Saturday, 29 October 2016

A One Man Show - Mr James tightens the screws

Update 30 October (1)

Thank you to Anon in the comments below for reminding us of the previously exempt report which went to the Executive Board on 23 January 2012 recommending that the Head of Paid Service (Mark James) be given an indemnity to fund a counter-claim for libel.

Putting aside a number of assertions about the legal basis for the indemnity - assertions which the Wales Audit Office later dismissed as wrong - the report ends by saying that Mr James had confirmed that he would pay any damages over to the council.

Cneifiwr had forgotten about the existence of that sentence at the end of the report, and to be fair, so it would seem had Mr James himself a little more than a year later when he told the Carmarthen Journal that the money might go to good causes.

And although the report assured Kevin Madge and the rest that Mr James had said he would hand over the money, it would be interesting to know if he signed such an undertaking.

Update 30 October (2)

Interestingly, a Freedom of Information request to Carmarthenshire County Council earlier this year asking for a copy of the agreement between Mr James and the council covering the indemnity stated that no such agreement existed. The exempt report cited above is all that there is. In other words, it would seem that Mr James did not enter into any written agreement to hand over the damages.

Update 30 October (3)

Just in case there are any doubting Thomases out there who think that Cneifiwr must have imagined the Carmarthen Journal piece referred to above, here it is, dated 19 March 2013, under the headline

Carmarthenshire case win - money 'will go to good causes'

The article quotes Mr James as follows:

Speaking yesterday, Mr James said: "I never intended with this case that I wanted any money out of it. As and when the money arrives, I will decide what to do with it.

"I am sure there will be plenty of good causes in Carmarthenshire that will benefit."

Funnily enough, Mr James's recollections of the Executive Board meeting on 23 January 2012 were remarkably fuzzy, considering that he had more than a passing interest in the item relating to his indemnity. He told Mr Justice Tugendhat, who believed every word, that he could not remember being at the meeting. A year later, he was clearly unable to remember that the Board had been told he would give the money to the council, probably not most people's definition of a good cause.

It was left to the Wales Audit Office to jog Mr James's memory that he had indeed been at the meeting, that he had forgotten to declare an interest when the item came up for discussion and that he had forgotten that he should have left the meeting when it was discussed.

By anyone's count, that's quite a lot of memory lapses.

But as far as his "confirmation" to Mrs Rees Jones that he would pay the money to the council is concerned, he can be forgiven, it being worth about as much as the paper it was not written on.

Update 30 October (4)

The last update for today, and that's a promise. 

Two small but very significant points need to be added. The first is this line from the report which went to the Executive Board in January 2012:

It is unclear whether the other party has the financial means to meet any order for damages and/or costs that may be made. 

In other words, councillors gave Mr James the green light to proceed without knowing what Jacqui Thompson's financial circumstances were. That was utterly negligent and reckless to say the least.

The second point throws yet more damning light on the state of governance in County Hall. All Mr James needed from the assorted muppets and toadies which made up the board at the time was a rubber stamp on the blank cheque. Once he had got that, he had no further use for them.

Time passed, as it does in British legal proceedings, but by the end of 2012 the two legal teams had hunkered down to thrash out a settlement which would have stopped the litigation. Both teams thought they had something, but when asked, Mr James rejected the compromise.

Nowhere in the minutes of the Executive Board for 2012 will you find any mention of this, and it seems reasonable to conclude if there is nothing in the minutes, that councillors were never told that litigation could have been avoided. Perhaps Mr James forgot to tell them, and anyway, they never asked. 

Not that it would have made any difference because the various councillors on the Board at the time were either too much in awe of the "Chief", too stupid to realise what was going on, or were shrieking "burn the witch". Any Segeant Wilsons ("are you sure that is wise, Sir?") would have found themselves on the backbenches minus a senior salary in the twinkling of an eye.


