Devolution’s passive revolution

Devolution was never meant to be a panacea for Wales’ problems, argues Daniel Evans.

Dr Daniel Evans is a Researcher at the Wales Institute of Social & Economic Research Data & Methods (WISERD) in Cardiff University

Adam Price’s recent article raises some excellent points, albeit ones which are self-evident for most people in Wales.

Whilst I agree with the overwhelming majority of Adam’s article (the stultifying problems of one partyism; the profligacy of the incumbent government; the lack of media scrutiny etc)I would like to use this opportunity to address one of the central underlying assumptions of Adam’s work, namely that ‘Devolution was meant to be so much more than a dented shield’.

This assumption is naively optimistic, and I find it deeply troubling that this uncritical interpretation of the raison d’etre of devolution is so common in Wales. It seems that the excitement and fanfare which surrounded devolution clouded everyone’s judgement.

Wales’ media and intellectuals must shoulder much of the blame here , for they  have utterly failed the population. By buying in to the hyperbole which surrounded devolution, both these institutions have failed to speak truth to power in Wales. Within academia, there has been no theoretical engagement with devolution, and no real interrogation of the power relations inherent to the process of state restructuring.

This article offers a new, critical interpretation of devolution which I hope Adam Price will find helpful.

The fact is that Devolution has not failed. It has only ‘failed’ if you naively believe that it was designed to ‘work’. Devolution was not designed to be an economic dividend. It was not designed to revitalise democracy in Wales (a laughably absurd claim). It was not designed to lead to further political powers.

Instead, Devolution is a textbook example of what Antonio Gramsci calls a Passive Revolution.

Passive Revolutions are moments in time where significant transformations of society occur. But these transformations are different. Rather than being ‘genuine’ or ‘classic’ revolutions (i.e., ruptural changes which occur through revolutionary mass participation and rebellion) passive revolutions are ‘revolutions… without a revolution’. Rather than representing a radical break with the past, ushering in a new era, during passive revolutions society is transformed only in a moderate and subdued way. The changes which occur in society during these periods serve reactionary, conservative or moderate ends. These are cosmetic changes which, although sometimes masked by radical rhetoric, are always dedicated to preserving the status quo. The lack of real change led Gramsci to describe them as ‘revolution/restoration’.

In the UK, the devolution passive revolution was designed led by the Labour Party, for the benefit of the Labour party.

Thatcherism and Wales’ changing relationship to the British state

But first we have to go back a bit further, for devolution cannot be understood without appreciating the evolving nature of the British state, Wales’ changing relationship to it, and the reaction that this prompted within the Labour party.

Wales was culturally, economically and politically integrated into the post-war welfare state, benefiting from a relatively effective regional policy. This integration was largely organized and mediated by the Labour party, which became hegemonic in Wales after WW2. Wales’ strong integration into the British state was demonstrated by the 1979 rejection of devolution: the people of Wales did not feel that more local forms of government were necessary because they were, on the whole, doing ok out of the centralised welfare state. Under the welfare state, the state and Britishness were bound up with the ideas of justice and fairness. This was the glue which bound Wales and Scotland to the UK.

Thatcherism changed everything.

Under Thatcher, the British state underwent a radical restructuring. The post-war social contract was torn up, and the state began to openly act in the interests of capital. This entailed mass privatisation and a direct confrontation with organized Labour. The ameliorative regional policies which had ‘propped up’ Wales in the past were abandoned.

Thatcherism ultimately triggered what Gramsci calls a ‘crisis of authority’. The state was basically ‘unmasked’ as a tool of the ruling classes.  The unity (or truce) between subordinate classes and the dominant classes (of which the British welfare state is possibly one of the best ever examples) was ruined. Under these conditions of crisis, society moves from a harmonious settlement to one marked by unrest. Under Thatcherism “huge masses… passed suddenly from a state of political passivity to a certain activity, and put forward demands which, taken together…add up to a revolution” (Gramsci, 1971. So the poll tax riots, the worsening situation in Ireland, the miner’s strike were all indicative of a mass political awakening in the UK, but particularly within the peripheral areas.

