Whatever your stance on the Labour Party’s management of Wales in the two decades of devolution, it’s difficult to argue with the fact that the Welsh Government’s handling of Covid has been better than that of the Cummings government. Certainly, that’s what the majority of surveys and polls over the last six months have shown, which is perhaps why it’s only the Cummings government’s politicians and press who are doing the arguing.
Mark Drakeford’s leadership on Covid has been appreciated across the political spectrum, but the unnecessary unforced error over unenforceable rules about ‘non-essential items’ appears to have squandered that reputation and given the forces of anti-devolution a new impetus.
For a time, at least. If it is an error, it is, at least, a non-lethal one. If Drakeford had been a politician like Boris Johnson, he would simply have spent the last seven months cocking things up, hiding from scrutiny, U-turning, lying, blustering, attacking lawyers, poor people, Europeans and scientists, and watching the infection rates and the deaths mount up.
Why not? When you’re so lethally incompetent that no-one expects you to do your job – and many actually rather hope you don’t – you’ve got a free pass. You can even, like Johnson, find time to moan about your salary.
The problem is that when you do things half-way competently, you’re held up to higher standards than those who do things badly. If Donald Trump can talk to a woman in an interview without insulting about menstruation or calling her ugly, he’s apparently ‘growing into the job’. If Boris Johnson, with a track record of lying, racism, homophobia, corruption and more lying, gets through a speech without being racist, homophobic and lying too grossly, we’re told the ship of state is finally steadying. Here in Wales, if the Tory party gets through a week without an aide collapsing a rape trial, calling Italians ‘wops’ (that’s you, Alun Cairns, I listened to the programme…) or accepting large amounts of ‘perfectly legal’ dark money while employing family members in their taxpayer-funded offices, then our attention wanders…
To what? To whom? A man wearing pants and mask in Newport Tesco, or a man ripping the plastic barriers off the clothes aisle in Bangor. We get the heroes we deserve – certainly, we get the heroes Andrew RT Davies thinks we deserve.
The Tories, the anti-devolution brigade, the anti-Welsh lobby, have been lapping this crisis up. It’s a perfect diversion from the Cummings government’s overwhelming majority vote in favour of denying free school meals to poor children. They hate – I don’t use the word lightly – the fact that the devolved governments have determined to keep the vulnerable fed in this global crisis.
Tory MPs and their pet journos prefer to challenge each other to a game of ‘feed a family of 4 on 14p a week’. They even swap recipes over Twitter – it’s like Masterchef, but with Fagin. Every single Welsh Conservative MP voted against extending free school meals over the holiday, except for one, who vociferously… abstained.
Of course, they’re delighted by Drakeford’s misstep. And maybe we can’t blame them for making political hay – everything is political, and this pandemic is no exception. What is repugnant, however, is the way in which Conservative party politicians are feeding an ugly tide of vicious anti-Welsh – as well as anti-devolution – bullying. Not only are they feeding it – they’re actively seeking it out, with inflammatory tweets and attention-seeking slogans. And when England itself goes back into lockdown, as it must, they’ll go quiet again.
Their tactic has two purposes: to divert from the divisive incompetence of Westminster rule and to lay the groundwork for hoovering up the anti-Welsh vote in the coming Senedd election. If that means inviting thousands of Welsh-hating English right-wingers to insult our country, our democracy, our language and our culture, that’s fair game. They need that Abolish Devolution, Brexiteer, ex-UKIP vote to push them into second place. They will slash and burn whatever it takes.
The irony is that devolution – which the Tories opposed – gave them a means of regrouping after annihilation in Wales post-1997, where they lost all eight of their remaining seats. Devolution helped them pretend to be the party of Wyn Roberts, putting the likes of Nick Bourne and David Melding in the shop window. Devolution also launched the careers of David TC Davies, Alun Cairns and David Jones, politicians who campaigned against devolution but learned to make it work – for them, because they used their AM positions to get seats at Westminster, where the grass is greener and the expenses lusher.
The pretence is gone now. The spectacle of Andrew RT Davies Twitter-begging Asda and Tesco to attack our devolved government’s policies and @-ing anyone who’ll listen in the hope that they’ll come and dump on us, is ghoulish.
At every juncture in Wales’s response to Covid, the Conservatives have twisted and sloganeered and attacked policies designed to keep people safe. They hate devolution because Covid has been a test that devolution has, in important respects, passed. At every point, they’ve tried to destroy consensus and sow fear and resentment. Yet throughout the catastrophic Westminster handling of Covid they’ve stayed silent.
If they can tolerate starving children and thousands of additional deaths, I fear that the Conservatives have a cradle to grave plan for Wales – they’d rather we were dead than different.