It has been coming for some time, but the decision by Mark James, Chief Executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, to force the sale of Jacqui Thompson's family home marks the beginning of a new chapter in a story which, more than anything else, will be the defining act of his career.

The personal consequences for Jacqui and her family are dire indeed, but what is this costing the rest of us, and what are the implications for the council?

Let's take them in turn.

The Iceberg

Over the coming weeks and months, there will be media reports citing various figures: £35,000 here, £190,000 there, and so on. What the public, and councillors for that matter, are very unlikely to hear is the true and staggering financial cost of this extraordinary vendetta which has been fought almost entirely with public money.

The infamous libel indemnity clause which, ironically, was itself the subject of comments the judge found to be libellous ('slush fund'), was suspended but not removed from the council's constitution in the wake of the Wales Audit Office's public interest reports. The council still maintains to this day that it had the right to use public money to bring actions for libel.

The suspension of the clause means that, in theory at least, Mr James can no longer get the council to pay his legal bills, but in reality the costs to the council (and that means you and me) have carried on rising and are set to rise a lot more thanks to what amounts to covert funding.

The smoking gun here is software which enables bloggers to view activity on their blogs. The sophistication of these toolkits varies, but public bodies, law firms and most corporate entities identify themselves through their IP addresses.

In the run-up to the latest welter of litigation and complaints, there was an extraordinary amount of activity on Jacqui's blog emanating from County Hall in Carmarthen. Council staff spent a huge amount of time combing through every single blogpost, and most likely printing them off for subsequent offline analysis. The time spent online being just the tip of the iceberg.

Not long after that came complaints to Dyfed Powys Police alleging harassment and perverting the course of justice. Even the police, when asked, did not seem to be entirely sure whether the complaints had been made by Mr James in person or by the council.

The complaints, which would seem to have been dismissed, took months to investigate and tied up expensive police resources in the process.

It is unlikely that we will ever know what that cost the taxpayer, but the sums will not be trivial.

As far as the council is concerned, Mr James has enjoyed the benefit of unlimited staff time to help him fight Jacqui Thompson for the best part of five years since she was arrested for filming a small part of a council meeting.

It is worth remembering that following the arrest, Mr James, the most senior officer in a local authority, took the extraordinary step of posting his thoughts on the Mad Axeman blog, written by someone who lives not in Wales but the north of England, and that it was those incendiary comments, attacking not just Jacqui but her entire family, which triggered the libel case.

Is it normal for council chief executives to attack a family living in his or her local authority area on a blog in their capacity as Head of Paid Service? It is a reasonable bet that Mr James is the only one ever to have done so, just as he was the only council chief executive ever to persuade his council to adopt an (unlawful) libel indemnity clause in its constitution allowing him to pay for his counter-claim using council funds (funds, but not in the slightest bit slushy ones).

The case and the fallout from it have tied up expensive council staff time for years, and that includes the hundreds of hours which were spent preparing the council's defence against the Wales Audit Office, not to mention the cost of the posse (including the Head of Law and Administration and the manager of the press office) which accompanied Mr James to the Royal Courts of Justice in London, with Mr James and others making use of the council limo and first class rail travel into the bargain.

All of these substantial costs are invisible to both public and councillors - below the waterline. We can be sure that that no councillor has ever questioned this behind the scenes use of council resources, and they would not be given an answer if they did. If anyone ever does get round to trying, the places to look will be the council's legal staff (cavalier at best, incompetent at worst, according to Sir David Lewis, who knew what he was talking about), and the press office, both of which, conveniently, are directly answerable to Mr James.

And these hidden costs are still rising and are set to go on mounting for months to come. The fictitious division between Mr James as an individual and the council having been a nonsense from the start.

Later this year, and following Mr James's bid to seize the Thompsons' family home, the council will weigh in with an action to try to recover £190,000 in costs awarded against Jacqui.

