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Archives for January 2009

Bucket loads

Betsan Powys | 21:40 UK time, Tuesday, 27 January 2009

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Who needs meetings?

Today, apparently, me and lots of them .At one, I found myself harking back to Port Talbot, to the Seaside Leisure and Labour Club and yet another meeting - one that probably felt it deserved to spelled with a big 'M'.

A lot has been written already about the All Wales Convention's first attempt to set out what would be at stake in a referendum, what would not and to sense whether more want to press ahead and vote yes than do not.

People wanted to talk and found their job was mostly to listen while others talked at them. That went down very, very badly. Despite having a budget of a million pounds there was just the one microphone - a sign, you feared, that there had never been a plan to hear very much from the audience. There were props: a bucket to make the point that a referendum wouldn't be about 'more' powers. It would be about the speed of delivery. Do we go to London and ask if we can fill our bucket with a few powers at a time from the big vat in Westminster, or do we ask for the whole lot in one fell swoop. The metaphor got slightly strained at that point.

Granted, a shouting match would have led nowhere. There was little to be learned from giving eighty people, most with entrenched views and minds made up, an opportunity to goad each other.

But people wanted to talk, wanted to try out their thinking and the next time Sir Emyr Jones Parry comes face to face with the Welsh public, you can bet there'll be far more of that than was allowed in Port Talbot.

One or two talked with their feet and left, only to come back later, curious to know whether the audience had turned nasty. They hadn't - just. But what they did find was a scene that came straight from Ricky Gervais' The Office. There were marker pens, colour co-ordinated slips of paper, numbered 'stations' dotted around the hall and a baffled group of people who'd just watched a DVD that one half found biased, the other patronising. "Why was the UK government the big, bad bully?" followed by "Too Doris and Dave by half."

Once they'd been persuaded to take up the big, fat pens and scrawl their big, fat concerns, ideas, thoughts on paper, the hope was that the real debate would quietly get going. It will all play a part in the evidence the Convention delivers to the First Minister and his Deputy before the end of the year.

So here's a sample:

"Wales is a divided nation as never before" (A tick of agreement from someone had been turned into a cross of protest by another).

"The Welsh nation has a right to its own destiny".

"I want the same healthcare and length of waiting lists as in England."

"Can we afford more legislation? We can't afford to keep street lights on".

"Let's empty the bucket in one. It's only a very small bucket anyway".

"You want more members of the Assembly??"

"My MP can't deliver even if he wanted to. He's one of hundreds. It makes sense for power to be with us in Wales."

"The people who need to be reached are not here."

"The system we have now makes no sense to me. It's a compromise. It's wrong".

"I don't want to end up like the Bosnian Serbs".

One question that did raise its head: why isn't there a Yes campaign? I'm wondering whether members of Tomorrow's Wales, a handful of whom were there quietly listening, will be able to fend off the tempation for much longer not to take on that mantle.

In the meantime one bit of news to share from one of today's meetings. Cross your fingers that I may have some good news soon on that rare thing in Welsh political life: an opinion poll, one that tells us something tangible about how keen we are to grasp that bucket, or whether we're afraid there's a big hole in it.

A bad, bad day

Betsan Powys | 16:09 UK time, Monday, 26 January 2009

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It was, said the Welsh Secretary, a bad, bad day.

He was hugely disappointed, determined to do what he could to help people - and reminded that he had done it all before.

Paul Murphy stood on almost exactly the same spot in his office in Gwydyr House eight years ago to face cameras and questions about huge job losses at Corus. The then Welsh Secretary joined Trade and Industry Secretary Stephen Byers and union leaders in talking about a body blow to Llanwern, Port Talbot, Ebbw Vale, Deeside and Bryngwyn.

Eight years ago he called on Corus to think again and "to act positively ".

But while Mr Murphy may be back and standing just where he did in 2001, economic conditions have not stood still. This time there was no rallying call for Corus to think again. This time he agreed with the First Minister that it will be even tougher for Welsh communities in Llanwern, Pontarddulais, Ammanford, Caerphilly and Shotton to bear the brunt of more job losses. This was "different", difficult.

