Wales is the least interesting of the UK’s four constituent nations. No hegemony of population and class as in England, no surging separatist tide as in Scotland, no threat of reigniting an age-old tinderbox as in Northern Ireland.
In Wales, there’s just one party. A single centre-left party that has managed Wales for nearly a hundred years, a fate that would surely sap the spirit of even the most radical of movements. Radicalism becomes conservatism as the fruits of the revolution are guarded, which even then drains away into a tired managerialism as the battle to defend those gains is won, again and again, until even the opposition stops truly believing change is possible.
That’s why nobody pays attention to Wales. It’s a half-country – a ‘principality’ – that never really was, a quirk of history not worthy of even the paltry attention afforded to the other Celtic nations by the UK’s cultural and media narratives. As far as a narrative about Wales even exists in ‘British’ political discourse. More accurately, Wales exists not maligned as mundane but slowly suffocating in a vacuum of complete ignorance. No coverage of its politics, no analysis of its society, no examination of its place in the United Kingdom or its sense of self. As the old saying goes, ‘For Wales, See England’.
You could be excused for thinking all of this to be true – most people involved in politics outside of Wales seem to, when they think of Wales at all.
But the only part which is true is the suffocating silence surrounding Wales of the UK’s cultural and media narratives. Of course Wales is a country in its own right, and one with a progressive streak running throughout its history. The laws of Hywel Dda – Hywel the Good – in the 10th Century were notoriously progressive for the age, before they were abolished by violent conquest.
But conquest didn’t end this political tradition. Wales, divided as it is into small communities by mountainous geography and rural traditions, has a strong communitarian ethos and tradition. David Lloyd George, the only Welsh Prime Minister in 800 years of Welsh involvement with the United Kingdom, was instrumental in the creation of the welfare state. Aneurin Bevan, another Welsh political powerhouse, was of course the ‘projectile discharged from the Welsh valleys’ to create the National Health Service. Bevan explained that a Welshman was put in charge of this task because it couldn’t possibly have been completed, in his words, by the ‘the bovine and phlegmatic Anglo-Saxons’. No comment.
This progressive history has not withered in the devolved era. At the height of New Labour’s powers, Wales rewarded Tony Blair by denying Labour a majority in the 1999 National Assembly elections. In doing so it handed the Rhondda (1997 Labour majority – 25,000 votes) and Islwyn (1997 Labour majority – 23,000 votes) to Plaid Cymru. Blair is reported to have cursed the ‘f*cking Welsh’ in response – although of course it’s impossible to believe a Prime Minister of our United Kingdom would ever say this.
It might just have become more believable when Welsh Labour cast aside its central-casting New Labour First Secretary in favour of Blair’s least favourite candidate for the role, Rhodri Morgan. Morgan, who Blair famously derided as having too messy a living room to run a country, soon set about tidying the mess of a devolution settlement bequeathed to him by Blair.
He did more than this. He became the first leader of Wales since the 1200s, and a father-of-the-nation figure in the process. He steadied the ship of a divided country that voted 4-1 to reject devolution in 1979 and to establish devolution by only 0.6% in 1999.
In a tribute to his success, in 2011 63% of Wales voted to establish the National Assembly as a full law-making body, with 21 of Wales’ 22 administrative areas voting in favour.
In academic interviews before his death, he set out his reasoning for this work to support devolution. He described New Labour as essentially the product of an electoral strategy directed at swing voters in the South East of England, for whom choice between the range of hospitals within driving distance was a desirable policy. In Wales, he explained, separated as it is by literal mountains, people don’t care about choosing between two hospitals, but for their sole local hospital to be of the highest possible standard.
This combination of a rejection of the New Labour choice agenda, and a distinctly communitarian, culturally Welsh approach has come to define Welsh Labour’s approach to governance – sometimes referred to as ‘Clear Red Water’.
Carwyn Jones continued this legacy, and it was he who was at the helm when Wales voted in 2011 to entrench devolution further. His legacy includes this referendum, two election victories, seeing Wales through a period of brutal Tory austerity, and a smattering of bold policies such as nation-wide presumed consent for organ donation and the nationalisation of Wales’ largest airport.
Devolved Wales has been lucky to have been led through times of austerity and uncertainty in the devolution settlement by leaders who exuded gravitas and intellectual seriousness when contrasted with their present Westminster counterparts. In a continuation of this, Mark Drakeford (a former Professor of Social Policy who helped set up homelessness charities) narrowly defeated Vaughan Gething (the Assembly’s first black member, who has become one of its most successful and popular politicians) to replace Carwyn Jones as First Minister.
