Common courtesy or common courtesans? What a Zoom call revealed about the relationship between Wales and Westminster
The cover of the Spectator magazine, as highlighted by Gareth Ceidiog Hughes, does indeed gives an intriguing insight into how the English political establishment view deteriorating relations between themselves and leaders from devolved nations and regions. The sorry state of affairs is portrayed by way of interactions between cartoonish grotesques.
But in the week the Internal Market Bill was passed, the Institute of Welsh Affairs’ Inter-Parliamentary Relations event, conducted over Zoom, also gave us a rare insight into the conversations that occur between the all-too-human representatives from Westminster and the devolved nations. In the kind of conversation that is usually held behind closed doors, politicians drawn from across the political spectrum openly reflected on the relationship between the four nations.
The creation of new forums for dialogue between these bodies, it was argued, could help ensure the UK (described as ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘disorganised’ by way of a newly published report authored by the Institute of Welsh Affairs) remain constitutionally viable. But it wasn’t as much what was said by contributors, though, but the way they said it that proved the most revealing.
Observers were privy to how individuals related through social norms as much as by way of their official roles. Such gatherings have been characterised by the economist, Yaris Varoufakis as dramas played out by ‘adults in the room’ (who prove to be anything but). In this instance, the room was virtual, uniting tiers of government through a grid of equally proportioned screens.
At one point, Sir Bernard Jenkin MP – speaking as Chair of the Liaison Committee – suggested that everyone from the devolved bodies needed to “relax” and talk informally over a “glass of wine”. It was okay to live with ‘untidy’ arrangements, he proposed. This rakish advice took an old boys club approach, an invitation that could be read as generous, perhaps. But his words reminded me more of David Cameron’s jibe, directed over the despatch box to an opposition female MP: “Calm down dear”.
Notably, two of the five panellists in this instance were women, including Liz Saville Roberts MP (Plaid Cymru). It’s worth noting how the whole of Wales, and not just its female representatives, has been pejoratively caricatured in the past. One cartoon (above), drawn at the height of the British Empire, pictured a ‘Miss Wales’ walking past an invitation – made by HM Stanley – to exploit the riches of Africa. Colonialism would offer a remedy for the Welsh nation’s poverty if only her businessmen could be encouraged to grasp the ‘opportunity’ of foreign exploitation.
As John Denham has more recently pointed out: “The union was forged at the heart of Empire,” while by contrast, “its strength at home rested on constructive ambiguity.” These are some of the domestic tropes of economic conquest to which the UK’s ‘family of nations’ has been historically prone. England has donned a Daddy-O persona rather than concede sibling status to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as their ‘brother-in-arms’ (the comradely turn of phrase disingenuously used by George Osbourne to promote City wide Devolution in Manchester).
In this instance, prescriptions for calm were being offered by a Westminster politician operating in the year 2020 on precisely this outdated patrician basis. It was good to have a Conservative politician offer constructive suggestions, the IWA administrator suggested, fearful perhaps of this being seen as forum for laughing at emperors (without clothes).
There might, of course, be reason to show gratitude for Sir Jenkin’s participation. Other less accommodating conservative politicians in Westminster have been giving devolved ministers the ‘silent treatment’. Boris Johnson has refused to speak to Mark Drakeford about the Covid-19 pandemic on a regular basis, private snubs which Drakeford has turned into a public complaint. Ditto Burnham, un-consulted about lockdown decisions in that English city region.
Some in the IWA chat room doubted the sincerity of Jenkin’s show of good faith, interpreting the Prime Minister’s neglect as a deliberate provocation – actions better read as the indicators of this government’s true intent. One commentator in the chatbox identified a new ‘aggressive unionism’ at work.
Good manners – well taught by private schools – can indeed act as an effective vehicle for passive aggression. As Raymond Williams once observed, as a Welshman attending university in the 1950s, he was allotted the role of ‘angry young man’. Others less learned than himself enjoyed the virtue of ‘cultivation’ simply by attending Cambridge tea shops. It was amongst these cafe cultures that Williams first understood ‘culture in a special sense’ as ‘the mark of elevation’. It wasn’t merely that they ‘had it’, but that they ‘showed you they had it’ he pointedly observed.
On listening to the IWA event, Williams’ observation of cultural distinction as soft power held secure. His theory is complemented by feminist commentators who note the resilience of the allure of the ‘strong man’. Contemporary French author Pauline Harmange takes sexism, not only personally, but as a systemic political problem too. In order to secure new space for solidarity, she invites us “to imagine a new way of being, to take less account of the often unsupported opinions of men, to consider the adage ‘it is better to be alone than in bad company’ seriously”.
What was all too obvious in the IWA room was the lack of any collaborative approach based on trust enabled by way of any ‘gentleman’s agreement’. Though undoubtedly constructive in its intent, the IWA report flies in the face of the current direction of travel – with distrust actively seeded by a government unlikely to concede constitutional ground but rather ‘grab’ it (Trump’s lewd phrase comes to mind). Johnson embodies the pretence of convivial bonhomie.
Those wishing to create new forums between parliamentary bodies would be wise to ponder the opportunities for ‘coercion and control’ produced by the structural frameworks within which polite exchanges are permitted.
Women may have won the ‘right to say no’. But maybe not the Welsh.