In Republic, Plato rallied against populist leaders and their impact on democracy. “He lives out his life from day to day, gratifying the desire of the moment”, the philosopher wrote. It is an image embodied by a man who, though most of his time is spent in politics, “leaps to his feet and says and does whatever comes into his head”. After twenty-five centuries, Plato’s analysis has stood the test of time.
This seminal work would have been a key text for the Classics expert in Downing Street during his time studying at Balliol College, Oxford. The Prime Minister is also an admirer of Athens’ golden age, the legacy of which has clearly been channelled into the new slogan to ‘build back better’ after the pandemic. By now, many of Boris Johnson’s own MPs recognise he is (or was?) an effective election winner but an ineffectual Prime Minister during a national crisis.
That’s why the Welsh people are relieved to have Mark Drakeford in charge of the response to coronavirus. He is what Plato would deem to be a virtuous and good leader – a steady navigator of the ship who is a lover of wisdom.
Yes, he has made mistakes too. Some pretty big ones (on face coverings and Wales’ testing regime, for example) and has recently been less than open to democratic scrutiny by addressing the media before the Senedd on the latest coronavirus restrictions. But on the whole, the Welsh people feel he is the right leader for this crisis.
Drakeford has deployed a popular communitarian strategy to deal with the virus’ spread. Wales before England – rather than ‘for Wales see England’ – has been the key message over the last six months. We’ve set our own rules and – although there has been politics at play at times – the Welsh government has taken such decisions to ensure that they put the health and safety of our nation above anything else.
Yet the First Minister insists that a collaborative, four-nation approach is still in play. His Labour comrade, Andy Burnham, disagrees: decisions during the pandemic have been too “London-centric”, according to the Mayor of Greater Manchester. Conservative politicians are on the same page too. Many in the UK government want to “focus on England” at the expense of the rest of the union, in the eyes of Douglas Ross, the newly-elected party leader in Scotland.
It’s about time Mark Drakeford saw the writing on the wall for himself. He has been shunned by Downing Street over the proposal to ban people travelling from coronavirus hotspots in England to Wales. We are “one country”, Johnson pointed out to the BBC. That’s right (for now). But we cannot expect the people of Wales to turn a blind eye to what is a potentially disastrous decision from a UK government that is continuously wavering on the rules and regulations.
After all, people across different parts of Wales who are in the middle of local lockdowns have been told not to leave their area without a good excuse. That’s understandable, but also a hard ask for many of us who have already experienced many months of lockdown. On the other hand, communities in England have not been given such guidance. They can travel freely to our areas if they choose to do so.
Detractors may point out that we were happy enough when the Welsh rules were different to those in England and suited our own communities nevertheless. Sure. Although the bigger picture here is what will halt or slow the spread of the virus in both nations and across the UK as a whole. It’s not nationalist to be concerned about who is coming to your area and from where. We’re all supposed to be in this together, anyway.
It is nonsensical that this UK government would put Welsh communities at risk with such complacency over the travel restrictions currently in place. Arfon Jones, north Wales’ Police and Crime Commissioner, saw the current rules as a “crazy anomaly”. He’s right. More broadly it reflects how this Prime Minister has adopted an England-first strategy rather than one which represents the interest of the people of Wales and the UK as a whole.
Circling back to Plato it is clear that Boris Johnson and his government meet none of his criteria for good leadership. There is no prudence, temperance, courage or justice behind the doors of 10 Downing Street. He has heard the concerns of Wales’ First Minister “loud and clear” but has taken no action to solve the problem. That’s a major reason why our United Kingdom is increasingly divided and broken. Mark Drakeford should realise that too.