Thursday, 8 January 2015

Is Wales a post-political country?

In some ways, Wales has been a global trend-setter.

Wales was one of the first industrialised countries, and then became one of the first post-industrial countries. We could be setting a trend by becoming one of the world's first true post-political countries too.

"Post-politics" is a specific term meaning a rule by consensus, with an entrenchment of ideology (in Wales' case a market economy with a reddish hue). Wales might even be moving towards a post-democracy, where despite holding free elections, decisions are almost always a foregone conclusion, being taken by a near aristocratic elite.

There are several signs Wales is heading in this direction if not already there.

(Pic : Quazoo.com)

A lack of political choice – This is a natural result of consensus-based politics. It's why political parties often sound and look the same, as ideologically-charged left and right politics are no longer relevant. Everything is settled on a liberal economic model where parties chase moderate floating voters "in the centre" on a near-scientific constituency-by-constituency basis. The firebrand stuff of the 1970s and early 1980s might look kitsch nowadays but at least they stood for something.

The Welsh "centre" might be further left than the rest of the UK (Where's the centre ground in Welsh politics?) meaning all Welsh parties have a leftish twang. Though even if the parties disagree on big issues like welfare, in terms of devolved politics there's often broad agreement on major policies, with the fight often over "who came up with the idea first" and the presentation itself rather than the justification and details.

It's almost certain that if a party reacted to this by producing a manifesto that was "radical" and contained loads of ambitious, borderline undeliverable, pledges they would be (rightly) laughed at.

Anti-politics sentiment is rising across Europe, but is
maybe more advanced (if less obviously so) in Wales.
(Pic : The Guardian)

The rise of populism : Being anti-politics is trendy, even encouraged – In a truly political country that would be like being against air or education. In Wales, you can rail against "politics" without sounding like an idiot. Your views are listened to or fuelled as a core constituency in some cases (especially by the press) to the point you can vote for an anti-politics party in the form of UKIP.

The great ideological battle at present, and in the forthcoming House of Commons election, isn't between left and right as such, but between "the head" (professional politics – evidence-led policy) and "the gut" (populism – what people would like to happen).

For example, debates over immigration and renewable energy are often split along these lines. We need secure and renewable forms of energy and sustained levels of immigration of young people (to combat demographic decline), but large chunks of the electorate don't like renewable energy projects or immigrants - left and right wing.

You can argue Clement Atlee's premiership and Thatcherism successfully balanced the two. But since spin won during the Blair years, modern politics has become a bubble of experts based around "the head". The two poles have become estranged to each other to the point of becoming a "them" and "us" : politicians sneer at "common concerns" which don't match their worldview or expert advice, while the masses think politicians are an over-professionalised, borderline corrupt, out of touch elite.

As a result, there's an alarming lack of faith in established democratic processes. With no alternatives available, the only way for an ordinary person to push against such things is to reject politics and everything associated with it. It's a message UKIP and Russell Brand are using to garner support - existing as two cheeks of the same arse - as it's not as if their respective supporter bases are critical enough to look into claims for themselves.

You can also do it by not voting ("none of the above") or basing your politics on single causes and issues that aren't tied to a particular party – which is what many young people, who generally don't vote in high numbers, do.


(Pic : thepessimist.com)
A lack of leadership and long-term goals - We don't really have "leaders" in Wales outside of business, and our political leaders act as a chair of a board reacting to single and ongoing events. That makes sense because if everything's going to be done by consensus then we don't really need leaders, do we? Except we're absolutely crying out for someone to steer the ship and give Wales a sense of direction and momentum.

This is the biggest weakness in Welsh politics, perhaps Welsh society as a whole. It's the old proverb which surfaced just before Christmas when analysing Carwyn Jones' year : "A fo ben, bid bont" ("To be a leader, be a bridge").

I'd interpret that as encouraging consensus-based politics aka. "bringing people together". There's nothing wrong with that, but bring together the wrong people (i.e. surrounding yourself with those who only agree with your point of view, are dependent on a certain outcome of decisions, or think you're fantastic) and it's a recipe for....modern Wales.

You can argue that doing things this way is more inclusive and decentralises decision-making, but it also slows things down, with a problem of trying to bring too many, sometimes contradictory, views together into a single coherent policy.

It also allows a small number of people to dominate a decision-making group without ever being freely-elected, as happens in Carmarthenshire and amongst floating voters in marginal FPTP constituencies. This year's UK election, for example, may be decided by as few as 500,000 people, while we already know Carwyn Jones will be First Minister until he gets bored.

We don't necessarily need to move to an executive system of government like the United States, but lack of directly-accountable leadership doesn't foster democracy, does it?

A centuries-old Shakespearean fiction perfectly captures
a modern, much less funny, trope about the Welsh.
(Pic : Globe Theatre)
Process over policy – One of the perennial stereotypes about the Welsh goes back to Shakespeare's Henry V. Fluellen, a senior officer in Henry's army at least partially based on notorious turncoat Dafydd Gam, is portrayed as overly-sensitive, cap-doffing, pedantic "windbag", obsessed with rules and procedures to comedic levels.

