Devolution was never meant to be a panacea for Wales’ problems, argues Daniel Evans.
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.
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.
32 thoughts on “Devolution’s passive revolution”
Excellent! Really opened up the history and in particular the huge mistake PC made in entering a coalition. Dr. Evans makes it very clear that we have to emphasis ‘le difference’ between PC and the same old. same old/ The dangers of the tacit acceptance of what loyalty to supposedly left wing Labour has caused, a ‘one party state’ that has dragged its heels on devolution and fed crumbs to us. Will history now see the publicly revered Rhodri Jones in a very different light? I will speak up for Adam Price, in that I believe his ‘dented shield’ of devolution is a true refection of the publics view of the process so far. Is that not actually concrete evidence of the success of the Passive Revolution’? The other question is how do we articulate in layman’s terms the intellectual criticism of the hegemony of Labour? How do we highlight Carwyn’s bland acceptance of the intellectual disenfranchisement of the Welsh voter, as long as it keeps Labour in power? What are the catch phrases? How are we to express this in revolutionary terms? Here lies the political skill PC needs to develop. How do we remove the ‘Emperor’s clothes’ of Labour and show them for the Unionists that they are?
A fantastic article – exposes the political hypocricies at play in Wales.
A very interesting article and the author is to be congratulated for his lucidity and clarity.
However, I must take issue with one matter. ‘… political nationalism began to rapidly grow in Wales and Scotland, as people began to believe that alternative political forms were necessary to deliver democracy.’
I’m not so sure it was democracy that people were interested in, just getting their hands on more of England’s cash. But hasn’t it always been thus.
As for AdamPrice, I’m still waiting to hear more about his plans to turn some of our major cities in the north into Welsh speaking, Welsh working places of paradise!
A thought-provoking read and interesting analysis, and I’m sympathetic to the idea that Wales would benefit from both greater political competition and a much stronger critical examination of Labour’s record in power.
However, while admittedly focussing on a very small point within the broader argument, the last few paragraphs are a little odd. The idea that Labour is terrified of higher turnout at Assembly elections seems strange. Thanks to UK GE results we can make a reasonable guess at what Assembly election results would have looked like at 60-65% rather than the 40-45% turnout – and they wouldn’t have been all that different.
Leaving aside the suggestion that Carwyn Jones is some sort of villainous Welsh Frank Underwood character who is ‘doing everything (he) can to prevent a more engaged populace’ (but who foolishly let his mask slip once while talking to a schoolboy on work experience), I don’t think there is any reason to think that higher turnouts would be bad for Welsh Labour and therefore it seems both inaccurate and a little unfair to allege such cynical and self-serving motivations on their part.
Did this inertia not exist in Scotland in 1999? There the situation changed because the SNP aggressively campaigned for independence and against Labour. When nationalist in Wales do the same here the situation will change too.
The elements of a major change of party allegiance will not subscribe to the way the ruling Government seeks to undermine radicalism or diminish the opposition threat as well as it has done so over many decades, but in the lack of real alternatives to a fortress of supremacy. Supremacy is self fulfilling. It favours those who believe in the potency of its powers and will reward those who offer allegiances and outward obedience to its continuation. It’s often spell binding and offers mantras and a conditioning to expect there is no other alternative or possible change for the better. It’s how the two party domination of British politics has endured for so long. It’s first past the post election process will maintain the statis.
The appearance of democracy is a clever tactic that both major political parties have prospered by and continue to do so . There can be nothing other than passive revolution as a continuous state of inertia.
This not only afflicts Wales but seems to be most affected by a passive nod of compliance to the strangulation of life blood or energy or enterprise. It’s not done to take risks.
As parliamentary seats are won on ever reducing percentages of voter participation the case still has to be made that democracy is not in a good place. If democracy energies and emboldens then it’s lack of it must be a serious deficite to change or inertia.
We are nothing if not tribal by nature and inclination. There’s only so much an individual can do to shake the chains . There’s a herd instinct that drives us whether we like it or not. People are by their nature conformist and non risk takers. People are risk averse and fear change for this demands confidence in the alternatives.
Politics has moved to offer standard , well trodden and tested practices. It seems to fit the mood music.
Better to knock the fresh and untested policies in preference for closing down discussion and retreating into bunkers that seem to offer protection. People feel every more vulnerable and exposed to uncertainty.
