Matthew Ford explores how Kant can clarify the cant of those who ‘lead’ us.
Are the Welsh Enlightened? In a word “no”. End of debate? Perhaps. But two more questions immediately spring up; “can the Welsh be enlightened?” and more importantly still “should the Welsh be enlightened?” The answer to both is a categorical “yes!” This is not to say that the individual Welsh person is not already enlightened. Prominent Welsh thinkers such as Richard Price were pre-eminent in the intellectual debate surrounding the American Revolution. Sixteen of the signatories of the US Declaration of Independence boast Welsh ancestry. Bertrand Russell, Raymond Williams, Dylan Thomas… Great minds all. But these are Welsh individuals. What about Wales and its community of communities? Are we enlightened in the 21st Century? Well, I’ve already given the answer but the key question is why ask in the first place? Because our future prosperity depends on it, but we’ll come back to that later.
Let’s first remember that hazy spring day on the 3rd of March in 2011. The media was excited. Voting was about to take place. By early next morning we all knew that Dan Jarvis had replaced Eric Illsley as MP for Barnsley Central. You see Illsley had earlier admitted fraud over his expenses and simply had to stand down. But in the event Labour’s percentage of the vote went up in the by-election and the Tories were pushed to third behind UKIP. Pure drama.
But another vote was taking place that day. The Welsh were being asked whether they would like to have an institution with full law-making powers over the twenty devolved competencies of the National Assembly for Wales. The outcome was never in doubt and it was an easy victory but only just over a third of people in Wales bothered to vote. Here we were after millennia of struggle to assert ourselves with the chance to have full law-making powers and yet between Angry Birds binges and a new found love of Phil Collins two-thirds of us didn’t bother to vote.
But of course I don’t blame them. The National Assembly is a particularly uninspired institution. How could it be anything else when it has been dominated by one establishment party ever since its creation 14 years ago, with polls suggesting no change likely until at least 2020? That would be 21 years!
Add to this the low quality of politicians debating on how best to spend a pre-arranged and ever-decreasing budget that is simply handed to them to spend on a restricted number of devolved competences; not exactly the stuff to get the nation’s passions stirring. Completing the rout of any opportunity for excitement is an almost complete lack of scrutiny owing to an almost complete lack of Welsh media; this publication excepted.
But let’s return to the referendum. Those in the no camp comforted themselves with the thought that had the “silent majority” gone out to vote the result would have been different.
But of course the silent majority never votes in any election. That’s why they’re called that. Otherwise they would just be the majority.
We hear a lot about the silent majority. Who are they? What do they think? Do they think at all? Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) results in Wales are considerably lower than in the rest of the UK and large swathes of Europe but I certainly wouldn’t call the Welsh stupid. However, they are unenlightened.
Let’s explore why.
After the referendum in March 2011 delivered a resounding yes vote for full law-making powers in Wales the First Minister declared that “today an old nation came of age”. He also argued that “to demand respect, you must first display self-respect”.
But all of that was before the SNP had won a landslide victory in the Scottish elections and set a referendum date for autumn 2014; a date when the Scots will vote for the chance to become the world’s 194th recognised independent country, assuming the Catalans don’t beat them to it.
Since that time we have been told by the First Minister that we mustn’t “pretend” that it would be a good thing for Wales to be independent too, essentially because it would mean an end to all that lovely money from the Treasury in London that he and his Labour colleagues have grown to know and love.
This state of mind is what Immanuel Kant describes as “immaturity” in his essay on enlightenment in 1784. This he defines not as a lack of understanding, ‘but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another’. He goes further to argue that this state of being is so convenient for many that they will gladly remain this way for their entire life.
Why do things for yourself, when others can do things for you?
Of course for others to ostensibly do all these things for you, you have to pay them – and make no mistake we are paying a high price in Wales. As we fuelled the industrial revolution we made a lot of people outside Wales very rich but we now find ourselves one of the poorest, unhealthiest and worst educated nations in Europe. Things haven’t changed, as any wealth from our natural resources is directed straight out of the country. The lethargy of the current Welsh Government suggests that rather than getting better things are set to get worse.
There is no self-respect in being wholly reliant on subsidies from someone else but this is the Labour economic “plan”. This is unsurprising given that, as Kant further observes, ‘the guardians who have kindly taken upon themselves the work of supervision will soon see to it that by far the largest part of mankind… should consider the step forward to maturity not only as difficult but also as highly dangerous’. Most people if told the danger is not actually that great will soon learn to walk for themselves. Those same people on being told of the danger of doing so unaided would for the most part be frightened of trying. “We couldn’t survive on our own”. Sound familiar?
Laziness and cowardice are the two reasons Kant believes many will gladly remain immature for life. Could these be the two defining characteristics of politics in Wales? This is unfortunate because energy and confidence are the two things that will set Wales on the path to prosperity.
