For 21 years, Wales has been governed by the Assembly in Cardiff bay, more recently re-named the Senedd. Through devolution, the Cardiff bay administration has taken up the role of tackling our society’s greatest challenges. Of course, this could be considered a political experiment. So far, it is nearly impossible to claim that this has not been a catastrophic failure, if we are basing this on the quality of life of the majority of Welsh people. I say this for a number of reasons.
Despite having a centre-left government throughout this time with no Conservative nor UKIP nor Brexit party in coalition, the reversal of Thatcherism, which one would think would have been the main goal of a centre-left government above all else, has not even come close to being achieved. In fact, in a lot of ways, it has been turbo-charged by greater commodification of several aspects of Welsh life from price tags being applied to education and the pricing of Welsh people out of the housing market. Inner-city homelessness in Welsh cities has soared in recent years as a result. I consider sport and exercise to be another important pillar of society. However, sport has also been commodified, with an ever-present corporate greed increasing the cost of watching sport, ticket prices and participating in sport. Nobody is holding this corporate greed to account.
The trade union movement in Wales has also become ineffective and wasteful with swathes of the population dismissing their utility and avoiding membership. Only 30% of working people in Wales are a member of a trade union and it is therefore no surprise, that in real terms, median salaries in Wales are the same as they were in the 1980’s. A recent note here was the forced re-contracting of ASDA workers to take an extremely small pay rise in return for working anti-social hours with a loss of bank holiday protected leave, paid breaks and other workplace rights. These people aren’t working in hospitals or police stations; stores can close to accommodate this! The Welsh Assembly said nothing. Where has been the re-nationalising policies, the reversal of deregulation and strengthening of trade unions?
From a politically neutral point of view, we should also consider the progress made in terms of infrastructure projects in Wales when assessing this political experiment. Unfortunately, the lack of progress here has been tangible for the lives of almost everyone in Wales. The promised M4 relief road, never left the proverbial drawing-board and has already cost £114 million. The arms-length, yet occasionally clumsy interventionist policies of Cardiff bay towards Cardiff airport has created an airport more reminiscent of rural air strip than a fully functional international airport. The long-talked about tidal lagoon in Swansea which would have delivered good-quality jobs and green energy never happened. The A55 in north Wales has been left in a congested and out-dated state even though it was barely fit for purpose 21 years ago. In truth, for the last 21 years, those looking for successfully delivered infrastructure projects in Wales outside of Cardiff bay will be found wanting. Wales deserves better than this.
Being a fluent-Welsh speaker and born and bred in Wales, one could search for other sources of optimism, cultural ones perhaps. Sadly, census data reveals that the number of people speaking Welsh has officially declined over the last 21 years. This is clearly evident on our deprived high streets where the English language has decimated Welsh. In addition, fewer people than ever are able to involve themselves in local clubs or associations from sports teams to charitable activities. In this respect, I do not think direct legislation is the answer. I feel addressing fundamental issues such as workplace rights, the right to a free education and tackling inequalities in wealth and opportunity would enable significant improvements with regards to cultural issues.
Students have been left behind in Wales by the political establishment. Tuition fees have spiraled, rent has become unaffordable and students are subjected to a simple choice: Sacrifice your study time for part-time or even full-time work or live in absolute poverty. There is no way of sugar-coating this point. Grants and bursaries have been replaced by loans for the many. Student housing has become a fertile breeding ground for ruthless privateers seeking easy financial rewards by exploiting the fact that students have no choice in an exploitative market. In addition, teaching time, as assessed by contact hours varies wildly but with the exploitative £9000 per year tuition fee applied to all. It is nothing short of a fine for being born.
In 2016, Wales voted for Brexit, despite receiving significant EU investment on par or more than almost anywhere else in the EU. This equates to approximately £680 million per year. Similarly, the electoral victory of Donald Trump in the USA, a politically-unproven force with a right-wing agenda was voted in primarily by people who had the most to lose from this. How could this have happened? People were given a choice between a continuation of the current political establishment or a vote for change. There was no third-way, it was a binary choice. The change vote won in both cases and I feel the political mandate here was not to leave or remain within the EU nor Clinton or Trump; it was a vote for change by any means possible. I see this as a sign of societal desperation not confirmation that the Brexit or Trump side of the argument had any legitimacy.
