They’ll be coming for us next….

This is an article I wrote last week for the Institute of Welsh Affairs. In a week with lots happening and us trying again to get our constitution fit for the future. Again. I’m arguing that essentially too many people think that the struggle and campaign for Welsh democracy is won. My view is that whilst there are real opportunities over the coming years to achieve the sort of constitutional settlement that will allow us to move forward after over a quarter of a century of argument, there are also significant and serious threats facing us. 

There’s a common assumption amongst many commentators that Brexit is breaking up Britain. And that may be true. The potential of a border poll ending the Northern Irish state would be quite a way of marking its centenary. At the same time the Scots may also be driven by a combination of an English nationalist government and a careless London-centric culture to believe that they can do better themselves. And as things currently stand who can blame them?

The received wisdom is that this will naturally drive the ever-cautious and more-conservative-than-we’d-ever-want-people-to-know Welsh to follow a similar route. Many people, including myself, have been clear that a United Kingdom of Englandandwales is no union at all. Of course, the major flaw with the inevitability theory of the future is that it has a terrible tendency to keep letting down those people who happily believe that it will somehow change the future for them whilst they enjoy a cup of tea.

But this assumption fails to understand the volatility and power of the right wing populism that is driving not only the debate over Brexit but has captured the Conservative Party and is driving a new more aggressive and narrow sense of Britishness and using the machinery of the UK Government to help it do so. Rather than the end of Britain as a political construct I fear that we may be witnessing the emergence of a new authoritarian Britishness that recognises the plurality of political power across the countries of Britain in theory but which in reality works to undermine and to dismantle devolved political power, building a new centralised British state in its place. 

It is this ruthless and relentless Brexit populism with its intolerance of dissent that is actively creating, driving and reinforcing the divisions that have characterised and disfigured our public discourse in the last three years. And if it is prepared to describe our independent judiciary as “enemies of the people” and to challenge the democratic legitimacy and authority of the UK Parliament then just imagine the attitude towards a National Assembly which actively seeks to oppose, challenge and question its new hegemony. We can’t say that we haven’t been warned. 

And here lies the hard reality and the challenge facing those of us who have spent a lifetime fighting for Welsh democracy.  By a small margin Wales voted to leave the European Union. And it was a vote that was certainly driven in part by this new assertive British nationalism. But it was more driven by this populism. A populism rooted the failures of our current democratic institutions and political parties to respond effectively to austerity and the economic reality of life for too many people. And we shouldn’t be surprised. It is the same populism that has driven the electoral successes of right wing parties across almost every one of our Western liberal democracies. 

The unchallenged messianic appeal of Farage and his little coterie of angry shouty privately-educated millionaires means that these rich and powerful individuals can now label comprehensive schools as the incubators of entrenched privilege and the occupants of castles dismiss the sons and daughters of council estates as an elite that needs to be defeated in the name of the will of the people. And which allows them to get away with such hypocritical and sanctimonious cant. 

And it probably goes further and deeper than this. Welsh politics is completely out-of-step with this outraged and enraged right wing demagoguery. Traditionally our political debates have been marked by an acceptance of many left-of-centre and liberal ideas and assumptions. Whilst it is always a good thing to challenge the status quo and lazy assumptions, without an indigenous press and media we cannot easily hold a conversation with ourselves. Our news media and our public discourse are dominated by a London-centric view of the world, all too often our own debate is drowned out in the noise emanating from London. And for many people that’s just fine. But it means that we have far fewer tools at our disposal to challenge this new right wing. 

And I see it at first hand. I represent Blaenau Gwent. It is the place which recorded the highest leave vote in Wales. I am repeatedly told that this proves the people I represent are determined to leave the EU under any or all circumstances and that they want a return to a British Imperial Government – union jacks and blue passports. And it is true that there are a proportion of people who do want this – as there are in many places – those same people who cannot believe that the threat of a British gunboat doesn’t bring Johnny Foreigner to heel. 

But overwhelmingly my real experience is different to that. And this is another reality. 

Many, and possibly most, people in Blaenau Gwent feel that politics (and politicians) have let them down. Canvassing in the referendum campaign I spent less time discussing the rights or wrongs of the EU and more time discussing the failures of the local council and the failure of those of us on the centre-left to respond adequately to the impact of the 2008 financial crash. Austerity may have originated in SW1 but its impact is not felt in the restaurants and bars of the Palace by the Thames. The hard human impact of austerity is the daily reality of life for many of the people that I represent. And many voted to leave the EU because they couldn’t see any benefit from a status quo that had failed them. And the same right wing Brexiteers who champion the abolition of inheritance tax – which affects almost nobody in Blaenau Gwent – also tell us that the EU funding which has paid for apprenticeships and investment in our local infrastructure is simply a gravy train for a Cardiff Bay elite. 

And here is the danger for our own democratic institutions in Wales. Our National Assembly and our emerging democratic institutions mean nothing to the new right. The intense and angry intolerance of dissent that I see on social media is shaping a different sort of national debate. For these populists democracy stopped when polls closed in June 2016 and if we stand in their way then our institutions – which do not have the advantage of a centuries of cultural acceptance – will also be a target for abolition or emasculation “in the name of the people”.