We need the confidence to make decisions for ourselves, based on what our country needs. This is the Welsh national interest. Loth as I am to admit it, laziness and cowardice do not seem to stop with the Welsh Government. Low turnouts in Wales. like that of 2011, suggest a combination of apathy, distrust of politicians and laziness, whilst the now seemingly conditioned disposition to just hang on to what we’ve got rather than demand something better is less than heroic. But this is the outcome of being a colonised people, and let’s make it clear, there is no debate about us having been colonised. Any person claiming otherwise cannot have even a basic understanding of Welsh history or is rewriting our history for political purposes. We were conquered and then we were suppressed. Fact.
And so it is that since the death knell of Owain Glyndwr’s enlightened struggle for independence the powers that be in London have made every effort to ensure our dependence. This is not to say that Welsh people naturally turn to dependency and have simply rolled over. Far from it. If you look at our history it is one of constant struggle against colonisation with an entrepreneurial spirit to improve our situation. Hundreds of free schools were set up in Wales long before the UK state and English MPs took any interest in it. When miners in the early 20th Century desired culture they didn’t go seeking grants from the Arts Council. They saved up collectively and built their own theatres. In short, we didn’t always turn to the state.
But something happened to us over the course of the 20th Century so that by its end the dependency we had been encouraged towards finally took hold. We stopped doing things for ourselves and doing things as a community. Instead we began to expect the Council/Welsh government/UK Government or EU to fix our problems. All good citizens should have a firm scepticism when it comes to politicians but we now stand like the terminally ill smoker who stubbornly puffs outside the hospital gates in the vain hope that Marlboro will produce a cure.
We have a completely over-inflated public sector based around the so-called 3rd sector, where a significant stratum of Welsh politicos make themselves rich as a result of our abundance of poverty. Virtually all of these 3rd sector organisations are dependent on funding from either councils or the Welsh Government, which is in turn 100% dependent on the UK Government’s block grant since we have no ability to raise our own revenue as a country.
The EU has become another institution that we cling to desperately. Not because of any notions of a social union, freedom of movement and trade or European solidarity, but again because we have become dependent. The potential referendum in 2017 is sending shockwaves through Wales’s political class simply because it could mean an end to our new dependency on structural funds, much of which is funnelled into the high wages and expenses of the anti-poverty bureaucracy.
So if I could sum up the political ambitions of Wales’ political history over the last decades it would be “do not bite the hand that feeds you!” But if we just fed ourselves then we could bite whoever we wanted. Or better still we could play a cooperative role amongst nations as an equal.
“But what about the details?” I hear you cry. “We can’t feed ourselves! Who is going to pay for the NHS?”
A valid question but one I’m going to avoid shamelessly because the key detail is this: if our aim is to be dependent then dependent we will be. And if we allow ourselves to continue being dependent then poverty will be the outcome; poverty of mind, poverty of ambition and poverty in our pockets.
Give a man a fish and all that. Well it’s time to go fishing.
So over abundance of metaphors aside and moving away from the ubiquitous dungeons and dragons nationalism that stifles our national debate it is clear that Wales needs a national enlightenment. This may seem a cry that lacks anything concrete because we’re getting into the philosophical realms of epistemology and ontology.
Will that put food on the table? Will we be able to feed ourselves through an enlightenment?
In the short-term no but in the long-term changing our understanding of how Wales can be is essential.
The current political consensus on Wales (and this comes not only from within Wales) is a stubborn focus on what Wales can’t do; we can’t go it alone, we can’t afford independence, we’d never be able to support ourselves. It is with this attitude that a man with the title “Secretary of State for Wales” feels able to proclaim in our very capital that the Welsh should have no more devolution. But if the political consensus altered to focus on what Wales can do, on our potential, then politics in Wales changes dramatically.
Our aim must be to stand on our own two feet, to pay our own way and to support ourselves. Simply having these as our aims would change the way we approach the economy fundamentally.
I am just not convinced that this is the case at the moment.
Is the First Minister briefing his ministers and civil servants on how we can reduce our dependency on the UK or the EU? I doubt it. Even as a unionist, is he thinking about a future where we no longer need the Barnett Formula or EU structural funds? Again I doubt it. Can he even conceive of a future in which we are subsidising others because we have become so successful, as the Basques currently do? No. Because unfortunately, one of the consequences of devolution is that it is now the Welsh Government which having taken on the role of guardians keeps us believing that we could never make the step forwards to maturity.
What is enlightenment according to Kant? The answer is simple; it is respect for personal value and a duty to think for yourself. It is time that Wales came of age and got some self-respect but the only way we are going to achieve this is by taking responsibility for ourselves.
We cannot continue with this welfare state of mind. The steps towards independence will be difficult and there may well be danger ahead but the simple fact is that once independence is achieved no country looks for a return to dependency. The immediate safety net is gone but the opportunities are abundant.
We must have a Welsh Enlightenment. We could be so much better if we gave ourselves a chance.
gan Matthew Ford (@MatthewRhyd ).
Mathew is a socialist libertarian and a co-chair of Syniad; a new group aimed at building a cooperative, independent Wales by focusing on our communities rather than government legislation. For more information on Syniad visit http://syniad.org/
This article is published in November 2013 issue of Cambria Magazine