Yet even when the latest Welsh referendum decisively approved increased and improved law making powers for the Assembly the offer of the Draft Wales Bill 2015 locks in the mediocrity of state of non being.
It defies the logic of optimism and reinforces the passive revolution is very much alive and kicking.
Not all this can be laid at the feet of the Welsh psyche. It may be that the electorate can be exhausted by the lack of progress that it too sees as a merrygoround of endless hope raising and fatigue that yet again it’s thwarted by a Westminster keen on another gun fight . The lengths this government is going to neuter enterprise and a chance of greater federalism is matched only by its fear of the geni out if the bottle and a strident Wales that can defy passive revolution and kick itself into this new century.
It can only do that if it’s given the chance and law making potential like all other parts of the U.K.
“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”.”
That’s one way of putting it except that the old order worked better in Wales than the new/current order and the ideologies which made it work better haven’t gone away – they appear to be in reasonable health in England. Scotland may, indeed, go its own way in the next few years and they will last but a few years without an economic crisis of Greek proportions, but England is doing fairly well and could do even better if it was freed from the liabilities of propping up Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. But the English are a tolerant lot so they put up with it – they don’t have much choice because all the main parties in England are pro legislative devolution.
Clearly Wales, with an annual deficit on total identifiable spending of over 40%, cannot possibly go it alone and must remain on life-support from England. You can call it an interregnum or an impasse but it is the goodwill of English taxpayers which is now reaching its limit and the political class just about everywhere has finally noticed. And the people in Wales are noticing the decline in the economy and public services – they too are running out of patience. In general terms the only thing saving Llafur from open revolt is the ignorance of an electorate where ~ 50% do not even know that the WG runs the NHS in Wales. This is a massive buffer of ignorance preventing political reality from operating in Wales in a timely manner. That doesn’t mean the electorate are all happy bunnies – far from it.
If Wales can’t ‘move forward’ towards self sustainability and self governance, and the status quo is untenable and approaching morbidity, this suggests to me that the most logical and beneficial thing Wales can do is to restore the old order before any more damage to the economy and front-line services occurs, and before the people disengage from the political process altogether. Or start building tumbrels in their garages…
Apparently this view is still shared by a significant number of people in Wales but they don’t have any representation in the 5 current pro-devo parties which are supporting this ‘bastard form of state’.
Fortunately a group of people in Wales have decided to bite the bullet and to offer the people of Wales a radical alternative new political party which unashamedly wants to abolish the Assembly and Welsh government and to return control to the people via the MPs at Westminster and the elected Councils as it was before 1999. They want to return to the ‘old order’ and so do I. I never wanted to change it!
Quite logically they call themselves the Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party – I can hardly wait! They’ve got my vote – all they have to do is turn up in May 2016! See what you think folks… If we can’t go forward, and the present isn’t working, then maybe we need to go backwards before it’s too late?
Karl Popper observed that the problem with “scientific” social theories is that they fail to predict the future and then fail to reject the theory.
Did Gramsci have anything useful to say about running hospitals or schools?
Thank you for all your comments. I have been working on this argument since I was an undergraduate, so it is great to see that so many people agree with the thrust of it. A far more elaborate and theoretical version of the argument can be found here: http://orca.cf.ac.uk/75609/
Firstly, I should make an important clarification. The ‘passive revolution’ was the rise of a modernised and streamlined New Labour: it was something which blanketed the whole UK, not just something which impacted on Wales and Scotland and Northern Ireland. Devolution (and the Good Friday Agreement) is therefore best conceptualised as a ‘spatial fix’ within the wider process of passive revolution/Blairism, rather than being the passive revolution itself.
Jim: I agree with your point. Increased turnout will not necessarily lead to anything other than a Labour victory- I’m not assuming that non-voters when they ‘awaken’ will vote for parties other than Labour. My anecdote about Carwyn Jones was designed to illustrate that the ‘stasis’ or interregnum suits Labour, rather than to illustrate anything about higher turnout. Low turnout is simply one manifestation of malaise, but higher voter turnout without increased political education and a national conversation would be meaningless as you say.
The central ways that Wales differs from Scotland are : a) Scottish Labour was not as smart as Welsh labour and failed to properly co-opt ‘Scottishness’ or ‘tartanize’; b) that Scotland possesses a public sphere, both in traditional media and online. People are more politically engaged and there is a national conversation about the future of the country; c) the SNP are far more confident and bold than Plaid Cymru, and successfully articulated the intellectual argument for independence.
