Tuesday 30 September 2014

End of an era

As most readers will be aware, Carmarthenshire County Council has announced that its chief executive, Mark James, has applied to leave the council under its severance scheme.

Mr James's departure has been rumoured for some considerable time, with persistent whispers that he is planning to move to the more genteel environs of Bath. There was also a school of thought that having reached 55 he would seek early retirement, possibly on the grounds of ill health.

No details other than an application for severance have so far been made public, but any payout under the scheme will undoubtedly be of eye watering proportions.

As it seems that we are talking about voluntary redundancy, the implication would be that there would be no successor as chief executive.

If the application is accepted, Mr James would leave towards the end of the year. Whoever takes over in whatever guise will face a very unenviable task as they tackle massive spending cuts and the fallout from Mr James's near 15-year reign.


The chief executive's decision to leave comes at a very interesting juncture. We should shortly see the report and recommendations produced by the WLGA Governance Panel, and the expectation is that it will deliver a damning verdict of the regime run by Mr James.

Beyond that, and nothing to do with his decision in all likelihood, is the pending reorganisation of Welsh local government. Pembrokeshire has just announced that it will begin exploratory talks with Ceredigion. Neither county wants to merge with the other, and it is hard to see what Ceredigion would gain from joining up with the toxic basket case to its south.

Under the Welsh Government's proposals, Carmarthenshire was to have remained as a standalone county, but the departure of Mark James and almost his entire team of senior officers removes one major obstacle to a merger with another county or counties.

Perhaps Dyfed could rise like a phoenix from the ashes after all.

Saturday 27 September 2014

Kipper Salmon?

Apart from the Tories, nobody much wanted elected police commissioners. At the elections in November 2012 Christopher Salmon (Con) was elected police commissioner for Dyfed Powys on a salary of £65,000 a year, narrowly defeating the walking electoral disaster that is Christine Gwyther (Lab).

Out of an electorate of 395,000, just 67,500 bothered to vote, and just under 33,000 of those voted for Christopher Salmon. Almost 3,000 people spoiled their ballots.

In other words, Salmon was elected with less than half of the votes cast in a two-horse race, and just 8.3% of the people who could have voted made a conscious decision to vote for him.

As mandates go, it was the thinnest ice imaginable, even by the standards of Britain's rotten first past the post system, but that has not prevented Mr Salmon from using his office as a platform to set out his backward-looking vision for Wales, or "West Herefordshire" as he would probably prefer to rename us.

Here he is holding forth on the outcome of the Scottish referendum:

We are left with the consequences of a misguided devolution process which, to my shame, I supported at the time. Devolving power without responsibility, as Labour did to its client fiefdoms in Wales and Scotland, is a recipe for disaster. We now know where it leads: to separatism, division and nationalism.

Mr Salmon thinks that devolution was a mistake, although the most recent referendum on giving the Assembly law-making powers in 2011 saw 63.5% or 517,000 of those who voted saying yes. That's 484,000 more people than voted to make him police commissioner.

He is especially horrified by the idea that the police and criminal justice could be devolved from Westminster. Giving Wales responsibility for policing itself would apparently be far less democratic than having a Tory Home Secretary in Westminster deciding the future of our police forces.

In another piece, this time for Conservative Home (Mr Salmon seems to have a lot of spare time), he explains how police commissioners are "devolution in action", citing all the good work being done by Tory police commissioners in Essex, Sussex and Northamptonshire.

Unfortunately this latest think-piece is likely to be airbrushed from history by Conservative Home because Mr Salmon obviously thinks quite highly of Mark Reckless MP, the latest Tory defector to Ukip.

Perhaps Mr Salmon is sending out coded messages. Could he about to join forces with Nathan Gill MEP who knows a thing or two about law and order?

Friday 26 September 2014

No to Iraq war intervention

Members of Parliament were recalled to the Commons this week to vote on whether UK armed forces should join United States-led air strikes against Islamic State (IS) in Iraq.

Carmarthenshire Member of Parliament Jonathan Edwards voted against intervention.

When Tony Blair led the UK to war in Iraq back in 2003, Plaid Cymru warned that regime change would create a power vacuum.  Former Carmarthenshire Member of Parliament, Adam Price, led attempts to impeach Mr Blair, and was famously ejected from the House of Commons for branding the then Prime Minister a liar.

Carmarthenshire played a significant role in the anti-war movement back in 2003 when hundreds of country residents travelled by coach convey to join the one million people marching against the Iraq invasion.

