‘Wales needs more independent voices to scrutinise our politicians,’ says Theo Davies-Lewis as he joins Nation.Cymru
Wales’ media needs to develop a strong culture of independent voices scrutinising the politics of the day, according to Nation.Cymru’s newest political columnist.
Theo Davies-Lewis, one of Wales’ best-known columnists and broadcasters, said that Wales needed to nurture a variety of viewpoints to write about Welsh politics and, crucially, to scrutinise its politicians.
Davies-Lewis is a regular broadcaster for BBC Radio Cymru and S4C, who has written for The Spectator, The Times and was formerly The National’s chief political commentator.
Starting this weekend, he will be writing a weekly column for Nation.Cymru reacting to the political events in the Senedd and beyond.
He notes that one of the big differences between Wales and elsewhere in the UK “is that there’s actually not many people that write columns about Welsh politics – in Welsh or English.”
“BBC Wales has brilliant reporters and provides an excellent public service. But columnists giving their opinion doesn’t happen at the BBC, beyond contributing to programmes, because that’s not their remit.
“That’s one of the big things, I think, in terms of Welsh media that we’re missing out on. At the moment, where do people go to find critiques of the Welsh Government?
“You have to scour five different publications in Welsh and English to find three or four different pieces. On websites like The Guardian you have people writing weekly columns and creating a debate in one place.
“People might dismiss that and say, in Wales, we don’t want it. But I think it’s pretty fundamental to the society that we want to create.
“In London, you have columnists who aren’t necessarily journalists. There are people there from politics, business, law. I wouldn’t describe myself as a traditionally trained journalist. I’m a columnist. I don’t have to be impartial. I can say whatever I want.”
‘In a lull’
Something is certainly needed to stir up Welsh politics, Davies-Lewis says, because after all the focus on the Welsh Government during the pandemic there was now a sense of “stasis”.
One reason for that stupor is because the level of debate within the Senedd itself isn’t particularly high, he added.
“I don’t think the standard of Welsh politicians has been strong.
“I’m very grateful to have grown up in Wales during devolution. But there are no stars in Welsh politics in terms of headline grabbers and huge characters.
“We haven’t even had the sort-of statesmen and stateswomen we’ve produced in Wales in the past. If you look at Welsh history and the kind of politicians that emerged before, particularly in the Labour movement, you just can’t compare the present Senedd or Westminster groups.
“Everyone says the Senedd is a bit boring – but it’s true. And as a columnist, I have to say, it’s actually sometimes quite hard to write stuff because you need a kind of vibrant landscape and people, which we don’t have.
“Mark Drakeford ignited more interest throughout the pandemic, but let’s just look at what’s happened since – we’re actually in a bit of a lull period now.
“That’s despite the fact that there are huge, significant events happening in terms of the cost of living, a new British Prime Minister, and debate about Scotland’s future.
“I haven’t heard anything about Welsh politics in the frontline of any kind of British media outlet over the last three months apart from internal fractures in Plaid Cymru.
“If you want devolution to succeed you need a bit of energy behind it, and that is not always to do with policies.
“Politics is totally about people. That is such a critical element to better engagement with politics across the board.”
Despite the lack of vitality in Welsh politics, the behaviour of the UK Government had energised Welsh politics – especially among the younger generation – with their attacks on devolution, he said.
“It’s very hard not to be a nationalist in Wales,” Davies-Lewis said.
“And I think that’s because the UK is definitely not a system that works. We have a huge energy and cost of living crisis but very few levers of power to enact change.
“Mark Drakeford said to me once, when I was interviewing him for The Spectator, that the pandemic had made people into something along the lines of ‘kneejerk nationalists’.
“I think that’s right – but I do think in terms of where we are, it’s very hard not to be a Welsh nationalist. And that shouldn’t be seen as something to be frowned upon: there are British nationalists in the UK just as fervent in their support of a unitary state.
“So, even for me, I’ve probably been on a journey in the last two or three years, probably with a lot of young people in my generation as well.
“Because we’re reaching the crisis point where it’s not a question of: ‘Are we too poor to be independent?’ It’s a case of: ‘Is it too much of a risk to stay in the UK?’
“And during the pandemic, Mark Drakeford did a huge amount to inspire confidence in the ability of Welsh people to govern. There’s been this psychological barrier for so long. ‘Can we do this?’ And I think we’ve shown that we can, but that there’s a long way to go.”
He added that living in London for the last few years had made him realise that what Wales wanted didn’t really register there at all.
“This is not a voluntary union anymore,” he said. “It’s not a voluntary union at all. And it really infuriates me.
“I live in west London, and many of the people I have come across over the last few years during my time at Oxford and beyond have been English – some privately educated, quite privileged. There are honourable exceptions of those I’ve met who are very positive about Wales. Moreover, however, there is such huge ignorance across Whitehall and Westminster. We just don’t register.
“Mark Drakeford will say: ‘I want powers for the Crown Estate, Broadcasting, and for the Senedd to be able to vote on whether to hold a referendum.’ It doesn’t matter.
“It’s not a constructive relationship. It’s actually been the case that being outside of Wales has made me realise that this is not a voluntary nation of equals.”
According to Davies-Lewis, the fact that even the SNP could not hold a legally recognised independence referendum, despite controlling the Scottish Government and almost all Scottish Westminster constituencies, showed that “the framework of government in this country is broken”.
“And whether you support independence or home rule, it’s not necessarily about identity any more.
“It’s to do with governance, and what is the right level of self-government for us to function and deliver for people in the right way.
“I think you can argue that independence may not be the answer, but certainly the framework we’ve got now is definitely not the way to have constructive relations across the UK – if you want to solve issues like poverty, the cost of living, and the cost of energy.”
One thing that had happened to make things more interesting at the Senedd, however, Davies-Lewis said, was the cooperation agreement between Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru.
And he suggested it wasn’t just the people of Wales who had been on a journey towards greater support for devolution over the past few years – but the First Minister Mark Drakeford as well.
“Mark Drakeford and Adam Price are both politicians who have great strengths in their own way,” he said. “They’re quite an interesting dynamic. They play a kind of master and apprentice role and they work well. They’re from similar Welsh-speaking, rural and industrial areas.
“They think about politics in quite different ways to how other people would think, even within their own parties. They do have an agenda to create a Wales modelled on the Scandinavian countries, I think, revolving around the better delivery of public services, a local approach to communities and support for the Welsh language. It’s an agenda you wouldn’t have seen in the Labour party 50 years ago.
“And for Mark Drakeford, I think that shows that he has conviction, because he didn’t need to do this. He could have kept to the minority government and set up a confidence and supply arrangement with Plaid Cymru.
“It’s probably something frowned upon in British politics, but people do go on a journey. The next Prime Minister coming up used to be a Lib Dem, of course.
“I do think Mark Drakeford has gone on a journey. And that’s why Mark is an interesting character and it’s surprising that no one has actually written anything about him in detail.
“I’d love to write a biography of Mark Drakeford at some point, but right now I don’t have the time. Besides, I think there’s still quite a few chapters of his story yet to run.”
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