We are living in a liberating age of challenge – can the same zeal be exercised in Wales?

The empty pedestal of the statue of Edward Colton in Bristol, the day after protesters felled the statue and rolled it into the harbour. Picture by Caitlin Hobbs (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Daran Hill

The destruction of the statue of Colston in Bristol was a heartening act of civil action. The biggest puzzle is why he was allowed to remain standing for so long. Yet I do wonder whether the same zeal and creative destruction can ever be exercised in Wales.

How on earth is the statue of Henry Morton Stanley still standing in Denbigh? He assisted the King of the Belgians in perpetrating genocide in the Congo. Cardiff Council have had decades to voluntarily remove the statue of Picton from City Hall. He belongs in the Bay – and I don’t mean on a plinth outside the Welsh Parliament.

Let me stop there. Others are in way better positions to direct and shape Black Lives Matter. It’s not for me to set that agenda. Frankly, I’m more interested in seeing statues and symbols debated than anything else.

We are thankfully living in an age of challenge so challenging it has even spread to Wales. People are translating frustration and anger in different ways. There is a lack of respect and deference for the old ways of doing things. Direct action is a vital embodiment of this. Political movements are too.

This is not simply a product of the moment. Long term trends have shown a move to populist approaches. The Brexit vote in 2016 was the best example in a British context but – and this is so important that it has repeatedly either been dismissed or explained away – in a Welsh context too. So many of the ruling elite in Wales still can’t come to terms in any way with what happened then because they believed it to be so profoundly wrong that it was driven by error or stupidity or even something approaching evil.

Yet populism is a profoundly liberating wave of challenge. It threatens and it throws metaphorical rocks, but it also thinks. Specifically, it thinks about how to appeal to the mass of the population who perceive themselves as ignored, left behind, or deliberately misled.

 

Rethinking

And populist challenge is now shaping everything. As our discourse has moved to extremes, witness the growth here in Wales of the Abolish the Assembly Party, though readers of this site would probably prefer me just to focus on the energy and impact of Yes Cymru.

They are both populist reactions to political establishments that have spent two decades believing that just because pretty much everyone in the Pierhead building agreed with them during yet another navel-gazing conference, they actually spoke for and represented everyone. I stopped going to most of these intellectually onanistic sessions quite some time ago.

In the spirit of challenge and change, we should welcome the rise of new think tanks in Wales. Providing they think differently, and it’s not just the same people doing all the thinking, then they can make a real impact. Both the Centre for Welsh Studies and the brand new Reset Cymru have the potential to really energise thinking providing one actually does some specifically Welsh studying, and the other presses the reset button more than once.

God knows we need it. The Institute of Welsh Affairs has attempted to tap into a new way of thinking too and launched a Rethinking Wales exercise, allegedly shaped by Covid-19. The IWA line is that allegedly: “The IWA started the #RethinkingWales series in part because our members told us it was harder to have the usual conversations about ideas because of the COVID-19 lockdown.” Never fear though, IWA stepped into the breach and has seemingly platformed not just conversations but the same old conversations they were having before Covid-19.

A couple of weeks ago I noticed the jovial Alan Davies raving about one of the Rethinking sessions. He wrote on Twitter:

Now I like Major Alan (I’m not sure he still could say that about me) and I don’t want to personalise this, but if that’s a product of Rethinking then we’re all doomed.

One thing that has bothered me throughout the last two months is the number of people who have used the crisis simply to restate things they already believed. Jonathan Morgan was right to call this out in his brick through the window piece for Centre for Welsh Studies.

He got a typically handbags at dawn response from the IWA. I do hope IWA greets the potential challenge of Reset with more confidence than it has greeted the advent of the CWS, which suggested to me that the old world is very scared of the new.

Weaning

One question that is repeatedly asked by those sceptical of the CWS is where they’re funding comes from. The one place I really doesn’t hope it ever comes from is the Welsh Government, and I hope Reset resists that temptation too. The majority of Welsh civic society is already bought in or bought off by the groupthink. They are neutered either by choice or the cheque book.

Way too much discourse in Wales is state-sponsored. Take this site, Nation.Cymru, as an example. The reason I started writing for this site some years ago was I welcomed the way in which it was able to bring challenge and rigour. While it does that, I will continue to contribute occasionally to its maintenance.

But of course, I’m also doing that through my taxes because Nation.Cymru – like so much else – gets public grants to continue its work. Having pondered this one, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s right to be relaxed about that. The content doesn’t seem to have been inhibited, and the funding promise stream is relatively new. I accept the argument editor Ifan Morgan Jones has made that new journalism needs support to ensure pluralism. Where this becomes a problem is when the funding tap becomes a life support system, where the money isn’t just used to start something but to maintain something.

Take Planet magazine for example. It celebrates fifty years this year. Full of worthy lefty contributions, often by very well to do writers who could definitely afford the full cover price. But fifty years on Planet Magazine is still sucking on the teat of public money. It is a grotesque middle-aged baby in a sweaty nappy gorging itself on the steady flow of full-fat public funding, when neither the man-child nor the surrogate have any desire to introduce a weaning policy. Yuck. Both metaphorically and literally.

So let’s keep tearing down statues. Let’s keep challenging the moribund. Let’s keep having real debate. And let’s keep Nation.Cymru but let’s not keep her on the public payroll for too long.

And if you haven’t disagreed with all or any of this article, then try reading it again.

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