Ifan Morgan Jones
Some of us who take a great deal of interest in Welsh politics have long been worried about the lack of public understanding of what is devolved and what isn’t.
For example, a BBC/ICM poll in 2014 suggested that fewer than 50% of respondents understood that the Welsh Government runs the Welsh NHS.
This doesn’t usually matter that much beyond a lack of democratic accountability, but clearly during a pandemic when actions taken by different governments differ the public need to understand who is doing what.
Some anti-devolution campaigns have tried to rather cynically exploit the confusion to argue that at a time of crisis powers over health and other matters should be taken back by Westminster altogether.
This is a poor argument because there is no evidence that the Welsh Government has done a worse job than Westminster in handling the pandemic – in fact on some issues of public concern such as testing NHS staff they’ve actually been much more proactive.
On the other end of the constitutional political spectrum, it has been suggested that the only answer to this conundrum is to devolve broadcasting – or even declare independence.
As a stop-gap, I’d like to suggest a rather less dramatic and costly answer to this public confusion. That is for the UK Government, BBC and others to start using the ‘E’ word.
Yes, that’s ‘England’.
This may not seem like a particularly big ask. But you would imagine that ‘England’ was a swear word such is the reticence to use it at an institutional level.
Even in sport, we have a Football Association of Wales and a Scottish Football Association and a… The Football Association.
We have a Welsh Rugby Union and a Scottish Rugby Union and a … The Rugby Football Union.
So too do we have an NHS Wales and an NHS Scotland and… The NHS.
If you have watched the television over the last few days you will even have seen adverts featuring the Welsh Chief Medical Officer and the… Chief Medical Officer.
In fact, the only major institution I could find with England in its name is the Bank of England. Which paradoxically isn’t an England-only institution at all.
England in the English language seems to exist decontextualized in the gaps where Wales and Scotland aren’t. And this rather than devolution is at the root of much audience confusion about which government does what in the UK.
Because when people hear talk of ‘The NHS’ and ‘The Chief Medical Officer’ they naturally assume that the media and UK Government are discussing their NHS and their Chief Medical Officer.
Little do they know that the nation here knows as ‘The’ is actually the one next door, England.
To make matters worse, very often in their daily press conferences the Westminster Government will segue from matters that do concern the whole UK to ones that only concern England’s NHS without any kind of indication that they are doing so.
Whereas, if the public heard one government say ‘NHS England is doing this’ and another saying ‘NHS Wales is doing this’ – and either saying ‘this is being done across the UK’ – they are not going to have any trouble understanding which statements apply to them.
People aren’t stupid but they’re not civil servants clued up on the intricacies of the Wales Act 2017 either. Either politicians make it clear what they’re talking about, or people are not going to know.
The BBC and other news platforms have room to improve on this front as well. Adding ‘England’ to a chyron or an introduction is not a big ask but it is something many journalists seem to find impossible to achieve.
Combined the population of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland make up 16% of the population of the UK. That’s a large chunk of your audience to be misleading by not being specific enough.
Ultimately, the reasons for this omission comes back to the over-centralised nature of the UK and the fact that the ‘peripheral regions’ are too often an afterthought to those that spend their time in London’s corridors of power. The NHS is The NHS because for too many of the politicians and journalists who dominate our screens, it is The NHS.
But they can do better. Journalists at the BBC, in particular, have reported this pandemic with such meticulous accuracy and detail that they have over the course a single month largely renewed the public’s flagging faith in public service broadcasting.
Why not take that commitment to accuracy and audience understanding one step further and introduce a new best practice – to use the ‘E’ word so that the largest nation in the UK is no longer the unmentionable default alongside Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.