A perfect economic storm is about to hit Wales – we need a Welsh Citizen’s Service

A solar panel engineer

Ben Gwlachmai, co-founder of Labour4indyWales

Across the border, it’s clear: Lockdown is over in all but name. The UK Government are keen to ‘get back to normal’. Well, they would, wouldn’t they?

Matt Hancock’s first thought was to get horse racing back up and running (his constituency includes Newmarket). The ‘old normal’ worked just fine for the rich who have such influence at Westminster and they want us out of our paddocks and galloping along again, even if thousands more fall at Covid-19 shaped hurdles.

In Wales, that is not the case. Here the government wants us to #StayLocal and protect one another.

But more importantly, here we seem keener to have a conversation about what kind of ‘normal’ we want to return to.

The fact is that even before Covid-19, ‘normal’ was actually terrible for a lot of people and we want change – even the Economy Minister has said they’ll #BuildBackBetter, something we’ll need to hold him to.

And there is evidence that the public want a different normal too. An opinion poll on Thursday showed that the Welsh Government’s approach was preferred to the UK Government’s in England by 69% to 17%. Yes Cymru’s membership shot up by roughly 1300 people in May, and support for Welsh independence is up to 25%.

Meanwhile, the Welsh public sphere has never felt so alive.

This national feeling that we can and should do things differently will only escalate further because there is a perfect storm heading our way. The coming spike in unemployment will be huge. It won’t simply be a recession, it will be a depression.

This isn’t fear-mongering. This is fact. Let me briefly explain why, before I move on to discuss one possible solution.

 

Breakdown

On the 22nd May, ITV Wales reported that Universal Credit claims in Wales were up by 120,000. We know that Wales has one of the highest Furlough rates of the countries of the UK with upwards of 70% of Welsh businesses using the scheme.

Our aerospace industry is ‘bleeding cash’, and when you add that to the recent Business Wales survey that showed “A quarter of businesses using the Job Retention Scheme say they will struggle to contribute to furloughed workers’ salaries from August” and the ‘straight jacket’ that Ben Lake has said Westminster is placing on us, you start to get an idea of where this is heading.

But there’s more. After one of our wettest Winters we’ve seen one of our driest Springs – climate change is making the weather more and more unpredictable. Farmers who’ve had many of their annual patterns turned upside down by Covid-19, are suffering drought, under-employment, and a very uncertain future thanks – in large part – to Westminster voting through an Agriculture Bill that will bring in cheap, poor-quality food from America.

So there will be a glut of food we produce (like lamb) meaning the price will go down for all but there will be a shortage of foods we import (like fruit) so those prices will go up. So even before Brexit, we’re seeing milk thrown away, lamb prices risked, and rural communities suffering – this equates to a combination of high unemployment and expensive living costs.

Then there’s the B-word. Brexit. I won’t prevaricate, I won’t pretend to know anymore than the rest of us – what’s clear is the UK Government has until the end of the month to request an extension. They’ve said they won’t. Barnier’s statements darkly forebode a breakdown. That means No Deal.

No Deal means massive unemployment waves, across multiple sectors – with the Senedd Research confirming an 8% hit to GDP at a minimum in a No Deal, some have gone so far as to say it will mean 15% unemployed in Wales.

So, in short: a perfect storm. It’s an economic sh*tstorm. Headed Wales’ way.

One answer

In isolation Covid-19 and a No Deal Brexit would have been major economic events that Wales would spend years recovering from, but together they will be catastrophic. No one answer will do the trick.

One long term answer to Westminster’s economic mismanagement is, of course, is an independent Wales – but until we get there I propose a Welsh Citizen’s Service.

The Welsh Citizen’s Service would, in essence, be a Job Guarantee service, just as FDR did with the Civilian Conservation Corps. It was designed to provide jobs for young men who had difficulty finding jobs during the Great Depression in the United States.

This idea proposes an institution that will house two or more decentralised schools to quickly but practically teach people skills that are much needed at that time. To start, those two schools would teach skills in environmental studies and medicine; more should be developed when needed.

People of all ages would be free to join and receive a Universal Basic Income (UBI) plus their basic needs: housing as a first priority, then further help with employment and community building.

Those that enrol full time in the Welsh Citizen’s Service should also be able to gain qualifications of a relative standard to similar lengths of time studied in more formal educational environments.

The WCS would:

  • Allow Wales to build a ‘dormant skills base’ to tackle the huge challenges which will threaten our nation periodically (climate change, pandemics), that can be mobilised quickly and efficiently at a time of crisis – in the new era of climate catastrophe, it must be understood that the level and scale of threat involved cannot be met by traditional service provision model, and that mass mobilisation of citizen resource is necessary
  • Give people important practical skills which they can utilise in other fields
  • Enable retirees to aid, should they be able and so wish, in times of great need
  • Promote a sense of wider, national community and a sense of inclusion for all who live in Wales, instead of the individualism propagated in the post-Thatcherite era
  • Promote a sense of ownership into the population of the cultural, democratic, social, & physical institutions involved

I know that some people will read that and think it a pipe dream. Or impossible. But it has been done before. Estonia is investigating whether to do it now, in order to stop its people leaving.

In times of great crises, we need big ideas. This is one such idea and I, personally, have developed plans for the Environment school of the WCS while Lab4indyWales members who work in the NHS are developing plans for the Medicine school.

Some well-meaning folk have suggested something similar in England but they’ve restricted it to the young,  and said it would only go on until 2021 (when the disasters will really start to come in), and it’s aimed at giving cheap labour to big international companies like Amazon!

We can’t follow that route, we must do it for ourselves or we risk losing the common-purpose we’ve built over this year.

If, like us, you want to help the future of Wales and you believe that there is a way to #ResetWales with enough political will, then I urge you: contact ourfuturewales@gov.wales with the subject ‘Welsh Citizen’s Service’.

Let’s get as many people as we can to do it. 100 or 1000 or 10,000 voices, calling for the same thing, can wake a government up to big ideas. Look out for other ideas coming your way, from all across Wales, under the #ResetWales hashtag soon.

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