The final point is key: bloggers, academics and other figures within political and civil society launched a direct intellectual confrontation with the status quo, forcefully made the case for independence, but crucially then worked tirelessly to disseminate this message. This was both online, through social media, and in the street and the community. So blogs like ‘Wings Over Scotland’ worked tirelessly to expose the hypocrisy and bias within the MSM and so on. They offered an accessible antidote to the dominant narrative, a consistent alternative message. The group Radical Independence held roadshows within communities. The examples of tireless activism (not just clicktivism) are countless.
How this can happen in Wales is another matter entirely. Plaid haven’t even made the first step: the intellectual argument for independence. Until they do, they will remain an irrelevance, particularly as Corbyn will deliver a huge bounce for Labour in Wales. Plaid need to try and demonstrate why Wales would be better off independent than under a Corbyn led British welfare state and the current devolution settlement, because this is the argument that will be used by Labour.
As to how the intellectual challenge would be mediated, well we have no national media, so we are massively disadvantaged in this respect. Activists must learn from Scotland and use new media such as blogs, twitter etc to organize and challenge the dominant hegemonic narratives. New media offers a huge opportunity or resistance and intellectual confrontation, alongside local organisation within communities.
I agree that this is an excellent analysis of the contemporary political history of Wales, probably the best I’ve encountered, although I hope that we need not be as pessimistic about the future.
The Labour Party has been in decline for half a century, and I see no prospect of it being reversed in the medium to long term. So-called “Welsh” Labour is an integral part of the party. It too has been declining. Significant political change is inevitable here, as in the rest of the UK, or for as long as the UK survives. Scotland is on a trajectory of becoming a nation state, just a matter of time.
The unique selling point of Britishness too, is in decline, and has been since 1945. The fact that the BBC perpetually tries to bolster it with programmes having ‘British’ in their titles emphasises its decline in our minds.
Plaid’s monumental strategic error in its coalition with Labour was foreseeable for many of us, members & supporters of the party. This article places that mistake in its political context. Plaid’s leadership should read it and take note. If they fail to do so, the jobs of their elected members will be at stake and the party faces a bleak future. The aspiration for a better future will fade with it.
Plaid’s job is to sell the idea that Wales can and will be a much better country to live in when it is governed by the people who live here, regardless of place of birth, ethnicity, language or religion. Trying to compete with other parties on their ideologies is doomed to failure, as sadly has happened post 1999. Stick to your unique selling point, it’s an excellent one, with a myriad of positive benefits for the people of Wales, who are second class citizens, economically, politically & culturally in this British State.
Say it loud, and say it long, like the SNP. If we are ever to have dignity and self-respect as a people, and to prosper as a nation, then we have to govern ourselves, like most other peoples on this planet. Our day will come.
Highly amusing. Take a formula that doesn’t fit and squeeze the history into it until it screams for mercy.
We don’t need a revolution or a counter-revolution. We just need an alternative government to the present one in Wales that will pursue economic development with more vigour and efficiency. I wonder what additional powers people think Wales needs to prosper. Macroeconomic powers are void in a state the size of Wales. We have many of the microeconomic powers we need and if we used them successfully we could claim the others with greater conviction. Let’s master the territory we have. More will follow success; nothing follows failure. The first step is to throw the current rascals out.
I was and am a strong supporter of devolution, but even when I was tramping the streets in the late 90s campaigning for the Assembly I was expecting things to turn out pretty much as they have. Wales is in thrall to the Labour Party, the Labour Party is running Wales into the ground, and no significant change is in sight. There was a glorious lost opportunity to break the mould in 2007, but Plaid Cymru betrayed the country by choosing to prop up the Labour government in return for a sniff of power. Sadly, Adam Price’s original article makes exactly the right diagnosis but then comes up with totally the wrong prescription. Dr. Evans’s article underlines just how deadly the disease really is, but seems to see no hope beyond just managing the chronic condition. I still think that devolution is worth having, and the present situation is just something we have to get through since turning the clock back would be much worse. Even so, it took Ireland some sixty years after Home Rule to make something of itself, and it looks like it will take Wales at least that long.
Wales’s tragedy at the moment is twofold:
(1) it is a poor country, and the only way poor countries ever become rich is through the cutting back of state power and the introduction of free-market reforms;
(2) the only party that comes close to advocating this are the Conservatives, but the Conservative Party carries so much baggage in Wales that the baby (centre-right policy) always gets thrown out with the bathwater (the Conservative Party itself).
