Sunday, 28 August 2016

UKIP and the Conservatives open up new front in the pro-Britain/anti-Wales constitutional debate.

So UKIP have finally shown their cards on Welsh devolution with Mark Reckless claiming that the Brexit vote will result in a decrease of support for the National Assembly in the future, followed quickly by the Conservative leader in Wales, Andrew R. T. Davies, who has claimed that the people of Wales would reject devolution if there was a new referendum “tomorrow”.

The argument is a logical absurdity of course; a popular protest against a ‘big’, ‘distant’, ‘unresponsive’, and ‘unaccountable’ polity (if you believe the anti-EU mantra) would more likely lead to a consequential disillusionment with the next ‘distant/unresponsive’ polity, namely ‘London’, rather than the ‘nearer’ and ‘more responsive’ Cardiff; at least initially. But of course in the minds of the British national right, the Brexit vote was a vote in favour of Westminster over and above all other forms and layers of sovereignty in the UK. It was the ‘silent majority’ reaffirming their oath of allegiance to the Queen (of England) and Country (Anglo-Britain) over pernicious Eurocrats and the traitorous nationalist crachach (of the soft and hard variety).

I’ve not seen any empirical evidence to back up that sort of behavioural profiling, and anecdotally I can confirm that (regrettably, in my opinion) many Plaid and Labour, pro-Welsh, supporters voted ‘leave’ in Ynys Môn, apparently as sceptical of the European political project as their pro-British bedfellows. No doubt ‘anti-devolutionism’ was a factor for the UKIP hard-core in Wales (perhaps 10% of the electorate?), but it is quite a leap of faith to suggest that it was a factor for the other 43% of ‘leave’ voters.  Indeed, as Ifan Morgan Jones has pointed out in his blog, the latest empirical evidence suggests, as it has done for many years, that committed anti-devolution sentiment in Wales is extremely rare nowadays.

But UKIP and the Tories haven’t kicked-off this line of argument, or, to look at it in a slightly different way, ‘deposited’ this combination of rhetorical statements in the pool of Welsh public discourse, because they genuinely believe in its accuracy. No, not in the slightest. What they are actually doing is launching a new discursive ‘front’ in the longer-term pro-Britain/anti-Wales constitutional debate.

You see, discourse works like that. In order to effect political change it matters not a jot what people ‘think’ (people largely think what they are told to think by the state apparatus and its agencies), it matters which lines of discursive argument are in the ascendancy at a moment of political ‘crystalisation’ (an election, a referendum, a vote in Parliament, etc.), or which ‘positions’ are hegemonic at any given time. In order for there to be a successful campaign (and perhaps a vote) to reduce, curtail or even end the Welsh political dimension in the future, there needs to be a preceding (and eventually dominant) discourse of dysfunction, irrelevance and discontentment. That discourse of a devolutionary ‘problem’ is mostly marginal at the moment in Wales, but UKIP and the Conservatives have clearly decided to promote it, and as it gains apparent ‘authority’ in the public domain, so too will their ‘solutions’ such ‘reform’, retrenchment or abolition. Be in no doubt, discourse proceeds ‘opinion’, and discourse can be designed and manufactured.

One thing I certainly agree with Mark Reckless and Andrew R. T. Davies about is that there is huge potential for this discourse to grow and to prevail. I don’t say this because I believe in the inherent ineptitude of Welsh Labour ministers or some inherent Welsh scepticism of Welsh institutions as some would argue, but because the range of agencies available to the British nationalist right to initiate and sustain such a discursive shift is enormous, the range of agencies available to the progressive pro-Welsh coalition to counter such an assault so small, and the ‘neutral’ gate-keepers of discursive confrontations so pitifully incompetent and disinterested.

Freed from their thirty-year war of attrition against the European Union, it can’t be long now before the British nationalist faction in Whitehall, Fleet Street and Sky Towers unleash their fighting dogs on the Scottish and Welsh institutions. They are clever, determined and patient, and they are many in number. Reckless and Davies have much to be optimistic about therefore. Whether there is fight in the old Welsh dog remains to be seen. Forewarned is forearmed however...

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

A world-beating Ruritania obsessed with its own survival

I don’t know who has changed most, me or British sport. I used to love watching the Olympics, particularly track and field, although I can remember enjoying the rowing and hockey too. Now I can barely watch 10 or 15 minutes of saccharine BBC coverage before switching over or switching off. OK, so I’ve moved an awful long way from supporting ‘Britishness’ as a default political choice, but that hasn’t prevented me supporting British sportspeople in the past. But I’ve found it almost impossible in the context of these Olympic Games, even more so than in 2012.

Perhaps it’s the cynicism of the new Olympics, that ruthless product management ethos which demands that sport after sport is swallowed up in an imperial ‘brand march’ that Napoleon himself would have been proud of. Golf, tennis, rugby, football; they’re all part of the empire now. But when some of the planet’s richest sportspeople (some of whom just knock a small white ball around a few hectares of American prize real estate for a living) get even more air time and plaudits than usual, I’m afraid it’s too much for me. It just dilutes the tradition of amateurism which I value, and takes well-deserved attention from those who would never get a look-in otherwise.

But there are more sinister forces at play as well. For the IOC, more participating sports means more televised events, means more advertising revenue, means more power and influence at the geo-political-sporting top table of course. But for the British State, which includes its co-opted communication outlets such as the BBC, ITV, Sky, and print media, the Olympics has simply turned into an irresistible free-for-all of gooey pro-British propaganda, rammed down the throats of an otherwise indifferent, increasingly ‘abritish’, people. The more sports you can throw into that pot, the bigger the demographic.

To my eye at least, it has simply become an orgy of Union Jacks (athletes were forbidden from carrying other national flags apparently), God Save the Queen, happy, smiley, contented fans, and epic stories of brave young Brits fighting for Blighty and bringing home the hardware (and so they might with £350m of lottery money going into their elite performance programmes). It’s as if it was all scripted in advance, which – as anyone who understands how the broadcast media works will know – it was. Only the nuances were left to chance (the final colour of the medals, the odd surprise), the story-board itself was written in advance from beginning to end. Starved of the Great British Bake-off, the Great British this and the Great British that over the summer, the public lapped it up of course. It was technicoloured entertainment; and excellent subliminal political propaganda to boot.

State-sponsored exercises like this in the reinforcement of British nationalism used to be self-assured, understated and discerning in the UK. In recent years they have become superficial, awkward and undignified, as if a woefully under-qualified junior PR manager has been left in charge whilst the bosses stuff their pockets and Whitehall burns. And when a bulwark of the English imperial project like Simon Jenkins bemoans a new (Soviet-style) British ‘cultural cringe’, you know something’s awry.

The mandarins and privy councillors at the heart of ‘Project Britain’ know full well that a second Scottish independence referendum is just around the corner, and to that extent you can forgive them their propagandistic exuberance of recent months. But their obsession with red white and blue bunting, Churchillian rhetoric and free cucumber sandwiches is a high-risk strategy. It left me utterly cold, like there really isn’t any hope for a non-Anglocentric union of nations on these islands in the future. And if they lost me, a rather wet, moderate Welsh nationalist, I shudder to think how it left the people of Scotland, who in the next 18-24 months will pass judgement once again on the kind of state they want to be part of : an averagely achieving sporting nation which focuses on the well-being of its people or a world-beating Ruritania obsessed with its own survival?