No, mothballing isn't closing. The infrastructure is still there. The hot strip mill in Llanwern could be restarted when the orders start rolling in again but "our job in government has to be about people" said Mr Murphy and that meant supporting them now.

How? Wage subsidy? Is there a way - is there an appetite - for giving Tata Steel the kind of support the UK government has given parts of the banking sector? There were "various subsidy schemes" under discussion said Mr Murphy but his main concern was offering direct help to workers who may soon be out of a job.

At his right hand a leaflet the Wales Office had prepared earlier, listing the support available for businesses and households in Wales. There was a lot of help, said Mr Murphy, a host of schemes all designed to offer practical advice adn support where and when it was needed. It had all been a bit complicated but now it had been distilled.

The title? "Real help now".

Good timing, more's the pity.

About time say those who want to see something other than yet another summit.

On the wall, looking down on the gloomy gathering, a painting of a woman swathed in blue, playing the cello. It's beautiful, by Augustus John and is on loan from the National Museum.

Today I glanced up and just couldn't quite dismiss the thought of fiddling while Rome is burning.

The power(s) of language

Betsan Powys | 22:11 UK time, Thursday, 22 January 2009

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On this blog no subject divides you, enrages you, galvanises you more than the Welsh language. Well be warned: I'm returning to it on tonight's edition of Dragon's Eye.

There are no apologies for that either. I'm returning to it - not to divide and enrage you, not to avoid talking about the Welsh economy either but to start sketching a picture of what we understand the controversial Welsh Language LCO, the government's bid for power over the language, could allow them to do.

Could future measures affect the fabled fish and chip shop in Chepstow or not? Could your bank be obliged in future to offer services in Welsh or not? Could Vodaphone and Virgin Media could be brought into line with privatised utilities like BT who already offer services in Welsh?

Could, not will. Could, because when the LCO is finally published, it is just the start of what could be a very long process of scrutiny, let alone creation of future measures. The Secretary of State needed some persuading by the First Minister to publish at all. He seems to have agreed to go ahead under pressure from Cardiff and with a warning in return: get this one through scrutiny intact and I'll eat my hat. Publish and be damned ... or words to that effect at least.

What does the One Wales agreement say?

"We will be seeking enhanced legislative competence on the Welsh Language. Jointly we will work to extend the scope of the Welsh Language Legislative Competence Order included in the Assembly government's first year legislative programme, with a view to a new Assembly Measure to confirm official status for both Welsh and English, linguistic rights in the provision of services and the establishment of the post of Language Commissioner."

Let's start with extending the scope. How do you, if that is your will as a government, ring-fence some areas of the private sector and leave others untouched?

How about coming up with headings of the sectors you would plan to bring under the linguistic obligations of the 1993 Welsh Language Act? Try electricity, water, gas, railways, housing associations and the telecommunications sector for size. So Vodaphone and Virgin Media? Sounds like a yes. Fish and chip shops? No.

Add to that list any organisation providing public services in Wales and receiving more than £200,000 a year of public money.

Could that mean that a commercial venture, a private business that has received £200,000 to - for instance - open new premises in Wales, might find itself coming under future measures? It doesn't look like it, not unless it's deemed to be providing 'public services' in Wales. We understand that having customers in Wales isn't tantamount to providing public services.

What else? The power would also be there to make a measure enshrining the freedom to speak Welsh in Wales. Note that word: freedom, not right. Think of this, come the whispers from London and Cardiff, as firming up the official status of the language. Think of it as a kind of "Thomas Cook clause". In other words you would have the freedom to speak Welsh to your colleagues if you chose but customers wouldn't have the right to expect service in Welsh.

So wait a minute. What about banks? Why aren't they on that list? Why would you omit banks if they were - by any chance - to receive a massive injection of public money? On what grounds would they be outside that fence, not inside it? I gather the question has indeed been asked by some more thoughtful officials. Should we then predict a "Northern Rock codicil" to go alongside the "Thomas Cook clause"?

