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  1. Politics
7 February 2000

I’ve seen revolt, and it will be Welsh

In Cardiff, there is insurrection in the air. As anger rises over Alun Michael's rule, new Labour is

By Nick Cohen

If it were not ridiculous to apply the adjective Shakespearian to a politician as unprepossessing as Alun Michael – a member of the chorus, whom nature never fitted for a major part – visitors to the new Welsh Assembly might think themselves in an alternative Elsinore.

Michael is the usurper on the First Secretary’s throne. His elevation was rigged by Tony Blair to deny the title to Rhodri Morgan, the popular choice, who can look just as introspective as Prince Hamlet when the mood is on him. Michael is thronged by courtiers – who in Cardiff at the start of the new century appear in the natty suits and with the wheedling accents of new Labour lobbyists.Attendant delegates from the valleys and hills come and go, talking of life-long learning and the agricultural depression. Only the calculating glances and muttering huddles in the assembly’s lobby, which has been given the unintentionally suggestive title of “the Mingling Area” by the building’s designers, suggest to a stranger that something is rotten.

In the next few days, the drama will move to a catharsis. It is at least possible that by the time the next issue of this magazine is published, Wales will have laid the first hard punch from the left on the Project. If the London media did not regard Wales as a dreary backwater – the eyebrows of my metropolitan colleagues shot up when I cried: “I’ve seen the future, and it’s Welsh!” – events in the principality would be seen for what they are: a challenge to a Blairite status quo that cannot hold back democratic aspirations.

After Michael has presented a Budget on 9 February, Plaid Cymru will put down a motion of no confidence. As new Labour is a minority administration, and the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives say they will back the nationalists, defeat appears certain. You might think he will have to re- sign and be replaced by a politician who can command the support of the assembly. It is nowhere near that simple. The backroom dealing is frenetic and possibilities are changing by the hour, but, at the time of writing, the alternative to Michael has to be a Labour politician – the Tories say they will never combine with the Liberals to elect a nationalist leader who could “break-up Britain”.

Very well, you might reply, Labour will put forward a new candidate for leader who could unite Welsh opinion and make the fragile plant of home rule blossom. Again, this would display an ignorance of the new Taffia that has rallied to Blair (the Toffia, perhaps?), which is touching, but hopelessly naive. When Michael was snatched from a minor position in the Home Office and imposed on the Welsh Labour Party, the leadership worried, understandably, that he would be ditched as soon as London’s back was turned. Its fear of a counter-coup means that there is no formal mechanism for Labour assembly members to tell Michael that, what with one thing and another, it would be better if he went back to Whitehall. Michael can look cocksure because the Labour group cannot, in theory, get rid of him.

His enemies are playing “fantasy politics” if they think they can force him out, he says. Paul Murphy, the minister who represents Wales as Welsh Secretary in the cabinet, agrees. If the opposition cannot pick a rival candidate,”they should stop wasting everyone’s time with their pathetic posturing”.

The other parties may be “pathetic”, but the Labour Party’s position is as absurd as imagining Michael playing the male lead. What is being envisaged is that he will see the assembly pass a motion of no confidence in himself. He will resign. He will go back to the Labour group and say that there is nothing it can do but put his name forward. He will be the only candidate. He will be reelected. A motion of no confidence will be passed . . . and so on, ad infinitum.

This is true fantasy politics. Sooner or later, Welsh public opinion will step in and force Labour members to ignore the rules and call a halt. Lord Elis-Thomas (formerly Dafydd) the assembly’s presiding officer, understands that his institution risks becoming a joke and has taken legal advice on whether he can bar Michael from standing again.

The manoeuvres in Cardiff are Byzantine enough to give the most pitiful political junkie an overdose. The wider issues are of great relevance to those in London and the north of England who hope that devolution will free their regions from the suffocating mediocrity of centralisation.

The opposition parties and many in the Labour party are saying, in effect, that there is no point in devolution if local leaders like Michael do what the government would have done anyway. Rather than see the assembly fall into disrepute, they are trying to make Welsh Labour show some spirit and sense – a Herculean task, I grant you. They want a leader who will allow Welsh politics to march to its own drum, even if he – because it will probably be one R Morgan who is currently displaying a suspiciously Portilloesque loyalty to Alun Michael – might revitalise Labour’s disheartened supporters.

Michael German, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: “The crucial issue is who will stand up for Wales? Alun does nothing that diverges from the London line.” Plaid advisers tell me that the assembly is in danger and that they would back a credible Labour candidate if he could save it from losing all legitimacy.

