This article was originally written for New Start Magazine following a visit from their editor to Cardiff.
What do those from outside Wales know, or think of, the nation? Indeed, what to those from Wales – or who live there – think? With the Rugby World Cup in full swing, it’s highly likely many would talk of Wales’ love for rugby; no doubt, many would also talk of its industrial heritage. I’m sure talk of halls reverberating with the mellifluous sounds of male voice choirs would feature prominently, as would talk of hillsides resonating with the bleating of sheep.
These are powerful stereotypes but all too often they are redolent of an economically active past, rather than an economically active present. The narrative around the present is so often one that’s wedded to the politics of subsidy: funding from Westminster; funding from the European Union; state support for industry, commerce and just about everything else.
Yet, so much of Wales’ history and moves towards the future are testament to something very different. The NHS, a fabulous (if flawed) institution, is the result of the doggedly determined efforts of Aneurin Bevan. His model for the NHS was based on the Tredegar Medical Aid Society, a highly successful and advanced community initiative supported by local industry and philanthropists that originated in the late 19th century.
Talk of devolved power across the UK now features prominently in the press, yet we’ve had a devolved administration in Wales since the late 1990s, an administration that’s engaging with Westminster to establish further powers for the National Assembly in Wales. Wales needs a new narrative, one that can look positively at the past and to the future.
With that in mind, I co-authored a short report recently, entitled Wales – time for a realistic perspective. By design it’s an upbeat look at Wales’ economic landscape, but also a report that identifies some of the core issues that hold Wales back. Some are, arguably, Wales-specific, but some will, I’m sure, resonate with a broader audience outside of Wales.
We believe a new era of citizen engagement is needed; we need to address the problems that a large, cumbersome state has been a component of, however well meaning its rhetoric may be. In Wales, in particular, we need input from those outside traditional party politics; we need greater civil society. Our suggestion is that the first minister for Wales and the secretary of state convene a council to engage input from those senior and experienced people in Welsh life that have a lot to offer but whose voice is currently not heard. It’s by far from a complete solution to the issues we have as a nation, but it would be a solid start. It would bridge political divides and encourage participation in a manner we’ve not had since our National Assembly was created, back in 1999.
At the same time, we have to recognize the broader range of challenges our post-financial crisis landscape brings. There are obvious issues around inequity. There are also issues around the size, purpose and power of the state; subsidiarity and localism now feature highly on political agendas. At the core, who owns economic production, who is responsible for it and to whom the benefits accrete are issues that polarise politicians and the general population. They also create binaries: capitalism versus anti-capitalism, socialism versus anti-socialism, and so on. The solution to all these issues is far from clear, but at least the discussions around devolved power in Wales have these in mind. Progress may be slower than some would like but at least Wales is not resting on its laurels.
The Welsh Government has an initiative called ‘The Wales we Want‘, largely aimed at engaging the population about its needs. No doubt well meaning, it is for me the apotheosis of paternalism, with a sub-text that reads ‘Don’t try this at home, kids’. If we really are looking to engage citizens and recognize the power of communities in our new economic order, I would argue ‘The Wales I will help create’ is far more empowering and inclusive. I’m trying to play a part in making a difference and I know many others, here in Wales, are too. With a Leviathan state it requires tenacity and a tough skin, but I believe the rewards, in the long run, will be worth it.
So, watch Wales. Our experiences may provide a sound template for other devolved regions or countries.