April Fools’ Day came early this weekend, when Carwyn Jones, a former first minister, took to Twitter to compare the ultra-nationalists of Brexit, with their cries of ‘Traitor’ and their abuse of police, journalists, and anyone who might look or speak ‘foreign’, with Welsh nationalists.
‘Or, to use the puerile lingo of the tribalist: ‘nats’.’
The occasion was the Brexit rally where people dragged models of Teresa May and Sadiq Khan along the ground with ropes around their necks; one group suggested Khan should be hung drawn and quartered; others decorated Westminster bridge with hanging effigies of Remainers.
This was the rally that was stacked with English Defence League supporters, rippling with Nazi salutes and where Tommy Robinson live-streamed. Remain politicians are threatened with death, female ones with rape.
Even Nigel Farage, who looks moderate besides many for his followers has today threatened to ‘take up a rifle’ if Brexit isn’t brought in.
But for Carwyn Jones, it was a chance for a grotesque piece of tribalist false-equivalence. There is, after all, a by-election on, and trolling Plaid Cymru must be a kind of Pavlovian instinct, even out of office.
If politicians want to see how political discussion in the public sphere has been poisoned, then they need to look not just at the violent rhetoric of the emboldened right, but at the cynical so-called ‘moderates’ happy to use false equivalence for party-political gain.
Perhaps Carwyn Jones is missing the limelight, not that he did much with the limelight. A politician who left the devolution project weaker and less reputable than he found it, whose tenure on almost every measure (including the ones Welsh Labour invent for themselves) left Wales poorer, iller, worse-educated and less confident – perhaps he’s having regrets at having kept his head down all that time.
The last act of his administration consisted of three parts: handing powers back to the Tories in the face of Brexit, the opaque semi-denial that he was consulted by Alun Cairns on the naming of the ‘Prince Charles Bridge’, and the even more opaque (and ongoing) investigation of the tragic death of Carl Sargeant.
For a politician who didn’t seem to have much by way of views when he was in office, this weekend’s tweet is uncharacteristically muscular:
Thought for the day. Some British nats say that if you don’t support Brexit you’re a traitor to Britain. Some Welsh nats say if you don’t support independence you’re a traitor to Wales. What about the vast majority of moderate people in the middle? Are they traitors to both?
— Carwyn Jones AM/AC (@AMCarwyn) March 30, 2019
One might ordinarily have welcomed some views on what was happening to this country, to the UK as a whole as well as its constituent parts. But no – once a tribalist, always a tribalist.
It’s a chance to attack Plaid Cymru, at the same time as his leader, Corbyn, visits Newport to attack Welsh Labour’s the policies on health, education and transport that are in fact Welsh Labour’s policies.
In Scotland, Welsh Labour work with the Tories and make electoral pacts with them, blaming the SNP at a devolved level for Westminster policies; in Wales it’s the reverse: they vote with the Tories but blame Westminster for Labour Assembly policies.
No wonder they don’t want broadcasting devolved. That might lead to informing the populace. Just as well, since Mark Drakeford, the former health minister, is now in charge of the Assembly and it’s his legacy in the health service that gives Corbyn his oppositional traction in Newport West.
But what was truly remarkable about Carwyn Jones’s comment, aside from the essentially predictable anti-Plaid dig, was the follow-up:
I don’t agree. The British state delivered the NHS, free education, welfare and security, all things the Welsh people wanted. The challenge for the future for me is to see a more equal grouping of nations in the UK. I think Wales has a great future. I don’t see us in decline
— Carwyn Jones AM/AC (@AMCarwyn) March 30, 2019
This is a treasure, because it reveals the fundamental tenet of British Nationalism: even the NHS, invented by a Welsh politician and based on social organisation implemented in a Welsh environment, would not exist without ‘The British State’.
The sleight of word here is extraordinary, as is the imputation that Welsh people themselves wouldn’t have ‘delivered’ welfare, free education and security.
Why not? Are Welsh people wired so differently that in a Europe where healthcare, free education, and welfare were part of the post-war political landscape, Welsh people would have ‘wanted’ it but not been able to ‘deliver’ them?
The implication is that Wales by itself, Welsh politicians by themselves – and that includes, bizarrely, Welsh Labour politicians, with whom NHS could be argued to have begun – simply cannot do the things that are considered normal in a basically functioning, fair and progressive society.
Leaving aside the other amazing claims that the welfare and education and security only exist because of the British state – as if no other small independent country had these things – it should be clear that these are exactly the things that the British state now threatens.
Let’s also remember that the NHS was fought tooth and nail by large swathes of the same ‘British State’ Jones talks of as if they were our saviours.
As a non-Welsh person myself, I find this extraordinary – I am living in a country where people don’t just think the Union is better together – a perfectly understandable view that used to be mine until I understood what ‘together’ meant and whose ‘together’ it really was.
But what I find extraordinary is that I’m living in a country run by politicians who believe that they, not to mention their own populations, are intrinsically unable to achieve anything for themselves.
Even when, as anyone who has read any Welsh Labour history can tell you, they have a uniquely impressive track record of exactly those things they’re told can only be delivered by others: the NHS, welfare, miners’ libraries, education.
Even when Wales has actually done those things, Wales is told it could never have done those things.
We’re through the looking-glass here: what you made you didn’t make; what you created you never created; what’s yours isn’t yours; what others can do, you can’t. Even when Wales has created wealth, it is told it is poor. Even when Wales has vast natural resources, it is told it doesn’t ‘own’ them. And so on.
I’m amazed. Carwyn Jones’s tweet, trivial and nasty and opportunistic thought it is, is the iceberg-tip of a whole psychopathology whereby any form of Welsh self-reliance and self-invention needs to be belittled or written out, and any form of achievement (other than sporting) needs to be seen as some kind of gift from the higher power that is the UK state, and thus impossible without that higher power.
This is someone who led this country, who we depended on to defend Wales and strengthen devolution. But what is clear to me is that whoever Wales votes for, we simply cannot go on electing politicians who believe that Wales is less capable than other countries, and that Welsh people are somehow less able than others.
No other country has a ruling establishment whose fundamental tenet is a belief in its own and its people’s ineptitude.
It shouldn’t even be a political issue. It seems to me (just about) possible to think Wales is capable of governing itself while asserting that it’s better off in the UK; or to believe, as we’re told Carwyn Jones does, in an increasingly federal UK; or to believe in Devo-Max incrementally or in one swoop. Those are all views I’ve held at different times in my own political development.
What remains baffling to me now – even in the greatest political and constitutional crisis since Suez – is the almost superior belief in one’s own national inferiority that defines the unionist parties of Wales.
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