats in the parliament on Sunday, their declared aim is to unilaterally declare Catalunya as an independent republic within 18 months.

A second cross-party electoral list, Catalunya Sí que es Pot (CSQEP, Catalunya: Yes We Can) has been formed by parties which support the Catalan right to democratic self-determination, but still believe there is room for negotiation with the Spanish Government either for a binding official referendum on independence, or for greater autonomy for Catalunya within the Spanish State. The three main parties in this electoral list are the Green ICV, the leftist EUiA and the anti-austerity Podemos. Within this group, and even within the parties, there are shades of opinion about the preferred end-result: some want independence (but after a referendum rather than a unilateral declaration of independence) while others want Catalunya to be a state within a federal or confederal Spain.

There are four other main parties standing on their own rather than on joint electoral lists. The Partido Popular (PP) and Ciutadans (Cs) are implacably opposed to any change to the status quo. The Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC-PSOE) probably is too, although it has in the past paid lip service to the idea of a more federal Spain. The problem is that those in the party that do not want to retain the status quo have now all left it. Finally the UDC, the CDC's former partners in CiU, are standing, but have paid a high price for the split and have all but fallen off the political map.


After our recent experience of opinion polling in the run up to this year's Westminster election, we might well take the polls for this election with a pinch of salt ... but what else do we have to go on?


The graphic above is from Ara, and shows the results of a plethora of polls taken over the last few weeks. Nearly all of them show that Junts pel Sí and CUP will, together, get over the threshold of 68 seats and win an absolute majority in the Catalan Parliament. I, too, am fairly certain that this will happen. So far as I can judge from this distance, the momentum is with the pro-independence movement. As it's no fun to write without making a prediction, I reckon Junts pel Sí will get 65 seats and CUP will get 11, giving them 76 seats in a parliament of 135.

This, in itself, would undoubtedly be a mandate for independence. But there are a couple of other factors which need to be addressed.

The first is whether Junts pel Sí and CUP will get more than 50% of the vote between them. The electoral system is proportional (D'Hondt) with separate lists for each of the four provinces (Barcelona, Girona, Lleida and Tarragona) and a threshold of 3%. These two factors tend to favour larger parties, so that is it quite possible to get a majority of seats with, say, only 45% of the vote. This is, of course, far better than the scandal of the Conservatives winning a majority of 331 out of 650 seats in May under our first-past-the-post system with less than 37% of the vote ... but there are bound to be some people who will claim that the pro-independence parties have no mandate to declare independence if they get an absolute majority of seats, but fall short of 50% of the vote.

This graphic from a poll in El Confidencial shows how a result very similar to the one I expect might result in a comfortable majority of seats, but still fall marginally below a 50% share of the vote.


I hope that this doesn't happen, and that Junts pel Sí and CUP will get more than 50% of the vote. But even if they fall short, it won't invalidate the independence mandate. As I explained before, those who vote for Junts pel Sí and CUP want independence and are prepared to see a unilateral declaration of independence, irrespective of the wishes of the Spanish Government. But there will be others who nonetheless still support independence, but would prefer to get it with the consent of the Spanish Government after a referendum. These people will (in all probability) vote for Catalunya Sí que es Pot, and there is every indication that CSQEP will get at least 10% of the vote. Of course not everyone who votes CSQEP on Sunday will want independence: some of them (perhaps most) might prefer greater autonomy in a federal or confederal Spain; but some will want independence, and this would be enough to push the total figure over the 50% mark.

Those who are opposed to Catalan independence can't have it both ways at the same time. They cannot point to a majority of seats but a shortfall in the popular vote as something which invalidates any mandate for independence; for they wouldn't accept that a majority of the popular vote was a mandate anyway, and the simple way of answering that question would have been to allow a binding referendum in the first place.


A second objection would be to point to the fact that support for independence is not evenly split within Catalunya. The graphic above is from the same poll in El Confidencial, and illustrates that support for independence is much stronger in the provinces of Girona and Lleida than in Barcelona and Tarragona. This, coupled with the fact that Barcelona has 73% of the population but only 63% of the seats, means that we are likely to hear complaints about the mandate not being valid because Barcelona has not been carried.

Those who are against independence will clutch at anything to claim that the result is invalid. I'm just trying to anticipate the sorts of objections that will be raised. Suffice to say, things will be very much easier if Junts pel Sí and CUP get more than 50% of the vote. I'll put my neck on the block and say that they will ... but that it will be rather too close for comfort.


The next question is what will happen after the result is announced. Probably not much. There will not be an immediate declaration of independence. Instead, the leaders of the new pro-independence government will again try and negotiate with the Spanish Government, who will loudly reject their approach. The ruling PP (and PSOE) are far too preoccupied with the upcoming Spanish election scheduled for December this year to make any concessions. It would be seen as being "soft" on the Catalans, and therefore cost them Spanish votes. One thing is sure, the Spanish public want to hold on to Catalunya as part of Spain; mainly because they believe it, and its wealth, "belongs" to them, and because they don't want to see themselves demoted from their current position as one of the big players in Europe. So any meaningful negotiations with Madrid will only happen, if they happen at all, when the composition of the next Spanish Government is known.