It's so true it hurts.

Welsh politics has an obsession with how things should be done not what should be done. We're forever bogged down in consultations, task and finish groups (more from the Welsh Conservatives), standing orders, constitutional arguments and regulations. It's enough to give you the impression that our decision-makers are terrified of actually making decisions.

Comprehensive public consultations (as opposed to quick-fire surveys and public meetings) are mostly a waste of time, especially the more popular a consultation becomes. That's not cynicism, but a logical conclusion. If a consultation receives several hundred or several thousand responses, it's not as if someone's going to sit down and read them all. Even in the Assembly, oral evidence sessions seem to guide committee reports at least as much as, if not more so, than hard written evidence.

Our politicians and policy makers want to be "seen" to do something, and the easiest way to do that is to get lots of important people around a table with bits of paper and cups of coffee in front of them and then "start a public debate". But in the end they don't do anything, just talk about how they're going to do something at some undetermined point in the future (....city regions, the metro, community health councils, maybe up to and including local councils themselves).

Meanwhile, even our media are obsessed with points of process, and nothing is guaranteed to make the headlines faster than a rule breach or (relatively minor) overspend.

Let's go back to November 2014. Eluned Parrott AM (Lib Dem, South Wales Central) was discussing local authority and Welsh Government cuts ripping musical instruments out of the hands of young people – a very serious topic.

BBC Wales were more interested in where Eluned's hands were. Eventually the Western Mail picked up on it and indignatos on social media dubbed it "Hipgate" (done in such a way you couldn't tell if it was tongue-in-cheek or not) – though the Western Mail made up for it in the end.

Llywydds and their deputies tell people to shut up (politely) all the time. It's their job to keep decorum and it's hardly remarkable when they do so, but it's depressing that a technicality can overshadow something a million times more important and relevant.

I'm of the (it seems radical) opinion that the substance of what someone says is always more important than how they say it. AMs should be able to do an entire Rocky Horror Picture Show routine dressed up as Frank-n-Furter as long as they're making good points.

I know how hard it is to write a story about Welsh politics that will be read by as many people as possible, but this should go down as one of the most embarrassing manufactured outrages in the Assembly's history. There'll be more, you can guarantee it, because people read and respond to stories like that – I'm doing it now!

Nothing boils the blood more than politicians being either officious or badly behaved, because it looks like they're making work for themselves or wasting time at our expense. Unfortunately, that's how vast swathes of the public like their politics because, in Wales, how something looks and the moral implications of such are usually more important than the substance – a definite hallmark of a post-political society.


Are those of us who desire fundamental change in Wales
always going to face a massive uphill struggle?
(Pic : BBC)
There's no hope – One of the main reasons I don't get as wound up about many of the things that pass as scandals in Wales (compared to other commentators) is because when it comes to Welsh politics, I keep expectations low. That way I'm pleasantly surprised when something extraordinary happens. That's not the fault of those directly involved as they're decent people trapped by a bad system.

The Scottish independence campaign has inspired the political class to such an extent that they would like to replicate the incredibly high turnouts and levels of political engagement we saw then in as many future elections as possible. Replicating the turnout isn't the message they should be taking away from it though, as a high turnout doesn't necessarily mean the population is "engaged".

The independence campaign offered Scots hope and a chance of real, tangible change. Yes Scotland weren't just an alternative to the other parties, but an entire political system. We have nothing approaching that in Wales. In fact, Wales is arguably heading in the opposite direction to Scotland – not necessarily on constitutional terms, but attitudes.

There's a pessimism and fatalism about politics that's perhaps always been more tangible in the Celtic nations and north of England because our power was based on industry and collective action, which has slowly been sucked towards London or broken up, leaving us with very little in its wake.

The referendum was like a breath of fresh air north of Hadrian's Wall which cleared out the stuffy room which Labour have happily guffed in for decades. Helping this along is the fact Scotland produces charismatic, well-read leaders who can explain things in ways ordinary people understand, in addition to possessing a civic society that Wales can only dream of. This means the SNP have become a very effective counter-weight to the metropolitan technocrats in London and Brussels.

Also, the underlying political infrastructure in Wales is remarkably stable and unlikely to be seriously challenged in the same way the SNP and Greens are doing in Scotland, so political discussion here is often superficial and highly-specific as there's no great clash over the future of the country.

Welsh politicians carry themselves like middle managers and social workers, who generally tred the same route into politics, and act as though there's a higher manager above them looking over their shoulder (Westminster). They tend to play it safe, and Welsh politics is often about keeping things the way they are, or looking to the past for answers, instead of aiming for something better and innovating.

I don't think there's a lack of desire for change in Wales, it's just people can never see it being delivered as we're used to having decisions forced on us. In 2011, nobody gave the Welsh Government a mandate to pursue local government reorganisation for instance.
With no hope of an alternative, the people, by and large, accept their lot in life, shrug their shoulders and move on - the natural end result of which being disengagement from politics.

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