The UK Government’s intention is to support the Iraqi government with air strikes.  The motion passed in Parliament does not support intervention in Syria.

Jonathan Edwards said he had no confidence in UK and US foreign policy, and that he believed regional government efforts - supported by the United Nations and international community - would achieve long lasting stability in the region, as opposed to western intervention with inevitable civilian deaths which would progress the cause of Islamic State.

Speaking after the vote in the House of Commons, Jonathan Edwards MP said:

“Since the people of Carmarthen East and Dinefwr put their faith in me to represent them in Parliament, I have never underestimated the responsibility it brings – not least when it comes to deciding whether or not our armed forces are involved in military action.

“The horrific scenes we have seen on our televisions in recent weeks leaves me in no doubt that Islamic State is a force of pure evil.  The barbarity of beheadings, atrocities and cruel oppression, inflicted not just on western civilians, but also on the hundreds of thousands of inhabitants of Iraq and Syria who have been unfortunate enough to fall under the rule of I.S. is testimony enough.

“Military intervention through airstrikes therefore appears on the face of it to be an obvious choice of action.  But British invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and subsequent entanglements should have taught us that the obvious choice is not always the one to take. 

“We know that I.S. does not recognise borders.  Military action in Iraq which the UK Government proposes ignores the fact that the Islamic State controls large swathes of territory in Syria, and splinter groups are active across the Middle East and North Africa with a French tourist recently executed in Algeria.

“I not convinced the UK government has a robust strategy for intervention or exit.  I could not, in all consciousness, vote to send our armed forces into a situation in which they are at the mercy of a  foreign policy decision in which I have no confidence.

“The inevitable death of innocent people from UK air strikes will only serve to aid Islamic State in its long term propaganda efforts to recruit more to its cause.  There needs to be a clear endorsement of approved action from the United Nations for defeating terrorism in the region.”

Setting out his position on what action could be taken instead of military air strikes, Jonathan Edwards MP said:

“The Iraqi government – supported by western governments - has alienated its Sunni population who have, in turn, welcomed the ‘victories’ of Islamic State.  Iraq is in desperate need of a non-sectarian government that encompasses all faiths and beliefs in its society.  The Western powers following the 2003 Iraqi invasion have been guilty of supporting a sectarian Shia led government which has alienated other religious and ethnic groups.

“Bombs will kill terrorists, but they will not stop terrorism.  Air strikes will only serve to further polarise the people and lead to a situation whereby Iraqi and Syrian communities are left to face the successor of Islamic State.  We need to work with the Sunni tribes in particular to uprise against the Islamic State.  Civilian casualties amongst the Sunni community as a result of air strikes will only strengthen the political grip of the IS over the territories it holds in Iraq and Syria.

"The UK's response to this crisis must focus on humanitarian and diplomatic efforts.  A lasting solution can only be achieved by a region-led approach backed by United Nations-led international support.  We should concentrate on delivering aid, bringing moderate regional powers together, and offering to take refugees as the number fleeing their homes will inevitably rise at a rapid rate.

“If the United Nations was indeed to endorse a strategy for intervention and exit I would then, of course, consider my opposition very carefully.  As things stand an open ended commitment to UK air strikes lasting years is not something I can support.”

What future for our high streets?

At a meeting organised by Antur Teifi in Lampeter last night, local businesses and other interested parties from the Teifi Valley heard from Bill Grimsey, a businessman whose long career includes being the top man at Wickes, Iceland, Focus DIY, a leading Hong Kong supermarket chain and, back in the 1980s, a director of Tesco.

Bill Grimsey is currently advising the Labour Party on what to do about our high streets, an experience he described as "a bit like knitting fog", as well as travelling around Britain and Europe advising towns and cities on how to face a radically different future. He was also dismissive of the much-hyped efforts of Mary Portas who was in it "mainly to help herself".

Lampeter is by far the smallest of the places he has visited, and parts of his message are probably more relevant to larger towns, but what he had to say should give us all pause for thought.

The essence of Grimsey's argument is that we are living in an age of unprecedented change which is being driven by technology. High streets will look very different in just 10-15 years from now, and this is not a process we can halt or reverse. The challenge for our towns is how we adapt to the change.