It could be yes to a Language Commissioner too, a Welsh Language Commissioner that is, yes to penalties for those who failed to comply with any future measures, including government departments. Does that start to look like a Welsh Language Board - or Quango for the lingo (copyright Rhodri Morgan) - with teeth?

I've already talked to Labour MPs chomping at the bit to tear to shreds this bid to transfer power to Cardiff. They point to companies strapped for cash, who will be bothered by the implications of this order "over my dead body". They will pay little heed to warnings from some parts of the party that Labour must not appear to be anti-Welsh.

The danger to Labour of publishing this LCO now?

The arguments, so far had behind closed doors, will become public. A united front from the Labour Welsh Secretary and Labour First Minister? Easy. From their elected members? Watch this space.

And what of Plaid? Would they really want to be seen to die in a ditch over the language of all issues?

One of their wisest heads was shaking his a few months ago. He was sensing a trap: one that said in big, bold letters: 'Plaid, who care about bilingual bills, not about how people can afford to pay them'.

Publication date? That's looking less like January, more like February. A long battle kicking off in the the shortest month?

Pointing the finger

Betsan Powys | 11:36 UK time, Thursday, 22 January 2009

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On Monday, with an apology in the House of Commons, Peter Hain will hope a chapter that started with "an act of omission which I fully accept was wrong" comes to an end. If it does, it comes to an end with a mauling.

The Commons Standards and Privileges Committee has found him guilty of "serious and substantial failures" in not registering donations of £103,000 to his Labour deputy leadership bid.

Its members point to the scale of that "act of omission" and conclude it caused "justified public concern".

They accept Mr Hain's evidence of his intensive workload, one part of which was, in the Neath MP's own words, "the complex politics (which I had to help manage) of achieving a coalition government with our Party's traditional opponents, Plaid Cymru".

Then they point to the rules and are clear that workload, no matter how tough, is never an excuse for breaking them.

But they're equally clear that "there was no intention to deceive". For that reason and because Mr Hain has already left the cabinet, they are content with an apology. Or to put it another way, had Mr Hain not lost his position in cabinet, they would have been tougher. This is not a report that lets Mr Hain off the hook. It reads like one that makes his return to Cabinet look less likely than he may have been hoping, than his admirers think is fair.

Then read Mr Hain's version of events and you'll see that he too is pointing the finger very, very clearly. His campaign team, his supporters have been doing it for quite some time but now the man himself is pulling no punches.

In a letter to the Parliamentary Commissioner, written late last year, Mr Hain says this:

"Mr Phillip Taylor was initially designated "Campaign Director" during preparations for the campaign but was succeeded by Mr Steve Morgan who replaced him as a signatory to the bank account with effect from 7 April 2007. (Mr Taylor left the campaign at this time due to a personality clash with Mr Morgan.) As signatories to the Account with overall responsiblity for campaign finance and organisation, the successive Campaign Directors undertook the responsibility for receiving donations, banking these and arranging for reporting them [...] I have never been given any explanation as to why the procedure in the campaign which had been previously well established and followed to the letter for five months completely broke down from late May 2007".

And again:

"I have identified, with the benefit of hindsight, two particular factors which I believe were significant in Hain4Labour's administration proving to be unable to ensure timely reports after late May 2007. The first was the unexpected and abrupt departure of Mr. Taylor. I now believe the resulting disruption was significant ... "

In other words Mr Hain is pointing the finger at lobbyist Steve Morgan. He's saying disaster happened not only happened on Mr Morgan's watch; it happened because Mr Morgan was put on the watch at all.

In Mr Hain's version then, where there was order, Steve Morgan brought chaos and not, as Mr Morgan eloquently insisted at the time - and has continued to insist - the other way around.

And after Monday's apology?

Despite suggestions that Downing Street has continued to pick up the phone regularly to their man in Neath, there is no Cabinet reshuffle in sight and the severe criticism in this report will not go away.

So what, goes one suggestion, about a position for Mr Hain - a former Minister for Africa -as a special envoy on behalf of the government? A sign that his experience is valued, that he's back in the fold, if not in government?

Filling shoes

Betsan Powys | 15:25 UK time, Tuesday, 20 January 2009

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This morning Carwyn Jones was upfront about his leadership ambitions.