Mr James's award of damages takes precedent over anything else, and the likelihood is that the council will at best be able to recover only a tiny fraction of the £190,000. In all probability, the cost of bringing the court action will be greater than the amount recovered.

On top of that is a further £41,000 in costs relating to the counter-claim, costs which the council is not pursuing - not because it wants to show mercy, but because it knows that fighting that doomed battle might risk reopening the question of whether it was legally entitled to fund the counter-claim in the first place.

Holding to account

And that brings us to the crux of this whole problem: the failure by our elected councillors to hold Mr James to account.

That goes all the way back to 2008 when the council became the first and only local authority to give itself the power to bring publicly funded actions for defamation. At the time, Mr James's stock with councillors was running very high; he could do no wrong and he got whatever he asked for.

The council leader at the time was Meryl Gravell (Independent), whose line has never wavered. As she told councillors and the public at the extraordinary meeting to discuss the Wales Audit Office reports, "we always defend our officers". The royal 'we' perhaps, and 'officers' meaning Mr James.

Always, no matter what.

The second failure occurred under Kevin Madge's (Labour) leadership, when the council was persuaded to give Mr James a blank cheque (with Mr James present in the room) and to trigger the indemnity clause. From there, there was no going back.

Kevin Madge probably came to regret that decision bitterly, and was put through the mincer when he dared to suggest that Mr James should be suspended pending a police investigation into the unlawful pension and indemnity payments.

The council went through melt-down at the time, and Kevin Madge eventually found himself in the humiliating position of having to defend Mr James's conduct and subsequently to welcome Mr James's decision to stay on as chief executive after the council decided that it did not want to cough up almost half a million pounds to get rid of him.

And now we have a Plaid-led administration (in coalition with Mr James's ever-faithful friend, Meryl) being persuaded to initiate yet more court action on Mr James's behalf.

At first sight it is reasonable for the council to try to recover the £190,000. This is taxpayers' money, after all, and there can be no doubt that that was the advice the Executive Board was given by those same incompetent cavaliers. The fact that another court case was helpful to Mr James in piling on the pressure, may or may not have been coincidental, just as the timing of the police complaints was no doubt just a fluke, but councillors duly did what Mr James wanted yet again when they should have been asking:

a) is there any reasonable prospect of recovering the £190,000 or a significant part of it?
b) what will it cost the council to try to recover the money?

The result will be to throw yet more good money after bad, and all or most of the £230,000 (£190,000 plus £41,000 for the counter-claim) will have to be written off, along with the costs incurred in trying to recover the money.

All of which brings us to the implications for the council.

Election time

Mr James is now pushing ahead with trying to secure the forced sale of the Thompson family home so that he can bank the damages he was awarded. Thanks to an eye-watering interest rate of 8%, the debt has grown from £25,000 to £35,000. If the case rumbles on for much longer, Mr James will soon have doubled his money. And you thought pay-day lenders were sharks.

The damages are personal to Mr James, and the council has no claim on them. Moreover, in the scramble to seize Jacqui's meagre assets, Mr James's claim takes precedent over all others. Like it or not, there is nothing the council can do to stop him.

Indeed, if the council did try to intervene, we can be sure that the litigious chief executive would not hesitate to assert his rights.

The wheels of British 'justice' famously grind exceedingly slowly. The case is likely to drag on well into next year, and the run-up to the council elections.

If, by some miracle, the courts move with unprecedented speed to allow Mr James to seize the property and evict the Thompsons, the council's own action to recover part of the costs will follow on and ensure a double helping of negative PR for the council.

If things get really bad for the council, it won't just be the local press and BBC Wales which report on the case, but the big boys in London, with the Tory titles wading in to attack Labour and devolution. Cardiff Bay's failure to tackle this running sore will be cited as yet another reason why Wales can't be trusted to run a cockle stall.

Plaid Cymru stands to take most of the flak for Mr James's actions, even though this is a mess it inherited. Politics can be very unfair like that, and the consequences for local government in Carmarthenshire could be dire.

