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5 March 2001

Wales must rediscover Bevan

Cardiff - Paul Starling

By Paul Starling

There are the Manic Street Preachers and the dog-collared preachers, and now the two have joined forces in a front-page, television-featured venture.

And the reason is that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Wales, and Nicky Wire, the bassist with the Welsh band the Manic Street Preachers, are at the heart of Wales’s first radical, social-justice think-tank, the Bevan Foundation.

The foundation – of which, I must point out, I am the director – includes the playwright Trevor Griffiths, the novelist Elaine Morgan and community activists such as Tyrone O’Sullivan, who now runs the only workers’ co-operative pit in Wales (in fact, the only deep mine of any sort left in the land). There are a number of politicians, too: Alex Carlile, who led the Lib Dems in Wales; Rhodri Morgan, who leads Labour in Wales and the National Assembly; Paul Murphy, the Welsh Secretary; and Neil Kinnock, now the second most powerful man in Europe.

Why launch a think-tank now, in Wales? And what’s Aneurin Bevan got to do with it?

Bevan first: we didn’t choose to name our foundation after him because he was the architect of the NHS, but rather because he was heretical: he challenged everything and spoke his mind. He was a politician who confronted hypocrisy and injustice.

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His is the kind of legacy we badly need in Wales today. There is a profound policy vacuum at the heart of Welsh politics: we have only a handful of lawyers who can draft legislation, and we have even fewer politicians in the assembly who are capable of the thinking necessary to policy. The policy vacuum is palpable – and public despair more so. As one senior figure told me privately: “It will take ten years before we know where we’re going.”

To date, the only Welsh think-tank has been the Institute of Welsh Affairs, set up under the Tory Welsh secretary Peter Walker. The institute may appeal to the conservatives in Plaid Cymru and in Walker’s own party, but it has nothing to say to the crushed valleys of South Wales or to anyone beyond the cafe quarter and media supper-set of the capital, Cardiff.

And so – the Bevan Foundation, whose aim is “to create a communal and co- operative Wales which is scandalised by poverty, furious at the waste of the potential of even one of our people, and determined to challenge any idea that it is for the powerful to hand down to the powerless”.

* * * * * * * * *

The uneasy peace between the once warring nations of England and Wales was held by the thread and weave of the label “British”. You could be British and Welsh. You could also be black South African and British. But that ethnically neutral term no longer holds . . . not in areas such as Gwynedd, nor – it is now clear – across many other parts of Wales.

As devolution defines itself, so does the demand for a strong separate identity. That is what’s behind the row which hit the headlines in England – and which threatens to tear apart the Welsh nationalist party, Plaid Cymru.

It all started in January when a senior Plaid figure, Simon Glyn, described English as a “foreign language” and called for the “strict monitoring” of English incomers. A storm of protest and cries of “racist” followed.

The issue engulfed the Plaid Cymru president, Ieuan Wyn Jones, who, in front of an audience of millions on Question Time last month, tried to deny that Glyn had said what he said, and also to claim that Glyn had apologised for his statement. This drew an angry response from Glyn, who claimed Wyn Jones was misrepresenting him.

The debacle has hit Wyn Jones hard. Glyn was filmed last week wielding letters from “hundreds of Plaid Cymru members” who (he claimed) support his views. In a Radio Cymru, Welsh- language phone-in, the public view – so skilfully stultified by Plaid until the Glyn outburst – spilled over, as the former Gwynedd county councillor Gwilym Euros Roberts told listeners: “The leadership of Plaid Cymru is completely, completely appalling. Ieuan Wyn Jones has shown what he is – he is a spineless amateur.”

Last weekend, Plaid Cymru’s leadership formally rejected any curbs on English speakers. The vast majority of people in Wales speak English, and will be furious at the claim that the tongue they choose to use is “foreign”. Meanwhile, the Welsh-language zealots will be incandescent at what they will see as a “linguistic and cultural” sell-out by the party set up to protect the Welsh language.

Oh, what a tangled web some weave!