Ifan Morgan Jones
If you’re not already an avid follower of the website State of Wales by Owen Donovan, it is well worth a look.
A recent post, Where’s the centre ground in Wales? caught my eye as it discussed many of the issues that we’ve been grappling with on the pages of Nation.Cymru over the past months.
Owen suggests that the old ‘left’ and ‘right’ labels may be out of date and that the new battle is between the populists on one side and technocrats on the other.
Interestingly, Owen places Plaid Cymru, Welsh Labour and the Welsh Liberal Democrats very firmly on the technocratic side of this new axis.
Meanwhile, UKIP and the Conservative party are near the populist side.
If you’re a populist, you tend to think that there’s an out-of-touch elite running things for their own benefit, in a way that doesn’t serve the best interests of the people.
If you’re a technocrat you tend to consider the will of the people to be quite a dangerous thing (the death penalty, anyone?) and prefer to depend on the experts’ view of what actually works.
This reminds me a little bit of the old Thinking/Feeling divide in the Myers and Briggs personalities test.
That is, does an individual do what they ‘feel’ is right or do they consult the evidence and then attempt to act as rationally as possible?
The battle between the populists and the technocrats is currently ongoing in every political party in Wales, bar perhaps the Lib Dems and UKIP.
Labour has been taken over by Momentum, and the Tory party has been taken over by Eurosceptics.
And, as Owen notes, Plaid now faces its own internal populist vs technocratic battle, with the leadership pitched against Neil McEvoy and many of their own members.
You may presume that as a university lecturer I’d be firmly on the side of the technocrats within Plaid Cymru. But it’s not quite that simple.
There are three reasons to question what experts have to say:
- They have blind spots. They’ve risen to prominence within a system which has its own biases and assumptions. Think about the Civil Service in Whitehall. They are no doubt experts, but there’s a diversity problem: Most have an Oxbridge education and come from a similar cultural background.
- They are experts in one thing. An expert in providing drinking water choosing the site of a new reservoir isn’t there to think about the political and psychological effects of drowning a village.
- They’re naturally cautious. Their entire career depends on being right. As such, they tend to be quite conservative when it comes to their recommendations.
As such, a national movement that is too technocratic is unlikely to be able to excite people with a grand, sweeping vision of a transformed society.
Experts don’t do grand and sweeping, they do the nitty-gritty.
To encourage people to vote for change, a national movement needs to give people a little of what they want as well as a little of what they need.
There are utilitarian arguments for independence and there are emotional arguments for independence – both need to be deployed.
What Neil McEvoy and his merry men and women recognise is quite simple: that sometimes people still don’t want something despite what the experts say.
Look at the two issues to which he’s campaigned on recently: the felling of trees at Waterloo Gardens in Cardiff, and the dumping of mud from Hinkley Point in waters outside the city.
In both cases, the expert view is clear: The trees need to be felled to provide flood protection, and there’s nothing radioactive about the mud.
But Neil McEvoy has realised that people’s gut feelings on these issues also count. People like the trees, and they don’t like the idea of ‘nuclear’ mud being dumped near their shore.
And who is to tell them that they’re wrong? The flood defence experts don’t know anything about the benefits of greenery on mental health, and people can’t be blamed for being worried about potentially nuclear mud.
It’s the job of politicians to take the holistic view and balance what the experts say is best with what the people actually want.
Not doing so is dangerous for democracy because it leads to pent of frustration with the establishment that can spill over into acts of self-harm.
Brexit was a good example of this. Technocratic politicians simply ignored concerns about immigration and a loss of sovereignty because experts told them they were on the right track.
The end result was a much more damaging backlash than if they had gotten to grips with people’s concerns, no matter how ‘irrational’ they were, in the first place.
In the long run, Plaid Cymru may need to rediscover its populist side if it is to make any headway in convincing people that a new Wales is possible.
The firmly technocratic approach just isn’t appealing to a population that knows very little about Welsh politics, and cares even less what Plaid’s latest policy ideas are.
They don’t need to become UKIP, or Trump, or even Momentum. But there is surely a middle-ground between the populist and technocratic wings within the party that can be straddled.
In doing so they can achieve something that Labour and the Tories have not: To heal a divide before the party is consumed by civil war.