Key points made by Grimsey include:

  • Many of the larger retail groups are burdened with debt and have far too much bricks and mortar. They will be forced to cut back drastically on their physical presence in our towns as more and more shopping moves on line.
  • One of the big four supermarket chains will go bust within the next 5-10 years. Grimsey thinks it could be either Morrisons or Sainsbury's. Other big names which fail to react and adapt will go the same way.
  • In the not too distant future, more and more grocery shopping will be done online and delivered to your home. Click and collect does not have a future.
  • Increasingly manufacturers will sell direct to the public. Your tube of Colgate toothpaste bought direct from the manufacturer would be very much cheaper if you cut out the middlemen.
  • This development could create opportunities for new businesses selling fresh food (fruit, vegetable, meat, fish, dairy, bread, etc.).
  • Independent retailers will be key to the survival of our high streets. Don't become a clone town.
  • Towns such as Lampeter and others in the region need to look at what their unique selling points are and develop a long term vision with detailed 5 year plans. These need to be developed by communities, local authorities and politicians working together.
  • Whatever happens, there will be fewer shops. Towns need to develop as hubs which include a mix of education and health provision, entertainment, housing and shops. By having libraries, schools, doctors' surgeries, cinemas, etc. in our high streets, you will bring in people who will also shop.
  • Towns need to wire up and provide free wifi. Even small retailers need to develop apps so that they can communicate with their customers.
  • Councils need to see their town centre car parks as assets rather than sources of revenue. It was a huge mistake to allow free parking in out-of-town retail parks while charging for parking in town centres.
  • In the specific case of Lampeter, it was a great mistake to allow the merger of the university with Trinity College and the University of Wales. The university is the town's biggest asset, and it should fight tooth and claw to protect it.
  • The banks will continue to withdraw from our high streets, and this will be a particular problem for smaller towns. One possible solution may be crowd funding, and Grimsey cited the case of "Bank of Dave".
All of that in just half an hour, with a further 30 minutes for questions.

So where does this leave the Teifi Valley and towns slightly further afield, such as Carmarthen?

The Teifi Valley suffers from being divided between three local authorities - Ceredigion, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire. There would be a much better chance of developing a long term vision for the likes of Lampeter, Llanysul, Newcastle Emlyn and Cardigan if the towns came under a single local authority prepared to listen and work with local people.

Working with communities and listening rather than imposing top-down plans would be enough to rule Carmarthenshire County Council out of the running, but over and above that is the threat posed by the council leadership's increasing enthusiasm for becoming part of the Swansea Bay City Region. That may make sense for Llanelli and the Amman Valley (only may), but for much of the rural north and west of Carmarthenshire it is a recipe for neglect.

The Local Development Plan currently being imposed on Carmarthenshire is a vision of how town centres were in the 1980s. The council has a love affair with big brand names, big supermarkets and out-of-town retail parks.

If Bill Grimsey's predictions come true, and I wouldn't want to bet against that, the future for towns like Carmarthen looks even darker than the fate which awaits Lampeter, Newcastle Emlyn, etc. The council's vision for Carmarthen is a clone town, and it is surely only a matter of time before the vast and near-empty Debenhams flagship store with its permanent sales goes the same way as the old department store in King Street.

In Cardigan, just as in Lampeter, there are a worrying number of empty shops and too many charities. The restoration of the castle in Cardigan will give the town a boost, and much has been done to give the High Street a facelift, but what will the impact on independent retailers be if and when Sainsbury's finally opens its doors on the Bath House site and triggers Tesco's currently dormant expansion plans?

In Newcastle Emlyn the town has managed to avoid empty shops despite rather than because of the County Council. Car parking charges are being ramped up year on year, and the council has bent over backwards to try to encourage a new supermarket on the Cawdor site which would dwarf the rest of the town.

Those are the negatives, but the Teifi Valley has a lot going for it. Tourism is an important contributor to the local economy, but we could be a destination for high-end tourism rather than high volume, low profit caravan parks.

All of the towns in the area have a long tradition of independent retailers; there are lots of very good local producers and from a tourist point of view, we have beautiful and unspoiled natural surroundings. Viewed as a whole, the area is also well served with supermarkets.

The Welsh Government recently identified the Teifi Valley as an area where it wants to devote additional resources to promoting and developing the use of Welsh. As well as underpinning the language in local communities, there is evidence that the language and culture are much more of an economic asset than people realise. Many overseas visitors, for example, like the fact that we have our own unique language and culture and are disappointed when they see and hear English everywhere. This is not West England.