My own view is that the log-jam will only be eventually broken when (or sadly, if) a new party emerges which rejects the statism of Labour and Plaid Cymru but avoids the baggage of the Conservatives. This seems unlikely to happen any time soon, though in the short term the best hope is probably UKIP.
Absolutely brilliant! What can I say? This article by Dr.Evans should be ‘required’ reading. The word ‘sustainable’ not mentioned once!
I used to believe that a ‘fractal’ change rather than a ‘passive revolution’ in Welsh society would still be possible (as occurred at the start of the 19th century with Evan Roberts) but clearly the world has changed and Gramsci’s theories as interpreted so cogently by Dr.Evans certainly make sense to me.
Nevertheless, this still leaves us with many questions of what can and should be done to convert the passive into the active. The only thing that could possibly do this seems to be the ‘disruptive’ potential of the Internet and social media. Plaid Cymru seems to have grasped this as they are the most active online however this activity is having very little discernible impact on voters. They ‘get’ the Medium but not the Message?
There such a variety of arguments spoken of after the thought provoking article by Dr Dan Evans that he can feel well pleased with a job well done. One of the most reflective and penetrating accounts of modern politics in Wales that deserves much praise. But where does it takes us. We are at grid lock in our basic desire to be free of hegemony with some even suggesting a return to failed political structures of over 20 years ago. Such is the dilemma or frustration at the current statis.
We are regarded as the poor man of the British Isles even Europe. But who has put us there .
Surely if you are going to seriously consider remedies to a chronic state of underperformance lasting since 1945 in Wales there is a irony to catapult is back to the same medicine that inflicted much of what we are experiencing today. It doesn’t fit. The status quo is not an option. Neither is it the old argument that the Welsh Assembly has failed . It hasn’t. The model was never going to bring the radicalism and agent for change that we have desperately needed. Too much has been expected of it and not enough separation of role of Westminster and the Bay. Westminster has dominated proceedings to the exclusion of a developing Wales.
If you can believe that the financial crash of 2008 has somehow passed Wales by or implicated in some way you are not seeing the catastrophic tsunami of debt and destruction on ordinary families in Wales over and above anything that a Welsh Assembly could do to our economy. We will be paying for this until at least 2020 with a national debt still a serious worry. We are committing our young people to a standard of like much less than its counterparts elsewhere. That’s a shame
It is fantasy to believe that Wales does not have the go forward but to eternally rely on Westminster to pay
debt. It’s a debt well structured and a corner stone of Goverment policy to squeeze the coffers of Wales as a policy to break even .
Wales has a history of entrepreneurial spirit and adventure. England had profited from the export of Welsh talent since 1945 and before that . Talent that has been forced to move because of the lack of an industrial base strong enough to absorb gifted graduates.
It’s a lack of investment and sufficient decentralising of business from major English connubations to Wales
The problems stem from an outdated and archaic political system that has begun to break at the seams and
is no longer fit purpose . Devolution if not properly managed in Wales will commit Wales to an inferior life of catch up with other regions in England let alone the nation states of the U.K. If Wales remains in a passive revolution it will be because the case for a vibrant Wales ready to grasp opportunities has not been made well enough. We are in a familiar industrial landscape of possible reductions in steel making where the power to effect change rests elsewhere. Not in Wales at least for now.
There are tutonic plates shifting in Wales and elsewhere . Change is inevitable with EVEL, Euoropean elections and the rise of UKIP.
It’s whether the electorate of Wales wishes to put the interests of Wales first and foremost with law making powers and responsibility for its economy and natural resources as well as civil and criminal laws . It’s the only way we will have a rebirth to a new world. It’s there for us now. Collectively yes we can. Wales has the potential to maximise it’s resources and talents in a civil and enlightened way. We have 3 million chances . Or the same old tired politics linked to the boot straps of Westminster .
Dr Dan Evans has produced a narrative of understanding of where we stand , I sense at a crossroads.
Very good. If Thatcherism gave rise to unrest and then devolution what will Cameron’s gov do? Unrest is growing already and Scotland and Wales still don’t vote Conservative in the majority. Devolution has failed to devolve enough democratic self governance and the current Westminster government is divisive in much the same way as Thatcher was. Time will tell.
