What would make Wales a better place over the coming year? A few thoughts…
1. It’s time to talk about the M470
The best way to transform the debate about transport infrastructure in Wales would be to commission first-stage research into potential for a new North-South road, rail and cycle route – the M470 corridor. Just start the ball rolling. How could we do it if there was a) the political vision b) the economic flexibility and c) public support.
Good work from Traws Link Cymru and improvements to our West-East links should not be deprecated in any way but the number one priority for ANY country should be first class internal networks, without which an internal market and cultural connectedness cannot thrive. We simply should not tolerate 4 hour rail/road commutes for 150 miles.
2. The Welsh media needs to up its game (for reals this time) and the UK media needs to be held accountable for its misreporting in and of Wales.
We have seen in 2017 the beginnings of new. Welsh, independent media. Many new podcasts and blogs have started to get serious traction and reframe conversations in and about Wales. Most strikingly, the excellent Nation.Cymru project has created a space for intellectual and cultural debates that rarely happen elsewhere and public interventions such as Michael Sheen’s Raymond Williams lecture have invigorated debate about Wales itself.
Many of the successes of 2017 have been built for little or no money and this will have to be the case for the future successes of 2018. We need to accept that and build on nonetheless. While we do so, we need to be active and vigilant and flagging mistakes and misreporting about Wales in the English media to the relevant editor/regulator. We shouldn’t accept, for example, that even a state broadcaster like the BBC reports Westminster policy announcements as ‘UK wide’ when they’re England-only.
3. Time to call the UK Government the English Government, too
The UK Government does indeed have legal responsibility for the whole UK in some policy areas but in others (agriculture, environment etc) it is clearly the English Government and, at times, the House of Commons IS the English Parliament once more. Calling Justine Greening a UK Minister is not simply misleading, it’s inaccurate. She is the English Education Secretary and we need to be proactive in promoting these descriptors so that the public (as well as the media) clearly understand the reality of devolution.
4. Time to reframe the debate on Brexit & successor arguments in Wales
It is with no little frustration that Wales has been broadly sidelined in the Brexit debate, vote and subsequent withdrawal processes.
It seems that there are two givens: The UK is going to leave the EU in March 2019 and that Westminster broadly considers the natural conclusion of ‘taking back control’ as a reassertion of its overlordship of the devolved administrations.
The Welsh Government has made some very sensible proposals in its series of publications on Brexit and the FM has described objections to the UK Gov’s approach as a series of ‘red lines’ without which no LCMs will be forthcoming. Time for the FM to stand up for Wales as he claimed his party would during the election campaign.
More pressingly, we need to have a national conversation about what Wales is and what we want it to be post-Brext (preferably neither a Cairnsian English appendage, a Thomasian ‘Principality’ or a Carwynian unheard voice in the UK). Steffan Lewis AM (who we wish the very best in his fight against cancer) suggested last year in an event hosted by Plaid Cymru Pontypridd that this would be the perfect time for national convention on Wales. Difficult not to agree.
5. Time to talk about disestablishing the Monarchy in Wales
Why 2018 and why disestablish? Firstly, 2018 will be a big year for the Anglo-Scots monarchy. Even without any unexpected events (such as the passing of a major figure) we are expecting at least the birth of one and the marriage of another core member of the family. It will be an interesting gauge for the relative popularity and relevance of the institution of monarchy in Wales, which has been dwindling since the 1970s.
Disestablishing the monarchy is the campaign that republicans should follow in the 21st century. Abolishment lines you up against the machine of the UK establishment and it is such a clear cut choice that the status quo effect would probably win out in any plebiscite.
In the era of ‘choice’ in public services, disestablishment frames the debate on the monarchy’s future in a similar way to religious choice and religiosity. By removing the legal and constitutional functions of The Crown, there is scope for those who continue to believe in the divine right of the monarch to own and rule – and they can continue to contribute financially should they choose to. However, those (a silent majority) who believe that the royals should earn their wealth like any citizen, there would be no financial contribution and nationalised assets (the Crown Estate, royal estates etc) could be used for the public good. And heaven knows, Wales could do with every penny at the moment.