The key to ensuring that we have a viable future, it seems to me, lies in developing a long-term vision for the area as a whole with strong and energetic political leadership, and communities joining forces to make things happen. The biggest obstacle to that is being parcelled up into different local authorities and constituencies and planning authorities which, at least in the case of Carmarthenshire, work against the interests of local communities.

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Due diligence

Most people would probably agree that if you are looking for excitement, accountancy and financial services are probably not the most obvious choice of career, but there is one aspect of their work which can be surprisingly interesting, and that is due diligence.

At one point in his career Cneifiwr had the pleasure of working with a hush-hush department in a very large bank which vetted potential and existing clients for all sorts of peccadilloes ranging from grand larceny and corruption to unusual bedroom adventures. Fascinating stuff, and the surprising thing was how much of this information could be gleaned from searching stuff that is easily available online.

It is not clear how much due diligence local authorities do as they hand out vast amounts of cash to third sector bodies, developers and the like, but in Carmarthenshire at least, the answer would seem to be not a lot.

When the subject of one of Cllr Gravell's favourite charities came up a couple of years ago (here), the chief executive said that while the council inspected the services these third sector bodies were providing, it left it up to the Welsh Government to make sure that the money side of things was all in order.

Leaving aside the extent to which the council actually inspects the services provided by third sector bodies and the fact that it does not really seem to know how much it is giving them or whether there is overlap between their services, putting your faith in the Welsh Government might seem a risky thing to do. Think Awema or the recent revelation that £104,000 was paid into a fraudulent bank account.

Yes, we are back on the grants trail again.

At one of those private decision meetings the other day, Meryl handed out £302,000 to a company called Bassett MacGregor and Ash for an office development in Carmarthen. 

There is nothing unusual in that except that the normally very terse minutes of these meetings went out of their way to say:

"The Executive Board Member considered an application for assistance from the South West Wales Property Development Fund. It was noted that no financial commitment was required from the County Council and that a due diligence check had been undertaken on the applicant by the Welsh Government’s finance team and the project had been deemed low risk. It was further noted that the tendering exercise had satisfied the agreed procurement rules."

This message would seem to be aimed at interfering auditors of the professional and armchair kind. If anything goes wrong, it's all the Welsh Government's fault.

You would think it would go without being said that the procurement rules were followed, but there would seem to be some doubt as to whether this is always the case. Why say it otherwise?

Someone is clearly feeling a little sensitive.

In other grant news JBCH Developments, the company which declared itself dormant last year but which nevertheless managed to pick up over £4.6 million in grants, has put in a planning application for another speculative development on the Cross Hands business park. Or at least the application went in back in April and after languishing for five months has suddenly been validated.

The land on which JBCH would like to build a food grade industrial plant is currently owned by Carmarthenshire County Council.

So far this is a carbon copy of JBCH's other project. First you get a grant. Then you get planning permission for a piece of land you don't own. Some way down the line from there is the bit where you identify a client and sign a contract to build something for them.

The mystery again is why the builder gets the grant rather than the presumed owner and operator of the food processing business.

Away from the fairly grim industrial and retail parks of Cross Hands, the Tivyside Advertiser recently carried an interesting report from one of Cllr Gravell's other favourite grant recipients near Drefach Felindre (tipi weddings a speciality).

You can bet that won't make it onto Trip Advisor.

Monday 22 September 2014

Here is the news

Thursday, 18 September. The polling stations in Scotland close and the BBC's 10 o'clock news gets underway. Before we head off to hear "the news where you are", we are treated to a montage of clips summing up the referendum campaign. Alex Salmond features twice for a few seconds, the first clip being from what appeared to be an SNP conference with the Scottish First Minister saying "delegates". The second clip was even less memorable.

Moments later we were shown a longer excerpt from Gordon Brown's much-hyped speech from earlier in the week.

And then it was all over.

Even Alex Salmond's harshest critics would concede that he is a formidable and exciting speaker. There is no shortage of good material to choose from, and the most obvious clip in this context would have been the passionate summing up he gave at the end of the second televised debate against Alistair Darling. Instead the BBC contrived to make him look dull. Even though the polls had closed, the Corporation's bosses were determined to show that they were toeing the line right to the sour and slanted end.

