This weekend has seen Wales embarrassed on a global scale, as the Welsh Government stood by whilst the WRU attempted to hold the dead rubber Wales v Scotland rugby game. At first, we thought it was a mistake, a delay. They’ll cancel it, don’t worry. Memes circulated – ‘we can’t cancel the rugby mun, Denzil’s booked a coach!’.
Yet days passed, and still no announcement, even as the FAW pulled the football friendlies, as the Premier League cancelled its fixtures. Soon, every other sporting and major event across the globe was cancelled, leaving the Wales-Scotland rugby game as the only remaining major sporting event on earth apart from the Cheltenham Gold Cup that had started days earlier.
Come Friday, still nothing: the game was going ahead.
The fact that we stood alone in persisting with holding a major event naturally led to rapidly mounting (and completely avoidable) panic: what the fuck was going on? Why were they going ahead with it?
The game was only pulled on Friday afternoon, after a public outcry, but not before the delayed reaction had caused complete panic and led to thousands of Scottish fans travelling down to south Wales. They are now crammed into pubs in a small city, causing potential issues of contagion and community transmission which could’ve been completely avoided had the game been pulled earlier.
In the build up to the game, the WRU and the Welsh Government completely ignored existing World Health Organization (WHO) guidance on big events: there was nothing communicated to those with pre-existing health issues who were thinking of travelling; no risk assessment made available to the public; no guidance that those with respiratory conditions should wear facemasks; no advice was made on social distancing or the use of public transport and so on; no emergency isolation triage facilities were suggested.
Instead, we would’ve presumably carried on the match day tradition of thousands of men queuing up to piss in the sinks before returning to their seats without washing their hands.
In the course of writing this- just before it was published, to be precise – the Stereophonics gig in Cardiff went ahead (last night), cramming ten thousand people into the capital’s Motorpoint Arena. The city’s pubs and clubs were packed. As with the rugby, no public health advice was given to those travelling down. No advice on social distancing, or indeed any mention of the virus, were forthcoming from Cardiff Council or the Welsh Government. They are also playing tonight, despite Italian authorities blaming their latest spike on irresponsible citizens not heeding advice on socialising or attending gatherings.
Many people are naturally blaming the WRU for their incompetence and money grabbing. Yet this is an organisation which supported apartheid, and which charges 200 pounds for the autumn internationals. It is a bootlicking, militarist and royalist institution which is a national embarrassment. We should expect no better from such a rotten organisation.
Nor was the episode the result of some death drive on the part of middle-aged Welsh people that made them put aside all logic because they wanted to watch the game (although no-one would’ve been surprised if it turned out that the Welsh Labour princes all had cushy box seats sorted out).
Instead, the fiasco was the logical, tragic culmination of Wales – or more specifically Welsh Labour’s – rotten political culture. For years many of us have been saying that Wales is a uniquely broken country: that our leaders are idiots, that people are nihilistic, past the point of caring. And now it has been demonstrated to the world.
Just as Trump and Johnson are products of their own unique political cultures, personifying the rotten, collective id which has risen to the surface in America and the UK with the death of social democracy, so Welsh Labour’s dithering and incompetence was the uniquely Welsh product of one-partyism.
Under one-partyism you don’t have to be competent; you don’t have to be a committed socialist; indeed you don’t have to have any discernible principles whatsoever (in fact, the emptiest vessels are preferred). You only have to win the party nomination (presumably through being anointed by a few influential right wing sponsors behind closed doors) and that’s it, you’re in. No scrutiny, no stress, an easy life.
Across the numerous press conferences, the huge limitations of the Welsh health secretary Vaughan Gething were on display. Gething is probably the example par excellence of a large cohort of modern Welsh Labour politicians in the Senedd, most of whom were, it seems, inspired to get into politics by Tony Blair. Here is a man who appears to want the pomp, power, and celebrity of politics, but none of the responsibility or scrutiny. Looking and sounding like a politician, this is what matters. To the average political punter (to use Kuenssberg’s phrase for citizens) currently desperately seeking advice and assurance, Gething comes across as a preening, arrogant, vacuous pillock – a man seemingly devoid of empathy, values or intellect.
