The Seven Deadly Sins of Modern Wales

(Title Image: via Pinterest)

To be a good nationalist you need to be self-critical. You have to acknowledge the flaws in your nation in order to understand and identify what needs to change after independence. That’s the difference between nationalism and patriotism.

There are plenty of structural problems facing Wales – the economy and how it works for ordinary people being one (more on that in the autumn) – but there are also plenty of cultural problems that sometimes make Wales an unpleasant place to live.

1. Nepotism/Cronyism

“It’s not what you know but who you know” should be the national motto.

By my count, 15 AMs (a quarter of the chamber) – as well as 10 MPs – employ (or have employed) their own family members or in the case of the Senedd, the family members of other AMs. That’s before counting people who will have been employed after being friends for a while, or have been promoted internally with minimal competition, or family members who get invited to give evidence to an Assembly Committee etc.

I’ve heard anecdotal evidence of similar practices happening in local government – the educationally unspectacular nephew, daughter or niece of a senior officer somehow managing to get a relatively secure, low-level job in the same local authority.

How many Third Sector bosses know who to call when things get tricky? How close is the relationship between lobbyists, the media and politicians? Is it too close? What’s wrong with maintaining a bit of detachment in professional relationships?

Part of the problem is that as the “establishment” class in Wales is small, naturally the people involved are going to know each other very well. This is the main reason why I try to keep my distance; it may well damage my own efforts because it means my work doesn’t get out there perhaps as often as it should, but it has to be done in order to maintain a certain level of impartiality.

If you’re in a business where pissing off the wrong people is detrimental to that business’s survival (such as a big chunk of the Third Sector, or the mainstream press trying to maintain a good working relationship with government ministers and AMs) then there’s going to be a lot of smoke blown up a lot of back passages.

It also creates the right conditions for groupthink, a lack of effective scrutiny and an environment ripe for bullying.

It needs to be broken but the question, as always, is “How?”

2. Parochialism

“If X gets something nice, we should get something nice too.”

If Cardiff is getting a high-speed rail link, Cwmtwrch should get a high-speed rail link too.

Why can’t Porthmadog have a centre of excellence for complicated brain surgery? Why aren’t we building a 15,000-seater indoor arena in Fishguard? Why has Swansea got a university when Newtown hasn’t?

Welsh politics has been dogged by a peculiar insistence that nobody should be left out. This line of thinking – harking back to the old Welsh legal principle that all sons of a dead prince should get an equal share of an estate – led to Wales losing its already fragile independence in the first place.

We don’t have a national media, in part, because people are far more concerned about what happens on their own doorstep, often inconsequential or minor – known in Welsh as “fy miltir sgwâr” (“my square mile”) – than the big external pressures that impact their lives at a national level.

It’s fractured our media, fractures our sense of nationhood and has even fractured our politics with the constant north v south, east v west, Swansea v Cardiff arguments. Divide and rule is bad enough when it’s forced on us from the outside, but when we do it to ourselves there’s no hope.

It fuels the sort of pork-barrel thinking that doesn’t really have any real strategic thought behind it, wastes money but is considered politically expedient.

You can argue, for instance, that the north Wales mainline should’ve been electrified before the south because it would tie in with electrified networks in and around Merseyside and Manchester, not just Holyhead-London. Cardiff took priority despite an adequate diesel service just because it’s a capital.

Likewise, as Cardiff is the capital, it’s going to be by virtue the headquarters for most public sector bodies and anything of national significance – social, economic or political – because (barring things like teleconferences, which haven’t taken off) key people need to be physically close to the centre of government; but people still complain about it.

We end up with 40+ homelessness charities (instead of a few big national ones) because empire-building is encouraged by Welsh Government grant policy.

As for other examples: it would make more sense for a north-south air link to fly to/from Broughton; building a new headquarters for S4C in Y Fro is likely to do nothing more than move pre-existing jobs around (as would moving government departments and bodies out of Cardiff).

Building up strong regional government and strong regional centres that can act as mini capitals and act as a magnet for jobs and investment over and above Cardiff has to happen, but you can’t force it. There needs to be a pull to get things out of the M4 corridor, not just a push.

3. Misplaced National Pride

Was it a try, or wasn’t it a try?”

It was front-page news and talked about across the internet in Wales for about a week. Then people got briefly excited about Y Ddraig Goch appearing in a Marvel film. Within a few months, we had the Severn Bridge renaming and Rod Liddle doing what he usually does.

There was hardly a peep about Welsh rail infrastructure being (per head) short-changed by around £1billion a year. For all the people proud to see our flag properly recognised in a way all Welsh nationalists dream of, there was little discussion on how to make it a reality.

How many stories have been buried while we get wound up and distracted by a major sporting/cultural event or expert trolling by the English press?