Cneifiwr is biased, admittedly, but with the best will in the world, the alternatives to a Plaid administration which is doing some good things are Pam Palmer's Independents - justifiably known as Mr James's political wing - and a bitterly divided Labour Party that can at best muster only about four councillors who are capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time.

Ironically, if Plaid loses and a Labour/Independent administration is returned, Mr James's position within the council will be immeasurably strengthened as he lords it over a weak, divided and largely fawning coalition.

Could councillors get rid of Mr James?

In theory, yes, but sacking a council chief executive is extremely difficult. Growing numbers of us are on zero-hour contracts with few legal rights, but council chief executives enjoy the sort of legal protection and job security that are otherwise enjoyed only by the likes of President Mugabe.

When Mr James applied to be made redundant, it was reckoned that it would cost about £460,000 to wave him goodbye. Neither Plaid nor Labour would be willing to face the public outcry. For their part, the Independents would be happy to pay him that as a bonus just to stay on.

And even if Mr James were to up sticks and leave tomorrow, the fallout from the Thompson case would continue. Not to mention any of the other legacy skeletons.

So the likelihood is that, unless the courts unexpectedly decide to temper justice with mercy, Mr James will run laughing all the way to the bank and continue his reign in Carmarthenshire.

The only small consolations for the rest us are that he will ultimately fail to silence his critics, and that the libel saga, meant to protect his reputation, has had the opposite effect.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Laneleigh, Mackinleth and Clan Dudnow

"Dear Mr Smith

I am writing to complain about a recent Visit England Tours trip my wife and I took with your company.

We booked and paid online, and about a week later our travel documents arrived. The glossy brochure describing our itinerary would seem to have been written by someone not wholly familiar with the English language.

We got the gist of parts of it, but some of the information was complete gibberish and frankly weird. I quote:

Information Important

There is necessity reach the place start punctual. If you will arrive platform one ten two later than 9.30 the morning, not will be means join with the journey........There will be a small house on the bus. Not will be allowed come with cream ice with hand. Enjoy out across. 

We arrived at Euston Station at the appointed time, and joined a huddle of about 30 other passengers to be greeted by the first of our guides, whose name was Heinz. Heinz welcomed us "in Oyston" and accompanied us to a place he called Leyeg-ton Bootsart where we left the train and boarded a bus.

Giovanni took over from Heinz, and we travelled across country, going through a small town called Bitch-ester and from there across the Cotswolds to a big place called Glow-chester. From Glow-chester, we went on to another city called Vor-chester, and thence to a smaller town which Giovanni said was the birthplace of a famous Italian-sounding poet called Siaccaspiri.

In the coming days we got to see a lot more of England in the company of our cosmopolitan guides: Var-vick, Likester, Logborog, Ber-vick on Tveed and back down through Carlisslee and the countryside of an area called Lancas Hire.

You get the picture, Mr Smith.

Now, I would like to make it clear that we are not bigots or racists. Your staff were charming and helpful, but we and the other passengers felt that you really ought to spend a little time training them in how to pronounce the names of places we visited. And it certainly would be a good idea to send your brochure off to a professional translator.

One of the passengers told us that she was pretty sure it had started life in Welsh and been translated by someone word for word from a dictionary. And for your information, there was no little house on any of the buses, just a rather smelly toilet.

Yours sincerely

G. B."

A week or so later, Mr G.B. received a rather flannelly reply from the customer relations department of Visit England Tours, thanking them for their "valuable feedback", and expressing satisfaction that the couple had enjoyed their trip. Staff received extensive training to ensure the "best possible customer experience", it added.

Of course, Mr G.B. was complaining about his experiences on holiday, but in Wales this is something Welsh-speakers are confronted with every day as they use transport and other services which are funded wholly or in part by the taxpayer. Garbled place names, marketing material and written information in Welsh which is excruciatingly bad, unintelligible or even misleading.