The newly launched abolish wales party – er sorry i mean ‘abolish the welsh assembly party’ – obviously need all the publicity they can get, what with flogging long dead horses being such a thankless task. So im sure they’ll be delighted with the plug from john walker. And none of us on the side of the welsh people making political decisions for themselves should be troubled by the prospect of an organisation which at this point in time appears to consist of only one member – ukip defector david bevan – appearing on the welsh electorate’s ballot papers next may..
Given every other party contesting the 2016 senedd election (yes even ukip these days) dont want to ‘go backwards’ to direct rule from london its fair to conclude that all the votes cast for those parties next may can also be regarded as an endorsement of devolution, as those voters in favour of a return to a direct rule from london have the opportunity to register this view by voting for david bevan’s party.
So given it’s likely that around 99.999999999 percent of votes cast in wales next may will be cast for parties in favour of keeping the senedd its fair to say next year’s elections to the senedd will represent the greatest endorsement welsh devolution has ever had – yes even greater than the thumping 2 to 1 yes vote in 2011. And this resounding thumbs up for welsh devolution will be coming as a result of the presence of david bevan’s party on the ballot paper. I can hardly wait, as an earlier poster remarked
leigh richards says:
“The newly launched abolish wales party – er sorry i mean ‘abolish the welsh assembly party’ – obviously need all the publicity they can get, what with flogging long dead horses being such a thankless task. So im sure they’ll be delighted with the plug from john walker.”
ATWAP don’t need any publicity from me – WalesOnline seem to be taking them a little more seriously than you are but that wouldn’t be difficult:
But abolishing the Assembly and the WG – isn’t that just a little tidying up exercise?
What! The old order worked better in Wales??????? I actually live in Wales and, no offense meant, I have never heard such complete nonsense. Westminster failed Wales. The Abolish Wales Party were formed not to benefit Wales but to preserve the Union. Its leaders had a revelation that devolution is part of a conspiracy to break-up the UK. Also part of that revelation is the EU are part of the same conspiracy to break-up the UK. If this revelation came from humanoid reptilians isn’t mention. The Abolish Wales Party are a bunch of ex-BNP and UKIP types who have never been elected in their lifes and their goal is simply to keep the Union intact, whatever the consequences for the people of Wales and our children and grandchildren. It seems being able to charge 5p for a carrier bag is a major threat to the future of the UK. Their policy is simpler, every time the WAG is mention to get their party members to write the WAG is ‘a waste of money’, ‘a failure’, ‘as let down the people of Wales’, ‘not wanted by the people of Wales’. Instead of ‘Back to the Future’ we will have ‘Back to the Past’. Wales will return to being the poorest region of the UK and one of the poorest regions of the EU, but at least the Union will remain intact, after all that is all that matters. But hell, we get to talk about the empire and the war so all will be okay.
@Philip Hughes. I,humbly thought that we voted for an Assembly to makes things better,however where can it be said that things are BETTER,relative to the amount of public money spent on any given service.I think that the relative remoteness of Wales from major markets,but also the huge splits in our societies between a)anglo centric areas,b)welsh centric areas is having a disastrous impact on service provision.I spend quite a bit of time ‘over the border’ as both my children live away,and quite honestly the English people I meet could’nt care less of a)Wales ,b)Scotland left the UK,and consequently had to paddle their own canoe,but without English subsidies.
Philip Hughes says:
“What! The old order worked better in Wales??????? I actually live in Wales and, no offense meant, I have never heard such complete nonsense.”
I live and work in Cymru (apparently) and given your obvious level of ignorance I suspect I may have lived in Cymru longer than you have lived in Wales. Anyway, the economic facts are pretty indisputable that Wales did better before the Assembly and WG took over its terminal decline. I hate to disappoint you further but Wales did particularly well under Thatcher’s government.
A lot of it is in here – Offa’s Gap – Roots and Remedies of the Welsh Growth Collapse – written by Plaid’s Eurfyl ap Gwilym and Adam Price.
‘The Welsh economy is in crisis.
The collapse in its economic output since 2007 ran in parallel with the Great Recession. But its problems run much deeper. The Welsh economy has been growing slower relative to its historic trend
growth and that of the UK economy for the last two decades. While the inherited problems of the
Welsh economy, those associated with its industrial legacy, are well understood, this paper seeks to ask the simple question: what made a bad situation worse?’
Answer – the devolved WG run by a bunch of unreformed Marxists who have never had a proper job!
