A Letter from Wales

A Letter from Wales

Mini Teaser: The economy is fine, but everything else in Britain is falling apart--and the English still can't understand the Welsh.

by Author(s): Owen Harries

At the beginning of June my wife and I left the capital of the indispensable nation to visit the capital of a country that is, for all but its inhabitants, quite inconsequential in the affairs of the world. So here we are in Cardiff, once a great industrial port but now a sedate and rather handsome service and cultural center for a small nation. Its once notoriously tough dockland area, Tiger Bay, has been innocuously renamed and is now the site of "luxury" apartments and expensive restaurants.

More about Wales presently, but first a word on the "state of Britain" question, for we arrived just as the country's politics entered a very interesting phase. Indeed, in retrospect our first few weeks back in Britain may stand out as a decisive turning point in the premiership of Tony Blair. For him this was a hellish month, when everything went wrong. It started with his being slow-clapped by a normally decorous audience of middle-class women, while delivering an ill-judged, patronizing speech. Then, in rapid succession, came copious evidence of deep divisions and rivalries in his cabinet; utter incoherence in policy toward Europe; adverse public opinion polls; the symbolic fiasco of the opening and then immediate closing of a much hyped "Millennium Bridge" over the Thames; a spectacular display of English soccer hooliganism in Belgium, followed by the early exit of the English soccer team from the Euro 2000 competition; strong popular discontent with the insanely high gas prices (the equivalent of $4.80 a gallon); and substandard performances by the Prime Minister in Parliament, at a time when the leader of the opposition, William Hague, was doing exceptionally well. This dismal succession of embarrassments climaxed with what was in personal terms the worst one of all, the arrest of Blair's son after being found hopelessly drunk on the sidewalk of Leicester Square.

Not surprisingly, by the end of all this Tony Blair appeared badly rattled and a normally sympathetic press was giving him a rough time. Whether this will turn out to be merely an unfortunate interlude, of the kind that all governments experience from time to time, or a defining moment remains to be seen, and things will be clearer by the time this piece appears. But for someone who has depended so much on the manipulation of image, and the projection of an air of easy superiority and supreme confidence, recovery will not be easy. A series of leaked documents has made it clear that there is considerable demoralization, if not near panic, in the upper reaches of the government. As Philip Gould, one of Blair's closest advisers, lamented in one of these documents, "We are outflanked on patriotism and crime; we are suffering from disconnection . . . undermined by a combination of spin, lack of conviction and apparent lack of integrity." Incredibly, his advice on how to recover from all this was simply more and better spin: "We need to reinvent the New Labour brand"! Live by the image, die by the image. Indeed, by now over-indulgence in the art has made spinning itself a major issue in British politics, and there is growing contempt for its practitioners. Once respected and feared as powers behind the throne, they were recently dismissed contemptuously by one ex-friend of the Prime Minister as "rent boys." It is a demystifying phrase.

During the same month there was compelling evidence that there has been a more fundamental and dramatic reversal in British public life. Until quite recently, it used to be the case that Britain was a decent, civilized country with very good public services but an absolutely lousy economy. Now it has changed to a country with a brilliant economy that is seriously and progressively sick in other respects.

In our first weeks here, two reports appeared. The first, concerning crime rates in the Western world, established that in every category of crime except murder-in terms of assault and mugging, of burglary, of car theft-Britain now has a worse record than any other developed country, and as far as crimes of violence are concerned things are still deteriorating. This in a country that used to be a byword for lawfulness, civility, respect for property, and police efficiency and incorruptibility. (It is reported that cbs's Dan Rather seized on this news with alacrity and made much of it. Understandably, he was delighted to find a country in worse straits than the United States in terms of crime, particularly one that takes much pleasure in tut-tutting about American violence.)

The second report, issued by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), places Britain close to the bottom of the table of developed countries-down with Poland, Portugal and Ireland-in terms of both literacy and numeracy. Fifty percent of the population of the United Kingdom is deemed incapable of coping with the normal demands of everyday life and work. Thus, at the dawn of the "information age", when knowledge is becoming the key asset in global affairs, Britain is busily creating a genuine lumpenproletariat of depressing dimensions.

This has been the unintended, though quite foreseeable, consequence of a deliberate policy of treating equality and anti-elitism as the most important ends of education, and subordinating intellectual performance to them. In short order, this policy has destroyed a perfectly good grammar school system and debased the idea of a university. And even as the oecd report appeared, Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer and second-most powerful man in the Blair government, was providing proof that the mindset that produced this policy is unchanged, as he launched an unprovoked and ignorant attack on the University of Oxford for its alleged elitism. They have learned nothing and they have forgotten nothing.

