After a number of Labour leadership candidates stumbled over how to answer what they would say to an SNP request for Indyref 2, I set out my own view in the New Statesman.
The New Statesman has published this article from me on the Tories’ new ‘activist unionism’. Below I republish it with links.
There is a new orthodoxy on the left – the notion that Brexit will inevitably mean the break-up of the Union. Scotland will secede. Northern Ireland will vote to reunite with Ireland. These things are indeed possible. But equally possible is that we end up in a post-Brexit creaking UK able still to cling together through a new state overhaul driven from the centre.
Some attention has been given post-election to the Conservative plans for a constitutional commission. But less focus has been given to the significant plans being put together for a re-servicing of the Union. The Policy Exchange think-tank has called for ‘a Grand Strategy to modernise the United Kingdom.’ This is an activist Unionism of a kind only glimpsed before.
Since the 1970s, there have been two significant modernisations of the UK state. The first, the neoliberal Thatcherite agenda based on a hollowing out of the central state, with new central agencies, restrictions on local government’s freedom of manoeuvre, privatisation and deregulation. The second, the New Labour modernisation of 1997-2010, including devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, the Good Friday Agreement, the Human Rights Act, Freedom of Information and the Supreme Court, with centrally-driven targets for service delivery in England. We are now on the cusp of a third modernisation, outlined in the Conservative manifesto, reinforced in the background notes to the December Queen’s Speech, and fleshed out in a series of policy papers.
Some of this pre-dates the Johnson government. The Dunlop Review of UK Union Capability was established under Theresa May with the objective ‘as the United Kingdom leaves the European Union….to consider how through its institutional arrangements it meets the challenge of strengthening and sustaining the Union in the future’ . But the Conservative Manifesto and Queen’s Speech make it clear that this is now part of a strategic programme.
The Conservative Party has usually had a strong focus on the possible uses of state power, even when deregulating and privatising. Alastair Campbell’s second volume of diaries record an observation of the late Alan Clark that Conservatives were fascinated with him and the Blair project because they recognised a real enthusiasm for power and its uses. The Conservatives now have at the helm someone who understands the uses of state power. Dominic Cummings has, says Rachel Wolf, one of the authors of the Conservative manifesto, been thinking about the UK state for twenty years. Cumminsology, as Alain de Botton called it recently in the New Statesman, involves a focus on the need for a more efficient and modernised state machinery: and a profound fury at the inefficiencies of existing state procedures (which many who have served in governments will share).
Cummings, and his former boss Michael Gove, are often under-estimated by some on the left who prefer caricature to analysis. As I wrote about Gove in 2014, ‘he is a deeply serious, and deeply ideological politician, whose objective is shifting the political agenda strategically’. Ditto Cummings. He is, as Tony Blair’s former political secretary John McTernan wrote in July, ‘a man with a plan’.
The Conservative state modernisation agenda is extensive. If the range of Policy Exchange papers on the Constitution, the Judiciary and Whitehall is accurate, its possibilities range from limiting the powers of the Supreme Court – possibly even re-branding it as simply an Upper Court of Appeal, to remove the sense that it is a constitutional court – to an infrastructure modernisation programme for the UK, a re-casting of central institutions to oversee the Union, with the engagement of devolved authorities such as Mayors within England to address the UK/English delivery confusion, to a series of Whitehall reforms (some of which are pretty uncontroversial) and the creation of a UK form of the American defence-linked research agency DARPA, one of Dominic Cummings’ long-held ambitions .
Some of the approach to an activist unionism has already been rolled out in Wales, where the Wales Office has essentially been re-branded as the UK Government in Wales, central government funded initiatives such as the City Deal have been used to build stronger relationships directly between the UK Government and Welsh institutions including local authorities. A ‘Western powerhouse’ model, bringing together Cardiff, Newport and Bristol, was launched to undermine Welsh Government economic plans. Welsh appointments to bodies under the control of the UK government have been politicised, as Policy Exchange suggests should happen across the UK. In the General Election, the Conservatives even promised to deliver the M4 Relief Road, without the power to do so. The Queens Speech promises a cross-border Marches deal, and many other actions.
This activist unionism may not be enough. The latest state modernisation programme may well do nothing fundamental to resolve the post-Brexit challenges of the UK. It may simply leave us with the latest modernised version of what Tom Nairn three decades ago called Ukania. But no-one should assume that the break-up of the UK is inevitable, or that Gove-Cummings haven’t thought about these things. They have, and their previous experience in respect of English schools shows that they understand the uses of state power and are capable of fast and far-reaching action.