Why should attacks on the Welsh Government and National Assembly be considered an attack on Wales? Why do any of us care what some random English academic or social media gadfly on Twitter thinks about the Welsh language or whether Wales was colonially exploited or not?

We should listen to our own voices more often (rather than relying on the London media to do it for us), but I sure as hell don’t want to live in an independent Wales where criticising the government or parliament is considered unpatriotic.

4. Militarism

He’s fought in France and Germany
and many another land;
he’s fought by sea and fought by air
and fought on desert sand.

He’s fought for many a foreign flag
in many a foreign part,
for Taffy is a Welshman,
proud of his fighting heart.

He’s fought the wide world over,
he’s given blood and bone.
He’s fought for every bloody cause
except his bloody own.
– Alun Rees

Why do soldiers routinely march out onto the pitch at Welsh rugby internationals? What have army regiments done to earn the freedom of our boroughs? Why are charities doing more to support veterans than the UK Government?

One of the most depressing sights is seeing someone being featured in the local press upon joining the military; they’ll be there pictured wearing their uniform with their chest puffed out. Enjoy it while it lasts, kid. When you leave, you’ll be forgotten by your now oh so grateful employer.

Yet Wales retains a curious relationship with the British military. Per-head, we’ve arguably contributed more than our population share to the British military (and its dead), but when it comes to fighting our own battles people go missing. That’s not the case when London calls and the guts of Welsh soldiers are sprayed over fields in the in the name of the Windsors and whatever government we didn’t elect at the time.

Why did we allow “Our Boys (and Girls)” to be sent by a government that couldn’t give a toss about us to places like Rourke’s Drift, Ypres, Bosnia, The Falklands, Afghanistan and Iraq?

How did any of that help protect the average man or woman on the street back home?

How come when we face things that will really kill us – like Atlantic storms or flooding – the military is nowhere to be seen?

5. The Cult of the Committee

“The Welsh solution to every problem is to form a committee”.

Just when you cry out for leadership, a bit of direction or responsibility you can guarantee that’s when an idea or issue is sunk by the establishment of a committee, commission, task & finish group, steering group, advisory group or expert panel.

Putting more options on the table and getting as many perspectives as possible isn’t a bad idea. However, in less professional circles, the Chair’s whim sets the direction of travel and the committee is merely a rubber stamp (particularly if it’s full of sycophants) or the Chair is passive-aggressively provocative (i.e Sport Wales).

Those with vested interests may ensure very narrow terms of reference for an inquiry or report are set in order to protect themselves (see the Williams Commission). Or, it may result in a set of fairly solid recommendations being recycled by another committee as a stalling tactic (i.e the Richard Commission).

Wales is world class at talking and no doubt provides excellent refreshments for roundtable discussions. When it comes to doing, however…..

6. Gluttony

More than half of Welsh adults are either overweight or obese (including myself, I should add)– putting us amongst the fattest countries in the world. Amongst the so-called “fit”, binge drinking is a serious problem even if the Welsh, on average, drink less than the rest of the UK.

The good news is there’s been a steady decline in the number of smokers (more here), but that’s been offset by people looking to put something else in their mouths, leading to the aforementioned high levels of obesity and rises in some STDs.

Of course, it isn’t entirely down to over-consumption, but under-exercise. How to address that is worthy of a closer investigation another time, but in 2016 a reported 48% of adults in Wales did absolutely no exercise at all in an average week and 25% did less than an hour a week.

While the weather, over-reliance on the car and the cost of sporting activities are barriers, we have some of the best free outdoor activity areas in Europe. People from elsewhere come here to take advantage of it all the time, but when it comes to the natives it appears we’re blind to it or would prefer to set it on fire.

Ditch the car and walk every once in a while. Put down the smartphone and the pint glass and eating a salad once or twice a week won’t kill you. An independent Wales is no good if we have a massive public health time bomb waiting to go off.

7. Contrarianism

This is a particularly annoying trait, but to a certain extent is completely understandable and is, in part, because of our status in the UK.

In short – if someone in authority or the majority of people tell you one thing, the exact opposite must be true. It’s a rejection of consensus.

We have a history in Wales of having decisions forced on us “for the good of the majority” and many of those act as flashpoints in our national story – Treweryn being the obvious example.

So maybe there’s a siege mentality amongst quite a few people that tells them subconsciously that if most people are going along with one thing, or believing one thing because someone in authority is telling them to, then they must be wrong as Wales has often ended up on the wrong side of the outcome or even outright lied to.

Sometimes this is warranted, but at other times it lays the groundwork for conspiracy theories, self-loathing (remember that support for devolution is a majority opinion, yet the opposition is loud) and just generally becoming a tinny, annoying gadfly complaining about “free speech” when your opinions are ridiculed or shut down.

They think they’re a persecuted Galileo, but they’re actually David Icke – and fueled by fake news, vacuums in Welsh political news coverage and social media, their numbers are growing year after year.