Brown, it should be remembered, entered the fray at the last minute having left the leg work to lesser beings. After a short and spectacularly unsuccessful stint as Prime Minister, Brown is now a backbench MP. The BBC says he is loved in Kirkcaldy, but it seems to be a bit of a one-way love affair because although the people of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath elected him to be their MP, he rarely shows up to represent them in Westminster.

According to They Work for You he has taken part in just 12.78% of votes in parliament and has spoken on just 5 occasions in the last year. Alistair Darling is not much better than his old boss. He too has taken part in just 5 debates in the last year, "well below average among MPs", notes They Work for You. Even Dai Havard, Labour's comatose MP for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, managed to say something in 13 debates, and he has one of the worst parliamentary records of the lot. 

The BBC has come in for an enormous amount of criticism for its coverage of the referendum, and at one point thousands of people gathered outside its headquarters in Glasgow to protest. Alistair Darling was outraged. People power criticising the BBC? Whatever next?

Darling was a minister in a government which ripped the guts out of the BBC in the wake of the row over the "Dodgy Dossier" and the death of David Kelly. Never again would the BBC be allowed to go off script. Heads rolled, and Blair said the findings of the Hutton Inquiry had completely exonerated him.

Now, the BBC is a big place with some of the best journalists you will find anywhere. James Cook, its Scottish correspondent, has emerged well from the referendum campaign with objective and balanced reporting - on Twitter. Cook it was who disclosed that it was the Treasury which had sent an e-mail to the BBC saying that RBS would up sticks and move its brass plate to London in the event of a victory for the Yes campaign.

The one question which nobody asked was why Scots should be anything but joyful at seeing the back of a financial sewer which nearly dragged the whole of the UK over the precipice. Sir Fred Goodwin, the disgraced former boss of the bank, was one of Gordon Brown's favourite advisers, it will be remembered.

The problem with the BBC, especially post-Hutton, is that whenever there is consensus between the main unionist parties on an issue, particularly one involving wars or matters of state, editorial policy will be determined in Whitehall.

Some years ago I had the pleasure of working under a veteran editor called Manfred. Manfred was a stickler for quality and accuracy, and woe betide anyone who fell short of his standards. One night during the Falklands War Manfred was the duty editor when a very irate rear admiral phoned from the Ministry of Defence.

Our crime as an international news agency was to have reported things the MoD would rather not have had reported. "Where is your patriotism man?" asked the rear admiral who clearly believed that the media's job is to be flag wavers.

"I am German", replied Manfred.

And so it was during the Iraq war that we were told British troops were wildly popular in Basra. They may have been welcomed for a short while, but things changed rapidly. The rapport between "our boys" and the locals resulted in the murder of Baha Mousa, an innocent hotel worker and father of two young children. Baha Mousa died in custody with at least 93 separate injuries inflicted by a large number of soldiers after what amounted to torture. One soldier was convicted and jailed for a year.

A few years later and listeners to the BBC's Today Programme on Radio 4 could have heard public school educated senior army officers telling the public how we were winning the war in Afghanistan.

Or have you ever heard a peep of criticism of the royals on the BBC? William and Kate, memorably described by David Jones MP as "an Angelsey couple", recently spent some £4.5 million on doing up a 21 room apartment in Kensington Palace before deciding that they would rather live in a mansion in the grounds of Sandringham House in Norfolk. Anmer Hall is now being renovated at an estimated cost of £1.5 million, although we should remember that the original cost estimate for the work at Kensington Palace was a paltry £1 million. Even the Daily Mail was upset.

Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and Lord Hutton made sure that the BBC would have to think twice before daring to question matters such as these, and you won't have heard a dicky bird out of the BBC about Kate's kitchens, gawd bless 'er.

Of course, the Scottish referendum was not a war, but it was about the survival of the British state. No surprise then that Paul Mason, the former BBC Newsnight journalist now working for Channel 4, should comment that "Not since Iraq have I seen BBC News working at propaganda strength like this. So glad I am out of there."

If it is balanced and objective reporting you are after these days, Channel 4 is the place to go. Here is Jon Snow on the resignation of Alex Salmond - a rather different Alex Salmond to the bully boy character we usually see portrayed.

And while the BBC found some restaurant staff excited about earning £8 an hour (by 2020, terms and conditions apply), here is Ciaran Jenkins, another former BBC journalist now with Channel 4, neatly summing up Labour's much-hyped initiatives announced at its party conference over the weekend:

Thursday 18 September 2014


HUTS is a small, independent charity in Adpar/Newcastle Emlyn which was set up to help people with mental health problems and learning disabilities. It serves members from Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire who paint, knit, sew, embroider, cook, use the woodwork room and learn all sorts of other crafts.