Britishness as a political identity could no longer be associated with ‘fairness’. Wales and Scotland didn’t vote for Thatcher, but got her policies anyway. Wales and Scotland, for so long securely bound to the state, began to lose their belief in the state, in the system.Accordingly, political nationalism began to rapidly grow in Wales and Scotland, as people began to believe that alternative political forms were necessary to deliver democracy.

This is why Thatcher has been called the ‘midwife of devolution’.

Focusing on the Change

This is a fairly orthodox explanation of devolution. According to this view of things, Thatcherism led to unrest, which led to devolution, and that is that. Thatcherism triggers a popular ‘forward march of Welshness’, and Devolution is simply seen as the inevitable outcome.

Now, this period was a crisis for the state. The withering away of consent under Thatcherism was a potentially revolutionary moment within British history.

But radical changes did not happen. After all the unrest and rioting, we got Blairism and an Assembly with no power. So the nature of the change itself is the important bit to interrogate.  To understand what happened next you have to study the process of state restructuring, and this is what most accounts of devolution have not done.

Gramsci urges us to pay attention to the political organization of state restructuring: what form is the transition taking? Who is leading it?

Enter New Labour.

Crises such as Thatcherism do not automatically usher in a period of transformation or social change. Gramsci’s work breaks with the rigid Marxist determinism which claims that each ‘act’ of society automatically and inexorably leads to the next. Instead he writes that whilst crises create danger for the state in the short term, “the state apparatus is far more resistant than it is possible to believe”. Faced by crises, dominant fractions rally, and actively seek to deny other classes the opportunity to assume the initiative, to capitalise on the breached defences.

In the midst of this crisis, the Labour party entered the fray and came to the rescue of the status quo.

Their period in the electoral wilderness under Thatcherism prompted much soul-searching within Labour. The unpopular centralizing policies of the Thatcher administration, coupled with the continual growth of nationalist parties, illustrated the need to modernise and re-evaluate the party’s stance on devolution, which was always strategic and pragmatic rather than ideological. Labour had traditionally been hostile to devolution, always preferring to “bash the nationalists and sweeten the unitary system”. Historically, of course, there was no need to be pro-devolution because there was no demand. But it became clear for Labour modernisers that the question of devolution and the democratic deficit had to be addressed if Labour wanted any chance of regaining power in the UK and to consolidate their hegemony in Wales and Scotland. In short, they could no longer afford to be hostile to devolution. Devolution therefore became a central pillar of a general package of democratic reform linked to Labour’s wider modernising electoral strategy.

There is no time here to discuss the development of Blairism as a hegemonic project. The only thing to say is that it worked extremely well: Labour were swept to power in Westminster, and as we know, devolution was passed in Wales and Scotland.

We can now begin our passive revolution ‘checklist’.

1. A revolution from above

Passive Revolutions are ‘revolutions from above’. Although it is the discontent of the masses which prompts calls for change, the masses themselves do not participate in the change. Instead, ‘traditional organic forces…parties of long standing’ absorb this mass discontent.  These dominant groups become the motor of change rather than popular pressure from below. They dominate the transformation of society themselves, marginalising the input of everyone else. This lack of mass participation is where the term ‘passive’ comes from.

Whilst the pressure for devolution came from below as large swathes of the population expressed their discontent- in Wales and Scotland this often included voting for nationalist parties- the precise form this transformation and restricting took originated within the Labour party.

Indeed, the most crucial debates surrounding devolution and its content were those taking place inside the Labour Party rather than between other actors. Labour’s proposals for devolution- the form it would take, i.e., the powers of the proposed Assembly, were not subject to public debate. In fact, as Wyn Jones and Scully (2003) note,  “it was clear that one of the primary concerns of the Welsh Labour Party was precisely to avoid such discussion”.