One of the worst offenders is Arriva Trains, but there is no shortage of examples from other bodies, and besides receiving public funding, what they all have in common is that they have adopted Welsh language policies which promise to respect Welsh speakers and treat them equally.

The broadcaster Aled Samuel, writing in Golwg, recently described journeys on trains calling at "Dyffryn Ardid-ooey, Morpha Mawdack (Morfa Mawddach), Fairfack, Clanwirtid (Llanwrtyd), Clanga-mark and Knuckles (Cnwc Las)".

Several of those stations are on the Heart of Wales Line. Arriva went to the trouble and expense of producing a glossy, colour brochure to advertise its services, but when it came to the Welsh wording, the company clearly decided that sitting someone down with a dictionary would be good enough.

The results are embarrassing, to say the least. Does Arriva really have nobody in its marketing department, or in any of its offices, come to that, capable of writing a very simple sentence in Welsh?

Arriva's website is allegedly available in both languages, but if you click on 'Cymraeg', this is what you will  be presented with if you want to subscribe to the company's newsletter:

Arriva was awarded the franchise in 2003. Thirteen years into its 15 year franchise, and if you click on the "Contact Us" menu in Welsh, you get a grammatically incorrect sentence telling you that this page is currently not available in Welsh, and that they are working on getting a translation "as soon as possible".

Noder: Nid yw tudalen yma ar gael yn Gymraeg ar hyn o bryd. Rydym yn ceisio cyfieithu y tudalen yma mor gynted a phosib.

It is difficult not to conclude that the contempt Arriva shows its Welsh speaking customers may well extend into other areas of its service as well. If they are that reluctant to spend a tiny amount of money on translating a few lines of text, what else are they skimping on?

There have been plenty of complaints over the years, but despite being in receipt of huge amounts of public money, Arriva has been deaf to them all.

This is not only insulting, but it also reflects badly on Arriva. It would not be acceptable to mangle place names on trains in England, and it is not acceptable in Wales. It would cost next to nothing to ensure that staff can pronounce station names before letting them loose on the public, and it would cost peanuts to update the website and ensure that marketing material was written in something other than pigeon Welsh.

But it's not just Arriva. Here is a recent tweet from the so-called "National" Botanic Garden of Wales, available in English only. The message is, surely, that Welsh-speaking children and families are not expected to turn up and join in the fun:

Meanwhile, over at ARCH (Welsh for "coffin" or 'A Regional Collaboration for Health'), bigwigs from the cash-starved NHS, Swansea University and other partners have been whooping it up at one of those weird MBA-meets-New-Age events to encourage blue-sky thinking, and so proud are they of their doodles and revolutionary thoughts that they have been happily tweeting the results to the rest of the world.

Not a single word of Welsh on ARCH's Twitter account, and a website which promises only that Welsh is "coming soon" (in English).

Since ARCH is supposed to be about improving the health and wellbeing of people in the south-west of Wales, it is reasonable to suppose that Welsh speakers are included in their target clientele.

But on second thoughts, it is probably for the best that the sort of profound rubbish being spouted by Bernadine Rees is available in English only.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Fforin langwij

This is the first of two posts looking at different aspects of the hostility and lack of respect afforded to people who speak languages other than English in our brave new post-Brexit Britain. The second will deal with the deplorable record of two bodies which serve the public in Wales and which both fall well short of the promises they make.

Two different sides of the same coin: on the one hand official indifference and neglect bordering at times on contempt, and on the other ugly, thuggish and often overtly racist attitudes which have resurfaced to breathe the oxygen of hatred and bigotry unleashed and egged on by UKIP, the Tory right and elements within the Labour Party.

All of the examples which follow appeared on Twitter yesterday and this morning. Random, unconnected acts which speak for themselves.

First up is an account by journalist Ciaran Jenkins of a train journey in England on 22 October 2016.