I had the pleasure of helping there as a volunteer for nearly a year, and we ended every session with a singsong in Welsh. HUTS is a safe and happy place, and I hope to be able to go back when work allows.

HUTS does get some modest funding from some of the local authorities, and it occupies a beautiful old building by the river which was restored and transformed with Lottery money. It also raises what it can locally, and there is a network of local supporters and volunteers.

Despite that, the charity's future is far from secure.

HUTS is currently a contender for a community funding grant of up to £3,000 from Lloyds Bank, and it hopes to use the money to buy screen printing and lino block equipment.

All you have to do is vote for HUTS by entering your name and e-mail address on the bank's community funding website here.

Diolch yn fawr! Thank you.

Wednesday 17 September 2014

What has Labour done for the Rhondda?

If you haven't seen it, take a look at this short film report produced by the Guardian newspaper.

With only a day of campaigning in Scotland left we have just lived through one of the most remarkable weeks in the history of Britain for many, many years. Nobody knows how it will end, but one of the things the campaign has done despite massively biased media coverage, is to expose the huge gulf which separates the understanding and experiences of communities in different parts of these islands.

A few days ago No supporters staged a big rally in Trafalgar Square in London. The main speakers were Bob Geldof and the comedians Eddie Izzard and Al Murray, once 'edgy' and radical figures turned rich members of the establishment.


Izzard's CBE will soon be in the post, and having received a knighthood already, Geldof must surely be in line for a peerage. How they think that they can win over the Scots by standing in Trafalgar Square in their Gucci shoes waving union jacks is a mystery.

Travel a few miles from there to Essex where the Clacton by-election campaign has kicked off, and once again for people in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and parts of northern England we could be on a different planet.

Head south-west from Essex to Surrey and Sussex as I did last year, and you are in a world of expensive gastro-pubs, private schools and wall-to-wall Chelsea tractors. If they think of Wales at all it is as a destination for mini-breaks in holiday cottages, boutique hotels and adventure sports - the sort of thing you can see in the Sunday travel supplements every week.

Whatever we wake up to on the 19th of September, we can be sure that no amount of jubilees, Hyde Park concerts and Team GB events will ever put this Humpty Dumpty back together again.

[Thanks to BlogMenai for the shamlessly copied Trafalgar Square picture]

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Dylan Thomas: White Van Man

Unless you own the Celtic Manor luxury concrete bunker on the outskirts of Newport, it is unlikely that you have noticed the economic boom which BBC Wales insisted would be kicked off by the recent Nato summit.

No sooner had they arrived, spent a few hours talking and dining, than they were off. The steel security fences have come down, and life has returned to normal. In most of Wales you would not know it had even happened, had it not been for the breathless reports on the telly.

The fact that this was all taking place miles away down the M4 must have had the press office in Carmarthenshire burning the midnight oil. How could they get in on the action?

Having failed to get President Obama to come and admire Kev's bungalows in Llanelli, or Chancellor Angela Merkel to visit Towy Community Church's bowling alley, someone had the bright idea of taking Dylan Thomas's replica writing shed to Nato.

Look! Here it is parked outside the Nato conference venue:

Dylan's writing shed visits NATO summit

No, I didn't know that Dylan Thomas wrote in the back of a white transit van either, but this is the picture which the press office chose to illustrate its piece Dylan's Writing Shed Visits Nato Summit.

Note the complete absence of any Welsh on the van. Perhaps it says "Sied cyfansoddi" on the other side, facing the jet fighter parked on the lawn.

The Council's Principal Arts Officer told the press office that she was very keen to lure President Obama into the replica hut, along with other world leaders, to show them the replica boiled sweets and replica jacket.

Whether any of them did set foot inside, we don't know. As the press office hasn't issued an orgasmic piece on what it would probably call the "presidential pilgrimage to see the bardic shed" (or van), we can probably assume that neither Obama nor any of the others took the trouble.

The council is immensely proud of the "bespoke" replica shed, and Meryl Gravell no less has popped up in numerous press releases to sing its praises. Let's hope for her sake and that of the press office staff that they are not woken in the middle of the night by the sound of rattling ghostly glasses, obscene language and a strong odour of whisky because, to be perfectly frank, Dylan Thomas would not be very pleased to be a tourist promotion gimmick at a meeting of military top brass, presidents, prime ministers and associated hangers on.