My membership of the Labour Party lapsed in March. I’d decided months before that I wasn’t going to be caught out by an automatic renewal and cancelled my direct debit.
I might still have voted Labour, and the choice not to would have been harder in Wales if Derek Vaughan had stood for re-election or one or two of the other Labour candidates like Mary Wimbury, whom I’ve known for years, had been top of the Labour list.
But ultimately I decided not to vote for the pro-Brexit anti-Semitic shambles that the Labour leadership has allowed the party to become. In 2017 I voted Labour, and my vote has been waved around with that of millions of others as an endorsement of the leadership’s plans for a better Brexit. Well, stuff that. We won’t get fooled again.
When my postal ballot arrived two weeks ago, I returned it immediately with a cross against the Greens. Caroline Lucas has been the outstanding Parliamentary leader for a People’s Vote that I’ve now marched for several times in London. Green MEP Molly Scott Cato has done great work on the regulation of Facebook in the European Parliament, and I’ve just finished writing a book on this subject.*
There’s a bigger reason for voting Green of course, and that’s to do with the ceaseless drive of capitalist consumption that threatens our planet and human and other life on it. I’m voting for my grand-daughters and their future.
I know others will have made different choices, and there are good people standing for a number of the other anti-Brexit parties. I’m not saying the Greens are perfect, but strategically I’d like to see them to do well in these elections and in 2021 see them sitting in our National Assembly.
I’d like to come home, Labour friends, but hey, have you got work to do. If Labour enables Brexit I won’t be back. If Brexit happens, and we end up in Ukania, then I’m not sure what future the unionist parties have in any case. The Leavers don’t care for the Union, after all. If we have to face life after Brexit, then other political choices may have to be made.
There’s no joy in this, by the way. Only sadness.
Ukania beckons, and the far-right is on the march. Labour leadership could have pointed the way to a progressive alternative. Instead, it ducks the key decision of our time.*For Labour, both Jo Stevens and Ian Lucas have also done brilliant work on this subject in the U.K. Parliament, let me say, in the most exceptional Parliamentary Select Committee inquiry I have ever seen. But that’s another story.
I reviewed Adrian Masters’ book Nothing has Changed for Wales Arts Review. Here’s a longer version of the review:
I’ve known Adrian Masters since he worked for BBC Radio Wales and came to interview me in my Tonypandy home prior to my election to the National Assembly in 2003. I’ve forgotten now what the item was about, but I think Adrian had been interviewing people in the Rhondda on the issues that mattered to them and then come to candidates for their views.
Adrian has always been one of the most thorough of interviewers in Welsh broadcasting – fair, but firm. His infamous red notebooks contain many secrets, some of which he shares – without revealing sources where they didn’t want to be named – in this volume of his 2017 election diaries. His title of course comes from the statement by the Prime Minister after she reversed her disastrous manifesto pledge on social care during the election campaign. By the early hours of 10 June, however, as Adrian says, ‘Everything has changed’.
This was an election where, as Adrian reminded us, the Conservatives started well-ahead of Labour in the polls and senior Labour figures thought that the party would do well to hold 200 seats. ITV Wales’s own Yougov poll had the Tories well ahead of Labour at the beginning of the campaign, poised to win 21 seats. I remember this well from a Twitter spat at the time between my friend the late Carl Sargeant and my Cardiff University colleague Roger Scully.
Though the substantive election inquests have yet to be published, this election seemed to one of two halves, reflected in the cross-over in the opinion polls and the dramatic final outcome. For the third General Election in a row I watched an exit poll come in and said ‘I don’t believe it’. Only unlike the previous two general elections I wasn’t sitting in a BBC Wales studio at the time.
Adrian’s book takes us back to the days before the election, which genuinely seem like a different electoral world. As he says ‘certainties have been lost, rules bent or broken and leaders have risen and fallen.’ His account starts with the terrorist incident in Westminster, moves through the death of Rhodri Morgan and the further terrorist outrage in Manchester, and concludes with Labour picking up Welsh seats like Vale of Clwyd, Gower and Cardiff North.
Adrian is in no doubt that the Labour surge can be put down to changing and more positive reactions to Jeremy Corbyn’s performance, a strong showing by Welsh Labour under Carwyn Jones’ leadership, and argues that ‘the tributes to Rhodri Morgan also cemented the view of Welsh Labour being different.’
Where Adrian scores most heavily in these diaries is on background colour. Messages come in from different party representatives, both elected and backroom, which may have surfaced on Adrian’s Twitter feed at the time but may not have made it into broadcast reports. Things that Adrian was told then on background now surface – unattributed – in their mistaken glory.