Whether Plaid, the Liberal Democrats and even the Tories have the patriotism to put the Welsh interest before party interests, which would be well served by leaving a Michael-led Labour to swing in the wind, is not the smallest of the questions boggling minds in Cardiff. They could back down. It would make perfect partisan sense if they did. But the belief that Welsh political culture needs rescuing from Third Way authoritarianism is shared by many a huddler in the Mingling Area.

Devolution did not come about as a result of a national consensus as it did in Scotland. The Welsh rejected it overwhelmingly in 1979. Defeat was followed by the victory of Margaret Thatcher and the destruction of the coal and steel industries on which so much of Welsh radicalism was based. As they surveyed the wreckage of their hopes, many on the liberal-left changed their minds about the “diversion” of home rule. The process was best exemplified by the great Welsh historian, Gwyn Alf Williams. “When was Wales?” he asked in lectures and a subsequent book. Never, came the reply. Like other nationalisms, Welsh nationalism was an invented tradition. Yet if belief in the sanctified blood and soil of Wales was an illusion, there was a real choice between a “nightmare vision of a depersonalised Wales that has shrivelled up into a Costa Bureaucratica in the south and a Costa Geriatrica in the north” and a tolerant Wales that could “elect in full democracy an assembly which [can] exercise as much self- government as is humanly possible”.

Such ideas became commonplace in many circles, but never managed to grip the popular imagination. The 1997 devolution referendum was won with the tiniest of majorities on a low turnout.

Welsh devolution, in other words, was on probation. Everything new Labour has done has brought its character into disrepute. At first, there appeared to be few difficulties. Ron Davies had delivered the “yes” verdict and would lead the dominant Labour Party into the assembly. Then Davies took a walk down lovers’ lane on Clapham Common and a new candidate had to be found. Again, the problem was not obvious. Morgan was waiting in the wings. He was charismatic and intelligent – the natural successor.

For those who doubted that new Labour is composed of anally retentive, paper-clip fetishists, the Morgan affair was a hard lesson. No one can explain what Blair had against him. Morgan was no Ken Livingstone and was from what used to be called the Labour right. Perhaps his eyes betrayed hints of an independent mind. Perhaps, like Mo Mowlam, he was too popular for his own good. For whatever reason, the leadership poll was rigged by Blair and the union barons. Labour members and the few trade unionists who were allowed to vote were overwhelmingly for Morgan. Michael triumphed nevertheless, and Labour’s support in the assembly elections collapsed as disgusted voters either stayed at home or turned to Plaid.

Never mind, London told the Welsh party in the voice of a Jewish mother counselling a wayward daughter. Rhodri is charming and funny, but Alun is a good provider. I know, my princess, that he lost the Rhondda, and you find your nails become unexpectedly fascinating whenever he addresses a meeting, but stick with him, girl. He has the contacts in Westminster.

It is now embarrassingly clear that Michael is a failure on his own terms. The Scottish Parliament has opened up civic life by showing that tuition fees and a laughable “freedom of information” act can no longer be imposed by the elected dictatorship in Westminster on the whole of Britain. Wales, which admittedly has far fewer powers, has done nothing.

Members of every party complain of the stale atmosphere in the assembly by Cardiff Bay. Michael insists on total control. When Westminster MPs write to members of the Welsh Labour cabinet, the recipients, who are meant to be serious politicians, must pass the letters to Michael. Only the First Secretary is allowed to reply. He attends the most trivial meetings to ensure the line is held at all times. Assembly members complain that they might have, say, rejected performance-related pay for teachers or changed the priorities of the Welsh NHS, but the tiniest reform is ultra vires.

The motion of no confidence was inspired by Michael’s inability to persuade Gordon Brown to match and release European Union grants, earmarked for the poorest deindustrialised valleys and most devastated hill villages. If Michael can’t influence the Chancellor, they say, what’s the point of him? Is he anything more than a messenger-boy from the metropolis?

Michael may survive, for all that. The opposition may fall apart. The Labour group may never rebel. But there is a seriousness of purpose in the Cardiff air. Labour activists are saying words you never hear in the credulous capital. “Tony Blair won’t last forever,” they proclaim. “Devolution has to survive him.”

The heretical is becoming commonplace for many who want a freer society. They no longer see Blair and his appointees as allies, but as obstacles that must be overcome. When was Wales? Not yet. But soon. Maybe very soon.