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Review: The Welsh Way – essays on neoliberalism and devolution

12 Dec 2021 6 minute read
The Welsh Way Parthian Books

Jon Gower

It’s hard to shake off the idea that the essays in this urgently timely collection are indictments, charges made against those who currently run the country.

Collectively they add up to a probing and persuasive assessment of inequalities fomented by what some hoped would be late stage capitalism until, that it is, it flourished again within a global market and a drive for profit unhindered or restrained by, say, unions or, indeed countries.

Some of the best contributions suggest other and better ways of moving into the future even as they explore both the overt and the insidious effects of neo-liberalism – the dominant form of contemporary capitalism – on many aspects of life from policing through feminism and housing to the rights of carers.

It’s a fascinating, important book on so many levels, not least when it considers our history of receiving refugees and laudably aspiring to create a nation of sanctuary within the constraints of the UK immigration system, or when it looks at the growth in private sector mega-prisons, or putting parts of the health service out to tender.

The book has range and depth, including enlightening essays about the ‘Western Gateway’ and its ramifications for Gwent, and a superb survey by Jamie Harris of utopian thought which also questions why there is a paucity of Welsh utopian fiction beyond Jan Morris’ Machynlleth Triad and Islwyn Ffowc Elis’s Wythnos yng Nghymru Fydd.

Challenging perceived wisdom

The trio of editors have set out to challenge the received wisdom about the “success” of devolution whilst also looking hard at the “clear red water” between Welsh Labour and the rest of the party and finding it may be more of a shrivelled brook.

The evidence amassed is of the forensic kind, noting the epidemic of homelessness, with figures at their highest since records began, ‘with rough-sleeper number skyrocketing: people are sleeping and dying in doorways of empty student blocks and luxury flats.’

Then there is the crushing and widespread poverty, coincidentally highlighted again this week in a saddening survey by the Bevan Foundation that showed how many families can barely afford life’s essentials.

Some of the analyses are down the devastating end of the spectrum. Dafydd Huw Rees surveys the Welsh public sphere and finds ‘that there is no Welsh public sphere,’ echoing Gertrude Stein’s dismissal of Oakland, California when she said ‘There’s no there there.’

Part of the problem lies with the weakness of the Welsh media, Rees suggests, leading to a lack of feedback between the public sphere and the state. The picture he paints of media consumption makes for bleak reading, such as the fact that all Wales-based newspapers together only reach 13% of the population, with the Western Mail selling just over 10,000 copies per day in 2020.

The picture for broadcasting is no more uplifting. It makes it very hard for people to know what’s going on, at a time when editorial decision about some Welsh papers are taken outside of the country. It’s a point examined closely in Rae Howells’s examination of a black hole in the media in Port Talbot, based in part on her experience of being part of the area’s hyperlocal news co-operative Port Talbot Magnet and this a town that once used to support not one but five newspaper offices.

Searing critique

One of the triumphs of neo-liberalism, this book avers, is the application and acceptance of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) within education, a ranking system for about a third of the world’s countries. Wales scored lowest in the UK in 2006 and did so again in three of the years which followed.

Dan Evans’ account of its introduction in Wales and the enthusiasm with which a succession of education Ministers oversaw it, suggests that ‘the trajectory of Welsh education is a tragic metaphor for the failures of devolution and the hollowness of Welsh government claims of radicalism.’

Evans notes that one of the main problems with PISA is the incredible pressure to climb up the rankings at a time when teachers are stretched to breaking point. Data-driven-learning, with scant regard for subjects thought to be less economically valuable has a pernicious effects on what our kids learn, or often don’t learn in schools which are in permanent competition with others, replicating the PISA-ish pressures on the country as a whole.

One of the most passionately written contributions to the collection is by Robat Idris, whose ‘Atomic Wales; Embracing Nuclear Colonialism’ is a searing critique which surveys a history spanning from the Nuclear  Free Wales of the 1980s to an era when the country has capitulated ‘to nuclear colonialism.’

He points out how the industry has seduced politicians of various ilk with its promise of jobs, even though establishing a nuclear plant is like building ‘a house without a toilet’ as they say in Japan, underlining the intractable problem of dealing with waste that needs to be secure for thousands of years.

The radioactivity reported off the Welsh coast this last week is the latest reminder of the poisonous legacy of nuclear energy production, while Idris also reminds us that its raison d’etre isn’t exactly in the cause of global peace. One of the companies that has been courting the Welsh government to rescue Wylfa ‘B’ has connections with the Saudi regime, so keen, of course, to develop nuclear weapons.

Implications of unfettered capitalism

Many of the charges in the book are levelled directly against the Welsh Government, seen to be servicing neo-liberalism in so many ways, attracting foreign firms, for instance who send their profits elsewhere, as is also increasingly the case with tourism, apparently.

Sam Parry’s essay ‘ Neoliberalism: Perpetuating Welsh Underdevelopment?’ tells us that by 2013 ‘the absolute majority of the profit made by the tourism industry in Wales left the country.’ It’s sobering stuff.

The Welsh Way opens with a quote by Fredric Jameson, chosen by Michael Sheen, which can gainfully round off this review, as it reminds us of the implications of unfettered capitalism for such matters as the climate emergency and economic inequality in a grand scale.

It runs ‘Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.’

The Welsh Way is edited By Daniel Evans, Kieron Smith & Huw Williams, published by Parthian and can be purchased here or from your local bookshop

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2 years ago

This sounds like a bit of a bleak read, enough to drive a man to drink. I bet Jamie Harris’s survey was short.

I think I’ll leave it while the year is still growing darker, and set it aside for the spring, when sunshine and birdsong have returned.

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
2 years ago

I look forward to reading this book, partly because I have something of a fascination about why Wales constantly fails to have an economy that truly works for Wales and also to discover whether the opinons and findings mesh with the discussions those of us on the Coleg Harlech Welsh Studies course had during the years 1984 to 1986. Most of us then were of the opinion that unbridled tourism was a monster devouring the country and syphoning the profits eastwards. Ditto water and other assets. We were introduced to concepts that looked at Wales from different economic perspectves, such… Read more »

Robin Lynn
Robin Lynn
2 years ago
Reply to  Padi Phillips

Supporting your local book shop might have been better than both. Otherwise a very interesting commentary.

Grayham Jones
2 years ago

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