What is written from a Labour perspective reflects conversations I was having with people at the time, but it is interesting to get an all-round view of how Conservative, Plaid and other party insiders were feeling. I can make guesses at some of the sources on the Labour side in particular, but while Adrian quotes them here to give a sense of the contemporary mood, he doesn’t embarrass them with personal unmasking. Nor would you expect him to do so.
Where people were willing to be quoted, Adrian makes good use of the material he gathered. ‘By any sensible consideration, I’m toast’ says Paul Flynn at one point. Later in the campaign he tells Adrian ‘More optimistic now. There is a favourable Welsh dimension because of Carwyn and memories of Rhodri.’ As late as the last week of the campaign a Conservative AM tells Adrian that they (he doesn’t specify gender) now think they will elect ‘a rugby team and a few reserves’. They went down to eight.
Adrian’s personal account of the ITV Wales debate is fascinating, and gives a good sense of the challenges facing a broadcast journalist trying to both maintain balance and keep the flow of the debate. His account of the behind-the-scenes row within the Conservative Party as to whether Andrew RT Davies or Alun Cairns was to appear for them is entertaining and becomes a sub-plot within the text, as does Adrian’s battle to get an interview with the PM. Campaign insider accounts of the use of Facebook and social, media to mobilise young people are interesting and valuable.
Throughout this book, Adrian demonstrates what a good print journalist he could have been. His account has pace, is well-written and thoughtful, with contemplative passages added to the contemporary diary and reconstructed notes. Reading it in the aftermath of Carl Sargeant’s tragic death made me reflect on how long ago it all now feels. Yes, everything has changed.
Twenty years ago today, Wales voted to create a National Assembly the only political institution the people of Wales have ever voted to have.
I wrote this in February about the campaign. I have posted some pictures from 1997 on my Tumblr site. My book on the campaign can be bought from Seren. Today we are holding a conference on the anniversary, with the Wales Governance Centre and the Institute for Welsh Affairs.
I wrote an article for the Welsh language magazine Barn on some of the recent London-based media items on the Welsh Language. The article follows in both Welsh and English.
Taleithgarwch Dinesig a’r Iaith Gymraeg
Dros yr haf cafwyd erthyglau neu eitemau anwybodus yn y Guardian, The Times a Newsnight ynghylch yr iaith Gymraeg. Oherwydd y cyflymder ymateb a ganiateir gan gyfryngau cymdeithasol heddiw, gorfu iddynt oll amddifyn eu hunain rhag beirniadaeth sylweddol cefnogwyr yr iaith Gymraeg, boed rheini yn siarad yr iaith ai peidio. Dywedodd fy nghysylltiadau i yn y ddau bapur newydd yn ddioed y bu’r ddadansoddi golygyddol mewnol yr un mor hallt. O ganlyniad cyhoeddodd y ddau bapur yn fuan wedyn erthyglau ystyriol a oedd yn fwy cefnogol i’r iaith.
Roedd ymateb staff yn y BBC a gynddeiriogwyd gan Newsnight yn gyhoeddus a buan, er i ffynonellau swyddogol dewi tan ar ôl darlledu ymddiheuriad llugoer braidd Newsnight. Wedi hyn oll, cyfaddefodd y BBC y gallasai’r item fod wedi bod yn drafodaeth well pe bai siaradwr Cymraeg yn bresennol.
Mae’r traethiadau ysbeidiol hyn yn amlygu problem ehangach pan ddaw hi’n fater o drafod yr iaith Gymraeg a Chymru. Mae gan y Deyrnas Gyfunol un o’r sectorau papur newydd mwyaf canoledig yn Ewrop. Roedd gan y BBC, ysgrifennodd ei chyn-olygydd gwleidyddol Andrew Marr unwaith, duedd diwylliannol ddinesig ryddfrydol. Bu agwedd Newsnight tuag at rannau eraill o’r BBC, hyd yn oed oddi fun i’r uned newyddion a materion cyfoes yn Llundain, yn drahaus erioed. Bu i Marr a Martin Kettle y Guardian, bitïo methiant cyfryngau Llundain i drafod y Deyrnas Gyfunol a’i dadlennu hi iddi hi ei hun, gan fethu i helaethu dealltwriaeth pobl mewn gwahanol ardaloedd, dinasoedd, rhanbarthau ac o wahanol genhedloedd o lefydd a diwylliannau eraill. Galwodd Kenneth O. Morgan a Raymond Williams ill dau yn unigol yr agwedd hon yn ‘daleithgarwch dinesig’ (‘metropolitan provincialism’).