2. ‘Policing the transformation’: changing it from radical to reformist

Once the control of the passive revolution is secure, the leading party begins to change or modify the nature of the transformation. To be absolutely clear, passive revolutions always involve concrete changes to society: these changes are unavoidable and the leading group has to make these concessions in order to placate the demands of the masses. But these changes are always moderate. They are always the bare minimum required to satisfy or neutralise discontent. As Gramsci puts it, leading parties “progressively modify the pre-existing composition of forces, and hence become the matrix of new changes”. So the dominant group alters the character of the transformation from a radical one to a reformist one.

In Wales, John Osmond has recorded how Ron Davies’ ‘maximalist’ proposals for devolution (including an Assembly with 100 AMs; proportional representation; primary legislation and tax raising powers) were rejected by Labour’s policy commission in favour of far more moderate powers, revealing once more their desire to prevent radical change, and to keep the new Assembly as the ‘Welsh Office plus’, a simple ‘outpost’, through which Westminster rule could be transmitted.

3. Devolution by Labour, for Labour

When leading parties dominate societal transformations, Gramsci argues that they are not ‘leaders’, since this term presupposes the existence of a mass movement which agreed to be ‘led’. No-one was led by Labour, and nor did they wish to lead: “they did not wish to concord their interests and aspirations with the interests and aspirations of other groups”. Instead, the transformation is designed to benefit the interests of the leading group alone. In fact, Labour were often very open about their cynical desire to control devolution and use it to benefit their own party. Of course, few predicted that Labour would be anything but hegemonic in the nascent National Assembly, with one Labour peer remarking before the election that “if we are not going to control the Assembly, then it’s better we do not have it”.

As Fowler and Jones (2005) put it, “the very structure of government in the National Assembly was designed by the Welsh Labour Party in anticipation of a Welsh Labour victory”. Whilst the new voting system was hailed as a democratic change from FPTP, in reality, the PR voting system introduced in the Assembly was skewed towards a majoritarian first past the post system which was designed to ensure Labour majorities in the devolved system (McAllister and Kay, 2010).

4. Instability: The quiet earthquake.

Yet passive revolutions are not ‘clean cut’ consolidations of power. Under conditions of passive revolution, hegemony is necessarily ‘thinned’ for a period, and the residue of crisis is ever present. Thus the conditions of the passive revolution are unique. They are not the same as, for example, the consent which prevailed during the post-war welfare state; and nor are they the same as the conditions of crises and unrest which prevailed under Thatcher.

Passive revolution must be therefore understood as an ongoing process in which ideological battles and so on are constantly being fought; in which one side may gain the upper hand and then the other. Wallerstein argues that the concessions made during the passive revolution, although moderate, may have unintended consequences. Thus the tactic of containment may spiral out of control, and give momentum to radical, rival forces. This is essentially what has happened in Scotland: passive revolutions can be blown apart to become ‘proper’ revolutions.

In Wales, the instability inherent in passive revolutions was highlighted in the first Assembly Elections. These came to be known a ‘quiet earthquake’: Labour recorded arguably its worst ever electoral showing in Wales and was unable to form a majority government, whilst Plaid Cymru recorded significant gains. The imposition of the Blairite Alun Michael by Westminster was a miscalculation, and Labour paid for it at the polls. Ostensibly not fully appreciative of the prominence of ‘Welsh matters’ in 1997, Labour were outmanoeuvred by Plaid, who successfully used their slogan ‘The Party of Wales’ to successfully imply that Labour was the ‘party of London’ and ‘lacked Welshness’. In addition, Labour’s visible shift to the right under Tony Blair allowed Plaid Cymru to also outmanoeuvre Labour from the left: people voted Plaid in 1999 not because of their nationalism, but because of their socialism- Plaid now appeared as a social-democratic party in the style of ‘old labour’.

This was all certainly not part of the plan Labour had in mind for devolution.