On a tour of the US in 1952 he memorably told a professor in New York that he was a Communist. That was at the height of the McCarthy witch hunts. On his final tour in 1953 he gave a free reading to the Socialist Party of America.

Whether he was ever a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain is not known, but there is no doubt that Thomas was well to the left. More to the point, he was strongly and consistently anti-war.

In his poem A Refusal to Mourn the Death by Fire of a Child in London he makes the point that politicians who "seek to politically exploit the death of innocents are as culpable and cynical as those who cause them".

This quotation is taken from an interesting article on Thomas's politics by Sean Ledwith writing in Counterfire. He would have been horrified at the thought of being eulogised by the ruling class, Ledwith says.

Thomas also famously ranted that he was "sick of all this Celtic claptrap about Wales. My Wales! Land of My Fathers! As far as I am concerned my fathers can keep it."

That was in reaction to attempts to commercialise and stereotype his Welshness. 

Carmarthenshire County Council clearly does not know much about Dylan Thomas, and we can safely assume that the military types at the Nato conference haven't spent much time studying his life and works either.

Before it went to the Nato summit, the shed was the council's prize cultural exhibit at the National Eisteddfod in Llanelli.

Showing its customary tact and cultural awareness, Dylan Thomas's replica shed was the council's main cultural contribution to this great national celebration of the vitality of the Welsh language and culture. A dead poet who wrote only in English, when there are plenty of living poets from Carmarthenshire writing in Welsh; Menna Elfyn, Einir Jones, Dylan Tudur Jones, Mererid Hopwood, Eurig Salisbury and Catrin Dafydd, to name but a few.

Here's Catrin, in English. Somehow I don't think Kev and Meryl would approve of any of our living poets. If any of them have writing sheds, they would be well advised to be cremated in them when the time comes to avoid being turned into fairground attractions at military junkets.

The shed was last seen trundling off towards Ireland.

Dylan’s shed en route for Ireland

Monday 15 September 2014

Return to sender

"Dear Friend", Calum Higgins wrote recently on a leaflet distributed to people in Carmarthenshire, "I am contacting you about registering to vote. At the moment, if you wanted to vote at any election, you couldn't - because you are not on the electoral register".

This came as a surprise to some of the people who received it because they were very much on the electoral register. Coming from a county councillor and parliamentary candidate, the leaflet nevertheless seemed to be speaking with the voice of authority, and it worried them.

A complaint ended up with the Electoral Commission which says that the Labour Party has now agreed not to distribute the leaflet any more.

The leaflet also talked about protecting people from "Plaid cuts". This was equally puzzling because Plaid is in opposition in both Carmarthenshire and at a national level, as well as being opposed to Labour's austerity plans.

Expect more of the same over the next nine months.

Sunday 14 September 2014

Wales for Yes

Hundreds of people turned out in Cardiff yesterday to show their support for independence for Scotland - young and old, from all parts of Wales. The event began with a beautiful and moving introduction from Iestyn ap Rhobert and ended with a powerful rallying call from Leanne Wood.

Caryl Parry Jones performed a brilliant version of the Proclaimers' Cap in Hand, and Gwilym Bowen Rhys sang a fantastic version of Dylan's Blowing in the Wind. You can watch them all here.

It is hard for us outside Scotland to understand the effect the campaign has had on the Scottish people, but 97% of the electorate there has now registered to vote. The political apathy which has allowed successive Tory and Labour governments to get away with their wars and growing social inequality for so long has been swept away there. Whether slightly less or slightly more than 50% vote for independence on Thursday, the writing is on the wall for the union and what Eurig Salisbury, the Welsh poet, recently called "this crappy status quo".

If this is bad news for the Conservatives, it has put the role of the Labour Party into even sharper focus with its hierarchy defending privilege and the status quo. The gulf between ordinary people and Labour's bosses has never been greater.

We are constantly told that there is no demand for self-government or independence in Wales, but a few weeks ago TV presenter Dan Snow held a Better Together rally on the steps of the Senedd in Cardiff. Less than a dozen people showed up. How different it was in Cardiff yesterday.

What we saw there was not an aggressive, ugly nationalism of the sort we can see stirring in England, but a yearning for a fairer and better society, free from the constraints of an elitist union which has neglected and taken Wales for granted for so long.

The times really are changing.