No, not THAT leadership. How many times do they have to tell us? Until Labour HQ fire the starting pistol, there is no race to fill Rhodri Morgan's shoes. Got it? The First Minister may have made it clearer than ever over the weekend that he plans to go in the Autumn. He spelled out that the Assembly Government will have put everything possible in place by then to combat the economic downturn ... in other words, if he stands down as planned, he won't be leaving Wales in the lurch.

But a race to succeed him, to discuss the future direction of the party in Wales without him?

No, the Counsel General was thinking big, extending a warm welcome to Barack Obama to the Assembly in future before admitting that he "wasn't sure he'd want to be in his shoes".

Rhodri Morgan was a pretty fervent Hillary Clinton man but today, in the chamber, the four party leaders were confirmed Obama-ites. And they spoke just as that - four party leaders, who in turn hoped and even prayed that the 44th President of the United States turns "a brief moment of hope" as Nick Bourne put it, into "a time of hope".

From the First Minister recollections of moving to the United States in 1961, of seeing segregation, racism "up close and personal", of thinking then that dreadful things he'd seen in the South couldn't happen in the UK.

Then this: that "when you see a black president elected in the USA, you also have to say ruefully that couldn't happen in Britain."

He didn't elaborate - but in a chamber with its single AM from an ethnic minority - he did seem to be saying that somehow, somewhere along the way, the tables have been turned.

UPDATE: He does elaborate here

"Lenders of the last resort"

Betsan Powys | 12:24 UK time, Monday, 19 January 2009

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Remember those slogans?

How about "Fluent in finance"?

Then there was "Come and talk to the listening bank" and "The bank that likes to yes". Now, granted, "We're the lenders of the last resort" wouldn't make it onto anyone's hoardings let alone win any financial industry PR prizes but then again, it's probably the most honest of the lot.

The copyright belongs to Nick Ainger MP on Radio Wales responding, as a member of the Treasury Committee, to a host of questions about this morning's multi-billion pound package of measures to get banks lending again.

Will it be enough? What are the chances it works this time? Just how much will you be prepared to lend? What if the banks take the money and give the government the run-around like they did last time? When and how does pay-back come for taxpayers who've lost count of how many noughts they're owed by now?

To every question Mr Ainger had an answer but they all came to the same conclusion: that offering loan guarantees amounting to billions of pounds is now vital.

Whatever the questions you may have yourself about the amount it's costing you to get the economy moving - questions you may have been aiming with some force at the radio this morning - the message was that these measures must be taken now if things aren't about to get a whole lot worse, not just for the banks but for all those companies who rely on them to keep going.

Unprecedented? A gamble? Yes, he admitted but vital. Within hours the Conservatives were already pointing to new European Commission economic forecasts which suggest the UK could face the worst recession of any major EU economy. George Osborne had taken a look at the government's plan and seen nothing 'grand' in it.

But Nick Ainger was clear: today's announcement is simply necessary for a government that's found it's had to adopt a new slogan - "the lender of the last resort."

Meanwhile Welsh Labour are working on another slogan, one that's short, to the point and aimed at the three Welsh Conservative MPs: losers. Why did David Cameron not use the opportunity of today's reshuffle to promote a Welsh MP to the position of Shadow Welsh Secretary they wonder? Ken Clarke's back but Cheryl Gillan, MP for Chesham and Amersham in Buckinghamshire, remains in post. No press release yet but in my bones, I feel another "Cameron snub to Wales" missive is on its way.

And let's not forget the Welsh Liberal Democrats and their new leader who's in London today to meet Nick Clegg. Kirsty Williams will be photographed standing alongside Roger Williams MP, Mark Williams MP, Stephen Williams MP and Baroness Williams of Crosby.

Can you see the headline coming?

"Williams the Conquerors".

Bourne free?

Betsan Powys | 10:15 UK time, Thursday, 15 January 2009

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For now, it looks like it.

The Conservative Assembly Group met last night and have just put out this statement:

"At a meeting of the Shadow Cabinet last night Welsh Conservative Assembly Members gave their unanimous support to Nick Bourne as leader of the Assembly group.