In my opinion, the only hope for any sort of accommodation will be if Podemos can form a government or hold the balance of power. The traditional two party dominance of the PP and PSOE has been challenged by the rise of Podemos and the Ciudadanos. For a time it looked likely that Podemos would eclipse them both, but they have fallen back over the past few months. I don't follow Spanish politics as closely as Catalan or Basque politics, but right now it looks as if the outcome will either be a broadly right coalition between PP and the Cs, or a broadly left coalition between PSOE and Podemos. If it is the second, there might well be some room for negotiation about a new constitution for Spain with greater autonomy for Catalunya, and Podemos (who accept that Catalans have the right to determine their own future, even though they'd prefer them to stay) might just be able to deliver a referendum. However I suspect it's all too late for that now.


The real negotiations are likely to take place at a European level. The EU is renowned for sitting on the fence, and I'm sure it will continue to hold that position until forced to get off it ... in public, anyway. But in private, not even the EU would be stupid enough to ignore a newly elected pro-independence Catalan Government which says, "We have now been given a democratic mandate to declare independence, and we are going to act on it. So let's spend the next 18 months negotiating Catalunya's relationship with the EU so that the transition is as smooth as possible for all concerned."

That's why this election is important not only to Catalunya, but to other stateless nations in the EU. Whatever accommodation is made for Catalunya is likely to form the basis of the way things will work for the Basque Country, Flanders, Scotland and, of course, Wales. I don't for one moment think that the EU will go out of their way to make it easy for the Catalans, in fact we could say that they have done everything they can to dissuade them from voting for independence by not giving clear answers to those questions before now. But a democratic decision will be made on Sunday and, once it has been made, it will be in no-one's interest to make it hard for them either. Pragmatism will prevail.

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What a difference a day makes

At the bottom of the BBC report about George Osborne's latest public subsidy to help persuade the Chinese to invest in new nuclear power plants in the UK I linked to yesterday was this statement from Amber Rudd:

Ms Rudd rejected criticisms that this was too expensive, saying nuclear power was "reasonably priced" compared with other low carbon sources of power.

Together with a graphic which was intended to back it up:


The inference the BBC wanted us to made was that Amber Rudd was telling the truth.

But, as it happens, the graph was completely incorrect. I was going to write about it, quoting an article from yesterday's Financial Times:

The risks surrounding Hinkley Point, the first nuclear reactor for decades in Britain, mean it will be subsidised. To ensure that EDF earns a 10 per cent rate of return, the government is providing a price guarantee in the form of a 35-year contract with an inflation-linked “strike price” of £92.50 per megawatt hour, in 2012 prices. If the wholesale electricity price falls below this level, EDF will be paid the difference. Likewise, consumers will be reimbursed if it trades higher.

This is more than twice the current market price for day-ahead power in the UK.

Nuclear, though, is not alone in benefiting from inflation-proofed subsidy. Renewables benefit from price guarantee contracts that reward companies offering to produce green power at the lowest cost. The results of a government auction this year showed the winning bids for new onshore wind capacity at about £82/MWh, while those for solar ranged from £50/MWh-£80/MWh, cheaper than nuclear. Offshore wind was pricier, at more than £114/MWh.

Financial Times, 21 September 2015

However, when I went back to the BBC article this evening to take a screenshot of the graph, I found that it had been changed:


No explanation or apology was offered by the BBC. In fact there was no indication that the article had been amended at all.

Of course I welcome the correction. But the result (perhaps even the intention) of the original version was that those who read the article yesterday were left with the false impression that the price offered for nuclear power from Hinckley C was substantially cheaper than the renewable alternatives. A number of the comments reflected that.

The fact is that the cost of renewables is coming down, and shows every sign of continuing to come down ... solar PV in particular. The new graph shows the highest bid price in the range. The lowest solar PV auction bid was £50/MWh, which is within touching distance of the current wholesale price of electricity.

Conventional nuclear power is a defunct technology which was never, and can never, be made economically viable. It will only go ahead if ever-larger sums of public money are funnelled into the bank accounts of prospective foreign government investors.

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A better alternative to nuclear

On the day when the Tory UK Government has shown that it is as much in thrall as ever to sadism, necrophilia and bestiality (yes, that's a round about way of saying they're flogging a dead horse) when it comes to nuclear power, it's good to be reminded that there is a better alternative.

Today, Greenpeace has published a report called Energy [r]evolution 2015, which sets out a pathway to a 100% sustainable energy supply for the entire world by 2050, ending CO2 emissions and phasing out nuclear energy. Click the image below to download the full report, or click here for the executive summary.


This post on the Greenpeace Energydesk should be helpful.

As it happens, the BBC wouldn't dream of giving this alternative the same coverage as it gives the nuclear story (in fact, so far as I can see, no coverage at all) hence this post.


It is perhaps worth noting that this report is not the same as another report that has just been published on behalf of Greenpeace which concentrates on the UK, showing that it is possible for the UK's power system to be nearly 90% renewably delivered by 2030. Again, click the image below to download that report, or read the Guardian's take on it here.


Again, this post on the Greenpeace Energydesk should be helpful.

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