I feel Wales is at a cross-road in 2020 amidst the chaos and uncertainty created by the COVID-19 virus. We can decide to continue on the disastrous path we are on which is inevitably going to get worse when the debt created by the virus negatively affects public spending, taxation and investment. In the long-term, this will lead to another generation of failed projects, misery and deprivation of hope for most or we can embrace one of two more radical options. One would be to decide that this political project is finished and Wales would be better run as a county of England, with a UK government re-enforced by the defeat of the nationalists. Here, we would save billions but would have also thrown away billions for nothing. The other option is to unilaterally declare Welsh independence and seek to build a fairer, greener and better future outside of the constraints of UK and EU. At all costs, we must avoid the neoliberal laissez-faire path which we are on, if we are to be democrats; for we are caught in a democratic vacuum between Westminster and Cardiff bay at present. People must have the democratic right of representation without dereliction of duty.
Democracy is also not being taken seriously at a local level in Wales. It has become a model of big government at a local government level. If you raise issues with local councils from parking to hedge rows, land disputes to language provision and neighbour disagreements to waste collection, you are confined to a bureaucratic mess which inevitably leads to two impossible ways of resolving disputes: unaffordable legal action or an Ombudsman with a pre-prepared generic email over-complicating a simple message of: ‘we can’t do anything’. Local government must be democratic and to do this there must be a forum by which the community can get together and agree on a compromise. The local council structure in Wales does not allow this and is an immense disservice to democracy.
It is on the point of independence that I feel there is a genuine cause for optimism in Wales. What if Wales declared independence with a legally-binding framework for a Universal basic income and a Green new deal as its leading policies to re-build and finally turn its back on Thatcherism? A source of income such as this would radically change workplace rights as employers would be fighting for employees and not the other way round. If workers were denied dignity and respect they would be given a real chance to find other opportunities elsewhere and the employer would either cease trading or actively seek to improve workplace rights. A Green new deal would be perfect for Wales, where the abundance of wind and hydroelectric power could be harnessed to provide sustainable clean energy and create good quality jobs that our economy desperately needs.
I think the people of Wales must be bold if they are to find a better future. There is another north Atlantic country which we should try to emulate and learn from: Iceland. They too have had historical problems with extraneous rulers who have thrust poverty upon them. However, today, Iceland is everything Wales should want to be, with a carbon neutral economy by 2040, meaningful trade unions that actively shape policy-making and a very high standard of living. Approximately 50% of the Icelandic workforce are members of a single trade union, with all but 13% of Icelandic workers being trade union members overall. Can you imagine if that happened in Wales? This is not an impossible dream, others have done it. We have natural resources of green energy like Iceland, we have several tourist destinations like Iceland and we have beautiful scenery like Iceland. At present, all we lack is the vision and political will to transform.
I suggest that Wales also looks at how Iceland has carefully and rightly negotiated its place as an EEA country with its own currency. It has the best of both worlds; it has access to the EU single market but is not constrained by the self-defeating architecture of the Euro or the bureaucracy of the EU justice system. Indeed, when the financial crash happened in 2008, the Icelandic justice system jailed the greedy bankers who caused the crisis, while the UK bailed them out with money usurped from the neediest in society. However, the lesson learnt here is for success to be made of Welsh independence, we too must create a new Welsh currency and a central bank. If we keep the pound, the bank of England and Westminster will decide our fiscal and monetary policy for us. If we join the Eurozone, the IMF, ECB and European commission will decide this for us. Let the lessons learnt from Greece in 2015 steer us away from this path towards further austerity, privatisation and proletarianization; to break free from 20th century models of economic policy founded during times without the internet but with totalitarianism and war in its place. A new Welsh currency is a must for independent prosperity.
After 21 years we haven’t got anywhere. The Senedd hasn’t lived up to the early hopes and expectations. The decline has continued in a lot of ways. Carrying on in the same way is not an option. There are plenty of examples like Iceland that we could look at, but need the vision. Time is running out. Wales is truly at the crossroads. Which way will we turn?