"All members intend to move forward together, building on the successes the party has enjoyed in Wales over successive years."

Translated?

Leader in waiting (and waiting ... and waiting) Jonathan Morgan, we must assume, hasn't got the support he needs within the group to challenge for the leadership.

His problem?

Too many of them believe the job could be theirs for the taking, given a little time. So for now they sit on their hands, give the leader their support in public and impress upon him that when the time is right - perhaps after this Spring's European Elections, especially if the party gains that second seat - he can leave with his head held high.

Then they'll point to their loyalty when times were tough - just before scrambling to fill his shoes. And Jonathan Morgan may just find he waited too long.

Ten minutes later, by the way, a second press release arrives. This one informes us the Welsh Conservatives are establishing a committee to draw up new guidelines in relation to the expenditure of AMs expenses "in light of recent concerns raised about allowances claimed by AMs from all parties ... the Welsh Conservatives are determined to draw up the most robust guidelines possible in relation to expenditure made by members of the group".

Note to leaders in waiting: start saving up now to buy your own iPods and start hoping you can regain the ground you've lost over the last few disastrous weeks.

Powys on Glamorgan

Betsan Powys | 13:35 UK time, Wednesday, 14 January 2009

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It seems Christopher Glamorgan blinked first.

The former Welsh Assembly Government Civil Servant, sacked as a result of blogging, was scheduled to start his case for unfair dismissal against Welsh Ministers tomorrow. The case was listed for two days.

But according to the Cardiff Industrial Tribunal Service, he withdrew his claim today.

The signs were that he faced a tough battle, so it may be that discretion was the better part of valour this time. But closing the case doesn't mean the debate in the Welsh blogosphere is over, does it?

Tied up with string

Betsan Powys | 11:51 UK time, Wednesday, 14 January 2009

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The brown paper package containing the Welsh Language LCO, if you remember (and I have a funny feeling you will) was last seen sitting on the Secretary of State's desk. Paul Murphy told Assembly Members it had been scrutinised by Whitehall departments. Officials here echoed that with private relief that Whitehall departments had all given the LCO the OK.

We'd even heard a whispered date of publication: January 26.

But it looks as though the new year has brought with it new - and fundamental - problems with the LCO which, according to a document that arrived in another brown paper package this morning, "makes the January 26 deadline look increasingly difficult to achieve".

Why?

More tomorrow morning when we've had time to scrutinise the contents of the package properly but let's whet your appetite with this: conjure up an image of Ministers of the Crown facing "criminal sanctions" for non-compliance on issues surrounding the Welsh language. Add a few extra issues that "remain alive to the Secretary of State" and remain "to be resolved at the political level".

And you'll see why January 26 looks so difficult achieve and the LCO looks tied up with red string ... or should that be red boxes?

I'm off for a curry.

Cameron's Cut

Betsan Powys | 13:31 UK time, Tuesday, 13 January 2009

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All David Cameron has to do now is win the next General Election.

If he does, then he tells the FT his plan is to get the axe out - or at least place it in the hands of the Boundary Commission - and reduce the number of MPs by 10%. What he wants is a political map where all seats have roughly the same number of voters. It would be fairer and bring down the cost of politics he suggests, without adding the obvious that it would make it easier for the Conservatives to win elections.

Why? Because as things stand Labour have to win fewer votes than the Tories to find themselves with a parliamentary majority. No surprises then that Mr Cameron wants to correct what amounts to an anomaly. No surprises either that Labour are already calling it something else: gerrymandering.

You and I live in a country where MPs on average represent around 55,000 voters. Mr Cameron lives in one where the average figure is around 70,000. Scottish MPs have already faced the axe, their number falling from 72 to 59 when the Scottish Parliament was established. On average the number of voters they represent is now within spitting distance of English levels: some 67,000.

You and I are blessed, so the maths tells us.

