The cargo cults of Cardiff Bay

John Dixon wonders whether Welsh economic policy is merely a matter of observing and copying the rituals of others

The cargo cults on some Pacific islands reached their peak just after the Second World War. Although they’d started earlier than that, the extent of contact between the natives living on those islands and outside civilisations increased so much during the war years that they gave a massive impetus to the cults.

It’s easy enough to understand how people who did not understand the technologies which they were witnessing would have assumed that the planes bringing cargo were coming from the gods, and that they were summoned to bring their cargo from the gods by the strange rituals of the outsiders. Many also believed that the cargo was really intended for them and had been wrongly purloined by the outsiders.

When the outsiders left, the islanders often tried to replicate the rituals which they had observed. They built their own rough airstrips, wooden control towers, and even wore headsets carved out of wood and the best imitations of American uniforms that they could make. The planes didn’t come though. Whilst aeroplanes needed airstrips and control towers, the mere presence of those things and the associated rituals was not in itself sufficient to bring the planes back. Which would have been just as true had the towers been filled with the latest fully operational technology rather than mere wooden imitations.

In essence, the cults are just an example of a common fallacy – usually referred to as ‘Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc’. It’s a fallacy to which we are not immune here in Wales. Sometimes I wonder whether our politicians’ approach to economics is really that much different from a cargo cult, based on observing the rituals of others and then copying them.

One of the old chestnuts is the regularly repeated demand by business and opposition leaders for the Welsh Government to invest more in ensuring that we have a trained and skilled workforce available. I wouldn’t argue against having a highly skilled and trained workforce of course, but it will never be enough to bring the planes and their cargo.

Similarly, much of the debate around the electrification of the railway seemed to be based on a belief that shaving 15 minutes off the journey time between Cardiff and London would bring about some sort of economic miracle. Again, I wouldn’t argue against electrification; but it is not a solution to anything very much in itself.

I could add superfast broadband, or city regions, an M4 relief road, or even last week’s call for reduced energy prices. Some I’d support, some I would not. But all of them seem to be geared to a belief that performing the right rituals will bring the planes and their precious cargos to Wales.

And, just like the Pacific islanders, when our politicians do divert their attention from their ‘demanding infrastructure’ rituals, it is usually to criticise those wicked outsiders who have diverted the planes which the gods clearly intended for us, and stolen the cargo.

There’s nothing wrong with infrastructure building per se, and it’s easy to see why politicians concentrate on that. It’s under their control, and it is (comparatively) easy for them to control. But it’s about facilitation rather than action. It is built on the assumption that the solution lies with others whom we need to appease, rather than with ourselves.

One of the more interesting suggestions in the Offa’s Gap paper which Plaid produced a few weks ago was the “creation of publicly-owned Welsh enterprises” to bid for contracts. Another lies in the creation of more co-operative and social enterprises. Neither is particularly original, although they’ve fallen out of favour in recent decades. Neither is as simple or straightforward as complaining about what others are not doing. But both are about taking some responsibility for action ourselves – and that has to be a better starting point than performing rituals or criticising others.

John Dixon was Chairman of Plaid Cymru between 2002 and 2010. He blogs at the Borthlas site here.

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