Mark Drakeford also worked as Rhodri Morgan’s special adviser, and is credited with coining the term ‘Clear Red Water’. The task before him is living up to a clear mandate to restore a sense of radicalism to Welsh Labour after two decades in power. For many, the M4 relief road looms large as the embodiment of this. For those unfamiliar with the project, there are proposals to spend the Welsh Government’s entire capital borrowing budget for a number of years on building a new relief road around Newport. Strongly backed by many businesses and the Welsh Conservatives, the scheme has for many on the left become symbolic of an old way of doing politics. For them, it is an investment in environmentally-unfriendly cars in the economically-outperforming south-east of the country. Many would rather see this money invested in a more equitably-distributed, environmentally-friendly public or active travel alternative.
Drakeford’s leadership manifesto set out an intention to use the National Assembly’s still-limited powers to follow the Preston Model, focusing on the foundational economy and using the Welsh Government’s powers of procurement to ensure wealth stays in Wales, and finds its way to people’s pockets. On top of this, he has proposed setting up a not-for-profit energy company in the model of Wales’ successful not-for-profit water company, and Wales’ own Community Bank to run alongside its already-established national Development Bank. With a self-imposed deadline of around 5 years of national leadership, his legacy will rest on the M4 relief road and his ability to deliver these flagship projects.
But Wales’ politics is not differentiated from the rest of the UK’s simply by its communitarian, progressive streak. Wales also contends with its multiple personalities as both beneficiary and victim of Empire, and with a linguistic divide. 20% of Wales’ population speaks the Welsh language. Much of this population is based in places like Gwynedd, where Welsh is the language of everyday life, and support for self-determination and Plaid Cymru is high. For those interested in further reading, Dennis Balsom’s ‘Three Wales Model’ sets out a country divided into a Welsh-speaking heartland of Y Fro Gymraeg, an English-speaking but Welsh-identifying Welsh Wales, and a more ‘integrated’ British Wales.
Although the Welsh Conservatives are currently the official opposition in the National Assembly due to defections, it would be remiss not to mention Plaid Cymru in an analysis of the state of progressive politics in Wales.
Readers outside of Wales are likely to remember Leanne Wood, the eco-socialist, avowed-republican firebrand elected to lead the party in 2012. Often the factional divide in Plaid Cymru is between a more rightward leaning brand of ‘cultural nationalist’, focused more heavily on the Welsh language and political independence, and the left of the party, for whom Welsh nationalism and independence is a means to a socialist republic. Wood was heavily in the latter camp. However, despite a stunning result in the Rhondda in 2016, where she overturned a 33% Labour majority to take the seat, the party deposed her in brutal fashion just two years later. She was beaten into last place by Rhun ap Iorwerth, a more centrist candidate, and the winner Adam Price. Price is a Harvard-educated natural orator seen for years by many in Plaid as a prince-across-the-water. His commencement speech at Harvard, available on YouTube, is certainly worth watching. Price is something of a political chameleon who once advocated for Wales to have competitively low tax rates, but has since settled upon a more socialist viewpoint. He has failed to make any inroads into Welsh Labour dominance as of yet, although his leadership is still young and few doubt his potential talents. He will need to live up to that potential to justify deposing Plaid’s best-ever electoral asset.
Wales is a country that just 20 years ago gained self-governance for the first time in 800 years. Unlike Scotland, where the Parliament was rushed into existence with a 75% Yes vote, to nestle securely into an existing civic society of national papers and differentiated justice and education systems, Wales grapples with a more complex legacy. Outright rejection of devolution became a slim acceptance, and was then guided towards becoming the settled will of the Welsh people. Wales has slowly accumulated more powers, and is for the first time in hundreds of years navigating its complex identities and history to build an independent public sphere around its National Assembly, growing in confidence and looking every day like a country more comfortable in its own skin. It will be interesting to see what Wales looks like and where it decides its place in the world should be as this process unfolds. The characters involved – Morgan, Jones, Wood, Price – will be remembered for a long time to come.
Although there are very reasonable arguments about missed opportunities of Leftist political hegemony, Wales is doing all of this whilst trialling quietly radical notions such as opt-out organ donation, nationalisation of major infrastructure, establishment of not-for-profit utilities companies, rejection of privatisation in public services, and banking services predicated on economic growth and community convenience.
For me, it is the most interesting country in the United Kingdom.