Throughout the press conference, in carefully rehearsed Blairite diction and painfully forced chumminess he was clearly relishing managing the questions like the slick, imaginary politicians he watches on The West Wing. ‘Yeah, ok, let’s take questions from Dafydd, Adrian…and then x, and y’.
Yet true to form Gething soon began to bristle at even the mildest pressure from journalists who posed basic questions about whether the game should go ahead. Anger flickered behind Gething’s eyes whenever he was questioned. His tone, as ever, was patronising and threatening. Of course, in normal countries, such scrutiny is bread and butter for even the most junior politician. In Wales, with our non-existent public sphere, our government ministers are completely unused to having to answer to anyone (Drakeford, the only one who is intelligent and at least tries to answer questions, is a terrible communicator and doesn’t inspire confidence).
But Wales is a land where political consequences do not exist. Gething, for example, has presided over repeated, appalling crises within the Welsh NHS. Betsi Cadwaladr health board has been in special measures for five years. Under Gething’s watch, the health board attempted to force nurses to work unpaid overtime, something which was thankfully resisted. We have had the infant mortality scandal in Cwm Taf healthboard. The ‘rationalisation’ of hospitals which has seen isolated communities lose their vital A&E services. There is still no mother and baby unit in Wales. He repeatedly resisted calls for a medical school in the north which could help recruit and retain more local doctors and nurses. This is before you get to the scandals of waiting times, hugely underpaid and overstretched staff, etc etc ad infinitum. All this, despite Wales spending over half of the block grant on health. Yes, they have inherited a very difficult situation of an ageing, sick population. But as the shining example of Cuba shows, for our healthcare to still be in these dire straits 20 years after devolution was announced makes a mockery of any claims to be socialistic.
Despite these failings, pressure is rare and unwelcome. In the cloying world of Welsh politics where everyone is mates with everyone, the press cannot afford to get on the wrong side of ministers as they will just get shut out. But without scrutiny, without accountability, without consequences, there can be no progress- incompetence becomes an accepted part of life. It’s why Edwina Hart and James Price (of Circuit of Wales and Transport for Wales fame) can just go from monumental fuck-up to monumental fuck-up, with no one batting an eyelid, and then we wonder why the trains don’t run on time.
Gething clearly could not understand why people were up in arms. Confused, he kept repeating the maxim, ‘we are listening to the evidence and advice of experts’. Evidently this was meant to explain everything: he himself was satisfied that the smart people in London had spoken and that was that, his work was done, no need to think about things any further!
Well, what was the evidence of experts that he kept going on about? No one knew. It’s not yet available. Stories are now being leaked to favoured political lobby journalists who then allude to them in ‘exclusives’, creating more panic and no clarity. The messaging from Westminster has been an example of how not to communicate during a crisis- there has been no clarity on social distancing, isolation, no justification for what has been done so far. It has been an appalling, unforgivable shambles. And of course, Boris Johnson’s statesmanlike way of calming people was to say ‘your loved ones are going to die’. Really reassuring.
Of course, experts had said that large outdoor gatherings were potentially OK, but they had also said that social distancing was smart, and that people congregating together in pubs might not be a good idea. The latter was inevitable in Cardiff on match day, when over a hundred thousand people routinely gather in close proximity. And given that based on current conservative projections that about 0.02% of the population (or 1 in every 5,000 people) have the virus, some people attending a gathering of approximately 100,000 people across the city would almost certainly have the virus, which would therefore represent a serious risk of an entirely needless outbreak. And this was before additional concerns about, for example, the inevitable contact between infected people and Cardiff’s huge homeless population; the unfairness of forcing an army of agency staff to turn up and work and potentially be exposed.
You don’t have to be an epidemiologist to see it was a bad idea. People aren’t as stupid as Gething thinks.
