Aled Gwyn Job
Wales became a modern nation because of the growth of nonconformism.
The Methodist revivals of the 18th Century led directly to a range of far-reaching educational, social and political changes in turn.
These developments were born of the foundational idea that Wales had a mind of its own, and would not blindly follow what the UK Government told it to do.
We won’t be told what’s best for our own nation by distant authorities, thank you very much.
But, I wonder whether the harsh truth today is that Wales is by now a deeply conformist nation in so many ways.
A kind of stoic acceptance that we must accept the status quo seems to have permeated all aspects of our politics – even, sadly, Plaid Cymru, who claim to want to upturn the political order.
It was seen clearly on Friday, as county councillors gathered in Caernarfon to vote on Gwynedd Council’s Local Development Plan.
This plan will see a total of almost 8,000 new homes built in Gwynedd and Ynys Môn – the last real heartlands of the Welsh language – between 2011 and 2026.
The vote was split down the middle at 30-30, with most Plaid Cymru councillors supporting the Local Development Plan. The Council Chair gave her casting vote in favour.
What was really depressing were the arguments set out by those in favour.
Despite the protestations of deep concern and love for the Welsh language that preceded almost every speech in favour of the plan, not a single councillor in favour argued that the development plan would boost the language in the two counties.
One had anticipated that at least one of the cabinet members would try to convince their fellow councillors that all the new houses could, for example, attract Welsh speakers back to Gwynedd to start new businesses and the like.
They could have argued that this, in turn, could help meet one of the council’s key strategic priorities, i.e. raising the number of Welsh speakers in the county from 65% to 70% by 2021.
But no. No attempt was made to present such a narrative.
Their core message was that they had no choice but to obey the requirements of the Planning Inspector and implement this development plan (which is essentially a plan foisted on local authorities by the Planning Inspectorate in London).
They raised a whole host of doomsday scenarios which could come into play if councillors had the temerity to vote no:
- the Labour Government could implement the Development Plan from Cardiff
- the Government could send in Commissioners to run the Council directly
- developers could rub their hands in glee at the prospect of no development plan in place
Great store was also placed on the fact that the Planning Inspectorate had praised the robustness of the plan.
It was hard to reconcile this “robustness” with the fact that the plan will mean a 20% increase in new houses in Pwllheli and a 30% increase in Llangefni by 2026.
These are two of the only three towns in Wales where 80% of local people speak Welsh (Caernarfon being the other).
It seems almost criminally negligent that a Plaid Cymru administration can contemplate threatening such a cultural heritage by accepting these housing projections in such an abject way
Are we to believe that the inspector knows more about how best to preserve the culture and history of Gwynedd than the councillors elected by the people to represent their best interests?
The motto of Gwynedd County Council is ‘Cadernid Gwynedd’ (The Fastness of Gwynedd), but it’s hard to believe that they were living up to their name in this instance.
The cabinet members who spoke in the debate seemed to forget that they were politicians, and spoke like administrators.
That is, that they now see their role almost as civil servants to all intents and purposes, there to implement whatever is imposed upon them.
They forgot that a politician’s job is to create a political reality, not accept orders handed down from above.
There is a strong case to be made that the Cabinet system now used in Welsh Local Government has facilitated a process by which cabinet members spending more of their council time with Officers rather than in the company of their fellow councillors.
And it is a common complaint from ordinary councillors from all political stripes that they are now mere bystanders in county council politics.
And, of course, the administrators are always right. There seemed to be no shred of doubt in Dafydd Meurig (Planning Portfolio) and Dyfrig Siencyn (Council Leader)’s minds about the essential virtues and benefits of the development plan.
One almost felt at times that they were arguing about their own integrity and sincerity as individuals, rather than arguing objectively about the merits of the development plan.
“Trust us, folks, we know what we’re doing,” was their plea, which reminded me of the arch-persuader himself, the former Prime Minister Tony Blair.
It was very ironic that one of the best speeches made in the chamber came from a Labour councillor, Sion Jones from Bethel. He was a breath of fresh air after the spin presented by the administrators.
He acknowledged that opposing the development plan was going against his own party’s wishes, but he said that protecting the Welsh language in Môn and Gwynedd was more important than his own political welfare.
He said that choosing to allow so many new houses would only attract more migrants into the two counties, putting the Welsh language under even further pressure.
He argued that Gwynedd County Council should have lobbied hard for Gwynedd and Mon to be granted special linguistic status as part of the planning process in Wales.
It should be taken into account, he said, that these two counties are the only areas where Welsh remains a living, community language on a large scale in the whole of modern-day Wales.
But, no, it seems that using their political capital to fight for such an outcome occurred to the ‘administrators’.
The truth is that administering and conforming rather than politicking and challenging is a blight on the whole of Wales by now.
Perhaps this can even be traced back to the onset of devolution itself when Plaid Cymru took a conscious decision that their main task was to solidify and secure the future of the fledgling Assembly by extending every help possible to the Labour Party.
This support for Labour and helping Labour to “administer” Wales has been an ever-constant feature of Welsh politics since 1999.
This passive, administrative approach has been one of the reasons why devolution has proved to be such a disappointment to so many people.
But even worse than that, this technocratic process has turned into a defining feature of our national life on every level.
This overwhelming emphasis on administration more often than not leads to conformity: that is the very nature of the beast. And conformity in our present circumstances is deadly in so many ways.
It is painfully clear in so many facets of our national life that we sorely need a new non-conformist spirit in Wales.