Sock Puppets vs. Straw Men

Andy Regan responds to Jonathan Morgan’s article on the ‘new normal’.

When the shelves are bare in the marketplace of ideas, it can be much simpler to resort to waging a culture war.

In an article for the ‘Centre for Welsh Studies’ on the ‘new normal’, former AM Jonathan Morgan takes aim at a somewhat crudely drawn caricature of people who want to “redesign society according to their own beliefs”. This is a strange thing for a one-time politician writing for a ‘think tank’ to frame as a negative. 

The IWA is the only specific organisation, other than the Welsh Government, mentioned by name in the article. So I’m not sure if Mr Morgan is accusing us of everything on the quite long list of tropes he sets out – including wanting to restrict personal freedom, banning air travel so people ‘have to holiday in the same place as them’, or indeed wanting ‘electronic bikes to be the focus of transport policy’. 

For the record, I do not know what an ‘electronic bike’ is (though if it’s this then count me in). I have also never felt so lonely on holiday that I wanted to entirely redesign transport policy just to have more company. I shall come back to personal freedom in a moment. 

To be clear, the IWA welcomes debate. We started #RethinkingWales using our established platforms to host a conversation about what Wales could and should be after COVID-19. But the sorts of debates we like are where one person puts forward an idea, and another person says ‘I have a better idea’. 

Mr Morgan’s article is, sadly, a little short on better ideas. 

Instead he attacks people who propose things like universal basic income, something which has indeed been mentioned in our sessions. My own views on the pros and cons of that policy would require a longer post. But it does require a degree of doublethink to decry restrictions on freedom in one sentence, and dismiss UBI out of hand in another. 

In freedom terms, our current normal is a punitive and inefficient welfare system which micro-manages people in poverty through bureaucratic hoop-jumping. Like being compelled to pointlessly apply for jobs they cannot realistically expect to get. Under a ‘new normal’ with UBI the state could, its advocates argue, step back, strip the bureaucracy and allow them the freedom to make their own choices.

I would also assume that pro-market thinkers at the ‘Centre for Welsh Studies’ were familiar with the right wing economic case for UBI in terms of improved labour market dynamism, competition between firms, supporting entrepreneurialism, and boosting consumer demand. Evidence from recent basic income trials is, of course, contested – and that’s as it should be. 

A detailed, objective analysis of whether UBI would actually make peoples’ lives better in Wales would be fascinating. The cartoon of a giant pig on the ‘Centre for Welsh Studies’ article on the topic suggests this is not the level of discourse they are aiming for. 

The IWA started the #RethinkingWales series in part because our members told us it was harder to have the usual conversations about ideas because of the COVID-19 lockdown. As we are generously supported by their contributions*, we were happy to provide a space for this. 

These sessions are not about the IWA setting out our views, but hearing from a range of voices and perspectives. We have heard from many established commentators from across the political spectrum, and we have also actively sought to hear from new voices (as we also do on this site). 

My personal favourite session so far was the one on Welsh towns, which included contributions from – in an egregious example of the Cardiff Bay Bubble talking to itself – Adrian Emmett, a pub landlord from Treorchy. From him I heard the inspiring story of how Treorchy won High Street of the Year 2019 and is now embracing digital innovations. This led to a discussion about what practical lessons could be learned by other Welsh towns. 

Having Adrian sit alongside the CBI’s Ian Price and finding they shared an enthusiasm for the same ideas shows that Wales does, in fact, have plenty to be cheerful about. In the chat sidebar, people were swapping links and contact details, another positive outcome of bringing people together virtually, when we are not able to meet in person.  

So #RethinkingWales is also not about seeking new or radical ideas for their own sake. It is about noticing what is happening now, and reflecting on the challenges and opportunities to come. It’s never too soon to start planning for the future.

As an unreconstructed policy wonk I know there is no such thing as an inherently ‘good policy’. There are only ideas which will and won’t work in the context we find ourselves in. When the context changes, an old idea can become the right idea.

Sometimes that should mean letting markets do their thing, sometimes it will mean judiciously intervening in those markets. I would personally welcome more rounded conversations about markets in Welsh policy making. After all we wouldn’t plan a journey without checking the weather, but then we also don’t expect a tornado to tidy our garden. 

The ‘new normal’ is a phrase I most associate with bereavement counselling. It is value neutral, it refers to what is – not what should be. After denial, anger, bargaining, and depression we reach acceptance. We reach the ‘new normal’ when we realise we are rebuilding a life which has forever changed. 

COVID-19 has taken our friends, family, and fellow citizens from us in their tens of thousands. Few people reading this will not be able to name someone they cared about who has been taken by this virus. Its aftermath could take much more. 

We shouldn’t be in denial that it will even be possible for life to return to exactly what it was before in a world where, until a vaccine or treatment is developed, we cannot physically be close to a stranger. We did not choose this, but we can and should actively choose what comes next. 

Thinking about the ‘new normal’ should be an empowering, inclusive conversation about what we value, and how we preserve and grow those things after the crisis. 

Debates do not, of course, change things all by themselves. We will all have our own theories of how change happens. I don’t think we make Wales better by snarky tweets, burning everything down in the hope something better rises from the ashes, or using sock puppets to attack straw men. 

My hope is that #RethinkingWales will evolve into a ‘phase two’ where the IWA, and our partners, can do some good old fashioned policy work. Finding answers to the questions raised in the current sessions, and contributing to a practical plan. That will, as ever, involve getting people who disagree with each other around a table.

When the best ideas win, everyone wins.

 


*You can find complete details of how the IWA is funded on our website. In a nutshell it’s through memberships, commercial events and training, and grants from named funders. I was unable to find similar information on the ‘Centre for Welsh Studies’ website.

 

Andy Regan is Policy and External Affairs Manager at the Institute of Welsh Affairs.

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