Not much argument that the WG caused terminal decline of health and education as well – or haven’t you caught up with these inconvenient truths either?
Northern Ireland also tends to do better economically when run directly from Westminster rather than by Stormont – tending to confirm that the extra unnecessary layer of bureaucracy in N.I. is also doing more harm than good.
‘Since 1996, however, the Welsh economy has been in a period of almost continuous relative decline.’
The Assembly was set up in 1999, the decline started in 1996, but this continuous decline is somehow not only all the fault of the Assembly but this decline is solely to do with the Assembly.
I think the saying ‘does not compute’ is appropriate here.
And the solution to this continuous decline since 1996 is not only to throw out the baby with the bath water, but to throw out the bath too.
Westminster failed Wales pre-1999, and has the report states, Wales was the poorest of the UK regions and one of the poorest regions of the EU under Westminster, so what will be different if the WAG is abolished, answer that everyone in Wales knows is NOTHING. Like the old USSR, people hanker for the old days, the empire and the war, but ‘Back to the Past’ isn’t going to solve our problems.
The Abolish Wales Party are not concerned about Wales or our future or the future of our children and grandchildren, their only concern is preserving the Union. Well if the WAG is such a major threat to the Union then the Union is in a desperate way and should be put out of its misery. Like John Major yearning for an England where ladies rode bicycles to church while the menfolk played cricket, the union of the Abolish Wales Party is a similar mirage, the world has since moved on and attempting to put it back is a pipe dream of the desperate who have been left behind by change.
Not much argument that the WG caused terminal decline of health and education as well – or haven’t you caught up with these inconvenient truths either?
The health system in England is the same state. Following your example should we start an Abolish Westminster Party because the health system in England is in the same terminal decline as the Welsh system. Our health service has problems so we abolish the WAG and have direct rule by Westminster and our health service continues to decline. Absolutely brilliant way forward but the Abolish Wales Party but obviously the Abolish Wales Party are immune to logic and reason.
Thanks once more for your comments.
As for the economic performance of the Assembly, John, I can actually see why you feel that Wales is worse off under the Assembly. It almost certainly is, in fact. Although we differ greatly over cause, effect and remedy.
Yes the Assembly is badly run and the Labour administration have been shockingly profligate. Yet without control of macro-economic policies all devolution can achieve is rearranging the deckchairs on the titanic. The Assembly inherited a small nation with a bloated public sector (which was designed by previous central UK Labour administrations to ‘prop up’ Wales); huge social and health problems associated with de-industrialisation; and ultimately no independent sources of wealth creation. As Calvin Jones has pointed out repeatedly, you cannot understand Wales’ current economic mess without looking to the legacy of colonialism and dependency which has marked Wales’ history. That is not passing the buck or excusing the profligacy of the Labour administration, it is simply fact.
Devolution is worse than the centralised welfare state because the Assembly is expected to do more with less money. This of course is another important political element of Devolution: as the central state abandoned regional policies, devolution allowed New Labour (and now the conservatives) to shift problems and blame away from the centre- this is ‘devolving the axe’- the long standing economic problems in Wales are now no longer Westminster’s problem. They can just blame the Assembly for Wales’ poverty, overlooking the 500 years of dependency which preceded the creation of the Assembly.
The issue of course is why do Labour refuse to countenance a revision of the Barnett formula or control of macro-economic levers? This is what we should be scrutinizing: why as an administration do they complain about a lack of powers whilst simultaneously rejecting further powers? It doesn’t take a genius to tell you that maybe this is politically motivated by a desire to keep ”standing still whilst appearing to be running very fast’ (a Tom Nairn analogy), i.e. that the interregnum is a very comfortable place for them.
The tragedy of these informative exchanges , and most illuminating from Dr Dan Evans, is the entrenched views of pessimism to any sort of change, or wish to be informed , but a steadfast belief in the order that’s never worked in modern times. Those who might fit this category cannot be the victims of the political neglect but a part of the hegemony that is so hard to dislodge. To maintain the status quo and remain in denial is the perfect behaviour of a beneficiary of the current political order not realising that it’s diminishing fast anyway. All services are under threat in Wales. Other parts of the U.K. is work in progress including the regions of England while we rumble along the bottom of every economic , education and health indices.