6. Time to build the new Welsh Parliament
The last parliament for Wales, made by the people of Wales, was created it was an ambitious centre of hope that planned the creation of institutions of state, of learning and of international status. It may have been short lived and of a truly different era but the Machynlleth parliament had aspirations for a free and successful Welsh state run for the benefit of its people. In 2018 Wales will have, once more, the power to design its own parliament (albeit within the straight-jacket of a new devolution settlement wound more tightly than ever before).
The Expert Panel on Assembly Reform have put together a thoughtful and well argued report that suggests some ideas for the future shape of the Senedd but it is with no little alarm that the Labour Party is wavering on whether to follow the panel’s suggestions. Next year’s conference season will indeed be interesting – especially if the gap between Corbynism and Welsh Labour grows further.
7. The non government parties in the Senedd need to bring something positive to the preparations for 2021
There is more pressure than ever on Plaid Cymru, rightly, to come up with the positive, visionary and inspiring policy platform for the next Assembly campaign. The only party ever likely to govern in place of the Labour Party needs to engage the hearts of the electorate with proposals that give hope and leadership for the future. The simplicity of the message will be the key factor on whether this breaks through. Wales needs a Welshquake.
The Tories in Wales are not known for inspirational visions of the future, particularly in their current position as an unloved outpost of Tory HQ in London. Theresa May’s party will never win in Wales. If Andrew RT Davies (or his successors) are able to create a genuine Welsh party (as in Scotland) that reflects a softened, more-Welsh version of conservatism things could change but conservatism and change cannot easily coexist.
For the minor parties (and it is a sad state of affairs that the Lib Dems are now officially a minor party) it will be very interesting to see how the electorate view them. UKIP have done little to justify their presence in the National Assembly (practically nothing in Nathan Gill’s case), the Lib Dems have a steep challenge just to be visible and for the Greens, perhaps Grenville Ham’s proposals to see them backing Welsh independence could gain them some new support. And who knows, we might even see new political parties in contention for 2021 and. no doubt, the Abolish the Welsh Assembly party will re-emerge to campaign against the new parliament’s very existence.
8. The Welsh Government needs to get a grip on infrastructure
Almost a year ago to the day, the Welsh Government’s consultation on the creation of a Welsh National Infrastructure Commission closed. There has been little or no movement on it since.
Through 2017 we saw the failure to greenlight the Swansea Tidal Lagoon, the failure to electrify the Great Western main line west of Cardiff (let alone the Valleys lines and the rest of Wales’s railways) and, arguably most damningly, the continue failure to deal with the M4 bypass crisis in the South East. To add insult to injury, Wales was denied a Barnett share of the HS2 moneys (unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland) because it was alleged by the UK Government that North Wales’s tenuous connection to England’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ means that Wales benefits from HS2 directly. Although mostly a symptom of continued weakness of the Welsh Government, it also betrays the lack of infrastructure vision coming from the Labour Party in Wales. After Ken Skates’ invested so much time and misplaced enthusiasm for the Iron Ring sculpture in Sir Fflint, questions have to be asked about whether there is the talent in ministerial ranks to be able to lead, rather than follow, in terms of significant infrastructure projects.
9. Governing for the many, not the few
The Labour Party in Wales has shown little of the enthusiasm to address the fundamental inequalities in Welsh society that Corbyn in London and Leonard in Edinburgh are so keen to take on. This lack of ambition could be an election loser and, irrespective of who implements it, there needs to be an urgent and significant intervention to make the lives of the poorest in our country better. It’s a massive challenge that the leaders in the Senedd have to rise to.
10. We need more from those outside of politics
Michael Sheen has been widely (if not universally) praised for his truly excellent Raymond Williams lecture in 2017 and others such as Martin Shipton, Steffan Rhys and Carolyn Hitt have written strong pieces for Walesonline and there have been new faces and dynamics on television with The Hour and WalesLive but where are the other leading voices in our public sphere? Outside of the much maligned Pontcanna set of commentators, where are the non-aligned community leaders or high-profile voices of national sentiment and dissent? Where are our activist celebrities and civic leaders? We need them now more than ever.
Thanks for reading – best wishes for 2018.