Quietism: A Welsh Condition

Cover Image: Antigone (La Petite Vermillon) — Jean Anouilh

No doubt all of us have been trying to make sense of recent events in Wales, as we face what is hopefully, but not necessarily, a once-in-a-lifetime-crisis. For me, it is difficult not to witness the stresses and strains we are now experiencing without thinking about the internal contradictions of our very particular political order — one characterised by what commentators like to call ‘one-partyism’ (more of that in a moment).

During these reflections my mind has meandered more than once to the tragedy of Antigone.

Why think of her, you may ask?

Well, the crux of her tale is that she found herself in an impossible situation, defined by her conflicting roles or identities: as a sister, she wanted to give her brother — killed in his attempts to take the throne — a proper burial, but as a citizen she was obliged to leave him outside the city gates to the vultures, as an enemy of the law. According to the philosopher Hegel, this story revealed the internal contradictions of the Ancient Greek city-state, particularly the way the political community denied individuals their full identity in all its complexities, and therefore their basic desires and freedoms.

The subsequent fall of the kingdom symbolized the unsustainable nature of the political order.

The Internal Contradictions of One-Partyism

Hegel’s views about internal contradictions have felt particularly relevant in thinking about our own specific, and rather unique political order. Dr Dan Evans’ exposed many of these issues in his typically powerful and unremitting analysis of Welsh Labour’s leadership during the first few days of the crisis. Some of the most striking features of this one-partyism is the comparative lack of accountability or robust criticism of our government — that’s made worse by a weak civil society and media — and the tendency to shy away from the possibilities of power (a real issue at a time when robust leadership is required).

It deserves a book-length study, but what seems particularly relevant at this time are the consequences of Labour’s ability to disperse its power to all parts of our civil society, and the resulting lack of real opposition to ‘keep them honest’. It’s worth noting that this is a tradition that some will tell you goes back decades (at least in the south where they’ve long been dominant in local politics), where if you wanted this or that to happen it helped to have friends in the party.

A ‘One-Sided’ Democracy

What it means in practice in the age of devolution is that more often than not all those parts of society which could usually provide a counterpoint to government — business, education, health, media, the trade unions (to some extent) — will be dominated by people in the party, or with contacts in the party, or who are co-opted or brought into the fold, to the extent that scrutiny and in particular public debate is stifled. And here there can be a personal cost if you choose to go against the grain, or a very real anxiety that this could be the case.

This lack of ‘push back’ in civil society is even more problematic when traditional political opposition is framed as being insincere or somehow atypical or corrosive — rather than being embraced as a virtue of democratic society. This is easily done in Wales because the Tories are fobbed off as the nasty English party, which they largely have themselves to blame for, in fairness (as we’re talking Hegel, they’re the ‘external other’ against which Welsh Labour define themselves). Plaid Cymru on the other hand are characterised as senseless ‘nats’ who want to turn us into a nation of very poor, poetry-reciting folk dancers (the ‘internal other’, against whom Labour can define themselves as the Welsh norm).

There’s no better example of delegitimising opposition than the way entirely legitimate concerns about government policy these last few weeks have been rounded on by Labour Assembly members as ‘playing politics’, seeking advantage from a crisis. This is all the more insincere because the most successful time in Welsh politics in terms of getting anything done was actually during the One Wales coalition of Labour and Plaid, when the opposition had to be taken seriously as they were in the government. Those involved at the time will tell you Labour upped their game.

Structures that Silence

As the Welsh Government visibly struggles to get to grips with the crisis, these issues are coming to a head, in a very serious way. Everyone knows it is an incredibly tough situation, defined by a confused, wrong-headed and inhumane approach by the UK Tory Goverment — and most of us, of course, are willing the Welsh Government on. But we must do better, and this is not just Mark Drakeford’s responsibility (Welsh politics is at least typical in being afflicted by the assumption that politics is supposedly determined by individual personalities).

People act according to their roles, their underlying assumptions, the external pressures, and the structures that define their capacity to act. What we’re seeing now is a function of the political culture we have created and we collectively sustain. In particular, this culture is typified by a debilitating quietism that is at the heart of the crisis in Wales — and which has allowed a seemingly disconnected and lackadaisical centrist Labour administration to plod on, cleaving to a Tory logic that is leading us inexorably deeper into further disaster, without so much as a cry in socialistic anger at the injustice of it all.

It is only now, almost a month into the crisis, with the death toll in the hundreds and front-line health-workers dying, that people are speaking up in our public sphere with what is approaching the appropriate language and level of urgency. One can now sense that the ongoing efforts of one journalist in particular, Andy Davies of Channel 4, the stronger language being deployed by the Unions, and also some public criticism from within the Labour Party, may be beginning to cut through.

However, if the urgency and the desperation of people is still to be labelled ‘playing politics’, if the media largely continues to be forgiving and is hamstrung by its reach, if the Trade Unions are too meek and not forceful enough, if public figures and intellectuals keep quiet because of personal concerns, if you can afford to ignore dissenting voices, and if your own party is not expressing its frustration, then carrying on without radical change is a somewhat inevitable result. And the result in this case is that these factors — that actually contradict the requirements of a robust democratic politics — may be a tragedy that precipitates the collapse of a political order.

Antigone’s Bind

Which brings us back to Antigone. Her problem was that she was unable to be a dutiful sister and a dutiful citizen, because her society wouldn’t allow her to be both. I can’t help but feel that there’s a lesson here for some of us in Wales (I‘m basing this partly on the number of times in my own experience that I’ve come across people who’ve said they would like to get involved with this, that or the other, but because of their job, their, role, or some particular public responsibility that they can’t — including myself). Given how small Wales is, given how interconnected civil society is, and given the Labour Party’s reach and influence, we badly need to encourage a robust public sphere — one where people are free to enter on their terms, or in the role that they choose, and without feeling compromised.

So one might have certain duties as a representative of, say, a University, but that shouldn’t compromise one’s right (and duty, actually) to speak out on certain issues. Someone who teaches politics or philosophy, for example, needs to be able to fulfill that role as a critic, without worrying about any potential cost in other roles, or to those they represent. Members of the Labour Party need to be free to raise their voice and criticise when things go wrong without fear of being blacklisted. Most crucially of all, none of those forgoing roles should limit someone in their freedom to express their concerns and worries, as a citizen of, or as someone who is resident in Wales.

These last weeks it has felt as if we, in the tradition of the Welsh public sphere, have been pulling punches and acting politely, whilst keeping fear and frustrations behind closed doors. This quietism cannot go on, in particular in a crisis where we need information about what is happening ‘on the ground’, more than ever.

An End to the Order?

Welsh Labour may not preside in a state of one-partyism for much longer. People in the party I have spoken to can see this crisis changing the landscape for good. If they remain in power, then there needs to be a change to a system of genuine proportional representation for the good of the country. Regardless of the political results, there will still be a great deal of change required in our political culture that needs to start happening now — particularly because of the weakness of our media and inevitably nepotistic nature of our small and enmeshed civil society. What we need desperately is that people are not confined by their various roles and identities and do not feel that they cannot raise their voice or criticize without cost. This requires a certain level of maturity, it requires individuals to grasp the nettle, and it entails a seriousness on the part of all sections of civil society. These are the basics, if people in Wales are to contribute as the full, responsible citizens a sustainable and healthy democratic order requires.

The original version of this article was published in Welsh under the title ‘Tawelyddiaeth’ in O’r Pedwar Gwynt.

Academic. Cymraeg. Politics of the Left. Philosophy. Bois y Dole.

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