5) Transformismo

The scare of the first Assembly elections acted as a catalyst for Labour, who, after recovering from their ‘shell shock’ then began what Gramsci labels the political strategy of transformismo. Transformismo is in many ways the second stage of passive revolution, which inevitably emerges amidst the instability of the post-passive revolution milieu. It involves “the gradual but continuous absorption…of the active elements produced by allied groups- and even of those which came from antagonistic groups and seemed irreconcilably hostile” with a view to ‘annihilating’ and ‘decapitating’ emergent political threats (i.e., parties, groups, movements), who may have been emboldened by what they genuinely believe to be a radical transformation.

In response to Plaid’s attack to their left flank, Welsh Labour re-established itself as a social democratic party under new leader Rhodri Morgan, exemplified by Morgan’s ‘clear red water’ speech in 2002 where he positioned Welsh Labour as an ‘old Labour’ outpost, disconnected from ‘neo-liberal England’ and the embrace of privatization by New Labour in Westminster.

Of course, the weakness of the devolution settlement in Wales renders the notion of devolution as an ‘economic dividend’ or as a barrier to neoliberal policies rather ludicrous. The Assembly lacks the ability to ‘pin down’ or ‘embed’ global processes of economic development, i.e. to actually have an impact on economic development, and Rhodri Morgan was acutely aware of this. But Clear Red Water wasn’t an economic policy but rather a rhetorical device designed to win back the social-democratic voters lost in 1999.

Next, Labour begun a concerted effort to ‘Welsh up’- to present a more Welsh image and to head off Plaid’s challenge as ‘The Party of Wales’. The party subsequently rebranded itself as ‘Welsh Labour: The True Party of Wales’, an obvious affront to Plaid. Much of this rebranding of Welsh Labour as a distinctly Welsh force centred on Rhodri Morgan. In addition, Labour also devolved much of its internal machinery to Cardiff. The ‘issue’ of the Welsh language was also neutralized, as the WAG absorbed the issue from language pressure groups and adopted the Welsh language wholesale as part of their ‘Welshification’.

Finally, after appropriating Plaid Cymru’s main policies and their ‘unique selling point’ of being the ‘party of Wales’, Labour begun the process of ‘annihilating’ the elements that it could not absorb. Through their allies in the Welsh Mirror, they conducted a systematic smear campaign against Welsh language activists and nationalists, portraying them as racist and ‘ethnic’, incompatible with modern, ‘civic’ Wales.

6) Post-Devolution Wales: an ‘Interregnu’m

In 2003, Wales ‘came home to Labour’ (Wyn Jones and Scully, 2003), illustrating the ostensible success of Labour’s ‘Welshification’ process and the ‘decapitation’ of Labour’s main rivals. In the 2007 elections, Labour again failed to win a clear majority, but they then embarked on the final stage of transformismo and “the absorption of the enemies’ elites” (Gramsci, 1971:59)in the form of the One Wales coalition. The Plaid-Labour coalition more dramatically blurred the ideological differences between the hegemonic Labour party and its rival, further marginalizing Plaid and making their “explicit nationalism…irrelevant” (Glyn Williams, 2005). The One Wales coalition was a death knell for Plaid. Since going into coalition with Labour they have struggled greatly to define how they are any different from the new social democratic, ‘soft-nationalist’ Welsh Labour party.

So where are we now?  Adam Price rightly notes we are in a period of stasis.

The powers of the Welsh Assembly remain weak. Westminster retains control over significant areas of legislation which impact on everyday life. The devolved settlement is ultimately a confusing halfway house. The Welsh public has not engaged in any real way with the new devolved institution, demonstrated in persistently low turnouts in Assembly elections.

In many ways there has been a remarkable continuity between pre and post-devolution Wales: support for independence has decreased; Welshness has not significantly increased; levels of ‘Britishness’ remain stable; the proportion of people using the Welsh language has declined. In addition, the WAG still has no control over macro-economic policy. No Welsh public sphere has emerged in post-devolution Wales- this is based largely on the lack of a national media and the weakness of post-devolution political society. The BBC themselves have recently acknowledged the ‘information deficit’.