The second incident was reported, without the faintest hint of irony, by Murdoch's Sun, which was at the same time leading a witch hunt against Gary Lineker for taking David TC Davies, Tory MP for Monmouth, and others to task for their diatribes against refugees. 

Today, the rag follows that up with this "Exclusive" headline:

Foreign criminals and failed asylum seekers could be removed from Britain within 25 days

Police clashed with migrants hurling rocks at Calais’s notorious Jungle camp just days before it is torn down

You get the message.
But you don't have to be "foreign" to be publicly rebuked for speaking "foreign", as BBC journalist and presenter Aled Hughes found yesterday.

Aled, whose Radio Cymru morning show Cneifiwr enjoys on his way to work every morning, was visiting Tŷ Mawr y Wybrnant, the birthplace of Bishop William Morgan who translated the Bible into Welsh in 1588.

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of William Morgan's translation to the Welsh language, and Bil, the National Trust's keeper was talking to Aled when they were interrupted by someone who clearly had very different ideas about the place.

(In Tŷ Mawr y Wybrnant talking to Bill, the keeper, in Welsh. A woman comes in behind and calls out loudly and drily "English")

Shortly after, Aled's partner overhears Mrs X:

("Before @clegyrog hears her saying that she can't join in in a "foreign language". Bil was talking to children aged 3, 6 and 7 at the time").

Here's a short and rather beautiful film of Bil (or Wil as he is called in the video) talking about the old house. 

If you think the message is not getting through to the rest of the world, here's the latest cover of Charlie Hebdo:

"But who wants the English in Europe?"
If you think that is rude and offensive, you clearly haven't been listening to our Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson (EU a Nazi Superstate, and "picaninnies"), or our gormless Welsh Secretary of State, Alun Cairns ("greasy wop" Italians).


Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The Countess and the Council

There is more than enough bad news about to keep us awake at night without worrying about flags and the flying thereof, but recent exploration by the Carmarthenshire Herald and Caebrwyn of Carmarthenshire County Council's policy on which flags should be flown from its buildings and when tells us a lot about the very peculiar and limited nature of the British version of democracy.

You can read the details for yourselves here, but in summary the council has produced an anorakish protocol setting out in mind-numbing detail rules governing the flying of flags and a procedure for dealing with requests from individuals or groups who would like the Council to fly flags for reasons other than those set out in the protocol.

No doubt, the chief executive would be able to explain what the difference is between a protocol and a policy, but it would seem that a protocol is a policy which does not need to be discussed or approved by elected councillors, and the bottom line seems to be that while anyone may submit a written request to fly a flag no less than 28 days before the appointed day, all such requests will be refused.

The justification for this blanket ban is that sending someone up on to the roofs of council buildings in Carmarthen, Llanelli and Ammanford costs money, which is true enough. But in a typically Jamesian flourish, the Herald was told, rather less truthfully, that the council had been forced to adopt this hardline approach because of the number of requests it was receiving.

Nobody, including the council, knows how many such requests were received before the protocol was written, and only two such requests have been received since then. Both of those were refused.

Appended to Mr James's protocol is a list of the days when the council is prepared to fly flags and go to the expense of sending people up on to the roofs of County Hall and the town halls in Ammanford and Llanelli.

It's pub quiz time.

Q1. Who is the Countess of Wessex?

Readers of the Daily Mail and Woman's Weekly will have no problem with that one, but I suspect that most of us would struggle to pick her out in an identity parade.

Q2. What is the connection between the Countess of Wessex and Carmarthenshire, and what has she done for this county?

 If you guessed "none" and "nothing", give yourself a pat on the back.

Q3. When is the birthday of the Countess of Wessex?

The correct answer to that one would scoop you the jackpot on Who wants to be a Millionaire?

