Adam Somerset reviews The Welsh Way: Essays on Neoliberalism and Devolution, a collection of essays considering the emergence of neoliberalism in Wales and routes to an alternative and brighter future for the country.
At First Minister’s Questions in December 2019, Mark Drakeford responded to a question from Adam Price by accusing Plaid Cymru of “running down Wales at every opportunity”. In March 2020, then Economy Minister Ken Skates opened a Senedd debate by claiming, “I welcome scrutiny; it is right and proper that the National Assembly scrutinises the Welsh Government […] However, it is not right and proper to talk down the airport”. His Labour colleague and backbencher Rhianon Passmore echoed, “It is time for all to stand up for Wales and to end the talking down of Wales”.
A clear message underlies these exchanges; government and nation are interchangeable. To assault government is to assault nation. There is nothing new about this sort of political narrative – Thatcher urged her critics to “stop talking Britain down” in the later years of her premiership – but that this sort of language has made its way into Welsh political discourse is certainly interesting. The Welsh Way: Essays on Neoliberalism and Devolution investigates the culture that has turned an exchange on the floor of the Senedd into a slight on Wales itself.
This is far from the first critical commentary on Welsh political discourse, but what has been published thus far is scattered across the internet. This new collection from Parthian Books is four hundred pages of concentrated interrogation and debate on the direction of Welsh politics, culture and society. The book’s intellectual roots have been nurturing for a while. In 2015, Daniel Evans, one of the three editors, wrote for the Institute of Welsh Affairs that “Wales’ media and intellectuals […] have utterly failed the population. By buying into the hyperbole which surrounded devolution, both these institutions have failed to speak truth to power in Wales”. The twenty four essays that make up The Welsh Way may or may not speak truth, but they certainly speak to power in a way that is broad and unrelenting.
The three-authored introduction sets the tone: “Welsh Labour’s relentless self-mythologising […] achieved little except to shore up Labour’s dominance in this struggling, disenfranchised, poverty-ridden enclave of the British Isles.” They reject “Welsh Labour’s narrative of kindness and success” and claim that the contributors to The Welsh Way “challenge the lazy claims made in Welsh government policy documents, regurgitated by the media and the political class”. Government activity, they say, focuses on “tinkering […] plastic bag charges, speed limits […] small gestures within a system that continues to immiserate.”
A hand-made sign on the main road in the Aeron valley a few years back read “Brad” (Treachery). The cause was the disappearance of a factory. It was there for a few years, with £20 million of Welsh government money to ease it in, then one day – bam – gone. Sam Parry attacks the whole foundation of economic policy, distinguishing between “asset-exploiting” and “asset-augmenting” activity. Wind power generation is just another natural resource for the benefit of out-of-Wales companies and consumers.
One of the book’s central and recurring arguments is that the government not only lacks will but is deficient in competence. There are details of £4 million spent on a site for Ineos, only for the automotive company to pull out, of the failed Pinewood Studios project, of almost half a million lost because of a forgotten VAT liability, and of £6 million spent on a dilapidated building which lacked a full survey. The Circuit of Wales, the Techniums, and more add to this list of failures.
Some of the authors home in on specific actions and policies. Angharad Tomos writes that planning policy erodes the Welsh language in describing linguistic preference as discrimination. Mabli Siriol Jones reports that childcare policy “offers benefits to some of Wales’ wealthiest families while giving nothing to the poorest”. Underpinning the whole Labour enterprise is the preference for declaration over substance. A language target is set for decades ahead while another primary school in Gwynedd closes in 2021. Action, says Jones, leans towards “new procedures, training programmes and awareness-raising campaigns”.
Dan Evans tracks in fine detail the holders of the education ministerial portfolio. Polly Manning writes that the fifth value for staff at Berwyn prison is “bizarrely […] to embrace Welsh culture and tradition”. Georgia Burdett on health and social care describes the government approach as “head in the sand.”
Robat Idris compiles his list of failures: democracy, economy and future generations. Francis Williams heads her essay: “First as Comedy, then as Tragedy: How the High Ideals of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act Have Fallen Short.” The notes refer to the appointment of the Commissioner – not an economist, but a Labour loyalist; “it doesn’t appear that she has the qualifications or an interest in this field” said the opposition front-bencher.
Many will contest this book, but while its catalogue might be dispiriting, William Blake might be remembered: “Without contraries there is no progression” and “opposition is true friendship”.
As an entity, The Welsh Way is stronger in parts than as a whole. The editors permit erroneous private biography to intrude and parts lack the crucial detail of reportage. The essay on universities is a cut-and-paste job from the public domain, making no mention of vice-chancellor dismissals, bogus CVs, and torrid episodes at the University of Wales. An essay from Severnside is composed in dead prose, lacking much connection to Wales or indeed to any real human beings.
Then, there are the names that many of the young generation have barely heard of trotted out repeatedly: Pinochet, Reagan, Blair. Populism barely features. The literary references are antique: Fanon, Hegel, Gramsci. In fact, as Simon Brooks has written, Hegel never took root in Wales. There is no evidence of much reading from the last decade: no Brooks himself, no Lind or Goodhart or Haidt.
At times the editing leaves plenty to be desired. There are a litany of typos and grammatical errors, and often assertion is given without evidence. Welsh is “a language steeped in the farm and its metaphors” apparently, yet no example is given. Queer farmers are declared as disruptive but we are not told how.
You can sense the urge of the writers to declare the exceptionalism of Wales, but this is sometimes without evidence or historical comparison. We are told that “Wales is often renowned for its warm, friendly locals” (locals?) and has a history of being a “welcoming” nation. There’s no mention though of anti-Semitic rioting, of immigrants dropped in the mud of the Usk or landed at night to evade attack. This strand of comment, that Wales possesses a non-material superiority, has a tradition. It dates back at least to Matthew Arnold in 1867.
But there are hard facts here. The census of 2021 is likely to reveal population decline in the west and north, the language in retreat. House-building in Chepstow is being bought by Bristolians, the absence of tolls an incentive. Farmland in the upper Tywi valley is changing hands, companies outbidding individuals.
Rural Wales is poorly served by an essay. “We have offered little in the way of practical solutions or policy suggestions,” says the author, copping out. This is a time of the all-Wales nitrate vulnerable zones being imposed, extending from 2.4% of the land area to the whole lot. The unions fear consequences of destocking, thus making farmers poorer, or obliging them to buy more land. A £360m infrastructure figure is calculated by the Welsh government. This is serious and affects real people of Wales.
The Welsh Way has its omissions, obscurities and variations in quality, but it is an assertive, uncompromising and significant addition to the public sphere.
The Welsh Way: Essays on Neoliberalism and Devolution is available via Parthian.
Adam Somerset is an essayist and a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.