Ar ôl bron ugain maligned o ddatganoli, dylem allu disgwyl gwell, ond nid wyf yn disgwyl i hynny ddigwydd. Dyna pam y bu i’n Tasglu diweddar ar newyddion digidol ac anghenion gwybodaeth y Cynulliad godi’r posibilrwydd o blatfform newyddion digidol i’r Cynulliad.
Mae ystafelloedd newyddion Llundain yn darganfod y Gymraeg yn unig pan maent am wneud hwyl ar ben beth sydd iddyn nhw yn rhyfedd, neu yn egsotig neu yn wyrdroad o’r norm iaith Saesneg. Y storïau na chȃnt eu hadrodd yw’r rhai am amrywiaeth siaradwyr y Gymraeg; am lwyddiant addysg ddwyieithog; taw dwyieithogrwydd yw’r norm yn Ewrop a thu hwnt; a’r llwyddiant gwleidyddol a ddangosir trwy’r polisïau i feithrin y Gymraeg dros y 60 mlynedd diwethaf.
Ges i fy magu yn ddi-Gymraeg: er fod fy mamgu o Ddinas Cross yn Sir Benfro, a symudodd i’r Barri ar droad yr ugeinfed ganrif, yn medru’r iaith, ni throsglwyddodd yr iaith i fy nhad. Nawr gallaf gynnal sgyrsiau yn Gymraeg, wneud areithiau yn Gymraeg, gynnal cyfweliadau yn Gymraeg, ac yn bwysicaf oll gallaf siarad Cymraeg fel tadcu i’m wyres hynaf. Mae hanes y Gymraeg yn hanes llwyddiant Prydeinig a gresyn na all golygyddion Llundain weld hynny.
Metropolitan provincialism and the Welsh Language
This summer the Guardian, The Times and BBC Newsnight all ran ill-informed articles or items about the Welsh Language. With the speed of response allowed by social media today, each was immediately placed on the defensive by the concentrated criticism from supporters of the Welsh Language, whether they spoke Welsh or not. My own contacts at the two newspapers very swiftly told me that the internal editorial post-mortem was also fierce. Both publications subsequently published critical pieces more supportive of the language.
The reaction from BBC staff appalled by Newsnight was public and prompt, although official sources were silent until after Newsnight broadcast something of a half-hearted apology. Subsequently, the BBC has admitted that the item would have been better debated with the presence of a Welsh-speaker.
These spasmodic commentaries demonstrate a wider problem when it comes to UK coverage of the Welsh Language and Wales. The UK has one of the most centralized newspaper sectors in Europe. The BBC, its presenter and former political editor Andrew Marr once wrote, had an urban cultural liberal bias. Newsnight has always demonstrated an arrogance to other parts of the BBC, even within its London news and current affairs operation. Both Marr and the Guardian’s Martin Kettle have lamented the failure of London media to report the UK to itself, helping a widening understanding by people in different districts, towns, cities, regions and nations of other places and their cultures. Kenneth O. Morgan and Raymond Williams separately called this attitude ‘metropolitan provincialism’.
After almost 20 years of devolution, we should expect better, but I do not expect that to happen. That’s why our recent Task Force report on the Assembly’s digital news and information requirements raised the possibility of an Assembly digital content platform.
Newsrooms in London only discover Welsh when they want to poke fun at its perceived quaintness or exoticism or deviation from the English-speaking norm. The unreported stories are about the diversity of Welsh-speakers in Wales; the growth of Welsh-medium education; the fact that bilingualism is the norm in Europe and beyond; and the political success that Welsh language policy demonstrates over the last 60 years.
I grew up not speaking Welsh: though my grandmother from Dinas Cross in Pembrokeshire who moved to Barry sometime before the turn of the twentieth century had the language, it was never passed to my father. Now I can hold conversations in Welsh, makes speeches in Welsh, do interviews in Welsh, and more importantly speak Welsh as Tadcu to my elder grand-daughter. The story of Welsh is a British success story, and it’s a shame that London editors can’t see it.
The New European carried my article explaining how there’s been a disappointing lack of interest in the British-Irish Council by Prime Ministers since Gordon Brown. I’ll post the full text up another day. It’s based on an analysis I have done of BIC attendance.
Twenty years ago we had launched the Yes for Wales campaign, which was of course dependent on Labour winning the 1997 General Election campaign and implementing its referendum promise.
In September, we are planning a conference to mark the twentieth anniversary of Wales’s historic vote. More soon.