But citizens’ concerns extended far beyond the immediate, obvious idiocy of holding the event. Wales is incredibly vulnerable to the coronavirus. We have an elderly, fragile population and, because of our history of heavy industry, a huge amount of people with respiratory disease; a high percentage of disabled people; and a generally poorer population, who are always more vulnerable to disease. We also have very few Intensive Care Unit beds because of the systematic destruction of the NHS under austerity.
The Tories have decimated Wales over the last 20 years and the policies of Universal Credit have caused thousands of unnecessary deaths. Some very close to the Johnson government have flirted with eugenics, and Tory papers have been casually, openly advocating the virus ‘culling’ the most vulnerable. Moreover, people are paying attention, and we know that the UK’s initial risky strategy of ‘herd immunity’ is completely anomalous amongst European countries, that it has been increasingly questioned by doctors and politicians in Europe, by the WHO and now, increasingly, by the British scientific community and even some Tories. The people in charge of the pandemic are not the sort of people we would naturally trust to have our best interests at heart.
For most Welsh people who have experienced austerity, or who have elderly relatives or health issues themselves (or indeed anyone with a critical bone in their body) all this adds up to an understandable cocktail of panic.
Clear Red Water?
In light of the inaction of Johnson’s government and people’s confusion and mounting panic, a competent Welsh minister (or indeed any normal person capable of empathy) would have used the opportunity to inform and reassure people. They would’ve also made the most of their devolved powers and shut down the events, reassured people, and provided clear public messaging and immediately begun showing leadership and moving swiftly to act with the powers that they had. Instead, all Gething and Drakeford are doing is just blindly repeating what Matt Hancock says, which is not clear at all, and which seems to change on a daily basis. The contrast with Nicola Sturgeon could not be greater. They seem to be utterly pointless. And as usual with Gething, this vacuity is accompanied by a staggering arrogance and a complete lack of empathy and inability to understand why people were concerned. How dare you question us? How dare you question me?
Drakeford and Gething cannot see how normal (and predictable) it was for worried people to be panicking, to be naturally suspicious of a Westminster government that has repeatedly engaged in social murder, led by a self-aggrandising idiot who cannot communicate effectively.
Soon, inevitably, to add insult to injury, the familiar Welsh Labour attack dogs emerged with a co-ordinated voice on Twitter, criticising anyone who questioned their man’s strategy as vile nationalists, playing politics, not trusting evidence of scientists (presumably, the WHO and the rapidly developing scientific backlash against the government are also nationalists?). Going through the social media accounts was incredibly depressing. In a normal country, these painfully stupid, parochial, right wing people would be nobodies. They certainly wouldn’t be in a tokenly social democratic party. In Wales, however, they are AMs, council leaders, lobbyists, because they are in ‘the party’ and know the right people.
It is wired into these people that those who question the ultimate seat of power in Westminster, or who dare to disagree with Welsh Labour, are ‘nats’. For some, this is a hardcore, kamikaze unionism. For others, it is a hatred of anyone who questions their power and threatens their gravy train. For others it is simply stupidity. I suspect in most it is a combination of all three.
They care not that once again, in practice, they are putting their complete, blind faith in a Tory government, that the Scottish Government is acting independently, that there would be no consequences in being better safe than sorry, and stopping large gatherings.
Most socialists are naturally sceptical of a government which has repeatedly shafted the most vulnerable in society, yet the instinctive deference and unthinking loyalty to Westminster displayed by the Welsh Labour leadership is in-built in Welsh Labour’s DNA. Repeatedly, on issues of policy and on the constitutional question, the Welsh Labour government has been happy to blindly defer to their betters – the Tory party in Westminster – as the Scottish SNP government has increasingly diverged and taken bold measures. Rhodri Morgan even openly stated this ‘don’t rock the boat’ strategy during the Scottish referendum.
Deference is easy. It means not having to think, not having to take responsibility. It allows the trappings and appearance of power with none of the consequences or responsibility. It is institutional cowardice that is used by people with no backbone, no ideas and no talent. It is the natural, inevitable and permanent state of affairs under one-partyism, the inevitable refuge of those who are only in politics for themselves.