Conversely, it would not appropriate to assume that Welsh society has not changed at all since devolution. As in any passive revolution, changes, although ‘molecular’ and conservative, are nonetheless concrete and likely to impact in small ways on everyday life. This is consistent with the nature of passive revolution, whereby change is simultaneously partially fulfilled yet also displaced (Callinicos, 2010). Welshness has been given ‘institutional expression’ by devolution, and a distinct Welsh civil society has begun to take root.

Ultimately, instead of creating a new vibrant democracy, devolution has in fact ‘produced a bastard’ form of state, as Gramsci put it, which has consequently impacted unevenly on Welsh society. We have arrived at what Gramsci terms an interregnum, a situation of ‘crisis’ whereby “ the old is dying and the new cannot be born” .

So the old (British unitary state) is dying, but the new (a modern Wales with significant powers) cannot be born.

This is a stalemate, a no-man’s land, purgatory. During these situations, Gramsci notes that “a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”. Mass disengagement and cynicism- palpable in Wales- is one such ‘morbid’ symptom: “the death of the old ideologies takes the form of skepticism with regard to all theories”.

Prospects for change

I agree with Adam’s ‘cure’ for the interregnum: one partyism needs to end, and a non-Labour government needs to be installed in Cardiff Bay. But what are the prospects of this actually happening? Will we remain in this ‘one and a half party state’ forever?

Some analysts in Wales maintain that the ‘forward momentum’ which drove devolution will inevitably continue, albeit incrementally. Of course, following a referendum in 2011 the Welsh Assembly gained law making powers for certain devolved areas. Does this mean that what happened in Scotland will eventually happen here, but at a snails’ pace, achieved through a long series of minor reforms over time? Like 1997, the small changes of 2011 were interpreted very optimistically by the media and the academy, although they barely registered with the public.

Gramsci is far more pessimistic. He writes that the ‘unstable equilibrium’ may last a long time:

“…a crisis occurs, sometimes lasting for decades. This exceptional duration means that incurable structural contradictions have revealed themselves (reached maturity) and that, despite this, the political forces which are struggling to conserve and defend the existing structure itself are making every effort to cure them, within certain limits, and to overcome them”.

This notion of ‘curing’ is central to the question at hand. Here Gramsci is saying that within the conditions of passive revolution, incumbent dominant forces are continually battling to stem the tide of history and to overcome and neutralise the crises which prompted the passive revolution in the first instance. He argues that during interregnums, dominant groups work tirelessly to ‘restore the old order’.

In a piece for this site, Adam Evans has argued that this perpetual condition of in between-ness in Wales is very much viewed as an acceptable ‘end point’ by Welsh Labour, who are content to reject any further powers which would lead to more political responsibility or accountability. Indeed, the absence of demands from below, the impotence of Plaid Cymru and the low turnouts in Assembly elections means there is essentially no incentive for further change.

Labour are happy with this stasis, as it benefits them (indeed, who wouldn’t be?) They have a vested interest in this stasis remaining, and will therefore do everything they can to prevent a more engaged populace. This is demonstrated by their refusal to discuss devolution of the media, the single greatest tool for catalysing real change.

When I was 14, I interviewed Carwyn Jones (in his role as Bridgend AM) as part of my school work experience placement. I asked him what he thought about the low levels of voter turnout in the Assembly Elections. He looked me in the eye and calmly explained: ‘the thing is, if more people voted, they might not vote for Labour’, and stated that he was therefore quite happy with this state of affairs.

This attitude demonstrates the futility in assuming that this interregnum will inevitably change. The only way that change will occur is through tireless struggle. Anyone concerned with transforming Wales and Welsh society has to gear themselves up for a long, hard battle against a leading power which is dug in very deep.

We have to begin to reform the common sense of society, and this begins with Gramsci’s intellectual confrontation- “what matters is the criticism to which such an ideological complex is subjected…this criticism makes makes possible a process of differentiation and change.”. I hope that Adam’s article represents the start of an onslaught.

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