If you live in Arfon then your man, Hywel Williams, has just another 42,997 electors to care for. John Smith in the Vale of Glamorgan has 68,229 people on his list. But stick to that average of around 55,000. 7 constituencies deviate from that quota by more than 15%. Take 7 away from 40 and there, you imagine, is the 'around 30' Welsh constituencies being stabbed at today. Note that figure seems to be the FT's though, not Mr Cameron's. Quiet briefing in London suggests it 'wouldn't be that many'. How many? Can't say.

So would the number of constituencies in Wales be cut as a direct consequence of devolution or simply to bring the number of electors in each seat in line with England and Scotland? The obvious answer is a bit of both.

Would the numbers be cut again, then, if full law-making powers were given to the Assembly in future, along Scottish lines? Wouldn't that leave Wales the poor relations?

Were Conservative Central Office right that I 'shouldn't assume Scotland would be completely unaffected' by these cuts? Haven't they taken their hit? Surely Mr Cameron would have an awful lot to lose from going anywhere near Scotland and would find it far more profitable to take seats away from England and Wales?

Nick Bourne says he's talked this through with Mr Cameron and is supportive of the plans, as long as Wales isn't hit disproportionately hard. Funnily enough Mr Bourne seemed rather pleased to take the question at this morning's briefing. It was just about the only one that didn't include the words "expenses" and end in "full backing of your group?"

Currying favour?

Betsan Powys | 14:54 UK time, Monday, 12 January 2009

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If there's no such thing as a free lunch, what do you make of a free curry?

If you're prepared to go along to Port Talbot on Wednesday night and share your thoughts on devolving more powers to Wales, then a free curry will be yours care of the All Wales Convention. To free laptops, free toothbrushes and free lightbulbs, now we can add free curry to the list of Welsh political freebies.

Get involved. Get engaged. Get stuck into a Chicken Tikka Massala.

It was Robin Cook who dubbed the Chicken Tikka Massala "a true British national dish", who talked about this particular version of meat served in gravy as a way of understanding Britishiness. I've just been looking at the rest of the then foreign secretary's speech where he talked about how "our future together in a single state is all the more secure if we each respect the distinctive identity that makes some of us Scottish and others Welsh or English. That mutual respect strengthens our common identity as British". He went on to call for putting "to bed the scare stories about devolution leading to the "Death of Britain."

That was 2001. David Davies MP of the No campaign was unlikely to agree back then and he's not going to agree now. He, along with fellow True Wales supporters, argue a Yes vote in a referendum on further powers would put Wales on 'the slippery slope to independence'. Why? Because that's how things work. It's what happens. Look at Scotland. It's what Plaid want and this is a step towards achieving that aim. True Wales want the referendum asap so that it - and the argument - can be lost and itself be put to bed.

I don't imagine Mr Davies is likely to be too enamoured with the venue for Wednesday night's free curry either: Port Talbot's Seaside Social and Labour Club. Yes, that is a big 'L'. Nick Bourne has just said it "sends out the wrong message about what is supposed to be a convention that is above party politics".

The curry, I'm sure Sir Emyr Jones Parry would argue, is for the greater good and doesn't undermine the convention as "a totally independent and politically neutral body". It's to get bums on seats, to persuade people who'd run a mile from an evening of political debate with the chattering classes to turn up for a bhaji and a bit of argy-bargy on the side - whatever their views on further devolution. The venue? We've not heard back on that one yet.

There will be 22 public meetings over the next few months. Who knows if the free curry will last that long but Sir Emyr is pretty clear that whatever your take on more powers for the Assembly, it's time to put up or shut up. "If people chose not to get involved in the debate once fully aware of its implications, then that is of course their privilege - I will be happy that they have been consulted and given the opportunity to get involved if they wish".

As for the road from '97: my own memories of a night that looked, felt, smelt like defeat until the very last moment, are here.

State of Play

Betsan Powys | 16:57 UK time, Friday, 2 January 2009

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Home from work today to find my daughter - already growing less curious about her new toys - playing with a cardboard box. She'd asked for a square to be cut out of one side and was playing 'news'.

With her five year old head popping out through the 'screen' it went like this:

"Hello. This is the news. A lot of people are dying this year already so watch out for bombs - ok?"

A private intrusion into a political blog, I know but on just the second day of a brand new year, it sadly felt worth sharing.


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