Moreover, the Welsh Labour Government are a perfect example of what Žižek calls ‘fetishist disavowal’ – expressing grave concern about something (let’s say the climate crisis) without actually taking action on something, or even realising that they as a government have the power to change things. This is a government defined by timidity, whose instinct is always to do nothing, or to do the half measure when a radical measure was available. Welsh ministers routinely wonder out loud on Twitter ‘how could we do (progressive policy X) in Wales’? And predictably, during the WRU fiasco, all they could do was look at it, frozen, passive. The very idea of them actually using their power wouldn’t even occur to them.
Wales’ next steps
We cannot tolerate this passive approach now. Labour’s instinctive deference towards a laissez-faire capitalist regime in London represents a death drive that will take us all down with them if we are not careful. The crisis requires decisive action and massive state intervention. The Welsh Government need to urgently use the powers they have to ameliorate the crisis. Public guidance on social distancing needs to be disseminated now, via TV, radio, print and social media. Private healthcare hospitals should be immediately requisitioned to free up beds. New hospitals should be built, ventilators should be ordered en masse. The elderly, and other vulnerable groups like prisoners, the homeless and asylum seekers must be urgently supported. The scale of the crisis shows how much society depends on working class people, in particular the humbling heroism of our selfless healthcare workers. As part of Wales’ new ‘Social Partnership Act’, trade unions need to place immediate pressure on the Welsh Government to ensure that frontline public health workers in Wales will receive an immediate, belated pay rise, be provided with adequate PPE as well as advice on rest and break entitlement. Frontline staff in non-health industries should also receive hazard pay retrospectively.
The impending shutdown will raise issues of class which will need to be tackled. Many working class people are going to be forced into insecure retail jobs as they do not have the luxury of working from home. Others will be fired for self-isolating. People need to pay rent, to eat, to stay alive. Jeremy Corbyn has already called for the Government to raise sick pay in line with European levels. The Welsh Government must use the powers they have available to step in to stop people being made destitute. They must put a blanket end to evictions, freeze council tax payments, issue a rent freeze, and manage the dissemination of food and other emergency supplies in a sensible way. Emergency childcare provision must be put in place for key workers. If a shut-down is in place, all non-essential businesses must be closed and their employees must be able to access emergency funds. Here, especially if the Westminster Government does not amend Universal Credit, the Welsh Government could trial Universal Basic Income for the duration of the crisis. Small essential businesses and useful social enterprises should also be able to access financial relief to stop them going to the wall.
Gething and Drakeford have already been found wanting. Already, the tide is turning against the evidence that they blindly put their faith in. We cannot afford more fuck-ups. If they do not step up within the next 48 hours, votes of no confidence should be urgently tabled and held in the Senedd. When this is all over – if the 2021 elections go ahead – we must remember how when it mattered, they showed no leadership, and vote them out. And as we work towards an independent Wales, it is this moribund political culture we must transform. We must get them out the way if we are to build socialism.
If they do not step up, citizens will have to act independently and form mutual aid groups. People in Undod are already beginning to mobilise alongside other comrades to form community self-help groups in the absence of help from the state. You can get involved here.
Public health is absolutely central to socialism. Unlike capitalists, we believe that everyone has the right to a long, healthy life of happiness and dignity. Caring for the sick and vulnerable is fundamental to our values. To those complaining about ‘playing politics during a crisis’: quite simply, our attitude towards the value of human life differs from the cruel Tory government. Health is and always has been a deeply, profoundly political issue, not a ‘neutral’ one. We cannot therefore be expected to blindly follow their lead now, or be quiet when we are worried about our loved ones and communities.
Health is also a class issue: working class people are more likely to die early of preventable disease, to get sick early, to have worse mobility, etc. The NHS was set up for this very reason – so that everyone would be able to access medical treatment, that it would not just be the preserve of the rich. It remains the greatest thing the Welsh have contributed to the world and doing all we can to help it in its time of need must be our biggest priority now.
If you would like a more robust response to the outbreak from the Welsh Government, you can sign a letter here.