Thanks to Wikipedia, Cneifiwr can reveal that she is married to a man who is currently ranked ninth in line to the throne. She used to work in PR and was accused in the press of using her royal connections to further her business interests. Her birthday is on 20 January, an event considered to be so important that flags are flown from County Hall in Carmarthen, as well as the town halls in Llanelli and Ammanford.

Actually, whoever has the job of running up and down all those stairs will get quite a lot of exercise to burn off those excess Christmas calories, because 9 January (birthday of the Duchess of Cambridge), 6 February (Accession to the Throne of Mrs W) and 19 February (birthday of Randy Andy) are also days on which Mr James, no doubt attended by Mrs Linda Rees Jones in a horsehair wig and the Municipal Twinset and Pearls, bearing the sacred protocol parchment, orders staff to shift their stumps and get up on to the roof.

Fourteen of the eighteen designated flag days are reserved for events in the Windsor clan's family calendar.

Birthday of the Duchess of Cambridge
9th January
Birthday of the Countess of Wessex
20th January
Her Majesty’s Accession
6th February
Birthday of the Duke of York
19th February
St David’s Day
1st March
Birthday of the Earl of Wessex
10th March
Commonwealth Day
second Monday in March
Birthday of Her Majesty the Queen
21st April
Europe Day
9th May
Coronation Day
2nd June
Birthday of the Duke of Edinburgh
10th June
Official celebration of Her Majesty’s birthday
13th June
Birthday of the Duke of Cambridge
21st June
Birthday of the Duchess of Cornwall
17th July
Birthday of the Princess Royal
15th August
Remembrance Day
second Sunday in November
Birthday of the Prince of Wales
14th November
Her Majesty’s Wedding Day
20th November
Eagle-eyed readers may have spotted that several key royal anniversaries are missing from the list, and presumably need to be added as a matter of urgency. Where is Charles' second son, Harry, little Prince George and Princess Charlotte, all of whom are higher up the pecking order than the Countess? And why is the Council not honouring Pippa Middleton, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester or Princess Michael of Kent? Why can't we celebrate the date on which Fergie and Andy received a decree absolute ending their turbulent marriage?

Anniversaries and birthdays of the Windsor clan could fill pretty much the entire calendar and save us all a few hundred quid by leaving the Union Jack flying in permanent celebration.

Perhaps we should start a campaign.

Of the four days not reserved for the Windsors, Europe Day is probably not long for this world, and if you believe the Commonwealth is a significant and meaningful force in the affairs of humankind, you probably also talk to those fairies that live at the bottom of your garden.

At the Carmarthenshire end of the food chain, we have a protocol or policy which would appear never to have been submitted to democratic scrutiny, applied in typically autocratic fashion to honour non-entities with no connection to the county, while blocking requests for recognition of groups of people who live, work and contribute to the county.

That's local democracy for you.

The next links in the democratic hierarchy, the Assembly and the "Welsh Government" in Cardiff, are not actually in the loop at all. Flag flying is so important and so sensitive that control remains in Westminster, where responsibility lies with the Orwellian sounding Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

The DCMS issues guidance to local authorities on flag flying, and it is that guidance which is incorporated into Mr James's protocol.

Guidance, not Holy Writ.

So what would happen if Carmarthenshire County Council decided not to celebrate the birthday of the Countess of Wessex or other events in the Windsor family calendar and replace them with days to honour local charities and groups? Would the Lord Lieutenant roar up to County Hall in an ancient Rolls Royce with a detachment from the SAS to take control of our wayward council?

Probably not.

The worst that could happen in all likelihood is a few raised eyebrows, the rattle of teacups, some tut tutting in Establishment drawing rooms and a discreet black mark or two being entered against the names of senior council officers and councillors hoping to get an MBE, OBE or CBE.

But the real message sent out by the flag nonsense is the very limited nature of democracy in the UK with its unelected head of state, a vast and ever-expanding House of Lords and an unelected Prime Minister who would really like to bypass elected MPs and exercise the Royal Prerogative to determine our future.