Alexander Phillips reviews 2016 through the lens of the five stages of grief.
When pulling together a review of 2016 it’s difficult to know where to start. While an extended tribute to David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Abe Vigoda was my natural starting point, I don’t think it would really deliver that much in relation to Welsh politics. So how does somebody review the events of Wales’ political bubble over the last 12 months in a way which isn’t just navel-gazing within each party’s social media echo chambers? No doubt readers will have their own answers, but it strikes me that as fitting to approach 2016 through the lens of Kübler-Ross’ model of the five stages of grief.
Throughout 2016 there has been a lot which many within Wales’ political bubbles have been in denial about. The obvious one has been the strength of support for the right-wing anti-European agenda which has dominated the year. A blog of this length would not do justice to any explanation of why this was the case. Nonetheless, what is of continued interest is how this denial appears unremitting long after the EU vote. Indeed, the level of disdain, and frequent mockery, with which the new UKIP Group has been greeted into the Assembly highlights that some in the bubble continue to deny that this is a political perspective that needs to be taken seriously. Indeed, such responses were received even when UKIP members suggested near identical plans as other parties, as we saw when one of their Group suggested accessing EU funds post-Brexit via joint working with Ireland (something akin to a Plaid Cymru suggestion a few days before). Perhaps one of the most visible ways in which this has continued was in how they received no recognition in December’s Politician of the Year Awards. Among the winners were the usual parties, but from the roster you’d be forgiven for thinking that the party that has done more to impact Welsh politics than any other this year didn’t even exist. Surely this can’t continue into 2017?
No matter where you go in Wales there are few issues which elicit as much anger from the public as the Health Service. While everyone goes out of their way to celebrate the contribution of staff throughout the NHS, few hold back their anger at diminishing services; longer waits; cancelled procedures; and winter pressures. The Welsh Government responds by highlighting that Wales did not suffer a junior doctor’s strike and that services are broadly comparable with those found elsewhere in the UK. They also highlight that Welsh ambulance response times are now among the best in the UK due to a major change in how they are recorded – other areas are exploring making a similar change. Wherever you stand on which way is best to run a health service it’s impossible to deny the emotive response the issue generates regardless of politics. As such this is something which shows little sign of abating in 2017.
One of the most complex issues of the year has been the Steel Crisis which broke on in the run up to the Assembly Elections in the spring. The dumping of cheap Chinese steel mixed with the UK Government blocking EU attempts to raise tariffs hit the industry with the perfect storm which saw Tata put its UK operations up for sale – with their largest plant being in Port Talbot, south Wales. In the months which followed the Welsh Government worked closely with Tata; bidders; the Unions; and the UK Government in an attempt to find a solution that would keep thousands of jobs across Wales and the wider UK. Out of all the bargaining a deal has recently emerged which will see the plant continue as is for at least another five years, and a wider steel manufacturing guarantee for 10 years. Given all that has occurred within the industry this year such guarantees are welcome (even though we still don’t know the finer details). One would hope that the Welsh Government considers the next five years its final ‘get out of jail free’ card on steel and uses the time to develop a sustainable regional economic model given we clearly can’t depend on steel for jobs indefinitely.
It’s hard not to feel a bit depressed about the wider state of the devolution debate throughout 2016. With the second Wales Bill in as many Parliaments still being debated, it’s clear that we are still some way from finding a lasting settlement for Wales which is acceptable to all sides. Indeed the political void has widened in recent weeks to the point where some Conservative MPs have gone so far as to suggest that the UK Government should be able to reclaim powers in areas where the Welsh Government are failing – what they term as putting Wales into ‘Special Measures’. These areas include Health and Education, no doubt fuelled by some of the anger mentioned above. Such suggestions were immediately rebuffed by the party’s leadership in both Wales and Westminster, nonetheless it did little to diminish the impression that some within the UK’s governing party would like to use either the Wales Bill or an eventual post-Brexit deal as a mechanism through which devolved powers could be reduced or checked.
Finally, Wales’ long battle to improving its diminishing educational standards reached a state approaching acceptance this year. News that we had dropped even further down the globally respected PISA rankings was met not with calls for sackings and reform, but instead with the recognition that we must have the confidence to hold our course and let previous reforms play out. Responding to the data which showed that Wales was again the worst UK nation for education Cabinet Secretary Kirsty Williams said “Last month I invited the OECD to look at how we are doing in Wales; their advice to me was unambiguous: Stay the course, be brave, you are doing the right things… The easy thing to do would be rip up the plan and start again. But we owe it to our pupils, parents and the profession to do what is right.” We’ll get our next results in three years.
To conclude it has been a busy and complex year for Wales. As a nation we are clearly still working our way through a series of issues for which the end is rarely in sight. 2017 is unlikely to deliver many solutions. Local Authority elections in May are likely to result in a weakening of Welsh Labour’s control in key areas such as Cardiff and Swansea. The potential of a Brexit deal which leaves Wales worse off remains high. On top of all of this the perception remains that key services in areas which have been devolved for the best part of two decades are still not as good as they could be. As the new Government brings forward its legislative programme the one thing that is clear is that fewer and fewer people wish it to fail.