Ironically this is a very un-British approach to politics. The fundamental tenets which unite most parts of our different British political traditions is a tolerance, a belief in freedom of expression, political pluralism, a respect for political opponents and for our shared institutions. The authoritarianism of this New Right is foreign to us and our history and it has no respect and no place for either those institutions and cultural norms which have been the bedrocks of British democracy over the centuries. A campaign which was founded on the belief that we need to restore our sovereignty and our democracy has now turned its sights on that sovereignty and that democracy. Again our parliaments and any democratically-elected representative who questions the will of the people is angrily dismissed. Only the Queen appears to have escaped their wrath.

So I believe that we need to make the case again for a Welsh politics and re-make the case for Welsh democratic institutions and governance. And also make the case for a politics which is tolerant and generous. A politics which is rooted in a democracy in Wales and across the UK with checks and balances and underpinned by an intelligent and open debate and a democratic culture. And of course it is this openness and this tolerance that the new right wing Brexiteer populists hate and fear most of all. 

Failing the Blaenau Gwent Test

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One of the few statutory task left to the Secretary of State for Wales is address the National Assembly on the Queen’s Speech and the implications for Wales of the bills and policies announced by the UK Government in its new programme.

This was a task that Stephen Crabb performed for the first time at the end of June. He spoke well and fluently, attempting to reach out, being generous both to the Welsh Government and to the institution. In his opening speech he made the case that the new UK Government would be on the side of the ordinary family – “Mr Deputy Presiding Officer, the mission statement of this new UK Government is to help working people, to champion social justice, and to unite all the peoples of the nations. Through the Queen’s Speech last month, we announced our legislative programme to build on the important work we started five years ago, to improve the lives of everyone in our country”.

It was a remarkable statement for a Conservative Minister and in my contribution to the debate I set Crabb what I described as the Blaenau Gwent Test – “the test I will set you, Secretary of State, for the success or failure of this Government is what happens to the people of Blaenau Gwent. Welfare reform has already taken £30 million a year out of the communities of Blaenau Gwent. That’s not £30 million taken away from the strongest, the most powerful and the wealthiest—it’s £30 million that is increasing child poverty and leading to greater and more intense hardship than ever. If you are up to your words, and if you stand by the challenges you’ve set yourself, you will protect the poorest and most vulnerable and you will ensure that it is the wealthiest and most powerful who share the burden”.

It was a test that he readily accepted, in replying to the debate Stephen Crabb said, “The Member for Blaenau Gwent, Alun Davies, threw out a challenge to me about Blaenau Gwent. He called it the Blaenau Gwent test and I’m very happy to accept the Blaenau Gwent test. And just to remind him that under the watch of the previous Labour Government, unemployment in Blaenau Gwent went up 83% and youth unemployment went up 61%. In the last five years, unemployment in Blaenau Gwent has come down by 40% and youth unemployment down by 52%”.

It is fair to say that the first challenge for the Secretary of State in meeting the Blaenau Gwent Test was the UK Government’s budget in July since it was this budget that out the UK Government’s approach for the next five years. Predictably it contained a lot that appalled me. But rather than simply issue a press release I decided to ask the National Assembly’s research service for an independent analysis of how the budget would impact the people of Blaenau Gwent. I received their findings last week. And it is shocking.

In short, the people of the borough can expect to see a reduction in their incomes of around £33m as a direct result of the measures contained in that budget. Here’s the overview.

Budget impact overview table

In reading this, today’s debate in the House on Commons on tax credits is well-timed. And in criticising their decisions on these individual matters we also need to take issue with the Conservative ideology and philosophy. It is clear from this analysis that the Conservative UK Government is making poor people pay for the mistakes which led to the financial crisis. Those people who have least are being forced to pay the most. The people who have least influence on the banks are paying the greatest price. This is class war at its most brutal.

Stephen Crabb made great play of the compassion of the new Conservatives. Has he raised the impact of the budget on the most fragile communities in Wales with his cabinet colleagues? Has he argued to protect the most vulnerable families? Has he made the case for those people who are working hard at two or more jobs to make ends meet? If he cannot answer those questions then he faces the real acquisition that his approach is all PR and lacks any real substance. His words will count for nothing.

The cuts to benefits will increase poverty directly. The cuts to tax credits will increase in-work poverty. For too many people they will see no hope and no future for them and their families. The Secretary of State is very fond of quoting employment statistics when he is confronted with the consequences of his policies for real people. This research shows clearly that for too many people work is no longer the route out of poverty. By making work a less viable way of moving out of poverty the Chancellor has take away any realistic hope for the future for those very people who he claims to want to help.

Taken together with the wider reductions in public spending which will lead to significant reductions in public services this analysis draws a picture of increasing deprivation in many of Wales’ poorest communities. It also paints a picture of a desperate daily struggle for too many people. And in making these decisions, it is not only those who will see these reductions in their personal incomes that will suffer, it is the whole community. This is money that will be taken out of the local economy, from local town centres, local shops and local businesses. In attacking the poorest people this is a wider attack on the economical viability of the whole community.

After an over-long summer of looking inwards it’s time for Labour to oppose this government, not only their decisions but the philosophy that underpins those decisions. And to do so with a renewed vigour and determination. As this analysis shows all too clearly it’s the poor and vulnerable who need desperately a Labour UK Government and who pay the highest and harshest price for a ruthless Tory ideological warfare dressed up in reasonable language as economic and financial good sense.