Then there is the National Health Service, once the jewel in the crown of Britain's welfare state. Complaints about it are now universal, and doctors and nurses are themselves using words like "collapse" and "crisis" to describe it. In Wales, the waiting time for surgery for a patient with a serious but not immediately life-threatening cardiac condition is over one year. In Scotland the surgeon at a University teaching hospital says that, "We are moving toward a second class system where only the desperately ill get into hospital", and confesses that he and his colleagues have resorted to "the widespread practice" of encouraging their patients to lie about their pain levels in order to jump the queue. A journalist writes in the Daily Telegraph of his experience: diagnosed with colon cancer in January, frustrated by incompetence, indifference and prevarication for months on end, finally operated on in June, by which time the cancer had already spread. (Reading this last account, I reflect that when, in Washington last January, it was discovered that I had the same ailment, the time that elapsed between diagnosis and surgery was three days.)

One could go on: the BBC is only a shadow of its former self as it enthusiastically embraces what has been accurately labeled an "ideological philistinism"; the country that invented the railway now has a public transport system that is a bad joke. . . . Predictably, the only response of politicians to all these social ailments is to boast that they intend to throw much more money at them. As I write, the government has proudly announced the biggest increase in public spending in thirty years.

Turning now to Wales, two disparate items that illuminate the relationship between the Welsh and the English have caught the eye.

During the height of the frenzied excitement about England's prospects in the Euro 2000 soccer competition, the Times of London reported that a Welsh pub was promising its customers free beer every time a goal was scored against England-and that it had been roundly condemned by a body named the Commission for Racial Equality in Wales for doing so.

At the same time, the National Library of Wales has been displaying an item it has on loan from the Archives nationales in Paris. It is a letter that was written, on goatskin parchment in 1406, by the Welsh Prince, Owain Glyndwr, to King Charles VI of France, asking him for military assistance against the English. It begins:
Most serene prince, you have deemed it worthy on the humble recommendation sent, to learn how my nation, for many years now elapsed, has been oppressed by the fury of the barbarous Saxon. . . .

Charles did provide some help and Glyndwr put up a good fight, but of course he failed. For the next six hundred years Wales was to be governed from London, not viciously by modern standards (though, picturesque as they may be, those castles that dot the Welsh landscape were not put there as decoration), but certainly patronizingly and sometimes contemptuously. The Welsh gentry class, potential leaders in any revolt, were systematically anglicized, and sustained and determined efforts were made to stamp out the Welsh language by forbidding its use in schools and public life. During that time there was no Commission for Racial Equality available for lodging complaints, but despite this the Welsh language and sense of identity somehow survived, and today both are thriving.

Indeed, survival-in the closest proximity and subordination, bear in mind, to what was until quite recently the greatest imperial power on earth-has been the great Welsh achievement. It was done, not in the Irish manner by confrontation and violence, but by cultivating the classical political skills of survival: adaptability, compromise, persuasiveness, charm, evasiveness, deviousness and ridicule. The English have many excellent qualities, but a sensitive appreciation of the point of view of others (and of how they themselves are perceived by others) is not among them. They have usually failed to understand the functional importance of these survival skills for the Welsh.

As a striking example of such a failure, consider the response of one of the most brilliant of twentieth-century Englishmen-John Maynard Keynes-to the most brilliant twentieth-century Welshman-David Lloyd George. When Lloyd George was prime minister and conducting negotiations with Woodrow Wilson and Georges Clemenceau at Versailles in 1918-19, Keynes worked under him as a senior Treasury official. Immediately afterwards he wrote his impressions of Lloyd George:

It is not appropriate to apply to him the ordinary standards. How can I convey to the reader, who does not know him, any just impression of this extraordinary figure of our time, this syren, this goat-footed bard, this half-human visitor to our age from the hag-ridden magic and enchanted woods of Celtic antiquity? One catches in his company that flavor of final purposelessness, inner irresponsibility, existence outside or away from our Saxon good and evil, mixed with cunning, remorselessness, love of power, that lend fascination, enthralment, and terror to the fair-seeming magicians of North European folklore. . . . Lloyd George is rooted in nothing; he is void and without content; he lives and feeds on his immediate surroundings . . . a vampire and medium in one.

Keynes goes on and on in an overwrought, almost hysterical, prose, a peculiar feature of which is an insistence on Lloyd George's alleged feminine nature. At various times he refers to him as "the Welsh witch", "a femme fatale", "a syren" and even "the lady from Wales." Make what you will of this, bearing in mind that when he was writing Keynes was promiscuously homosexual, while Lloyd George was notoriously heterosexual.

What was it exactly that had reduced this normally most rational of English-men-the one man Bertrand Russell considered might be smarter than himself-to such an overwrought condition? Incredibly, Keynes' main charge against Lloyd George is that he was guilty of compromise! He concedes that at Versailles the Prime Minister's devotion to duty was exemplary, his labor immense, his advocacy of the League of Nations sincere, his pacifism and radical idealism genuine (thus contradicting his charge, made almost simultaneously, that his subject lacked both beliefs and principles). But he condemns Lloyd George for having allowed himself to be "pushed along the path of compromise", and, what is worse, for having found it congenial. Keynes concedes that President Wilson too had been forced to compromise, but "while the President failed because he was very bad at the game of compromise, the Prime Minister trod the way of ill-doing because he was far too good at it."

