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29 January 2001

Reds come in from the cold

Cardiff - Paul Starling

By Paul Starling

The F-word is no longer the great social pariah. It has been replaced by the S-word. You try it. Say the F-word in the right way in intellectual circles and you’ll be marked up for your gritty elegance. Say “socialism” and you’ll find yourself flat on your back and out on the pavement faster than you can finish the sentence.

But not in Wales. Not any more. Because, I sense, devolution is starting to work. And that’s because it is finally beginning to resurrect the forbidden S-word.

In its first 18 months, the National Assembly for Wales managed the remarkable feat of turning one of the most politicised nations on earth into one of the most apolitical. By turns, the Welsh politerati of Cardiff Bay squandered the goodwill towards devolution, transforming it from bemusement to anger and, eventually, to widespread apathy.

But something is stirring in the long grass, and it will be the making of the new politics in Wales. The big beast, a re-emerging socialism, first raised its head in a report on social exclusion by the Welsh Affairs Select Committee. After four years during which Welsh MPs have been accused of disappearing without trace, they suddenly popped their heads out of the grass and made demands that were dangerously “off-message”.

Faced with some of the worst poverty in Europe, they called on Tony Blair to “increase state benefits”, for “pensions to be increased in line with average earnings” and for a government policy of “eliminating all poverty”.

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Flushed by this sudden rush of courage, they also insisted the government “must face the fact that many people will not be able to work” and that, “for many, benefits will remain the only source of income”.

What they didn’t say was that tough talk about welfare-to-work, backed by benefit withdrawal, will remain more hyperbole than reality in the valleys of South Wales, which have pockets of 93 per cent unemployment. Those valleys – built on coal – abandoned and force-silenced by Margaret Thatcher, are among the poorest communities in Europe. The European Union has coughed up £1.2bn in aid to tackle the problem.

And that brings us to the second sight-ing of socialism. The assembly’s no- nonsense Minister for Finance and Communities, Edwina Hart, has nailed her socialist colours to the mast in the past week. She told me that she expected “total commitment from every council, voluntary organisation and individual paid to tackle poverty”. She was putting up £83m, and hundreds of millions more would be poured into the poorest areas in Wales because, she said, “we are driven by an anti-poverty agenda”.

In the short period since she started pulling the assembly’s purse strings, Hart has gained a formidable reputation. She told me she would slash the budgets of all organisations – including Labour councils – that fail to tackle poverty at the root. She is ready to drive the Welsh Development Agency, health trusts and voluntary groups to the wall, rather than see the crushing poverty continue. “I will look very closely at what they do, inspect their budget, and review their role, functions and funding, if they fail to co-operate,” she said. This sort of talk and these sorts of policies may frighten the nervous among Blair’s much-vaunted soft-pink “middle” voters.

The leader of Plaid Cymru, Ieuan Wyn Jones, is repositioning his own party to the left – although he suffered an almighty setback in recent weeks, when a Plaid councillor made a statement that had critics crying “bigot”. Plaid has long suffered from a reputation for being an elitist party, closed around the Welsh language and fascist in its attitudes towards other tongues and races. “Nonsense,” Jones insisted when he won the leadership last August. His party now “embraced all nationalities, cultures and tongues”.

Unfortunately, no one told Simon Glyn, one of the most senior councillors in Plaid’s heartland area of Gwynedd. Glyn described the English language (which 82 per cent of his fellow countrymen and women speak) as a “foreign language” and suggested the “strict monitoring and control” of the “tidal wave” of migrants entering Wales from England. He also described the English as “a drain on resources”.

Thankfully, these nutty views are abhorrent to the vast majority of the people of Wales – who will cast their votes accordingly whenever Blair decides it’s time to “go to the countries”

Tom Brown’s Holyrood column returns next week