The hollowing out of Welsh democracy, or the prequel to the Brexit vote.
In Andrew Rawnsley’s diaries of the Blair years, it is revealed that Tony Blair was extremely reluctant to have a referendum on Welsh devolution in 1997. Whilst he was confident that Scotland would vote Yes, Blair privately feared that the Welsh were ‘anti-politics’, and generally sick of politicians. The image obsessed Blair was worried that Wales would vote No, and embarrass his brand new government. In the end, Ron Davies and others badgered him into acquiescing.
The eventual devolution campaign in Wales was hugely lopsided. The Yes vote belatedly brought together Welsh Labour (and its formidable hegemonic apparatus) & Plaid Cymru, was backed by high profile Welsh celebrities, and had a million pound war chest. The No vote, by contrast, was disorganized, staffed by Tories (who at the time didn’t have a single Welsh MP) and had far less money.
The Yes campaign was marked by extremely optimistic rhetoric. Devolution, it was claimed, was going to improve the economy, shield Wales from the worst excesses of Thatcherism, and rejuvenate Welsh democracy by improving accountability and bringing decision making closer to people: no more would Wales be ‘quango land’.
The No campaign, by contrast, relied on traditional scaremongering tropes about the Welsh language ‘other’ and the breakup of Britain, although the average no voter’s sentiment tended to be couched in simpler terms: a weary distrust of the distinctly Welsh traditions of nepotism, creating committees, and good old fashioned corruption- devolution would be a waste of money, jobs for the boys, a talking shop.
Despite the disparity in funding and backers, the Yes vote limped weakly over the line, with just 50.3% of the vote. For most of the evening it looked as if No would win. Turnout was just over 50%. The narrowness of the vote and the low turnout has since faded from the popular imagination in Wales, as most academics and commentators got caught up in the hysteria and hyperbole of the Yes victory: the people had emphatically spoken, and devolution was going ahead.
Of course, all the radical proposals and hopes for the Welsh assembly- including full proportional representation, tax raising powers, community based participatory policy forums — were co-opted by new Labour behind the scenes and either jettisoned outright or watered down dramatically, as the whole project was turned into a shameless Blairite stitch up.
Since devolution, far from pursuing redistributive, transformative economic policies, the Welsh Labour government has pursued a hugely damaging economic strategy of subsidising footloose multinational capital to set up their branch plants in Wales, only for them to leave once they have squeezed the profits out of the community. Despite its ridiculous, shameless claims to the contrary, it has meekly implemented Tory cuts (whilst the Scottish Government has done its best to mitigate these); deepened neoliberalism and introduced new public management culture into the NHS and education sectors.
It is now acutely painful to read the optimistic ideals of left wing proponents of devolution written in the period leading up to 1997- the radical potential of that moment has been completely squandered by Welsh Labour; all the cynical, weary assumptions that no voters had about devolution, and indeed politics, have come true. The goodwill that weary but patriotic Yes voters must have summoned up during that period has been similarly destroyed.
Wales is a country defined by despair. A place where nothing works. Our schools are crumbling, our kids are malnourished, our teachers are quitting, our infrastructure and transport system are a cruel joke. We don’t have any social housing and homelessness is through the roof. The NHS lurches from one tragic crisis to another. There are few jobs other than the military or call centres, so our young people move to England en masse, replaced by English retirees.
Neoliberalism is not just about economics, but is an innately undemocratic social paradigm: as austerity measures batter working class communities, they are simultaneously increasingly unable to affect any form of meaningful change on their own lives as decision making is increasingly centralized and removed from any accountability and scrutiny, a trend exemplified by private companies taking over the running of our public services.
Wales is not a functioning democracy in any meaningful sense of the word. Here, there is no national media worthy of the name, no accountability or scrutiny. The Welsh Labour Government’s regular, eye watering fuck ups, collusion and outright corruption go unpunished, that’s if they are ever even reported at all.
As a consequence, despite the high minded rhetoric about rejuvenating Welsh democracy, since the institution of devolution in 1999, Welsh political participation has not improved. Quite the opposite, in fact, as the people have Wales of have steadily retreated even further from national politics. Turnout in devolved elections has not passed 45% since 1999. In the 2011 referendum, turnout was 35%. Understanding of devolved politics remains extremely low.
In General Elections too, Wales has steadily declined from being at one stage the most politically engaged country in the UK to having the second lowest turnout, the lowest understanding of politics, and the country where people are most likely to find involvement in politics to be futile.
Blair’s suspicions about the Welsh distrust of politics, then, were well founded. And why indeed would any rational Welsh person retain any faith in politics? Wales has had a democratic deficit for the entire twentieth century- we have never once voted Conservative as a nation, but we get Tory policies regardless. After having had the stuffing completely knocked out of us by the miner’s strike, we were subsequently used as a guinea pig for Thatcherite policies by John Redwood, the cartoonishly evil secretary of state for Wales. Our unswerving loyalty to Labour has been rewarded with an army of Blairite careerist MPs being continuously parachuted into our communities. The working class institutions and communities which sustained a distinct, left political culture in many parts of Wales have been destroyed, and no attempts have been made to save them.
Since at least 1992, people in Wales’ Labour heartlands have abandoned the party in droves, leaving them with a hollow, fragile dominance dependent on low turnout. It is clear that many people in Welsh Labour have been more than happy with this mass withdrawal from politics as long as their power isn’t threatened.
When I was 14, I interviewed Carwyn Jones (in his role as Bridgend AM) as part of my school work experience placement. I asked him what he thought about the low levels of voter turnout in the Assembly Elections. He looked me in the eye and calmly explained: ‘the thing is, if more people voted, they might not vote for Labour’, and stated that he was therefore quite happy with this state of affairs.
I am quite sure that Carwyn Jones- and many like him in Welsh Labour- never, ever believed that they would ever have any political comeuppance. And if the EU referendum was never called, they may never have. But it was, and the leave vote is their political legacy.