Ben Gwalchmai and Patrick McGuinness
Recently, Huw L Williams articulated something in O’r Pedwar Gwynt which is often expected of those of us interested in the public sphere and politics in Wales: Quietism / Tawelyddiaeth. A state ruled by one party, like Wales since devolution, creates an environment where robust political critique is stifled for fear of offending someone you know in the governing Party. The party isn’t just responsible for running the country, but for large swathes Welsh civil society.
What this also does is create a feeling around our politics of cosiness, of all politicians needing to ‘get along’, and of the ruling party being somehow ‘above’ politics. This is also a structural issue: Devolution ties our politicians’ hands so they quieten their ambition, quieten their rage. The fact that Wales’s First Ministers tend to do their most trenchant thinking about Devolution when they’ve retired suggests quietism starts at the top.
Welsh politics is in danger of replicating a UK trend: the toxic spin that any criticism of the ruling party, whether Conservative or Labour, is somehow unpatriotic – a failure to ‘pull together’ in a time of crisis. The corollary of this is that a desire to do things differently, must be stamped out. Wanting Wales to be tested for Covid makes you an ‘opportunist’ and both Labour and the Tories might call you a ‘liar’ and a ‘nationalist’. Will Welsh Government ape the UK Government and employ Cambridge Analytica?
When Labour AMs endorse Labour criticism of Boris Johnson’s response to the pandemic, while accusing those who criticised the Welsh Government’s follow my (Tory) leader response as ‘nats’ and ‘opportunists’, entitlement in both parties is a problem. Politicians close ranks in a crisis, but the painting of all opposition in a critical time as ‘unpatriotic’ is Trumpian.
Isn’t it time this stopped? This establishment cosiness? People are dying – our care and medical professionals are dying because of political decisions and the absence of political decisions. Because it sits across so many Reserved Powers, Pandemic Control is a Reserved issue. The Pandemic response team (SAGE+NERVTAG) reports to UK Government. As such, the Welsh Government cannot have the final say on the decisions taken but Covid-19 has shown us the cracks of where those decisions leave people to fall. Our limited powers lock us into Tory errors.
Revelations by The Sunday Times on April 19th, 2020 show that Boris Johnson skipped five COBRA meetings and has avoided taking any responsibility. He probably thought running a country would be a lark. On February 3rd, Johnson gave a speech stating the UK will stand alone against lockdowns; Vaughan Gething said it was fine to have a rugby match on March 12th. Ever Britannia, ever able to conquer everything. Reality, of course, had different ideas and Johnson has been running from scrutiny ever since. Simply: we must stop excusing Johnson and the Tory party, and Welsh Labour in government must stop taking its cue from them.
As we were writing this article, Nobel Prize-winner Martin Evans accused both Westminster and Cardiff Bay of ‘dereliction of duty’. Welsh Labour and the Westminster Tories must think he’s ‘nat’ too.
Boris Johnson has proved to be a rotten and deceitful PM. His ministers are currently at each other’s’ throats; the civil service is being used to question the semantics – rather than the substance – of shocking media revelations of ineptitude and supine laissez-faire on the part of Johnson and his côterie. Each day brings further revelations of obfuscation, ineptitude, spin and outright lies.
They’re a BritNat government trying to source its missing equipment from countries it feels superior to and thinking a ‘weekly clap’ will make up for the life or death fears of the NHS staff whose pay must be raised. It’s easy to check which 2017 Welsh Tory MPs voted against raises for NHS workers – they all did.
Their decisions caused deaths but, to add insult to injury, the Secretary of State for Wales has the absolute brass neck to lie to BBC Radio Wales – to lie to the people of Wales – that the UK Government didn’t steal our Roche testing-kit deal or make Gompels prioritise PPE for England. Fortunately, Welsh Government is now working well with Welsh companies on PPE. Welsh Conservatives have gone very quiet since the truth has started to emerge.
Meanwhile, the UK Government use civil servants as human shields to cover their shortcomings. All that money spent on Brexit, all that energy spent puffing up their chests about our self-sufficiency: here they are begging for foreign help, nicking life-saving equipment, and flying in Romanians to pick the fruit our hardy ‘island race’ was meant to be picking.
This is not something ‘above’ politics. It is politics. The great trick of the politician – the entitled, born to rule ‘natural party of government’ politician – is to pretend that they deal in statesmanship while their opponents deal in mere politics. It was a political decision to think the UK could Brit-bluff its way through a pandemic, just as it was a political decision to underfund, underpay, and under-resource NHS staff, Social Security, and Devolved Governments since 2010.
The mentality that criticism of politicians is out of order in times of crisis is the quietist mentality and falling in line behind Westminster is a recipe for catastrophe. Whenever anyone tells you ‘now is not the time to criticise’ or calls you an ‘opportunist’ or a ‘nationalist’ for not doing as you’re told, it’s a sure sign they have a vested interest in not being held to account, not being scrutinised. While we’re told to pull together, they’re pulling the wool over our eyes.
No longer should anyone in the centre and the left attempt to reach across the Siambr to the Tories. No longer should politicians in Labour or Plaid quieten their rage. And Welsh Government must never give the UK Government the benefit of the doubt, never again. Not an inch. We must demand the capacity, powers, and the necessary separation of legal jurisdiction so that this mess is never repeated. Or the party in power here will be just as culpable.