“The authors recognise that the Welsh government does not have its hands on the political or macro-economic levers to make all the necessary difference. Neither benefits nor pensions nor criminal justice, for example, are devolved.”
Nick Davies reviews The Welsh Way: Essays of Neoliberalism and Devolution. Edited by Daniel Evans, Kieron Smith and Huw Williams.
Sometimes it’s what you don’t want to hear that is most important. This collection of short essays on how Welsh society is disintegrating under the impact of 40 years of neo-liberalism is just such an inconvenient truth. The authors are not the great and the good of Welsh academia but more marginal voices, who nevertheless deserve an audience.
In Wales we tend to feel reassured. We’ve scrapped the NHS internal market; we don’t have academy schools; our railways are effectively nationalised and we have a First Minister who calls himself a socialist. Our government is proud of legislation like the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act. Not a socialist utopia, but we’re doing alright. Imperfect, but devolution provides that space for us to breathe.
And yet, one of the editors calls the level of inequality in Wales ‘unforgivable’. Child poverty is the worst in the UK, education attainment remains low, homelessness is the highest since records began, house prices are rising and private landlords are lining their pockets. Change in the income and Council Tax rules may be too late for some Welsh speaking communities. The unfettered free market in housing condemns young people to living in caravans, unable to compete with English cash buyers who want second homes, a phenomenon referred to elsewhere as ‘cultural genocide by bank transfer’. Incarceration rates are amongst the highest in Europe. Covid-19 had a devastatingly disproportionate effect on Wales’ poorest communities.
These indicators suggest that Wales is a society ravaged by the cruelty and inequality of the feral capitalism which emerged in the 1980s. So, what then of Labour’s ‘Welsh way’, provocatively echoed in the title?
The authors recognise that the Welsh government does not have its hands on the political or macro-economic levers to make all the necessary difference. Neither benefits nor pensions nor criminal justice, for example, are devolved (yet), and that the already weak devolution settlement was layered onto a country already scarred by the Thatcher/Major years.
There is a twin tension at work here, between the radicalising impulse of a tendency within Labour’s Senedd representation and the wider party and the cold dead hand of Westminster. This is made more acute by Boris Johnson’s bull-in-a-china shop unionism and between on the one hand that radicalising tendency and that tendency prepared to play a subordinate role to Westminster. This challenges neither the existing constitutional set-up, nor the fundamental doctrines of neo-liberalism, but accepts a niche by which Labour in Wales can mitigate some of the ill-effects, presenting a comforting ‘Welsh Way’ alibi to voters. To go any further would amount to that swear word ‘nationalism’.
The authors are not short of ammunition, aiming their fire at successive Welsh governments’ reliance on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) offering generous grants to footloose capital, a recent example being the attempt to lure the petrochemical company Ineos onto the former Ford plant at Bridgend to build a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. How this fitted in with the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act and the Welsh government’s commitments on climate change was anyone’s guess. While primary and secondary education in Wales compares favourably in many ways to England, there has nevertheless been, in a misplaced reaction to misleading PISA data, the re-introduction of league tables (in a different form) and the same obsession with measuring data and ‘performance’. Higher education operates as its corporate counterpart in England, Welsh Government subsidies capping tuition fees.
We can’t even properly discuss what is wrong with Wales. Public interest journalism is a casualty of neo-liberalism. The hollowing out of the media means that most print journalism in Wales is England-based, as is the ownership of WalesOnline, whose output consists largely of clickbait with little or no relevance to Wales.
The first tension referred to above will resolve one way or another when Mark Drakeford steps down. Unfortunately, the Senedd is populated less by those who share his cautious radicalism than by those who embrace the pragmatic unionism of his predecessor Carwyn Jones.
How that second tension is resolved depends to some extent on the first, and on events outside Wales, but only a radical, federal re-casting of the United Kingdom, if not outright independence can rescue Wales from more of what one editor calls the ‘purgatory of helplessness’.
- This is a review of The Welsh Way: Essays of Neoliberalism and Devolution. Edited by Daniel Evans, Kieron Smith and Huw Williams, Parthian Books, ISBN 9781914595028 – you can grab your copy here.
- This article originally appeared in Labour Briefing (Co-operative) magazine and is reproduced with permission. Subscribe by sending a £20 cheque with your address to ‘Labour Briefing Co-operative Ltd’, 7 Malam Gardens, London, E14 OTR.