If we can dismiss the fear factor that always raises its head and realise that the attacks on the progressive nature of other lesser parties is a con trick to maintain the Union Jack flying in Wales. A Union flag that has no identifying symbol of Wales upon it. I have found these exchanges high value and a healthy state of affairs that we can at least have some debate and dialogue in a civilised way.
The best thing is this article is its honest admission that Welsh media and ‘intellectuals’ – by which, one suspects, Dr Evans means academics – ‘utterly failed the population by buying into the hyperbole which surrounded devolution.’
Otherwise, it says something depressing about Welsh academia that the Marxist Gramsci is still quoted as intellectually respectable. Part of the problem with Welsh media and academics is that many of them seem to be still stuck in the 1970s – and they were wrong then.
Dan Evans says:
“As for the economic performance of the Assembly, John, I can actually see why you feel that Wales is worse off under the Assembly. It almost certainly is, in fact. Although we differ greatly over cause, effect and remedy.”
I can see you’re firmly wedded to the age-old political principle that the answer to failure is more of the same!
I’ve been studying the economy, logistics, and prospects of Wales since about 1980 when I considered moving a business to Mid Wales at a time when Wales looked to be getting special treatment that was likely to work. It did work for about 10 years then something happened which suddenly put people off investing in Wales if their prime-purpose was to invest in the L1 English Anglosphere. We all know what that was – the eliffant in the room which cannot be criticised…
Since then it’s been downhill nearly all the way, with much worse to come! Not Llafur’s fault – the consensus has shared responsibility! The unreformed Marxist/I Love Cuba doctrine is Llafur’s fault though! If Wales was a business the administrators would have been called in years ago! Only solution that computes for me is to slash the bureaucratic overhead by getting rid of the useless Assembly + WG layer and rolling back to lighter-weight administration. Macro-economic levers are no use now – damage is far too severe and there is absolutely no real prospect of adequate funding to overcome a 40+% annual deficit on identified spending even if the talent exists in Wales, which looks doubtful in the current pool…
Glad to be approaching retirement now – along with a lot of other small business owners who set up when Wales was on the way up!
@JWR you will be happy to know that Gramsci’s work- now thoroughly translated and contextualized- is becoming more and more popular within academia all over the world. The theory of Passive Revolution, for example, has recently been brilliantly applied to state restructuring in Mexico, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa and elsewhere.
If anything, his work is very much under-studied within the British academy.
Oh dear, just seems a rehash of the same old parrot fashion arguments but now with the Marxist tag thrown in as an additional insult. The WAG is a waste of money and is now a Marxist plot to break up the UK. I wonder how long it will be before they come out with the additional argument of “my dad is bigger than your dad”
Dr Evans, it comes as absolutely no surprise that the global university sector is still full of Marxists. ‘Happy’ is not quite the word but it is reassuring to have confirmation that the old clichés remain true.
Mr Hughes, the word Marxist is not used here in its pejorative sense but as the label given to itself by a particular school of thought. Look up Gramsci and you will see he used the word of himself.
@JWR who other than Marx can explain the current crisis of capitalism? Even non-Marxist economists have begun utilizing his work on the built in problems of capitalism.
And much as I would wish that the academic profession was stuffed with Marxists (and Gramscians at that) sadly again this is not the case.
Dr Evans, the world faces many active and potential crises but a crisis of capitalism as such is not among them. As we face the consequences of past failures on the public policy side – including overpopulation, sovereign debt, the energy gap, depletion of non-renewable natural resources, the ‘pensions time bomb.’ dependency culture, the energy gap, and possible climate change – capitalism itself is ticking over quite happily. Indeed, capitalism may offer our best hope of solving at least some of those problems, as global markets become more efficient and the rate of technological advance increases as a result. The sensationalist notion of a ‘crisis of capitalism’ was fashionable, briefly, in 2008, when all the people who had been proved wrong in the 1980s came rushing out of their common rooms, gleefully predicting that the end was finally nigh. Of course, the fall of capitalism never came. Although some of the consequences are still with us, the crisis itself was over by the end of the year, as the excellent Christine Lagarde pointed out. Capitalism recovered very quickly – as it always does. In its 300 year history, it has had at least a dozen major crises and has always recovered. Something like sovereign debt or the poor design of the euro may trigger another crisis tomorrow, which will impact on capitalism, but political failure, not capitalism, will be the cause, and capitalism should again recover very quickly, if left to itself. Old Karl’s analysis always missed the real point and his dated obsession with classes related to industrial mass production now makes it look doubly redundant.
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