The notion that a readiness to compromise in diplomacy is a sin is a bizarre one, especially when the diplomacy involved is the hammering out of a peace treaty by three friendly, allied and democratic countries. Reading Keynes' extravagant invective, one cannot help feeling that his real problem was that, despite his cleverness, he simply could not understand his subject, and that he resented the fact furiously. What Keynes found deplorable was, essentially, simply a refusal to play by conventional English rules-those "ordinary standards" referred to in the quoted passage. Brought up in very modest circumstances in the heart of rural Wales by his cobbler uncle, Lloyd George had not become the most powerful man in the greatest empire in the world by behaving like an English gentleman. For him, as an outsider, politics was a deadly business of survival of the fittest, with nothing to fall back on if he failed. He could not afford too many scruples, nor an excess of principles. It was said of Sir Austen Chamberlain, brother of Neville, that "he always played the game, and always lost it." Lloyd George rarely played the game by accepted English rules, and for nearly twenty years he consistently won it.

There was another remarkable Englishman-himself an aristocrat but something of an outsider and, until quite late in his career, considered by many conventional gentlemen to be a disreputable adventurer-who had a very different view of Lloyd George, based on a much longer and closer association. We have the evidence of Lady Violet Bonham Carter, Asquith's daughter and Winston Churchill's close friend, that Churchill thought Lloyd George "the greatest political genius he has ever met." She goes on to say that

His was the only personal leadership I ever knew Winston to accept unquestioningly in his whole political career. He was fascinated by a mind more swift and agile than his own, by its fertility and resource, by its uncanny intuition and gymnastic nimbleness, and by a political sophistication which he lacked.

Robert Boothby, at one time Churchill's private secretary, confirms this description of a relationship in which Lloyd George was always the dominant partner, even when he had been in the wilderness for several years while Churchill still held high office.

In the course of describing the relationship between the two men, Bonham Carter herself demonstrates much more insight than Keynes when she observes of Lloyd George, "He was not an Anglo-Saxon, by birth, instinct or tradition. He was as unlike an Englishman as Disraeli." The great Jew and the great Welshman were the only two outsiders to dominate Britain's political life, and to climb to the very top of what Disraeli described derisively as "the greasy pole." And they did it their way.

The latest, but surely not the last, monument to the inability of the English to understand the Welsh is the National Assembly for Wales, devised by the Blair government and now housed in the old Tiger Bay. In being for just over a year, it was meant to keep the Welsh happy by giving them a sharply limited and harmless bit of autonomy. But things are not working out quite like that.

From the English point of view, several critical errors have been made. First, and most invidiously, the Welsh Assembly was given significantly less power than the Scottish Assembly that was created simultaneously. The latter has control over a budget and genuine legislative power, the former does not. The Cardiff body has only "subordinate" legislative power, that is, the right to determine detailed regulations necessary to implement laws passed in Westminster. Its legitimacy was thus undermined from the beginning. Today, while few in Wales argue for complete independence, the demand for equality with Scotland is virtually unanimous.

Second, the adoption of a system of proportional representation to elect the sixty members means that no single party has an overall majority and that it is going to be very difficult for any party to get one. It also means that the profile of Plaid Cymru, the nationalist party and the one least reconciled to the limitations now imposed on the body's power, is greatly enhanced. While it was insignificant on the larger United Kingdom stage, it is now the second-largest party in the Assembly.

Third, the set-up tends to emphasize the dependence of the Welsh Labour members on London and their loyalty to an English-dominated party. The fact that Labour, with fewer than half the seats, currently occupies all the pseudo-ministerial positions in the Assembly's pseudo-cabinet while being clearly subordinate to the party leadership in Westminster undermines both its own credentials and those of the Assembly itself. Things were made much worse by Tony Blair's initial insistence on imposing his own choice of leader on the Welsh Labour assembly group, overriding the strong local preference for another candidate. The fact that he initially got his way but that his candidate was later deposed meant that the party suffered the worst of both worlds.

At present the Assembly is housed in a building that is administratively adequate but symbolically feeble. Members meet in a small, low ceilinged, irregularly shaped room. This, together with the fact that Scotland is already committed to spending a large sum on building a parliament of its own, makes an irresistible case for the creation of a new impressive home for the National Assembly for Wales. Initial cost estimates are in the region of $50 million. The nationalist party is leading the demand, and in terms of its long-term goal this makes good sense: if you cannot get real power to start with, concentrate on getting the symbolism right. The more impressive the symbol, the harder it will be to deny the body a real measure of control over time. Meanwhile, members busily work the gray areas covered by the concept of "subordinate legislation", and use "Europe" and its offers of funds to try to extract more money from Westminster.

In its feckless way, the Blair government has started a process that in all probability cannot be stopped and that will end by dismembering the hitherto United Kingdom. The parliament and other appurtenances of independent nationhood that Owain Glyndwr envisioned six centuries ago stand a good chance of eventuating in the next decade or two, as the unintended consequence of a policy lightheartedly entered upon. Soon, an independent Welsh leader may once again be writing letters to the ruler of France-and of the United States.

Essay Types: Essay